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all that's gilded

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Jess had fallen in love with the antique ring as soon as she first had laid eyes on it, which unfortunately was after it was thrown across a garage. It was fine now, and made a nice home for itself on the fourth finger on her left hand. It was beautiful, really. She could look at it all night if it was up to her. Jess had never been one for flashy, materialistic things—hell, Ruth had to force her into wearing skirt her junior year in high school—but somehow the glint of the modest ring diamond made Jess want to cry out with joy.

She’s been engaged for two years now. She was supposed to wait until after college before getting married, but they decided to change things after Douglas made aninteresting announcement. Jess had transferred to the University of Indiana, but she wouldn’t be graduating on time, thanks to that brief stint at Julliard. Now instead of majoring in orchestra—or whatever exactly they called it at Julliard—she was attempting to get her teaching degree. So of course she would have to put in another year before she could get her teaching diploma.

Then Douglas just ruined everything. He had been her favorite brother until this. Douglas might have let it slip that at Thanksgiving dinner that really they only wanted to hire the best teachers at the alternative, and really, he thought she’d be great, but it really wasn’t his final decision to make, and that a master’s degree would look better than just a plain ole bachelors.

The conversation ended with Jess promptly shoving her elbow right below his ribcage.

She wasn’t looking forward to added years of school. College wasn’t the piece of crap known as high school, and there wasn’t as many people she wanted to punch in the face—only Joey di Josepho, but honestly the cheesy Guido accent and the hair gel were the Big No—there. It was just school and learning. Jess was so over learning.

She wanted to graduate and get married and move on with her life.

Well at least now she was getting onto the married. After some heavy convincing, she managed to get her mother motivated to set the date for this fall. After all if she was going to be in school through her mid twenties, she felt it was just accepted to get it over with. Only she didn’t use that phrasing with her mom. She used more “you can out the decorations” type words.

Only her mother didn’t quite see it that way.

“Honestly Jessica, you make it sound like you’re crossing the street. This is important. It’s a milestone. A milestone! Now what are we going to do about invitations? Have you even thought of theme? No Jessica you are not going to send out of mass email.”

So that settled it. This fall she would be Mrs. Jess Wilkins. This September.

Which was in one week.

Thinking about that, Jess tried to calm the panic that threatened to seize her throat. She loved Rob. Really, she truly did. It’s just that when she actually thought about marriage and settling down… She didn’t want another boy, that’s for sure. But she just felt nervous. That was it. Just the nerves

It was three in the morning when she looked at the clock. Less than a week now. Oh God. But no she would be fine and Rob would be fine and everything would be done and good.

Right.
***

 

“Oh honestly Jessica, you shouldn’t be sleeping in so late. There’s just too much to do today.” Her mother chided her at seven in the morning.

Jess tried to answer, but the response was some sort of mashed up gurgle. Instead she threw the covers back over her head, regretting that she opted to spend the week leading up to the ceremony at her parent’s house rather than Rob’s, which she had been living in—much to her mother’s controversy—for the past two years.

“Jessica!” Her mother tore the comforter off. “Up. Now.”

And that’s how Jess fully woke up that morning. She realized again that though she briefly slept, it had been a dreamless sleep. As usual.

It’s just the nerves, she told herself, ignoring the photo of a missing infant Rosemary had emailed to her to find.

It’s just the nerves. The nervous energy that had come from getting engaged. The nerves from starting over at a new college. The nerves of moving in with the boy of her dreams. The nerves of pushing the wedding forward.

It was really just the nerves. That’s why she hadn’t been able to find anyone since Hannah those long two years ago. She was just too nervous. And too stressed. Only it frustrated Jess to no end because she wasn’t broken anymore. She was Jess Mastriani, who had her life in control. So why couldn’t she find anyone? So much of her time spent with ESP, she thought of it as a burden, which it was. But now that the Feds had backed off… Jess thought she could finally make peace with it.

Only nothing.

It’s just because of the nerves.

“I should have skipped lunch,” Ruth groaned, looking at her reflection in the mirror.

Jess shrugged, “you look fine. Really Ruth.” Ruth had managed to drop those extra forty pounds she’d been carrying around throughout her adolescent years, but she would forever remain self-conscious about her waistline, which is why she choose to don a silver bridesmaid dress. Supposedly it was the new slimming shade. Jess didn’t know. She let Ruth pick out the dress. Jess had implied that a quick elopement in Vegas wearing jeans and a t-shirt would suit her well enough, but both Ruth and her mother had put an end to that.

