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"I needed to conclude this session while I was ahead. He was fabulous and amazing, but even he couldn’t top what he’d just said to me."

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19 – Introduction

I was living in the happiest moment of my life.  I felt high.  I’d never been high before, but I knew this is what it felt like.  Good thing I’d been with Sam and Trevor the entire movie or they might accuse me of substance abuse.  I needed to get myself normal before I had to explain anything.  Sam was heading back into the theater when I bumped into her as we collided at the corner where the end of the aisle met the vestibule leading back out to the main hallway of the Cineplex.

“Where’d you go?”

She was slightly concerned.

“I…uh…forgot my purse,” I responded truthfully.

She looked down at my hands to see if I was at the beginning or the end of the process of handling that situation.

Eyeing my purse she said, “Are you ready?”

I am so ready!  In fact, I might die of readiness tonight.

Our plan was to head over to Graeter’s for ice cream after the movie.  It wouldn’t go over well and I might be forced into a lie if I tried to talk my way out of that, so I just had to settle into patient mode until I could get home and pace like a caged animal in the privacy of my bedroom, waiting for him to call me.   Thinking about Ash calling me made me lose focus and I tripped over nothing, very nearly performing a face plant.  But Trevor was close and caught me just in time.

“Hey there space cadet!  You all right?”

He was amused.  But I was too out of it to give him the full helping of embarrassment to go along with it.


They sensed and saw I was not right and silently took up posts on either side of me, each taking an arm as they guided me to Trevor’s car.

I don’t remember ordering any ice cream but once we were at our table I was eating some.  I put the spoon down after a couple of bites.  I just couldn’t do it.  All my energy, even the involuntary motion of eating double chocolate mousse, was redirected into analyzing the new and euphoric landscape in which I now resided.

Someone loved me!  Not just someone, but the one I loved!  The risk of writing a pathetic plea for his affection had paid off!  Something was actually going right—incredibly right—for the first time in my life.  The feel of his hand on mine, the look on his face, the warmth of his chest when he had indicated that his heart belonged to me—it was all too much.  But I was greedy for it and I worked hard to horde all these happy feelings and reflections into myself, letting nothing escape as best I could without being too obvious.

“What’s wrong with Ellery?”  Trevor asked Sam, like I couldn’t hear.

“I don’t know what it is, but something’s definitely wrong with her,” she replied, like I couldn’t hear.

Through my abstraction I heard someone’s phone ringing.  It just kept on ringing.  Suddenly, I realized it was my phone!  No one had ever called me on it, so I didn’t know what it sounded like.  In a panic that I’d miss his call and then he’d never call me again, I scrambled for the cell phone the way a person with a grenade in their purse might move when they were trying put the pin back in before it exploded.

Miraculously, I was able to answer the call before it went to voicemail.  I paused for a second or two to summon a bit of false decorum.  Then the euphoria washed back in like the tide.

“Hi,” I said.

The happiness was impossible to suppress.

“Is it all right if I call you now?” asked a voice that was every bit as appealing as the face that went with it.

“Yes.  I was hoping you would.  Where are you?”

It was getting dark now and I could only see myself in the windows and not the world beyond.

“I’m parked at the bakery across the street.”

I turned in the direction he’d indicated and I sent him a wink and a smile.  I wished so badly that I could see him as well. He responded to my signal with a quick one syllable laugh.

Then he asked, “Wasn’t your ice cream any good?  You seem very distracted tonight.”

It was so obvious that people across the street could tell.  I felt my cheeks burning in response.  Sam and Trevor were watching me like a traffic accident on the shoulder.  I needed to work out some subterfuge (an expedient used to escape a consequence or hide something) immediately.

“I am.  I’ll be home soon.  We’re almost finished here.”

I turned to look at my rubber-necking framily as I said this, for their benefit.  It was hard to tell if they were buying it or not.

“Is there a way we could talk for a few moments before you turn in for the evening?” he inquired.

Now things really were going my way.  I’d already thought this through and had my answer all ready to go, plus it played into the subterfuge.

“Oh, I think that’s in the tree house.  I’ll check before I come in, okay?  See you in a bit.”

