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Matthew 17:20, my favorite verse. "... If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you."



Unexpected Kiss ch. 1-3






Regina L. Tittel





Chapter One


Carli Williams strode away from the newspaper stand with an added bounce to her step. Today, her lunch hour wouldn’t be spent in mindless filing. If her intuition was right, the ink-filled paper clutched in her hands revealed a clue. A lead to justify her move to Seattle and the two years spent searching.

Ahead on the sidewalk, a man in a ball cap leaned against the corner storefront. The heel of his boot hung off the window ledge. His gaze bored through her as she walked past. Under the cover of lowered lashes, she stole a quick glance. His crystal blue eyes sparkled beneath a heavy brow. What a contradiction. If it weren’t for his eyes, he’d almost look menacing. Even so, a tingle of interest fluttered in Carli’s abdomen. She ignored the uncommon sensation and continued to the crosswalk.

People crammed around her and waited for traffic to stop. Cars accelerated as they neared the stoplight. Horns blared. It posed a stark contrast to her beach town in Oregon and had originally piqued her interest. Now, she’d grown accustomed to the noisy streets and crowds of people.

The smell of steamed hotdogs wafted through the air. Situated across the street, the vendor was most likely the destination of the work crowd crammed around her. Her stomach rumbled in response. Perhaps it would be hers, as well. 

The squeal of a vehicle’s brakes won the crowd’s attention. The safe-to-walk light signaled and they hurried across. Carli took her time and allowed them to pass. It wouldn’t do any good to break a heel in the middle of a busy street, especially when wearing her designer pumps. Though she lacked the money to buy expensive things, she knew which thrift stores received wealthy castoffs and which ones didn’t. And today’s outfit proved it.

Carli glanced down at her white linen suit which she’d bought the week before. She’d stood before the dressing-room mirror smiling with satisfaction. It encased her slight curves to perfection. The seamed jacket enhanced her bust while its peplum softly billowed around her hips. The ensemble gave the allure of importance and made her less approachable, which played perfectly into the new role she’d chosen.

Almost halfway across the street, someone grabbed her elbow and pulled her to a stop. Carli turned. A pair of blue eyes captivated her. Like the sun dancing on top of rippled water, his eyes absorbed her in their reflective light.

 “Please, indulge me,” a rugged voice drawled. The store-front stranger tipped her over his arm, while his other hand secured her waist. He leaned in close as her breath froze in expectation. With little time for thought or response, his lips sealed over hers with an electric current that burned straight to her heart.

All too soon, the man broke contact. Carli’s breath hitched as she watched his eyes swirl with conflicting emotions. Before she could rationalize the moment, he drew her back to a stance and disappeared into the fading crowd.

A horn honked, followed by a hoot. Carli felt her cheeks redden and brought a trembling hand to her mouth. Her feet numbly moved her along the crosswalk. The scent of the stranger’s spicy cologne clung to her and rattled her senses. How could one single moment threaten to shatter her cleverly built façade?

With a slight wobble, she made it to the sidewalk and scanned the crowd. No ball cap. What had it said, Al’s Garage? Carli wasn’t sure. She shook her head and tried to redirect her thoughts, though her lips still tingled.

The paper. Where’s the newspaper? Carli stepped onto the safety of the curb and looked around, desperate to keep control. She had to have that paper. Fear threatened to take hold. Anxiety tightened her chest.

No. I can’t have an attack now. Breathe. Just breathe.

She slowly inhaled and exhaled; her constricted chest muscles only allowed shortened gasps of air. She fought hard for control and blinked against tears building in her eyes. It had been months since her last attack, but the significance of what she chanced to lose weighed heavily on her heart.  

I can get through this.

At last, her muscles relaxed.

She looked around her feet. No paper. A breeze teased the back of Carli’s head, she turned. In the middle of the street, between the passing cars, was what was becoming less and less of her newspaper. She watched with hopelessness as a page twirled in the air, as if it sought to escape, only to be caught on the front fender of a passing car. Her shoulders slumped as all hope drained from her body.

Carli again took deep breaths and walked in the direction of her work. A tear escaped the corner of her eye. The newspaper stand stood three blocks away. She still had two more blocks to work.

It would have to wait.

***

“I hope you brought your wallet, ‘cause I plan to enjoy this.” Ethan Durham patted his flat stomach, eager for the promised lunch he’d earned.

            “I can’t believe you did that. I never figured you’d have the guts.” His cousin, Greg, referred to the kiss.

            “Just goes to show how desperate I am to pass this term.” He loved being in control, yet this art class threatened to slip through his fingers.

“I have to say, it took you long enough to pick a girl.”

Ethan cupped a hand on his chin and rubbed a finger over his lips. “No one else seemed right, but she definitely was.” He smiled. “Did you get the shot?”

            Greg shoved the digital camera in view. Ethan took it from his hands. On the screen was a modern-day replica of the Life magazine photograph of a World War II sailor kissing a nurse. Though Ethan wasn’t in dress blues, and the girl was in a tailored suit instead of a nurse’s uniform, the picture still held romantic charm.

Only in the current photograph, Ethan saw so much more than his term paper.

He saw his future.

            Ethan stepped forward with the line that waited to be seated and bumped into Greg.

“Whoa, buddy.” Greg stared at him. “Hey, are you studying that camera for an exam?”

Ethan gave a half grin and quickly stashed the camera in his pocket. His mind raced with questions. Who was she? Would he meet her again? How would he find her?

            “Hey,” a gravelly voice from the line behind him yelled. “Are you going to stand there all day?”

            Ethan looked ahead. Greg was already at the cash register. Smiling.

            “Thanks, cous’. Nice to know you won’t leave me hanging.”

            Greg elbowed him in the ribs after paying for their meal. “If you plan on making it through the day, you’d better jump down from those clouds.”

They carried their trays of food to an empty table. Ethan sighed as he dropped onto the hard plastic chair. He was almost done with his engineering degree, something he’d procrastinated at, then he’d put off taking the required electives, which explained the art class.

