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Chance Encounter

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~*~

Charlie Thomas knew it, the moment he’d woken up that morning – he had to get out of that house.

He’d lain awake, simply staring up at his ceiling, listening as the rest of the house roused to life and went about their morning routines. He’d been home for a week, and had endured the madness that was Christmas in the Thomas-Brewer household. Cookies, caroling, decorating the tree, opening gifts, assembling toys – it had all been fun.

And exhausting.

And overwhelming.

As the week stretched out between Christmas and New Year’s, he became aware of his restlessness – a feeling that couldn’t be abated by hanging out with Sam or Kristy, or by playing with his youngest siblings, or even by talking with his mother and stepfather. He didn’t know what it was, but today, he knew that it would propel him out of the house.

He waited until everyone else had gone downstairs for breakfast before leaving his room and padding down the stairs on silent feet. As he drew closer to the kitchen, he could hear the pandemonium within – something he’d once found comfortable and familiar now felt stifling.

When he crossed through the family room, he wasn’t surprised at all to find David Michael sitting near the tree, surrounded by his Christmas bounty. His little brother had more or less taken up residence in this room over the last week, unable to part with his new playthings for very long. Even getting him to simply move away from the tree had been something of a chore, a two-day battle finally won by their mother, though only last night had she finished packing up the decorations for storage.

Charlie quirked an amused brow as he eyed his brother, who was inching closer and closer to the now-naked tree. David Michael had piled up the loose, dry fir needles, setting a couple of his new action figures nearby as if they were guarding precious treasure. He picked up another figure, whizzing it around over his head before making it crash into the carpet, all the while humming the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song under his breath with increasing intensity.

“Heroes in a half-shell,” David Michael suddenly bellowed, “TURTLE POWER!”

He glanced up at that same moment, his eyes lighting up when he spotted Charlie. “Do you want to play with me?” he asked, gathering the neon green turtles in both hands. “You can even be Michelangelo this time!”

Charlie smiled indulgently, knowing how special that offer this was – Michelangelo was David Michael’s favorite. “Maybe later, okay?” he replied, his tone a mixture of gentleness and hesitance. He didn’t want to disappoint his little brother, but after nearly a week of fierce play, he was all turtle’d out. Everyone in his family had known that David Michael was a fan of the series, but none of them had realized just how enraptured he was with it. Maybe if they had, they wouldn’t have kitted him out with the deluxe play set, vehicles, and figurines.

Oh, who am I kidding? Charlie mused to himself, ruffling his brother’s hair. Yes we would’ve.

David Michael shrugged. “Okay,” he said dismissively, turning his attention back to his one-boy adventure.

Stifling a sigh of relief, Charlie continued on, approaching the swinging door to the kitchen. The noise level doubled just then, the muffled din becoming pointed and sharp as he pushed through the door.

Total chaos greeted him.

Karen was standing on one of the benches, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet. “Daddy, Daddy!” she shrieked, one hand balancing a tiara perilously on her head. “Watch me, watch me!”

Watson glanced in her direction, but was soon pulled back into the conversation he was having with his wife. Elizabeth hunkered down at the far end of the table, pages of lists spread out before her. “I don’t know how we’re ever going to pull everything together on time,” she groaned, burying her face in her hands. “Remind me again why we offered to host the New Year’s Eve party this year?”

Watson took her hand, giving it a sympathetic squeeze. “It just seems overwhelming in the moment, dear,” he murmured, before looking sharply in Karen’s direction again, as if only just realizing what she was doing.

“Young lady,” he intoned in a warning voice.

“But Daddy,” Karen pleaded, jumping down from the bench, fixing her crown upon her head once more, “don’t you want to see my bee-yoo-ti-ful ballerina dance?” She didn’t wait for his answer – she simply started twirling around to music of her own making. Emily Michelle watched her with interest, sliding down from her seat and mimicking Karen’s exaggerated movements.

Charlie sidestepped the table, heading for the refrigerator, keeping one eye on Karen’s zigzagging as he dug for the carton of orange juice.

Kristy, who’d heretofore been deep in thought as she shoveled cereal into her mouth, suddenly stood up, her eyes bright with excitement. “Mom, I just had a great idea,” she declared. “Why don’t I take over organizing the party?”

“It’s a big job, dear – ” Elizabeth started.

“Not for the Baby-sitters Club,” Kristy cut in with a grin. “I could call them and ask them to come over early and help! They’re all coming to the party anyway, and I’m sure they wouldn’t mind.”

