After hello, p.21
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       After Hello, p.21

           Lisa Mangum
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  I yawned. “Don’t remind me. I’m still tired.”

  “You can sleep on the plane.”

  My yawn turned into a grimace. “Again—don’t remind me.”

  I had woken to the sound of Sam’s voice saying my name. Even though I had been groggy with sleep, that was a memory I would never forget. He had barely given me time to open my eyes before he’d dumped a ton of information on me, the bottom line of which was that if I wanted to see Piper before my plane left for home, I had to get up and get moving. Now.

  I wasn’t ready to leave New York; there was still so much I wanted to see and do. And part of me wanted to see and do it all with Sam, even though I knew that was impossible.

  I told him about the picture and how I wanted to give it to Piper—and why. To his credit, he took the information in stride and didn’t protest my decision.

  Sam told me he’d texted my dad, which, once I got over my initial wave of anger, I realized was actually a really nice thing to do. But it didn’t make the thought of seeing him again any easier to stomach. We’d said terrible things to each other. I had run from him; he had let me go. I hadn’t called him, or texted him, or even really thought about him since Sam and I had left Top of the Rock.I knew I needed to apologize for leaving him, but I didn’t know if Dad would forgive me. I didn’t know if I could forgive myself.

  While I hurried through breakfast—half a glass of juice and a few bites of a granola bar—I saw Vanessa press some bills into Sam’s hand. She had insisted on paying for the taxi—again. I hoped Sam could convince her to accept something in trade for all the help she had given us. She deserved something wonderful, like diamonds, or a building named after her.

  Before we ran out the door, picture in hand, Vanessa stopped us long enough to give us each a hug. In my ear, she whispered, “Always listen to the muses, sugar. They will never lead you astray.”

  “I will. Thank you,” I said, squeezing her back.

  Then we were off. Down the stairs, to the street, and into a taxi that would whisk us uptown to the Plaza Hotel and the completion of our quest.

  The driver maneuvered past a bus with barely an inch to spare. I shuddered at the close call; one day was not enough time to get used to driving in New York.

  I touched the medallion again and shook my head. “This was your grandfather’s,” I said, awed. “I know you said you’d trade it if the right thing came along, but I’m giving this to Piper. I can’t just take your medallion and give it away.”

  “Yes, you can,” Sam said. “This isn’t a trade. It’s a gift. And that’s what you do with gifts—you give them away.”

  I thought of the mask Vanessa had given me as a gift, tucked away in my bag, the eyes opened wide like it was my own personal muse that could watch over me.

  For all that we were in a rush, he seemed perfectly relaxed. He leaned back against the seat, and, for once, his fingers were motionless on his knee. No endless tapping. No restless energy pouring off him in waves. The calmness suited him, I decided.

  “Besides,” he said, touching the silver circle with one finger, “St. Christopher watched over both of us yesterday. It’s only fair he have a place of honor recognizing his contribution.”

  I smiled. “He did bring us some good luck.”

  “Only the best.”

  The taxi pulled up in front of the Plaza Hotel. The building looked the same as it had yesterday—a beautiful gray exterior with flags hung at an angle above the front doors. Today, though, I knew what—and who—was inside. I could only hope that this time we would have a different ending to our meeting with Piper.

  Sam paid the fare, and we headed into the lobby. I carried the framed print with both hands.

  “How are we going to get in to see Piper?” I asked. “Without Will to buzz us through, I mean.”

  Sam smiled. “I have a plan.”

  Whereas yesterday we’d sidestepped to Will’s station, today Sam strode directly up to the front desk.

  “Sara Nolan to see Piper Kinkade, please,” he announced to the uniformed employee. “That’s Sara without the h,” he added in a mock-whisper, as though that detail would make a difference.

  I tried to keep my surprise in check and still look official at the same time. This was Sam’s big plan? Did he really think this was going to work?

  The employee checked a clipboard, flipping pages and swallowing hard. “Um, there’s no one on the list by that name. So—”

  Sam leaned his elbows on the desk and gestured for the clerk to come closer. “You’re new here, aren’t you”—Sam squinted at the gold name tag—“Harold?”

