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Until The Last Star Fades by Jacquelyn Middleton (1)

New York City, March 17, 2018

Riley couldn’t do it. An elbow to the kidneys, a strategically delivered shove—even a well-timed foot placed in an unsuspecting path—all viable options, according to her best friend Piper.

“Rye, just do it already!” The fast-talking voice barked through her secondhand phone. “Force your way to the front. If you don’t leave soon, you’re going to miss St. Paddy’s Day completely!”

“Yeah, and if I follow your advice I’ll be spending it with the NYPD—in a jail cell.” Riley scrunched up her nose, peering at the sizzling red LED display listing flights awaiting luggage. Raised voices bounced off the walls as passengers from Los Angeles, Toronto, and Minneapolis—her connecting flight from Grand Forks, which had landed a ridiculous ninety minutes earlier—pushed closer to the baggage carousel, hoping to spy their delayed suitcases, grab what was theirs, and exchange the stuffy fluorescent-lit hellhole for the last gasp of the day’s dwindling brightness. A snowstorm in the Midwest had unleashed post-spring break chaos at airports across the country, and LaGuardia’s terminal D hadn’t escaped unscathed. Sweaty, hangry travelers gave each other stink eye as an avalanche of suitcases burst through the rubber partition, piling up and creating a moving mountain of plastic, nylon, and tiny wheels, many rattling and spinning defiantly.

A heavy sigh left Riley’s lips, her stomach as off-kilter as the precarious cliff of cases. “Pip, I could do without an assault charge, thank you very much.” Jockeying for a position along the path of the U-shaped belt, the New York University senior dragged her hand through her wavy ponytail. “I’m not the elbowing type.”

“Yeah, about that.” Piper snapped her gum.

I walked right into that one. Riley winced. “I couldn’t go through with it.”

“Rye, you completely ignored what we talked about before you left. It’s like those conversations didn’t even happen.”

“I know, but…” Clenching her jaw, she adjusted the Strand bookstore tote on her arm and stretched up on the toes of her boots, fighting for a glimpse of the luggage parade over the shoulders of two ridiculously tall suits. What are you dudes, part giraffe?

“You’re delaying the inevitable,” said Piper. “Why did you go to North Dakota, huh? ’Cause it sure as hell wasn’t to freeze your butt off watching hockey for five days straight. You could’ve done that here…”

As Piper rattled on, a chubby bald man who looked like a giant toddler wrestled with a large hard-side roller bag sailing by on the belt.

“…but hey, at least I didn’t have to go with you. I’m still shaking off the cold I caught watching NYU play. I’m lucky that frozen bench didn’t give me terminal hemorrhoids, the frostbite was bad enough—”

“Terminal hemorrhoids? Jeez, Pip, that’s a new one!” A chuckle burst through Riley’s lips. “And you didn’t catch frostbite! You ditched me for a warm bar after twenty minutes!” Yawning through a smile, Riley spied a midsized pink case wedged underneath a heavy duffle bag. “Oh! Wait a sec.” She fought with the still-moving baggage, tugging her wheelie case from the mound. The bag’s swinging momentum almost t-boned one of the giraffes mid-conversation.

Thank God! A huge breath released from Riley’s chest. She extended the case’s handle, returning her phone to her ear as she squeezed through the frowning crowd, her suitcase rolling happily behind her. “Got my case. Look, meet me at my place in an hour and a half, okay?” A large family blocked her path to the exit. “I’ll tell you”—she glanced back at her belongings, her eyes focusing on the ID tag flapping from the side handle—“everyth…” Her stomach plunged into free fall. “FUCK!”

The mother covered her little boy’s ears, her eyes shooting daggers at Riley.

Aaand now I’m deaf, too,” Piper whined. “Thanks, Rye.”

“Shit!” She lifted the case, her pulse charging, her eyes chasing the swirly girly handwriting on the luggage tag that wasn’t hers: B…something—the last name impossible to decipher. There was no phone number, no address, just B. Something in the most frustratingly illegible cursive Riley had ever seen. Her heart tripped into an unhappy dance. “Pip, I gotta go.”

“Wha—”

The twenty-two-year-old’s eyes darted to the unmanned airport help desk…to the cases wheeled away by weary travelers…to the exit and a bright pink blur scooting through the parting glass doors. “Someone stole my case.” Hitting disconnect, Riley cut Piper off.

“Sorry! Excuse me!” She dashed around the family and a pack of slow-walking, fast-talking French tourists, their elegant parley cut short by the terminal’s doors whisking shut behind her. She inhaled sharply, the frosty air invigorating her senses as a chorus of honking taxis and the stench of bus fumes welcomed her home. Whoever you are, don’t get on the shuttle! Don’t disappear! Her eyes scurried across the slushy pavement crowded with boots and every shape, color, and size of luggage. Dammit. That was the whole point of choosing such a loud color

YES! There it is! Identical to the one trailing behind her, it was fugly—bubblegum pink and covered with a rash of white polka dots. But, despite its obnoxious appearance, this case suited her strapped student budget just fine and it was right there, resting beside the salt-stained UGGs of a twenty-something brunette leaning on a row of luggage carts, checking her phone. Riley’s brows eased their ascent as she wriggled past a kissing couple and a guy wearing a green Boston Bruins cap. Oh, thank God.