His plan was to move back to Missouri after graduation. He’d built a cabin not far from his dad and step-mom. And his siblings still lived in the area. He’d have a job that paid more money than he needed, land to farm with his family, and a cabin all to himself.

Somehow, it no longer seemed enough.

Twenty-eight years old and still single. Where was the wife he pictured coming home to?  The kids he would take fishing in the creek?

The troubling thought wasn’t a new one. Yet, he knew better than to settle. He’d learned that much from what his father had to go through with his biological mother.

His fingers grazed across his lips again and his thoughts returned to the photo.

The memory of the beautiful blonde balanced across his arm quickened his heart. Her previous dignified manner had slipped. Through wide eyes, Ethan glimpsed a longing, a suppressed passion eager to explode.

Then . . . she’d kissed him back.

            Greg reached across the table to steal Ethan’s fries. “Eat fast, Bud. Lunch hour’s almost over.”

Ethan looked at the grease-laden sandwich in his hands and grimaced. He’d regret it, but at least he’d be full.

Greg left for more classes and Ethan drove to his part-time job. He glanced at his attire and thought about the photo. The work blues would add an extra contrast to the sailor’s uniform.

Ethan ran a hand through his dark hair and rubbed the back of his neck. He had to clear his mind enough to concentrate on work. He couldn’t afford to get fired. Not while the well-paying job was still a month away.

***

The five o’clock hour finally arrived. Carli jumped out of her chair, tottered, then leaned against her cluttered desk for balance. She rubbed her forehead with shaky fingers. “I shouldn’t have skipped lunch.”

On the desk, her cell phone began to vibrate. Carli flipped it open without looking at the caller’s name. The only one who had her number was her roommate.

“Hey, Mel, what’s up?”

“You feel like meeting me for dinner?”

“Ahh, after the day I’ve had, that would be perfect.”

They agreed where to meet before ending the call. Carli grabbed her purse and checked the status of her cash. It was enough. She headed for the exit, careful to pace her movements to ward off any dizziness.

The smell of garlic and herbs welcomed Carli as she walked into the restaurant. She scanned the busy room in search of her roommate. Bus boys and waitresses continually passed through her line of vision as they hurried to keep up with the increasing evening crowd.

A flash of color caught her attention. Carli couldn’t miss the vibrant orange flower arrangement on her best friend’s dress. Seated in the back, Melody Pickett was poetry in motion, in an abstract way.

“Hey, you’re here,” Melody shouted from their favorite table. Her shoulder length curls bounced as she waved. Carli hurried over hoping she wouldn’t shout anything else.

“Woo-wee!” Melody glanced over Carli’s suit. “That get-up makes you look like a classic movie star, hon’.”

Carli ducked her head as her eyes darted at the other customers. Heat filled her cheeks from the unwanted attention. Before she could seat herself, Melody exploded into conversation. “So, how was your day? Oh, and talk fast, I’ve got a show to do in twenty minutes.”

Mel was currently in home-based sales, and climbing the ladder of success with impressive speed. Carli slid into the booth. As she spread a linen napkin over her lap she narrowed her eyes then glanced at her watch.

Melody flipped her wrist; the cubic-zirconium studded face of her watch cast reflections of light across the table. “I know I don’t have a lot of time to eat. But it’s just down the block.”

“I could never survive in your shoes, Mel. Saving everything for the last minute would give me a heart attack.” She took pleasure from the snicker her comment caused and eased back against the softly cushioned seat.

The waitress arrived and took their orders. After she left, Carli picked up their conversation.

“Since you asked about my day . . .” She wasn’t far into telling her story when the efficient waitress returned with her tea. Carli sipped as she retold the incident of the kiss.

Melody dropped her jaw. “I can’t believe that! What did you do?”

            Carli traced the rim of her mug, reluctant to admit her reaction. “I’m not saying I’m proud of my actions, Mel. It just happened.”

            “Whatever. What did you do when he kissed you?” Her eyes widened with excitement.

            Carli smiled ruefully and bit her bottom lip. She toyed with a lock of her sleek blonde hair that had fallen out of its clip before slowly meeting her friend’s gaze.

“I kissed him back.”

            “You did what?!”

            “Shh. You’re drawing attention.” Carli cringed as other customers turned curious glances in their direction.

            “Did you get hit with a meteor or something?”

            She dropped her cheek into the palm of her hand. “Oh, Melody, he had the most beautiful blue eyes I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen eyes sparkle like that.”

            “Honey, a stranger grabs you and kisses you in the middle of the street. Normal people would think pervert, sociopath, lawsuit–but not you. You’re sitting here all dreamy eyed as if he did you a favor.”

            “Shhh, you’re getting loud again.” She sat up and straightened the folds of her napkin. The kiss had been her first since moving to Seattle and starting over with her life. For two long years, she’d concentrated on repaying her credit card debt and avoiding romantic entanglements. Scarred memories of past actions served as reminders of where a simple kiss could lead.          

Still, no previous act of affection ever felt like this. “I know I should be upset, but it didn’t feel wrong. It just felt . . . right.” Carli moaned and dropped her head in her hands. “I don’t even know his name.”

            Melody slurped her soda and motioned the waitress for a refill. “Girl, girl. What is wrong with you? You could care less about men. Remember? You’re starting over with your life. You need his name as much as Seattle needs another rainy day.” She turned to the window behind her. The sky had turned a darker gray and the first drops of precipitation began to fall. “I’m glad I drove. Did you?”

            Carli raised her head and shook it. “I’ll take the bus.”

            “You could always come to the show with me. The more faces, the more enthusiasm.”

            “No thanks. I lost my paper today.”

            The waitress returned with their orders. Carli drew in a deep breath, capturing the scent of chicken carbonara, her favorite dish.

            Melody scrunched her brow. “You don’t want to come with me because you lost your paper? You’re not making sense. Maybe I should cancel.”

            Carli narrowed her eyes. “You can’t cancel. This is your income. Currently.” They both smiled at her jab.

“It could be yours, too, if you’d sign under me. We could climb the ladder of success together.” Mel held up her fork as her fingers climbed to the prongs.

