Today is going to be great.
Or at least not awful.
I will strive for not awful.
Quite the pep talk, Ash. Aim high.
Honestly though not awful would in fact be awesome. Lucas and I are spending the afternoon at his uncle’s annual July 4th barbecue. On paper it sounds like a delightful way to spend this gorgeous summer day but Lucas and his family have a pretty tumultuous relationship. I can count on one hand the number of interactions that haven’t ended in someone losing their temper and storming off.
But they’ve all agreed to try to move forward, letting go of past hurts.
I’d like to see him make peace with his family but I’m also ready to pull him out of there myself if any of them do anything to hurt him.
Lucas is not excited about this barbecue. He’s going under protest – mostly protesting with himself. And I understand it. His family has a lot of damage to undo. But I honestly think they are trying.
And they did help him save my life. So I feel a little obligated.
His cousin Riley did an aggressive recruitment push for weeks before he finally, grudgingly agreed to attend. She at least has convinced him she has no ulterior motives. I can tell he’s starting to like her. And I’ve noticed Lucas isn’t the only Vanished member that finds it hard to say no to her earnest persistence.
Entering Vanished, I spot Logan behind the counter, her blond tresses with electric blue streaks piled high in a haphazard bun. She lifts her chin in a silent greeting.
I smile, no longer unnerved by her aloof exterior. She likes me. Logan doesn’t like many people, but I have managed to win her trust.
Logan grimaces, not quite meeting my eyes. “He’s with a client.”
Immediately suspicious, I ask, “I thought he wasn’t on the schedule?”
Suddenly she’s very absorbed in the notebook in front of her. “He took a walk-in.”
“What? Logan!” She knows as well as I do that Lucas does not take walk-ins. He is booked solid for months out.
She shrugs helplessly, when I know she’s anything but. “What do you want from me? He’s the boss!”
“Call him on an obvious stalling technique?” I suggest. Logan is not intimated by any of the men she works with, not even The Boss, Lucas. She calls them on their shit without fear and I’ve been around long enough to see it happen on a regular basis.
“It’s just a consult. It shouldn’t be long.”
Sighing heavily, I pull out my phone to send him a text message.
I know what you are doing. And because I’m not unsympathetic to his nerves, I add a gif with a cartoon girl hugging a massive blue monster.
Get out here. Followed by the kissy face emoji.
Hopefully that will make him laugh. And move his ass.
I’m rewarded a few minutes later when I hear his voice saying good-bye to his consult. A man comes from the back and heads towards Logan at the front desk. I’m momentarily distracted by my cell buzzing, indicating a text message.
I think this earns me more than a few hugs and kisses.
I grin at his response and send one of my own. Not until you actually go through with it.
Slipping my cell into my back pocket, my attention wanders to Lucas’s newest client. The guy lucky enough to walk in at the right time and score a tattoo with one of the nation’s top artists. I hear him and Logan scheduling a time for him to come back and get his ink. Recognition filters through me. Even though I can only see his back it doesn’t take long for me to place him.
He turns, spots me in the lobby, and grins widely.
“Hey! Doctor Ash!”
He looks the same, shaggy honey blond hair, stunning greenish hazel eyes, blindingly white teeth. He’s even wearing the same beat up flip flops and cargo shorts, although they are more out of place here in the heart of Chicago than when I last saw him in the desert in northern Nigeria. His beard is more closely cropped along his jaw but that’s really the only change I see.
I return his enthusiastic hug, so confused at his appearance here I feel a little dizzy.
“What are you doing here? When did you get here? I haven’t seen you-” I ask when he sets me back on my feet.
“Since Katsina,” he offers, “I know. What, two years ago?”
“Almost three.” I laugh and shake my head. “This is so crazy.”
I turn, hearing Lucas approach behind me.
As usual the sight of him makes my stomach flip. He’s so gorgeous and the affection in his eyes when he looks at me still makes me melt even after all these months together. I am so in love with this man.
Even when he drags his feet and makes me late.
I give him a quick kiss and re-introduce him to his client. “Lucas, Zane and I knew each other when I was working abroad. He worked with an NGO that delivered supplies to the camp I was based in.”
“No way.” He smiles at Zane. “Small world.”
Zane seems surprisingly sober as he watches us. “Small world,” he repeats. “How long have you two been together? I didn’t realize you’d been back in the states that long.”
I feel Lucas stiffen beside me and I slip my hand into his. “A while now,” I answer vaguely. Zane’s reaction is confusing. We’d never been more than friendly, kind-of co-workers. Discovering I’m dating someone else years later shouldn’t have any kind of effect on him, let alone this serious questioning.
I’m wracking my brain, thinking through our past interactions.
“You’re from Chicago originally?” I ask softly even though I know the answer. Know it but still can’t quite believe it.
“I am.” Zane’s expression is grim.
Oh shit. Oh my god. He can’t be.
“Ash? Babe, you okay?”
Lucas’s voice snaps me out of my growing panic. I realize I’m squeezing his hand way too tightly. Loosening my grip, I meet his concerned eyes.
Oh god. What do I say? I glance between the two men uneasily.
Zane sounds resigned. My gaze finally settles on Zane and narrows.
Did he know?