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  • Carla Buchanan

BGGM Entry 6: Monday, December 14, 2026

This is a work of fiction. Any names, places, characters, and happenings are solely products of the author’s imagination or fictitious retellings. Any likeness to actual events, locations, persons living or dead, is coincidental.

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**Readers 18 and up only please**.






I stare at my phone; at the message I’ve typed but have yet to send. It’s a response to the challenge Valentine issued before leaving my father’s cabin yesterday.

“I know you don’t want to give in to any feelings you have for me. I know you want to show me how it felt to be left so I can know how you felt when I left you in that cheesy hotel room in Vegas,” Valentine had said barely lowering the volume of his words as he spouted our secret aloud. My head had snapped to the door, but Beau had already let himself inside. I’d breathed a sigh of relief as Valentine had continued. “I know you don’t want to admit to loving me. I know the timing is all wrong. But I can admit to loving you. I can admit that I’ve thought about you every day since we were thirteen years old.” A mischievous smile had covered Valentine’s face next and then he’d said, “So, I’m not going to make you say the words. I’m going to simply say that if even a part of you feels the same then when you go for your run in the morning text me and let me know you’re leaving, and I’ll join you. If you don’t text, I’ll back off and admire you and love you from a distance until you come to your senses.”

“V…” I had said but had no idea what else to say. All I had to do was not text him and that would be that.

Despite how easy I knew it was just to simply not send him the message before going on my run I couldn’t help but reflect on how Valentine knew I would go on my run at all. He knew that I ran when I needed to think through something if I was stressed about something, or simply when I couldn’t really pinpoint why I felt down and needed to clear my head so I could figure that out.

I had thought about this moment for the rest of yesterday. I thought about whether or not I would text Valentine as Beau and I settled into the large guest bedroom. I had thought about whether or not I would send the text as I freshened up to take those pictures Juliette wanted us to post to our social media profiles. I had thought about whether or not I would send the text as Beau made white chicken chili with the ingredients stocked within the fridge and kitchen cabinets.

When we ate and sat down to watch a movie all I could think was that for a man who took cooking lessons, Beau’s cooking wasn’t as good as Valentine’s cooking skills had been as a teen. I’d inwardly shaken my head at myself for that thought but my mind’s betrayal of Beau hadn’t stopped there. As we kissed in bed that night, I hadn’t been able to keep myself from comparing Beau’s kisses to Valentine’s. As ridiculous as it was it had felt like I was cheating on Valentine - cheating on my husband.

When I hear footsteps above me in the bedroom, I zip my jacket, wishing I had one from the same brand Valentine’s daughter had been wearing. The temperature adjusting technology would’ve been handy on this cold, dreary, misty morning that almost makes me change my mind about going out.

I turn off my phone’s screen after deleting the words I’ve typed before I slide it into the weatherproof case. I slide my arm into the armband of the case and tighten it on my bicep. I then pop my earbuds into my ears and lift my thick knit headband around my hairline and ears. I speak the command to start my running playlist before heading out the door.

One full loop around the lake is a little more than ten miles but there’s a footbridge over the center that allows people to cross on foot, on a bike, or on golf carts available for rent at the lake office on the other side of the lake. At the office boats can be rented, camping sites can be reserved, permits can be bought for fishing. There’s also a small store/market that keeps the necessities for camping, fishing, and general living in stock so those visiting the lake don’t have to drive the twenty minutes back into town for those things. The office is on the opposite side from the lake’s entrance, purposely placed there, forcing those arriving here to take a short tour of the place they’re visiting.

I feel bad when I see that my father has thought of everything when I thought he’d been ignoring me when I said I planned to stay in the cabin and not at the Mayor’s house or Anson Estate. He never responded to my requests to have the cabin prepared and stocked for my month-long stay, he instead asked if I would agree to participate in any events leading up to the ceremony to honor his tenure as mayor of the town his ancestors founded. I’d agreed and had figured it would be up to me to get the cabin ready once I got here but a text from my brother came through when my plane landed saying the cabin was ready with all of my requests.

My father has even had the groundskeeper come and clear the trail behind the house for me knowing of my morning runs. There isn’t one obstruction, other than melting patches of ice on the ground leftover from the freezing temperatures overnight. When my shoe steps onto the damp path, I decide to run in the opposite direction of Valentine’s cabin, not wanting the temptation. The footbridge is more than a mile away from my father’s cabin, so I decide to run there and back as I think about everything going on.

I barely make it a quarter of a mile before the orange netting and scrolling marquis powered by a generator tell me to turn around. The stretch of path there is being repaved, a task that started on December 1st and says workers will be present there Mondays and Wednesdays from eight in the morning until three in the afternoon until the work is complete. I turn around and start to run again. I consider going back into the cabin and giving up on the run. However, when I pass the trail leading up to my father’s cabin, I keep going with eyes stuck on the path ahead of me, especially when I can see the trail leading up to Valentine’s cabin only a few feet away.

I speed up as I get closer to the arching entrance I know leads to the back of Valentine’s cabin even though I need to slow down since I nearly sprinted the half-mile between my father’s cabin and Valentine’s. I’m not used to running in air so thick and so cold and my body doesn’t seem to want to adjust. I make it less than a hundred feet past Valentine’s cabin before I have to come to a complete stop and catch my breath.

I stand and shake off the brief rest, but my phone’s tones pause the music. I look down at my watch and it tells me I’m receiving a text from my father. I shake my head knowing that a text from him at just past six in the morning can’t be good, and I’m proven right when the text summons me to a ‘family meeting’ and brunch at the mayor’s house that will start promptly at nine. I’m not the only recipient of the text, I notice my brother, Ripley, and Beau have been sent the same text as well. I then realize that this meeting won’t only be about my brother and his situation, but about the engagement, I failed to tell him about before it was announced.

I decide to scrap the run, turning to walk back home as replies to my father’s message come through. Even Beau answers saying he can’t wait to meet his future family, which forces several frustrated curses to leave my lips. I huff out a breath at how everyone asks ‘how high’ when my father orders everyone to jump. I sigh in frustration as I stalk back down the path with my playlist still blasting its upbeat, motivating sound into my ears. I take a deep breath before lifting my hand to switch over to my cool-down playlist, but before I can connect with the button, a door opens in front of me.

Have I been running toward this door this entire time, thinking I was heading back to the cabin to get ready for breakfast with my father?

I’m drawn inside, into his arms. His lips start to move but I can’t understand what he’s saying with the cool-down music playing so loudly in my ears. I snatch the thick headband from my head and tug the earbuds from my ears as Valentine is saying, “You’re soaked through. You let yourself get too cold, Chris,” Valentine says, stating the obvious. He takes my soaked headband, and my earbuds, that still play the music from my playlist. He tosses the items on the bench and removes the phone strapped to my arm before he speaks again. “You should know better than to wear this skimpy shit when it’s so wet and cold outside.”

The zipper of my jacket comes down and the tight, wet garment is tugged from my body, hitting the floor in a heavy thwap. Next, my tank is lifted over my wet and frizzy hair before Valentine goes to his knees in front of me. A sound leaves my mouth when his hot hands settle on my waist and his fingers curl into the waistband of my pants, and he starts to tug at my compression pants. The sound is a mix between a whimper and a gasp that makes the shivering stop instantly as heat shoots from the spot where his hands make contact with my skin.

A moment later I’m standing there in just my sports bra and boy shorts with Valentine kneeling among the pile of my wet clothes. When I look down at him, his head is down and he’s making no move to get up. His body heaves at a slow pace like he’s forcing himself to inhale deep breaths, like he’s forcing himself not to react to my half-naked body.

“Look at me,” I say, not knowing why I need to torture myself with the intense dark brown eyes I know will harbor love and lust, heartache and loss, pain and passion, so much tenderness, and burning desire. That last one, I know he’ll keep under complete control out of respect for me, but I don’t want him to control himself or hold back at all because I can’t go another day wondering about whether or not these feelings I’m having go beyond just the physical like I want them to - for my own sake.

Valentine looks up at me and everything I expected to see is there in his eyes. My hands lift to rest on either side of his face, my fingertips gliding through the scratchy hair of his neatly trimmed beard. The prick of it against my skin makes a tingle start from the place of contact and move through my body like an electric current that seeks out the spot where his hands sit hot and heavy on my hips. When the two sensations meet, an involuntary moan leaves my lips, the sound still not enough to make Valentine lose control but he does press his lips to the center of my belly ever so gently before rising to his feet.

“As much as I want you, I won’t go there until you’re no longer wearing his ring,” he says and kisses me before I can say anything. His lips move over mine and his arms wrap around me, the action warming me from the inside out exactly as he intends.

The kiss trails off coming to a natural end like making out is something we do every day. Instead of going any further, tempting ourselves any more than we should, I stand wrapped within the circle of Valentine’s bear hug, letting his heat consume me.

“Come on. I’ll give you my robe so you can take off those -”

