Recently fired and residing with her sweetly overbearing mother, Madlyn needs a job—bad. In a moment of desperation, she accepts a part-time position reading at the bedside of adventurer and amateur writer Cody Lofton. A near-drowning accident left the young man in a vegetative state, and his chances of recovery wane with each passing day.
Cody’s older brother, Dustin, and eccentric grandmother aren’t prepared to give up on the youngest son of Portland, Oregon’s royalty.
Dustin’s a personable guy, bordering on naïve, and overwhelmed by familial corporate duties and cutthroat partners. Grandmother Lillian’s a meddler with an eye for the esoteric, dabbling in Dustin’s life, and dealing out wisdom like a card shark. One innocent conversation at a time, she sucks Madlyn into the Lofton story, dubbing her the princess and bestowing on her the responsibility of both grandsons’ destinies.
And all Madlyn wanted was a simple reading job.
Uninspired by her self-imposed stack of literary selections, Madlyn opts for Cody’s work-in-progress. Fantasy isn’t her favorite, but with only four chapters completed, reading The Sorcerer’s Garden should be no sweat, right?
Little does she realize, the story will begin writing itself and, by the hand of destiny, become her own.
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The Sorcerer’s Garden
The Fire Breather
An acrid, sulfurous stink clung to the air, burning Cody’s nostrils and watering his eyes. The soles of his boots hadn’t yet started to smoke, though he imagined his feet had progressed from rare to somewhere near well-baked. Despite a surge of dizziness from the heat and reek, and the sweat spilling from his pores, the approaching battle sent a wave of giddy excitement coursing through his veins.
Wraiths of swirling steam hissed from the cavernous rupture in the mountainside. Loose scree left footing precarious, and boulders tall as horses teetered, a feather’s breath from thundering into the broken remnants of forest below. All around him, obliterated evergreens smoldered, their gnarled roots in twisted charcoal splinters. Nearer the rift, intense heat had transformed patches of sand into murky, ash-flecked glass, singed the very clouds from the sky. Whatever once thrived on the Kaskadian peak lived no more. Even the wind fled the carnage.
A dribble of sweat tickled the side of his face, and he wiped it away with a sooty sleeve before glancing back at his older brother. Dustin followed twenty paces behind, red-faced and narrow-eyed. Tawny locks plastered his forehead and perspiration drenched his shirt. Hours earlier, a glowering frown had replaced the tall man’s customary expression of exasperation.
The leather flagon sloshed as Cody tipped it for a swallow. Thankfully, they had both abandoned their armor below in the glade where they tethered their horses, electing to carry the barest of necessities: water, swords, bows, and two thick coils of rope. Not only might they have cooked to death, but their skins of ringed mail and plates of boiled leather would surely have left this enemy unimpressed.
Cody paused to wait for his brother, one foot on a blackened stone that rocked beneath his heel. Seven years his senior, Dustin boasted an additional twenty pounds of muscle and three inches of height. Other than overall size and the man’s clean-shaven chin, their appearance left little doubt they were siblings, and this once Cody didn’t envy his brother’s brawn—simply more mass to lug uphill.
Behind Dustin, the mountain’s singular height and steep slopes provided an unimpeded view of the north-south ridge and its dormant volcanos. Below, lay the westward-sweeping river valley, verdant lowlands stretching to a boundless, pearl gray sea. The arid lands to the east with their forests of pine and juniper had fallen to ashen ruins, incinerated along with their cities. Now the south blazed, hundreds of leagues of lush cropland and orchards, prosperous centers of commerce gouting plumes of sooty smoke. Soon the north and seat of the kingdom would burn.
Unless he and Dustin killed the beast.
His unstrung bow clenched in a fist, Dustin hoofed it up the incline and accepted the flagon, the last of their tepid water. Whether his nose wrinkled in disgust at the smell in the air or grit in the drink, Cody could only guess.
“I believe we draw near.” He canted his head toward the narrow crease in the bare rock several paces uphill. “If I’m correct, that gap will widen in less than a quarter league, and we’ll stand at the rim of the creature’s lair.”
“You’re too eager for my taste.” Dustin plugged the near-empty flagon and tossed it back.
