Death and Romance

Serena’s jaw dropped. “You want me to what?”

“Serena, really. You do know that gaping like that is rather unattractive?” Martin made a show of examining his nails before buffing them against his brown-pinstripe suit jacket, his face carefully blank.

“You want me to what?”

“Don’t you care that you have this time off? Just think, you don’t have to go around reaping people’s souls for a whole month. Think of all the scrapbooking you could get done.”

“You want me to what?”

He sighed and crossed his arms, careful to avoid creasing his silk tie. “You are starting to sound like a broken record, Serena. Do try to move past it. Life goes on.”

“Not for me,” she snapped.

“Have you still not gotten over that?” Martin unfolded his arms and placed a hand on her shoulder, patting gently. “There there, my dear, I’m sure the pain will diminish soon. After all, it’s only been – what? Seventy years? Ah, no wonder it’s taken you so long.”

She shook him off. “Shut up. And stop trying to distract me from the subject at hand. Repeat what you just said.”

“About not getting over your death? Well, if you insist-”

“Martin!”

“Fine, fine.” He folded his arms again. “You have a month off. You don’t have to reap souls.”

“And?”

“And…youhavetoplaycupidfortwohumans.”

“That’s the part.” She closed her eyes. Swallowed. And tried not to panic. “Why?”

“Why is the sky blue? Why is the grass green? Why are those ghastly valour jumpsuits back in style? These questions are sent to try us, love. The Powers That Be have decreed it, and thus, it is so.”

“Sweet baby cheeses.” How by all that was holy was she supposed to play fricking Cupid? She was an agent of death, not romance.

Frick. Her knowledge on true love and romance was almost non-existent. She knew all about painful hope and crushing disappointment, but nothing about healthy, adult relationships. So how, exactly, did that qualify her to play at macabre kind of matchmaker? “So what, exactly, am I supposed to do?”

“You are, exactly, supposed to intervene in the candidates’ lives. Bring them together. Romantically. Somehow.” Martin held up a hand. “And don’t ask me how. I’ve never had the…privilege of such an assignment.”

“Well isn’t that just fine and dandy?” A strand of brown hair hung in her line of vision. Irritated, she blew at it. It floated up, and then back into place. Over her eye. Stupid hair. “So who are these people?”

Martin consulted the clipboard that, only a second ago, had not been there. Show off. The ether was useful for any number of things, but Martin insisted on over-utilising it. Who else would keep a clipboard and – good God, a pen – in a mystical, mysterious, twilight-zoney type of place? No doubt Martin would argue that keeping such items on his person would ruin the line of his suit. She eyed his long, lean form. And, damn it, he would be right.

“You’re staring, pet.” Though his attention was still on the clipboard, a small smile twisted his lips. “And I can see that scowl,” he added.

Idiotic man. Still scowling, she moved closer, crossing her arms as she did so. “Well? Who am I supposed to–” Sweet baby cheeses. “Match?”

That smirk still playing about his mouth, he read the clipboard. “It appears the woman, Samantha…Chi-ro? Ky-ro? Anyway, she’s on the east coast and the man…hmm.”

“Hmm? What do you mean, hmm?” Crowding him, Serena tried to see the clipboard but the stupid man kept it out of view, a stupid grin on his stupid face.

“Just…hmm.” He looked up. Frick. That was an evil smirk if ever she saw one. “Her match. The man.”

“What? What about him?”

“Well…” Lord, if he took any longer, she was going to smack him. “It appears he lives just the teensiest bit away.”

That’s it. She was going to hit him. Hard. “Where?”

Still he smirked. Closing her eyes, she counted to ten. Lord. She’d never been driven to murder before meeting him. “Martin, please. Where?”

He sighed. “Serena, pet, you always manage to destroy the fun.”

She stared at him stonily. He was not going to get another rise out of her. He wasn’t.

“He lives on the other side of the country.”

“What!” Grasping the clipboard, she tried to wrest it from his hands. “Let me see that.”

With little protest he gave up the clipboard, that smile still playing about his mouth.

Her shoulders slumped as she scanned the page. “Damn.”

“You really are worried about this, aren’t you?” Taking the clipboard from her and slinging an arm around her shoulder, he hugged her to his side. “Don’t fret, pet. You’ll be fine.”

“No I won’t.” Miserable, she stared at the page. “How on earth am I supposed to do this?”

Absently, he began to rub her shoulder. “If you’re really that concerned, I’ll help you.”