“No,” I say, cutting him off and pulling away from him as I push away the remnants of my desire. My eyes meet Valentine’s and I know what I want to do if we’re not having sex and it’s not sitting around to complain about the craziness in my life. “Show me where you put the device.”


~~~~~


Valentine gives me a t-shirt that he says he got on his last movie shoot. He says it’s too small but it still fits me like a tent so I tie it at the front which makes Valentine roll his eyes.

“Do you have to personalize every outfit?” Valentine asks and then walks over to me when he sees me struggling to wrap the long ends of the drawstrings around the waistline of the pants.

“It’s what I do,” I return. “You should hire me. Rumor is you can definitely afford me,” I joke about his millions in Amazon stock and the Anson Cafe franchise.

“I shouldn’t have to pay. Aren’t wives supposed to dress their husbands for free?” Valentine asks, chuckling as he wraps the two strings around my waist a couple of times and then using the two ends to pull me forward and into his body. When he does so, I’m stiff not because of what he said but because of how comfortable this all feels. Since finding out that there’s a version of me and Valentine that gets to have the life this version of us once wanted, I’ve been thinking that we’ll never measure up no matter how hard we try. We’re like a replica handbag that never quite feels right, not because there’s anything wrong with it but because deep down you know it’s not the real thing. However, this version of us is just as real as that one and if he is who I want then I should be able to explore that regardless of whether or not we end up like that other version of us.

Not even realizing it, I’ve continued to be the girl who makes choices based on how my father might feel instead of being the woman who moved thousands of miles away to be able to make choices based on what I feel. I’m concerned about my father’s business, whose feelings I might hurt, and what people might say if I call off the engagement when I need to only consider what I want and how I feel.

“V, I’m sorry for the way I treated you when we were teens,” I say not knowing where that came from but liking the way the words feel. “I shouldn’t have allowed what my father might say keep me from dating you. I should’ve -”

My words get swallowed by Valentine’s mouth covering mine and another long stretch of passionate kisses and throaty moans. We reluctantly pull away from one another, panting, Valentine tying the two strings he still holds in his hands carefully as if the mundane task is helping him calm down.

“The device is in the basement,” Valentine finally says. “And I think I might have an idea as to why she might’ve got stuck somewhere.”

On the way down to the basement, Valentine explains that he took some time to go through the notebooks when he couldn’t sleep last night. He says he’s positive the sequence of numbers at the start of each entry is the ‘address’ of the world she describes on the pages. He says that I wouldn’t believe that there are some worlds way more advanced, a lot less advanced, and some that didn’t have a civil rights movement. There are some that have had three world wars and others that are almost exactly like ours like the one we visited. He tells me that Elise encountered herself on many occasions. In some entries she called herself crazy, in some brilliant, in some… lost. In some, she never left California, in some she never married your father, and in some, she’s a well-respected scientist and inventor.

“There was one problem that kept coming up for her and it’s a problem she never figured out how to resolve,” Valentine starts. “The currency in every universe was different, though in a lot of modern worlds her credit cards worked but not in all of them. She said not having money made it hard to stay in any one place for too long.”

“But if she ran out of money she could simply come back and try again,” I say. “My mother might’ve been crazy, but she was also brilliant. She wouldn’t have…”

I trail off because Valentine is shaking his head at me. “No. The money issue is about us going somewhere and needing a way to live while trying to find her. I don’t think she ran out of money. I think she got into some trouble.” Valentine holds up one of the mobile phones that go with the MV Generator and says, “I found this phone on the floor as we were bringing the table up. I thought nothing of it at first but then I considered how easy it is for people to lose a phone, run out of battery, or break a phone. What if your mother wants to come back but she can’t because she’s stuck? What if she dropped this phone on her way somewhere and the portal or window or whatever you want to call it, closed behind her?”

“You think that’s what happened?” I ask, not believing the hope in my tone when I thought the worst of my mother for so many years. My tone suggests that I want to believe Valentine’s theory could be a possibility but there’s also a part of me that thinks that if she built the device once, she would’ve been able to build it again and … come back.

I then think about the other possibility Valentine suggested - that my mother got into trouble and can’t come back, or she doesn’t want to bring the trouble back with her. It’s another possibility, one I feel guilty for wanting to be the truth more than I want to continue to accept that she walked out on us. Knowing she can’t come back because she got into trouble makes me feel like Elise Anson might’ve actually loved me and wanted me.

“If that’s what happened then we’ll never find her,” I say, feeling defeated for thinking I could find my mother in some random universe. The discovery of the device seemed to open up a world of possibilities but now I’m thinking I’ve only opened myself up to a world of disappointment. “Why did I think this might be a good idea?” I finally ask, turning away from the device that taunts me and tempts me with the closure I so desperately need and deserve where my mother is concerned. “There’s no way for us to find her…If she’s even out there.” I frown when Valentine smiles at my defeat. He pulls me over to the charging table where the device and other phones sit. Everything is charged and ready to go, and the notebooks are stacked neatly, now with orange, red, or blue sticky tabs attached to some of the pages.

“I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but I’ve come up with a system,” he says, and I smile because the excitement in his tone is contagious. I remember Valentine being excited like this when he told me about how he was going to be a stuntman in a blockbuster movie. He was a stuntman in several blockbuster movies and a few television and web series, so I guess his excitement worked in his favor back then.

“A system?” I say with amusement in my tone. His eyes meet mine and we hold one another's gaze for a few moments. The tension that builds in those few seconds is thick and heady, so much so that I suddenly feel shy in a way I never do. I tug in my bottom lip and turn away, feeling like I’m sixteen again, wanting Valentine to kiss me when I know it’s not something I should want.

I cross my arms over my chest, feeling a shiver that has as much to do with the temperature as it does to do with the company. Valentine responds as if on instinct, his arm snaking around my waist. He draws me into the heat of his hard body placing my back at his front.

“Yes, Chris, a system. Blue stickies are for the worlds she describes as being most like our own. Same currency, a lot of the same history, artists, musicians, etcetera. These were places she deemed acceptable if something ever happened -”

“Happened?” I interrupt, my body tensing. Valentine holds on a little tighter like he isn’t ready for me to leave his embrace. I’m not ready either, I just need to know what she thought might happen and if that had something to do with her disappearance.

Valentine hesitates and I’m sure this is going to be bad, but I end up laughing when he’s done speaking because I don’t feel as alarmed by my mother’s reasoning as all the men seem to be. “Your mother was on the technologically advanced end of the prepper trend. She saw the MV Generator as a way to save her family when shit finally hit the fan and the world as we knew it changed so much it became necessary to leave. I also think I know why your father thought she might’ve had a nervous breakdown,” Valentine says, slowly turning me to him as if he needs to be looking at me to say what he has to say next. “Your mother was a little obsessed with the end of the world, Chris. The stuff you told me about her when we were in high school, about how your father was sure she was having a nervous breakdown… it was tame compared to some of the things I read in those notebooks. Your mother was sure the end of the world as we knew it was going to come in her lifetime and that she was going to have to hunker down somewhere or whisk you and your brother away. I don’t know if I’d call it insanity, definitely paranoia. I don’t think she was thinking zombies or aliens, more like civil unrest, government coups, and plagues… That last one she wasn’t so wrong about after the pandemic a few years back,” Valentine explains. “Her paranoia led to a plan that was completely sane because the device’s existence allowed it to be. She mentions a diary but there wasn’t a diary in the box with the notebooks. I also think there are more notebooks. She also mentions currency and other studs she acquired after going to a few of the worlds. Those items are in the cabinets in the basement of the cabin. All of those empty shelves under the stairs in the basement at Anson Estate used to hold food, water, medical supplies, a couple of generators, tools to keep everything running, and comfort items like books and DVD players.

“And… the red and orange stickies… what do they mean?”

“Orange means that if we go there, we need to be extra cautious and extra prepared. Nothing really dangerous but different enough that if you say or do the wrong thing someone might get suspicious of you. Red is for places that will most definitely be dangerous if we go there, and extensive planning might be necessary. All of the marked worlds are ones your mother mentioned wanting to return to at some point. Especially the one that had not abolished slavery yet had still somehow become advanced enough that slaves could be ordered from catalogs. More than two decades have passed since she wrote that. By now there’s probably an app for that.”

I tilt my head up and stare at Valentine to see if he’s kidding. He’s not. He’s serious about what he read in my mother’s notebooks. I shake my head, knowing without a doubt that I will not survive on some world with a modern slave trade. I won’t survive something like that. Knowing that such a horrific practice was abolished on my world will compel me to want to see that happen on another. On a world like that, I’d end up as some half-assed Harriet Tubman – a woman with the determination and spirit to make things change but without the commonsense tools to maneuver a world like that.

Had my mother thought the same and her overzealousness became her downfall? Was she trapped on some world that had yet to abolish slavery?

The thought makes me sick, and I flee the basement of Valentine’s cabin, needing to be away from the device for a little while. Moments later, Valentine is holding my hair while I vomit up the chicken chili leftover in my stomach from the night before.


~~~~~


Beau had barely noticed my absence. He actually said that to me when I walked through the door in clothes I wasn’t wearing when I left. He didn’t even notice the oversized jogging pants, nor did he notice that I was wearing a coat and hat I borrowed from Valentine. He only had eyes for the wedge or putter or whatever he was looking at that had a price tag of over two thousand dollars. I naively asked if the price was for an entire set and he chuckled at me like I was being ridiculous or telling a joke.

“Babe… it’s for one. Only amateurs buy clubs in sets,” Beau had said, and I thought he was being ridiculous to pay that much for one golf club.

“Oh,” I’d replied not knowing what else to say since I’m not one to tell someone how to spend their money. I’d then raced upstairs to shower and change, which had only brought me closer to where I am now - dealing with my father’s disappointment.

“If you’ve already talked to Beau and given him your permission to ask me to marry him then why are you mad at me for not telling you we were engaged?” I ask my father who has started my visit with a lecture on family, loyalty, and protocol. Within his speech was an admonishment for not informing him that I had indeed accepted Beau’s proposal and of course for not showing my support for my brother and Ripley after their… disagreement. “I’m engaged to the man who holds the future of Valley Developments within the palm of his hands. You of all people should be happy,” I snap, knowing I’m being a bitch. However, I can’t help but think of his lecture and think that he’s the biggest fucking hypocrite in the world.

“Are you?” He throws back at me and I open my mouth, ready to argue whatever point I need to make but the question catches me off guard. The sincerity in his dark brown eyes isn’t easy to ignore and I’m taken aback. “The only reason I ask is that most women who get engaged want everyone to know. And while I might not know you well, and I might not know what kind of man you might want to marry… I’ve watched you grow, and honestly, I never saw my independent, opinionated, open-minded daughter as the kind of woman who’d ever settle for being with someone who she didn’t want to tell everyone about. I never thought I’d see my daughter agree to marry someone who’d try to dim your best attributes since they are what makes you who you are.”

“Why’d you let him ask me?” I ask instead of letting the truth of his words sink in.

“Like I said… I don’t claim to know anything about the kind of men you like.” Noble Anson shrugs. “The man made a good case for your future with him. Who was I to say no when he was convinced you’d say yes? And you did, right? Are you saying you didn’t want to say yes?” When I don’t speak fast enough, not believing that my father knows me as well as he does, he adds, “Your mother’s family didn’t want her to be with me. As you know, they disowned her for not turning into a clone of Juliette and marrying the man that Juliette eventually married.” He chuckles. “They were not at all impressed that my family founded a tiny mountain town in North Georgia. They thought I was a country bumpkin who was going nowhere and would have to live off your mother and her family’s money.”

“I didn’t know that,” I say sitting back in the buttery cognac leather of the guest chair in my father’s study, stuck on the fact that my father mentioned my mother at all. He never mentions her first, nor does he smile like this when he talks about her. Any questions I have about my mother are usually met with reluctant and biting remarks about her mental state.

His good mood in regard to my mother could be the perfect time to bring up my questions about her mental state but his goofy little smile lowers my hackles. I don’t want to ruin this rare moment where he remembers my mother in a fond way. As much as I don’t want to wait, I can’t question him about what Valentine read in my mother’s notebook later. Bringing up my mother’s obsession with having a plan in place for a potential apocalypse will extinguish that glint in his eyes.

As if done with the peaceful moment, one second he’s smiling and the next his lips press into a thin line that conveys nothing but disappointment. He sits back in his seat as well, crossing his arms over his chest as he settles. He then blows out a long breath and returns to being the man I’ve always known.

“You can’t fraternize with that friend of yours until your brother and Ripley decide what to do,” Noble Anson starts. My automatic reflex is to tense when I think he’s referring to Valentine, but then realize he’s referring to Kendall. I let out a breath of relief, but the relief is short-lived because my father continues. “We must present a united front as a family during our darkest moments, and this is a dark moment,” he says so seriously that I want to laugh. It’s not like my brother is the first man to have ever cheated on his wife or had a child his wife didn’t know about. I maintain my composure and instead roll my eyes when my father starts to talk to me like I’m a constituent who he’s trying to convince to vote for him. “Your brother needs you on his side, Christmas. People need to see that you’re on his side. This isn’t Silicon Valley. It isn’t Hollywood or Los Angeles. It’s Anson Valley where the principal of a high school needs to be respected. He needs to be a role model. If his own twin isn’t able to see him as someone capable of being a role model who should be respected then we both know no one else in this town will,” my father lectures. “Ripley has decided to stay with your brother. She plans to stand by him, and I expect you to fall in line and do the same. With the town preparing to honor me at the beginning of the new year we need things to go as smoothly as possible. We need the news stories to be filled with positivity and talk of progress, not salaciousness. We need to keep the town focused on the issues that are important.”

“But Elisa is his daughter. I’m her godmother and her aunt. I can’t ignore either of those things,” I say. “I’m always on my brother’s side, but I’m also on the side of a little girl who didn’t ask to be conceived or born or related to someone like you who sees her existence on this Earth as an inconvenience and a blemish on his son’s reputation. I won’t ignore the fact that Kendall has been my best friend since preschool,” I say, and I can tell he’s offended by my words even though I’m sure he knows they are true. “I’m not the one who created this situation, and I won’t rearrange my life to accommodate those who did. I love my brother, but this is his issue, not mine.”

I huff out a breath and cross my arms over my chest. All too quickly I realize I’m mimicking my father’s pose and readjust as I huff out another breath.

“The VT wants to do a story on you and your life as my daughter,” my father says, ignoring everything I just said. “You’ll make yourself available to the reporter and photographer this week. Joe’s interview was supposed to be first, but we’ll need to wait a week or so to allow the gossip to die down,” Noble says, always putting the optics of a situation before the feelings of the people involved. As he opens the top drawer of his desk he says, “Call the number on the card and arrange everything.” I take the card and look down at it to see that the reporter is the one and only boy I ever called boyfriend the whole time I lived in Anson Valley. The relationship lasted less than a month because Gray Mason wanted me to give him my virginity and there was no way in hell that was going to happen. I broke up with him over that issue, which made him angry, but as my brother’s best friend he did nothing to retaliate. This article in the Valley Times is going to be his chance to get his revenge. He’s probably already been digging into my life so he can expose all of my secrets.

“Is that all?” I ask but don’t wait for him to dismiss me. I stand, hoping my father doesn’t stop me from leaving.