I wasn’t sure how long I could keep cool, so I was in a hurry to wrap up this public discourse, doubling as my phone conversation.

“Wait. One question,” he interjected before I could disconnect. “When did you get a cell phone?”

I hadn’t thought that one through at all.  I chose to dodge it completely.

“Later, okay?  Love you.  Bye.”

I closed the phone and put it back in my purse.

My friends were testing me, I believe, to see if I would make a move and tip my hand.  As much as it was killing me, I didn’t play into it.  I didn’t ask about leaving or give off a single vibe of impatience.  Instead I used the extended period of time while we sat there at Graeter’s, long after their ice creams were gone, and mine was a bowl of lukewarm chocolate soup, preparing for what I would say to my love in our private follow-up encounter.  This was the aspect that I had not allowed myself to plan for, out of respect for Murphy’s Law and the dominant role it usually played in my life.

After I stepped out of Trevor’s car and made my way to the porch, I turned around like I was watching them drive away.  Then I hesitated for a few moments, checking to see if Mom had seen the headlights pulling in.  She didn’t come looking for me so I decided to head directly for the tree house.  There was moonlight providing subtle illumination, but once I made it inside the arboreal mini loft, the difference between eyes open and shut was indistinguishable.  Mercifully, he didn’t make me wait.

“Ellery?” he called quietly.  “May I come up?”


Oh please, please do!

He climbed up and positioned himself across from me, his feet touching against my own.  As soon as he was settled, I clicked on the flashlight lantern that I had left for myself earlier in the day and its warm glow filled the very crowded space.  He blinked as his eyes adjusted to the light, then a glorious, warm and inviting smile lit his features, adding extra brightness to the room.

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I offered my hand like I was introducing myself and said, “This is a little redundant, but….my name is Ellery Mayne.”

He understood and shook hands with me.  It felt so good just to touch him.  It helped to dispel the sense that I was dreaming.

“And my name is Ash Ryan.  I can’t tell you how happy I am to finally meet you,” he said with a smile that was spiced with a trace of humor.

“I’m happy too,” I replied in complete understatement.

“I hope you don’t mind, but I have a few questions for you,” I continued.

I felt awkward and shy, but I was still very high and it helped me cope.

“You can ask me anything you like,” he assured me.

“Why are you and the others watching me?”

It seemed like that was the best place to start.

His manner was open and not at all defensive or evasive.

“I work for a security and surveillance company and we were hired to provide transparent protection for you.  That means we are paid to keep you safe, but not interfere in your life, if possible.  Our employer wishes to remain anonymous.  It’s one of the terms of our contract.”

So even they didn’t know who wanted me followed.

Interesting.  Not the least bit helpful, but interesting.

Also, I’d say they had applied the very loosest interpretation to the guideline about not interfering in my life, but I wasn’t complaining.  As I thought these things through he asked me a question in return.

“May I ask you a question?”

He was so polite and sincere.  I loved it.  I loved him.  I was actually getting higher, it felt like.  I hoped it wasn’t a hard question.  I didn’t want him to be disappointed with me only seconds into our conversation.


“When did you realize that we had you under surveillance?”


I should have required that he submit a list of all questions prior to our meeting so that I could be prepared.  Oh well.  Being honest was the right way to go, plus it would take less brain power.

“It was the day that I was almost abducted by those two thugs in front of the drugstore.”

I searched his features trying to sense his response to what I was certain would be a shocking reply.

His reaction was extremely satisfying.  He was lost in thought for a long time, probably seeing scenes of our life in close proximity through a completely new filter.  Once his eyes stopped darting and I felt reasonably sure his mind had returned to present time and place I asked the most important question of all, as bravely as I could.  It was nearly inaudible.

“When did you…realize…how you felt about me?”

He didn’t stop to think, his answer was automatic.

“It was love at first sight,” he replied, very sincerely, holding my gaze.

It completely silenced the cynical naysayer in my mind who insisted that his attraction must surely be rooted in some financial motivation, as opposed to a truly romantic sort of magnetism.  The peaceful quiet in my mind matched the silence inside the tree house for a time and that euphoric tide washed back over me again.  But then I realized that he was going to ask me the same question, and I could feel the embarrassment building over having to confess my shallowness to him.

