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Prologue


Ring. Ring. Ring.

The chiming sound echoed loudly, shattering the eerie silence that had eclipsed the large library just seconds before. Sixteen-year-old Jasmine Mitchell looked up from the physics textbook she was reading to find the librarian standing by the reception desk still ringing the bell. Though the librarian didn’t say anything everyone knew what that ringing meant; closing time. The shuffling and moving began; people closing their books, zipping their bags, standing up and leaving.

Unfortunately, Jasmine wasn’t done with the section she was studying. She pushed her glasses up her nose as she looked around nervously. There were a few other people who weren’t done, and they were furiously scribbling in their books. She did the same. By the time the second bell rang, she was done. She pushed her seat back and stood. After stuffing her books into her backpack, she set the books she’d borrowed on the trolley before heading to the exit.

The moment she stepped out of the building, the cold night air smacked her right in the face. It was so chilly that it seeped straight through her oversized sweater and mom-jeans. She rubbed both her arms to warm them but it did nothing; only the safety of a warm house could get rid of this cold. But she didn’t want to go home. Not yet. She wanted to see him!

She reached into her pocket for her phone then dialed his number. It rung for quite a while but he didn’t pick up. As usual. Still, she tried again. He still didn’t pick up. Even though this wasn’t the first time he was ignoring her, Jasmine couldn’t help the sharp disappointment that swept through her.

Any other girl would’ve taken the hint and left him alone. But Jasmine couldn’t. She’d loved that boy since she was twelve. No matter how hard she tried to ignore him and hurt him like he was hurting her, her heart always found its way back to him. She didn’t even need to call around asking for his location. She knew him so well that even his daily habits were engraved in her memory. With a sigh, she headed towards the local skate-park.

If Jasmine had to describe the brightly lit skate-park, she’d use two words; Teen City. Despite the late hour, the place was teeming with teenagers. Though some were standing around the park in groups, chatting and laughing, most were on the ramps. They took turns dropping down the curved concrete surface, grinding on the rails, jumping over stuff and zooming around each other in some kind of chaotic order that only they understood.

Jasmine felt out-of-place in this world of creative disorder. All the other kids seemed so cool in their fashionable clothes, caps turned backwards and even in the way they spoke. Yet here she was looking nerdier than ever with her glasses, baggy sweater and book-bag. Her difference from everyone else was made even more obvious when the pack of boys who stood near the entrance vaping weed looked her up and down then laughed. Her stomach tightened in immediate tension.

God, she wanted to leave this place! But she couldn’t. Not until she saw him. Her fingers tightened over the strap of her backpack as she steeled her shoulders then strode deeper into the park. It took a while to find him, but finally she did.

Lucas Gallo.

He was on his skateboard, expression grave and determined as he stood on the edge of the highest ramp. Eighteen looked good on Lucas. He was all sun-bleached, unkempt hair, stud in his ear, leather jacket, white t-shirt, gray ratty jeans and delinquent energy. Though he was tall, his slender, long limbs made him look even taller. Add in the good looks, it was no wonder that many of the girls around the ramp had their eye on him.

Jasmine had seen him do this a million-and-one times, but her heart still dropped to her stomach when he sped down the ramp in a burst of explosive energy. In a fluid effortless motion, he carved the steep banks of the various interconnecting ramps.

Even when on the ground, Lucas had a beautifully dangerous vibe to him. But up in the air, he was amazing. His skateboard transcended its state of being a piece of sporting equipment and became an instrument of art. It was like an electric guitar being played by a master rock-star. He flowed through the course in the same way that water finds its natural course. When he finally brought his skateboard to a stop, there was a burst of applause.

Smirking cockily, he gave his observers a curt nod as his gaze swept over them. Inevitably his eyes landed on Jasmine. When their eyes met, it felt like getting zapped by electricity. It had always been like this. No matter how much distance there was between them, when they saw each other, everything seemed to disappear leaving just the two of them.

Lucas’s smirk dropped. Jasmine stepped forward, ready to meet him as soon as he moved towards her. But he didn’t move towards her. Anger flashed in his eyes right before he turned away from her. His stride was purposeful as he moved even further from her, his skateboard in hand.

He ended up standing next to some tall, goth-looking girl, with pink and blue streaks in her hair and black lipstick. It was bad enough that he’d walked away from Jasmine. However, when he slung his arm around Goth-girl’s shoulder, pain and anger shuttled through Jasmine with a ferocity that left her balling her fist. How could he be that disrespectful? Just two weeks ago, he’d thrown a fit because she’d smiled at Ryan Wood during lab and now here he was hugging some girl.

