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Do You Feel It Too? by Nicola Rendell (1)

1

GABE

The first time I saw her, there were fireworks—actual fireworks. It was the Fourth of July on River Street in Savannah. It had been a long time since I’d spent the Fourth in the States. A year ago I’d been in the Yukon Province chasing down the yeti; the year before I was outside Nogales hunting for the chupacabra. I’d missed the hell out of Fourth of July fireworks, but all the explosions in the sky that night had nothing on her.

She was across the park from me, maybe fifty feet away. The hot and humid night air made halos around the dimmed park lights. She was like an angel out there, like a goddamned vision. Red shorts. White T-shirt. Sneakers. She had long dark hair arranged over one shoulder. Sexy tanned thighs and a delicate line of cleavage.

Fuck, she was gorgeous.

She knelt down, like she’d dropped a contact or an earring. I began to stand to go help her but stopped myself. She wasn’t searching; she was working—peeling a line of duct tape off an audio cable on the ground. Before the fireworks, the mayor had given a speech in Emmet Park and a brass quartet had played as the sun set. It looked to me like she’d been the one doing the audio for it. In one hand she gathered the tape into a ball, and with the other she made neat loops of the cord that it had been covering. She followed the tape and wire to the edge of the sidewalk and over the curb to the back of a white van. Her curves and softness disappeared behind its open back doors so that all I could see were her calves and her navy-blue Converse. By the light of a series of fireworks exploding overhead, I saw the van’s logo. It was a flower with microphones as petals and an extension cord as the stem. Under that were the words:

SOUNDS GOOD

Turning Savannah Up to Eleven Since 2011!

When a whistle filled the air, I kept my eyes trained on the back of the van. But when the sky lit up again with a pop, she wasn’t there. I scanned the edge of the park again and spotted her next to the bandstand, loading a speaker onto a handcart. On the back of her shirt was the same flower-shaped logo. She crouched down to secure the speaker with a bungee cord. Her position accentuated her waist and showed off a narrow strip of skin at the small of her back. I ran my hand down my stubble and growled into my palm when I saw the lacy edge of her panties peeking out.

She wheeled the dolly a few feet and paused to grab a mic stand. Rather than carrying it by its top, she knelt down in front of it and reached back to balance it on her shoulder. It reminded me of Huck Finn, carrying his rucksack on a branch. Off she went, zipping across the path that ran diagonally across the edge of the park.

Watching a beautiful woman move heavy equipment by herself was the pinnacle of douchebaggery. I was a lot of things, but to the best of my knowledge, douchebag wasn’t one of them. Whether she needed a hand or not, I was sure as hell going to offer one. Just because I wasn’t Southern didn’t mean I couldn’t be a gentleman.

I tossed my go cup into the trash and made my way toward her, trying to time myself so our paths would cross right before she got to the van. In show business, they call it the meet-cute. Best way to get sparks to fly. I might not have been in the rom-com business, but I was going to meet-cute the hell out of her. Her and her sexy thighs.

A series of smaller fireworks exploded overhead, and the crowd oohed and ahhed like a soundtrack as I ran my eyes over her body. A spray of star-shaped explosions lit up the park, and she raised her face to the sky, smiling. Now that I was closer to her, I could make out white stars on her red shorts. Her hair was pushed back from her forehead with a rolled blue bandanna.

Cute as a button and sexier still.

But right as I was about to offer to help her, the fireworks flamed out, sending us into darkness. She was so close that I could hear her sneakers on the pavement. A breeze carried her perfume over to me. Vanilla, maybe. But even though she smelled good enough to eat, I stayed where I was. Creeping up behind beautiful women in the dark wasn’t the type of shit that would get me onto People magazine’s list of Most Eligible Bachelors, thanks.

When another firework exploded, turning everything deep red, I took another step toward her. She had her back to me. She’d put the dolly down and was checking something on her phone. The light from the screen illuminated the lines of her hourglass curves and highlighted the elegant curve where her neck met her shoulder. It was go time. “Can I give you a hand?” I asked.