Ruth grimaced once more at her reflection. “I’ll just do a fruit salad for dinner and skip breakfast for the next five days.” She pulled out her purse, and started rummaging in it. “So about your hair. I was thinking maybe we could curl it…” She let the sentence hang in the air.

“Curl it?” Jess ran a finger through her short kept hair. She had let it grow enough so that it was halfway down her neck. “If you curl it, Rob’ll have longer hair. I thought we were just going to do like a poof with my bangs and I dunno. Maybe put in a nice headband and uh, spray in some glitter or some crap.”

Ruth blinked.

“Spray in glitter? Jessica Mastriani this is your wedding not your eighth grade semi formal!” Like either Ruth or Jess had gone to that. “Plus I bought you these.” She pulled what she had been searching in her bag for.

“No way in hell am I wearing those.”

“But Jess-“

“I like my short hair.” Jess answered, scowling at the hair extensions Ruth held up.

“Don’t you just want to feel like a princess, Jess?”

While Jess knew that Ruth was trying to be a good friend like she had been since forever, Jess was getting sick of everyone trying to change her.

“No. I want to feel like Jess Mastriani, not like Barbie.”

Ruth didn’t say anything after that.
***

That night Jess Mastriani woke up in a plane.

Hold on. Let’s back it up a minute.

She was riding Blue Beauty downtown when her cell phone started ringing. She ignored it, as she did the speed limit. But by the time she made it through three red lights, it  didn’t stop buzzing. She pulled over to the side, and didn’t recognize the number or the area code.

“Hello?”

An unfamiliar voice answered back, “Jessica Mastriani?”

Not answering the question she replied, “who is this? How’d you get my number?”

Silence greeted her, which only increased her nerves. Great. Jess felt a lump form in her throat. Just what she needed. Creepy guys calling her.

“Please don’t feel threatened Ms. Mastriani. I need your help. My daughter…” She detected a large trace of sorrow in his voice. “I need you to find her.”

Jess groaned.

“Look, I don’t where you got this number, but I don’t do that anymore, okay? The spark’s gone. The energy’s fizzled. The bomb’s defused.” It’s not like she didn’t want to help. It’s just that this time she really couldn’t.

She was about to press the end button, until his voice interrupted her, “please Miss Mastriani. I would not be calling an amateur if I wasn’t desperate.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa wait just a minute. Amatuer. Amatuer. Jess Mastriani was not an amateur. She had not found every single missing person for two and a half years, including notorious war criminals to gain the reputation of an amateur. Maybe the ESP turned itself off now, but that didn’t mean her record did.

“Uh, excuse me, but I am a professional. With a military record.” She couldn’t contain the annoyance in her voice. “I’m sorry about your daughter. But I can’t find her. I’m busy too, like I’m getting married in a few days. Seriously the ESP isn’t working anymore. I’m sure the police-“

“You don’t get it!” The voice blared back at her. “The police haven’t even ruled it as a kidnapping yet. They…” And suddenly the hard-wired started crying in the phone. Jess felt bad, she really did. If it was up to her, she would give this guy his daughter back. But it wasn’t. “Please just look at her photo.” Then suddenly she got a new picture message. Lo and behold it was a girl no older than Hannah.

“I’m really sorry, sir.” Then Jess hung up the phone.

It was dark by the time Jess decided to head home. She was flying past the cornfields on a deserted road when the car came out of nowhere. Jess couldn’t think coherently about what had happened until she was twenty feet in the air, and Blue Beauty was in pieces in the road. Then everything went black.

“Are you feeling alright, Ms. Mastriani? I could get you an Advil or some water…”

“Meeehrushpmph,” was the answer Jess gave, finally sitting up. Man her head was pounding. And God did her back hurt. Then she remembered the accident. “What happened? Where am I?”

The man sat across from her smiled pleasantly, as if getting your motorcycle totaled was good thing.

“You see Miss Mastriani, I really need your help.” That voice. A few hours ago it sounded unfamiliar, but now she was quite acquainted with it.

“You serious right now?” Jess said. She could feel her eyes practically bug out of her face. “You did not just kidnap me. You have no idea how upset my mother is going to be when I don’t come home.”

His face darkened considerably. “As a matter of fact, I am well aware of how devastated mothers can be when their children don’t come home.”

Oh right. His daughter had been kidnapped.

“You’ve been out for a good few hours. I expect that you know good and well where Pierce is.”

Jess was about to started her “I Don’t Have ‘The Gift’ Anymore” speech when suddenly she realized something:

She did know where Pierce was.

