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“Oh no, you don’t,” he said, yanking the once sweet Bryn-smelling blanket away in a motion so swift I didn’t have time to react before he had it balled up in his arms. “That’s quite enough of this teenage, melodramatic behavior. You’re too old for that. Much too old,” he said with a slanted smile at the same time he flung the blanket over his shoulder and out the window.

I gave him the most concentrated glower I could muster up. “As soon as I’m back to whatever normal I was”—I laughed darkly; normal was a far cry from what I’d ever been—“I’m going to kick your smiling, perfect little butt.”

“Good,” he sneered back. “It would be nice to have a piece of the big brother that that I remember back and since it looks like you’re not in any hurry to conjure him back to reality, I’m going to have to help you.” He came at me with a mix of determination, despite his face still curled in disgust, and hoisted me off the ground, throwing me over his shoulder.

“What the heck do you think you’re doing, little brother?” I yelled as I bounced in rhythm to his hurried footsteps down the hall as he headed for the . . . “Don’t you dare,” I warned.

“It’s for your own good,” he answered as he traipsed into the bathroom, twisting on the shower so fast he was probably expecting a fight far more impressive from our Alliance’s legendary and longest running strength instructor than the one I sparked to life. A girly punch to his side was as intense as it got.

“As soon as you throw me in that shower, I’m just gonna teleport my butt back to my room,” I said as steam began snaking through the bathroom. Apparently scalding was the only temperature Joseph considered up to the task of removing weeks worth of . . . funk from my posterior.

“My room,” Joseph corrected as he tightened his grip around my legs. “And as long as I’m attached to some rank piece of you, you’re not going anywhere.”

Without another word, Joseph lunged into the walk-in shower, turning his back to the stream of water so it was firing me square in the back. Nevermind that we were both fully clothed, or that I was showering with my adult brother . . . this was wrong on so many other levels.

“Here’s the way this is going to go,” Joseph said, swaying me back and forth under the showerhead. “You can act like a big boy of two hundred and fifty-two years ancient and soap, shampoo, and sanitize yourself, or,”—just the way he annunciated it, I knew my other alternative was more of a threat than an option—“I can call Cora in and I’ll continue to hold you down while she scrubs you raw. I don’t want to do that to you and I really don’t want to do that to my sweet and innocent wife, but I’m afraid you’ve left me with no other option than to force clean you if you won’t take matters into your own hands,” he said, twisting his arm back in my direction with a fresh bar of soap in hand. “What’s it going to be?”

My brother might have been the most annoyingly happy person to have ever beamed, but when he laid an ultimatum out there, he always followed through. Joseph’s word was gold, even through the less pleasurable circumstances.

I grumbled as I grabbed the bar of soap. “I think I just hit a record low.”

“There’s the spirit,” he encouraged, hoisting me off his shoulder into a standing position. “But look at it this way. When you’re in your lowest spot, there’s no where to go but up.” He grinned at me, his eyes dancing like he’d just won the victory of the decade. My baby brother, his face alight with his most recent success of all but forcing a putrid hermit into the shower, his suit drenched and plastered to him, grinning at me like a fool.

There was no other response than laughter. A full-fledged belly laugh that rocked me from head to tip-toe. “You should see your face right now,” I managed between the hysterics. “You look like a wet, smiling labradoodle.”

“At least I’m not the one that smells like a wet dog,” he said, laughing with me.

“I think that fancy suit of yours is forever ruined,” I said, running my eyes over it. There was something vaguely familiar about it. Italian silk, impeccably tailored . . .

“Good thing it’s yours then.” He winked, dodging out of the shower before I could deliver my revenge.

“Good thing I’ve got a few dozen others and am the kung-fu master of payback,” I said, peeling my undershirt off and hurling it over the shower door in his direction. My boxers followed immediately after.

“I’ll have Cora burn these,” Joseph said, sloshing out the bathroom door. “If I leave you to your own devices, can I trust you to return the brother I remember?”

“Here’s to hoping, little brother,” I said, more to myself than to him. “Here’s to hoping.”


So the steam, soap, shampoo, and shave had done me a world of good. As I ran the shaver down the last scrap of mountain man beard, I felt a few of the jumbled pieces of me—the real, non shut-in me—come back together. I was still beyond looking more than two minutes down the road into my future, but it was nice to have the ghost of Patrick present back. This small step would give me the boost I needed to work on the future one. First step—forget about Bryn. At least forget about her in that way. The whole impossible thing about it was even if all my fantasies came true and she wanted me like I wanted her, I didn’t actually want that—there’s a mind bender for you. Because if I won, my brother lost, and the only person I loved more than her was him.