“You know security plays too important a role for me. I could never rely on sales. I’m just not geared that way.”

“Plus you don’t have family to fall back on if it doesn’t work out.” She snickered again. “My parents were convinced this was a scam and now can’t believe how self-reliant I am. Hey . . . I just made a rhyme.”

She took another drink of her soda. “But enough about that, what’s the deal with the paper?”

“I dropped my paper in the street. I just knew it held a lead.” Carli shoved the food around on her plate. “I didn’t have time to get another one.”

            Melody was still chewing when she pointed her fork at Carli. “How cool is that? I bought a paper today, because I had the same feeling. It’s on the counter at home.”

            “Melody, you’re a God-send.” Carli said a silent prayer of thanks. Though she’d never understood how one was supposed to see God as a father, she’d been taught to give credit where it was due. That part came naturally. If only she could comprehend the rest.

            Mel grabbed Carli’s wrist and glanced at her watch, ignoring her own. “I’ve gotta go!”

After paying, they stepped outside and waved good-bye. Melody hurried to her car with two minutes to spare. Carli opened her umbrella and turned down the block toward the bus stop. The rain picked up and splattered over her shoes with each step she took.

“Somewhere in the world there’s a sunny place and I’m there.” Carli repeated the familiar phrase in an effort to stay positive.

            When she reached her apartment her adrenaline surged. If Melody had felt it too, then it must mean good news. Hopefully, somewhere hidden within the black and white pages she’d find mention of her father.

Images from her youth shot through her mind like snapshots. Just tall enough to see over the counter, she’d watched a fly buzz over the cookies her mother had previously pulled from the oven and land on the stainless steel toaster. Carli stared at her reflection.

“Mom, did my dad have eyes like mine?”

Startled by the question, her mother had dropped the pan of cookie dough she’d bent to put in the oven.

A few years later, Carli had taken a growth spurt that had everyone commenting on her height. She’d stood in front of the dressing room mirror while her mother had taken the new dress off the hanger and helped slip it over her head.

“Mom, was my dad tall, too?”

She still remembered the look of shock on her mother’s face before she’d turned her head. Unsatisfied with vague answers, she eventually stopped asking altogether. But after her mother’s unexpected death, Carli decided it was time to find the answers herself.

Returning home from the funeral, she’d searched through her mother’s papers until she'd found a faded envelope. Though it had felt thin and empty, her heart had still pounded at the possibility of a clue. With trembling hands, she'd pried it apart where time and humidity had resealed it.

Empty.

Her arms had dropped loosely to her sides, before she'd realized she held more than an empty envelope. She held the name and address of the sender.

Anthony Stanfield. Seattle, WA.

Carli closed off the memories of the past and slid her lock into the front door. A sigh escaped her as she walked into the warm, dry apartment. She kicked off her shoes and dropped her wet coat on the tiled entryway then raced to the kitchen to grab the newspaper. “God, if You love me at all, help me find him.”

Starting with the first page, she read over every word in search of his name. Plenty of crime, business blah, sports. Several pages later she turned to the obituaries. Her gut clenched. Oh, no. Not here. Her hand shook as her finger trailed down the list, Sarah Maddox, Geoffrey Goldsmith…Vincent Anthony Stanfield.

Carli’s breath caught. Her eyes refused to move from his name.

This couldn’t be right.

Her whole move centered on him, as well as her future. Carli blinked in hopes her eyes had deceived her. They had not.

 She sunk into the nearest chair. She needed a father, someone to belong to, someone to relieve her heart of its constant loneliness. He was supposed to explain what had happened between him and her mother, to fill the gap his absence had left in her life.

 Instead she was left alone. Again.

The rest of the names became a blur as tears dropped from her eyes, smearing the ink on the paper.

Two whole years Carli had spent in search for this man, only to find him in the obituaries. Vincent. If she’d known Anthony wasn’t his first name, perhaps then she could have found him. But now it was too late.

Carli sniffed several times and pressed her eyes with the palm of her hands. Logically, the name could belong to someone else. But her intuition said it didn’t. She wiped her eyes, unconcerned for the mascara she smudged and reached for a pen to circle the name. The listing didn’t mention a wife, only that he was survived by a son, however, unnamed. It did state Vincent’s age had been sixty-five.

That would mean my mother dated an older man. She cocked her head to the side and subtracted her parents' ages. And he was forty-two when I was born. She absently continued to circle the name with her pen until she’d pushed through the paper and the name became an oval in her hand.

 The chair scooted across the floor as she rose. She was strong, she was smart . . . she wasn’t a quitter.

“I can still use this.” She stuck the piece of paper on the fridge with a magnet. “My first clue.”

Two days later, Carli sat in her cubicle, bored with filing, when the phone rang.

“Ms. Williams. Ms. Carli Williams?” The voice belonged to a man.

“Yes, this is she.”

“My name is Woodrow Mason. I’m an attorney. I believe you’re the woman my client has been searching for, and I would appreciate it if you could stop by my office.”

A lawyer?

 “And who is your client, Mr. Mason?”

“Was, ma’am. My client was Vincent Stanfield.”






 Chapter Two



            Ethan wiped down his tools and returned them to their designated spots. He scrubbed his hands with a gritty cleaner that smelled of oranges then retrieved his pocket-knife to clean the grease from under his nails.

“Ow,” he drew his finger away from the blade and mumbled, “I should’ve known to leave that one alone.”

His index finger still throbbed from smashing it when he'd installed a transmission. He’d struggled for twenty long minutes to align the gears. The job usually went much smoother, but his heart wasn’t in it today.

            How could it be, when his mind kept replaying the girl in his arms? The kiss had rocked him to his core. He’d pulled back more from shock than any other reason. What had caused the electric current that sizzled between them?

As if he wasn’t intrigued enough, her eyes drew him to her even more. They’d fluttered open, revealing two different colors. One was blue, the other an odd hazel. Not green. Not brown. Unusual. He wanted to see them again, set in her heart-shaped face. He wanted to-- He sighed and tugged his mouth to the side.