“Ohmigod,” she said incredulously. It felt like suddenly the breath had been knocked out of her.

Pierce’s dad seemed to look a tad uncomfortable. “Miss Mastriani…”

That snapped Jess back into the current situation.

“First of all, I have connections with the United States Government, so you are going to be in some very big trouble. Second of all, you need to get this plane to bring me back to Indiana right now. Thirdly, I need to contact with the Isla Huesos police department immediately.”

Mr. Pierce’s dad seemed to perk up immensely.

“You found her! Oh I must tell her mother right away. Where is she?”

“I’m not telling you,” Jess said, crossing her arms. It may have seemed childish, but Jess new better than to let a parent interfere. Especially if it involved a teenage runaway and the boyfriend.  “The parents always mess things up. I’m going to need to the police.”

His stupid smile vanished from his face.

“She ranaway,” Jess shrugged as if that would explain it. “You think the minute her dad appears she’s not going to bolt.”

"Pierce did not runaway,” his eyes narrowed. Of course now she would have to go through the My Child Isn’t That Kind of Person act.

“Just let me tell the police. Then turn this plane around so I can go home, capiche?”

He glared even more menacingly at her. “Oh no. You’re not going anywhere until my Pierce is found safe and sound.”

Whoa. “Uh, excuse me, but I’m getting married in like five days. I’m kind of tied up at the moment. The groom probably thinks I got cold feet and jetted.” Once she said that, a cold feeling suddenly crept into her stomach. What if that was what everyone thought right now? What if they thought she left on purpose?

But the motorcycle in pieces on the Indiana highway…

“They probably think you’re dead,” Mr. Pierce’s dad finished the thought for her out loud.

“I need to call my mom and Rob right now.” She yelled at him. “Then I need to call the Isla Huesos police. They can find Pierce and arrest your ass at the same time.”

He didn’t seem so phased by her threat. “Why don’t you just tell them in person. I’d like to welcome you to Isla Huesos, Florida.”

“I hate it,” Jess mumbled.

“That makes two of us.”

It was then that his phone rang did he let go of Jess’ arm after stepping out of the plan that Jess ran as fast she could from this guy.

She didn’t look back to see if he was following her.

When she was far enough away, she saw a payphone. Just a quick call and she could be back on a plane to Indiana, where no doubt her mom was crying over what she thought happened to her only daughter.

But then she thought about Pierce Oliviera’s mom. And how upset she must be.

“Oh this better just be quick,” Jess said to herself.

Florida was not Indiana, that much could be said for sure. In Indiana nobody rallied in the streets to celebrate death day or whatever it was they had going on. It was some festival Jess had seen the advertisements plastered all over the small community before arriving in the center of the town. People were dressed up in an odd assortment of clothing. Jess could have sworn they were celebrating Halloween.

Despite the exhilarating crowd, and the many obstacles—mainly consisting of people throwing food in her face to “test out”—Jess found exactly what she wanted surrounded by what she disliked more than most things. There Pierce Oliviera was right in the middle of Isla Huesos chatting it up with a cheerleader.

Just like that, the fear Jess had harbored about Pierce being in mortal peril vanquished. She got kidnapped for this?

Pierce was still talking with the cheerleader. Jess suddenly became aware that this cheerleader was also fitting the Halloween spirit, splattering her outfit with fake blood. However, dead cheerleaders brought back less than happy memories for Jess, so she quickly brought her attention to the task at hand.

Scanning the crowd, she found what she was looking for. Assuming that Pierce had run off on her own, and came back for a friendly visit, Jess suspected that the guy from her dream would be nearby. Guys who get girls to runaway from home without a trace were typically clinging and possessive enough to not let the girl of their dreams out of sight for too long. He was brooding in a corner. He was tall and strong, taller and stronger than Rob was, and definitely more brutal looking than Jeff Day.

And kept his eyes pierced on well, Pierce.

This wouldn’t be any easy rescue mission.

She couldn’t just swoop in, grab Pierce, and get out without anyone noticing. No one could notice because then Jess would be the girl who found Pierce Oliviera all the way in Florida. Pierce’s name was already flooded in the press. Her rescuer would be too. And how could Jess say she just happened to find Pierce, who lived all the Florida, when she had been in all the way not in Florida?

The Spark Re-ignites! Lightning Girl Returns! She could envision the headlines already. And she really, really didn’t want headlines. This was going to stay out of the press, and Jess was going to stay under the radar the way she liked it.