Incredulity driving her, she looked at him. “Yeah, and how are you…”

All thought faded. His eyes…they were black…no, not black, brown. So dark a brown, you could stare in them forever and never discern the pupil. Strange eyes, warm eyes, eyes she knew would always look at her so, with concern and smugness and some emotion she couldn’t quite name…

Hastily, she stepped away. “Well. Don’t think I’ll be needing that just yet. But thank you. For the offer. You know.” Sweet heaven’s biscuits, she sounded a like an idiot. A weak smile stretching her mouth, she tried to regain some ground. “So. Yeah. Thanks.”

“Anytime.” There must be something of extreme interest on that clipboard. Staring at his bowed head, she hugged her arms about herself and didn’t think on Martin’s dark eyes.

Shifting his gaze to somewhere left of her, Martin vanished the clipboard. “So, you should be getting along then.”

“Yeah, probably.” Rubbing her arms, she watched him not look at her.

“Right. Well, good luck then.” Waving a hand as if that were enough of a dismissal, he made to leave.

“Martin?”

He froze and then he finally looked at her, that smirk once again arranged over his features, this time almost like a defence.

Make it like a joke, Serena. Even try a laugh. Licking her lips, she did so. “Don’t try to sabotage me, ‘kay? I know this is like tinder to the flame for you, but this time…just lay off, will you?”

The smirk slid from him. For a moment, he simply stared. Uncomfortable under that silent gaze, she shifted, her fingers picking at her forearm.

Finally, he spoke. “Of course, Serena. You have but to ask. You will contact me if you have need.” And then, without waiting for her answer, he vanished.

Right. Well.

Arms wrapped tight about her, she stared at the spot he had occupied. That was a lot of English right there, his accent all clipped and precise. Martin was almost obscenely proud of his heritage, every pore fairly screaming his upperclass Brit origin, but it was rare he had that degree of cold arrogance. Mostly, he seemed to view it as a kind of joke, one where the gravitas of circumstance in life held no place after death.

Maybe her comment had been a bit harsh. But, jeebus, she was only trying to return their banter to its familiar footing. She’d been…distracted by his hug, and she’d reacted, maybe badly, but that didn’t warrant such coldness. No, of course it didn’t. So, when next they met, it would be the same as always. He would snipe, and so would she, and all would be well. It was how it had worked all these last seventy years. There was no reason for a difference.

And with that justification in place, she completely ignored the sudden awareness that had forced her from Martin’s arms when she’d stared into his eyes.

***

Serena materialised beside a fountain, swaying slightly as she did so. After seventy years, you would think she would be used to it, but she always found herself horribly disorientated when coming out of the ether. Taking a seat, she nursed her head, the faint pain in her temples more annoying than anything else.

As the headache subsided, the minutia of the park came to notice. Heaven’s cornflakes, it was positively teeming with people, no doubt on lunch breaks from the nearby office buildings. She watched a man scoff down an egg and mayonnaise sandwich, then called in her diary from the ether.

Damn it all to perdition. After this last appointment, it was empty, and wouldn’t that be fricking right. All these people and no one to reap. The Powers That Be were obviously serious in their reassignment. Crap.

Leaning back in her chair, she watched a couple hold an animated discussion on the bench opposite. Cupid. Fricking cupid. Why on earth had the PTBs insisted upon this? Was it a punishment of some sort?

She blanched. Or was it a reward? A bizarre, completely unwanted reward? Because, from her stance, it was totally not one. A reward would be time off. A vacation. A trip somewhere exotic, like Chile or Martin’s old family estate. Dorset was always lovely, and she did love seeing Martin in his natural habitat. He always became so proud, showing her where he’d discovered a Celtic arrowhead as a boy, or where he’d lost his virginity to a lusty dairy maid. Well, maybe she could have done without the story of the dairy maid.

Lord, Martin. They’d been together seventy years, ever since she’d died and discovered there really was life everlasting. Life that apparently included a thankless job and an annoyingly handsome man who insisted upon needling her at every opportunity.

Oh, sorry, a job that was occasionally rewarded with a turn at playing Cupid.

It had been Martin who’d guided her through the first teetering steps of reaping, delighting in pointing out her mistakes. It had been he who’d forced her to attend the Reap Meets, introducing her to his own established circle of friends, mostly consisting of other reapers. He’d also helped her find her own apartment, even in part helped her furnish it, and that was, more than anything else, what made her love hi-

As a friend. Only as a friend.