  Harold’s nervous glance darted right then left as though he were afraid of being identified as the new guy. “May I . . . uh, may I ask what your business is with Ms. Kinkade?”

  “Let me give you a bit of advice, Harold.” Sam’s smile was charming and effortless. “You should never pry in Ms. Kinkade’s personal business, and you should never, ever keep her waiting. We have a special delivery, so why don’t you call her up and let her know we’re here.”

  Harold swallowed and, after a moment, reached for the phone. He turned his back to us, and I took the opportunity to bump Sam’s arm with my elbow.

  “What are you doing?” I hissed. “This is never going to work.”

  “If I know one thing about Piper, it’s that she loves special deliveries. She’ll be intrigued enough by the promise of a surprise that we should be able at least to secure a pass into the elevator.”

  Harold turned back to us, his face ashen. “Follow me,” he said with a quaver in his voice.

  Sam grinned. “Thank you, my good man.”

  I felt a laugh tickle the back of my throat and I quickly turned it into a cough as I followed Sam to the elevator.

  Harold swiped his ID card through the reader, and when the chime sounded, he said, “You have five minutes.”

  The elevator doors opened and we darted inside.

  I held my breath as we ascended to the top floor. My heart thudded in worried anticipation. We’d come so far and done so much. Would it be enough? Would Piper like our gift enough to give Paul his job back—and, by extension, Sam?

  Or had we spent the day on a fool’s errand?

  No, I couldn’t believe that.

  I looked up at Sam, who was watching the numbers tick higher and higher as the elevator closed the gap between us and our destination.

  “Don’t worry, Sara,” he said without looking at me.

  Someday I was going to figure out how he managed to see everything around him.

  The doors opened, revealing the pristine white hallway I remembered. There were the same tables. The same mirrors on the walls. The same plush carpet rolling all the way back to a pair of wooden double doors.

  The difference now was that Piper stood in the center of the hallway, waiting for us. She held a squirming Bootsie in her arms, the small dog sporting an even smaller hot-pink cast around one leg.

  Neither one looked happy at all.

  “I told the new boy downstairs I didn’t want to be disturbed and what does he do? He calls me—before noon! on a Sunday!—about some random delivery that I don’t even remember ordering. My old assistant never would have let this happen.” Her eyes snapped with anger. “This better be good, or else I’ll have to fire the new guy too. It’s been a bad week for that.” She frowned. “Maybe I’ll fire him anyway. Wait—” She stopped mid-rant and narrowed her eyes at me. “I know you. You told me you worked for that bookstore, but when I called over there to have them fire you, they said no one named Samantha worked there. And then they hung up on me. On me!”

  Bootsie growled, and Piper shifted her pet into the crook of her other arm.

  “I . . . uh, I’m sorry about that. My name is Sara, and it’s true I don’t work for the bookstore.” I handed the collage to Sam so that I could reach into my bag and pull out the head shot I’d carried with me for the past twenty-four hours. “But you asked me for this. Yester

  I held out the glossy photograph, and she took it carefully with her free hand, pinching the paper between two fingers. “I asked you for a picture of me?” She raised her perfectly arched eyebrows in disbelief.

  Blushing in embarrassment, I shook my head. “No, not exactly.” I gestured for her to turn the picture over. “You asked me for that.”

  I watched as she skimmed my notes, her lips moving ever so slightly as she read.

  When she finished, I gestured to Sam, who flipped the frame around to display the collage on his outstretched arms like a living easel.

  “And so I brought you this,” I said, and held my breath.

  Piper dropped the head shot to the floor and stepped forward. Tapping her finger against her lips, she examined the artwork from the top all the way to the bottom where I had signed my name. After an excruciatingly long minute, she jerked her head over her shoulder.

  “Put it in there,” she ordered Sam. “I’ll have someone hang it up later.” She turned to me. “I like it. Who’s the artist?”