Karen’s singing grew louder and louder; Emily continued to trail after her, twirling in slow motion. Watson made a grab for his youngest daughters’ arms, sending a rueful smile towards his wife. “Maybe they wouldn’t mind watching the kids, instead,” he joked.

Charlie stowed the juice safely away again, taking a long sip and leaning against the counter. He wasn’t sure he wanted to actually sit down, especially not if it meant wading into the madness. Somehow, Sam and Andrew were sitting at the table, calmly eating their breakfast as if they were the only ones in the room.

Watson and Elizabeth exchanged a long look. “Maybe you could try Abby or Shannon,” Elizabeth suggested as she turned back to Kristy. “They live the closest, and I’d hate to inconvenience everyone – I’m sure they’ve already made New Year’s Eve plans.”

“Yeah,” Sam piped up, standing up from the table, dirty dishes in hand. “Some of them are busy,” he added with a smirk as he made his way to the sink.

“‘Some’?” Kristy shot back, reaching for the cordless phone. “You mean you’re dating more than one of my friends now?”

Sam’s grin turned wolfish as he deposited his dishes and looked back at his sister. “Oh, no,” he returned, “Stacey is more than enough woman for me.”

Charlie nearly choked on his juice.

Kristy made a face, folding her hands on her hips. “Oh, ick,” she replied, her lips curling into a sneer. “I could’ve lived my entire life without hearing that, you know.”

Sam shrugged. “But who am I to deprive you?” he teased, looking not the least bit sorry. He caught Charlie’s eye just then, nodding a silent greeting in his direction.

Charlie nodded back, his eyes drifting back to the scene in front of him. Watson and Elizabeth were speaking quietly with the protesting Karen, who looked most upset at having her ‘bee-yoo-ti-ful ballerina dance’ disrupted. Emily Michelle had wandered out of the kitchen, the door swinging behind her as she made her way into the living room. Kristy had the phone glued to one ear, poking her finger into the other in an attempt to hear the person she was shouting instructions at. Amazingly, in the midst of it all, Andrew still sat, his blue eyes solemn and wide as he wordlessly spooned cereal into his mouth.

Charlie felt his restlessness surge. Yes, he decided, he definitely needed a break. He loved his family dearly, but he’d been hanging around the house for all of Christmas break – the Junk Bucket had been relegated to the scrap heap after his graduation from high school, and it wasn’t like Stoneybrook was the bastion of public transport.

“Watson,” Charlie suddenly blurted out, “could I borrow your car?”

His stepfather looked over at him, a soft smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. “Sure,” he replied, gesturing towards the key rack next to the back door. “Take the sports car, if you’d like.”

“Does it have snow tires?” Charlie sputtered, surprised at the offer. He’d been expecting the Oldsmobile, resigned to the idea that wheels were wheels, and anything would get him across town. Besides, Watson was pretty protective of his little red Porsche 911 – he only brought it out of the garage once a month, if that often.

Watson nodded. “Sam’s been using it for school,” he said, looking as if he wanted to add more, but being pulled back into the party planning discussion by his wife.

Charlie gaped at his brother, who had already plucked the keys up from the rack. “How did you manage that?!” he exclaimed.

Sam grinned. “Guess who’s the good son, now that you’re away at college?” he preened. He twirled the key ring around his finger. “Anyway – no can do on the Porsche,” he continued apologetically. “I’ve already promised Stacey I’d take her up to Stamford for the day.”

“Could you drop me off, then?” Charlie asked. “I thought I’d go to the old neighborhood, maybe catch up with Ricky and Randy and some of the others.” He hadn’t seen his friends since summer, and was desperate for companionship other than his relatives.

“No problem,” Sam replied with an easy smile.

“Cool.” Charlie fought to hide his relieved smile as he followed Sam out of the kitchen, the two of them stopping by the front hall closet for their coats. He felt vaguely guilty about bailing when his parents were in the midst of serious party prep, but his excitement over the prospect of seeing his oldest friends in the world quickly eclipsed it.

As he stepped out of the house, closing the door on the Thomas-Brewer zoo behind him, his heart immediately lightened, the restlessness that had been plaguing him all morning ebbing away – and he wondered what adventures his past had in store for him.