Jasmine swallowed to get rid of the bitter taste in her mouth, but it still lingered. She knew that the right thing to do in this situation was to leave and stop torturing herself because of some guy who didn’t appreciate her love. But she couldn’t; her feet refused to move towards the exit. Instead, she found herself edging towards him.

Though Lucas’s eyes were on Goth-girl, Jasmine could tell that he knew she was coming. His body was stiff and the smile he was giving his companion was faker than a Fucci bag. But it was Goth-girl who acknowledged Jasmine first.

“Yeah?” Goth-girl stared at Jasmine with raised eyebrows. “Do you know me?”

“No, I don’t.” Jasmine came to a halt right in front of Lucas, where he couldn’t ignore her. He was so tall that she had to look up at him as she asked, “Can we talk?”

He didn’t even look at her. “No.”

“Lucas!” Jasmine tried to grab his hand, but he jerked it backwards.

“Do you know her?” Goth-girl looked up at Lucas.

Lucas smiled at his companion and his arm tightened around her shoulders. “She’s nobody.”

“I’m his girlfriend,” Jasmine corrected despite the sudden tightness in her throat and itchiness behind her eyes.

“Girlfriend?” Lucas finally looked at her. His blue eyes were glazed with icy dismissal. A derisive smirk lifted the sides of his lips as he guffawed. “No you’re not. Don’t you remember? We already broke up.”

“No, we’re not broken up.” Jasmine shook her head vehemently. “You can’t just tell me we’re breaking up and expect me to accept it.”

For the last one year or so, Lucas and Jasmine had been joined at the hip. They were the unlikeliest of pairs. She was a bookworm and so smart that she’d skipped a few grades and ended up in the same class as Lucas. He, on the other hand, was just going to school because it was a thing kids did. In fact, the first time they’d talked, he didn’t even know the name of their homeroom teacher. How they’d become friends was a mystery, but a couple? They’d shocked the whole school.

Despite his roguish charm and notoriety, Lucas had only eyes for Jasmine. No one could have ever imagined that wild Lucas who skipped school like it was breakfast and had been caught smoking several times could fall for a nerd like Jasmine. But he did, and he was a surprisingly good boyfriend.

Cool kids didn’t go for picnics; Lucas took her to a few. Cool kids didn’t leave boxes of chocolate and flowers on your desk on Valentine’s day; Lucas did. Cool kids didn’t hang around in the library just because their girlfriend was there; Lucas did. He was a good boyfriend! Until three days ago when he’d declared that he wanted to break up.

“I can’t believe it.” Jasmine stared at Lucas trying to read his face. “Why would you want to break up?”

“I just want to.” Lucas shrugged and brought Goth-girl closer to his body. Goth-girl smirked at Jasmine as she wrapped an arm around Lucas’s waist.

Something hot and bitter bubbled in Jasmine’s chest as she watched the two. Oh, how she wanted to snatch Goth-girl’s hair by its dyed strands and yank her away from Lucas. Still, she held herself back as she pleaded. “Can’t you at least tell me a reason so I can fix it?”

“There’s nothing to fix,” he retorted.

“Luc, I don’t understand why you’re doing this.” She grabbed his arm and stepped closer to him. “I love you and I know you love me.”

“Don’t touch me!” Lucas snatched his arm away and stepped back, taking Goth-girl with him.

His abrupt movement as well as the volume of his voice startled Jasmine. Lucas had never shouted at her or refused her touch. In fact, whenever he was mad at her, all she had to do was touch him and he’d cool down. What was happening here? Why was he doing this to her? Had she done something wrong? She had to have done something wrong for him to act this way.

“I’m sorry,” she apologized.

“What are you apologizing for?” His top lip lifted in a sneer. “Have you done something wrong?”

“I don’t know.” Her hands fluttered nervously as panic settled deeper in her stomach. “You’re trying to break up with me so-”

“I’m not trying,” Lucas cut her off. “I’ve already done it.”

“Why?” she pleaded as a tear slipped down her cheek.

“Do I need a reason?” Lucas retorted flippantly, unmoved by her tears.

“Of course you need a reas-” Jasmine stopped speaking and swallowed to clear the lump that was clogging her throat. She swiped her palms over her cheeks to get rid of the tears that were now flowing freely. “Luc, I love you. Please don’t do this-”

“Ugh! Seriously.” Goth-girl interrupted. “Are you really going to do this here? With all these people staring? God, I hate girls like you. Don’t you have any self-respect?”