“How often do we earn a chance to battle such a creature?” Cody thumped his brother’s shoulder with a hearty show of enthusiasm. “To be heroes of the realm?”
“You volunteered us,” Dustin said flatly. “For the thrill alone, I might add.”
“And the grateful fawning of the fairer sex,” Cody reminded him with a quirked up grin.
“Secondary.” The bigger man eyed him as he drew his sword. “But I concede the point.”
Cody’s blade scraped from its sheath as well, the polished steel glinting gray in the smoky sunlight. Not as long or heavy as his brother’s weapon, it was well-wrought, unlikely to snap, sharp as a shrew’s tongue, and crafted for a single or double-handed grip. He tossed the leather hilt from hand to hand and slashed a quick arc, savoring the precise balance. Even with a crossbow harnessed to his back, his movements felt sure, the keen blade prepared for blood.
His sword resting on the opposite shoulder of the ropes, Dustin sighed. “Shall we see this done, Cody, or return at your leisure tomorrow?”
“Done,” Cody said. “I find the prospect of repeating our hike tomorrow altogether unappealing.” He sheathed his sword and started up the slope, his brother trudging on his heels.
As he suspected, the folded rock marked the beginning of the rift, a festering wound left from the previous week’s blast. On that moonless night, the mountain’s face split open with a deafening roar. Rock, ash, and dust shot skyward, cloaking midnight clouds in shades of blood and steel.
The higher they climbed, the wider and deeper the abyss yawned. Careful with his footing, Cody peered cautiously over the edge, attempting to catch sight of the fiery beast.
Gusts of hot air wafted from the gash with a searing stink. Vast, lightless depths growled like distant thunder or mountains crumbling. As if sensing their presence, tendrils of jet smoke spiraled up from the depths. Cody stepped back, retreating warily as gossamer creepers slithered over the chasm’s lip and snaked across the scorched stones. A serpent of murky darkness, the Soul-Thief coiled around his feet, scaled his legs, and slid beneath his skin. Subtle tongues of fear flicked at his courage, tentacles of desperation boring into his bones with a growing desire to flee. The dream-seeker had forewarned them both of the enemy’s stealth. With a flash of awareness, he gripped his brother’s forearm and the suffocating smoke vanished.
“Did you see that?” Cody shook off the barbed residue of fear. “The Soul-Thief.”
“Saw it and felt it.” Dustin peered over the edge.
With the toe of his boot, Cody kicked a fist-sized rock into the gap and listened as the rift echoed the stone’s endless, clattering descent. At the instant the sound faded, the rubble beneath his feet shook. Pebbled scree slid down the steeper slope not far behind his brother’s heels, and before Cody could shout a warning, a giant boulder roared toward them from above. Its deadly mass hurtled by, inches from their heads, pounding stones into flying chips as it bounced. Only seconds later, it smashed into the forest below, snapping mighty firs like finger-thin twigs.
Cody stood immobilized, eyes fixed on his brother who stared back, equally stunned. He raised his eyebrows at Dustin’s frown and shrugged at their near brush with annihilation. “That would have hurt,” he said, resuming his traipse up the mountainside.
The prospect of battling a far superior enemy hardly gave him a moment’s pause. Risk flavored life with a piquant spice, and taking reckless risks in pursuit of adventure was a pastime he indulged without compunction. Yet, they were his risks with none other than his life at stake.
That humankind had rent the world and unleashed a potent evil upon the land, there remained little doubt. They’d all seen the omens in the quivering earth, spoilt waterways, and failed crops. Yet, rather than heed the warnings and desist, those with power had bribed away their complicity beneath a mounting sea of gold. For that, the King’s Council shared the blame.
“This spot looks as good as any.” He paused to study a rare, flat stretch of ledge. A cluster of immense blocky boulders would provide weighty anchors for their ropes.
With a nod, Dustin peered again over the rift’s edge and then met Cody at the boulders where he dropped his burden of coiled ropes. He balanced his bow atop a large rock after testing its heat with his palm. “Tell me again how this plan of yours will work.”
