Monday, October 1, 2018

How the Grinch Stole My Heart, Chapter 7

Jeremy

I can’t pick up Hayley for our date because I don’t have a car, and even if I did, I can’t drive anymore. It’s not because my right leg doesn’t work very well, although sometimes I let people believe that’s the problem. If that were the only issue, I’d get pedals on the left.

The problem is that ever since my stroke, sometimes I miss things on my right side. The doctors called it “neglect.” Most of the time, it’s not too bad, and I do things to compensate. For example, on the computer screen, I was occasionally missing words on the right side of the screen, so when I got out of rehab, I stuck a piece of red tape to the right of the screen so I’d know to keep reading until I got to the tape. I barely need the tape anymore, but I keep it there, just in case.

So when I’m reading, I sometimes miss a few words, or every now and then, I bump into something on my right that I didn’t quite see. It’s no tragedy. But I can’t even imagine getting behind the wheel. It’s not possible to drive when you can’t see very well on your right side.

It’s too bad because given how shitty I walk, I wish I could drive places. And in general, I miss driving. I miss the feel of my foot on the gas pedal, driving fast down the highway. Just one more goddamn thing I lost when that aneurysm burst.

Hayley and I agree to meet at a restaurant—this trendy bistro that’s only a few blocks from my building. I leave myself lots of time for my slow ass to get there. The last thing I want is to fall because I was rushing.

Hayley is waiting in front of the bistro when I arrive. I haven’t been to Ben’s Bagels in a long time, but I know it’s her right away. She has the look of a girl waiting for a blind date to arrive. Just as I suspected—she’s pretty. She’s a few years younger than me, maybe in her late twenties, with reddish-blond hair. She’s a little chubby, but it suits her. She’s not sexy the way Noelle is though.

Christ, why can’t I stop thinking about Noelle? I’m out on a date with another girl, and Noelle clearly isn’t interested. I need to get over it.

I watch Hayley for a moment as she searches the street, checking out the guys who walk past her. When she sees an attractive guy, her eyes light up for a moment with hopefulness, then her face falls when she realizes he’s not her date. And when she sees an unattractive guy, she takes a step back, her brow furrowed, followed by relief when he doesn’t stop.

I wonder what her reaction will be when she sees me.

No, that’s not true. I don’t wonder. I know.

I take a deep breath and walk in Hayley’s direction. Before her eyes even hit my face, she notices the crutch I’m holding on the left and she sucks in a breath. She takes two steps back.

Ouch.

“Uh, hi,” I say. “Hayley?”

Her shoulders sag. “Oh. Um, yes. So you’re… Jeremy?”

I grip the handle of my crutch with my left hand until my knuckles turn white. Well, at least she didn’t pretend to be someone else. “Right.”

Her eyes drop to my right arm. It’s less prominent when I’ve got my coat on, but she can probably see my balled up fist. I can’t get a glove on that hand to save my life.

“It’s nice to meet you,” she says.

“Likewise,” I say.

Although what I want to say is, I warned you blind dates suck.

We are sixty seconds into our date and I already wish it were over. New record.

“So, um…” Hayley glances behind her at the trendy bistro. “I put our names down on the list when I got here, but they told me it would be an hour wait for a table.”

“On a Thursday night?”

“Thursday is the new Friday,” she says.

Thursday is the new Friday?” I repeat. “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Thursday is Thursday.”

She shrugs and doesn’t say anything more. I probably shouldn’t have told her she’d just said the dumbest thing I’d ever heard. In my defense, I haven’t been on a date in two years. I’ve forgotten how to talk to… well, human beings, apparently.  

Hayley glances down at her watch, then back up at me. “There’s a diner down the block that usually isn’t too crowded at night. Want to try that instead?”

Well, at least she isn’t using the wait for a table at the bistro as an excuse to call the whole thing off. I’ve got to give her credit for that. “Sure,” I say.