Jasmine glanced around only to find that they’d attracted the attention of other kids. Everyone was looking at her with contempt, like she was some pitiful puppy begging for crumbs of love from a guy who didn’t like her. A few were even laughing. Jasmine wanted to stop acting so pathetic, but she couldn’t help herself. She just wanted Lucas back.

She turned away from their observers to meet Lucas’s eyes again. “Can’t we talk about it?”

“Talk about what?” Lucas rolled his eyes then huffed loudly. “Fine, you want a reason? Here’s your reason then; I broke up with you cause I’m bored. You bore me. You’re boring. Satisfied?”

Jasmine was stunned. She’d never expected that to be the reason, never expected him to say such words. Yet, in a strange way, it all made sense. She wasn’t cool like him. She was the girl who sits in front of the class with her face tucked into a book. She was the girl who didn’t fit in skate-parks like these and always looked like the odd one out. Of course she was boring.

“Okay, okay. I’ll change.” She grabbed his arm again as she desperately offered, “I’ll do better. I’ll be more fun.”

“Stop, just stop!” Goth-girl stepped forward and shoved Jasmine away.

Jasmine wasn’t prepared for the shove, and she went down butt-first. To break her fall, she set her palm on the ground. A tendon in her wrist must have twisted because she felt a sudden pain streak through her arm as her lower body met the ground.

“Ow!” Jasmine whimpered in pain.

“Is it so hard to understand?” Goth-girl was still speaking. “He doesn’t want you anymore.”

Tears of pain clouding her eyes, Jasmine looked up at him. His gaze softened, and he stepped forward as if on the verge of helping her up. But then his eyes changed, hardened. Then he turned away from her.

“Let’s get out of here!” He slid his arm down Goth-girl’s back to her waist.

“Yeah.” Goth-girl sneered as she and Lucas skirted past Jasmine. “God, you’re pathetic!”

Lucas didn’t say anything, didn’t even look back. He just kept walking away. It was the last memory Jasmine would have of him for quite a long time. Of his back turned and another woman walking beside him.

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Chapter 1


13 YEARS LATER

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“You need to set up a trust for the kids, Derrick,” Jasmine advised her client.

“I know. I know,” Derrick, the client in question, said. Even though she could only see him on screen, Jasmine could tell that the man was in his living room. He said, “But it doesn’t have to be now. I’m only thirty-nine.”

Jasmine, who was in her own office, said, “Death doesn’t choose people based on their age.”

“Wow! That’s morbid.”

“It’s my job to be morbid so I can keep you and your family safe,” Jasmine retorted. “So listen to me. Let’s set up a trust.”

“But I already wrote up a will like you told me to,” Derrick complained. “Isn’t it enough? We both know that Brian and his husband will take the kids if Gabriella and I kick the bucket.”

“I know but a will is just a suggestion,” she explained. “It doesn’t have the power to force the courts to send your kids to Brian. The judge gets to make the final decision about who is appointed their legal guardian, and it might end up being someone else. However, if you have your living trust, you can specify who handles your financial future…”

And on she went.

Helping other people manage their personal finances might seem boring to other people, but Jasmine loved her job. Money, like numbers, had always fascinated Jasmine; how to make it, how to multiply it, how to make sure you don’t lose it. Back in college, she’d even had a YouTube channel where she talked personal finances, investment and playing the stock market.

The channel had blown up while she was still working as a financial advisor for a local bank in New Orleans. People had started asking for advice on how to manage their own finances and invest. Somehow that had led to Jasmine becoming an online consultant. At first she offered advice for free, but some people needed more in-depth consultancy and they paid her for it. Soon her income from her consultancy exceeded what the bank was paying her, and she’d quit.

Maybe for someone else it might have been a risky move, but she still had all her money from playing the stock market. Transitioning into freelance work had been easy. Online consultancy had somehow expanded into a real business with an office, employees and taxes. So here she was; the founder and CEO of Mitchell Finance.

“Okay, let’s set it up,” Derrick conceded. “What do I need to do?”

Jasmine explained to him the procedures for setting one up. Since he was in Wyoming, she recommended a lawyer she knew out there to help him out. She’d just signed off with Derrick when there was a knock on her door.

“Yeah?” she called out.

“Jazzy?” Her assistant, York Emerson, stuck his head into the room. “Are you done with Derrick?”

“Yeah!”