“We secure one end of each rope to a bolt.” Cody shrugged off his crossbow and released two heavy bolts from the bindings along the stock. Each bolt bore an eyelet at one end and a fierce black barb at the other. He tossed one to his brother who snatched it from the air. “The other end of each rope we secure to a boulder with no more than a hundred paces of line.” He eyed a pile of rubble approximately that distance uphill of them.
Dustin tracked Cody’s gaze and raised an eyebrow. “Because we’ll position ourselves up there?”
“And the creature, once tethered to these boulders, won’t fry us because the ropes won’t extend that far?”
“That’s my plan.”
“One question.” Dustin pointed with the bolt. “If we anchor the ropes here, and they don’t reach there, how do you intend to shoot the creature from our intended cover?”
“I don’t.” Cody strode to a point approximately a third of the way to safety. “I’ll sink both bolts from here and then dash like a man caught canoodling his brother’s wife. You’ll prick it full of quarrels while I make my escape, and then we’ll both finish it off with our swords.”
“Just like that?” Dustin raked a hand through his hair.
“Naturally, with a degree of adjustment for the beast’s level of unhappiness.”
“How fast can you reload that bow?”
The crossbow at Cody’s knee was a hulk, bigger and heavier than the one he commonly carried, and it would do the trick. “With a rope pull, less than fifteen seconds,” he replied with a grin. “You might need to serve as a brief distraction.”
“For approximately fifteen seconds?” Dustin assumed with some accuracy.
“What about the fire?”
“We should be safe behind the rubble.” Cody scratched his scruffy jaw, inclined to admit a small oversight. “Perhaps we build it up a bit between the boulders so there are fewer gaps.”
“And if the beast burns the rope?”
“Well, that would make this adventure a measure more interesting, wouldn’t it?” He shrugged, his brother’s focus on minute details no longer holding his attention. He squatted down to begin freeing the ropes of their coils. “We’ll merely have to make quick work of it.”
“Tell me again what Lillian said?” Dustin scowled as he continued to study the meager pile of rubble meant to protect them from a fire-spewing dragon.
“That we’re unlikely to suffer fatal injuries.” Cody shook out the rope and pushed one end through an eyelet. King Dedrick’s dream-seeker was also their grandmother, a complicated relationship generating both privilege and problems. Her foresight offered no guarantees, though in his mind, at least it bent toward the hopeful side. He glanced up, meeting his brother’s hazel eyes. Dustin hadn’t budged an inch, his arms crossed, lips pressed into a thin line. He appeared on the verge of marching down the mountainside.
Rarely inclined toward gravity, Cody sighed and straightened to face his brother, the truth requiring a voice. “It’s not a well-drawn plan, Dustin, I’ll admit. Not even a decent sketch, but she said we alone must see it done, the two of us, protected by our brothers’ bond. Whatever is happening in the kingdom extends beyond this flying creature we’re tasked with slaying.”
Fists bolted to his hips, Cody waited for his brother’s concession, one he anticipated without question. Dustin was a slave to duty, compelled to make honorable choices at any cost. They couldn’t ignore the pall of evil threatening the land, not only the dragon’s fires and the rumblings that dislodged tiles from roofs and mortar from walls. It encompassed more than the smoky, sulfurous air they breathed. A heady maliciousness had every nobleman, townsman, and villager at each other’s throats. The Soul-Thief had broken loose.
“I suppose we have little choice.” Dustin dropped to a squat to start his preparations.
“On the contrary, it’s entirely up to us,” Cody corrected him. “We could hike down now without a look back.”
“But we won’t,” Dustin conceded.
“Of course not.” Cody grinned. “Where would be the thrill in that?”
While Dustin heaved stones and fortified their barricade on the higher ground, Cody finished threading the ropes through the bolt’s eyelets and securing them with simple figure eights. He then wound the free end of each coil around the base of a mammoth boulder, wedging it tight. When the creature pulled, as no doubt it would, his slipknots would guarantee a solid grip. The rope might snap like a foul-tempered wench, but his handiwork would hold.
When they finished their preparations, the sun edged closer to the horizon, a golden disk in the bloody haze of smoke that strangled the air. The creature would return to its haunt with the dusk, and perch over a night-world webbed with vermillion flame. Cody sat just outside the hastily constructed wall. His brother reclined at his side, long legs stretched out before him. They finished the last swallow of water and watched the sun waver and blink out.