I was always the sort of person who used to sprint more than I walked. So it’s painful that not only am I no longer able to run, but I can’t walk at even a normal pace for a healthy adult man. My steps consist of moving my crutch forward, carefully dragging my bad right leg along as far as I can manage without tripping over it, then completing the step with my good left leg. It’s not quick. Hayley is clearly walking slower than she’d like so I can keep up with her. I don’t know what’s going through her head, but I’m guessing she doesn’t want to rip her clothes off with desire.

Noelle didn’t seem to mind how slow I was walking.

Hey, Grieder, quit thinking about other women when you’re on a date.

I’m so focused on walking as quickly as I can without falling that I don’t notice right away what diner we’re going to. It’s Moonlight Diner—where Noelle works. Well, great.

Maybe she won’t be working tonight.

The diner is crowded for a Thursday night. Maybe Hayley is right—maybe Thursday really is the new Friday. Maybe that wasn’t the dumbest thing that’s ever been said. Hayley has to hold the door open for me when we get there, and any slim chance I had with her slips away from me. One of the waitresses leads us to a table that is thankfully near the front of the restaurant. Hayley slides off her black wraparound coat to reveal a sexy dark purple dress underneath. She clearly made a big effort to look hot tonight.

And now I have to get my own goddamn coat off.

It’s not as easy as it sounds. I get it off my left arm with no problem, but then I have to fight with it to get my right arm free. Usually taking my coat on and off isn’t that hard, but the cold and the walk over here and the anxiety has tightened up all the muscles to the point where my arm won’t give an inch. It is locked up tight. I cannot get the fucking sleeve off my fucking arm for anything, especially given I have only one hand to work with. If I were home and had all the time in the world, I’m sure I’d be able to do it, but with Hayley staring at me, it’s impossible.

I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I can’t go through this date with my coat stuck on my arm.

“Are you okay?” Hayley asks me.

“Yep,” I say through my teeth.

“Do you need…” A look of utter disgust fills her pretty features. “Help?”

Forget this shit. I can’t keep up this charade of a date. I don’t want to sit across from a woman who clearly doesn’t want to be here with me.

“Look,” I say to Hayley, “you should leave.”

Her mouth falls open. “What?”

I roll my eyes at her. “I warned you about blind dates, didn’t I?”

“Yes, but—”

“This…” I point to her then point to my chest. “It’s not a connection. I get it.”

A flush fills her cheeks. I bet nobody’s ever said that to her before. But it’s not like I’m ending the date because I find her repulsive. If she were smiling and flirting with me, I’d stay in a heartbeat.

“Really,” I say. “We shouldn’t waste our time.”

“Okay,” she mumbles. “Um, so…”

“All right, good luck then. Goodbye.”

The flush in her cheeks deepens. “I would have stayed, you know.”

“Wow,” I say flatly, “aren’t you a humanitarian.”

“Fuck you,” she says.

I shrug. It’s hard to maintain my dignity when my arm is trapped in the sleeve of my jacket. I’m doing my best.

As soon as Hayley marches out of the diner, I feel myself deflate. I sink down into the booth because I don’t have the energy to stand anymore. And my right arm is still caught in the goddamn coat. I’ll probably have to go the rest of my life like this. They’ll bury me with this coat stuck on my arm.

The good news is it won’t affect my social life because I’ve apparently become undateable. And therefore, unfuckable. I will never fuck again. My dick will now only be used for pissing and relieving a little tension.

“Hey.”

I look up at the sound of the slightly throaty, familiar voice. My eyes widen. It’s Noelle. She’s here. And she’s wearing a professional, black blouse today that’s fitted around the curves of some really just incredibly nice tits.

I’ll never get to touch tits again.

Damn it.

“Hi,” I manage.

She grins at me, and I get that skip of excitement in my chest. I can’t help myself. Even if it means nothing, I like seeing her smile.

“Do you need help with your coat?” she asks me.

Hell, no. That’s the last thing I want.

“Actually…” I look over at the door. “I’m probably just going to leave.”

“You mean since you sent your date packing?”

My ears get warm. “Yeah, well. She wasn’t into it.”

“Is that a fact?”

I narrow my eyes at her. Is she being patronizing? “Yes, it’s a fucking fact.”