So there it was. I loved Bryn, Bryn loved William, William loved Bryn. No one loved me. Well, at least not in that kind of way. The kind that feels so damn special because it has nothing to do with blood relation. The kind that chooses you before you chose it. The kind that embeds itself into your every last fiber until the thought of being separated from the source of it has you writhing in a ball. The kind that was rare, hard-earned, worth dying for . . . and the kind that avoided me at every turn.

Okay, back it up. Step point five before first step—don’t even think her name to myself. Better yet, try not to think of one syllable words beginning with the letter B.

I shook my head as I tossed the razor into the garbage. It fought valiantly in its crusade against my course facial scruff, but the battle left it useless against any future facial hair attacks. “So long, old friend,” I said solemnly. “I shall miss you.”

Before I let the realization that I was carrying on conversations with inanimate objects hit me full on, I grabbed Cora’s tortoise shell comb and focused every last iota of my attention on parting my now even longer—thanks to my blue period—longish white-blond hair down the center. I was something of a Solomon when it came to my hair. It was the eighth wonder of the world.

The door twisted open, but thanks to the shower steam as thick as Bryn’s best attempts at making homemade whole wheat bread . . . I internally cursed and externally slapped my face. I hadn’t made it half a minute without thinking about her and, considering my time on this earth wasn’t finite, if I kept up this pattern of thinking about her every half a second of forever that would mean . . .

That would mean I was screwed.

I noticed a figure ghosting towards me and was thankful for the distraction—albeit temporary. “That you, brother?” I said, more of a statement than a question as I turned his direction. “How do I look?” I tightened the towel around my waist before extending my arms to the sides in a non-verbal repeat of my question.

“Thank goodness I’m not your brother or else I’d be really disturbed by the thoughts I’m having of you right now,” a female voice poured through the steam before her figure cut through it. “And you look so good I locked the door and don’t plan on unlocking it for a few days.” The only smile Sierra had, the seductive kind, was in full form as she steered towards me. “If you catch my drift,” she added, winking one eye as the other searched over me like her internal clock just hit hyper-drive and I was the last man on the face of the planet.

Few people I’d come across in life could make me squirm. Sierra was the most skilled of those few. “What are you doing in here?” I asked, trying to make my folding of my arms over my chest seem casual, although it only succeeded in moving her fixed gaze from my stomach muscles v-ing into my towel to my chest. I never imagined I’d be so uncomfortable with a beautiful woman objectifying me and thinking a string of lewd thoughts so loud I could almost hear them. But then I’d never imagined I’d become a stinky hermit, either.

“Nice to see you too, sexy,” she said, doing that hair twirling thing we guys hated. “But we can save the words for later. I haven’t seen you in weeks, and either that whole absence makes the heart grow fonder thing is true or else the gods have been shining their light down on you even more than usual.” Her eyes did another circumnavigation, like I was a piece of filet mignon she couldn’t wait to devour. “In all the right spots, I might add.” She hinted at all the right spots, some of which were thankfully covered by the plush towel.

I sighed, cinching my towel even tighter, like it was a cotton chastity belt, at a loss. On paper, Sierra and I were a perfect match. You could have plugged her and my name, along with our interests, characteristics, and whatever other junk you put into one of those online dating sites, and we would have been paired together with like a ninety-nice percent compatibility score.

The clincher was the last one percent. The most important percent. There was no chemistry—at least for me, although I’m sure she used chemistry and lust interchangeably—no withdrawal jitters, no thinking about the future together and feeling peace and happiness. There was no . . . spark. Ridiculous term William repeated like a séance, but accurate.

You know, the spark. It could be as simple as a meeting of eyes or as intimate as knuckles skimming down flesh, but one thing it was was unmistakable. No denying it once you’d felt it and no sense in trying to conjure one up if it wasn’t there from the beginning. Sparks are beginnings, leading to middles of fireworks, finishing like blasts of dyn**ite.

So, long story short, there were no sparks between Sierra and me. At least for my part.

“Does the concept of privacy escape you, Sierra?” I muttered, holding my ground as she took a step in my direction. Her eyes were still moving like pin-balls over me. “I’m all but nak*d here. Give me a minute to get decent, and I’ll chat about whatever’s on your mind.”

She did the pouty, sultry girl face that rubbed me in all the wrong ways. “Decent is the last way I want you,” she said, skimming her fingers over my stomach, my lower stomach. My lower lower stomach, AKA the last part of exposed skin that, had my towel been hanging any lower, would have been considered indecent.

Even at that, a drop dead gorgeous woman’s fingers scrolling a figure eight pattern over sensitive skin in my southerly regions, I felt nothing. “And I’ve got other things in mind than chatting with that sumptuous mouth of yours,” she whispered, arching her neck back just so, the lids of her eyes getting heavy.

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