“Yes, that’s all,” he says, and I quickly turn, ready to be done with this part of my day. “Oh, there is one thing…” my father calls out to me as I reach the door. I stand there with my hand poised to open the door when Noble says, “Jace tells me you showed up to the house with someone named, Valentine. Even though I am only aware of one Valentine in Anson Valley, I was hoping it wasn’t that Valentine. However, I was soon proven wrong after Jace provided a description of the man with you. I honestly have no idea why you’d be with Valentine Trudeau, but this family doesn’t need any more scandals right now and I don’t you need to be on the wrong side of any more scandals. That man has no right to use this family’s name to make money and I will stand behind Joe and Ripley if they decide to take legal action against Valentine.” That statement makes me turn to him, but I know I will get nowhere if I try to argue with him. He will accept nothing but unflinching loyalty to our family.

Noble then sits forward in his seat so he can make sure I hear him when he says what’s next, surprising me with the sudden change in subject. “Marriage is a decision that will have an effect on the rest of your life, Chrissy. Don’t marry anyone for any reason other than love or you’ll regret it in the end. I married your mother because of love,” he says, surprising me. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him say he loved my mother, and the admission makes me soften. I know Noble Anson hasn’t had the easiest life, especially not after he married my mother, so I decide to give him some slack. I also decide to take his advice. “My business will be fine,” Noble continues. “Hey, it might be better off if Beau does let us go. Valley Developments will be a success with or without Lacoste Incorporated. You know I’ve never been the kind of man who’d use my children for personal gain, at least not my own. It’s always been me trying to lay out the best path for you to follow so your life can be easier than mine was.”

“I know,” I say and sigh because it’s the truth. He might try to control my life. He might be judgmental. He might be a hard man to get along with sometimes, but he always has my best interest at heart. Even when guided by a lack of information or bias, he still makes decisions and demands based on the best intentions.

“Remember Chrissy…You have the right to change your mind and be with someone who won’t try to dim your independence and intellect so they can shine brighter,” he says, and I can’t help it. I walk over and hug my father. I place a kiss on his cheek and step back, knowing he’d be red as a stop sign if he didn’t have such deep, brown skin. “Honestly, I like Jace for you,” he says, making me shake my head in exasperation. I almost bring up Valentine but don’t do so because we’re ending our meeting on a good note. Bringing up Valentine won’t help anything when my father seems to have already forgotten that Jace mentioned him. Much like Beau, my father has dismissed the instance of Valentine and me together as meaningless. He has no reason or reference to think anything different which is going to make things so much harder if the truth about us ever comes out. “He’s someone I could approve of,” he says like it's normal for a father to say that to a daughter. “Oh, and Jace mentioned you went down and stayed in the basement for a while…” he trails off not knowing how to end the sentence without speculating as to why I was there for so long or daring to suggest I might care about Elise Anson’s work. I bet he’s purposely avoiding mentioning it, not wanting me to bring up her work either. “One of the workers said you had everything taken over to the cabin and I wanted to ask if you wanted anything else of hers I might find around the house?” He’s fishing, tiptoeing around mentioning what it was I actually took. He’s convinced himself that I couldn’t possibly understand anything about her work and that the reason I want her things is solely for sentimental reasons. If I naively mention what I found, he’ll know differently and probably come up with some reason why I shouldn’t keep my mother’s things, or why he can’t allow me to do so. I decide to let him continue to treat me like a naive little girl who he’s successfully steered away from being anything like her mother.

I don’t turn him down, not wanting him to get suspicious about my sole interest in Elise Anson’s work.

Let him underestimate me.

“Yeah… sure,” I say, knowing that once I go back to California, I won’t have to look at her things. They’ll be safely tucked away in one of the spare rooms in my father’s cabin until I’m ready, until I have some sort of closure over her disappearance, and am ready to face the things that belonged to her.

“I also have this for you,” my father says before I can make another attempt at an escape. In his hand is one of the blue folders he uses for his hard copy office files. A small gasp leaves my lips when I take the folder from him and I see that it’s the deed to the cabin with my name as the new owner. “Consider it an early birthday gift. I know how much you love that place. You already have the key so you’re good to go.”

“Thank you,” I whisper not knowing what else to say. I don’t give him a chance to say anything, afraid I’ll let the thoughtful gift make me forget about everything else. I flee his study and hurry down the hall, needing to distance myself from the man whose moods seem to change from moment to moment.

I’m starting to think Noble Anson is the one who has lost his mind and that diagnosis was never meant for my mother. She might’ve been obsessed with the end of the world and with the invention the took her to other worlds, but at least those are things that actually matter. This need for my father to bend over backward to please other people doesn’t seem sane and doesn’t matter at all.

And what the hell was that Jace comment about? He inserted the comment so smoothly that I’m not sure of the intent. Obviously, my father knows me well. He should know me well enough to realize I’d never agree to any setup he’s orchestrated. Though, I guess mentioning Jace has done what it’s supposed to do - I’m now thinking about Jace. I’m also swirling with emotions about my mother, her device, her mental health, the reality of multiverse travel, and now my father is acting strange. He normally would’ve said more about me being with Valentine, more about Beau and his business, more about me taking my mother’s things, more about what he expects of me leading up to the ceremony honoring him. I don’t know what to think or how to take the gesture of the cabin. I know there’s a motive behind his behavior, I just haven’t figured what it is yet.

I stop in my tracks when I walk into the den where Ripley and Beau sit. I’m sure I heard them talking before I walked through the door, though admittedly I wasn’t paying attention to what they’d been saying. However, when I look up at them, they’ve stopped talking and are both staring at me. I get the feeling they were talking about me and are waiting for me to comment on whatever they were saying. That’s further emphasized by the fact that Beau jumps up and hurries over to me. He pulls me into a hug and kisses my cheek, but I barely respond. I’m looking at Ripley who sneers at me like she wants to punch me in the face. A moment later she’s rubbing her stomach lovingly and her face is covered in a smile which makes me think I hadn’t seen the sinister expression at all.

Am I crazy? Or is she?

“Everything okay? You look… upset,” Beau says, taking a step back from me and looking me over. His genuine concern makes me feel like an asshole for all of the things I’ve been saying and doing and thinking.

“I’m… I need to talk to Joe,” I say.

“He’s outside… on the phone with Kendall.” Ripley adds the last part as if tempting me to lash out. I won’t do that to her. I won’t stoop to her level. “Oh, and your father said I should ask if you’d help with the costumes for the Christmas play. All of the parents are meeting tomorrow to get some of the work done. I think it’ll be okay for you to come if you don’t have children,” she says and I want to tell her that she doesn’t have children either, at least not yet. I pause and take a deep breath, pushing away the desire to say something that will cause more tension.

I shake my head, shaking away the unease her words caused, which is not because of her barb about me not having kids. I don’t care about that. My unease is about how her words so closely portray the life of the Christmas and Valentine on that other world. There’s no way she knows about what I saw on that other world, I think, but can’t help it when my mind flashes to Elise Anson and what she said about me helping with the costumes for the Christmas play and Valentine helping construct the set. Ripley has no idea what I heard Elise say on that other world, but I can’t help that her response makes me flail a little. I open my mouth and close it which Ripley takes as a victory. She thinks she’s rattled me. She thinks I’m intimidated by her and will be even more intimidated when I have to be around her and her circle of friends who have probably heard the worst things from Ripley about me. I’ll have to see all of those things in the eyes of the people who she calls friend and still be able to pretend like we’re as close as sisters. I’ve had to pretend long before Ripley came along so her games don’t affect me.

“You know Brenna Oliver, right?” Kendall asks, proving that she’s trying to provoke me. She knows I know Brenna and she knows that we didn’t get along in high school. But I still nod at her inquiry like I don’t know she’s trying to provoke me into being a bitch to her. “She’s this year’s play director. She happily volunteered to lend a hand since she is director of events at her mother’s family’s resort in Hawaii. She told me she’ll be in town for a while. She’s helping to get her grandparents’ house ready for sale. If you think you might go tomorrow, we can ride over together if you want.”