“Good.” Grinning, York entered the room. As soon as he did, Jasmine had to shield her eyes. The luminous green shirt the man was wearing was brighter than the future of every elementary school kid out there, and his white jeans were so tight, they had to be hurting his groin. Good God!

On first sight most people assumed that York was gay. He was short, slender and pretty, dressed in bright colors, spoke in a high tenor and liked to use his hands when talking. But York was as straight as they come. Jasmine had learnt that when he’d tried to hit on her while she was interviewing him. Rather than be offended, she was amused by his efforts and how cheerfully he’d taken rejection. But the real reason why she’d hired him was because she remembered him. He’d played the main character in her favorite horror flick, Train to Tennessee, and she still had fond albeit scary memories of him as an actor.

“What can I help you with?” she asked.

“You know what you can help me with.” York waggled his eyebrows. “Can I leave? Can I leave? Can I leave?”

“I thought you and Teddy were meeting at seven?” Jasmine turned her wrist to look at her watch. “It’s only two-thirty in the afternoon.”

“Yeah, but I have to prepare myself, get into character, change costumes! That takes a lot of time. ” York swanned across the room. He set his elbows on her desk and his chin in his palms as he gave her his best puppy-dog eyes. “Pretty please. Let me go. I’ll love you forever and ever and ever.”

“I don’t need your love.” Jasmine had to work hard to keep from breaking into a smile as she sternly added, “I need you to do your job.”

“I’ve already done my job.” York straightened to his full height. “Everything you asked me to do, I’ve done.”

“Are you done with the documents I asked you to go over?”

“Done.” York dramatically pointed to her computer. “Check it.”

“Have you called Paul Hayes to remind him about his appointment?”

“Done!” York smiled.

“Sherry Carter’s accounts?” Jasmine narrowed her eyes. “I know you’re not done with those. I just gave them to you this morning.”

“I’m not,” York confessed. “But Alex said he’ll do it for me.”

This kid! Jasmine looked past him at the open door and shouted out, “Alex?”

“Yeah,” the man shouted out. Moments later, Alex Cousins, a short, chubby, light-skinned man appeared at the door. “What’s up?”

“York says you’ve agreed to work on Sherry Carter’s account for him.”

“Agreed?” Alex guffawed. “More like I was blackmailed into it. He said he’ll start spitting in my coffee if I don’t do it.”

“York!” Jasmine tried to give him a stern look, but the reluctant grin that lifted her lips spoiled it.

“Guys,” York whined. “Come on, I have to go. Let me go home.”

Jasmine threatened, “You better stop whining. Keep it up and I might keep you here late.”

“Jaaaazzzy,” York whined, earning laughs all round.

“Okay fine,” Jasmine surrendered. “Go. Go ye and get your part. But if you make it big, I want your autograph and a mention in your Oscar speech.”

“Oh thank you, thank you.” York started to circle her desk.

“Don’t you dare try to kiss me,” Jasmine warned as she crossed her arms in front of her face protectively. “Or swear to God I will make you work until midnight.”

“Well, if I can’t kiss you then…” York gave Alex a mischievous grin. Obviously Alex was dumb because he didn’t read that grin. He only realized what York was going to do when York grabbed his face and planted one straight on his lips.

“Ew, ew, ew.” Scrubbing his lips with his hands, Alex tried to grab York. York daintily slipped past him and out the door.

“Bye people.” He trilled from somewhere outside. “Wish me luck.”

“Ew, ew, ew,” Alex kept grumbling as he followed the man.

Amused, Jasmine shook her head. “And he wonders why people think he’s gay!”

Barely had the two men left when a black woman entered Jasmine’s office. “What’s up with your kids?”

“Being naughty as usual.” Jasmine met the eyes of her best-friend, Kennedy ‘Kenny’ Johnson. “What are you doing here?”

“Needed your help.” Kenny walked deeper into the office and closed the door.

Kenny was what one would call ‘thick’. Jasmine had grown a few curves when she’d gone to college but she had nothing on Kenny. When God was creating Kenny, he’d decided to throw all the leftover curves to her. The lady was all lush boobs and thick thighs. Add her height of almost six-feet and it was no surprise that Kenny drew attention wherever she went.

“With what?” Jasmine sat back in her seat.

“I sent you an email with Absolutely Muffin’s accounts for the last half of the year.” Kenny settled in the seat across from Jasmine. “Could you look at it and tell me how they’re doing?”

“Yo, I’m not doing this again,” Jasmine protested. “How many times do I have to remind you that I’m a silent partner?”