~*~

Charlie frowned as he regarded the front door of the Jones home. Maybe I should’ve called first, he thought ruefully, knocking for the third time. It felt so strange to be standing there – he and Ricky and Randy had been friends since they were in diapers, so familiar to each others’ families that they usually just walked inside each others’ houses, unannounced but always welcome. Charlie had checked that impulse when he first arrived, but now he tried the knob – and was unsurprised when he found it locked. He drifted off the landing, peeking into a nearby window and only confirming his suspicions. The house was dark, almost completely shuttered.

Nobody was home.

“Damn,” he swore under his breath, his feelings of elation beginning to deflate. He hadn’t seen Ricky or Randy since the summer, and even then, it was only briefly – both of them had summer jobs and not much time to hang out. They kept in touch during the year, but had drifted apart, perhaps naturally now that they weren’t constant companions. This was the first time they’d ever gone away for the holidays without telling him, and even though he knew it was stupid, he felt a little hurt.

He sighed, his gaze rising to the middle distance. He’d told Sam that he’d catch a ride back for the party – so now what was he going to do? He shoved his hands into his pockets and started walking, his stride steady and contemplative.

Bradford Court stretched out ahead of him, feeling both familiar, and at the same time, not. He’d spent seventeen years of his life on this street – so many things were the same, but many things were different, too. A new family lived in his old house, and they’d set about remodeling it, changing the siding and the shingles and planting flowers along the front walk. The Perkinses were nice, and he was glad his old room was now someone else’s sanctuary, but he couldn’t help but miss it all the same.

He lingered for a moment as he came upon the house he used to call home, his mind’s eye filling in all of the details from his childhood. He remembered flying kites and playing football and teaching Kristy how to pitch. He remembered watching Louie explore the backyard for the first time, David Michael toddling behind him. He remembered alternating bunks with Sam, whispering in the dark and complaining about Kristy’s endless flashlight signaling with Mary Anne.

It had been hard to pick up and move across town, even if he did end up with practically his own wing at Watson’s house – and that’s the way he still thought of it, as Watson’s, not his own. Maybe that’s why it had been relatively easy to move across the country for college: he’d already had practice in uprooting his life and settling elsewhere.

He sighed, balling his hands into fists in his pockets as he continued on. He followed familiar pathways into town, gazing about all the while, soaking up the familiarity of the city center. It was fairly peaceful and quiet; the chill of the late December air kept most people (sane people) indoors. Just as he passed the library, he glanced up, surprised to see someone else out walking the nearly deserted streets. He got a good look at her when she reached the corner and turned, waiting on the signal to cross the street, and felt a jolt of surprise when he realized he was staring at Janine Kishi.

A smile curled the corners of his lips as he gazed at her – here was another old, familiar sight, but one that sparked pleasure instead of melancholy. She stood primly on the corner, her nose buried in a book, the breeze ruffling through her sleek, dark hair. It was longer than he remembered, sweeping past her shoulders in a glossy curtain. She was wearing a knee-length black coat and matching gloves, which somehow didn’t impede her page-turning as she read.

He watched her for a long moment – when the light changed and she was free to cross, she didn’t miss a beat, flipping another page as she stepped out into the street. After a contemplative pause, he decided to follow her, his mood lifting again over the prospect of seeing an old friend. She wasn’t the person he’d intended to find, but she always seemed to pop up in his life when he least expected it.

Though they had lived across the street from each other on Bradford Court for most of their lives, they hadn’t really been playmates. It wasn’t until high school that they became friendly towards each other. She was there when it mattered, but when also he least expected it – she’d helped choose the college he was now attending, and had encouraged him to apply for a last-minute scholarship. He’d always appreciated her for that, and for other things. It had taken some patience, but he’d finally gotten her to open up a little bit, beyond the quiet and reserved façade she showed the world. She was brilliantly witty and fun to be around, and he never quite understood why she hid her great personality from the world.

Her pace was steady, a block ahead of him; she finally stopped at Renwick’s, the cozy little diner next to Bellair’s. By the time he made it inside, she was already seated in a corner booth. He hesitated, debating whether or not to join her, considering she had no idea that he’d been following her for the last three blocks. When the hostess approached with a smile, ready to seat him, he gave her an impulsive grin and told her someone was already waiting for him.

He approached Janine’s table quietly, not wanting to startle her. “Is this seat taken?” he asked, his tone sounding far more easy than he felt.

She looked up swiftly from her book, surprise etched into her features. After a moment, she granted him a small smile. “Hello,” she said softly. “Please, sit down.”

