EXCERPT

“And the priest says, ‘If that’s the case, boy-o, you best shut your blarney stone and get back to work!’” Scott rocked backward, slapped his leg, and laughed heartily.

“That was one of your worst jokes yet,” Wit said. He tapped ash from his cigar. “You should stop getting your jokes from Playboy.”

Playboy has way more class than that. Maybe Saturday Night Live,” Ed offered. He shuffled the deck of cards before dealing out the next hand.

Cigar smoke hung heavy and aromatic as the men looked at their hands. Ed, casually elegant in a cashmere sweater and black slacks, tipped a finger to his twin brother, dressed far more comfortably in khaki pants and a t-shirt. “It’s your bet.” Ed didn’t like to gamble and acted as dealer for their poker games.

“I’ll start with a raise,” Will tossed a few chips into the pot and pointed at Wit. “Your problem is you don’t understand true humor.”

Wit snorted. “I don’t? I keep you around, don’t I?”

Kevin called the raise. “He’s not a puppy.”

“I’ll believe that when he stops piddling on the carpet,” Wit retorted.

Ed checked the bets and dealt out the flop. “You have an interesting problem. You’ve found an amazing woman who likes spending time with you.”

“And doesn’t mind that ugly mug,” Scott commented.

“And that,” Ed agreed. “You want to be with her and help her, and the two may not work out together.”

“What do you mean?” Wit asked. He leaned back in his chair and drew on his cigar. He rolled the smoke across his tongue before expelling it.

“She’s a woman with a solid foundation, core principles and morals. What you’re planning on doing isn’t exactly on the side of light and goodness,” Ed responded.

“Since when do you care about light and goodness?” Will poked his brother.

Ed looked at Will. “You know since when. When we were kids, hacking into stuff was all fun and games and seemed innocent. But, it wasn’t a good idea then and it’s still not now, regardless of your motivation. When she sees you use those skills, break the law in front of her, she may turn from you.”

“She may not.”

“Sure. And you’ll wonder why she’s with you, knowing she has that solid foundation, etcetera.”

Wit felt pulsing behind his eyeballs. Ed had always been able to twist his head into a migraine. They’d often called Ed Jiminy Cricket for being their conscience during their digital escapades. “I’ll figure it out when the time comes,” Wit told him. He pushed his chips to the center of the table. “I’m all in.”

Ed nodded. “You will be.”

Underneath the table Wit’s leg started bobbing. His knee bounced into something square, causing a brief spate of pain. He bent down and looked at the object. At first, it didn’t make sense, an alarm clock on the underside of a poker table. When he realized it was ticking down, it made far too much sense.

“Guys, I think we should adjourn outside for a few minutes,” Wit wasn’t panicking. They had time after all.

“We’re fine right here,” Kevin told him. “It’s where we’re supposed to be.”

“No, you don’t get it,” Wit looked under the table again and saw the digital clock now had analog hands. Those hands were spinning in reverse at a speed that caused many of Wit’s alarm bells to ring.

Before Wit could say another word, a flash of fire slammed through the room.

Wit turned away from the table, threw himself to the floor, and covered his head. He could hear debris falling, but nothing landed on him. Wit raised his head to look for his friends and saw burnt skeletons sitting in their chairs, holding pristine playing cards in front of them.

His side started heating up, and he felt a deep burn. Wit looked down ready to slap the flames out when he saw Marie’s disembodied face leaning against his shoulder. He didn’t start screaming until it began to melt.

***

Marie was on her side against the back of the couch, her body curled around the length of Wit as he lay on his back. Her fingers trailed lazy patterns over his chest as he slept, and she watched the fire. Her head rested on his shoulder, and she was dozing on and off. Her eyes would drift closed, then open once more as the events of the evening came back to mind.

The fire danced and crackled, waving hypnotically. She’d always loved fires, especially on a beach at sunset. The soothing voice of a female singer played quietly in the background.