Jasmine and Kenny had come down to LA together from New Orleans four years ago. This was right after Jasmine quit working for the bank. At first Kenny had worked as a marketing executive, but she’d been forced to quit her job soon after because of the company’s working conditions. As soon as she was out, Kenny had started her own business, Whizkids Investment. Whizkids was a company designed to provide loans and guidance to college start-ups. The idea was interesting enough that Jasmine had offered her the seed money on condition that she get equity in the company. As expected, Whizkids was doing amazing.

“Come on, it’s just a teeny-weeny little file,” Kenny coaxed. “Just look at it.”

“You have a certified CPA on your payroll.” Jasmine grumbled, “Tell him to look at it.”

“He’s already looked at it, and he thinks it’s good. But I need a second opinion, and you’re right here.” Kenny stuck her lip out in a pout. “You shouldn’t have moved into the same building as me if you didn’t want me to keep harassing you.”

Obviously the lady wasn’t going anywhere. Jasmine huffed. “Fine, if you’re making me work then I want money for my advice.”

“Have you checked the value of your equity in Whizkids recently?” Kenny grinned. “I think you’ll be quite happy.”

“Not that money. Other money,” Jasmine retorted. “I want other money for my valuable information.”

“Yeah! Like I’m going to do that.” Kenny snorted. “Now stop being a whiny heifer and look at those accounts for me.”

“I hate you,” Jasmine grumbled but all that met her was a laugh. Reluctantly, she clicked on Kenny’s email.

A quick scan of the document said that ‘Absolutely Muffin’ was doing quite well. Though Absolutely Muffin was just a baking business, it’d differentiated itself significantly from other business by the quality of their product and process that it’d gained significant market share within the California State University. Their accounts looked healthy enough for the business to even expand outside the university. Jasmine was about to tell her friend all this, but Kenny broke the silence first.

“When will you call your mom back?” Kenny studied Jasmine. “She keeps calling me to check if you’re still alive.”

“I’ll call her,” Jasmine said without looking away from the computer.

Deliberately, she didn’t specify when she’d call her mother back. Why? Because she didn’t want to talk to her mother. Recently, their conversations always seemed to go the same way. It would start with her greeting then her mother would launch into mourning about how far Chancery was from New Orleans. The conversation would then move on to Jasmine’s dating life. Hadn’t she found someone yet? She was getting old. Did she want to be a spinster like Aunt Precious? Her eggs were getting old. Of course, her mother would then start quoting some obscure research about how children born to women over thirty were at risk of birth defects… blah, blah, blah.

Frankly, it was tiring.

It wasn’t that Jasmine wasn’t trying. She wanted to get married and to have a family of her own, but fate didn’t move according to a set schedule. None of the men she’d dated had been right. A few had come close but not close enough. They always seemed to be missing something.

You mean something like what Lucas had? Her subconscious taunted.

No! She shut it down. Lucas was all kinds of wrong. So what if she still thought of him? So what if even thinking his name still sent a dull pain rushing through her? He was still the man who’d left her on the ground getting laughed at while he walked away.

No, he wasn’t Mr. Right.

And even if he was, it didn’t matter because she had no idea where the bastard was. After graduating high school, he’d disappeared. Jasmine’s father had said that he’d enlisted in the army. The last time she’d seen him was during her father’s funeral. Even then it was just a glimpse; as if he’d deliberately tried to avoid meeting face to face. Well, screw him! It’s not like she wanted to see him then either. After that brief glance, she’d never seen him again. As far as she was concerned, he might as well be dead.

A part of her immediately protested at the thought. No, not dead. No matter how much of an asshole he was, she didn’t wish him death. Maybe just a little pain. Wherever he was, she hoped he was suffering. That he still remembered her and was in pain because of her.

Kenny left a few minutes later after Jasmine assured her that Absolutely Muffin was doing fine and she had nothing to be worried about. At around six, Kenny called her to let her know that she was leaving for the day. Jasmine still had an online consultation at around nine so she stayed back in the office. Halfway through the consultation, her phone started ringing. It was Kenny calling. Jasmine ignored the phone-call, but once she was done with her consultation, she called her friend.

“Why are you busting my phone, heifer?”

Kenny’s tone sounded urgent as she asked, “Have you seen the news?”

“No, I was with a client.” Jasmine frowned. “Why?”

“York’s dead.”

“What?” Jasmine could’ve sworn that her heart stopped right then.

“York’s dead,” Kenny said. “It’s everywhere online.”

“That’s a lie. It’s not true.” A sudden coldness seeped into Jasmine’s every limb, and her voice was shaky as she insisted, “It can’t be.”

