I hung up the phone and stared at my closed bedroom door. Benjamin Kakoa just called me. And asked me to come to his house tomorrow to take a selfie with him to send to his parents. How was this my life?
I double checked my phone, confirming that yes, I did just get an incoming call from an unknown number, and no, I didn’t hallucinate the whole thing. I also didn’t ask the very obvious “WTF, Ben?” question that immediately sprang to my lips.
But seriously, what the fuck? It was such a random thing to ask someone you just met. The fact that he’d offered no explanation was also weird. Like, this almost felt like a test weird. Or maybe he didn’t explain himself because we just met and he didn’t trust me with any more information than he absolutely had to give me. Which was fair. But what if he was doing that and also testing me to see if I pried, or posted something cryptic about it on Facebook?
Argh! I was going to sleep like crap again. I just knew it.
A snuffling sound came from underneath my door, followed by the beginning of a whine. The dogs. I’d been up here for too long. I was being a bad hostess.
I pulled up Ben’s number to save it, but hesitated over the contact name. Stan had come blurting out of my mouth when he called because it was the most bland, unassuming male name I could think of on the spot. No offense to all the Stans out there. I don’t blame you. I blame your parents.
I decided to stick with that name and saved the contact as “Stan”. I was paranoid enough that now that I’d called him that once, it would be safer to always call him that. And also on the off chance that Megan, who had never once in her life showed even the least interest in spying on me, chose this visit to try and hack into my phone.
I rolled my eyes at myself and went to the door. The dogs were right outside, waiting to greet me like we hadn’t seen each other for a week. I gave them both reassuring pats before making my way downstairs.
Megan and Stacey stretched out next to each other on the chaise lounge. Stacey was of Norweigan descent, and her feet extend a whole foot farther than my sister’s. Megan’s head rested on her shoulder, her long raven locks contrasting with her wife’s blonde pixie cut. They turned when they heard the floorboards creak under me.
I paused just behind the couch, feeling awkward about having to lie. “That was my friend, Stan.”
Megan gave me a look like, “No shit, Sherlock.”
I guess I did kind of scream that name a few times after picking up.
“He’s going through a rough patch right now,” I told them. “If it’s okay with you guys, I’m going to swing by his place tomorrow morning to check in on him. I still want to go cross country skiing with you, though.”
Phew, lying was easier than I thought it would be. Ella Jones: artist, entrepreneur, stone cold deceiver.
Stacey smiled. “That’s fine. We can go after you get back. Maybe the snow will have started by then.” She looked at Megan, her smile widening, a sparkle in her eye. “Won’t that be nice? Like skiing through a winter wonderland.”
I’m not sure what she expected in response, maybe for Megan to confirm that yes, that did sound romantic AF, or something similarly gushy, but my sister, still grumpy from their long drive, made a decidedly unromantic harrumphing sound instead. “As long as we don’t get stuck out in the woods because of it and have to eat the first person to freeze to death just to stay alive,” she said. “Or get run down by wolves. Or trampled by a moose with a brain worm.”
I stared at my sister. “Jesus, Megan. Want to throw in death by mountain lion mauling?”
Stacey put her hands over Megan’s ears and stage whispered, “She’s just tired.”
Megan batted her away.
I laughed and rounded the couch to join them. They’d been here just long enough to drop their stuff in the spare room, listen to Mom complain about Charlie, and then collapse on the chaise in exhaustion before Ben – er, I mean Stan, STAN – called.
“How was traffic?” I asked.
Megan scrunched her nose. “Terrible.”
“It really was,” Stacey said. “We took Route One out of the city, which was a parking lot right up to I-95. We thought it would clear up after the merge, like usual.”
“Not so much, this time?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Not so much. It’s a good thing we left earlier than planned, or we’d still be on the road.”
Sam jumped up near their feet, sniffed their socks, and then, with all the drama of the breed, nudged their legs apart with his snout and then whined when they didn’t move fast enough for his liking.
“Uh, I think he’d like to lay down with you,” I said.
Megan made an exasperated sound. “My God. You two are so spoiled.” But she quickly wiggled over, and when he flopped down in the space she cleared, she immediately started to pet him, just behind his ears, exactly where he liked it best.
I narrowed my eyes at her. “Right. So, you didn’t do the thing you did last year when you got them both more presents than anyone else in the family?”