Her eyes shut—and snapped back open when she felt something slapping at her forehead. She blocked Wit’s swinging hands with her forearm and sat up. She caught his wrist and struggled to hold it steady. “Wit, it’s okay. Wit? Wake up now.”

His eyes stared blankly into hers.

“Wit, wake up! You’re dreaming.” Marie’s voice was loud, matter-of-fact. She didn’t want to startle him, but she needed to bring him back to reality. Marie stroked his arm gently and then shook his shoulder with some force.

“It’s burning,” Wit groaned. “Too hot. Everything is melting. Will! No!”

Awakened by his own shout, Wit looked wildly around the room. Wit was pale and shaking, and Marie hoped he wasn’t going to vomit.

Wit leaned his head back onto the armrest of the couch, threw his arm over his eyes, and inhaled deeply, exhaled heavily. He repeated the process three times before Marie noticed a decrease in the shaking of his limbs.

Wit rubbed both hands across his face and shivered. Without a word, Marie reached for the glass of water he’d left on an end table and handed it to him.

Draining the glass in one long swallow, Wit nodded his thanks. “I can’t stand nightmares,” his voice was graveled. He ran a hand through his hair. “I’m sorry.”

“A bad dream isn’t something you can control and, therefore, not something you should feel sorry about.” Gracious, did she really sound that prim? “Would you like to talk about it?”

“Not especially,” he answered gruffly.

Marie sat quietly and then, “You said something about burning.”

He turned his head to look straight at her. “Great. I was talking?” Marie nodded. “I was dreaming about my friends. We were playing poker and talking, and there was a bomb under the table. I tried to get them to leave, but they wouldn’t listen. It blew everyone to hell except me.”

Marie winced. Survivor’s guilt, no doubt, but one couldn’t pay her enough to say that phrase. “I’m really sorry you’re going through this. How long have you been having the dreams?”

“Only since I stopped drinking,” Wit said wryly. “There was an interesting twist to this dream.”

“How so?”

“The guys were giving me advice.”

“And that’s different?”

“Yeah. The other few times I’ve had the dream, it was memories, things that had definitely happened, that we were talking about. I could live happily without seeing these visuals ever again.”

“Your subconscious must be wrestling with something,” she commented.

“Yeah, I suppose that could be it. I’ll have to think on it when I’m clear-headed.”

“You’ll need a good night’s sleep to do that. Have you talked to anyone about your dreams?”

“You mean a doctor?” She nodded and Wit continued, “No. I considered talking to a friend of mine about some sleeping pills.”

“Those aren’t a solution, but I could see how they’d be recommended in your case. Is there going to be a trial?”

Wit huffed out a breath. “Yes, in three weeks unless there’s a continuance of some sort. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a delay. The defense lawyers have been churning out paper like tomorrow’s never going to come, which, for their clients, I guess it might not.”

“It sounds trite to say it, but the trial could offer some closure.”

Wit’s head bobbed side-to-side. “It might. It’s a sucky thing to need closure for.”

“It really is.” Marie laid her head back against Wit’s shoulder. She stroked his cheek, then trailed her hand to the back of his neck. She massaged the tense muscles she found there.

Wit’s shaking finally subsided. The feel of the room changed. Marie didn’t know how to describe it, only that she felt it. Something was about to happen, and she didn’t know if she should stop it. She didn’t know if she wanted to.

Wit tilted his head closer to hers. “I’m not tired anymore.” Those words said in a husky tone had her stomach doing slow flips.

Marie felt his lips teasingly close to hers. “Me either,” she whispered, a hairsbreadth from contact.

“I can’t think of a single thing I want to do.” The silky caress of his lips gliding across her cheek had her toes curling, her fingers clutching against the fabric of the couch. Marie couldn’t catch her breath and the room had grown warm—far warmer than the roaring fire could explain.

“Oh yeah?” she asked, and pressed her lips to Wit’s palm when he reached to cup her chin.

“I can think of something I absolutely have to do, however.”