“I’ll think about it.”


~~~~~


“I do,” my brother is saying when I find him walking slowly along the manmade creek that flows diagonally across the dramatically sloping hill of the backyard. “Ken, you know I do,” he adds. He listens and hangs his head which deflates my anger at him significantly. I should be sympathetic to his situation since I know all too well about making choices based on our father’s support and approval. “I can see why you might say that, but you know I’ll always be there for you and Elisa. And I never said I didn’t love you, Ken. But I can’t leave Ripley right now. And after the incident at the school…” Joseph trails off and shakes his head. He makes a noise like he’s going to speak but goes quiet, listening. “I’m not asking you to lie anymore, Ken. You know I’ve wanted to tell everyone the truth for a long time,” he adds.

I know that to be true. Kendall told me as much during her drunken confession. She wasn’t willing to let the people in town think she was some one-night stand that went wrong which is exactly what they would’ve thought and said about her. It makes me wonder if there’s any world out there where Kendall and my brother got married after she found out she was pregnant, and that version of them are in the middle of their happily ever after.

I clear my throat, making Joseph whip around. His eyes are wide, but he quickly realizes I’m not Ripley and releases a sigh of relief.

“Dammit Chrissy, you scared the shit out of me,” Joseph says.

“Tell Ken to call me when she gets home,” I say and Joseph chuckles.

“You are saying the exact same thing at the same time,” he says. “Chrissy, Ken says she will call you when she gets home. Elisa is staying with her mom tonight, so she wants you to go to Moscow Mule Monday at Lana Lou’s,” he relays, referring to the bar Kendall’s mother owns. Alana Louise Kerr is the woman I always wanted to be like. She wasn’t married but every man in town wanted her. She could care less about any of them until she needed or wanted to. She didn’t give a damn what the people of Anson Valley thought of her when I lived here and I’m sure she still feels the same. She owns Lana Lou’s Bar, as well as the tattoo shop next door, promoting them unapologetically around town, much to the dismay of those in town who lean toward the more conservative side of things.

“Okay, but you should come with us, Joe. I think you and I need to spend some sibling time together… you know, catch up since there’s plenty to catch up on.”

“Ripley isn’t going to go for that, and Monday is one of the busiest nights at Lana Lou’s. The people of this town -

“Can kiss my ass,” I interrupt. “Kendall is my best friend, and you are my brother. I want to hang out with both of you.”

“Are you bringing Beau?”

Crap… I forgot all about Beau. I have no idea what the hell is wrong with me. I could blame it on the fact that I found a device that takes me to other worlds, but I was like this before I ever set eyes on the Multiverse Generator. As much as I hate to admit it, I started pushing Beau to the back of my mind as soon as I laid eyes on Valentine Trudeau. And believe me… I know how messed up that is.

“I’ll invite him, and you can invite Ripley.”

“She’ll say no.”

“Good,” I say and Joseph chuckles again.

“You both said the same thing,” he says and then ends the call with Kendall. As soon as he slides his phone into his pocket, I punch him in the arm as hard as I can. “You punch like a girl, but that still hurt.”

“You asshole! Why didn’t you tell me? Now you have me in the middle of your shit and on daddy’s shitlist right along with you. I’m sure he doesn’t believe I didn’t know.”

“I told him you didn’t know,” Joseph defends.

“And he didn’t believe you,” I return.

“That’s not my fault.”

“It is your fault because you didn’t tell me. I could’ve helped if Ken was who you wanted. But you two have been lying to me for years. Ugh,” I growl out, utterly frustrated. I’m frustrated with myself, with my brother, with my father, and with my mother. I’m frustrated with Beau and Ripley and Kendall. I should be frustrated with Valentine but that’s hard to do when he’s only doing what I’ve allowed him to do. If I tell him to back off completely, I have no doubt he will comply.

“I don’t think I’m the only one who's been lying,” my brother says. “You don’t think I didn’t notice that you were with Valentine Trudeau when you came to the police station? You don’t think I saw how he was looking at you when he walked in behind you only minutes after you came inside?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I say but Joseph presses his lips together, giving me a look that says he doesn’t believe me. “And I’m pretty sexy if I do say so myself. Maybe he just happened to like what he saw and couldn’t take his eyes off me,” I tease.

“Ugh, gross,” Joseph says like we’re three and not almost thirty. “No, really, whatever is going on there I could care less about, but I don’t think dad will feel the same. The Lacoste’s might not be his favorite people in the world, but he’d choose them over Valentine Trudeau,” Joseph says as we make our way back up the hill to the double sets of French doors at the back of the house. “You do know that Ripley wants me to sue him, right? I’m sure you’ve heard if you and he are close,” Joseph says and then is silent. He stops walking which makes me do the same. “You know that could be the reason he’s interested in you. You know… to get you to talk us into backing off.”

I don’t say that I thought the same when I first found out about the possibility of a lawsuit. Instead, I say, “Oh, so in order for someone like him to want me there has to be an ulterior motive? You do know he dated Brenna for almost four years.”

“I’m being serious, Chrissy. You know that’s not what I’m saying. It just seems like this friendship popped up out of nowhere. Hell, I didn’t really think about it too much until dad asked me about the two of you. He said that guy Jace saw you two together at the house. I told him I didn’t think you knew each other but then I remembered the way he looked at you at the police station. I asked Kendall about it and she confirmed you two knew each other but I’d have to ask you the details,” Joseph says and then crosses his arms over his chest just as I had in my father’s study. “Hell, whatever it is can’t possibly be as bad as my situation. Not unless you’ve been hiding a baby you have by him or something.” Joseph’s eyes widen when I open my mouth and close it again, unsure if I want to tell him the truth. “Oh God, please don’t tell me that’s it… you don’t have a secret baby by him, do you?”

“Really Joe,” I say and mimic his pose. “No. I don’t have a secret baby, you idiot. But as far as daddy is concerned that might as well be the case. I doubt he’ll be pleased to know that Valentine and I are married and have been since we eloped during Spring Break of my freshman year in college.”

Instead of looking surprised, my brother starts to laugh. It’s a laugh laced with a manic, hysterical tone. “We are not at all what dad expected us to be,” Joseph says in between laughs. I join the laughter realizing how right he is with his observation. After all of his hard work for us to be model citizens and a credit to the Anson name, we both veered from the path our father laid out for us in very dramatic ways. Joseph wraps his arm around my shoulders as our laughter tapers off. We then continue to walk back toward the house and find Ripley about to come out as we are going in. She doesn’t open the door, looking through the glass with a frown on her face. Her frown makes me laugh a little harder. I know enjoying someone else’s misery is petty but where Ripley is concerned it’s well-earned.

“So, what do you plan to do about Valentine?” Joseph asks as we walk. “And don’t think you’re not going to have to tell me that whole story,” he adds before I can answer his question. “But I’ll let it go for now. I could see where the present company might not appreciate that conversation,” Joseph teases and we start to laugh again.

“How can you two be laughing right now?” Ripley asks, stepping aside. “Though, I guess I shouldn’t expect anything different from you. You would love it if Joe divorces me to be with your best friend.”

That’s probably the truth but I don’t say so. “Yet you are here and she’s not, so I guess the only person who’s getting what they want in this situation is you,” I say instead which isn’t much better.

“Chrissy,” I hear a chastising voice say from the other side of the room. There’s nothing but disappointment in his tone and I frown at Beau for inserting himself into the conversation. “I’ve never known you to be so disrespectful. For goodness sake, she’s pregnant.”

“Pregnancy is not a handicap,” I say to Beau. “And there’s no love lost between us,” I add.

“Yes, Beaumont, there has to be love there in the first place for us to lose it,” Ripley says. I hate the way she says Beau’s name, and I hate that she’s right. I always thought when Joseph got married, I’d be close to his wife, but it seems that each minute I spend with her makes me dislike her even more. I wish it wasn’t that way, but Ripley is hard to like, sort of how Brenna was hard to like. Both of them are hateful when they could be nice. They both think that when people fear them and kiss their asses it’s an accomplishment.

My father enters moments after Ripley speaks and announces that brunch is ready. I make a mental note to watch out for my father and his motives because he isn’t the type to give any leeway without a reason. He was too nice about the engagement, he was too nice about Jace seeing me with Valentine, and he was too nice about the Joseph situation. He was still stern and unflinching with his decisions but giving me the cabin was a real surprise. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was trying to tempt me into staying in town. With the embarrassing blemish of Joseph being caught cheating on his wife staining his record he can no longer be the one to follow in my father’s footsteps, I guess. Another Anson heir will have to step up to the plate, and I’m almost sure that my father is priming me for the moment when he springs his idea that I be the next Anson who becomes a mayor of Anson Valley. That might be why he was so understanding about Beau. If I leave Beau, then I have nothing holding me back. I can move back here to carry out his plan for me.

He’s out of his mind if he thinks I’ll want any part of being mayor of Anson Valley.

Brunch goes as well as can be expected but the air in the room is tinged with tension. My father pretends not to notice as he talks about the ceremony to honor him for his years of successful service and his record of being Mayor for longer than anyone else in the history of the town. He talks about the interviews we’ll all have to do, the winter carnival to be held inside a heated tent that will sit at the center of the town’s Christmas tree lot. We all speak at the right times, ask the right questions, and make him believe that we can make everyone else believe that everything is right within our family. Of course, it’s a lie, but as long as no one else knows that but us everything will be fine.


~~~~~


Surprisingly enough, Ripley doesn’t object to Joseph going out with me for a drink. She can’t, especially not when I bring it up in front of everyone, including my father. If Ripley is to be a team player then she must allow Joseph to go out with me without objection. A sibling outing with my best friend and fiancé in tow won’t raise too many eyebrows, and people will understand that a pregnant lady didn’t want to join. At least that’s what my father is hoping they think. Me… I think the outing will cause more gossip. Not that I care about that, which is why I asked both Joseph and Kendall to come.

It’s no surprise when Ripley passes on the invitation to come when she hears we’re going to Lana Lou’s to claim our one-dollar Moscow Mules for the bar’s weekly Moscow Mule Monday special. Ripley Anson wouldn’t be caught dead in a place as ‘low-class’ as Lana Lou’s which is perfectly fine with me since we didn’t exactly tell her that Kendall would be there, but I never said she wouldn’t be there either. I’m sure Ripley assumes she will but knows my brother won’t do anything that will cause more gossip.

However, where Ripley declines, Beau agrees to go out with us. He’s curious about the town where I grew up and wants to meet people I might’ve known. I know his goal is to make comments about how much better my life is now, which I’m sure he hopes will further encourage me to go back to California with him when he’s ready to leave.

“Is that Christmas Anson?” Alana Kerr says, holding her arms wide for a hug. The crowd around her gives her space and I run over to her, grinning.

“Ken said you were watching Elisa tonight. I didn’t think I’d see you,” I say and let her wrap me in her arms.

“I am. But I couldn’t miss a chance at seeing my second daughter since she doesn’t come to town anymore,” Alana teases as she releases me from the hug. I smile at her when I take her in, shaking my head at the tight jeans and heeled boots. A black camisole and leather jacket grace her upper half, and the messy ponytail makes her look like Kendall’s sister rather than her mother. Her light brown skin is flawless and makeup-free which means she’s been tattooing today. She never wears makeup when she does tattoos because she says it makes her sweat and clients don’t want their tattoo artist sweating all over them.

“I’ve been working,” I defend even though she knows that I try my best to avoid my father, and this town’s expectations of me as his daughter, as much as I can.

“So, let me see it,” Alana says, and I don’t have to ask her what she’s talking about. Alana Kerr always said that the ring is the most important part of any engagement. She always said to have a ring on your finger before agreeing to anything with a man that requires a commitment and make sure the prenup says you get half of his money if he cheats. She was so disappointed in Kendall when she found out she was pregnant, but not because she was pregnant per se, but because she hadn’t secured the commitment first - the ring. Little did I know at the time was that the man in question was my brother who she turned down when he asked her to marry him.

I hold out my hand and she mouths a ‘holy shit’ at me. I shake my head at her and then I turn to introduce her to Beau who has joined us. She speaks to my brother as if it’s a regular occurrence and it's then that I realize that Alana knows he’s Elisa’s father and has known for a while - probably all of Elisa’s life.

“Alana, this is my… fiancé, Beaumont Lacoste. Beau, this is Alana. She was like a mother to me growing up.”

“And from the size of this ring I did my job well,” she says and ignores Beau’s extended hand. She pulls him into a hug and Joseph, and I share an amused expression. Alana plasters her body against his, and I’m pretty sure the hug lasts seconds too long. Beau seems to enjoy the attention, his light brown face turning crimson, probably not expecting to have that kind of reaction to someone nearly two decades older than him. “We don’t shake hands with family. We hug it out. A hug a day keeps the depression away, I always say.”

It’s true. She said that all of the time and proved it by making sure we never left her presence without a hug hello or a hug goodbye. Something about the gesture always made me feel good. Probably because my father and brother have never been the affectionate type and her affection was something I needed while growing up.

Alana then hugs Joseph. “Elisa is out back waiting in the car. Go say hello before I take her for the night,” she says. Joseph thanks her and trots off toward the doors the employees of the bar come in and out of. He’s definitely familiar with the action, and I make a mental note to question him about it when we have that conversation about me and Valentine. “Drinks are on me all night,” Alana insists, turning back to us. “I’m just glad you’re back. Have fun and make sure I get an invitation to that wedding of yours. You know I love a chance to be the life of the party,” she says.

“Of course, you’ll be invited. In fact, I want you in a mother of the bride dress since Ken will certainly be my maid of honor,” I say and feel Beau tense next to me. I don’t know which part he disapproves of, but he isn’t at all afraid to clarify that for me after I hug Alana again and she leaves showering me with air kisses.

“She’s not your mother and I have a feeling that Yasmin will be hurt that she isn’t going to be your maid of honor,” Beau says as soon as Alana is out of earshot. “That woman is -”

“She’s the woman you have to thank for helping me become the woman you asked to marry you,” I interrupt. “Your mother is already taking over my life with wedding stuff. She can have the ‘stuff’, but I won’t compromise on who my true family and friends are,” I say and hate how angry he’s made me. I’m so angry I end up holding my muscles so tight, that my neck injury begins to hurt again. My hand lifts to rub the pain away, but Beau takes both my hands and brings them to his lips.

“We’re here to have fun,” he says, disregarding what I said. “We can talk about the wedding later. We have plenty of time for that,” he adds. I know that means that he will tell his mother and she will call me to have a conversation about protocol and optics and what’s best for Beau and his future, but her call will be in vain. If I marry Beau - and that’s a big ‘if’ right now - Kendall as my maid of honor and Alana acting as mother-of-the-bride is not a decision I will compromise on.

“Let’s find a table for all of us,” I say, conceding for now. I don’t want to be angry. I’m supposed to be having fun with my best friend.

The table in the corner is free and I start to head that way, weaving my way through the building crowd. Before I can make it to the empty table, someone reaches out and grabs my wrist. I swing in that direction and notice Gray Mason, the only boy I dated in high school and the man who is slated to interview me as part of a series honoring my father.

“Chrissy? Is that you?” Gray asks. I plaster on a smile and then nod at Beau who must still be mad because he doesn’t stand right next to me while I talk to another man. Though, it could possibly be that he thinks of Gray the same as he thought of Valentine when he assumed Valentine was my driver. He doesn’t see either man as a threat to him. He’s wrong, at least in one instance. “Oh wow,” he says, lifting my hand up closer to his face. “That’s a fucking rock,” he adds and without letting my hand go he slides out of the booth. He keeps holding my hand until he envelops me in a hug like he thinks I might run away if he lets go. “It’s so good to see you. I saw your engagement pictures. There’s talk around town that one day we’ll be able to say that the FLOTUS is a former Anson Valley resident.”

“I told him that’s complete bullshit,” another person says. Swiveling my head in his direction I see that the person is my father’s new partner, Jace. The newest partner at Valley Developments pins me with a hungry look like he knows that what he says is the truth. I frown at him, suddenly realizing just how small Anson Valley is and remembering that’s what I hate about it.

“Mr. Cooke,” I start, “what an… unexpected surprise. I never would’ve expected to see you at Lana Lou’s. Actually, that goes for you too,” I say, directing the statement at Gray. “And you’re with Mr. Cooke. Do you two know each other?”

“Jace is my cousin,” Gray says, answering for them both. “He and your dad met a few years back at my sister’s wedding,” Gray explains. “I’m sure you already know that he’s been running Valley Developments for a little over a year.”