He sat, sliding across the red leather opposite her. “I don’t mean to intrude,” he replied with a smile, “but I thought I’d say ‘hi.’”

“It’s no intrusion,” she assured him, marking her place in her book and setting it aside. “It’s nice to see you again.”

“You, too,” he returned, taking the opportunity to study her. She was wearing an olive-colored cable knit sweater over a white Oxford shirt. Her hair fell loose around her shoulders; it took him a moment to realize that she didn’t have bangs anymore – it was all one length, no longer cut into that severe pageboy. She had different glasses as well, thin, gold frames that seemed to fade into her skin. Prickles of attraction scored his spine.

“You look great,” he added, checking an urge to touch her hand where it rested on her book. “Massachusetts must be treating you well.”

She flushed prettily, averting her eyes from his. “The weather is quite agreeable,” she murmured.

A waitress arrived just then, carefully settling a large white mug on a saucer in front of Janine. “Here you go, hon,” she said. “Just let me know if you’d like something else, yes?” The waitress turned to Charlie, pulling her order pad from the pocket of her apron. “And what can I bring for you?” she asked conversationally.

He wasn’t all that hungry, but Janine’s drink smelled heavenly. “I’ll have what she’s having,” he replied, pointing to the cup just as Janine raised it to her lips.

The waitress nodded, scribbling down his order and sweeping away.

Janine took a dainty sip, wiping the corner of her lips with her napkin. “I didn’t know you liked mint chocolate hot cocoa,” she said, sounding surprised.

Charlie blinked, quickly dropping his gaze from her mouth to her hands, momentarily confused as to why he found the delicate movements of her fingers as she toyed with the handle of her cup so fascinating. “I’ve never had it before, but it sounds great,” he answered with what he hoped was a casual shrug. His eyes found hers. “And hey, shouldn’t we try new things at least once in our lives?”

She smiled in response, taking another long sip of her cocoa.

He averted his eyes again, looking at the book that she’d set to one side. “So what are you reading?” he asked. “You looked pretty into it on the way here.”

She showed him the cover, and he clucked his tongue. “Ah, Anna Karenina,” he mused. “I’m impressed.”

“We are studying the associated principle in my statistics class,” Janine explained, “and it piqued my curiosity.”

He blinked. “There’s a scientific principle named after this novel?” he asked incredulously. “Wow – I knew Russian literature was influential, but not that influential. That’s pretty cool!”

She nodded, quoting, “‘There are any number of ways in which a dataset may violate the null hypothesis, but only one in which all the assumptions are satisfied.’”

He mulled over her words for a long moment – it had been way too long since his last math class. “So, basically,” he reasoned, “that means there’s only one right answer?”

“Precisely,” she replied smoothly, satisfaction lighting her eyes.

His heart skipped a beat, and he swallowed hard, wondering why her approval suddenly made him feel fluttery and light-headed. He hadn’t seen in her over a year, it was true, but he certainly didn’t remember feeling like this in her presence.

“If only that were true in real life,” he quipped, missing the hint of a frown that crossed her features when he studied the cover of the novel instead. “So, how are you enjoying it so far?”

Janine picked up the book, turning it over and over in her hands. “It’s intriguing,” she said, her tone thoughtful. “The characters are complex and compelling, and the plot moves at an appreciable pace.”

Charlie smiled. “Then I won’t ruin the ending for you.”

“Oh, that’s quite all right,” she replied hastily. “I’ve read this novel before, and thus, I am aware of how it concludes.” She glanced up at him. “But sometimes, it’s worth the effort of examining something familiar in a new way…”

He could feel his pulse pick up speed as her eyes lingered on his.

The heady moment brewing between them was broken when the waitress reappeared, settling an identical white mug and saucer in front of Charlie. “Here we are,” she announced, laying a pile of extra napkins on the table between them. “Enjoy, hon.”

Oh, I will, he thought, wrapping his hands around the steaming hot cup as he glanced back at Janine.

She flushed, glancing down sharply into her own mug, as if suddenly aware – and ashamed – of the flirtatious double entendre of her words. “Have you read Anna Karenina, then?” she asked haltingly, directing her question more to her cocoa than him.

He nodded. “Yeah,” he replied. “I took a Russian literature class last semester.” He tapped the cover of her book. “Interesting stuff.”

“I wasn’t aware of your interest in Russian literature,” she mused softly, chancing to glance up at him, her eyes narrowed with curiosity.

