TWICE: the serial
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Colleen had been home from lunch with Dusty barely thirty minutes when she heard a knock at her front door. Leaving her laptop at the dining table, she went to peer through the peephole, and was startled to see him standing outside, his shaggy bronze hair and beard slicked with rain. She flipped the bolt back, and opened the door.

“Aren’t you supposed to be in class?” she asked.

“Skippin’ it,” Dusty said awkwardly. “Has anything strange happened to you since lunch? Weird…people, or emails? Phone calls?”

What?” His expression made her skin prickle. “What’s going on?”

“I’m gonna tell you that,” he said. “I just… So, that’s a nope, then?”

“I…haven’t checked my email since lunch. I’m working on my paper for Adolescent Psych. And you’re freaking me out, okay? Just come in and tell me what this is about.” She stepped aside to let him in.

“Sorry.” He gave her his usual peck on the cheek as they walked toward her dining table. “I’m fine. We’re all fine, I think. But I got accosted by this nutcase at Ricky’s who said a bunch of crazy shit and left me this.” He handed her an opened envelope, addressed in green calligraphy splotched and running from raindrops, but still legible.

“Matthew Rhymer…” She looked back up at him. “Isn’t that…?”

“Yeah.” She could see him bite down on the word. “The guy I tried to shoot.”

“Can I read it?”

He shrugged. “I gave it to you. Got no secrets from my fiancée.”

When she’d finished reading the very strange letter tucked inside, she handed it all back to him, her brows raised inquisitively.

“Your guess is good as mine. Makes no sense to any of us.”

“Us?”

“Anna got a copy too. Found it in her office pretty much the same time as the guy at Ricky’s gave me this one. No one saw who left hers.”

Well…that was a whole new level of disturbing. “Was the guy at Ricky’s anyone you recognized? From…before?”

“Not a chance.” He pulled out his phone, swiped it open and handed it to her. “Then Anna called while I was coming here, and forwarded this.”

There was an email open on the screen. The subject line read, “From Matt Rhymer.”

 

Anna,
I’m so very sorry for the way I vanished. All the years of silence. Everything I must have left you to wonder and worry about. 
I used to think I’d get used to hiding, but it just gets harder with each passing year. There are so many things I can’t stop wishing you and Dusty knew, about who I really am, and was, and what was really going on under your noses when we met. However it must have seemed, my disappearance had nothing to do with that last fight between Dusty and me. I’ve always wished so badly I could tell him that, but I could never think of any way to do it that might not cost us all more than my conscience would allow, even if my heart could bear it. If you know where he is, please tell him that for me? Tell him I still think of us as brothers.
If it’s not already obvious, I know about the letter you’ve been sent. If they’ve found you, then it might not be long before they find me too. I know how much you hate a lie. You can’t imagine how much more I hate the lie I’m living. I never wanted to deceive any of you. You least of all. But if my hand is going to be forced, I want you to hear it first from me—not from them.
I just still can’t see any way to make you believe it. Any of it. But I guess the time has finally come to try. 
I need to get my head on straight first. I’ll get back to you. Soon. But please, please, do NOTHING about the letter you were given. You’re a dead end. It’s safest if you stay that way.
When you’ve read this email, trash it—right away. Please don’t try to reply. That would just increase the risks—for both of us. 
Love, 
Your elusive friend, Matt

 

As she read the last few lines, Colleen heard Dusty breathing oddly. She glanced up, and was astonished to find him struggling not to cry. The only other time she’d seen him even close to tears was the night she had accepted his marriage proposal. And he still insisted she’d imagined that.

“Dusty?” she said gently.

He wouldn’t even look at her at first, just swiped at his eyes in obvious embarrassment as she stepped forward to put her arms around him. Only then did he lean into her and accept the embrace.