“Wait… What happened to Ben?” I ask about my father’s former business partner, Benton Everly.

Jace chuckles. “I guess your father wasn’t exaggerating when he said your conversations with him are short and sweet and to the point.” It sounds like an insult even though his expression portrays amusement. I realize he’s flirting. I also realize I’m flattered.

What the hell…?

“Not all daughters are daddy’s girls, Mr. Cooke,” I say, meeting his eyes. Those hazel orbs say so much, none of it anything I will soon acknowledge.

“Jace,” he says, trying to remove the formality between us.

“Do you prefer Christmas or Chris?”

“I prefer Chrissy,” I say. “Have a good evening guys,” I add. Before either man can say another word, I start toward the booth in the corner again. Halfway there, I’m grabbed again, but this time it's Kendall.

“Guess who just walked through the door,” Kendall says leaning into me and linking her arm through mine. I turn just as she says, “Don’t turn though. Just guess.”

I don’t need to guess because I’m sure I can feel his brown gaze on my back. He knows it’s me since I’m the only one in here whose feet aren’t covered in some sort of boot. Work boots, heeled boots, ankle boots, steel toe boots, and Ugg boots all litter the feet of the patrons in the bar but here I am in four-inch oxblood-colored heels. But I’ve always been this way, and Valentine Trudeau is well aware of this.

I doubt he still has them, but Valentine took pictures of me in an outfit if I thought it was worthy of a photo. I’d develop them at the local one-hour photo spot in Anson Valley since him taking pictures of me in to be developed was out of the question. Though, he always insisted on paying for the service and storing them in one of his shoeboxes.

“You smell like my brother,” I blurt and scrunch my nose at the same time I ignore Kendall’s directive not to turn around. I can understand why she didn’t want me to turn around because the man looks damn good. He’s cleaned up his beard and he has changed out of his usual flannel shirt covered by his leather jacket. He still wears black steel toe boots and a pair of jeans but with those jeans, he wears a black sweater whose asymmetrical toggle buttons accentuate his broad chest. When I get to Valentine’s face, there’s an arrogant expression covering it and I know I’ve been caught ogling because he’s grinning at me.

“I told you not to look,” Kendall says instead of acknowledging what I’ve said. “Now you have to take that feeling over to your fiancé and I don’t think that’s fair to Beau at all.” Her last words are teasing but they couldn’t be truer. It’s not fair for Beau to annoy me and Valentine to entice me, especially not while I’m wearing Beau’s ring.

Reluctantly dragging my eyes away from Valentine, I groan and let Kendall lead me to the booth. My brother and Beau are already sitting and when we join them, I’d swear a hush settles over the crowd. They’re waiting to see where Kendal will sit, and thankfully she doesn’t give them what they want. Instead of sitting next to my brother, she sits next to me, putting me in the middle of her and Beau. When I’m seated, I look around, feeling like I’m in the middle of a high school reunion that encompasses my entire high school career. I recognize people from my class, from classes before mine, and after mine as well.

“Oh my God, what is he doing,” I say when Valentine starts to stalk toward our table as if on a mission.


~~~~~


I know I haven’t lived around Valentine in a long time. I know there’s a chance he might’ve changed in the years since he and I were close. But I’d like to think that despite time and distance, I still know Valentine Trudeau as a person. I know him as a person who would never cause a scene. I know him as a person who’d never walk up to me and kiss me in front of a room full of people, especially if one of those people is my fiancé.

However, that’s exactly what he does. He practically pushes Kendall out of the way, pulling me from the booth like some romantic hero in a movie. His movements are so swift, so smooth, and so… familiar. The familiarity has nothing to do with me but everything to do with Valentine and the way he holds me, and the way his lips move over mine like he’s done it a thousand times before. Admittedly, Valentine and I have kissed a few times, but it has never been this… aggressive, this passionate, this unforgettable.

I’m sure I hear a few curses, then a few catcalls and whistles. The curses come from our booth and the rest come from the crowd. I feel my hands reach up to grip Valentine’s upper arms and know the other sound I hear is the oxblood-colored clutch I carry hitting the floor and probably my lipstick, compact, and phone spilling out. Normally I’d freak out because of the phones easily breakable outer shell and my clutch’s expensive leather surface hitting a beer splattered floor but confusion has me in its grip and I’m not even sure if I’m trying to anchor him to me or if I’m trying to push him away.

“Where I’m from, you went searching for her and never came back,” Valentine rasps into my ear once he releases me from the kiss. I tense, fearing for myself and for ‘my’ Valentine. Because apparently, this isn’t my Valentine. It’s one from a world where his Christmas left home like her mother, to find her mother, and never came back. Not that any of that matters right now. Right now, I have some explaining to do to the man who is snatching Valentine away from me.

I don’t get to explain. Not that I know how to explain what just happened. The truth is something no one would believe, and I don’t think I’m a good enough liar to come up with an excuse Beau will believe.

I curse several times when Beau follows through with a swing as soon as Valentine is facing him. I’ve never seen Beau fight anyone and I’m not sure if he can hold his own. It is clear Valentine doesn’t think he can hold his own because he grins maniacally as Beau's fist flies at him, and he dodges it easily. The imposter Valentine returns with a fist of his own that sends Beau reeling back. He doesn’t fall to the floor because the onlookers catch him, at least those who don’t currently have their phones pointed at the commotion.

I curse again and move toward Beau, but Valentine stops me, stepping into my path. He snakes his arm around my waist, pulling me flush against him making me gasp and try to get away. Valentine holds me firmly in place, saying, “Which one matters more…? His feelings,” Valentine says nodding his head in Beau’s direction, “Or your Valentine’s life.”

There’s no choice to be made. I look over my shoulder at my friend, and even though she has no idea why I’m choosing to leave with Valentine instead of seeing to my fiancé she nods. That nod says she’ll take care of everything while I deal with Valentine and his behavior. Before I can go too far Kendall runs up to us, handing me my purse. “Call me,” she says, and I nod even though I have no idea if I will be able to call her. There’s a reason that this Valentine thought it necessary to do this and the reason why could mean anything for me. It could mean he plans to take me away to replace his Christmas forever.

The crowd parts as I’m pulled through Lana Lou’s and I hate the way everyone stares. I can tell that they can’t wait to relay the whole sordid incident to someone not in that room. Some even mumble about doing just that, taking pictures of me and Valentine so they can have the proof to back their story.

To think, I was worried about what people might say about Kendall and my brother sitting together at the same table, but I never thought mine would be whose name was leaving everyone’s lips as they whispered behind hands, sharing words of astonishment and disappointment.

It’s when I catch someone say, “…probably crazy just like her mother,” I’m ready for a fight of my own.

Valentine must sense this because he wraps his large hand tighter around my wrist, pulling me close enough for him to switch his hand out with his arm. He holds me like a boyfriend holding a girlfriend on their way home for a sexy night together, and to emphasize that he then leans in as if he’s going to nuzzle my neck.

“You should know better than to let anything these people say about you affect you,” Valentine says with a sneer. “They’ve said plenty about me, but your return is going to prove every one of them wrong. Hell, for all I know you are my Chris and you’re pretending this is your world.”

A burst of cold air hits me when Valentine opens the door of Lana Lou’s and I suddenly wish I wasn’t trying to be cute by leaving my coat behind. I’m chilled to the bone in an instant but the short walk to Valentine’s truck doesn’t leave me cold for long since the cab of the truck is still warm from his arrival. However, the warm air inside isn’t as inviting as it has been during my previous rides. It’s especially uninviting when the man who forces me into the truck looks exactly like one I’ve thought about almost every day for the past decade.

“Get in the driver’s seat,” Valentine says, sliding into the truck behind me, his words making me hesitate.

Maybe I should start calling him Valentine #2 to keep them straight, I think absently.

“If you know me then you know I can’t drive anything like this,” I snap in a way where he knows it wasn’t a joke. I get a chuckle in return like he knows I can’t but also knows I will do it anyway if it means saving my Valentine.

“Being so much like her isn’t convincing me that you’re not her,” Valentine #2 says. “Now drive. To the cabin,” he adds, and I press the button to start the engine. The electric truck whines to a start and I begin to back out slower than a grandma with bad eyesight. When we get back onto the street with the bar, at least a dozen sets of eyes are trained out the bar’s panoramic windows and on the truck’s departure. I can’t see Beau or Kendall, or Joseph, and I try not to think about what Beau might be thinking or what Kendall might be telling him.

“You can’t expect me to go to your world and be your Christmas. That will never work. What will you tell everyone? Where will you say I’ve been? The police will want answers… what will you say? How do you know I won’t run away once I get there?

The main question I want to ask is if my Valentine is okay but Valentine #2 snaps at me before I can say another word. “For fuck’s sake… shut the hell up with the questions. You aren’t the one who gets to do the talking. I do,” he says and he’s silent for a few minutes as we ride through downtown and out to the far side of town. The road leading to the lake has no lights so only the lights from the truck illuminate the way. As soon as I turn on the main road leading to the lake Valentine #2 finally speaks again. “We all knew about the generator,” he starts, seemingly out of the blue. I wonder what sequence of events got him here and am sure I will soon find that out. “At least all of the family did. Elise had no choice but to tell us the truth about her invention and show us what it did. Your father - Noble - was trying to send her to an institution for the crazy things Elise was claiming,” Valentine #2 says. “Her showing him the machine was supposed to be a gesture on your father’s part. To humor her, you know? But it was real. The Multiverse Generator was real, and Elise had been using it for years.” He chuckles and I can see the shaking of his head out of the corner of my eye. It’s like he still can’t believe that the generator is real. I chuckle inwardly because I feel like I believed instantly and only second-guessed what I experienced afterward. I am a realist. I have never been a person prone to daydreaming, or hallucinations, or believing in fairytales. I probably questioned what happened with my words, but I knew inside that the stories about my mother’s genius were true and that the machine had something to do with her disappearance. “Noble went from thinking she was crazy for saying she was going to open a portal to other universes to thinking she was crazy for risking her life by traveling into the unknown.”

My mind wonders for a moment. I wonder if my father has been lying to me for all these years. I wonder if he knew about my mother’s machine, knew about it even before they moved back to his hometown, and has kept the truth from my brother and me for all of these years. I wonder if he came up with the story about her disappearance because there was no way he was going to tell anyone about the device.

As if giving credibility to my last thought Valentine #2 says, “He ended up locking the device in the basement and forbidding her to use it again. As far as we knew she never did use it again. She became introverted, depressed, and then one day she was gone. There was no way he could tell everyone that the reason they couldn’t find her was because she was on another world, so she became a missing person.”

“He couldn’t prove the truth to them by showing them the device?”

“She took the device with her.”

I’m confused. “So how did your Christmas go after her without the device?”

“She rebuilt it but only programmed one auxiliary device. Someone could’ve gone after her but without an auxiliary device, it would’ve been a one-way trip. Whoever goes would have to be sure she was on that world and hadn’t traveled to another she’d stored into the auxiliary device’s memory,” Valentine #2 says like that should be obvious.

“Your Christmas is a physicist?” I ask, impressed. Science was probably my favorite subject in school, and I did well in science, but my father practically forbid me to follow in my mother’s footsteps. Not that he stopped my brother from doing so, only me. He thought it wasn’t only a mental break that made my mother leave, but a mental break in conjunction with her being a female with hormones and ever-changing emotions and moods.

But now that I know the truth about #2’s world’s version of Elise and Noble, I’m starting to question everything, and I’m ready to call bullshit. I even question the fact that my father was so supportive of my desire to study fashion rather than pursue a career with foundations in the field of science as my high school counselor suggested. After being upset about my announcement to go to the same school and live in the same city as her, he seemed relieved that at least I wasn’t going to follow in my mother’s footsteps and have a career that had anything to do with science.

“Please don’t tell me you’re not,” Valentine #2 says with exasperation. “How did that pansy-ass Valentine back at the cabin travel if you’re not a physicist?”

“Because my mother was one and she left the completed device in the basement before she disappeared.”

“And when was that?” he asks.

“When I was three or four. I’ve heard my father say both,” I answer, hating that I feel so comfortable with him because he looks just like my Valentine. “The device sat dormant until a couple of days ago.”

“Why hasn’t anyone used it before a couple of days ago?”

“Because my Noble Anson forbid anyone to go into the basement for a decade after my mother’s disappearance,” I snap at him like he should know that if he knows my father.

“And neither you nor Joe tried to do anything with it in the following years?”

“No one knew it was there. It was a habit to pretend her lab wasn’t there by the time a decade had passed. I can probably count the number of times I’ve been in the basement in the past twenty years on one hand. We treated the space like a museum.”

“You should talk to your father about that. Your Noble sounds similar to mine so I’m guessing whatever story he told you about her disappearance was a lie,” Valentine #2 says and I’m starting to think that might definitely be the case. “Just think about it… A device like that doesn’t just start to work overnight. It would’ve taken her years, probably much of her college and adult life to build something so genius. It was an obsession for our Elise but somehow she managed to still remain sane. There was nothing crazy about her, except for the fact that she wanted to fix every world that she thought had something wrong. Seems as though your Noble tried to nip Elise’s obsession in the bud early on.”

He’s right which makes my thoughts whirl. I wonder if my father’s plan was for her to give up her obsession from the beginning. I wonder if that lock he used to have on the basement doors was not to keep me and my brother out but to keep my mother out decades before. I wonder if she was like Valentine #2’s version of Elise, willing to sacrifice herself to use her device to help people on other worlds or find a world for her and her children to escape to if anything happened on her own.

“My father is dismantling the basement,” I say not knowing why I’m telling him this. “He told me to take what I wanted and I’m almost positive that he didn’t tell my brother the same.” It only takes a moment for me to realize why my father made that decision, and I immediately add, “He thinks I’m not capable of making the device work.” I shake my head at how sure I am that my father knows about the device, knows the device is why my mother disappeared, and only agreed to let me study fashion because he thought the choice would mean I’d never be smart enough to use the MV Generator. He didn’t have to steer my brother away from science because Joseph has always been loyal. Joseph would’ve never been curious about our mother’s work if our father convinced him not to be because her work was what drove her ‘crazy’.

I feel so betrayed by Noble Anson, deciding at that moment to no longer consider his opinions while making decisions. If he has so little respect for me why should I break my back to please him? I also can’t allow myself to make decisions based on anyone else, which means I shouldn’t have to take the future of Valley Developments into consideration when I make my decision about Beau.

“That sounds about right,” Valentine #2 agrees about my father. “They’re separated on my world,” he adds. “They separated when Elise returned, and she found out Chris had gone after her.”

“And Elise couldn’t build more auxiliary devices?” I ask, not wanting to go into a story about how I’m the reason my parents aren’t together. Well, not me, his Christmas… Though, somehow, I still feel an ache over the end of their marriage.

“Our house burnt down,” Valentine #2 says. His words seem to be out of nowhere, but he explains. “Their lab was in our basement. They moved it there shortly after we bought the house because they knew Noble wasn’t keen on Elise’s work or the fact that Chris was helping her with it.

“The main component, all of their notebooks, computers and hard drives… everything having to do with the device and every other project Elise had worked on, went up in flames. I’m sure Noble hired someone to do it, and Elise was sure as well. She confronted him about the fire, and he said he was glad the fire happened because that device kept taking his family away.” Valentine #2 shrugs. “The day he said that Elise packed up and left him. Elise is a professor at USC now, and Noble is Anson Valley’s town scrooge. He’s serving his last days as mayor right now and no one expects him to ever run again.”

“How long has your Christmas been gone?” I ask. I can’t imagine my father taking such a turn, so I act like I didn’t hear what Valentine said about him.

“Four years. Elise has been back for three.” I nod and am deep in thought as I concentrate on the road and process what I’ve been told. The information makes my stomach hurt and a heavy feeling of anxiety settles deep within my chest. It’s why I am caught off guard when Valentine #2 adds, “So why’d you let me kiss you? Why’d you leave with me if that pretty boy was your fiancé? He doesn’t look like he’s from Anson Valley,” Valentine #2 says, almost knowingly. I wonder if he’s met or seen Beau before but don’t ask. I think I have enough to process right now. I don’t need to consider that Valentine and Beau know one another for some reason.

“I don’t recall you giving me much of a choice,” I return. “And he’s not from Anson Valley. I don’t live in Georgia. I live in California… San Jose.”

He nods but I can tell he doesn’t like my answer. “Where your mother grew up and went to school?”

“The very same. I went to college there and have been living there ever since,” I say. “I haven’t stepped foot in Anson Valley in five years.” It’s my turn to shrug since I don’t plan to elaborate on that choice. “But I’ve never met my mother’s parents. She hadn’t reconciled with them before she disappeared. They had disowned her because she married my father, and her best friend married the man they’d chosen for her.”

“Damn. Your parents are a mess on both worlds,” he says but doesn’t miss a beat. He loops back around to his original question, asking, “So why did you kiss me back if you haven’t seen me in five years.”

“Almost ten,” I admit. “The last time I saw you… him…. The last time I saw my Valentine before this trip home was the night after we got married.”

Valentine #2 chuckles. “The infamous Vegas wedding,” his tone wistful and nostalgic. “The one constant in every reality.” He pauses for a moment and then deduces, “You kissed me back because you’re still in love with him. Ooooh,” he says like a little kid who just heard his parent curse. “Have you been sneaking around pretty boy’s back with your Valentine while you’ve been in town,” he asks like me telling him that’s what I’ve been doing will make him proud. I think about the kisses, the looks, the things Valentine has said to me, and how I felt when he said it. The truth is I have been doing exactly as he’s claimed, but I don’t say that to Valentine #2, I remain silent for the rest of the ride to the cabin which seems to confirm things for Valentine #2, and thoroughly amuse him at the same time.