  I gulped. “Me?” I said, hating that it sounded like a question.

  I saw Sam slip into Piper’s apartment, and I felt a small pang of loss in my heart. I knew giving the collage to Piper was the right thing to do, but it had all happened so fast.

  I cleared my throat and tried again. “I mean, I am. It’s my work.”

  She examined me as closely as she had my artwork, from the top of my head all the way to the bottom of my feet. “You have good taste,” she finally said. “For someone who works at a bookstore.” Then she turned her back to me in what was a clear dismissal.

  I didn’t bother to correct her. Once she returned to her apartment, I would lose my chance to set things right. It was now or never.

  “Piper?” I called out, feeling the rush of adrenaline that only comes from fear—or from doing something dangerous. “What about Paul?”

  She turned slowly to face me again. “What about Paul?”

  “You fired him because I didn’t bring a piece of artwork back to you in time. But I did bring you something—something you liked. And so I think you should give Paul his job back,” I said, my voice gaining strength the longer I spoke.

  “And you know him—how, exactly?”

  “He’s my brother,” Sam answered from behind her. He closed the apartment door and walked back down the hallway toward us.

  Piper watched his every move, eyes narrowed, lips pursed.

  “And, trust me,” he said, stopping at my side, “you have no idea what you’ve lost by firing him. You’d be smart to bring him back.”

  She pinned me with her eyes. She looked so young and innocent, but I could see the shrewd and careful mind behind her gaze. It was no wonder she’d made such a successful career for herself. She lifted Bootsie and pressed a kiss to the top of the dog’s head.

  I took a step closer to Sam.

  The moment seemed to lengthen to the breaking point, then reached beyond. My heart pounded so hard it hurt. Sweat tickled along the nape of my neck. Sam brushed the back of his hand against mine, and I knew he was feeling anxious too.

  Then Piper shrugged. “Fine,” she said. “Tell him to be here at eight tomorrow morning.” She turned on her heel and sauntered back to her apartment.

  The sound of the door closing cut the tension, and all the air rushed out of my lungs in one enormous, grateful sigh.

  We’d done it.

  My hand reached for Sam’s, our fingers automatically locking together. I looked up at him, and he looked at me.

  And then we both started to laugh.

  Chapter 40


  They were still laughing when they left the hotel and stumbled back onto the sidewalk, falling over each other with comfortable ease.

  “Success!” Sara crowed, throwing her hands up in the air like she’d scored the winning touchdown. “Though I was a little worried there at the end. She was so mad at us and at poor Harold.” She shuddered. “I still don’t know why Paul wants to work for her. She’s scary when she’s mad.”

  “I guess she hasn’t read the book yet,” Sam said with a grin.

  “What book?”

  “The one we brought to Piper. The one that started all this.”

  She looked at him in surprise. “That book? What was it? You never told me. And Piper wasn’t exactly chatty about it either.”

  Sam tried to force his mouth into a serious line, but failed. “Anger Management for the Celebrity Soul.”

  Sara’s mouth rounded in honest surprise. “You’re kidding.”

  “Nope. Piper—if you hadn’t noticed—has a bit of a temper.”

  “I’d noticed,” she drawled.

  “It’s why I didn’t want to say what it was. Stuff like that is personal. She wouldn’t want something like that to get back to her fans.”

  “Clearly not.”

  “I mean, can you imagine if her fans knew what kind of a person she really was?”

  “The mind boggles.”

  They looked at each other for a moment, then dissolved into laughter again, turning the corner and leaving the hotel behind.

  They walked along the sidewalk for a few blocks; Sam tried to aim their route toward Times Square, but he wished he could take a few detours. There was a shop down the street that had the best bagels. And the International Center of Photography was on 43rd Street and Sixth Avenue—they would practically walk right past it. Sara would go nuts there.

  There just wasn’t enough time.

  The morning was still cool and fresh, though Sam knew that by noon, it would turn muggy and oppressive. By noon, the clouds that were skimming high in the air would plod sluggishly across the sky.