A stroller cut her off. Woah! Giving the harried father a wide berth, she turned back to her missing case as the arm of a thin jacket unsuitable for a New York winter swooped in and claimed its extended handle. Salty boot girl didn’t react—at all.

Green cap guy? What the—? “Hey!” Lunging for the thief’s arm, Riley tripped over her own boots and barely saved herself from kissing the pavement.

“Fuck!” The guy stopped and lifted the peak of his cap, revealing a mop of misbehaving dark hair falling into his blue eyes—eyes that might’ve made her catch her breath if they hadn’t been so puffy and bloodshot. He was about Riley’s age but appeared pale and drained under his five o’clock shadow, like he was on the losing end of a twenty-four-hour bender. The closer Riley got, the more a waft of whiskey and sweat punished her nostrils, proving her first impression right. The guy scratched at the purple hood poking out from the neck of his jacket, his full lips parting into a charming smile. “You all right, love?” His English accent hung in the air.

“I think you guys have my case.” Riley’s glare darted from the Brit to the woman. “Which one of you is B. Something-or-other?” She gestured to the identical luggage behind her. “I can’t read the last name.”

With a sneer, the brunette side-eyed Riley and the guy then walked away, making a call on her phone.

“Hey! Wait!” Riley waved her arms, but the woman didn’t stop. “I’m talking to you—”

“Actually, it’s me you want.” His six-foot frame lurched toward her, his grin unwavering underneath cheekbones male models would kill for. “Let me sort this.” His right hand, swaddled in a bloodstained bandage, yanked the tag on the case in his possession, snapping its buckle and sending the owner’s information fluttering to the damp pavement. “Sh-Sh-Shit.” He chuckled and bent over, his earbuds tumbling from his ears and snapping to a halt above the winter muck like two miniature bungee jumpers.

They both fumbled for the card, but he reached it first. He slowly stood up, adjusting his backpack with a jerk and invading her personal space. He squinted underneath the brim of his cap at the neat penmanship on her tag like he was deciphering a secret code spelled out in hieroglyphics.

“See?” Riley pointed. “It says R. Hope—right there. My email, [email protected]…the tag on the case I have says B. Something.” She leaned away, her eyes telling him to give in and back off.

He sniffed. “RHope…yeah, that’s definitely not me.” His watery eyes blinked lazily at her. “Soz, Ms. R. Hope. I fucked up.” He laughed, sending boozy, steamy breath into the frosty air. “I can’t believe you’ve got the same shite taste in luggage as my mum—”

“Lucky me.” Riley didn’t care about his mother or her taste in suitcases or that this hot mess with an accent was adorable. She just wanted to hop on the first shuttle bus and get the hell out of there. She pulled her case away from him and wheeled his mother’s pink monstrosity forward, their transaction complete. “Well, thanks.” The words flew from her lips without a breath between them. “Happy St. Patrick’s.”

Turning away, she left the hungover dude holding her broken tag. She could catch the Q70 shuttle bus boarding at the far curb and be riding the R train down to the 8th Avenue-NYU stop in the East Village in ten minutes. Racing through the dirty slush, she reached into her tote and pulled out her Pay-Per-Ride MetroCard.

“R. Hope! Wait! I have your…”

Riley kept walking and threw a pinched glance over her shoulder. The cute guy was sliding along the sidewalk, holding her luggage tag. She stopped at the fare machine and locked eyes with the bus driver, pleading with him to wait.

“Sorry.” The Brit handed it to her.

“Thanks.” Pursing her lips, Riley stuffed it in a pocket and threaded her MetroCard into the machine.

“This is my first time here. I’m a bit lost, actually.” Rounding his shoulders, he stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Do I need one of those yellow cardy things for the bus?”

I can’t chit-chat—the bus is gonna leave! Snatching her MetroCard from the slot, she collected her ticket and turned to him. “A MetroCard, yeah, or if you’ve got coins”—she waved at the smaller machine to her right—“you can pay there.”

Shivering non-stop, a shaky hand braved the elements to scratch his stubble. “Coins…I can’t add at the best of times, but feeling as rough as I do now? Ugh.” He swallowed, his nose a chilled pink. “You wouldn’t happen to have the right change, would you—please?”

PFFFFSSSSSSSSSSSSST!

Riley looked up, catching the bus’s doors closing. For fuck’s sake. She waved furiously. “NO, WAIT!” A warm puff of breath left her lips. “I’m COMING!”

The guy rushed past her, each coltish stomp plunging his worn sneakers into the gray slush. “Hey, mate”—he slipped, his shoulder smacking into the bus’s front door—“don’t take off on us!”

The driver rolled his eyes. PFFFFSSSSSSTTTT! The doors opened with a protracted hiss, like they were sarcastically passing judgment.

“Thanks! Don’t let him drive away.” Riley’s fingers jabbed at the machine, repeating the payment process with her MetroCard. She locked stares with the driver. “I’m paying—for him.”

The Brit gleefully bounded back to her side. “Oh, cheers, darlin’! You’re the best.”

Riley nodded as he loaded both suitcases onto the bus.

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