She’d never had a home when she’d been alive, nothing that she could call hers. Only in death had she had these…things, things that were hers, and hers alone. They weren’t hand-me-downs, she wasn’t expected to share, and every night she could retire to her apartment and hear nothing but blessed silence. Well, that was unless Martin chose to visit.

When first she’d met his circle of friends, she’d been so surprised no one else found him annoying. Over time, she’d discovered that apparently only she was privileged enough to be treated to Martin at his most irritating. Oh, happy, happy day. Apparently, most seemed to find him charming, and women…well, some of them had had a glazed look in their eyes when they’d talked of him.

Intellectually, she could totally understand it. Martin was, as much as she hated to admit it, extremely attractive and, of course, in the prime of his, um, un-life. He’d died in his late twenties, just as she had, and they’d both retained their forms. His chocolate brown hair was still as thick as it ever had been, even if she did claim he possessed the beginnings of a non-existent bald spot, and his eyes still held a devilish spark, as green and clear as the day she had met him…or maybe more like the third or fourth day she’d met him. Unfortunately, the actual day she’d met him had been the day of her death, so, understandably, the details were a little fuzzy.

A woman on roller skates came hurtling down the path. Her thoughts turning from Martin, Serena watched the woman as she roared around the bend.

Roller skates. She’d always wanted a pair of roller skates, ever since she’d first seen a young man happily rolling along in a pair sometime in the 1970s. Where had that been? It had been a club of some sort in…Was it Europe? Or Australia? Or…Well, all she knew was there had been a lot of neon. And mirrorballs.

Her lips quirked. Mirrorballs were cool.

The woman skated closer, really gaining momentum now. Almost a blur, she pushed at the ground, each dig increasing her speed.

Next time Serena was at a mall she was buying a pair. She didn’t care what Martin said. She deserved a little luxury. And really, it wasn’t like she could die twice, not matter what Martin grumbled.

Standing, Serena shook her skirt, the loose material flowing back into place. As the woman skated by, Serena lifted a hand and brushed the woman’s skin. A jolt of energy at the contact made the woman turn her head, a little frown puckering her brow as she looked at Serena.

Serena gave a little shrug, as if to say sorry, and then she sat down to wait. It always unnerved her the souls she marked felt so little. When Marin had marked her, she’d felt such a wrench that she still had nightmares about it. It had been like someone had reached deep inside her and rooted around, completely unconcerned with the damage they were causing to body, blood and bone. Apparently, though, that wrench had marked her perfect for her current profession, or so Martin would have her believe. She, apparently, was special. Yeah, and wasn’t that great.

The woman, her attention back on the path, didn’t see her death coming. One moment, she was skating, and the next, she was not, a blood vessel in her brain bursting and taking her life.

Standing, Serena made her way to the confused soul staring down at her own body in disbelief. She would help the woman transition to the afterlife, fill out the paperwork associated with the reap, then go home, maybe even have a bubble bath.

If only this fricking matchmaking business would be as easy.

***

“That was the worst three days of my entire existence!” Serena strode out of thin air and into his study, collapsing into the leather chair opposite his desk.

Martin looked up from his correspondence, bracing himself. Good God, look at her. Swallowing, he forced mild inquiry on his face. Do not think about how alluring she looks. Do not think about how alluring she-

Who was he bloody kidding?

Her cheeks flushed with annoyance, brown hair wild and almost standing on end, she fairly exuded energy, her chest heaving in indignation. Don’t think about her breasts, old boy. Some days, he would swear an electric current ran through the woman. God knew it would explain his reaction to her.

Leaning her head against the chair, she crossed her arms. Of course, this only brought her breasts to greater prominence. “The absolute worse. And to think I have to go back.”

“What? Why? Do you need help?” He was pathetic. Absolutely pathetic. If he wasn’t thinking about her delightfully feminine attributes, he was trying to fight her battles for her, even as he knew she would bite his head off if he tried. Although, if she wanted to bite something else…

He cleared his throat. “What happened?”

“I think a better question would be what didn’t happen.” Kicking off her shoes, she crossed her ankles and placed her heel on his desk, though she knew he hated it when she violated the obscenely expensive polish in such a fashion. Her – he hesitated to call it a skirt. It was more like a belt, an extremely brief belt that could be unravelled with a tug and a flick of clever fingers…

Yes. Well. Her skirt rode up further, and he would just leave that thought there before it truly had a chance to develop into the depraved.