Cody hefted the loaded crossbow. “I’m getting into position,” he announced. “So should you.”
“I’m in position.” Dustin crossed his ankles.
“I’ll need you to cover me,” Cody reminded his brother, the time for jesting now past.
“I expect this will prove thrilling,” Dustin said without expression, his arms folded over his chest.
“Well…all right then. I’m off.” Cody walked down to a spot nearer the giant boulders that anchored the ropes. He scanned the horizon, purposefully ignoring his brother, the irksome lunkhead.
“It’s been a pleasure having you as a brother,” Dustin called as he leaned back against the heated wall.
“Likewise,” Cody said in return. He scraped a fleck of grit from the corner of his eye with a fingernail and gave the rope a shake to ensure it lay free. “I suppose your arrow tips are planted in the sand?” he asked casually.
“Feathers up, ready to be plucked.”
A sigh of relief slowly escaped Cody’s chest, his brother attempt to addle him disturbingly effective. The man usually lacked the slighted scrap of humor. It had to be the fumes. “And I assume your bow is strung?”
“Last I checked,” Dustin informed him.
“Good thing, Brother, because here it comes.” He heard the vexed curse as the man scrambled to his feet at their crude wall. Cody didn’t turn to observe, trusting that Dustin knew his part. He kept his eyes on the dragon soaring toward them, still a black smudge silhouetted against the crimson clouds. Even at this distance, he could judge its size—massive beyond comprehension. “She said we’d survive,” he called to his brother, though more as a reminder to himself.
“Most likely,” Dustin clarified.
Glistening ebony wings extended for a glide. Long spindly finger-bones tipped with curved hooks fanned open, veined membranes stretching between hollow phalanges. As it neared, Cody watched its shape take form: scalloped webbing, serpentine neck and horn-bristled head, taloned claws curled inward for flight. The long, spiny tail flicked like an angry cat’s.
“Flaming foul.” Cody rotated on a heel as it sailed over the blackened landscape, higher on the peak, spewing an inferno of fire. He spared a quick glance at his brother’s stunned face, raised the crossbow to his shoulder, and clenched his teeth. Beyond the steaming ridge, the dragon arced. Its spiked head swayed with the rhythm of its wings as it scanned the mountain’s crust. Cody cringed as streams of pearly vapor issued from the flared nostrils on its narrow snout. Bursts of flame erupted from its throat.
The dragon’s fiery eyes snapped to Cody when the creature spied him there in the open, standing like petrified prey. Cody watched the wings adapt, webbed fingers retract. The soaring flight tilted into a dive, increasing in speed. His crossbow rose a fraction as his finger caressed the trigger. Jaws gaping, the dragon craned its neck. Scaled forelegs extended, talons splayed. The massive chest began to swell with air.
Fighting his panic, Cody steadied his breath and pulled the trigger. He dove toward the nearest boulders, landing hard and smashing his fingers under the bow. A monstrous roar thundered behind him with a flash of intense heat. He scrambled forward on his belly, a grip on his weapon, his trousers on fire. With a yelp, he flung himself behind a blocky slab and madly swatted at the flames. The largest boulder shook as the rope lurched. The bolt had found its mark. He, however, hid among the wrong group of rocks.
A bat-webbed wing scraped over the boulders, hooks gouging the rough stone. A vast wave of fire engulfed the air. Cody curled into a ball behind the huge slab, buried his head in his arms, and held his breath, his body over the bow. When the inferno’s roar receded, he raised his head, caught a whiff of sizzled hair, and heard Dustin bellowing at the dragon, attempting to draw it away.
Every inch of his skin screamed as he scrambled to his feet, yanked the rope pull, and loaded his last bolt. With a laugh at the absurdity of his situation, he staggered out from between the boulders, slightly rear of the beast’s flank. No need to aim, he raised the bow and pulled the trigger. The bolt flew, dragging the second rope. Cody’s ankle tangled in the twisting coil. It flipped him from his feet to his back, his breath punched from his lungs.
The bolt’s barbed point nicked the dragon’s rear leg, skidded beneath the scale, and plunged into the tender belly up to its steel fletching. The beast roared, flung its horned head, and streamed fire toward the boulders where Cody would have stood if not for the tangled rope. His crossbow, pitched to the ground when he fell, flashed into blackened char.
