Category Archives: Contemporary Romance

The Absence of Intellect – Eighteen

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“I can’t believe you fried your computer before you left,” Robin said, laughing as she lifted her wine glass to her lips. “I am so glad I decided to stay the weekend.”

“I’d like to say I don’t know what came over me,” Emily said, swirling her own wine around her glass, “but it was a long time in the making. Besides, I can always blame it on a misguided attempt to fill my big sister’s shoes.”

“As far as I’m concerned, you did just that,” Hunter said. “Destroying company property and giving your two weeks on the way out the door, then getting a new job the next day? She’d definitely be proud of you. I know I am.” He took a drink of the wine he’d ordered in spite of the way Robin was glaring at him. “It’s a shame I never got to meet her.”

“She would have liked you,” Emily said as the waitress put their bill on the table. “Missy had a talent for figuring people out; she would have known you were a winner from the start.” She reached for the bill at the same time Robin and Hunter both reached for it, but the combination of his longer arms and the fact that the waitress automatically put the bill closer to him meant he got to it first.

“Sorry, ladies, tonight is my treat.” He put his card in the folio without looking at the bill, ignoring the protests of Emily and Robin on either side of him, and handed it to the waitress. “If you two can see your way to forgiving me, I’d like to take you on an adventure.”

“Adventure?” Emily looked interested and Robin rolled her eyes.

“Don’t fall for it,” she said. “Every time he said that when I was a kid we ended up doing some boring educational thing or picking up trash on the beach.”

“You enjoyed yourself every time, too,” Hunter said. “I still remember that much.”

“I’m game,” Emily said, finishing her wine. “You’re going to have to give me directions, though. Unless you want Robin to drive us, she probably knows where you’re taking us.”

“She doesn’t,” Hunter said as the waitress returned with his card and receipt. “I’m driving tonight.” He signed his receipt while the two women offered a number of reasons why he should just let one of them drive, but he simply smiled and shook his head all the way out the door. Emily stopped arguing first, resigning herself to her fate and slipping her hand into his while Robin decided to go at him from another angle.

“You’ve already been drinking tonight, Dad,” she said. “Why don’t you just let me drive? You and Emily can sit in the back together and, I don’t know, make out or something.”

“Can’t do it,” Emily said apologetically. “I get carsick in the back seat. If anyone should drive it should be me.”

“We’ve all been drinking,” Hunter said, unlocking his car. “Besides, I drove us to the restaurant. I can drive us where we’re going. After we’re done, you two can fight over who gets to drive us home. I promise.” He smiled at his daughter, who flung herself into the backseat like a petulant child and folded her arms over her chest. Emily stifled a laugh as she got into the passenger seat.

“When do you have to be back in Denver, Robin?” She buckled her seat belt and looked back at Robin, who shot her father a dirty look before smiling at Emily.

“I’ll be flying out Sunday night,” she replied. “I have to be back in the lab first thing Monday morning to present everything from the meetings to my team.”

“Yeah, I’ve been there before. What is it that you do, anyway? Your dad hasn’t told me much about your line of work.” Still wearing her seat belt, Emily turned as far around as she could and Robin smiled and took out her phone.

“I’m working for a company called FuturaChem,” she said. “Putting my degrees to good use trying to find renewable energy sources. Right now my team is working on using waste gases as a secondary fuel source for electric cars to offset the amount of electrical energy that has to be generated to charge the batteries.”

“How interesting,” Emily said with a smile. “So you have advanced degrees too?”

“Yes,” Robin replied, turning her phone to show it to Emily. “That’s my lab. And I’m the proud owner of my very own Ph.D in organic chemistry. The world has been blessed with two separate Drs. Chambers.” She dropped her phone into her purse. “I’m not a real doctor like you, though.”

“It’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” Emily said. “You’re better off taking after your father, and your mother too, I’m sure.”

“Ellen was a teacher,” Hunter said. “She taught ballet, and Robin absolutely took after her. My darling daughter was the cutest little…” His mind was suddenly blank and he frowned, trying to remember exactly what part Robin had played in the Nutcracker. He could see her cheeks painted to look rosy and her gray costume, but he couldn’t find the word to describe her. The silence stretched out and Hunter was acutely aware that both women were looking at him, so he laughed. “Whatever she was, she was adorable and she did it every year.”

“A mouse, Dad,” Robin said quietly. “I was a mouse.”