“It’s true. Just check.”

It wasn’t true. Jasmine propped the phone between her ear and shoulder as she quickly typed York’s name into the search bar. “It’s not true.”

But it was. The headline that met Jasmine when the first page came up was as shocking as it was unbelievable.

Child Actor, York Emerson, Commits Suicide. Dead at 24.

All the entries on that page said the same thing. That York was dead.

Jasmine blinked, hoping that closing her eyes might change those headlines. But it didn’t. York was still dead.

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Chapter 2


“Come on, man.” Jackson, the freakishly tall proprietor of Freak N’ Comics, pleaded. “I can’t do this for less than a grand, two hundred. Everyone’s selling theirs for even more than that.”

“If everyone jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?” Lucas asked absentmindedly as he carefully inspected his loot to make sure it was not only original but that the package had never been opened. The loot in question was Lego mini-figures of Iron Man and Captain America that had only been sold at the 2012 Toy Fair.

“These toys are worth more than a grand?” Shane West, Lucas’s partner, couldn’t hide his shock as he edged closer to look at the toys. The black man moved as if to touch them but Lucas slapped his hand away.

“They’re not toys,” Lucas said. “They’re collectibles.”

“Like you said they’re collectibles,” Jackson jumped in with his pitch. “And as you can see they’re good. They’ve never been removed from their bag and even come with their Toy Fair pass. A grand two hundred, man. That’s my last offer.”

“Eight hundred,” Lucas countered even though he was willing to pay more.

When he’d heard that Jackson was selling his, Lucas had practically raced over. Though ridiculously expensive, these mini-figures were extremely rare. They were markedly different from the usual mini-figures, in that they were based on the comic-book versions of the superheroes rather than their movie adaptations. Also, Iron Man’s head was an openable helmet that slotted over Tony Stark’s smirking face instead of the usual closed helmet.

“One-one,” Jackson countered.

“Eight hundred,” Lucas insisted.

“Okay. One.”

“Eight hundred.”

“Wow!” Jackson huffed in frustration. “You’re not even trying. I called you first cause you’re a regular here, but I can sell them to someone else.”

“Fine.” Lucas sighed. “Nine hundred and I get Abbot free.”

Fifteen minutes later, the deal was made.

Shane laughed as he and Lucas walked out of the comic-book store. “I can’t believe you spent nine hundred dollars on Legos.”

“What would you prefer I spend it on?” Lucas lowered his gaze straight to his partner’s feet. “Sneakers?”

“Hey, these are Louis Vuittons, personally designed by Kanye.” Shane tilted his foot to show off the black high-tops. “It doesn’t get classier than that.”

“You call it classy, I call it getting swindled.” Lucas snorted. “At least I can resell my babies for more than I got them fo-”

Lucas’s words got cut off when something hard and heavy crashed into his back. He only realized that the something was human when a man rushed past him, but by that time he was already falling. The bag containing his mini-figures flew out of his hands. As he tumbled to the floor knees-first, all Lucas saw was his expensive – his very expensive collectibles flying up into the air then crashing to the ground.

His lips parted in a horrified gasp. But before he could scramble towards his package, he heard the patter of fast feet behind him and shouts of ‘stop’. Seconds later, two rent-a-cops sped past him. Honest to God, Lucas’s heart stopped when one of the cops stomped over the package. The world came to a standstill, and every single sound except for the crunching of a boot on his precious toys disappeared. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Shane came alive right then and raced after the cops. One of his stupid Kanye Vuittons also fell on Lucas’s already-damaged package, smashing it irreversibly.

Oh. My. God.

Had those men just stepped on his mini-figures? His nine-hundred dollar mini-figures? He was going to kill them. He was going to kill them all!

Lucas didn’t even know when he moved. One moment he was on the floor watching his collectibles get smashed with horrified awe and the next he was giving chase. His feet pounding to the angry beat of his heart, Lucas raced towards the elevators where the other men were headed. Even though the rent-a-cops and Shane were a few seconds ahead of him, Lucas soon caught up to them.

The perp ducked into an elevator. By the time his pursuers got there, the doors had already closed. The rent-a-cops looked like they were thinking of waiting there for the next elevator. Not Lucas and Shane! In an almost synchronized movement, the two men turned and rushed towards the escalator.

The down escalator was out of order, but neither Lucas nor Shane cared. They ran down the steps and wove their way through shocked shoppers in a bid to catch up with the perp. Even though Lucas was ahead of Shane, the perp still had the upper hand. The elevator doors opened on the ground-floor while Lucas and Shane were still speeding from the first floor. The perp raced out and headed straight for the exit.