She swung around to face me, pivoting on her toes. As she did, time kind of . . . slowed down, as if everything were moving at a quarter speed. I saw her welcoming smile. Her dimples. Her full and shiny lips. But on my left, in my periphery, I also noticed something else. Something big, dark, and something—

Wham!

The bones in my skull rattled, my molars jiggled, and I stumbled backward. I pressed my hands to my face and staggered blindly back into the dark. Everything was spinning, and the neon necklaces the city had handed out to the children whizzed by like I was in the middle of a glow-in-the-dark roller rink.

Blinking hard against the sting of sudden tears and the general feeling that my brain was sloshing around like too-watery Jell-O salad in a bowl, I tried to figure out what in the ever-loving fuck had just . . .

The mic stand. She’d coldcocked me in the face with the goddamned mic stand.

“Oh my God!” she shrieked and lunged to help me. Unfortunately, this also made the mic stand clatter to the ground. The base spun around like a quarter on a table, making the pole end gather just enough speed to whack me across the shins like a karate chop into a cinder block.

I dropped to my knees and growled out, “Jesus!”

“Oh no!” she said, clapping her hands to the sides of her head.

“I’m good!” I told her, my voice muffled by my palm. “Totally good!” She was coming to help me, but out of pure protective instinct, I waved her away. Next thing I knew, I’d be getting beaten with her handbag. “I’ve got this. Totally!”

But she wasn’t dissuaded. She grabbed my shoulders and steered me toward a bench to sit down. Her grip was firm and confident, which was way more than I could say for my backward flailing. Once I was sitting, she crouched in front of me. Just then, the finale of the fireworks kicked into high gear—patriotic trombones, cannon fire, soaring strings. The works. Dozens of fireworks exploded behind her, showing off all of her beauty. Her big, warm eyes. Her enticing lips. Her concerned grimace. As far as I could tell, she didn’t recognize me. I was pretty relieved; for a guy who spent his professional life on camera, it was still damned uncomfortable for me whenever anybody said, Hang on! Aren’t you . . .

Which meant it would’ve been a perfect moment if not for all the goddamned spinning.

By the light of the finale, she checked my pupils, leaning in so close that I felt the heat of her body against mine. Even through the brainpan-rattling pain, I knew she was even more beautiful than I’d thought at first. Once she seemed reasonably sure that I wasn’t obviously concussed, she knelt down at my feet. She placed one hand on my leg and the other hand to her rosy cheek. “I am so sorry. I had no idea you were standing behind me. Are you OK?”

OK was debatable. There was a nonzero chance I was missing some teeth. Keeping my nose shielded with my hand, I felt around my mouth with my tongue. It seemed like they were all there. Probably. The front ones were there, anyway. Bonus. And as an even bigger bonus, there was still no sign that she recognized me at all. To her, I was just some poor sucker she’d almost knocked unconscious, and I didn’t mind that one bit. “You could take that swing to the major leagues.”

She cringed, and it made her nose crinkle adorably. She placed her hand on my cheek, tipping her body forward so her cleavage brushed against my knees. Her palm was soft and cool, and her expression was worried and pained. “Come on. Let me get a closer look at the damage.”

I wasn’t too hot on the idea, but she was gently persistent. She held my forearm, slowly tightening her grip to say please. Very carefully I lifted my hand. When she peeked underneath, she sucked in a breath between gritted teeth. I cupped my nose again and watched her blink a few times in rapid succession. Then the grimace transformed into an agonized smile. “Nothing a bag of frozen peas won’t fix!” she said.

I wasn’t buying it. She looked like she’d just seen a five-car pileup that featured a diaper truck in the middle. I touched my knuckle to my nostril and saw a smudge of blood. “Any chance you’ve got a Kleenex?”

She smacked her thighs with her palms. “Yes, yes, yes! Of course! One sec!” She scurried back to her van and leaned inside. When she did, one leg lifted up behind her like a ballerina, revealing the soft inside of her thigh. The sight of her silk-soft skin was like a shot of morphine. All my pain disappeared. But then I made the mistake of sniffing.

Motherfuck it.