“What didn’t happen was romance of any description.” An adorable scowl creasing her features, she shifted her legs, oblivious to his thoughts as always. A grin stretched his mouth, his eyes were drawn to the long, smooth length of her legs. Ah, the casual bearing of flesh. In his day, the flash of a delicate ankle would be scandalous. Now, almost the entirety of her legs were displayed for his pleasure, and led to most entertaining thoughts of how would they feel beneath his palms, wrapped around his hips, her heels digging into his thighs as he moved inside her…

“For all that is holy and pure, how do people do this? It’s ridiculous! I managed to get them in the same city, I even managed to introduce them and what do they do? Politely smile and walk away.” Her scowl grew fiercer. “They walked away, Martin! They were mildly attractive people who seem to possess most of their teeth. What is their problem?”

Her passionate outburst blew all erotic thoughts from his mind and he couldn’t contain a smile. She was so amusing. “That is your list of requirements, is it? Teeth?”

“Shut up.” She rubbed her head. “I’m not cut out for this. Truly I’m not.”

He studied her for a moment. “Is that all you did? Introduce them and hope for the best?”

She looked up. “Yeah. What else is there?”

“Serena.” Oh, poor ignorant Serena. “There is more to romance than a simple introduction.”

“Yeah?” Now her scowl was directed at him. “And I suppose you know better, do you?”

“Oh pet.” Even he could tell the wicked slant of his smile. “The things I have forgotten about romance would make you blush.”

Slowly, his smile bled away. Good God, that light in her eye…it was growing.

Oh shit.

“Martin.” He winced. She had that tone. The one where he would do whatever she wanted. “Martin. My friend. My buddy. My dearest pal. You are heaps pretty. You have awesome hair.”

“What do you want?” Wariness coloured his words.

“Martin.” She beamed. “How do you feel about a trip?”

“No. No, I won’t do it. I can’t. This is your assignment, not mine.”

“Oh.” That deflated her. Then she brightened. “Oh, Martin?”

Shit. “Yes?”

She beamed. “Wanna teach me stuff?”

This was where, if his heart could beat, it would have stopped.

“You, allegedly, were the great seducer back in the day.” Placing her palms together, she bowed like a supplicant, grinning manically all the while. “Dazzle me with your wisdom, o great one.”

Finally, he managed to recover his voice. “You want me to teach you romance?”

“Yup.” Folding her hands in her lap, still with that grin, she lifted a brow.

Challenging him, was she? Well, he never backed down. “I’d be delighted, my dear.” Slowly, he rose to his feet, his gaze locked with hers, commanding her attention. Her smile slipped. Good.

Making his way around the desk, he seated himself on the edge of the table, picking up her bare feet to cradle them in his lap. “What shall I tell you first?” Making a show of massaging her foot, he stroked her skin, rotated her ankle. “Shall I tell you of the Russian Princess? Or maybe the Italian Countess?” Absently, he rubbed her instep with his thumb. “I think the Russian Princess. Definitely of more…interest.”

Her eyes wide, her chest rose and fell a little quicker, her breath shallower. Hiding a triumphant smile, he closed his eyes, picturing those long ago days. He could almost smell the perfume of the ladies as they whirled around the ballroom, the scent of crushed rose petals and candle wax layered beneath the sickly sweet fragrance. Ghostly strains of a waltz and the distant sounds of chatter filled his ears and for a moment, he was certain he would open his eyes to the full grandeur of an assembly, the whirl of a quadrille, the soft glow of candlelight.

“She was standing on the other side of the ballroom, looking resplendent in a gown of green and black, a shocking contrast to the washed out colours of the English flowers around her. So bold, so foreign, so decadent…” He opened his eyes. Serena stared at him, her lip caught between her teeth. “Can you imagine her, Serena? Can you see her?”

She nodded, her gaze locked with his.

Letting go of her foot, he rose from the desk, taking her hands. Passively, she allowed him to draw her to her feet, her height just a fraction shorter than his own. He’d always loved that she was so tall, so different to the women he pursued while alive.

“I knew it would take all my skill to gain her attention. She was so mysterious, so aloof, so untouched by human emotion. It would be a coup to discover if I could melt that ice, if I could burrow under her skin. So I planned and plotted, each foray rebuffed until finally, one night, she allowed me a glimpse.”

His voice roughened as he remembered the night, though instead of the Russian Princess he saw Serena, her expression aloof even as she dared him to tempt her.