Lucas had no choice. He took the steps two at a time until he was at a jumpable distance from the ground-floor then vaulted over the railing of the escalator. Shocked gasps and screams met his fall. However, Lucas had done this enough times that with just a bend of his knees as he landed and a safety roll, he made it back to his feet safely.

And the chase was back on.

Unfortunately for the perp, the rent-a-cops on the upper floors had already alerted their colleagues. When he got close to the exit, more guards were there waiting for him, tasers in hand. That brought him to a screeching halt right in front of the fountain. He turned as if to run back in the direction he’d come from. However, when he saw Lucas coming at him like a charging bull and the crowd that was now gathering around him, panic streaked across his overly tanned features. Frantically, he looked around.

Lucas could tell that the perp was looking for a solution to his dilemma. Unfortunately, he chose the worst possible one. His beady eyes settled on a middle-aged woman who’d stopped to watch the ‘show’. Lucas knew what the perp was about to do but seconds before he could get to his gun, the man had already pulled a knife and grabbed the woman.

“Get away,” the perp shouted over the startled scream of the woman he’d grabbed. His left arm like a manacle over the woman’s upper body, he waved the knife. “Get away from me or I’ll kill her.”

“Drop the knife.” Lucas set his hand on the gun at his waist but didn’t pull it. There were too many people around and he didn’t want anyone getting hurt. His gaze trained on the perp, he coaxed, “Drop the knife and we can talk about this.”

“Why would I drop a knife that I paid for?” the perp retorted sarcastically as his gaze frantically moved from Lucas to the rent-a-cops then back to Lucas. The woman tried to jerk away from the perp but his hold was so tight that her actions had zero effect.

“Help me,” she cried out, her eyes pleading with Lucas. “Help me.”

“Shut up!” The perp pressed the tip of his knife right against the woman’s neck. It nicked the woman’s skin and a small droplet of blood appeared.

The sight of the blood and the woman’s resultant whimper was enough to send Lucas simmering rage straight to boiling point. He reached for his gun. However, before he could pull it out a hand came down over his.

“Easy. Easy. There are too many people around,” Shane murmured beside him.

Fine! Lucas was going to give the man another chance. “Drop the knife and surrender. This is the second warning.”

“Get away from me!” the perp howled as he waved his knife at Lucas and Shane then at the rent-a-cops. “Get away!”

“Please! Please, let me go.” The woman whimpered.

“Shut up!” The perp hit the woman with the butt of his knife, and she screamed.

That was it for Lucas. Screw being calm! He pulled his gun. “Put the knife down.”

Everyone around them collectively ducked and gasped as if afraid that he would really shoot. Even the perp staggered backwards. Though fear flickered in the man’s eyes, all Lucas saw was the nine hundred dollars he’d lost because of the punk. Only the self-control beaten into him during training kept him from putting a bullet in the man’s arm right then.

Shane had been with Lucas long enough to know when he was about to jump off a cliff. He took over.

“Hey, hey, hey!” Shane spoke to the perp. His voice was soft and calm unlike the tight anger that characterized Lucas’s tone and stance. “We don’t need to do this. Just drop the knife and we can all come out of this safely.”

But the perp’s eyes were on Lucas and the gun he was pointing at him. He shouted, “Put it down. Put it down. Do you want to see her die? Put it down!”

“Okay, okay,” Shane returned in that irritatingly calm voice. “Calm down. We’re putting down the gun.”

Lucas didn’t want to but when Shane grabbed the top of the pistol and pushed it down, he had no choice but to lower his arm.

“Throw it here,” the perp ordered as if he was in control of the situation.

It was enough to make Lucas lift his arm again, but Shane was there to stop him. Shane forcibly pulled the gun from Lucas’ grip then bent and slid it across the floor a little distance from them.

“Get lost, you bastards,” the perp hollered as he dragged the woman forward so he could pull the gun closer to himself with his foot. Unfortunately for him, his actions had the effect of loosening his hold on the woman. It was all Shane and Lucas needed. While the perp was going for the gun, Shane went for the woman. He grabbed her arm and yanked her to himself, freeing her from her assailant. Meanwhile Lucas darted downwards for his gun, getting to it before the perp could.

The woman and the gun were now out of play. It was now just Lucas and the perp.

Lucas smiled as he tucked his gun back into its holster but there was no humor in that smile. “Do you know how much those collectibles you broke cost?”