~~~~~


Inside the basement of Valentine’s cabin sits the charging table, the MV Generator and auxiliary devices, and Valentine himself. He’s angry, and it’s easy to tell that he’s been struggling to release himself from the confines of the shiny gray tape wrapped around his body as he sits in a chair. His brow is damp and sweaty, and I don’t know if that’s from his struggle or from him dealing with the pain he feels from the bloody gash on the side of his head.

Probably both.

It looks as if a whole roll of tape was used on him and it makes me wonder how Valentine #2 was able to subdue my Valentine when they are basically the same person. My Valentine is a formidable specimen who I’m sure can hold his own. He’s certainly held his own during each of my encounters with him and he’s barely laid a finger on me.

I shake the inappropriate and ill-timed thought away as I hurry over to Valentine who starts to curse as soon as I step out from behind Valentine #2 and into full view. When I see him sitting there, I wonder how I ever could’ve thought that arrogant asshole, #2, was my Valentine. The eyes of my Valentine tell me everything I need to know. My Valentine’s eyes are that of a man who is kind, loving, passionate, and respectful. I’d bet Valentine #2 is none of those things, which makes me sure that I would’ve eventually figured out something wasn’t right - or at least that’s what I’m telling myself.

“Why’d you come here with him, Chris?”

“He didn’t give me much choice after he caused a scene by kissing me in front of everyone at Lana Lou’s. He proceeded to punch Beau when he tried to confront him and then he threatened your life. You really thought I’d ignore a threat to your life?” I ask incredulously and then snap at Valentine #2, “Get me some scissors so I can cut him loose. Be still, V. Let me check your injury.”

“Scissors are hanging on the tool wall,” Valentine inserts helpfully, ignoring me, but #2 is already on his way across the room like he already knew that information. That could very well be the case, that thought making everything a lot more confusing. It’s so strange how our worlds can be so similar and still be so different.

Valentine #2’s expression is laced with amusement when he returns, and I realize that Valentine #2 never had any intention to kill my Valentine. It’s easy to see he’s too arrogant and self-centered for that. I’d bet he likes looking at a walking, talking, real-life version of himself. I’d also bet that this isn’t the first time he’s encountered a Valentine from a different world.

“I think I might just like you more than my Christmas,” Valentine #2 says in a way that probably should frighten me. Despite his tone, I’m fairly certain I’m safe with my back turned since I’m almost positive he needs me for whatever plan he’s concocted. Though I can admit it’s a little unsettling that he actually has a plan since I’m sure Valentine showing up on #2’s world had to be unexpected. It means he’s been waiting for something like this to happen so he can take advantage of the situation, putting Valentine and me two steps behind him, yet still needing to trust him.

“You stay the hell away from her,” Valentine barks at #2, probably catching his tone as well. “Chris, he fucking attacked me as soon as I stepped through the portal,” Valentine rasps at me. I lean forward and try to look at the gash on his head, and a closer look lets me know the injury isn’t as bad as I first thought. “I’m sure he knew someone was coming, though I have a feeling he didn’t expect me to show up in the basement of his cabin. I think he might’ve been expecting Elise. I also think he could see the portal appear before I actually stepped through,” Valentine explains.

“V don’t worry about that right now,” I say, feeling the presence of Valentine #2 behind me. Valentine tenses when I reach for the scissors like he thinks the other version of him might use them to stab me, but I know he won’t. He wants me to do something for him that only Christmas can do, and since his Christmas is missing, I’m all he has.

I process what Valentine has said and I pause in my cutting, wondering why I didn’t automatically consider what someone might see on the other side of the portal when it appears in their world. I briefly wonder if the portal could possibly injure or kill someone if it materializes right on top of them but as quickly as that thought surfaces, another thought replaces it, and my thoughts continue to go in circles.

I haven’t even thought to wonder why Valentine #2 showed up and not someone else, or why #2’s first instinct was to come through the portal to try to find me. I haven’t had any time to consider why my Valentine opened a portal in the first place.

When enough of the tape has been cut, Valentine stands. The chair tries to come with him since there is still tape on him, but it falls free, and he angrily rips the rest of the tape off. I keep the scissors in my hand just in case #2 does something stupid and I need them as a weapon.

“You’re a dead man,” Valentine says, moving to charge at his double but I put a hand on his arm to stop him.

“You invaded his world, V, not the other way around,” I say. “Which brings me to the question of why you used the device without me being here.”

“Temptation,” he says without hesitation.

“Sounds like me,” #2 comments.

“I…” he trails off and glares at #2 and then sighs like he doesn’t want to admit what he’s about to admit. “I wanted to know if we were together in any other reality. I needed to know what went wrong for us so I can figure out how to make it right. His world was one of the ones Elise considered as a refuge if she ever needed it.”

It’s the sweetest and most idiotic thing I’ve ever heard. He’s letting that other world we visited get to him, make him make rash decisions when he has no idea if that version of us was even happy. I have no idea what’s going on in his head, but I plan to find that out as soon as we straighten things out with #2.

“Aww… isn’t that sweet,” Valentine #2 says. “But that doesn’t help me at all. I need people to know that I didn’t do anything to her. I love her. I didn’t kill her,” he says like we’ve accused him of the crime.

“You killed your Christmas?” I ask, taking a step away from #2 and gripping the scissors tighter even though I don’t mean for the words to leave my lips.

“I just said I didn’t kill her. I love her. She disappeared just like her mother. Except her mother returned and she didn’t.”

“If you were so in love why did she leave? Why didn’t you go with her?” Valentine asks accusingly.

“You’re one to talk, pining after someone unavailable. Last I heard, your Christmas is engaged to someone else,” Valentine #2 snaps back.

“Oh my God… really? I’m sure we have more important things to talk about than which one of you has the better relationship with me… her… whatever. Ugh!” I snap my head toward #2 and wince, feeling a twinge from my healing neck injury. “There were better ways to get my attention back at Lana Lou’s. You might’ve just ruined my engagement,” I say, and the words don’t make me feel like they should. I feel relief that I wasn’t the one who had to break up with him. I’m sure he’s now going to break up with me.

I’m such a coward.

“You don’t want to marry him. You don’t love him. You love me,” #2 says and Valentine growls. Yes, he growls. He literally growls at #2 which only garners a chuckle in response. “I never thought I could be this uptight. You must still be with Brenna. That’s why you’re so frustrated.”

“Fuck you, asshole,” Valentine says.

“The both of you. Shut up. I’m trying to think. I know I can’t pretend to be your Christmas, but maybe -”

“I know you’re not thinking about helping this asshole,” Valentine says cutting me off. “He’s a lunatic who probably killed his version of you. Anything he wants you to do shouldn’t be considered,” my Valentine insists.