She hustled back to me with her purse in hand. This she upended at my feet, covering the grass with all manner of shit, including lipsticks, a bruised banana, a paperback book, knitting needles, and a whole shitload of tangled yarn. She jiggled her bag, searched through the stuff at my feet, and growled, “No wonder this thing was on clearance.” She rummaged around through the pockets and finally emerged with a small pack of flower-printed tissues. “Here!” She thrust them out to me. I began to reach for them, but she snatched them back. “What am I thinking! I’ll get it. You hold tight.” Instead of pulling one tissue from the pack, she ripped the whole damned thing apart and they fluttered to the ground. With a few tissues in hand, she came up from her crouch and sat next to me, her thigh pressing against my leg.

“Here, put your head back a little.” She placed one of her hands on the back of my head, and I felt the featherlight touch of her fingertips above my collar. “Now, easy does it,” she said softly. She dabbed at my upper lip with the corner of the tissue. But when she touched the edge of my nostril, I hissed before I could stop myself.

“Sorry!” she whispered and pulled the tissue away to let me recover. I blinked hard, forcing the wave of pain to subside, and then leaned back into her. While she tended to me, I got a chance to study her up close. Around her neck, she wore a delicate necklace with a charm in the shape of what might’ve been a slice of pie. Or an ice cream cone. Or wait. Nope. It was a microphone. Of course. “Be honest,” I said. “Got a lot of experience bludgeoning strangers?”

She blinked thoughtfully. “They teach it at the Y,” she said without missing a beat. “Every Tuesday after Hairspray as Offensive Weapon.”

How you doin’? It was one thing to be pretty, but it was another to be both quick and funny in the middle of a small disaster. “Serves me right for sneaking up behind a beautiful woman in the dark.”

She paused with the tissue an inch from my face. She pressed her lips together and gave me an adorable smile. “Well,” she said, a little embarrassed, “I don’t know about the beautiful woman part, but I do know you certainly didn’t deserve to get hit in the face.” She scooted closer, and I got a hit of her perfume—definitely vanilla. But the real deal. Like the vanilla bean orchid that grew wild in New Guinea. Exotic, rare, and utterly intoxicating.

“Maybe I should take you to the ER.” She grabbed a fresh tissue. “It’s the least I could do.”

It wasn’t exactly how I’d envisioned my first night in town, and I’d definitely survived crazier shit without medical attention. Like the time a lumberjack chased me off his property and I fell into a ravine. Or the time I had dinner with a rancher in the middle of Nowhere, Mexico, and ate a little orange pepper that sent me into an unstoppable cycle of hiccups, dry heaves, and uncontrollable weeping. I could handle this . . . especially if she was going to play nurse. “I’m Gabe.” I began to reach out my right hand to shake hers, but since it was probably smudged with blood, I opted for my left hand.

Her eyes twinkled. Rather than try to shake it, she gave my fingers a squeeze. “Hi, Gabe,” she said softly. “I’m Lily.” She patted her name on the front of her shirt, and it made her gorgeous breasts jiggle. “But now”—she moved her head side to side as she peered at my face—“I think we should make double sure I don’t need to drive you to the doctor. Give me a sec to do some light googling.” She took my hand and pressed it to the tissue and then grabbed her phone from her pile of purse stuff on the grass at my feet.

While she did her light googling, I did some light Lily studying. No wedding ring and no engagement ring. On her home screen was a photograph of a chubby, laughing infant in a onesie that said I LOVE MY AUNTIE LILY! She tapped in her security code and flipped through her apps. The background image was a sepia-filtered photo of the same kid, but this time sitting in an old-fashioned stroller with thin and oversize wheels. He wore an old-fashioned getup, like a tiny sailor’s costume, complete with an old-timey white hat.

The light from her phone screen illuminated her features. Soft cheekbones, full lips. As she typed away with her thumbs, she pushed her eyebrows together so hard that a ridge appeared between them, and all the while she nibbled on her lip. On her screen in big, bold letters appeared the header “Broken Nose Treatment.”

“OK! Found a symptom checker. ‘When to go see a health-care provider for a broken nose.’”