Still on his back, Cody twisted and grabbed a rope. Gasping for lost breath, he pulled himself hand over hand until he lay directly beneath the dragon. The colossal beast towered over him on legs like tree trunks with hooked talons capable of cleaving his body in two. The head snaked on its long neck, fire blasting the rock wall where his brother hid. Dustin yelled for him and loosed arrows between fiery bellows.
Above Cody, the thick scale gleamed like polished armor, not wholly black but the swirling colors of oil on still water. If the bolt hadn’t slipped beneath the scale plates from the rear, he doubted it would have penetrated at all. The dragon strained against the ropes. Talons scraped into the mountainside, inches from Cody’s head. Monstrous wings flailed and slammed into the rock, hooks scratching and raising hot dust. The immense body heaved toward Dustin’s barricade, then stepped back to roar and lunge and spew another fountain of flame.
Pelted by shards of stone and choking on dust, Cody held onto the rope, aware that eventually the lines would snap or the dragon would burn its way to freedom. With time running out, he twisted his arm in the rope at the dragon’s belly. His sword unsheathed, he stabbed between the scales, withdrew the bloodied blade, and thrust again.
The dragon reared on its hind legs. Scorched ropes lurched upward with the body, dragging Cody off the ground and slamming him to the stone as the beast dropped to all fours and spun. The rope loosened and as quickly jerked taut. His wrist twisted, a layer of skin scraped from his forearm. With a desperate grunt, he yanked his sword free of the scales and stabbed again. The beast’s neck curved as molten eyes sought the man wielding the sword at its belly. Jaws of razor teeth snapped at the rope rigid at its flank.
Blood gouted from the wounds, hot and slippery, as the dragon wrenched against the ropes. Cody drove his sword between the scales, jerked it free, and stabbed again. He held on as the dragon reared, spitting fire at the darkening sky. Then his hand lost its grip and slid. The moment his feet touched down, he caught a glimpse of Dustin outside the barricade. Wide-eyed and shouting, his brother waved his heavy sword in warning.
Cody glanced up precisely as the massive dragon crashed down to its forelegs, its scaled belly hammering him to the ground. The monster thrashed its tail while taloned feet raked at the dirt in an attempt to scrape him out. A curved claw caught his thigh and ripped a gouge to his knee. He gasped as stunning pain flared through his veins and burst in his head.
Out of options, his bones rattling with fatigue, he scrambled to his knees. He raised his sword double-handed behind his head and swung forward in a powerful, overhead arc that eviscerated the dragon. Blood and entrails poured out, burying him in a hot, wet, reeking slop. “Eyaah. Uuth. Yek.” Cody retched his own stomach contents to the slimy ooze.
Winded and heaving, he half-slid half-crawled out of the creature’s intestines. The dragon snorted plumes of smoke and keened an eerie howl as it swayed over him. Its quarry forgotten, the beast lurched toward the rift. Taut ropes strained. Boulders dragged. Barbs caught inside the dragon’s body tore at its flesh, releasing another river of blood.
His nose and mouth buried in his sleeve, Cody staggered to his feet and shuffled to one of the ropes. In an act of mercy he barely understood, he swung his blade, swiftly slicing the twisted strands. Dustin shouted a curse and stumbled toward him as Cody’s sword bit into the second rope, not quite severing it. The dragon reared over him with a thunderous cry. Cody raised his blade over the fraying rope and sank to his knees as it snapped with a soft pop. The dragon blasted into a haze of soot and smoke that collapsed, congealed, and swirled into the rift like water down a drain. Towers of flame erupted skyward as Cody fell.
“Jess called—apologies for running late and they’re on their way.”
At the sound of his brother’s voice, Cody glanced up from the marked pages and smirked. “Probably stopped for a beer.”
“It’s barely nine in the morning.” Dustin’s forehead creased in obvious disapproval.
“It’s Saturday,” Cody reminded him. “Not everyone’s hoofing it to the office.” He slipped into his flip-flops and tossed the manuscript to his bookcase. The clipped stack slid on a magazine and came to rest, drooping precariously from the shelf.