“May I ask the same of you?”

Honesty.  Go with honesty.

“The very same,” I confessed.

He seemed pleased with this answer.  That was a relief.

“When was that, exactly?”

Oh no.

I didn’t think honesty was going to go over quite so well this time.  But it was his reaction to what I’d done to him that had endeared him so much to me in the first place.  I decided to make a full confession.  It would be a good test of his character to see how he handled my stupidity; something he’d need to be an expert at if he intended to spend any additional time with me in the future.

“The day my best friend, Sam, took me home when I got sick at the theater last fall.”

His eyes started darting in that unfocused stare into the past, back to Tinsel Town, to what I knew had been a very bad day for him.  I watched him reviewing the entire episode until his eyes flashed back up to mine.  There was no anger at the memory, just confusion, it seemed.  I was bracing myself and it must have been pretty obvious.

“What’s wrong?   What am I missing?”

What you’re missing is how I wronged you!

“Do you promise not to be mad at me?  It was very early on, before I’d ever seen you, and I never would have done it if I’d known what it would be like for you.  I felt absolutely horrible afterward.”

He was still at Tinsel Town.  His eyes had fallen to the floor while he replayed the events in his mind.  I decided the best way to explain would be to recreate the sound tract to a particular scene.  So Kit, my British Goth alter ego, spoke up and said, “Do you think it could have been this Ellery who was retching in the last stall?”

Just like when he had physically responded by veering towards the restrooms that day, his head snapped up from looking at the floor, and veered back to my face.  Those unusual, gorgeous, intense eyes were now about three times their normal size, as they bore into my own.  I observed him carefully as full understanding dawned over him.  He looked totally shocked.  I had to remind myself that there is power and advantage in being underestimated, and that I had no business being affronted.

My business now was to explain myself to him.

“Sam thought it would be fun to trick our friends and I agreed to let her dress me up in Goth, though my reasons were different.  I had never seen any of you at that point, well, accept for Helga.  And I thought it would be a good way to flush you, well, not specifically you, but one of you…out.  It worked.”

His eyes were looking through me once again, taking his thoughts back to the lobby at Tinsel Town, to the Goth consortium he’d approached for help.

“Then, when you came up to us, to ask about me, I thought I was going to pass out,” I explained, laughing at myself.

“But you didn’t recognize me, and all I could think about was that you were worried for me, well, more than that.  You looked kind of…panicked.”

I cringed at the memory of that.

“So it was a combination of things.  You were the most handsome boy I’d ever seen in real life; but I’m not shallow, I mean, looks aren’t everything to me, that is.  But it was the way you looked, your expression.   Not ticked off, like I’d given you the slip.  But genuinely worried, like you cared about me, about what had happened to me.”

I was searching his eyes for the final judgment and overall reaction to my unkind deed.

He spoke calmly, and a soft reassuring smile played in his expression.

“I was.  I did then and I do now.”

Oh good.

My stupidity hadn’t chased him off…just yet.  His eyebrows pushed up and into each other.

“Who’s Helga?”

I laughed once.

“Oh, that’s my nickname for the little Austrian lady that kicked butt in front of the drugstore.”

That shocked look flashed back, for just a second before it evened out and he said, “Her name is Petra Von Hirt.  She and her husband Max were there that day.  They put you back in bed because they thought they would be fired if you remembered them.  We get released if you engage us.  There’s a zero déjà vu policy in place.  We can’t be transparent if you recognize us.”

We both smiled at the irony.

So it was just as I’d suspected.  When I had approached any agent directly, they’d been dismissed directly.  I knew Ash was special, obviously.  But under these rules my idiotic stunt with the corn-hole game pieces should have been our final encounter.  Though I was burning with curiosity over this anomaly, I decided to let that mystery go for now, and just be thankful for the atypical outcome.

He asked the obvious follow-up question now.

“So, I saw you leave the theater, looking pretty sick.  How was that possible if you were dressed up, in…Goth?”