            “How’s the term paper going?” Greg’s presence surprised Ethan. He hadn’t seen him since earlier in the week when they’d taken the shot.

“I think it’s a winner.” He looked past his cousin and scanned the street through the open shop doors.  

Greg shook his head and slapped Ethan on the back. “Man, you need to get a handle on that kiss. She’s a fish in the sea.”

He pretended to cast a line and made a spinner noise with his mouth. “Just go catch another one. And install my personal rule. Never date the same woman more than twice.”

Ethan saw things differently than Greg. He wanted someone he could share an adventure with. Someone he could always trust. And in all his years, he’d never met a woman who fit. But that kiss . . . the kiss had felt like an adventure in itself.

            Greg spoke up. “Okay, buddy, if you won’t listen to reason, I’ll have to help you.”

            They said good-bye to the shop owner and walked to their cars.

            Ethan drew himself from his dreaming and tried to focus on Greg’s conversation.

            “Man, you haven’t heard a word I’ve said, have you? Not to mention you almost plowed into that woman back there.” Greg motioned behind them.

            Ethan focused on Greg. “You’re going to help me?” His eyes shone with interest. “When do we start?”

            “What day was it when we took that shot?”

            “Tuesday.”

            “Then Tuesday it is. We’ll get there early to watch and wait.”

            Looking at his close friend with disbelief, Ethan challenged him. “You mean I’ll get there early and you’ll show up at some point, right?”

            “Hey, I was there for the shot, wasn’t I?”

            Ethan laughed and nodded his head. “Okay. Thanks, I could use the extra set of eyes.”

            “Meanwhile, let’s grab a bite to eat. You have any food at your house?”

            Ethan swallowed his irritation. Greg. Cousin. Friend. And mooch.

***

Carli’s fingers locked together in her lap were matched by the tight churn in her stomach. Her hearing began to fade in her right ear. She had to get a grip on her anxiety. The hearing was always the first thing to go. Next, the muscles in her chest would bind and force her to breathe in short gasps. She’d never be able to walk standing up straight.

Not the way she wanted to enter the lawyer’s office.

            Carli closed her eyes and breathed in deep, slow breaths, hating her weakness. Calm . . . down.

She’d left work an hour early and hailed a cab. Although she’d driven that morning to avoid the rain, the call made her too nervous to navigate through the crowded city.

“You’re here.” The cabby gave her a strange look as though he’d been waiting for her to get out. Had he? Her cheeks warmed as she gave him the required fare plus a small tip and stepped to the curb.

            The building loomed over her. Acanthus-etched, stained concrete separated each dark, reflective window pane. If nothing else, she could be assured by the exterior of the building, the man she was about to meet was serious about his profession.

            Carli wished she’d asked how her father knew about her. Quick to answer the lawyer’s questions, she now regretted her lack of assertiveness, something she was trying to overcome.

She squared her shoulders against the protest of her weak stomach and marched inside toward the elevators. The click of her heels against polished granite blended into the background of voices and footsteps of others that filed through the lobby. Carli reached a set of elevator doors and pushed the button. She absorbed the elaborate décor to keep her mind at ease.

Ornate side tables graced the space between elevators and boasted fresh-cut flowers in crystal vases. The walls which they contrasted against were papered in golden silk. Carli yearned to touch them. Just as she determined it wouldn’t hurt and reached out a hand, the elevator doors opened. A woman in a starched black suit and matching black eyes glared at Carli as she exited. Carli dropped her gaze to the floor. The woman was closely followed by a pair of men’s shiny Italian leather shoes.

They passed, yet her skin prickled as though someone watched her.

She stepped through the open doors and cast a quick glance to the exiting crowd. The sharp movement of his head betrayed him. Dark hair with gray tracing back from the temples.

Distinguished . . . yet unfamiliar.

            She pushed the button for the fifth floor and slumped against the mirrored walls. Two years in Seattle and she still wasn’t used to its personality, the fast-paced life people lived and their air of superiority. She missed her quiet hometown in Oregon. Perhaps this meeting would put an end to why she was here and she’d be able to move back.

But in reality, Oregon wasn’t home either. Her mother had rented, so there was no home to which to return. Such was also the case with her and Melody, and their rented apartment.

“'Where could one settle more pleasantly than in one’s home?'” she absently quoted. “Well, Cicero, one has to have a home first.”

The elevator bell dinged and the doors opened to the fifth floor. Carli stepped away from the mirrored walls and directly into the offices of Hayden, Mason, and Thompson, Attorneys-at-Law.

The eccentric, tall marble structure a few yards ahead called for her attention. As she approached, Carli realized it was a secretary’s u-shaped desk that sat on a platform. The woman looked down from her perched station and gave Carli a quick once-over. Inside, her confidence shriveled. The second-hand suit no longer seemed adequate, reminding her that her middle-class upbringing didn’t entitle her to rub shoulders with this class. Irritation took root and urged her to hold her chin higher.

Who is she to judge me?

Carli cleared her throat and tightened her hold on her purse strings. “I’m Carli Williams. I have an appointment with Mr. Mason at four.” She hoped she sounded more confident than she felt.

 The woman didn’t answer. She picked up her phone and spoke quietly into the receiver. Carli shifted her weight and peered around the desk to take in the enormous amount of space. Marble pillars separated the room into sections with the help of hardwood panels. Within the cleverly-spaced segments were other desks, though not nearly as elaborate as the secretary’s. They most likely belonged to the numerous paralegals and other, though less important, secretaries that were needed. Three closed doors, she presumed, held the men whose names dominated the wall.

“Ms. Williams, Mr. Mason will see you now.” She pointed in the direction of his office and returned to her work.

Carli swallowed. Calm . . . down.

Linen-fold, mahogany doors opened before Carli was able to knock. The smell of expensive leather assaulted her senses and already weak stomach, leaving her nauseated. Her hand automatically went to her middle as she tried not to wrinkle her nose.

A man in a tailored pinstriped suit beckoned her to enter.

            Carli held out her hand in greeting. “You must be Mr. Mason.”