“It was summer, the air thick and heavy, a threatening sort of calm before the storm. On the other side of the room she stood and I made my way to her, single-minded in my pursuit, and she watched me approach, her chin lifted haughtily as if she were disbelieving of my impertinence. She did not, however, say no when I asked her dance.”

Lifting her hand, he placed it on his shoulder, then trailed his touch back down her arm. Gooseflesh rose beneath his fingers and he smiled, the expression tight as his own response pulsating in his skin. He’d not thought his heart could beat, his blood could pound.

Apparently, he was wrong.

Ignoring this surprise as best he could, he took her other hand in his, holding it over his newly-beating heart as his other grasped her waist.

“We started with the waltz.” A light push and they were swaying, a small mimicry of the dance of his youth. “The waltz was a scandalous dance, did you know, Serena? A man could get much too close to a woman, could hold her right under society’s watchful eyes.”

Tightening his embrace, he jerked her closer to him. A gasp escaped her as their hips came into contact, leaving her in no doubt as to how this demonstration was affecting him. God, he could feel every inch of her, her thighs, her stomach, her breasts.

She fit him perfectly.

“The princess and I, we danced like this, hip to hip, chest to chest. But it wasn’t enough, Serena. We quit the dance and went to the garden.” Under his own spell, memory and present became mixed and he could only see Serena. Feel Serena. Want Serena. “Do you want to know what we did there?”

As if drunk, she nodded, her eyes glazed, her breath uneven. Her hand slid from his shoulder down his back and he shuddered at her touch, at the pleasure of Serena’s hands.

“She led the intimacy, the Russian princess, her desire fuelling mine. She took my hand and placed it against her heart, against her flesh.” Mirroring the action, he placed his hand against Serena, feeling the heat of her through the fabric of her t-shirt. “She wanted me to touch her, drive her wild with pleasure.” Sliding his hand under the neckline, he raised his eyes to hers. “Shall I touch you as I touched her, Serena?”

Slowly, she nodded, her lips parted and pink and wet and God, he wanted to taste them. A little hesitant, he slid his hand further under her t-shirt, the neck stretching to accommodate him. They both shuddered when his hand covered her breast.

The weight of her was heavy in his hand. Her nipple pressed against his palm and he wanted it in his mouth, against his teeth, his tongue laving her over and over as she moaned, as she screamed.

Eyes closed, she arched into his touch, her neck exposed and he couldn’t resist. God, he had to. Leaning to her, he shuddered as his lips touched her skin, and then he licked her, the taste of her flooding his mouth, the scent of her surrounding him and he was the one to moan, to gasp. Trailing kisses up her neck, he reached her jaw, worshipped it with his lips and then he moved closer and he was going to do it, he was going to kiss her, kiss Serena, after all these years, he was going to –

She jerked back. What was…oh God. Oh no. Oh, no, no, no.

She looked….God. She looked terrified. Hand clasping the misshaped neck of her t-shirt, she stumbled back from her, her face pale, her lips now parted in shock.

“Serena-”

“Don’t touch me. Stay away.” Panic riding her voice, she held up a hand as if to ward him off, her eyes holding a sheen he was desperately afraid were tears. “What just happened?”

“Serena. Serena, I…” Helplessly, he watched as she pulled herself from him, retreating into herself. Damn it, he knew her history. He knew she was scared. Why else would he have held himself back all these years? Whenever she had given love, she’d been battered for it again and again, ultimately leading to her death and now, because he couldn’t keep it in his goddamn pants, he was going to lose her. He was going to lose her.

Of a sudden, a switch seemed to flip. “Thank you for your tutorial.” Face blank, tone formal, he almost expected her to curtsy.

Instead, she vanished.

He stared at the spot she’d occupied. He was going to be only her friend. Always her friend. Long ago, he’d realised that was all she could handle, all she could trust, and he’d reconciled himself to acting that part. But it was so hard to limit the emotion he felt. So bloody hard.

The emptiness of the room echoed his final words.

“Serena. I love you.”

***

The size of the mansion mocked her, the display of Martin’s wealth garnered throughout the two hundred years of his death a solemn reminder of all that stood between them. Always he’d had the greater experience, the greater wealth, the greater number of friends, skill, talent…

Serena bit her nail, indecision rooting her to the spot. She’d never stood outside Martin’s home before. Always she’d materialised inside, more often than not catching Martin by surprise and often startling an unexpected oath from him. A grin lit her face as she remembered a particularly fulsome display of his knowledge of curse words. But she’d managed to bugger all that up. Like always.