She flinches. Maybe I shouldn’t have sworn, especially when she’s trying to be nice to me. Oh well. It’s already been established I’m not so hot with the ladies.

“I’m sorry,” I mumble. “I’m just… I’m not having a great night.”

“I can see that.” She glances around the restaurant. “Well, since you’re here, you should at least eat something.”

I manage a thin smile. “I’m not hungry.”

She considers this for a moment. “It’s cold out. You should at least stay to have a hot chocolate.” She sees my hesitation and adds, “On the house.”

“Is that the standard compensation for a guy whose blind date took off on him?”

“You told her to leave, remember? So quit the pity party. You’re already getting a free drink.”

I let out a sigh. All I want is to go home, shut myself in my apartment, and never come out ever again. I don’t even want to open the door for deliveries anymore. Maybe I can make a doggy door so they can stuff the food through. Or a slot for pizza.

On the other hand, my right leg has tightened up the same way my arm has, and I’m not looking forward to walking back to my apartment. It’s only three blocks, but sometimes three blocks feels endless. I’m stuck here, at least for now.

“All right,” I grumble. “Thanks, Noelle.”

She nods. “Now hold out your arm so I can help you.”

I frown at her. Is she serious? She’s really volunteering to help me out with this?

“Uh…” I look down at my arm pressed tightly to my chest. “That’s not going to happen.”

She doesn’t ask for further explanation. Her brow furrows, considering the situation. “Okay, let’s see what I can do.”

This goes beyond her duties as manager or hostess or whatever she is. She starts tugging on the sleeve of my coat with one hand, while easing it over my elbow with the other. My arm doesn’t cooperate in the slightest, but after a minute of this, she’s worked the coat free. I breathe a sigh of relief. I push away the sick feeling that from now on, I need to start wearing my coat over my right arm, since using the sleeve is no longer realistic.

“Okay.” Her brown eyes meet mine. “Now don’t leave. Promise?”

“How can I?” I snort. “I’ll never get my coat back on.”

She laughs at that. A genuine laugh where she throws her head back and covers her mouth. It makes my evening a little less awful.

Two minutes later, Noelle reappears carrying not one but two white mugs, presumably filled with hot chocolate, topped off with a dollop of whipped cream. Two mugs. One for me and one for…?

Noelle places one of the mugs in front of me, then slides into the booth across from me. “Do you mind if I join you?”

I’m so shocked, my mouth just falls open.

She arches an eyebrow. “Is that a yes?”

“Uh, sure. Knock yourself out.”

This doesn’t mean anything. Doesn’t change the fact that I’m undateable. Unfuckable. But not unsharing-hot-chocolate-withable, I guess.

I stir my hot chocolate with a spoon while it cools down, letting some of the whipped cream dissolve inside. Noelle isn’t saying anything. Is the onus of conversation on me? Because she ought to know I have zero social skills left.  

“It’s crowded here for a Thursday night,” I finally say.

There. That’s acceptable as conversation.

“Thursday is the new Friday,” Noelle says.

Exactly what Hayley claimed. “So what’s Friday?”

“Friday is the new Saturday.”

“So what’s Saturday? Is it Sunday? Is the whole week just shifted over?”

She chews on her thumbnail as she considers this. “No, Saturday is still Saturday. There are two Saturdays.”

“Fantastic. I feel like enough of a loser being home on a Saturday night, but now there are two nights I have to feel like a loser for not having any plans.”

As soon as the words leave my mouth, I’m kicking myself. I’m trying to impress this girl, not alert her to my lacking social life.

“I know what you mean.” Noelle lifts her mug to her lips and takes a sip. For a moment, she’s got a white foam moustache and it’s adorable, but she quickly wipes it away. “I’ve got the same problem.”

“You?” I snort. “Please. You don’t have that problem. You… you’re gorgeous.”

Did I just tell Noelle she’s gorgeous? I think I did. I meant it too. And now my ears feel like they’ve caught on fire, and I can’t look her in the eyes.

“Well, thank you.” Her cheeks are as pink as my ears feel. “But I have to disagree. Not that it’s a competition, but if it were, I’m sure I would win. I mean, it’s Thursday night, which is actually Friday night, and I’m here. At work.”