I was met with silence. Stacey – from what I could see of her profile – stared at the TV like the weatherman was suddenly the most interesting man in the world. I couldn’t even see Megan’s face. She’d conveniently turned to lean her head on her wife’s shoulder again. Like she was hiding.
I put my hands on my hips. “And you definitely didn’t let them unwrap one of those presents early. Like when I was on the phone a minute ago?”
Right on cue, Fred padded around the couch with a brand-new toy in his mouth. He stopped in front of me and started chewing on it. It squeaked with every bite, each sound an exclamation point pronouncing the obvious.
“We can’t have dogs in our apartment,” Megan said, snuggling closer to Stacey.
“And so you spoil mine. I get it. But how about from now on you don’t complain about something you’re actively contributing to, grouchy pants.”
Her response was muffled and filled with attitude. “I’m not the grouchy pants. You’re the grouchy pants.”
Stacey met my eyes over her head. “She’s really tired.”
“Do you mind watching the dogs while I’m out?” I asked Megan the next morning. We were all a little sleepy after an epic night of card playing and catching up.
“Yes,” Megan answered, catching me off guard.
“Wait, what? Seriously?”
I looked to Stacey across the kitchen island. She shrugged and went back to sipping her second cup of coffee, opting, like always, to stay out of our sisterly drama. Wise woman.
“Yes, seriously,” Megan said. “I love them, but they’re a pain in the ass when you’re gone. Every time they hear a noise outside, they freak out in excitement thinking it’s you, race to the nearest window, and then if it’s not actually you, they whine like someone threw all of their toys away and then mope around the house until the next noise comes along. It’s depressing as hell.”
Fred must have heard the word “toy”, because he pranced into the kitchen with his new squeaky, munching on it while looking up at me like it was play time. Sam joined him, yip-growling around their tug-of-war rope.
“Also, I just need like five fucking seconds of quiet,” Megan added.
I reached down and gently pulled the squeaking ball out of Fred’s mouth. That settled that. Megan always got a little testy when she had too much excitement, and if she was already dropping f-bombs, I needed to hightail it out of there with the boys. Especially since we’d all be together romping through the woods later. The last thing I wanted was for her to be overwhelmed on her first day here. It might ruin the rest of their trip. Once Megan got into serious anti-social mode, it was hard to get her out of it.
“Okay. I’ll take them with me,” I told her.
She exhaled heavily. “Thanks.”
Yes, thanks, Stacey mouthed from over Megan’s shoulder.
I nodded at her.
“We’ll be back in a few hours then,” I said, heading toward the front door.
I didn’t expect it to take nearly that long at Ben’s, but I could head over to Jack’s afterward to give Megan more time if I had to.
I bundled up against the cold – it was only 10 degrees outside, puke – and then opened the door to let the dogs out ahead of me so they could pee before we got in the truck. It took a while for the engine to heat up in weather like this, and after I had the boys buckled in the back, I decided to text Ben.
Hey, it’s Ella. I have the dogs with me. I can drop them at Jack’s before I head over, if you like.
A few minutes passed before he responded. No, that’s fine. I figured you’d bring them. I’ve already dog-proofed the house.
LOL, that’s adorable. They’ll find something to get into no matter what you do. Sorry in advance.
I hit send too quickly, then wanted to punch myself in the kidney. Adorable? Really, Ella? Hopefully he didn’t think that I really thought he was adorable. Hopefully he knew it was just an expression. That I used with people I knew. When I was being sarcastic and wanted to tease them a little about their naivete. Because, you know, he and I went way back, so of course he knew that’s what I meant and not that I called him adorable in seriousness or something.
Oh, God. Why hadn’t he responded yet?
After what felt like a small eternity, my phone dinged. Ha! I’ll make sure to close off the rooms with fresh paint on the walls. And put away the fancy china.
He gave me a “Ha!”. That meant he knew it was a joke, right?
I held my fingers over the screen as I struggled to come up with a response. Neurotic wasn’t a word I would have used to describe myself, but after only a few interactions with this man, I was turning into a hot mess. And not in a good way.
I took a calming breath and typed, Ok, we’re leaving now. See you in a few.
Straight to the point. No way it could be misinterpreted. Good. I’d stick to texts like this in the future. Because otherwise, neurosis.