Dustin leaned on the doorjamb, dressed for corporate success in a pick-stitched, steel-gray suit, pleated trousers, starched shirt, and silk tie the color of a fine Beaujolais. “How’s the book coming?”
With a quirked up smile, Cody shoved the document in question farther onto the shelf. “Chapter one’s pretty much done. Another three in varying stages of distress.” He tugged a “Climber’s do it High” T-shirt over his checkered golf shorts, and a striped short-sleeve oxford over that. “You’re in it, you know. We all are.”
“That’s a frightening thought.” Dustin grimaced at the mismatched ensemble. “Names changed to protect the mortified?”
“Not yet,” Cody bobbed his eyebrows. “I’ll wait until it’s finished, let you all read it, and then edit them out. In the meantime, I like writing about us.”
Dustin’s expression appeared wedged somewhere between curious and suspicious. “What character do I play?”
“My overly serious older brother.” Cody shoved a Timbers cap over his sand-brown hair and scratched the week-old stubble on his jaw. “I drag you along on my heroic adventures. While I take terrible risks, you, ever loyal and reluctant, cover my back.”
“Sounds vaguely familiar. I thought you were writing fantasy.”
“You’re skilled with a recurve bow and carry a five-foot long sword,” Cody added. “We’ve just slain a dragon.”
“Well, fantasy it is.” Dustin let slip a smile and then changed the subject. “Kayaking today?”
“Hood River. West Fork’s running high and wild.”
“Naturally. Or where’s the thrill?” Cody expected the customary words of caution and beat Dustin to them. “I’ve packed my wetsuit, life vest, and helmet. I brushed my teeth and I’m wearing clean whities. And I’m not going alone; I’ve got Jess and Sam along to keep me safe.”
“Jess and Sam think they’re immortal,” Dustin warned. “So do you.”
“It’s all in the head, bro.” He tapped his forehead. Outside his open window, he heard the crush of gravel, then Jess’s truck honking and Sam shouting at the windows as if everyone inside was deaf. Cody clamped his hands on his brother’s shoulders and met his eyes. “I’m not immortal, Dust, so I’m not planning to waste a minute of my time sitting in an office, arguing with assholes. I got all the time in the world to grow up.” He stepped back with a smile and jerked his head toward the window. “Up for a little adventure? You could come with us.”
Dustin hesitated, and for a second, Cody thought he just might. Instead, his brother sighed and shook his head. “No, have fun. Another day, I promise. Today I argue with assholes.”
– 2 –
“Fired. What do you mean, fired?”
“I mean terminated, sacked, canned, unemployed.” If Madlyn could think of another colorful word for it, she’d whisper that into the phone as well. “Unsatisfactory performance.”
“But that’s ridiculous. You’re just a scapegoat, Mady. They’re a bunch of assholes.” Trudi fumed on the other end of the airwaves with enough outrage for them both.
“Apparently they don’t see eye to eye with you.” She nestled a straggly spider-plant into an emptied copy-paper box, squishing a package of organic tea bags. The box had also collected nail clippers, a “Coffee Addict” mug, loose tampons, and a framed picture of Crash, her orange cat. The security guard hovering in the aisle cleared his throat, and she groaned into the phone. “Listen, I need to get out of here. I’ll call you later.”
The conversation over, she dropped the headset on her desk and took a last scan of the cluttered surface. Good luck to the next chump charged with sorting through this disaster. She fingered stacks of quality failures and fruitless attempts at process improvement: accountability initiatives that went nowhere, recommendations summarily ignored, a procedures manual drafted in dreamland.
“You ready, Mady?” The security guard rested his forearms on the top of her bland cubicle wall, his expression both sympathetic and impatient. “Sorry to rush you. Beth needs me to pick the kids up from daycare.”
“Oh, sorry, Len.” Once the clock ticked five, the customer service wing of Global Recapture turned into a veritable graveyard. At least they hadn’t forced her to pack her desk with twenty solemn-faced reps gaping at her and mouthing platitudes. “I’m ready.”