“Right. You’re working. I don’t have to work, and I still don’t have plans.” I glance back at the door. “Well, I had plans, but they took off.”

“You mean you made her leave,” Noelle reminds me.

I roll my eyes. “It wasn’t a love connection, okay?”

“You can tell that fast?”

“Yeah, I’m super smart. Intuitive.”

“Are you?”

I lift my mug of hot chocolate to take a sip, but my hand is shaking, so I drop it. I don’t want her to think there’s more wrong with me than there already is. The reality is bad enough.

“If you’re so intuitive,” Noelle says, “tell me what I’m thinking right now.”

“You’re thinking…” I stir the drink again, watching the white foam dissolve into the brown liquid. “This guy better leave one hell of a tip after I literally rescued him from his own coat.”

She giggles. “I did, didn’t I?”

“You did. It would have sucked to have to wear that thing come August. So… you know, thanks. For that and for the hot chocolate. And also…” I take a breath. “For your company.”

“My pleasure.”

Our eyes meet across the table. She’s so sexy with her dark hair in that bun, coming loose around her face, and her blouse open at the throat. Hayley was a kid. Noelle is the one I want. And maybe my messed up brain is playing tricks on me, but I don’t think she’s sitting with me because she feels sorry for me. I know that look. I haven’t seen that look from a woman in a really long time. Taylor used to look at me like that, and so did other women from time to time, even when I had on my wedding band. It’s The Look.  

I’m going to do it. I’m going to ask her for her number.

Sometimes you just have to go for it.

 

Noelle

Jeremy looks so hot tonight.

He was right—that other girl wasn’t into him. I could tell from the way she was looking at him. But it’s hard to understand why, when he’s looking so crazy handsome in his dress shirt, and oh my God, that green tie. That tie did it for me. If there’s one perfect article of clothing out there, it would be that tie on Jeremy right now.

Other guys might have stuck it out on the date, hoping to win the girl over, but Jeremy wasn’t messing around. I heard at least some of what he said to her, then I heard her tell him to go fuck himself. He shrugged like he couldn’t care less. Then after she stormed out the door, I saw him sink into the booth, his eyes downcast, his right arm still stuck in the coat.

And I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t go over there.

The more time I spend with Jeremy, the more I want this to happen. I love his sarcasm. I love his wry smile. I love the way his tie brings out the green in his eyes. I’m dying over that sexy scar over his left eyebrow. I’d forgotten how exciting it was to meet a new guy I liked and anticipate what might happen. That’s one thing you don’t get to experience in marriage. Well, if you’re not a cheating asshole like Greg.

“Hey.” Jeremy’s eyes are on mine. “Listen, it’s been really nice talking to you tonight.”

I can see his shoulders relax. He’s letting his guard down.

“Yeah,” I breathe.

“So, um…” He scratches at the back of his neck with his left hand. “I was wondering if…”

“Noelle!!!”

Oh, come on! Not now. Please not now.

“Noelle…” It’s Lorna, the waitress who’s been looking after the family that tried to negotiate the prices on the menu. “I need you.”

“Um…” I look at Jeremy then back up at Lorna. “Now?”

She nods solemnly.

Oy vey.

“I’m sorry,” I say to Jeremy. “I just… I need to…”

He nods, but I can tell the moment is broken. Again. It feels like the universe does not want him to ask me out on a date, like the universe thinks this is a bad idea. Stupid universe. Hasn’t it done enough to me lately?

I stomp across the restaurant to find out what these horrible people are so upset about that I can’t even take a fifteen minute break to flirt with the first new guy I’ve liked in over a decade. I’m sure it’s something really important. Like the bill is off by half a penny.

“The cheeseburger I got was terrible,” the woman announces when I arrive at the table. “It’s the worst burger I’ve ever had in my life.”

I look pointedly at her empty plate. “But you ate it.”

“Yes, because I was hungry,” she says. She brushes hair from her face. “Really, it was inedible.”

“I asked you if everything was okay a few minutes into your meal,” Lorna points out to the woman. “If you’d have told me the burger was bad, I would have gotten you a new one.”