            He stifled a smile. “No. That would be the man behind the extra-large desk.” He gestured toward the row of windows.

            Carli relaxed in the young man’s presence. The first sign of civility she’d received since entering the building. Perhaps things were turning around. She glanced over at the desk.

            It, too, boasted the same paneling as the doors. The wood was carved as though it hung like a curtain. Beautiful. The desk itself was shaped like a fishhook; a computer sat at the curve, a writer’s pad after that, and numerous legal books tapered to the end. The top of the desk was polished marble, a mixture of sand and cream colors with a hint of hand-painted burgundy. Carli made a mental note to keep her hands in her lap so as not to mar the desk with fingerprints.

            A voice announced her name as the burgundy, leather buttoned chair turned from facing the window-lined wall. “Ms. Williams, thank you for coming to see me.” Mr. Mason motioned to the chair that sat in front of the desk.

A reassuring nudge from the man at the door started her forward.

            Mr. Mason fit the important air that encased him. His slightly angular features were balanced with intelligent eyes that sized Carli up before she had opportunity to sit. He motioned her with an impatient flip of his hand to one of the chairs in front of him. Though handsome in their design, they lacked the obvious comfort of the one he retained, probably with the purpose of keeping his meetings short.  

Seated across from him, Carli squinted from the brightness the windows afforded. The lawyer motioned to the assistant and shades, incased in the window panes, instantly began to lower.

            Carli exhaled and relaxed the rigidity of her spine. But her easeful moment wasn’t to stay. Mr. Mason’s clipped tone would assure that.

            “I’m not one to waste time, so we’ll not drivel in small talk, as I’m sure you’ll appreciate.”

Carli stared at him for a moment before she thought to nod her head. After a two-year search, she wouldn’t be opposed to small talk. But after that kind of introduction, there was no need to expect it.

Twenty minutes later, Carli stumbled from the lawyer’s office and past the secretary’s curious gaze. Her mind swam with news she had never expected. Outside, she hailed a cab back to her car.

“Nice weather for Seattle, ain’t it?”

Carli jerked her head from the dirty windshield toward the cabby. “Uh, yes, I guess it is. To be honest, though, I hadn’t really noticed.”

The driver gave her a strange look from the mirror. “Uh, huh.” He withheld from further conversation for the remaining duration of the drive. After dropping her off, he quickly drove away.

 Carli scanned the lot with an increased pulse. Her eyes darted toward the adjacent parking garage, its darkened entryway taunting her with the possible nefarious acts it concealed.

Just like the one in Oregon.

She shuddered as the hair on the back of her neck stood up. Straightening her shoulders, she increased her gait to the car. She slid the key in the door and was safely inside within seconds. Breathe, just breathe– Her breath hitched as her line of vision settled on a white envelope stuck in her wiper blade. Carli shifted her eyes in all directions in search of its deliverer. I may be curious, but not stupid. No way am I getting out now. She pushed the lock down and started the engine.

With controlled speed, she turned onto the road and drove to a more populated area. The envelope shifted from the wind but remained pinned beneath the wiper blade. Horns honked behind her, drivers irritated by her pokiness, but she didn’t care. At the next open parking space, Carli pulled over. She opened her door; her hand trembled noticeably as she retrieved the note. Only after she was safely back in her car did she tear it open.

A single piece of paper slid out.

You’re not wanted. Go back home. 

Her chest muscles instantly cramped and forced her to rely on small gasps of air. The sound of her engine faded as did the noises from the street. Carli bent over her steering wheel and pressed a hand to her chest, willing the stabbing pain to end. With her other hand she fumbled in her open purse for her pill container and swallowed two aspirin without water. Their chalky residue left a bitter trail down her throat, but knowing they were in her system helped ease her anxiety. A few minutes passed before she was able to straighten.

Tears stained Carli’s cheeks. The ache in her heart now overrode the pain in her chest. Not wanted. Was this her brother’s way of saying she was only in the way? She took a deep breath and flipped her blinker on to merge into traffic. She needed time to collect herself away from the sidewalk’s onlookers. The Space Needle was within sight. Its surrounding park would provide the quietness needed to process the new information before Melody assaulted her with questions.

            Not one to grovel in self-pity, she pushed all thoughts of her brother aside and considered her father. At least he had searched for her. He’d somehow learned of her existence after the death of her mother. How he came about that knowledge, she didn’t know nor were her questions satisfied by the lawyer. But it didn’t matter now.

            A breeze entered in through her partially opened window and whipped at Carli’s hair. She tucked the loosened strand behind her ear and wondered what kind of man Vincent had been. He was successful at business, so it might be possible to learn more about him through the internet. A tear escaped her lashes. It would’ve been nice to hug him. Her chest swelled with a deep breath. “Well, Cicero,” she sniffed and patted the key in the side pocket of her purse, “at least he left me a home.”

She looked across the park as she slowly drove by. Couples walked hand in hand. Some had children, others had dogs. Even Melody had a complete family. Her parents were still together and her three siblings were mostly married with budding families of their own. She sighed and rubbed the dash of her dated Oldsmobile. It had been her mother’s. One hundred and forty thousand miles, and it was still reliable.

But it wasn’t family.

Carli pulled into the apartment complex where she and Melody lived. She drove up the hill over mountainous speed bumps and past the more expensive rentals then down the hill to the cheapest models for rent. She despised what the mounds of pavement did to her car. Being an old model, every time the car’s back tires rolled off a speed bump, she heard the sound of her metal bumper scraping the pavement. It annoyed her as much as a child scraping his nails down a chalkboard. She drew her shoulders up to her ears to try to block the sound as the offending envelope from her windshield slid to the floor unnoticed.

At the bottom of the hill, Carli eased her yellow tank into a parking space and saw a curtain move from inside. They lived on the bottom floor, which also happened to be a basement. Before she finished descending the stairs, Melody had her arms around her.

“Are you okay? How did it go? What did he say?”

Carli smiled from Melody’s thoughtfulness and fought back tears that wanted to spill forth. Every time she felt emotional, all it took was a touch from someone and she wanted to cry. Melody must have sensed that and waved her inside. “Let’s sit down. I made some British comfort.”

