They stepped into the elevator together, and she jerked when Jack was suddenly there, his arms around her and his lips beside her ear. “I’m sorry. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t your anchor. Seeing you get beaten up is hard enough, but being the only one to remember it is misery.”
He pulled back, and they shared a weak smile. Peri steeled herself against the wave of emotion that washed over her. She could cry later. But she wouldn’t. Holding the world together while a new timeline formed was her job. Witnessing and rebuilding her memory was his job—and had been for the last three years.
She took a slow breath as the elevator halted with a cheerful ding. She would have written down their reservation. The night was not entirely ruined, and she would appreciate a good wine and the release that flirting with Jack would bring. “What were we getting, anyway?”
Immediately Jack relaxed. “Remember that virus that Opti used to reinforce the United Nations’ pollution limits three years ago? It had an ugly stepsister,” he said. “I’m sorry, Peri. At least you didn’t lose the summer.”
A faint smile eased her worry, and she twined her fingers in his as they got out of the elevator. No, she hadn’t lost the summer, but if she had, she knew that she could’ve fallen in love with him all over again.
The stairway was cramped, lit with tiny flashing lights and glittery with the hearts-and-roses banner someone had put up for next week’s Valentine’s Day party. Peri had to go up almost sideways in her heels, the music thumping through the walls seeming to push her up to the loft where the pool tables were. Jack was still downstairs talking on his phone to their handler, Bill, under the guise of arranging payment, and Peri stifled a surge of jealousy. Couldn’t they have even one moment of relaxation without Bill interfering?
But her frown shifted to a blank nothing as the memory of the guard surfaced, a hole in him the size of her knife. Quashing it, she continued upstairs, eager to push out the faint—and admittedly ridiculous—feeling that something was wrong.
This will help, she thought, pleased as she emerged onto the second floor and took in the six tables of masculinity replete with beer, wings, and camaraderie, liking the wide range of attire from jeans and plaid to suits and ties. It was the love of the game that brought them here and wiped out their differences like blue chalk in the wind, and she breathed in the faint scent of smoke that lingered in the green felt and relaxed.
But someone noticed her and jostled an elbow. Another cleared his throat, and soon everyone looked up, their gazes traveling over her in appreciation and lingering in question on her black eye and TSA-approved cue case instead of her curves. Three tables were open, but it was the one in the back corner that caught her eye. Sashaying to the supply rack, she took a finger towel and an old chalk.
Jack was just coming up when she turned, his smile wide as he noticed every eye on her. “I can’t leave you alone for even a second,” he said, tugging her to him for a welcome kiss.
His lips met hers, and she leaned into him as the spark dove deep, kindling a desire that the coming evening would only fan higher. The music thumped with a suggestive rhythm, and the post-adrenaline crash made her feel flirty. Their lips parted, and she sighed, happy to have him in her life.
“It’s the clothes, believe me,” she said, and he shook his head.
“It’s what they’re wrapped around,” he said, one arm lingering around her as his gaze lifted to the room. “Which one looks good? Corner table?”
Nodding, she headed that way, shivering when his hand slipped from her. Eyes were still on them as she crossed to the shadowed corner, wincing at the electronic whine coming from an out-of-phase holo table and glad the place had only the one. No one was playing it, probably because it was out of synch and the graphix were jumping.
Music thumped up from the floor through Peri’s feet as she set her handbag on the small drinks table and slid up onto the high stool. A heartbeat of electronic dance music seemed to carry the colored lights to the corners of the two-story, upscale club, but the spinning flashes were mere hints under the strong glow of the nearby low-hanging pool table lights. The atmosphere, even on a Thursday night, was alive and electrifying, a heady mix of angles and vectors surrounded by chaotic movement and life.
Just what I need right now, she thought as Jack ran the play card to free the balls. Smiling, she idly spun through the club’s at-table menu system, ordering a basket of wings and two red wines as usual. Tradition dictated that dessert would be determined by the winner—which would be her if she had her way.
“My break?” she asked when Jack lifted the rack up and away, not liking that she didn’t remember how they’d left their last game.
“As I recall,” he said as he handed Peri her cue stick.
Slipping from the stool, she leaned to rest the flat of her arm on the smooth finish of the pool table. Her swollen eye throbbed as she held her breath and lined up the shot. The cue slid between her fingers like silk, once, twice, and then away … and she straightened at the familiar thump and crack.
Smiling, she watched the balls scatter as the nine dropped in. With the noise below, it was more a feeling than a sound, but satisfying nevertheless. Around them, the men’s interest waned, her excellent break telling them she belonged.
Jack sighed. “This might be a while,” he said with mock glumness.
“I might miss,” she promised as she exhaled and lined up another shot.