In a tiny voice my self-preservation instinct objected to giving this secret away, but it was overruled by the rest of me that wanted to make the full confession.

“Well, right after the movie, we went to the Ladies Room and dressed me up in the handicapped stall:  clothes, makeup, wig, and platform boots.  Then we came out and she introduced me to our Goth friends as her cousin from England.  Not long after that, you came up asking about me.  I felt terrible for tricking you when I realized you thought something bad had happened to me.  That’s when I decided I’d better say something about how maybe it was Ellery getting sick in the last stall.  We went back in, supposedly to help ‘Ellery’, and I changed back into my normal clothes and cleaned all the make-up off.  Then I pretended to be sick and Sam walked me out and drove me home.  Except after I saw how upset I’d made you…I really did feel sick.  I’m so sorry.”

Although I wasn’t sorry for the way it had all turned out, leading to this unlikely but still very likable encounter tonight.

There was a moment of pause while we gathered our thoughts.  I began to feel that same old self-conscious burn because I’d done too much talking, wondering which admission or turn of phrase had done the most harm to his estimation of me.

“Ellery, you can’t imagine what it means to me, to be here with you, speaking face to face.  I’ve been dreaming of this for a very long time, but I never thought it would happen so soon.  I have feelings for you that I realize are inappropriate, or perhaps premature, considering the difference in our ages, and the circumstances of my employment.”

Hey, don’t worry about my age!  Sam thinks I’m old enough…

“What I want is to get to know you, and have you know me.  Then, if I’m what you want, it’s my hope that you might consider me…as a potential marriage mate…one day,” he explained, all the while carefully scrutinizing my reaction.

Did he just use the word marriage in connection with me?

I couldn’t suppress the outward expression of the inward smile I felt over that.  He continued.

“I know this is a lot to lay on you during our first conversation.  But I’m just trying to say that even though my regard for you isn’t accompanied by good timing on my part, I have nothing but honorable intentions toward you.  I just want you to understand my interest in you.”

So apparently he has a high tolerance for idiocy.  What a relief!  I’ve definitely found my soul mate!

I needed to conclude this session while I was ahead.  He was fabulous and amazing, but even he couldn’t top what he’d just said to me.  I needed to be alone to get my mind around it, and make my exit before I said something I would regret.

But there was one more question I needed to ask.

“Those two thugs at the drugstore, do you know who they were or what they wanted?”

I cringed at my own foolish question.  Did I actually expect him to know the answers to either of those questions?  I found that I was suddenly feeling very nervous over what had always felt like a bad dream as opposed to an actual event.

His demeanor darkened a bit before he seemed to sense my scrutiny and he adjusted his expression to reassure me.

“No, unfortunately, a police officer happened upon the scene shortly afterwards and the agents on duty didn’t get to…learn any more about them,” he explained in a soothing manner, though I sensed there was more which he chose not to say.

“Do you think they’ll come back for me?”  I sounded distinctly pathetic as I asked this.

He smiled a little sadly, tilting his head as he reached out to pat my hand in a reassuring way.  But then a sardonic expression formed in his eyes as he replied, “We’re all hoping for that, actually.  But I really doubt it.  It’s likely that it was a random attack.  I’d try to steal you, if I were a bad guy, I think,” he paused, smiling self-consciously and then added, “But, please don’t worry.  You’re very well protected—all the time.”

The attack seemed about as random as the security team in place to foil it.  Still, I felt certain that he wasn’t trying to mislead me, so much as comfort me.  And speaking of being over protected, I sensed that my mom must have already switched into ‘worry mode’ since it was so late.

“Okay. I’d better get inside, then. May I see you again tomorrow night:  same time, same place?” 

I wouldn’t be able to live through time out of his presence without concrete arrangements for my next hit.

The smile and the nod he furnished in response to my request nearly stopped my heart.  Then the accompanying jolt of adrenaline shocked it back into quadruple-time.  At any rate, I had some reading to do, as it occurred to me that I needed to review the contents of my new and improved jump drive—his first present to me.  But then again, thinking back over the last few months, this would just be one more gift in an amazing series…

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