British comfort was tea. It didn’t matter what kind to Melody, it all fell in the same category.

“Take your kicks off and relax. You’re not in a stuffy office any more.” Melody had already set two cups on the table. They slumped into kitchen chairs adjacent to one another as Melody took a sip.

“I have an inheritance.”

Tea spewed across the table. “What? How can you? You never met the man!”

Carli wiped at her shirt and hands. “I’m so glad we’re not in public right now.”

Melody snorted. “Yeah, sorry about that. You could work on your timing, you know. Wait until I’ve swallowed before you surprise me. So what did you get? A thousand bucks?”

“Hmm . . . ” Carli gave her friend a thoughtful look before speaking with all the rationality brought on by a normal day. “More like a million.”

Melody fell from her chair and crawled to the wall. “I need to sit lower to the floor for this.”

“Mr. Mason, the attorney, told me that my da– I mean Vincent– had been searching for me, too. But his health was failing, so he had this inheritance set up in case he died before he found me.”

Melody waved her arm with dramatic flair; the pitch of her voice rose as she spoke. “And this inheritance is a million dollars?”

“Kind of. I received an old estate on one of the neighboring islands.” Carli hadn’t taken time to picture what it might look like. But in the comfort of her home and friend, the thought now teased her. “If I choose to restore it with funds he set aside, I’ll receive a million dollars after it passes inspection. If I choose not to, I don’t get anything.”

“Not even a card, or a note that says something, explains something?”

“No.”

The room fell silent with contemplation. Melody was the first to speak. She returned to her chair and asked, “When do you get to see it?”

Carli pulled the keys out of the side pocket of her purse and dangled them in front of her. “Any time I want.”

“Ahh, girl, this is so exciting! Let’s go this weekend.” Melody took another sip of tea as she waited for Carli to agree.

“I’m not done with all the news yet.” Carli paused and pushed the handle of her tea cup back and forth. “I also have a brother.”

Melody choked as she tried to swallow her tea.






Chapter Three


Melody shook her dark curls. “You can’t have a brother. Your mom never married.”

            Carli mulled over Tuesday’s conversation. “Like that stopped my existence. But we’re not talking about that side of my family. My da– I mean Vincent. It’s a long story. But he has a son.” Was it a long story? Nothing had been explained to her. No details had been provided. But at least it satisfied Melody. Somewhat.

            “Who is he? What’s his name?”

            “I don’t know. The lawyer said he wanted to remain anonymous. I guess he doesn’t like the idea of having family from the other side of the tracks.” There was no sense going into details of the envelope. That subject would only lead to more tears.

            “Either that, or he doesn’t like sharing the inheritance,” Melody frowned and chewed on a nail.

            “Oh, I doubt that. My estate is run down. Nobody but the groundskeeper has lived there for years, and he’s only occupied the servants' house. I’m pretty sure there was a lot more in Vincent’s holdings than an old, decrepit house. So anonymous brother is most likely faring quite well.”

Carli hadn’t given thought to Melody’s comment then. Though now, as she looked over the map to plot the course they would take to the estate, she wondered. Surely he wouldn’t care about her having something as forgotten and old as the lawyer described her estate. Maybe there was more to it. Either way, she’d find out today.

The Saturday morning sun poured through the window promising a great day, perfect for exploring her inheritance. Melody was away making deliveries and they’d planned to meet at noon. Carli had prepared sandwiches for them to eat in the car during the three hour drive to the old house where they’d spend the night. Sleeping bags and flashlights were a must.

            Carli’s cell phone jingled in her purse. Her mind instantly filled with a handsome stranger with sparkling blue eyes. Did she want him to call her? He had no way of knowing who she was, let alone her cell number. But, oh, could he kiss.

Be calm, my riotous heart.

“Hello.” She spoke slowly to hide the excitement in her voice.

“Ms. Williams, this is Mr. Mason’s office. Will you be free this morning at eleven?” clipped his secretary in an impatient tone.

Carli sighed and let her shoulders droop. “Well, uh, I have plans at noon—”

“Good. Then he’ll see you in his office.”

“What is this for?” Carli demanded an answer. Why did she need to meet with him again? His curt behavior wasn’t something she wanted to endure more than necessary, nor was his secretary’s.

The secretary sighed with obvious exasperation. “Your brother has decided to meet you. He asked to do so here. As Mr. Mason is very busy, please be on time.”

The dial tone sounded and ended the call.

Carli stared at her phone as she flipped it shut. “Why would he want to meet me now?”

Wasn’t he the author of the note on her windshield?

“And what if I don’t want to meet him?”

She refolded the map. Her mind swam with conflicting thoughts. It was clear someone didn’t want her around. Could it be someone other than her brother? Carli would love to have family, but the practical side of her warned her not to get hopeful.

Hope led to hurt.

She left Melody a short voice mail and continued to pack, keeping a close eye on the clock.

When it came time to leave, she grabbed a light sweater to throw over her simple sundress. It was Saturday, her day to relax, and she was past trying to impress anyone.

Twenty minutes after eleven, Carli still sat alone outside Mr. Mason’s office door. Obviously, her brother had stood her up. Half-brother; he was demoted for his inconsideration.

She looked around the room. It was the weekend, yet seventy percent of the work force was still here. A man sat hunched over a keyboard, his face drawn in a tight frown. Further away, a tall, thin woman waved papers in a shorter woman’s face. Her body language all but screamed her disappointment.

Do these people ever go home? A picture of her mother came to mind. Tired eyes lined with circles greeted her in the evenings. She had worked long, endless hours to provide for Carli. Were most of the individuals here also mothers and fathers?

Carli looped her purse over her shoulder and walked to the elevator. She stopped at the secretary’s desk to explain she was leaving. “I guess there’s no sense in—”

The phone behind the marbled cabinet rang and the secretary waved her off.

She exhaled sharply. Her mother would have never tolerated such rudeness. Did this secretary not have a mother? If her manners were any indication, she was probably raised by wolves.