“Neither was I,” he shrugged, bringing the cocoa to his lips, “until I took this class.” He inhaled the sweet, rich aroma before tasting it, the silky cocoa warming the back of his throat. “Wow, this stuff is amazing!”

His exclamation seemed to hearten her. “I’m glad you like it,” she said with a smile. “Renwick’s is the only place that serves it.” She took another ship. “It’s one of the things I miss most about residing in Stoneybrook.”

What else do you miss? The question rose to the tip of his tongue, but he bit it back. He could feel every nerve in his body, and still he wondered why he was so aware – of himself, of her, of every possible meaning of their ambiguous conversation. How had he never noticed how attractive she was until now?

“Charlie? Are you quite all right?”

He startled from his thoughts, surprised to see concern creasing Janine’s brow. “Yeah, yeah, sorry,” he rushed, waving a dismissive hand as he shook his head, like he was clearing the cobwebs from his brain. “How’s MIT? I already know you like the weather…” he trailed off suggestively.

She smiled, her entire being suddenly aglow. “It is magnificent,” she sighed happily. “It’s everything I thought it would be, and more. Never before have I been surrounded by my intellectual peers, and it’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.”

He quirked a brow. “Physics is that much fun, huh?” he murmured, feeling strangely deflated.

“Physics, mathematics, chemistry, economics, engineering,” she gushed, her eyes glittering. “I’ve had the hardest time trying to choose courses each semester. Everything sounds so interesting and tempting!”

“Have you picked a major yet?” he asked curiously.

“Yes,” she nodded, her gaze meeting his. “Physics. It is the most useful undergraduate degree, giving me a wide range of options to pursue in graduate school.” She titled her head thoughtfully. “And you? What have you chosen to concentrate your focus on?”

He coughed. “I’m…not sure,” he finally responded, quickly taking another sip of his cocoa.

Her eyes widened with surprise. “You’re not sure?” she echoed. “But aren’t you to declare by the end of your sophomore year – next semester?”

He shrugged sheepishly. “Yeah,” he confirmed, “but I have no idea what I’m going to do. I’ve taken a ton of classes because they sounded interesting or fun, but nothing’s really grabbed me.” He looked away swiftly, though not before she caught the guilty cast of his expression.

“Enjoying yourself at college is part of the experience,” she reminded him. “You shouldn’t feel troubled about that.”

“I don’t,” he replied stiffly, frustrated to feel the surge of restlessness from that morning washing through him again. “I’m not a math whiz like Sam, or a science genius like you. I don’t really have anything to fall back on, and I suck at making life decisions.” He snorted. “Hell, if not for you, I wouldn’t even be at UCLA right now.”

“I don’t know about that,” she returned. “You were accepted of your own merit, just as you will graduate on the same.”

He looked back at her, feeling strangely comforted by her words. She was digging into her coat pockets, intent on searching for something, and emerged a moment later with a small pad and pen. He watched her curiously as she opened the pad to a fresh page and poised the pen over it, thinking for a moment before dividing it into three neat, equal columns.

“Choosing a major is not so difficult, if you think about it logically,” she told him as she met his intrigued gaze. “We will divide your abilities by aptitude, interest, and success, and I’m certain a clearer picture will emerge.”

“This all seems very familiar,” he noted suspiciously as she lettered the columns in her clear, cursive script. “Isn’t this how we narrowed down the list of colleges who might still accept me with a late application?”

She smiled. “Indeed,” she replied.

His shook his head in utter amazement. “Why are you helping me?” he wanted to know.

She laughed softly. “You asked me that last time, but my answer hasn’t changed,” she replied. “Why wouldn’t I help you?”

He shrugged helplessly. He didn’t have an answer for that, beyond a galloping heart and a warm, tingling feeling in his abdomen.

“We’ll start with aptitude,” she announced, underlining the word in the first column. “What sorts of things are you good at?”

“You mean, besides sports?” he joked, upended when she actually added the word to her list.

“Yes,” she replied, looking up at him encouragingly.

He smirked, meeting her gaze with a long, meaningful stare, and enjoyed the flush that suddenly burnished her cheeks. She brushed her fingers through her hair, pushing a lock of it behind her ear as she debated what, if anything, to write for that.

“P-perhaps we should move on to success,” she managed, her voice slightly strangled. She took a long sip of her cocoa before continuing. “What classes have you excelled in?”