I spent the drive to his house trying to figure out how to behave in front of him. “Act like yourself” didn’t apply here, since the whole pathological need to be liked thing would be detrimental to the leave-him-the-hell-alone approach I’d decided to take.
The trouble was, I had no idea how to not act like myself and still seem natural. I didn’t want him to think I was a weirdo if I came across as stiff and quiet when I had been anything but during our first meeting. Not because I worried that it would make him dislike me, but because I didn’t want my sudden personality transplant to make him think that I was acting suspicious. Like, in a “My name is Ella Jones, and I’m going to post every word you say to me on the interwebs afterward” kind of way.
Maybe I could just be myself, but…less?
“Ugh, what does that even mean?” I asked the dogs.
Sam, who had been staring out the window, craned his head around and gave me a look like, “I’m sorry, hooman, I cannot help you.” Or at least that’s how I interpreted it.
I was on my own then.
In the end, I decided to be more cautious than normal. To stick with self-deprecation and avoid teasing. I didn’t want him to think that I was flirting with him. Or trying to ingratiate myself with him. I suddenly felt for anyone with social anxiety. Inspecting every interaction like this must be so frustrating, which must only compound the anxious feelings.
I took the back way around the hill again, out of an abundance of caution. The dogs perked up when we neared Jack’s driveway, recognizing their surroundings. I rolled past his property, and their excited yips turned into whines. The look Fred gave me in the rearview mirror was borderline accusatory. Their complaining immediately cut off when I pulled into Ben’s driveway, because, ooh, new place!
I drove slowly, taking in the building’s façade. It was a huge, square, federal-style farmhouse, with a wraparound porch on the first floor. The last time I’d driven by, most likely before Ben moved in, it had been yellow, but now it was a crisp, bright white with black shutters to add some contrast. The window frames were also black, and the elaborate corbels that had once connected the columns of the porch and the peaks of the roofline had been replaced with clean, straight pieces of darkly stained wood that matched the decking, giving the place a more modern finish. I really liked it.
It was funny how just a few coats of paint and some small upgrades could change the whole feel of a place. Before, it had looked dilapidated, run down. Now it looked lived in. Not merely a house, but a home. A very large home that rambled back from its original square frame, telling the story of its past through the various additions over the years that had been added to accommodate for a growing family. And farm, judging by the massive red barn attached at the rear of the house. It too looked like a brand-new building, with a fresh coat of paint and a new roof and windows.
Ben had put in some serious work.
The front door opened as I eased the truck to a stop. I looked away, preparing myself for the reality of seeing him again. It was one thing to tell yourself to treat someone like a normal human when they looked like the offspring of a Polynesian god. It was another thing entirely to stick to that when faced with them.
I glanced back to see him loping down the steps. He wore boots, faded jeans, and a thick, long-sleeved green flannel shirt. The wind picked up, flattening his clothes to his body, outlining his impressive chest, giving me a great view of his flexing leg muscles. It was like the male equivalent of the infamous Marilyn Monroe white dress scene from The Seven Year Itch. To make matters worse, his hair was loose, falling just past his shoulders in a glorious, wavy mass that was lighter at the tips than the roots. It fanned out around him like he was in a music video.
A gray, overcast sky spread above us, the clouds hanging low, the smell of snow in the air, and yet, somehow, it was like the summer sun has broken through and was shining a spotlight down on Ben. That golden skin, that salt-bleached hair, that mega-watt smile.
“Oof.” It felt like I’d been punched in the stomach.
Stop it, I told myself. Think of all that he’s been through. Think of why he’s probably here. Not to be ogled by you.
I took a deep breath, turned off the truck, opened my door, and climbed out. “Hi, Ben.”
“Hi. Thanks again for this,” he said, coming over to the driver’s side.
He towered over me, one of the few men I’d ever met to make me feel small in comparison. I looked up to see that the green of his shirt brought out the green in his eyes.
Great. Just wonderful.
“You’re welcome,” I said, looking away. “You might want to stand back for a second while I let the dogs out. This is a new place, so they might be a little…enthusiastic.”
He looked over my shoulder and gave the boys a wave through the window, grinning even wider than before. “Hi, mongrels.”
They squirmed in excited response, straining at their harnesses while I reached in and fumbled to undo them.