Carli managed to swallow past the lump of rejection as she exited the building and walked toward her car. This is exactly why she had to hold on to her practical side. She took a deep breath and lifted her face to the breeze as it dried her eyes.

Her car sat two blocks down. A public garage had been available but her mother’s death proved they weren’t for unattended women.

Ever since, Carli struggled being around people. Confused and distrustful, she feared getting close and losing someone else. Melody was the first to breach the wall around her heart. A wall she’d unknowingly resurrected. 

            Her fingers flew over the keypad of her phone as she waited to cross. “Mel, it’s me. No I didn’t get to meet him.” She paused. “He stood me up.”

“Oh,  hon’, I’m sorry.” Melody sighed with sympathy. “I was about to head home, but since we’re both out let’s grab lunch at Olsen’s. I’m buying.”

Although money was tight, she and Melody always set some aside for restaurants. Life was too short not to enjoy their paychecks at least somewhat. Still, Carli couldn’t allow her to spend money for sandwiches when two very good ones were waiting for them at home. “I’ve got sandwiches already made.”

“Great! Sounds like a perfect excuse to eat dessert first. I’ll see you there.”

Carli clicked her phone shut and shoved it against her purse, aiming for the outside pocket. It fell to the ground, hit the curb and bounced into the crosswalk. The sign changed and the crowd around her began to fill the intersection.

“Oh, wait. That’s my ph–” She reached to grab it but someone’s shoe sent it skimming into the street. “Ooh!”

Carli ran after the phone and stooped to pick it up. The sound of squealing tires brought her head up. Horror struck, her mouth dropped open at the sight of the dark vehicle barreling toward her. Someone screamed. Carli lunged just as the car brushed past.

Sprawled on top of the pavement, Carli was first aware of her racing heart. Then the taste of bile. Did someone try to run her over? She blinked rapidly and noticed several pairs of shoes coming her direction. Someone laid a hand under her arm as she struggled to her feet, desperate to regain her dignity. The crowd, now doubled in size, hovered around her. Her hip burned from scraping the pavement and both palms were black and scratched.

“Are you all right?”

Carli looked into the concerned face of a middle aged woman in matching slacks and shirt. The pink ensemble made her skin glow beautifully. How can I think of something like that now?

She gave her head a shake and made deliberate eye contact, wanting to quell the sweet woman’s fears. “Yes, yes, I’m fine.” Although her yellow dress wasn’t, she inwardly moaned. Filth from the pavement branded her left side.

Offers of help off the street tore her focus from her clothing. Carli refused the extended hands to prove she was okay. She looped her purse over her shoulder and took a step toward the curb. Her ankle buckled out from under her and she fell against the woman in pink.

“She’s not okay!”

“No really, I’m fine. My heel broke, that’s all.” Carli gave a disgusted look at her shoe. She lifted her foot while the woman gave support with her arm and was able to twist the remaining fibers that held the heel in place. She waved it like a trophy to the crowd.

The woman glanced down the street. “Did anyone get the license number of that car?”

The murmurings of the crowd provided little information and plenty of doubt. The vehicle could only be described as a black sports car with very dark windows. Its driver had seemed intent on running her down.

Carli accepted the pieces of her cell phone and the crowd dispersed. Limping on one good shoe, she continued toward her car, which, thankfully, was within sight.

She considered the opinions from the helpful crowd. Surely somebody wouldn’t intentionally try to hit her. But icy fingers of fear told her otherwise.

***

“Hey, you look shook up.” Melody met her outside the coffee shop. “Are you okay?”

Carli drew in a deep breath. “I don’t know. I just want to eat and start our journey.”

“Okay, about that . . . ” Melody glanced at Carli’s old tennis shoes she now wore with her simple sundress and cotton jacket. Her purse cleverly hid her soiled skirt. “Did you have on those kick . . . never-mind. Our table’s reserved and apple pie a’la mode is to be served as soon as we’re seated.”

“Ahhh, you’re wonderful, Mel.”

“Don’t say that too soon. I’m about to disappoint you.”

They seated themselves and true to Melody’s earlier word, a waitress appeared with their desserts. Carli closed her eyes and said a quick blessing. She scooped a spoonful of hot pie and cold ice cream into her mouth and savored the soothing blend. As the creamy butter and cinnamon sensation coated her throat, Melody cleared her own.

“I can’t go to the estate with you today.” Melody blurted out the words. “One of my customers has decided to sign on under me, so I have to go to the meeting tonight to introduce her to our director.” She reached over to squeeze Carli’s hand. “I’m so sorry.”

Carli pushed her disappointment aside and focused on Melody’s success. “Mel, that’s great. You’ll only need one more and you’ll be a director.”

“Thanks. I don’t know if I want that or not, but thanks for being understanding.”

Carli’s brow wrinkled. “And if we catch the early ferry in the morning and their latest one in the evening, we could still check out the house tomorrow.” A breath of relief escaped her. After the crosswalk incident, she could use the quiet evening to unwind.

“Perfect!”

Carli continued to consume her dessert, allowing the memory of eating pie on a bar-stool as a young child to soothe her mind. Her mother, dressed in a light pink waitressing uniform with a white apron tied about her waist, would stop to kiss the top of her head as she passed. Those afternoon hours Carli had spent waiting for her mother’s shift to end had passed quickly and pleasantly.

It was then, surrounded by those who thought she could do no wrong, that her confidence had soared. But somewhere along the way, things had changed.

 Melody slurped her soda and drew Carli out of her reverie. They were seated along the front wall of the restaurant in view of the entrance. Melody kept her eyes on the door, commenting on the entrants and their style of clothing.

“Mel, quit staring or they’ll notice.” Carli’s back was to the door so she relied on Melody’s mental images. “Tell me what colors she’s wearing.”

“It’s he. And I’m not sure I want to share him.”

“Okay, keep him. I’m not interested.” Twice in the same day, a picture of the store-front stranger flickered through her mind.

Melody licked her lips. “Good, because I happen to have a weakness for distinguished looking men in expensive suits.”