“I’m sure it’s not broken.” Actually, I wasn’t completely sure about that at all, but I didn’t want to make her feel too bad about it. “Sprained, maybe.”

She glanced up from the screen and pursed her lips. “Shush, now. You’re the patient, I’m the pretend internet doctor. In WebMD we trust. Bullet one: ‘You cannot stop the nose from bleeding.’”

I pulled the flowery tissue back from my nose. She leaned in, still with her eyebrows rumpled. She was unselfconscious about her expressions—no pretense, no shyness. No sense that she’d been practicing her expressions in a mirror for years, like half the women in LA did. That authenticity made her ten times more alluring. “Mmm. We’re fine. Just a little droplet. That’s good at least.” She held up her phone and read, “‘The nostril or nasal septum is crooked or out of place.’”

With one finger I touched the ridge of my nose, then my septum. I’d never actually felt for the shape of my own nose, but it didn’t seem obviously messed up. “I think we’re good.”

Lily pursed her lips. “I’m not so sure. I have no point of reference. Unless you’ve got a selfie handy!” she teased, squinting at my nose and then meeting my eyes for a beat. “But I don’t suppose that’s your jam.”

Actually, my jam was hosting my own show investigating urban legends, mysteries, and generally strange shit around the world. The Powers of Suggestion, hosted by yours truly, Gabe Powers. New episodes aired every Thursday from 9:30 to 10:30 p.m. on Destination America, reruns every Friday between Bear Grylls and A Haunting, and all-day marathons every third Saturday. All she had to do was turn her light googling skills on my name and she’d see my face all over place. But I wasn’t about to just say all that. Because again, not a douchebag. Not a douchebag. “I never think to take them.”

She sighed. “Well, you do seem OK. Everything seems pretty much . . .” Her eyes moved over my face. At first she was focused on my nose. But after a few seconds, it was clear to me that I wasn’t the only one feeling some chemistry. She was totally checking me out. So I gave her a lift of my chin to say, I see you, sexy. The chin flick made my nose throb, but it was worth it. Because in return, I got a big smile paired with a shy little giggle. She zipped the charm on her necklace back and forth and then returned to her phone. “Next bullet. ‘There is a grapelike swelling inside the nose.’”

“Grapelike,” I said. “Jesus Christ. What does that even mean, grapelike?”

Lily scooted closer to me. “I don’t know. WebMD is so scary,” she said, using the screen of her phone as a flashlight to examine me. “Sore throat? Get your affairs in order. Splotches on your fingernails? Might as well grab a white sheet, call an Uber, and head to the cemetery.”

My laugh came out as a painful mix between a cough and a bark. “I once hit a spin class too hard and looked up leg cramps. Scared the living shit out of myself.”

She huffed. “I know, right? You either need to eat a banana or you’ve got a rare degenerative muscle disease. Potato, potahto.” She tipped my head back, examining me with serious concern, before finally leaning away. “But I think that’s a negative. No grapelike swelling.”

I took a fresh tissue from her lap and ripped it into quarters. I made tight twists out of two of them and put one into each nostril. A wave of pain made my eyes water. Man the fuck up, Powers. “Hundred percent.”

She grimaced. Clearly, I wasn’t looking 100 percent. By the light of her phone and the park lamp, I saw a blush creep up on her cheeks. There was a gentle kindness about her that was incredibly hard to resist. “I feel just terrible. At least let me pay to have your shirt cleaned.” She pressed her hand to my arm and gave it a firm squeeze. Firm enough to hijack all my goddamned thoughts.

The chemistry between us was white-hot. One squeeze and I knew what I wanted. As if there’d been any doubt.

I wasn’t a guy to think about a good idea for long. Dicking around wasn’t my thing. I had gut instincts, and I listened to them. Here was a beautiful woman, and I was feeling it. If I didn’t grab this chance, I might never see her again. There was no way in hell I was going to let that happen. “How about I take you out for a drink?”

Her eyes flashed in the lamplight. “I almost knocked you unconscious, and we haven’t even checked on your shins.”

I nodded, and the torn edges of the Kleenex wads tickled my lip. “You said you wanted to make it up to me, right? So. A drink. We can call it even.”