  By noon, Sara would be gone. Back on a plane that would carry her through miles and miles of that same cool air all the way to Arizona.

  He’d heard about the dry heat of the Arizona sun, but he’d never actually experienced it himself. He wondered if the heat would sap the color from Sara’s face, drain her energy, and burn away her vitality. He hoped not. He wanted to remember how she looked in this exact moment of time: her green eyes sparkling, her lips parted in a smile, her face lit with joy.

  Once noon came and went, it would be all he’d have left of her.

  He pushed away the thought.

  “Thanks for an amazing adventure, Sam,” she said, looking up at him.

  He laughed. “Who would have believed we would be victorious in our quest?”

  “I’ll be honest, at times, I had my doubts.”

  Sam’s laugh softened into a sigh. “So did I.” He kept his hand twined with hers and hoped she wouldn’t pull away. “But I knew if anyone could do it, it would be you.”

  Sara tilted her head to the side. “Wow. You’re braver than I am.”

  “I don’t know—I think you’re pretty brave.”

  “And stubborn,” she added. “I’m equal parts stubborn and brave. Remember? That’s what you said to me when we met.”

  Of course he remembered. He doubted he would forget anything about that meeting.

  “Which reminds me.” She let go of his hand and opened the mouth of her bag. Digging in the depths, she finally emerged with a small 3x5 framed picture. “Here. This belongs to you.”

  Sam took it from her and held it carefully with both hands. She had framed the picture of him walking away from the bookstore. Written in small letters along the edge of the white mat was the caption: Sam. She’d signed her name in the corner.

  He looked at her, feeling overwhelmed.

  “Vanessa helped me with it once we were done with the collage. Do you like it?” she asked, rocking up onto her toes, her fingers twisting into a knot of nerves.

  He nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

  “I’m still not sorry I stole your soul,” she said. “But I’m glad I was able to give it back.”

  He tightened his hands around the frame, holding on as if he were afraid to let go. He opened his mou
th to speak, but the words he wanted to say felt rusty and raw. He cleared his throat and tried again. “In more ways than one.”

  Her face filled with color, soft and warm. “I just wanted to say thanks. For everything.”

  He swallowed. His heart picked up speed in his chest. He thought about that night eighteen months ago when he had driven along a country road on a dark night with a blue-eyed girl. Then he thought about last night when he had stood on a building that seemed to reach to the stars with a girl who had green eyes. Both nights had changed his life, but in such different ways.

  “Do you believe in fate?” he asked.

  “I don’t know. Maybe a little. Why?”

  “I believe sometimes people come into your life at exactly the right moment to give you exactly what you need at that moment.”

  She bit her lip and looked at the framed picture in his hands. “You think it was fate that we met?”

  “It kind of feels like it, don’t you think?” he said with a shrug.

  “Yeah,” she said after a long moment. “It kind of does.” She gave herself a little shake, like waking up from a dream. “Though it’s hard to believe that all I needed was a little pink packet of sugar.” She smiled ruefully. “You know, I traded that sugar packet all the way to Top of the Rock, but I never did get to see the Giants play.”

  He matched her smile. “You didn’t really want to see the Giants play, though, did you?”

  “No,” she admitted, looking down. “I only said that because I knew what I really wanted wasn’t possible.” She sighed. “All these years, I kept wishing that my mom would come home, that I could see her again—just once. But now that I know the truth, I guess I just have to accept the fact that she’s gone and, if she hasn’t come back by now, she’s not coming back.”

  Sam took a deep breath and lifted her chin with his finger. “I’ve been trading for a long time now. I’ve found a lot of interesting things. I’ve met a lot of interesting people.”

  Her eyes were the green of spring, of new life.

  She looked up at him with so much trust that he had a sudden moment of doubt. Was this the right thing to do? Or would this just lead her down a path that would end in heartache? He thought about the collage she’d made and how all those different paths had been marked out for him. If there was even a chance that one of the paths in Sara’s life would lead to joy, then he had to do this.

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