“Get away from me,” the perp hollered as he waved his knife around dangerously and shuffled backwards.

“Nine hundred.” Lucas prowled closer. He shoved his fingers through his dirty blond hair as the full magnitude of his loss hit him. “Nine hundred dollars, you punk”

The assailant puffed out angrily before shoving the knife towards Lucas’ face. Lucas arched backwards and easily dodged it. When the man went for his right shoulder, Lucas deftly swayed to the left. The perp stabbed again but this time Lucas was waiting. He grabbed the man’s arm forcefully then kicked out right into the man’s leg and swept him off his feet. The man fell forward with a pained groan.

Then it was over. Just like that.

It took an hour or so for them to sort out the situation. After Lucas and Shane identified themselves as detectives for the Chancery Police Department, the mall’s security let them have the perp. By the time they got to their precinct, night was already falling.

“You better hope you go in for a long time,” Lucas threatened the perp as he hauled him up the stairs and into the precinct, “because as soon as you’re out I’m suing you. I want my money back.”

The perp only smirked.

Shane gleefully translated the smirk. “That means you’ll never get it.”

Lucas offered his partner a baleful glare. “Try not to enjoy it so much!”

“I told you it was a stupid idea to pay so much money for those toys.”

“They’re not toys. They’re-” Lucas paused to take a deep calming breath. “Why do I even bother? They’re dead anyway.”

“Don’t worry.” Shane laughed. “You can borrow my shoes anytime. They’re still here.”

“I thought you two were off-duty?” Cynthia Hill, a uniformed officer, said when they brought the perp straight to her desk. “Did you go looking for trouble again?”

“We don’t look for trouble,” Lucas retorted. “Trouble looks for us.”

“This one stole a watch from a jewelry store at the mall then pulled a knife on a woman there,” Shane said as they handed off the suspect.

Moments later, they left the perp to Cynthia. But their day of excitement wasn’t over yet.

“Have you seen her?” Officer Devon Martin asked as they took the elevator up to the bullpen.

“Have we seen who?” Lucas asked.

“The lady who’s been chewing out Buddy for the last hour,” the officer said. “I hear she’s a real hottie.”

“What’s she chewing Buddy out for?” Lucas asked.

Shane whose priorities were different cut in with, “How hot is she? Seven, eight, nine?”

“Nine.” Martin grinned. “And that’s only because I strongly oppose the notion that anyone can be a nine. So let’s just say a strong nine.”

“Whoa!” Shane’s eyes lit up, and he looked up to the numbers above the elevator as if willing it to move faster so he could meet the nine.

Lucas wasn’t surprised that Shane was so eager to meet the woman. The man had a problem; a flirting problem. He’d been known to hit on anything with a skirt. Hell, if Arnold Schwarzenegger walked into the precinct right now in a dress, Shane would probably try to charm him.

Lucas laughed and shook his head before repeating, “What’s she chewing Buddy out for?”

“Some case he closed.” Martin shrugged. “I don’t know much about it-”

Lucas wasn’t surprised that Detective Barnaby Shriver, or Buddy as everyone called him, was getting chewed out again. The man was the poster child for incompetence. Whenever he was given a case, he did the bare minimum to close it, brought in people with very little if any ties to the case, or used excessive and illegal means to interrogate suspects. The only reason he was still at Chancery P.D was because he had ties to the Mayor. In these circles that counted for a lot.

“-all I know is that she’s hot,” Martin finished.

The lady’s hotness or lack of hotness didn’t matter to Lucas. He’d gone through so many women in his bid to forget the one woman who’d wreaked him that they’d all started to look the same. No matter how pretty a woman was, once morning came she still wasn’t who Lucas wanted.

Still, Lucas was curious about what case Buddy had messed up this time. When Shane cheerfully bounded out of the elevator and down the hall, Lucas followed him. When they got to their unit, Lucas’s gaze swept over the heads of his fellow detectives to land at Buddy’s desk.

Buddy, a chubby middle-aged man, was seated back in his seat with his arms crossed over his sizeable chest as if to protect himself from the blazing wrath of the woman seated across him. The situation should’ve been humorous since Buddy looked like a schoolboy being scolded by the Principal, yet Lucas couldn’t find it in himself to be amused. He was too shocked.

He felt the blood drain from his face and he took a step back. All the sound in the room disappeared until all that was left was a weird buzzing in his ears as he stared at the woman. What was she doing here?

“Jasmine?” he whispered, afraid he was hallucinating.

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