“Well, I see now that you’re going to be a terrible influence,” I said.
“Sorry, I really like dogs.”
He didn’t sound even remotely sorry, and when I looked over my shoulder at him, he was making a “come here, boys” gesture that did nothing to help me in my task.
I shook my head at him and turned my focus back to the harnesses. Dog people. We were all the same when you got right down to it.
Once they were free, the boys launched themselves out of the back and straight at him. He dropped down into a crouch and roughhoused with them for a few minutes before they darted away and took off toward the nearest snowbank, racing each other to be the first one to inspect the rock that stuck out from it. That done, they sniffed a circle around Ben’s Jeep, taking extra time on each tire, and then they bounded back to him again, briefly, before tearing around the truck to where I couldn’t see them. I could still hear them plowing through the snow in wild abandon. They raced into sight and beelined for the wood pile. Then they were back at the rock. Fred peed on the rock. Sam sniffed Fred’s pee and added his own for good measure. Finally, they padded toward us.
I leaned down, coaxing them over. “Are you guys all done being-”
Fred got a crazy look in his eye and then took off again, Sam hot on his heels.
I straightened. “Better they get it out now than in the house.”
Ben chuckled, nodding in agreement.
“They might be a while, if you want to wait inside,” I said, waving a hand at his flannel. He wasn’t exactly dressed for this weather.
He gave me a sheepish grin and cupped his hands together to blow into them. “I think I will, if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all. I’m going to play fetch with them for a few minutes to get some more of their energy out.”
“You need a hat or gloves or anything?” he asked.
Gah. Of course he was super considerate.
“I’m good, thanks. I have all the necessary clothing items in the truck,” I told him.
Necessary clothing items? I sounded like some robot pretending to be me.
Ben, thankfully, didn’t seem to notice. “Okay, I’ll be inside.” He turned to head toward the front door.
I watched him go. I couldn’t help myself. That butt. The breadth of his shoulders. The way those long legs ate up the driveway. Hrrrrrnnnnnn.
He turned around halfway to the porch. “Coffee?”
I didn’t exactly need any more caffeine right now, but holding the mug would give me something to do with my hands once I was inside. Whenever I felt awkward or uncomfortable, I grew hyperaware of them. It was like realizing that no matter where you look, you can always see your own nose. They got hot and heavy. I became consumed with how I should or shouldn’t hold them. Did I put them in my pockets? Fold them in front of me? Gently touch my own face?
I whistled the dogs over to me before they could chase after Ben. I kept a bucket of spare toys in the back of the truck. In the winter, it was strictly filled with frisbees. They did better skipping over the hard crust of snow than tennis balls or squeaky toys. I’d lost more of those to snow banks than I could count. Every spring melt, I found about twenty littering the yard.
I spent a good ten minutes flinging a bright green disc across Ben’s snow-covered front lawn and driveway before the dogs mellowed enough that I trusted them to go inside. Ben met us at the door, opening it wide. I took one look at the freshly stained floors and grabbed both of the dogs by their collars before they could sneak by me.
“Do you have some old rags I can clean them off with?” I asked.
“I do. Be right back.”
He reappeared a minute later with some threadbare towels. I used them to dry the dogs off, taking my time to inspect their paws for mud. Only once I was sure they wouldn’t track anything in or drip all over his floors did I allow them inside.
I took in the front rooms while I pulled off my winter gear. The entry and hallway must have only needed cosmetic updates. The staircase was gorgeous, the intricately carved wooden banister polished to a bright gloss. It rose up and away, framing the wide stairs. The walls were a neutral, light gray that contrasted beautifully with the flooring, while the baseboards and crown molding were painted a crisp white.
I bent down to untie my boots and used it as an excuse to check out the hardwood floors I’d heard so much about at Jack’s. The planks were well over a foot wide, and they gleamed a rich gold.
“This looks awesome, Ben,” I said, straightening.
“You like it?” He took my jacket and hung it on the free-standing wooden coat rack just inside the door. “The stain isn’t too light? After it dried, I started thinking about maybe adding another layer.”
I shook my head. “It’s perfect just like this.”
A soft chime came from deeper inside the house. He turned toward it. “Coffee’s done. Come on in.”
I followed after him, the dogs right on my heels. “Be good. No licking the walls or trying to eat plastic,” I told them.