“All of them,” he mumbled evasively, momentarily dropping his gaze. Truth be told, he’d been so busy exploring the UCLA social scene the last couple of years that he’d let his grades slip. He’d still pass, but barely – especially those classes that didn’t hold his interest.

“Did you do well in your Russian literature course?” she asked, drawing his attention once more.

“Yeah,” he nodded, “but I don’t think I could do that for the rest of my life.” He shrugged, unsure of how seriously she’d take his actual answer to her original question.

“I’ve done pretty good in the social sciences,” he ventured. “You know, sociology, psychology, that sort of thing.” He winced in anticipation of her response; those in the hard sciences generally looked down on the ‘softer’ sciences, dismissing them as so much quackery.

Janine, however, simply added to her list. “The human brain is the final frontier,” she murmured with a smile. “Anything else?”

He shook his head, feeling more relieved than he should have that she didn’t disparage his academic strengths.

“Okay then,” she said, “we’ll move on to interests. What sorts of things do you enjoy? Beyond class work or school – what are your strong points?”

He toyed with the handle of his cup as he pondered her question. “I enjoy helping people,” he replied thoughtfully. “I’m good at taking charge, I think – God knows I’ve had enough practice, trying to keep Sam and Kristy in line,” he added wryly.

“You’re good with people,” Janine agreed, making notes in her third column. “In high school, at least, it seemed like everyone went to you for advice about something.”

“Except you,” Charlie teased, grabbing her free hand with his and squeezing it impulsively. “I’ve always admired that about you.”

“That I never came to you for advice?” Janine queried, furrowing her brow.

“No,” he replied with a smile. “The fact that you never needed to.”

Her hand still rested in his, a warm and welcome weight in his palm; he wondered how much longer it would take for her to realize that he hadn’t let her go. She was busy with her list, tapping her pen against her mouth as she worked, linking words in each column. Her lips were the color of a dusky rose, full and soft and incredibly tantalizing…

“So you enjoy advising others,” she said, breaking into his reverie, “you’ve done well in the social sciences, and you’re good at, um, having relationships,” she finished with a blush. “Perhaps you should consider majoring in psychology.”

He looked at her skeptically. “Isn’t that one of those degrees that everyone gets?”

“Perhaps,” she conceded, “but it, like physics, provides a broad array of options for further study. You could do therapy, or social work, or academic research.” She lifted her hand from his, pushing her glasses up the slope of her nose. “The possibilities are endless.”

She tore the page from her notebook and passed it over to him, busying herself with putting away her things while he studied it. She was startled when she looked at him again, taking in his admiring expression and granting him a small smile. “What?” she exhaled sharply, her eyes searching his.

“I was just thinking,” he mused, “that somehow, you always end up in the middle of my most important, life-changing decisions.”

Her cheeks colored. “Merely a coincidence,” she replied with embarrassed dismissal.

“One time might be a chance encounter,” he responded, “and two, maybe a coincidence. But I think by the time you get to three? There’s a pattern emerging.” A pattern I enjoy, he added silently, relishing the heat that pooled in his midsection as he gazed appreciatively at her.

Needless to say, he was very happy he’d run into her, instead of Ricky and Randy.

Janine glanced at her watch. “Oh,” she gasped, making to stand. “I really must be on my way.”

Charlie swallowed his disappointment as he watched her gather her things, not wanting their time together to be cut short. “Hey, Janine?” he tried, capturing her attention as she slipped into her coat. “Would you like to come to our New Year’s Eve party?”

She smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry, but I can’t – I promised my parents I’d accompany them to Russ’s and Peaches’s gathering.” She placed a few bills on the table and picked up her book, tucking it into the crook of her arm. She stood next to the table for an awkward moment, before impulsively stooping and kissing him on the cheek.

“It was wonderful to see you again, Charlie,” she whispered as she pulled away.

He took her hand as she rose to her full height, and in one swift move, he slipped out of the booth and stood beside her, drawing her close and kissing her fully. Her mouth was a perfect fit under his, her lips warm and soft, and she tasted of mint and chocolate – his new favorite combination, he decided right then and there.

“We really should do this again sometime,” he murmured in response, enjoying the tendrils of excitement and pleasure that crisscrossed his torso.

He was rewarded with a smile and a meaningful look as she slipped away. He picked up the piece of paper she’d given him, his eyes running over the careful handwriting that outlined his future. He put it down again, pulling a pen from the pocket of his coat, and added near the bottom:

New Year’s resolution: Keep in touch with Janine Kishi.