She knew the story behind that long scar below his left shoulder blade. ‘My biggest piercing,’ he had joked the first time she had seen it. He’d told her almost two years ago, the night before they’d first made love. As if to test her—or himself—somehow. It had felt a lot like listening to a man removing one of his own kidneys. But by the time he’d finally gotten it all out, and explained how that terrible event had been the golden spike that changed his course forever—the reason he was where he was today—she’d known he was the one she wanted. A beautiful, caring, honest, capable man, to the very core, on a bright, inspiring path made only more amazing by where it had begun. Colleen had worked long and hard to sell her parents on him, succeeding in the end—as she usually did with them. She liked to think she’d even sold Dusty himself on her high opinion of him. But she still wondered, sometimes, what might come along one day to knock him off his feet. She knew as well as anyone how deep his resolve went, but she also knew that no one was invulnerable.

“He’s right,” Dusty croaked into her hair at last. “About leaving us to worry. I don’t think a day’s gone by I haven’t wished I could take that night back. Wondering where he was. How he was. If it was me he was still hiding from.”

“Now you know,” she whispered back, kissing Dusty’s tattooed neck. “He doesn’t blame you. Sounds like he never did.”

“I guess not.” Dusty drew a shuddering breath, leaning back to stare up at the ceiling. “It’s just a pretty big weight off, you know? …After all this time?”

She gave him a squeeze, another kiss, and a reassuring smile.

“How’d I ever trick you into falling for me?” he asked.

“By not tricking me at all.” She gave him his phone back. “Shall we find that Chardonnay?”

“A bit early, isn’t it?”

“Medicinal,” she parried, heading for her kitchenette. Happily, Dusty’s problem, back in the day, had been speed, not alcohol. “One thing about that email does seem strange to me.”

Really?” Dusty nearly snorted. “Just one?”

“Okay, one stands out.” She gave him a peeved look as she pulled the bottle from her fridge. “This guy disappeared how many years ago?”

“Matt? Seven, more or less. …And?”

“That email was sent to Anna’s work address. She’s had this job for, what, three years?” Colleen tilted her head at Dusty. “How’d your long-lost friend know to send it there?”

“Well, yeah, right? How’d that guy know to find me at Ricky’s? How’d they know where Anna’s desk was—or when she’d be gone from it? This isn’t some random act. We’ve been stalked—at very least.” He gave her a worried look as she opened a cupboard for glasses. “That’s why I’m here, Colleen. I don’t really want you…hanging out alone right now, even here, until it’s clearer what this is—and where it’s going.”

“Meaning what?”

“Well, I was wondering if…” His expression became so uncomfortable that she bit the inside of her cheek to keep from smiling as she turned to pour their wine, suddenly sure she knew where this was going. Did he think this was how he’d finally get her to move in with him? “…if you’d consider moving—”

Yup. “Nice try, Dusty. And not a chance.” She allowed herself to smile at last as she came to hand him his glass. “For all the same reasons I gave you last time.”

He looked nonplussed, then rolled his eyes. “I don’t mean my place. I mean up to Thom and Anna’s house. Just ’til we get a handle on this thing.”

“And how long do you suppose that will take?” she asked, astonished. “Are they behind this idea?” When Dusty sort of wagged his head, her brows climbed even higher. “You haven’t even asked them yet, have you?”

“Come on, Collie. They have lots of room, and you know they’ll say yes. Anna adores you. I may move up there for a while now too. I mean, that email from Matt didn’t freak you out? ‘They’ve found you, Anna. My hand’s being forced. The lie I’m living. Trash this email. The risks to both of us—’”

“I read it, Dusty. Just now. But I still think asking your folks first might be the appropriate next step.”

Dusty gave a hangdog sigh. “I’m sorry. But, whatever this is, I’m pretty sure it’s just getting started. Matt’s email makes that awful clear. Dead ends or not, I see no reason to assume they won’t know right where to find you too—if they…have some reason to. You matter to me, Collie,” he said softly. “If they know that…”

She was touched, deeply, by what she saw in his face. She waved her glass at the phone he was still holding. “So, just call and ask what they think. Okay?”

“Right.” Looking flustered, Dusty started poking at his phone. “I’ll try Thom again. He still hasn’t answered my message—which is makin’ me a little crazy.”

So, here it is, Colleen thought. So much sooner than expected. The challenge she’d been sure, somehow, would come, someday. She steeled herself inside to hold him all the closer now, to make sure he made it through—intact and still firmly on his path. Wherever this was going, she knew what her love was for right now.

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