“They eat plastic often?” Ben asked.
“No, but I just wanted to get ahead of it in case they were thinking of picking today to start.”
He chuckled, a deep, bass rumble that I could really get used to hearing.
The hallway was lined with doors, all closed, most likely sealing off the rooms with fresh paint or exposed wiring. At the end, the hall opened right up to the kitchen, which dominated the middle of the house.
The flooring changed from hardwood to dark slate tile as I passed over the threshold. It spread out in a large rectangle, framing the kitchen space. In the middle was the base of an oversized island, unfinished, with a plywood top. There was a fridge, a gas range, and all the framework for lower cabinets, though there weren’t any doors on them and they hadn’t been painted yet. Above the farm-style sink was a wide window, free from interior framing, so it was one large expanse of crystal-clear glass looking out toward the back yard. Through it, to the left, was the barn, and to the right, much further away, the edge of the forest.
It was a nice view now. It would be beautiful in the warmer months.
I stopped at the island and looked down to inspect the builder samples spread out on top of it. Paint swatches, wood stains, tiles, and kitchen hardware were clustered together in groups. White with dark blue with silver, black with copper with lightly stained wood, subway tile with butcher block.
“How do you take your coffee,” Ben asked.
I looked up to see Fred and Sam on either side of his legs, “helping” him. He didn’t seem to mind, one hand idly scratching Fred between the ears, so I let them be.
“Just cream, if you have it,” I answered. “Are these your potential pallets for the kitchen finishes?”
“They are,” he said, his back to me as he poured. “I’m thinking butcher block for the island countertop and cement for the rest. I like that dark blue paint for the lowers, and then for the open shelving, cast iron supports and the same butcher block as the island to tie it all together.”
I imagined it for a minute, moving the corresponding samples together to get the full picture. I could see it spread out in front of me when I looked up again. It would lend the space a kind of understated, industrial farmhouse look.
“What about the backsplash?” I asked.
He turned to me, coffee mugs in hand, and set mine down near my right hand. “Uh…this one,” he said, picking up a sample from another pile and moving it over to join those I’d gathered together.
It was a swatch of unfinished cuts of rectangular rock, tiled in a herringbone pattern, light gray in color, with a rough surface and darker veins running through it that would go great with cement counters and slate flooring.
“I want to tile that whole wall around the window above the sink with it,” he said, pointing.
“That’s going to be awesome, Ben.”
“You think so?” he asked, grinning.
Jesus, buddy, watch where you point that smile.
I nodded. “I don’t know why Jack thought I was needed. You’ve clearly got this.”
I wrapped my hands around my coffee mug, thankful for the distraction. The first sip was magical. Exactly the right temperature, not acidic at all, just a nice, mellow bean with the perfect amount of cream.
“And thanks for coming over,” Ben said. “I know it was a weird phone call. My parents are worried about me all alone out here, and if I don’t give my mother proof that I have human interaction of some kind, she’ll hop on a plane and fly out.”
And that would be a bad thing, because…? I wanted to ask, but didn’t. None of my damn business. “No problem,” I said instead. “My sister needed some space anyway.”
“Family in town for Christmas?” he asked.
“Yeah, the entire family. Megan and her wife Stacey are bunking down at my place. Megan is pretty much the sole introvert in our family, so she needs to have quiet time, which is why they stay with me whenever they’re in town.”
Ben gave me a questioning look.
“I know when to leave her alone,” I told him. “They drove up from Boston yesterday, and after the stress of that, the energy level of the dogs, my excitement to see them, and a night of cribbage, she’s pretty wiped out. We’re going cross country skiing later, so she needs to recharge her battery before that.”
“Makes sense,” he said. “What’s cribbage?”
I stared at him. “What? How do you not know what cribbage is?”
He smiled and shrugged.
“They don’t have it in Hawaii?”
He shook his head, his mane of hair floating around him in a way that made me want to reach out and bury my fingers into it to see if it was as soft as it looked. “It hasn’t been exported yet. Or if it has, I somehow missed it.”
I frowned. “But I thought it was big in the Midwest.”
“Might be. All anyone wanted to play in Wisconsin was euchre when I was out there.”
“Huh, never heard of it.”
He threw his hands up and mimicked my disbelief from a moment before. “What? How do you not know what euchre is?” He grinned, clearly teasing.