“That probably would have been bad too!”

“Well, we could have brought you something else,” I add.

The woman shakes her head. “I don’t want any other food from this awful restaurant. I don’t think we should have to pay at all for such poor quality food.”

Usually I’m good at handling these delicate situations, but I honestly have no patience tonight. “I’m sorry,” I say. “If you had alerted us right away that the food was no good, we would have happily replaced it for you. But since you’ve eaten your entire meal, we expect you to pay for it.”

“You expect me to pay for a terrible meal?” the woman bursts out.

“Yes,” I say. “And if you don’t pay us now, I’ll be calling the police.”

That gets their attention. The couple noisily comments on the horrible food and service in the restaurant as they fish the exact amount of the bill from the woman’s purse. No tip, obviously. I feel bad for Lorna, who had to deal with these people all night and doesn’t have anything to show for it.

As soon as the family is gone, I try to go back to Jeremy, but there are about three more fires for me to put out. Then I’m needed in the kitchen. And by the time I get back out, Jeremy is gone.

 

Jeremy

Thump!

Christ, that kid is out there again with his ball. I rub my temples. I’m not in the mood for this. I spent most of last night feeling sorry for myself after my blind date was a complete failure, then Noelle took off on me before I could work up the nerve to ask for her phone number.

I wonder what she would have said.

It’s better I don’t know. I saved myself a world of pain by not asking.

Thump! Thump! Thump!

That’s it. That’s fucking it. I am sick of hearing that goddamn ball all the time. I told the kid to quit it. I asked nicely. Well, somewhat nicely. And repeatedly.

I grab my crutch that’s resting against the desk and struggle to my feet. My right hand tightens up when I take a step, morphing instantly into a painful ball clenched to my chest. I wince, remembering how disgusted Hayley had looked.

Undateable. Unfuckable.

But Noelle didn’t look disgusted. Maybe…

Don’t get too excited, Grieder. You already asked her if you could walk her home, and you heard her answer.

I limp the rest of the way to the door, and throw it open as aggressively as I can manage, which isn’t very. I can’t even open the door quickly, because it opens towards me.

That kid is in the hall. That goddamn kid. With that stupid blue ball. He throws it at the wall and catches it when it comes back to him. He glances at me when I open the door, but doesn’t acknowledge me or the fact that I’ve told him more than once to stop. At least three times now.

“Hey!” I snap at the kid. “I told you to cut it out, didn’t I?”

The kid doesn’t even look at me.

“I’m calling the super!” I say. “Your parents aren’t going to like that.”

The kid stops throwing his ball and turns to face me. He’s close enough that I can see all the freckles on his nose. “My mom says you’re the one who’s wrong,” he says. “She told me I could play with my ball all I want in the hall, and I don’t have to listen to you because you’re a grouchy old Grinch.”

My mouth falls open. I’m a… what?

My left hand tightens around the handle of my crutch as my heart accelerates in my chest. “What apartment do you live in?”

The boy takes a step back, clutching his ball to his chest. “I don’t have to tell you that.”

“Fine.” I grit my teeth. “Don’t tell me. But you have to go home eventually, don’t you?”

I don’t know what would have happened next. A game of endurance where I stood right here until he gave up and went home? Not likely, considering my right leg was already feeling weak. And even if I managed to figure out where the boy lived, would I really have marched over to his apartment and yelled at his parents?

That doesn’t sound like me.

But then again, I’m not the person I used to be.

Before it comes to any of that, the elevator doors open, and out comes Fanny, carrying a large Tupperware container. She sees the impasse between me and the boy. And she smiles.

“Henry,” she says. “Go on home. It’s getting late.”

And he leaves! Just like that! I stare after him in amazement as her rounds the corner.

“And you.” Fanny gives me a stern look. “You shouldn’t yell at little children. It’s giving you a bad reputation in the building.”

I raise an eyebrow. “You mean as a grouchy old Grinch?” I shrug. “Maybe it’s accurate.”

“Don’t be silly.” Fanny pushes past me with her Tupperware. “You’re perfectly nice.”