That caught Carli’s attention. She turned her back to the corner of the booth and tried to look without being obvious. The man began walking to his seat and she couldn’t make out his face. She did, however, notice his gray-streaked temples.

As she turned back around, her stomach soured and her nerves tingled. She swallowed hard.

Melody’s forehead wrinkled. “You look a little pale.”

“I just need a sandwich. You ready to head home?”

Her friend glanced at her empty dessert plate. “Sure.”

Carli threw down a tip and Mel paid at the register before they exited. They started down the street when Carli stopped and stared at the car parked by the curb.

“What is it?” Melody looked from Carli to the car and answered her own question. “It’s a dark sports car with tinted windows. They’re everywhere around here.”

“Yeah, the model’s nice isn’t it?”

Melody shrugged her shoulder.

Carli resumed her pace, thankful she didn’t have to explain the earlier incident. It was probably just a coincidence anyway.

She’d enjoy her lunch with Mel and help her pick an outfit to wear for the meeting. Then, she’d decide what to do with the free evening that was beginning to loom over her.

***

The local drive-through held a hot-rod event every Saturday night. Enthusiasts, young and old, lined their prized vehicles up in the parking lot and swapped stories. It was free for everyone and boosted the business’s income. Though Ethan didn’t have an old car to show off, he still enjoyed attending.

            A ’66 GTO rumbled low and meaty. A whoop rose from the crowd as jeering bystanders urged another rev of an engine. Before long, the sound of souped-up engines filled the air. That is, until one of them backfired. The unwelcomed ‘pop,’ was followed by fits of laughter.

            Ethan strode past the restored relics, intent on buying a hot-fudge sundae to enjoy while he finished admiring the cars. The back of the building was encased with windows allowing the customers full view of the outside. It also allowed outsiders full view of the customers. And that’s when he saw her. Blonde hair spilled over her shoulders as she bent to retrieve the kid’s-meal toy a youngster had dropped.

            Ethan stopped and stared. Someone bumped into him from behind.

            “Oh, excuse me,” came an elderly voice.

            Ethan looked over at the aged hand that had grasped his shoulder. “Sorry sir, I got distracted.”

            The elderly man smiled. “You know I’ve heard if you take a picture, it’ll last longer.” He chuckled as he slapped Ethan’s shoulder and took a step forward, then stopped and looked back. “Well young man, don’t just stand there. Go in and talk to her.”

            Ethan smiled and rubbed the back of his neck. The man waved his hand for Ethan to go ahead of him. How could he not?

            Once inside, Ethan’s stomach began to churn. What if she’s angry at me for the kiss? He’d heard the nurse in the photograph had slapped the sailor after he kissed her. He rubbed his cheek.

Adventures don’t come without chances.

He walked the short distance to her table where she sat alone. She had just placed her napkin inside her empty cup and pushed it aside. “Is this seat taken?”

Curious multi-colored eyes looked up. Ethan didn’t miss their hint of interest before wariness took their place. Not waiting for a response, he sat opposite her in the booth.

Ethan smirked and decided to toy with her. “So are you stalking me or something? First you kiss me in the middle of the street and now you find me here.” Amusement pulled at his mouth as he watched her recover from the shock of his presence and become defensive. Her wide eyes narrowed and her hands clenched the table top.

“What right do you have . . . ?” Her words trailed as his smile spread.

He extended a hand. “Hi, I’m Ethan Durham.”

She slowly accepted his hand. “I’m Carli.” Ethan held on a moment longer than necessary. He’d need more time than a handshake allowed to decipher the feelings that simple act had caused.

“Just Carli? No last name?”

“A stranger kisses me in the middle of the street and now he wants personal information.” She retracted her hand. “Not gonna happen.”

“Really? I was just trying to go about this the right way. I figured it’d be more proper if we knew each other’s names before our next kiss.” Ethan couldn’t contain his chuckle as her mouth dropped open.

She started to rise.

“Carli, let me explain.” He reached for her arm and gently tugged her back to the seat.

Carli grabbed her hair and flipped it over one shoulder before she looked him in the eye. “We’re in a very public place. If this is something you’re going to keep persisting, we might as well get it over with.”

Something told Ethan she wanted an explanation more than she let on. He reached in his front pocket and retrieved the black and white picture he’d taken and handed it to Carli.

 “This is that Time’s Square photograph . . . only it’s here, in Seattle.” A small gasp escaped her lips. Her voice dropped to barely audible. “And it’s us.”

Distrust hardened her gaze as she stared across at him. “Why do you have a picture of us kissing?”

He didn’t miss the word us. She admitted she'd taken part. “It’s for my term paper. I’m comparing a modern-day replica to the old photo.” Ethan thought he saw disappointment shadow her face before Carli covered it with indifference.

He cleared his throat. “Since we’ve already shared our first kiss and we’re here together at a restaurant, let’s consider this our first date. Though next time, I won’t be nearly as cheap.” He gave a half smile, which exposed a dimple in his left cheek.

“Why would you want a date with me? You got the shot you needed.”

 The sarcasm wasn’t lost on Ethan. But he wasn’t one to give up.

“You’re wrong. A date? I’ve already mentioned two dates . . . and another kiss.” He glanced at the empty ice cream dish. “Does that mean you’ve eaten dinner or did you have dessert first?” Ethan watched her purse her lips together to control a smile.

            “I’m not telling, nor am I hungry.”

            “Then how about a cup of coffee?”

            “I don’t drink coffee.”

            Ethan dropped his head back and sighed. “Need I remind you, you kissed me back? There’s no need to play hard-to-get.”

            Carli’s eyes squinted. “You’re arrogant.”

“I’m also confused, nervous,” he bent his head toward her as if conspiring and

looked both directions, “and a bunch of other feelings men don’t put names to.”

Ethan watched her eyes soften and knew she would stay.

That's the first three chapters. Unexpected Kiss is due for release this fall. Let me know what you think. Also, read the first three chapters of Abandoned Hearts and Coveted Bride and vote which one you like the most!

Unexpected Kiss is now available at these links:
http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/102941
https://www.createspace.com/3656356

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