I clammed up for a second. He was treating me like I swore I wouldn’t treat him. What do I do, what do I do, what do I do? Maybe acting a little more like myself would be okay after all? Maybe?
“Well,” I said, adopting a superior air. “Clearly it pales in comparison to cribbage, or I certainly would have heard of it before.”
He waved a hand at me. “Describe this king of all games.”
“No way. I won’t be able to do its glory justice. It’s way easier to explain while playing. I’ll just have to bring a board over next time I – crap, I’m sorry, I’m not trying to invite myself over again.”
“You didn’t invite yourself over the first time,” he said.
Of course he was super polite. Of course. It made me feel like an even bigger asshole for almost immediately breaking my own promise to myself, and to him, not that he knew it.
“You know what I mean,” I said, and, feeling the need to explain myself, I just. Kept. Going. “I can be pushy like that. I don’t mean to be. And I know you said you hate it when people pry, which is pretty close, so please tell me to back off. Seriously, sometimes I don’t even realize I’m doing it. I won’t be insulted. I probably need more of that in my life, actually. Most of my family lets me bowl right over them because they know how I am and that I don’t really mean to, like, insert myself into their lives like they don’t have plans or something. My brother’s wife says it’s because…uh, you know what, never mind.”
Wow. I almost told him I shared a character trait with sociopaths. That would have been a fun conversation to have the second time meeting someone.
“Ella, it’s fine,” he said, placing a heavy hand on my shoulder. “It’s nice having someone else in the house.”
He gave me a squeeze and then let go, and I stared down into my coffee afterward, trying to think of something to say to break this uncomfortable silence. Too much silence, I realized.
Shit, the dogs!
I whipped my head up. They were nowhere in sight.
“Faaak,” I said, the word strangled as I pushed away from the island. “Sam! Fred!”
Ben pointed to an open doorway behind me. “They went that way.”
I dashed toward it.
“There’s nothing in there for them to get into!” he called after me.
“They’ll find something! It’s their super power!” I yelled back.
I skidded to a stop just inside the room. There was a roaring fire in the fireplace, safely tucked behind a large grill. Sprawled out in front of it, on thick blankets that looked like they had been set there just for them, were the dogs, both chewing on their own piece of rawhide.
“I grabbed a couple of treats from Jack when I told him they were coming over, and he suggested the makeshift dog beds,” Ben said from just behind me.
I jumped. For a big guy, he sure did move quietly. Or maybe my panicked pulse had masked the sound of his footfalls. “That was…really thoughtful.”
He stepped up next to me, shrugging one massive shoulder. “Well, you were doing me a favor, coming over here. I wanted you and them to feel welcome.”
Why did he have to be so nice?
I nodded for a second like an idiot before remembering my manners. “Thank you.”
“So, selfie time?” he asked. “This is kind of a nice scene, with them snuggled down and the fire going. Cozy.”
Some might say romantic, but I’d be damned if I was going to point that out right now.
“Sure,” I said. “This is perfect if you want to include them in it. In most of the pictures I take of them, they show up as black and white blurs. The only time they’re still is when they’re eating or sleeping.” Or shitting, but again, not saying that.
Behind the dogs was a comfortable looking leather sofa, with end tables on either side. We set our coffee down on the nearest one and then positioned ourselves so that we were visible in the frame, with the dogs and the fire behind us. Even with Ben’s freakishly long arms we still ended up smooshed together to get the shot. I was excruciatingly aware of the heat of him along my right side, of the swell of his bicep where it pressed against my arm.
“Smile,” he said, and then took the picture.
I looked kind of manic in it. My eyes were too wide. All of my teeth were visible. If he wanted to keep his parents from worrying about him, I was afraid seeing the face I was making next to their son would have the opposite effect. Maybe I’d get lucky and they’d be so distracted by the beauty of my dogs that they wouldn’t notice the creeper in the frame.
He pulled the phone down, fingers flying over the screen for a second before I heard the “whoosh” that told me he’d sent the image off.
Not five seconds later the unmistakable ring of a FaceTime call filled the room.
“Oh, Jesus, Mom,” he said. He raised his head to look at me. “I’m sorry about this in advance.”
I had just enough time to panic before he picked up.
Copyright © 2019 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.