I follow her into the kitchen, where she’s busy making herself at home. “You know, Fanny,” I say, “I’m sure there are other shut-ins in the building who need you more than I do.”

“I used to visit Mr. Williams in 3C,” she says. “But he always used to pinch my bottom!”

I grin at her, despite myself. “So is that what I have to do to get you to leave me alone?”

Fanny stops fiddling with the Tupperware long enough to shake a finger at me. “Don’t even try it, mister. I could take you in a fight.”

That’s probably true.

“Anyway,” she says. “There are plenty of delightful women your own age. Speaking of which, how did your date with Hayley go last night?”

I don’t entirely manage to suppress a groan. “I’d rather not talk about it.”

“Oh, Jeremy,” she sighs. “How did you mess it up?”

“Me? Fanny, she didn’t like me from the second she saw me.”

Her white eyebrows bunch together. “Why not?”

Because I’m undateable. Unfuckable.

“She just didn’t.” I look away from her, staring down at my clenched right fist. “Can we talk about something else? Like, what concoction are you trying to poison me with today?”

“Poison!” Fanny gasps. “I’ll have you know, Mr. Grieder, that I baked you a delicious casserole.”

“What’s a casserole anyway? Isn’t it just a bunch of random stuff in a pan?”

“It’s French,” Fanny explains. “It means a deep dish that’s baked in the vessel that’s also used to serve it.”

“Right, but you’ve got it in Tupperware. So is it actually a casserole?”

“It doesn’t stop being a casserole just because I moved it to Tupperware!”

“I think by definition it does.”

“Listen, you!” Fanny points a wooden spoon at me that she got from one of my drawers. I didn’t even know I had a wooden spoon. “You’re too skinny and you need to eat something. I’m going to fatten you up if it’s the last thing I do.”

I doubt it. Somehow I lost my appetite six years ago, and it never came back. But she’s got more of a chance of that than getting me a girlfriend.

To be continued.....

21 comments:

  1. I hang on every word you write. The story is so touching.

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  2. So cute! I love the whole coat scene - so embarrassing for Jeremy but still adorable.

    Btw, I mentioned this for the last chapter so I feel like I should point it out again - I think your gait pattern for Jeremy that you fixed last chapter is also incorrect here. :)

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    1. It looks right to me... I just reread. I've been working all weekend, so my brain is all mucky, but are you sure it's wrong?

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    2. Hmm, I read it last night and thought you had a different gait pattern - looks correct now, perhaps I'm imagining things haha. Sorry! And I look forward to the next chapter :)

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    3. Oh... if you read it last night, that wasn't the latest version. I briefly uploaded an old unedited version, but it was as it is when the update post went live this morning :)

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    4. OH?? I've been sneaking in to read the updates on Saturday night. Looks like I'll need to read it again. Another Annabelle fix, yeah - I can handle that!

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    5. Gotcha. I didn't realize that wasn't the published version; I had the TOC open and it refreshed to show chapter 7 so I was like "cool, let's read it!" Good to know for next time!

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    6. Actually, the original version of the chapter had a scene that I decided to cut because I was worried it was too long. ;)

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  3. Superb like always. Thank you.

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  4. Oh Annabelle, I just love this story! I can't wait for Jeremy and Noelle to finally hook up. They are so sweet!

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    1. I always promise a happy ending ;)

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    2. I know you do! You never disappoint!

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  5. Jeremy is such a sweet character. Grumpy but a great sense of humor. Love his insecurities and gait and.... Everything :)

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  6. Great chapter, i cant wait for noelle to figure out who jeremy is! I keep guessing wrong about what happens next week though...

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  7. Ahh I love the two of them. And I love that Jeremy doesn’t take bullshit from anyone. Cannot wait for Noelle to find out who he really is....also cannot wait for them to hookup. Thank you for posting—look forward to your updates every Sunday.

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    1. Thanks so much! All that will happen, but not too soon ;)

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  8. Great chapter! You always draw me in with each of your stories, even when they're not about a Para, which shows your really incredible talent! Can't wait to read more about Jeremy and Noelle.

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