Again she nibbled on her lip. She sized me up, like she was deciding what to make of me. She traced the edge of her phone case with her fingertip. “But I don’t even know you.”

Some problems could be solved on the spot. “I’m Gabe. I’ll be forty next year. I’m an Aquarius. I’m a lefty, but I can use regular scissors. I actually really do like long walks on the beach. Big fan of spaghetti and meatballs. I’m here for a while on business, and I’d really like to get to know you better.” I dusted off my hands. “Boom. Done.”

She pressed her tongue against her teeth, like she was stifling a giggle. “Fess up now. You stole that from a Tinder profile.”

Zing! But actually, no, I hadn’t. When it came down to it, I was just a dude like every other. Mostly. “You’ll never know unless you let me take you out.”

She crossed her legs, pressing her bare thighs together. She tucked the fingers of one hand between them. What I wouldn’t give for that to be my hand. Somehow, I managed to pull my eyes off that gap. But my gaze landed on her cleavage, and I dragged it away from there too. Every part of her was like a damned eye magnet. I made myself focus on her eyes. But those were most alluring of all. For a second we faced off in a badly lit game of chicken. She had no idea who she was up against. If there was one thing I’d learned in my line of work, it was unending, unflinching patience. Along with the ability to stay stationary for hours. “I could literally do this all night. Let me know if you want a break.”

Her eyes flashed, as if she liked that challenge. “All night?”

I lifted my eyebrow. “All. Night. Long.”

Her rapid blinks were followed by a stare and a press of her hand to her chest. So Southern belle. Fuck. But she relented, at last. “All right. Yes. It’s yes to a drink.”

“And dinner.”

Her mouth dropped open, and she stopped zipping her necklace. But I could tell she loved it. So I didn’t back down.

I ran my hand down my jaw and watched her. “Have some mercy, bruiser. Throw a guy a bone.”

She gave me a half wince, half smile. “Dinner and drinks, then. But it’ll have to be tomorrow. I have to get home soon. I’m not used to being whisked off for spontaneous dates.”

“Maybe you should get used to it.”

And she swallowed hard enough for me to hear the gulp.

The look in her eyes gave me a rush of adrenaline that I hadn’t felt in a long, long time. There was no fangirl fawning—just pure, plain old desire. Admittedly, I’d been closer to having a date with the yeti than a beautiful woman in the last few months. But there was something going on between us, and it felt damned good. “You pick the spot, my treat. Seven thirty tomorrow.”

One last firework whistled and went off in the air. It exploded in a shower of bright-white pinpricks right above us. Both of us looked up to watch it, and as the embers tumbled down into the river, she asked, “You’re sure you’re OK?”

“Lily.”

“All right! All right!” she giggled. “It’s a date.”

An hour later, I was lying in the bedroom of my allegedly haunted Airbnb on Abercorn Street with enough bags of frozen peas, corn, and green beans scattered around me that I could have gone into business as a vegetable soup tycoon. In spite of the throbbing pain in my nose, I could not stop thinking about her. She’d given me her number, and I’d sent her a text so she had mine too. I moved a dripping bag of slightly thawed peas aside so I could see my phone and opened the chat window. In reply, she’d said I’m so glad I didn’t mace you!, which she’d tapped out as I sat next to her. Cute. Now the blank space was begging me to answer with a Can’t wait to see you, or I’m totally fine, don’t worry at all, or The peas are definitely helping. It didn’t even matter that they weren’t, I just wanted to say something, anything, because 7:30 p.m. tomorrow felt way too far away.

But before I could type in a single letter, my phone started vibrating and my producer’s face appeared on the screen. There was a brief instant as I stared at his contact photo—a shot of him in Groucho Marx glasses with attached mustache—when I thought very seriously about hitting the decline button. I’d had a great night. I was thinking about Lily. I was in bed. The last thing I needed was him and his harebrained ideas killing this buzz.