Cardboard box of corporate accumulations under one arm, Madlyn marched stoically to The Heap, her rusted mode of transportation with its front fender held securely in place with silver duct tape. She stowed her box on the back seat with her yoga mat, slid behind the wheel, released a gust of pent-up breath, and allowed herself a brief, self-indulgent cry. It wasn’t losing her job, the career choice of consummate masochists, that hurt; it was the rejection. Even by a bunch of assholes.
Done sniveling, she wiped her nose on an old napkin retrieved from the passenger-seat floor and peeked in the rearview mirror. A pair of red-rimmed chocolate eyes looked back at her, only mildly raccoonish with smudged mascara. Her ebony hair, razor cut at the jawline, stayed tucked behind an ear on one side and fell across her teary eye on the other. Despite its short length, she scraped it into something resembling a hacked-off ponytail, and with a deep breath, she rolled down the window and buckled up. When the car started, she patted the dash, acknowledging the miracle. Praise the Japanese.
A jet roared over Global Recapture’s headquarters, the glass building out by the airport in northeast Portland. Madlyn followed the traffic to the highway for the thirteen-mile ride home that she prayed wouldn’t take more than an hour. The parade of crawling cars eventually rolled to a stop. She groaned, popped the shift into park on the bridge over the Willamette, and wished she’d hit the ladies’ room before braving the roadways.
When her phone chirped, she answered. Illegal, yes, but no one could claim she was actually driving. “Hi, Ashton.”
“Hey, where are you?”
“Traffic. Plus, I was fired.”
Ashton’s responded with dead silence.
“Are you there?” she asked.
“Yeh. I guess we have a couple things to talk about.”
“Are you all right?” Madlyn frowned at the phone before returning it to her ear.
“Pick up a few cans for Crash, will you?”
“Is everything okay?”
“We’ll talk when you get here.” He clicked off.
“Well, that sucked.” She tossed the phone to the passenger seat, wondering why she worried about him when he should be consoling her.
Eventually the car crept off the ramp onto the side streets of the West Hills, north of downtown. Madlyn pulled into the local Trader Joe’s. She snagged three cans of organic, flaked-chicken cat-morsels, and then wandered the aisles, seeking comfort food: nut mix, a ripe mango, a wedge of brie and fresh loaf of crusty bread, one red onion, and a jar of huckleberry-jalapeno jam. Yum.
After forking over the last of her cash, she hoisted the bag to her hip and stepped outside, accidentally locking eyes with a homeless graybeard who staked out the store’s sidewalk with his scruffy dog. She usually tried to avoid the eyes, barbed hooks that reeled her in like a big, gullible fish. Skinny as a toothpick, his scarecrow hair sticking out at the sides like burned straw, he didn’t look healthy. The odds that he’d bathed or changed his clothes since last fall landed somewhere between zero and zilch. He blinked at her with sharp, blue eyes hinting at brainwaves a little outside his control. His sign read, “Will work for food.”
An elderly woman in an elegant, butter-yellow suit stood slightly nearer the parking lot, leaning on a handsome walnut cane that seemed overly masculine when compared to her silk attire. She wore her silver hair trimmed at her shoulders and topped with a matching yellow hat. Madlyn glanced at the woman who intently watched the awkward scene unfold, as if interested to see what she might do. The witness made the vignette eerily like a test, a set-up where a camera crew would suddenly pop from behind the parked cars to question her morality.
Madlyn’s gaze sank down to her grocery bag, the ripe mango and wedge of brie on top, a whole assortment of delectable supplies beneath. With a sigh, she plucked out the three cans of Crash-food and handed the bag to the man. “I guess your day wasn’t any better than mine.” If nothing else, she figured she’d passed the test.
The drive up NW Flanders was no more than a few blocks. Madlyn scored the princess parking spot in front of the renovated Victorian and climbed the back stairs to the third floor apartment with her cardboard box and Crash-food cans. When she opened the door, an overweight fur-ball leapt off the table and skidded into his water dish. She slid the box onto the kitchen counter, served up a can of morsels, and went in search of Ashton, following the light tapping of keystrokes.
The inefficient but cute kitchen opened into an efficient but cute living room with built-in bookshelves, a sunny window seat, and homemade curtains. To the right lay their bedroom, an oasis of soft greens and blues that gave her the impression of sleeping underwater. The door to the spare bedroom, Ashton’s office, stood open, he at his desk in headphones, writing, unaware she’d arrived.