Her face now solemn, she stared at the mansion once again. She was so conflicted. Three weeks she’d felt thus, three weeks she’d had to combat fear and confusion and a strange, tremulous hope.

What had happened between her and Martin? What sudden flaring of emotion had led to that encounter, to his hand on her breast and his mouth an inch from hers?

Closing her eyes, she felt again the terror as she’d realised what had happened. All her life, she’d had her love thrown in her face and she’d thought finally, in death, she’d found a companionship she’d never had. She’d enjoyed the platonic nature of their relationship, had exalted in the teasing, the ribbing, the outright fights. Whenever she’d talked back to her father, her brothers, they’d let her know in no uncertain terms such behaviour was unacceptable. Thanks to her family’s example, it had taken six years for Martin to annoy a stern word from her.

The men in her life had taken from her, beginning with the boy who’d first promised her escape right up to the gangster who’d been responsible for her death. She’d been stupid, pinning her hopes on the promises of others, but she’d had no other choice.

Only in death had she found the security she’d craved. Only in death had she learned to stand on her own. And she’d found Martin. He’d been a part of her transformation, a big part, simply by accepting her without demands. Well, he’d demanded she be herself. He had not allowed her to behave the vamp who had attracted the gangster, the vapid bubblehead who had tempted the men before him. Martin had insisted she be only herself and, eventually, she had.

She’d fixed the romance. Somehow, even in the midst of her own confusion, she’d managed to bring the two humans together. Martin had been right. It had taken more than a simple introduction, indeed it had taken bells and whistles and an almost car accident to get their attention. Still, the couple were dating and there was hope on both sides for something more.

Did she want something more with Martin?

Chewing her lip, she stared at the mansion. She’d made such a muck of her life. Gutterwhore she’d began and gutterwhore she’d ended. Martin had been a lord. A fricking earl, for jeebus’ sake. What if she wasn’t good enough? What if he threw it all back in her face? What if, again, her love wasn’t enough?

She squared her shoulders. Well. She wouldn’t find out if she stood here all day.

Between one moment and the next, she was gone.

***

Martin stared at the wall. He’d been staring at it for three weeks and it still didn’t offer any answers.

Bloody hell. He’d done it. He’d scared her off. She was never coming back, never returning to him, even in the capacity of friend. For the rest of his death, he’d have to exist without her, and never again hear her absurd curses, never see her smile, never return her snide comments just for the joy of watching her stand up to him.

Running his hands through his hair, he turned the events over and over again. There wasn’t even the smallest possibility she could have misconstrued what had happened. He’d made his stance pretty fricking clear, idiot that he was. No one had heard from her, no one had seen her and he’d been out of his mind trying to find her, to make sure she was alright. She’d been so fragile when first she’d died, and, God, he wouldn’t be able to cope if she reverted to that state.

Maybe he should have done nothing. Maybe he should have hidden his emotion, his love-

This was bloody intolerable! Exploding from his chair, he made for the door. Damn and blast waiting for her decision. He was going after her. If she couldn’t see they belonged together, he would bloody well make her. After all these years, he was taking something for himself. He would go to her, and he would tell her he loved her and she could like it or lump it and then he would kiss her, as he should have done before and –

“Martin?”

That soft voice stopped him in his tracks. Whirling around, he found Serena stood in front of his desk, looking nervous and uncertain and, bloody hell, she was here. The emotion of the last three weeks welled inside him and he couldn’t do anything but stare, arms frozen even as he wanted to throw them around her and never let her go.

Obviously unnerved by his silence, Serena fiddled at the beading on her shift. “Um. So. Hi.” She took a breath. “Martin, I-”

The breath whooshed out of her as he launched himself at her, capturing her in an embrace that was too tight and too desperate. Burying his face in her hair, he surrounded himself in her scent. She was here. She was back. He was never letting her go. Never again. Never-

“-let you go again. You will stay here. With me. Do you understand?” He pulled back.

Chin stuck out, her features cast with a mulish tilt, she raised a brow. “Never ever?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I would never use such a phrase.”

She cocked her head. “I distinctly heard you use-”

“Serena.” Taking a breath, he laid his soul on the line. “I love you.”

For a moment, she simply looked at him. Then, slowly, a smile lit her face. “I thought I was going to have to say it first.”

The most amazing feeling of joy spread through him. And finally, on a Tuesday morning in the middle of October, Martin kissed Serena.

Amongst other things.

©2009 Cassandra Dean

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