His name was Mark Markowitz, and he was like an overcaffeinated Woody Allen with a near-religious devotion to spandex bike shorts. He drank green smoothies and used Bluetooth headsets and drove a yellow Prius with a license plate that said PRODUCE, which made his trips to the farmers’ market like an Abbott and Costello sketch. Some lady with a hippie skirt and a basketful of beet greens would look him up and down in the parking lot, zero in on his god-awful bike shorts, and say, What kind of produce do you grow? Let me guess—those tiny bananas!

Markowitz was the king of the Idea Fart. Every idea, large or small, had two things in common: urgency and inconvenient timing. He made like we had to act on all the Idea Farts right now before we got scooped. Sometimes I felt like he approached my career like an infomercial salesman hawking carpet cleaner at one in the morning. Act now and get a free bottle of foaming enzymatic carpet spray with your next television show!

But I’d done well, and I owed a lot of that to him and his terrier-like persistence. So I took a deep breath and answered the call on speaker. The big master bedroom was filled instantly with the sound of very heavy breathing. Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, and I’m on to your workout schedule. “How’s spin class?”

“Kicking my ass! The burn, Powers! The burn!”

Spin classes at 9:00 p.m. on the Fourth of July. Los Angeles was the weirdest. “It’s like midnight here, man. What’s on your mind?”

“So,” he panted, “I was reading up on this ghost-hunting thing.”

Here we go. I put my phone faceup on my chest and mashed some corn into my eye socket. “I’ve got it covered. Seriously. I’m in a haunted house right now.” I looked up at the high ceilings and the ornate crown molding. I didn’t believe in ghosts, of course. And I sure as hell didn’t think they were in this beautiful house.

“Seems like they all pick up EV somethings on their RadioShack tape recorders. Been reading up, Powers! Been busting my chops! I think we can do better! I’m thinking we should hire someone to help you out! Someone local! Someone who will know where to find the ghosts and get you some good audio!”

That was the other thing about Markowitz. He only responded to sentences that let him steer the conversation where he wanted it to go. Sometimes it was like he hadn’t even heard anything I’d said, like one of those robocalls that sounded real until you said, “Stop calling me,” and they responded with, “Refinancing your home is really very simple!”

“Like I told you, I’m in a haunted house. Right now.”

“EVPs! That’s what they’re called! Electro something somethings! We need someone professional for that!”

Though he presented this like a fresh Idea Fart, it was one of the oldest in his repertoire. He was absolutely determined to get me to believe that I needed to have a film crew for my show. He wanted my shoots to get bigger and better. More action, more stunts, more wide-angle panorama shots! I was equally determined to prove that if Les goddamned Stroud could spend a month in the fucking Norwegian tundra by himself, subsisting off nothing but pinecones, snowmelt, and frozen sparrow wings, I could certainly manage to film a few episodes about ghosts in one of the prettiest cities in America. And I most certainly didn’t need a film crew following me around with seven hundred pounds of equipment and six Starbucks runs a day to do it. “We’ve been through this like nine hundred times. I can handle it myself. It’s cheaper, it’s easier, and it’s my thing.”

“Powers!” he panted. “My thing involves a webcam and coconut oil, but you don’t see me making a career out of it, do you?”

Why. Just . . . why? “I’m gonna wire this place up tomorrow. See if I can get anything on video. I’m good, man. I’ve got this thing covered.” Exactly like everything I’ve ever done. I rubbed my temples and squished a pea between my forehead and thumb. “I’ll share the files when they’re ready. Don’t forget to hold your stretches, man,” I said and hung up the phone.

In the silence, I briefly considered doing the only new-age California thing that I’d actually found I liked—meditation. I was a big fan, and I’d tried all kinds. I’d practiced tonglen with Buddhist monks in a mountaintop temple in Nepal and transcendentalism with David Lynch in an overcrowded conference room in a slightly dilapidated Hilton in downtown LA. Hands down the best guided meditation I’d found for dealing with Markowitz was a two-and-a-half-minute video of pure genius on YouTube: “Fuck That: An Honest Meditation.” But I knew that tonight, I wouldn’t need to meditate. Because as I closed my eyes, there she was—those curves, those hips, that face, that Lily.

Fuck that? Fuck yeah.