“He hasn’t asked me to do anything yet,” I say. “But if his Christmas is missing - and he hasn’t done anything to her - we need to help. What if it was me? Wouldn’t you want someone to help if they could?” Taking Valentine’s silence as agreement, I add, “I might want to help you, but I don’t trust you. So, the first thing we need to do is go have this conversation in a room where the device isn’t,” I direct at #2.

“You shouldn’t trust him at all,” Valentine barks with so much frustration laced in his tone that I have to reach out to him again to calm him. I love how much my touch affects him. He settles instantly and then stalks over to his basement’s bar. He reaches over the bar, pulling back a small towel, and begins to press at his injury. He then snatches the small, clear brick from the top of the bar - his phone - and stalks toward the stairs.

It’s only a little strange that it was so easy to get Valentine to stop his attack on his double. I can only imagine what it would feel like attacking yourself, so I don’t want him to have to make that choice. The truth of the matter is that Valentine #2 could’ve killed my Valentine, or he could’ve knocked him out and simply taken the device. He didn’t do either of those things. I think that means he truly wants to get his Christmas back, and I truly want to help him. What I won’t do is pretend to be his Christmas so he can trick people into thinking he’s innocent of a crime when he should be out there trying to find her.

I glance over at the table one last time before following both men up into the main part of the cabin and can’t help but think about that life Valentine is so eager for us to have. Every time the thought pops into my head I quickly push it away, not wanting to come to the realization that I want the same. At this point, I have no idea if I want that life. I don’t know if I want to change course that much. Wouldn’t that be going back instead of forward? Wouldn’t we be doomed from the start if we go into it expecting to be like that other version of us? Doesn’t it matter that the mother of Valentine’s child loathes me?

I’m so immersed in my thoughts that I’m sitting in a large, cushioned chair in Valentine’s living room and don’t remember how I got here. The chair starts to adjust and shift, making me realize that this has to be one of those therapy chairs that have been so popular lately. A few moments pass and I’m as comfortable as I have ever been in a chair, and I’m calm. My newfound calm allows a chuckle to leave my lips when both Valentines head toward the same space on the couch, the side of the couch closest to my chair. I sigh and shake my head when my Valentine glares at #2, forcing #2 to acquiesce.

“My world, not yours,” Valentine says like a petulant child which makes me shake my head and sigh again. #2 holds up his hands in surrender and goes to sit at the other end, the two of them looking like bookends that don’t quite match is a little unsettling. The chair shifts as if it senses my tension, and when it once again conforms to my body, I relay an abbreviated version of the conversation #2 and I had on the way out to the cabin. I stick to the main points leaving out #2’s observations about my feelings for him.

“If Elise doesn’t think she can be found what makes you think we can find her?” Valentine asks. “You said Elise gave up. You said she moved away. You said there’s no way to know what world his Christmas is on now,” Valentine says, throwing what I just told him back at me.

“His Elise doesn’t have what we have,” I say. “What if she did?”


~~~~~


“Hell no,” Valentine says before I can voice the plan he knows is brewing in my head. “I know you want to see her again now that you know what you’re dealing with but it’s not safe, Chris.”

“It’s not like people will know that I don’t belong there,” I point out. “No one will know anything. I will simply be another person among billions,” I say. “Plus, he’ll need me to convince her that the device is real, and it works. I can be his proof.”

“One of the Home Phones can be his proof,” Valentine says. He’s right. One of the Home Phones could prove the existence of the MV generator. But what Valentine will never understand is that something inside me wants to go, needs to go. I need to feed my curiosity for myself, for my brother, and for every Elise and Christmas who will never get to go on this adventure. As mundane as a trip across the country to see my mother is, this will be the biggest adventure I’ve ever been on and might go on, for the rest of my life. I want to meet #2’s Elise, see her within her world, lay eyes on some version of my mother so I might get an idea of what my Elise might’ve been like.

I understand Valentine’s concern. I know I shouldn’t trust #2. I know he could be lying to us, that he could very well have murdered his Christmas like some people of Anson Valley surely suspect. I know I’m taking a chance of never coming back since there are a number of things that could happen while I’m there. I know there is risk going into this but that doesn’t change my mind about wanting to go.

“I’m going, V.” Without taking a risk, I’ll never get the reward I seek. My reward is closure. If I can help #2 and his Elise in the process, even better.

“What about everything going on here?” He asks. I have no idea what to do about Beau or my brother and best friend. I honestly don’t want to deal with any of that right now but know I can’t just leave it for Valentine to handle. He had nothing to do with that kiss and shouldn’t have to answer for #2’s actions. Then there’ Ripley and her invitation to help with the costumes for the Christmas play. As eerie as it was for the invitation to be extended right after the Elise in that other world said something similar, I know one thing has nothing to do with the other. The invitation was my father’s idea, his way of forcing Ripley and me together, and into a public venue. He knows I do well when I know people will be looking and expects me to use the outing to start to fix what Joseph broke. I know I need to be there, but I then think about what happened at Lana Lou’s. I doubt showing my face right now would help any more than Joseph showing his would. Though, I guess I did help to make people forget about my brother’s love triangle and focus on… mine.

“Hold that thought,” I say. “I might be able to salvage the situation enough so you don’t have to deal with Beau. That’s the least I can do to help. Bounce some ideas off one another, or talk about your worlds or something. I’ll be right back.”

I get up and retrieve my bag that dropped on the bench in the mudroom when I arrived. I retrieve my phone, shaking my head at the number of messages and calls but don’t check any of them. I pull up Beau’s name and press the call button and begin to pace as I wait for him to answer. I then put the phone back onto the bench and turn the speaker on. I nervously bite my lip as I begin to pace again, and then I cringe when Beau’s loud and hostile tone comes out of the device after the second ring saying, “What the fuck have you done Chrissy? You let that driver kiss you, and then you had the nerve to leave with him after he assaulted me. That embarrassing scene is all over social media now. You need to get back here so we can figure out how to handle this. My mother has ideas about -”

“Do you love me?” I interrupt, getting straight to the point. I don’t want to hear that the first person he reached out to was Juliette, and I certainly don’t want to hear about what his followers on social media have to say.

Beau’s hostility reminds me that I should be thanking #2 because he gave me the coward's way out of my relationship with Beau. I know I can’t be with someone like Beaumont Lacoste for the rest of my life. He’s much too much like my father, and not even my father wants that for me. Beau’s hesitation in answering my question lets me know that what I’m about to do next is the right thing. “You don’t have to answer that, Beau,” I say, letting him off the hook. “I know I should be doing this face-to-face but I have a lot going on right now so I can’t.”

“A lot going on?” Beau questions. “What could’ve happened in the half-hour that you’ve been gone? I don’t have time for this Chrissy. You need to come back -”

“Go back to California, Beau,” I say on a sigh, cutting him off again. “We’re over. I’ll send you the ring as soon as I can.”

I don’t wait for him to respond. I hang up the phone, take a deep breath, and walk back into the room where both Valentines are suspiciously silent. I realize they weren’t talking to each other about one another’s world, they were listening to my conversation. I don’t know how to address their stares, so I ignore them, turn my phone off and set it on the table in the middle of the living room space. I take my ring off and set it next to the phone and can feel both sets of eyes following my movements. I take my seat again before anyone speaks.

“Well, if no one is going to say it… I will. That went exactly as we all wanted it to go,” #2 says and then sits forward like it's finally time to get to the business at hand. I guess it is since I have no plan to discuss the conversation they overheard. “Now. What we’ll need is three of the auxiliary devices -”

“Home Phones,” both Valentine and I say at the same time, correcting #2.

“On my world, they’re called Auxiliary Devices, and they don’t look like antique mobile phones. They look like a normal watch you can buy from any cellular service provider. The component Elise built looked like the one you have but the one Chris made looked more like one of those portable wireless projectors, just with more buttons,” #2 explains. “But like I was saying, we’ll need at least three of the devices - one for each of us. I’m not sure how powerful those old school phones are but I’m guessing not very powerful at all,” #2 says. “Elise might be able to augment the power in some way, but we can’t depend on that. Each one of us will need our own just in case.”

“Three?” Valentine questions. “You’re talking about me, you, and Chris, right? You’re not taking her anywhere without me,” Valentine insists but I’m already shaking my head.

“The phones are for me, Chris, and Elise,” #2 corrects. “I think the two of us together might be a little suspicious.”

“We’ll be identical twins,” Valentine says.

“If for some unforeseen reason something happens, I won’t risk taking you away from Breanna,” I say bringing logic to the situation before they start to argue. “No more children need to lose their parents,” I say to him and he sighs in resignation.

“Breanna?” #2 questions. “As in named after Brenna Oliver? You’re still with her after the shit she pulled.”

I sort of want to know what #2 is referring to but know it’s not important right now, and not my business. Valentine ignores #2, not believing anything that might come out of his mouth even though I’m not so sure. To me, #2 is genuinely disgusted that Valentine still associates with Brenna. I think he should want to know why.

“Okay,” Valentine says to me, acting like #2 didn’t just say what he said. “You’re probably right even though I don’t like to think about you doing this on your own. I don’t trust him, but I can’t go with you either,” he says nodding at his double. “He’s up to something. He doesn’t want you to take time to think things through because he’s afraid you’ll come to your senses,” Valentine says. “Are you sure you don’t want to tell Joe or your -”

“No!” I say.

“No!” #2 says at the same time.

“Not my father,” I reiterate. “I don’t know how honest he’ll be even if he’s confronted with the truth. And Joe is in deep shit with my father over this Kendall and Elisa thing. He’ll do just about anything to get on his good side, even betray me.”

“The Kendall thing?” #2 asks. “Please don’t tell me Joe and Ken aren’t together either in this reality. You three are inseparable on my world. My Chris is the godmother of their daughter and was maid of honor at their wedding.”

“One of two is right,” I say. “I’ve always been Elisa’s godmother, but I only found out she was my niece yesterday,” I say and suck in a deep breath thinking it’s been a long couple of days. “Okay… supplies. I need -”

“The basics,” #2 says. “There’s a closet full of Chris’ clothes at my cabin.”

Valentine chuckles. “You really don’t know who you’re dealing with, do you? My Chris is not about to dress out of another person’s closet. You’re also not going to fool her into pretending to be your Chris by tricking her into wearing her clothes,” Valentine says.

I never considered that as his reasoning and suddenly wish he was going with us. He knows himself better than anyone else and would be a great asset if he came. However, I meant what I said about taking him away from his child. I won’t be responsible for that. I’m already responsible for being the reason he was never able to marry the mother of his child. And while I can’t take that back, I can do the right thing from now on.

Thinking about what Valentine said, despite my thoughts, I grin. I’ve been calling him ‘my Valentine’ since I first encountered the second Valentine, but it feels weird for him to refer to me in the same possessive way. Not weird, it feels good - like I’m warming to the idea of him being so familiar with me.

“It won’t take long. My things are in my cabin next door.” It’s the first time I’ve said that and I kind of like the way it sounds. My father might be a controlling liar and a male chauvinist, but I appreciate him giving me the cabin. I appreciate that he knows how much I’ve always loved the place.

I turn to leave but Valentine calls out to me. I turn back and he says, “Are you two sure you don’t want to fly to California on this world? That way neither of you will have a problem securing a plane ticket. I can imagine it’ll raise some flags for a missing person to suddenly be buying a plane ticket.”

“You might be right,” I say.

“No. I need to tie up some loose ends before traveling,” #2 says at the same time. “We won’t need tickets. I know someone who will fly us out. No questions asked… at least none that will get us in any trouble.”

“Samanda,” Valentine says knowingly. “She went to the Air Force in your reality, didn’t she?”

#2 nods. “Got to be senior airman before she got discharged for breaking the nose of her senior officer for groping her. She’s a pilot for private jet service now.”

Now that they are talking and getting along, I use the opportunity to make my escape. I only make it to the end of the path at the back of Valentine’s cabin before I hear, “Wait, Chris. We’re in agreement that you shouldn’t walk over alone,” #2 says. “He doesn’t trust me to be alone with the device, so I get the pleasure of being your escort.”

I don’t argue. I blow out a breath and start walking again, needing to hurry the walk along. I’m wearing heels that weren’t made for half-mile treks down lakeside paths. I don’t speak for half of the walk over but then ask, “How did you two end up together?”

“I chose Chris over Brenna,” he says. “After she said Breanna wasn’t mine, I didn’t just accept that she was when she called me the night you and I got married. I asked for a paternity test because I still didn’t remember sleeping with her. She said I was drunk, which is the truth. I was drunk because I didn’t want to go to prom at all and thought liquor would get me through the night. Honestly, she still hasn’t told me for sure if she and I slept together that night but even if we did, Breanna isn’t mine. A DNA test says there’s no chance.”

“So… you’re not Breanna’s father on your world,” I ask as if I didn’t hear him say just that. I try not to consider that the same could be true for my Valentine but of course I do. I wonder if Brenna lied about them having sex so she could pass him off as the father of her child. But then, as much as I know that it’s a possibility, I also know that Valentine would be devastated if he found out Breanna wasn’t his. I decide it’s not up to me to bring it up to Valentine. That’s between him and Brenna - none of my business.