The idea came to her when someone thrust a Cap’n’s’ Morgans’ Ra Ra Raspberry Whiskey Wonder into her hand, and walked away before she could decline. And then she found herself much closer to a now cheerleader-less Pierce than she intended.

“Ohmigod I am so sorry! Look at the mess I made! Here let me help you clean that up!” Jess exclaimed much more enthusiastically than was needed as she looked at the huge red stain taking over Pierce’s shirt. She gripped her elbow and pulled her into the bathroom, slamming the door behind them. And locking it for good measure. Then situating herself in front of it.

“It’s really not that big of a deal,” Pierce said, eyeing the bathroom. She didn’t wait for Jess to help her with the shirt, and began matting the stain down with water.

“Use this,” Jess handed her the Tide-to-Go she carried around with her. What? She used to work the steam table at Joe Jr.’s, and had become very acquainted with ruined clothing. Old habits die hard. “I know your shirt isn’t a big deal, but running away from home? That’s pretty significant.”

The easer pen felt on the floor. Pierce whirled around, looking defeated when she realized Jess was blocking her exit.

“It’s not like that-“

Jess rolled her eyes. “I don’t care what it’s like, Pierce. But your parents do. And they called me so I could bring you home. So let’s get a move on.”

Pierce shook her head, looking like she’s about to burst into tears.

“I already went home, okay? They’ll know I’m safe now.”

How old was this girl, anyway? Jess wondered. She looked to be at least sixteen, seventeen, probably not eighteen, but she was acting about twelve.

“Look, Pierce, I want to help you out. And you gotta go home. You can’t runaway with some guy-“

“He’s not just some guy!” She shouted, sounding hysterical. “I love him, not that it’s any of your business.” She said the last part a bit shortly. She stood up straight, walking closer to Jess. She had to be at least five inches taller, but that wasn’t much to brag about. Size did not intimidate Jess Mastriani. Jess had been beating the crap out of people double her stature since kindergarten in order to cower to this girl. Though as of recent years she had retired her physical enforcements, replacing them with more diplomatic ways.

That didn’t mean she wouldn’t punch the girl in throat if the circumstance called for it.

“I’m sure you love him,” Jess agreed, toying with then ends of her hair. God she couldn’t wait to get married and get a hair cut. The Florida humidity was not being kind to her longer locks.

Pierce must have sensed the sarcasm in her voice. “No you don’t get it. We love each other. He’s protecting me.”

“Let me guessed he asked you to runaway with him?” Jess needed to shake this girl’s idea.

Pierce swallowed hard. “Well not exactly….”

Well this was getting interesting. “So he took you against your will?”

Pierce didn’t answer. She couldn’t even look Jess in the eye anymore.

“It’s just I knew where he was going to take me, and I didn’t like it the last time I was there.” She admitted, “but I like there now. It suits our relationship, if you really think about because I wasn’t sure about him at first, but now I am. I love him.” She seemed a bit embarrassed at her sudden rush of words.

Jess gave Pierce an incredulous look. “Okay Pierce that is very heartfelt, but let’s get this show on the road. C’mon.”

“You don’t understand!” This time Pierce was hysterical. “I can’t go back. I have to do this. I can’t go back to them. It’s dangerous. I told Uncle Chris that. He understands.”

Jess grabbed Pierce’s wrist, and opened the door. “Try not to make a scene.” And then they were back at the fiesta.

“Stop!” Pierce begged, although not loud enough to draw attention. “You don’t understand. John will be mad. Nothing, and I mean nothing will stop him from finding me! You’re only putting yourself in danger!” She tried to pull her arm away, but Jess was expecting that, only holding tighter.

“You don’t get it!” Pierce repeated for what had to the millionth time. “If you don’t let me go, he’s going to hurt you.”

“Sounds like you got yourself a real catch,” Jess answered in return. She may have caught a glimpse of the well-built man, but that hardly phased Jess. She hadn’t gotten struck by lightning, almost gotten her head bashed in inside of a cave, took on a psycho football player, raided a notorious white supremacist’s headquarters, sought out terrorists throughout the Middle East, and busted an underage porn ring to be scared off by some teenager’s angry boyfriend.

“He’s trying to protect me,” she sniffed. “You just don’t understand. You can’t let yourself get caught up in my mess. I don’t want you to get hurt too.”

Jess didn’t care to continue the conversation. Instead she brought Pierce into an alley, where she could get through the crowd of people easier, and get this kid to police cruiser that had to be lurking around due to the massive festival going down.

Of course that was before Jess realized she walked straight into six foot three inches of massive chaos.

“John!” Well at least Pierce sounded relieved.