Bartender by day, undiscovered author of historical fiction by night, she’d fallen for his artistic aura, his confident smile, and a pair of baby-blue eyes that made her palms sweat. Three years ago, she’d moved in, and not six months later, on her dare, he’d written his first romance—from a man’s perspective—loaded with insatiable desire and ravenous, unquenchable, lusty lovemaking. The venture was supposed to be a joke, but Ashton Verde became an overnight sensation—sought after, swooned over, interviewed, and signed up with a hefty advance. A natural salesman, he flirted, teased, worked out, and played the stud role like an Oscar-nominee. He’d quit his bartending job and churned out the manna.
Standing in the doorway behind him, Madlyn watched as he paused in his typing, broad shoulders bent forward to rest his forehead on his palms. She knocked on the doorjamb and smiled as he turned and unplugged the headphones from his ears.
“Hey. I didn’t hear you come in. Shitty day, huh?”
“Five out of ten on the shitty-day scale,” she replied.
“I splurged on Thai takeout. You hungry?”
“I’ll heat it up.” Ashton rose to his feet and smiled. A tall man with a carved chest, scratchy jaw, and unruly hairstyle, he could have modelled for his own half-naked book cover. She expected a hug as he met her at the doorway, hoping to tuck her head under his chin and sigh with the knowledge that all would be well, but he simply slipped by. Her heart dropped to the soles of her feet like an anvil. Something was definitely wrong.
“Kicked you out. What do you mean, he kicked you out?”
“I mean he asked me to move out,” Madlyn sniffled into the phone. “Unsatisfactory performance.”
“What?” Trudi sounded stunned.
“I was joking.” Madlyn sighed. “He’s feeling stifled and wants to be free to explore his new identity.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“He was nice about it. Said it isn’t about me.”
“Of course it isn’t about you. How old is this guy, twenty-nine going on sixteen? Where is he now?”
“He left for the weekend, so I can move out without him…hovering.”
“So he doesn’t feel guilty,” Trudi muttered.
“Don’t force me to defend him. He was honest. He didn’t run around behind my back. He’s not standing guard making sure I don’t steal his silverware. I don’t want to live with anyone who doesn’t want to live with me.” Madlyn held the phone to her ear as she wandered aimlessly around the apartment, taking stock of her stuff. One vanload at the most.
The pause on Trudi’s end lasted only a breath. “What a shitty day,” she commiserated.
“Nine on the shitty-day scale.” Madlyn used her sleeve to brush away another round of tears.
“Where will you move?”
“My mom’s.” Madlyn winced.
“Your mother’s? You’ve got to be kidding me.” The ultimate feminist, Trudi epitomized female fearlessness in a chauvinistic world. Despite her abundant good looks, she used her substantial gray-matter to outshine the duller competition. She was also gay, and therefore unencumbered by any desire to impress the opposite sex or indulge the masculine need to strut.
“Well, I’m not kidding, I’m…unemployed. It’s only until I find a job.”
“Don’t get me wrong, Mady, your mother is sweet. But she’s a wrecking ball to the feminist ego. She’s the exact opposite of girl-power; she’ll suck every independent bone in your body dry.”
“She’s my mother and it’s only for a few weeks. Hopefully.”
“You can live on our sofa. Sonja won’t mind.”
“My mom has a spare room. Besides, Sonja’s allergic to cats.”
“Oh.” Trudi sighed. “I forgot about Crash. Mady, you are so doomed.”
“Thanks for the encouragement.”
“Listen to me. This is our plan.” The ever-present financial manager in Trudi had apparently popped into gear. “Get moved; then call me. Or I’ll call you. We’ll go out for drinks with Candice and brainstorm. Everything on the table, no judgment. We hone it down to the three top options and hit it hard. We need to find you a job and an apartment before it’s too late. In fact we should go out now.”
“Sunday after I’ve moved is better.” Madlyn smiled into the phone.
“Fine, Sunday. I’ll call Candice. We’ll pick you up at five. No, four. Hang in there.”
“Trudi, she’s my mother. I can handle it. Trust me.”