~~~~~


“You can stay down here, I’ll only be a few minutes,” I say but #2 doesn’t care about my subtle insistence he stay downstairs. He follows me upstairs to the guest bedroom where Beau and I slept. I walk into the room and sigh at the scene that still looks like a couple sleeps here.

My things are spilling out of my suitcase, and everything I touched is slightly out of place. Despite the mess, I know where everything is and manage to find what I need in minutes. I then grab the vintage designer duffel bag I proudly bought with my own money when I was a sophomore in high school. I smile when I think about how I contacted the seller, negotiated her down to a price I could handle, and arranged the shipping. It was my favorite overnight bag, but I didn’t bring it with me to California because I didn’t want to taint my memories of it. I didn’t want it to turn into some hoe-bag that I use for ‘adult’ sleepovers. Though, in all honesty, I could’ve brought it with me since I ended up being more conservative about sex than I thought I would be as an adult. I was sure I’d go crazy, making up for the lack of action I had as a teen, but I didn’t. I was focused on school, on work, on making sure I was prepared to represent the field in which I chose to work. I had two jobs at one point as I tried to build my own closet, so it represented my brand. I didn’t have time to meet anyone which meant I didn’t sleep with anyone. I only got close to Beau because he became a client of mine and I went to a few Lacoste family functions.

“Why’d you say yes to him?” #2 asks, picking up a neatly folded pair of boxers from Beau’s open suitcase and dropping them back on top like he’s disgusted by them. He’s been silent the whole time I’ve been rushing around to gather my things, and this is what he asks when he finally speaks.

“Why do you want to know?” I return, not wanting to admit that I didn’t want to embarrass Beau.

He’s nodding when I walk out of the bathroom that I always keep neat and organized. “I get it. You took the coward’s way out. It probably would’ve been interesting to see his reaction to you telling him no in front of a room full of people, though. On my world, had that happened, you might’ve had to find another country of residence,” #2 says but doesn’t go on to explain that strange statement.

“Where he asked… it wasn’t a room,” I clarify like that matters. “It was a… Wait, how did you know I said yes because we were in front of a lot of people?”

“Because I could look at Beau and tell he isn’t your type. The only way my Chris would’ve said yes to someone like him is if he gave her no other choice by asking her in front of a bunch of people. She’s strong, but not strong enough to embarrass someone that way,” he says and his eyes gloss over. He turns away from me, not wanting me to see him get emotional about his Christmas. I don’t look away because it shows me #2’s genuineness and sincerity. It makes me less afraid to put my life in his hands and trust him to take me with him to another world.

“You know her well, don’t you,” I say. It’s definitely a statement and not a question but #2 answers anyway.

“I do. That tends to happen when best friends become lovers,” #2 says just as I lean around him to grab my birth control pills and instinctively reach for my phone charger but realize I won’t be needing that.

“And my father… her father didn’t flip out when she told him you two eloped?”

“He flipped the fuck out,” #2 says and chuckles. “He thought she had lost her mind and refused to accept me as her husband at first. After a while, he realized Chris wasn’t going to leave me and we came to an unstable truce. That truce went out the window when Chris disappeared. He hates me more than he ever did when I was just the town ‘bad boy’.”

“Wow,” I say. I zip up my duffle, trying not to let the scent of him affect me in any way. I don’t know him. He’s not my Valentine regardless of what my senses are telling me. Though, someone should sit us both down and remind us of that because there is no hesitation in our next actions. #2 is confident as he pushes my hair off my shoulder to gain access to my neck, and I don’t think twice when my head leans in a way to give him access. Instead of pulling away, I relax into the hold his large hands have on my waist. I can easily imagine him as my Valentine with my eyes closed like this, and I know he can easily imagine me to be his Christmas returned to him.

I leave my eyes closed when I open my mouth to #2 and let him explore with his large, capable hands and his skilled, seeking tongue. I leave my eyes closed and pretend that he is mine - a Valentine without a Brenna in his life, one I can have as my own.

Our mouths suck and taste in such a savage way like we may never get to experience such passion ever again, which is a distinct possibility. #2 might never get his Christmas back, and I might never be with my Valentine like this. I’d never expect him to choose me over his daughter, and I doubt there’s ever going to be a situation where Brenna and I can ever get along enough to make some sort of extended family/co-parenting/stepmother situation work.

God, it should be a sin for #2 to feel, taste, smell, and be so much like my Valentine and be so different at the same time. He touches me like I’m his, like there’s nothing standing in the way of that. When my Valentine kisses me, I feel the passion, but I also feel the time and distance between us. It’s not a bad feeling, just familiar in a different way than #2 is with me.

I know I should stop this. I know I should not be kissing any version of Valentine, especially not in the room where I’ve slept with Beau. He’s not the Valentine I want just as I am sure #2 knows all too well that I’m not his Christmas. This is wrong for those reasons alone.

As if we come to this realization at the same time, we jump apart, breathing heavily. However, where my eyes are on #2, his are directed toward the open doorway of the bedroom. When I follow the direction of #2’s gaze I find a haggard-looking, black-eyed Beau. He stands there staring with his mouth hanging open like he can’t believe he’s had to witness me kissing Valentine for a second time.

“Beau…” I trail off, not knowing what I should say. I’ve never been in a situation like this before and I don’t want anyone to be hurt even though I doubt that’s possible now. On top of that, Beau looks down at my finger, notices that the ring is missing. He turns his head toward the dresser, and then the nightstand, but doesn’t find what he’s looking for. I inwardly curse my stupidity. I will never be able to explain why I left the ring on a table in Valentine’s home, or why I’m in this room kissing him with a bag packed.

I might need to look into an Anson Valley curse. I swear this town is nothing but bad luck for me.

“What the hell is this?” Beau demands to know. “So… what? You’re running off with him? Going to run off into the fucking sunset to some tacky Vegas wedding, completing your whore’s guide to marriage,” Beau says hitting the nail on the head - maybe not the part about me being a whore. “You’d choose someone like him over someone like me?” Beau laughs maniacally but it’s from underneath Valentine #2’s body.

Before Beau’s entire sentence can leave his mouth, #2 gets fed up with him and tackles him to the floor. I swear #2 jumps through the air like some comic book hero, never taking one step to close the distance between him and his target. “You see, Chrissy, he’s a fucking barbarian,” Beau rasps after #2 hits him a handful of times. When Beau doesn’t fight back, #2 loses steam and tells him he isn’t worth it. Beau shocks me a little with how fast he’s back up on his feet since I’ve never known him to be a very physical guy. “I’m not a bad guy so I’ll give you one week to get your shit together, Chrissy. Hopefully, by then you’ll have come to your senses. Now, will you please allow me the dignity to pack my shit and leave without you standing there watching me,” Beau says. I hurry to grab my coat and duffel and my toiletry bag. I slide my feet into a pair of canvas slip-ons instead of my heels but still grab the heels to bring them with me. One never knows when an occasion comes up where you need sexy, red heels.

When we’re outside the house and walking away, I turn around and look back. Beau isn’t standing there in the window watching, and I’m not sure why I thought he would be. Did I want him to be? If I did that’s really messed up and I’m a very messed up person.

“You’re too nice,” #2 says, breaking the silence following our escape from the cabin.

“Obviously that’s not true. You saw what happened back there. I’m a fucking menace,” I say turning away from the sight of Beau’s silhouette as it passes the window on the second floor.

“It’s definitely true which is why he asked you in front of all those people,” #2 says. “He knew you wouldn’t say no to him in that scenario and he took advantage of that. He’s an ass whose only reason for being interested in anyone is so he knows how to manipulate and use them to his benefit.”

“And your response to that was going to be to beat him to death?”

“No. My response to him calling you out of your name was going to be to beat him to death. He’s a disrespectful asshole just like his father.”

“His father?”

“President Laurent Lacoste. Two years into his second term on my world.”

“Wow,” I say, which I’m sure I’ll be saying a lot more when I finally get to his world. I then remember #2’s knowing tone back in the truck when we discussed Beau. He might’ve never met Beau before, but he’s heard of him if he’s the son of the president of the United States. I shiver at the thought of Laurent Lacoste as president and Beau as the son who covets his father’s position.

I can’t believe I’m going to another world - this time on purpose. I can’t believe this is possible. I can’t believe I’m going to meet a woman who will talk, walk, and look like my mother. This is what I’m thinking the entire time we are preparing to step through the large portal with our Home Phones. I barely hear Valentine as he speaks to me, asking me if I’m sure, if I’ll be okay, if I want him to go regardless of what I said. That last one is the one that almost gets me to snap out of my cloud of focus, but I manage to keep my mind on my mission to get some closure if I can and try to help #2 find his version of me. The goal of bringing the third phone is that we hope Elise will come back with us so she can use my mother’s notes to build another device. I have no idea what the rescue mission looks like, I just hope my mother’s notes will help #2’s Elise figure out how we can find their missing Christmas. I have a feeling it’s going to take a lot longer to see this through than I can ever begin to imagine.

“I’ll be fine, V,” I finally say when his fussing subsides. “You’re like a worrying old grandma. The device worked for you so there’s no reason that it shouldn’t work for me.”

Valentine huffs out a breath because he knows I’m right. So, instead of saying anything else, he surprises me by crushing his lips to mine. It’s as if he knows I’ve kissed his double and has some things to make up for because the way he holds me causes pleasure and longing to pulse through my veins. Something about the way he touches me is more confident, the way his lips move against mine no longer has a tinge of forbidden wrongness but rather an animal magnetism laced within that says he’s aware of, and reminding me, that I’m no longer engaged to Beaumont Lacoste and I’m free to be with him whenever and however I want.

“I need you to come back to me, Chris,” Valentine says, pressing his forehead against mine. “Don’t take any unnecessary chances,” Valentine adds. “Don’t let that asshole talk you into doing anything you’re not comfortable with doing.”

“You do realize he’s you,” I joke.

“He’s not me,” Valentine says with all seriousness. “Don’t fall into any trap where he tries to make you think differently.”

I think about that kiss with #2 and guilt makes my stomach turn. I don’t say anything, afraid my voice will crack. I nod and reluctantly step away from Valentine, clutching my Home Phone in my hand. I refused to let #2 hold all three Home Phones, needing to feel like I have a little control over my fate.

As soon as I put distance between us, I hear #2 start to activate the MV Generator. Behind me, I hear that sucking and otherworldly popping sound letting me know #2’s world has been accessed. I then turn to see a similar-looking basement on the other side, that one a lot more lived-in than the one on our side.

#2 steps through, taking my bag with him. He also has the case the other two Home Phones and the charging cords for the devices. I take a deep breath and feel my stomach sink as I step through the portal. On the other side, I wobble and wretch but manage to hold everything down and not end up on my knees fighting off dizziness.

“Chrissy?”

I turn to the sound of my brother’s voice. He stares at me like he might pass out. Kendall stands, her mouth opens wide, and Samanda, Valentine’s sister, sits in a chair with an ‘I told you so’ expression on her face. She backs up that expression by saying, “I told you the video of the portal wasn’t camera tricks. Though, I don’t think anyone expected this.”



COME BACK SOON for the next entry in A Black Girl's Guide to the Multiverse.


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