“Hopefully you only had one head,” Emily supplied with a grin that put Hunter a little more at ease. He knew what she was doing and had never been more grateful. “I had this Nutcracker book when I was a kid and the illustration of the rat king gave me nightmares. That reminds me,” Emily said, facing front again. “I need to clear my stuff out of the lab at BioGen. No need for me to culture lung tissue now that Melissa’s gone, right?”

“You should hang on to whatever’s viable,” Hunter said. “Take it with you to the university and see what you can do with it there. I’m sure your new bosses would be thrilled to see something else you brought to the table.”

“I would be,” Robin said. “You’re the total package. It’s no wonder they snapped you up the second you walked through the door.” She looked at Hunter in the rearview mirror. “Dad, where are we going? Are you sure you don’t need one of us to drive?”

“I know where we’re going,” Hunter said, putting on his turn signal. “It’s someplace you loved visiting when you were a kid.” Robin leaned forward and he raised an eyebrow at her. “Shouldn’t you be wearing your seatbelt?”

“Are we going out to the museum campus?”

“You’ll have to wait and see,” Hunter replied, then looked at Emily. “I think you’re going to really like this place.”

“I’m excited,” Emily said. “I love surprises.”

“That’s good to hear.” Hunter pulled into the large parking lot that several buildings shared and turned off the car. “We’re here.”

“Really? Here?” He could hear the excitement in Robin’s voice and nodded. “Oh my god, I did love this place! But I haven’t been here in years.” She opened the door and hopped out of the car, leaving Emily and Hunter sitting in the front seat.

“Butterfly Pavilion?” Emily looked at the sign curiously. “I’ve never been here. Every time I’ve come out to the museum campus I’ve been coming for a reason so I never really explored. It looks like it’s closed, though.”

“Hey, Dad,” Robin called from the sidewalk in front of the Butterfly Pavilion. “I think it’s closed!”

“Is it?” Hunter got out of the car and twirled his keys on his finger, feeling like a young man for the first time in years. He locked the car and strode up to the doors of the round building with Emily and his daughter on his heels.

The front hallway of the building was indeed dark, and a small sign in the door informed them that the pavilion had closed early that day. Emily sighed with disappointment but Hunter walked up to the door and pressed a small button that was nearly hidden on the wall. He hummed while he waited, fully enjoying knowing that he was driving Emily and Robin crazy. No doubt they were trying to come up with a tactful way to tell him that he needed to go home and go to bed. Before one of them could find the words, a chubby woman in a business suit came walking down the hallway with a smile. She unlocked the door and held it open for them.

“Good evening, Dr. Chambers,” she said with a smile. “Right on time, I see.”

“As often as I can manage it,” he said, then motioned to his companions. “Allow me to introduce Dr. Robin Chambers and Dr. Emily Ashton.”

“Pleased to meet you both, Doctors,” the woman said, beaming as she relocked the door behind them. “I’m Kari Satonaka, the director of the Butterfly Pavilion’s educational programs. If you’ll follow me, I’ll take you to the butterflies.” She turned and led them down a long hall and around a corner to a glass box that was attached to a large door. A sign on the door with a photo of a butterfly on a baseball cap warned them to ‘Watch Out for Hitchhikers!’ and Kari tapped it. “We have very few rules here, but they’re very important ones. There are nectar cups available to feed the butterflies but please don’t give them any outside food. Don’t touch the butterflies or other animals, allow them to make contact instead. Above all, forget your problems and just enjoy the wonders of nature for a little while. I’ll be here until you’re ready to leave, so please just knock on the office door when you’re ready to go.”

“Thank you,” Emily and Robin said at the same time, then looked at one another while Kari walked back down the hall. Hunter went first, leading them into the glass room and holding the door open for them.

As soon as Emily stepped into the butterfly pavilion, she gasped softly. The lights in the conservatory-like room were low, almost matching the darkness outside the mostly glass building, and the trees were draped with strands of white Christmas lights. Even in the soft light there were butterflies fluttering through the air, and the combination of the trickling of a man-made stream and chirping frogs made it seem like they were in a different, more relaxing world.

“This place is gorgeous,” Emily said, looking around. There were halves of an apple and a pear sitting on logs, and a few butterflies were sampling them and gently opening and closing their wings. Robin nodded and went to one of the trees.

“There weren’t lights like this whenever we used to come,” she said. “We also never came this late at night, though.” Robin turned to her father. “Did you have them do this, Dad?”

“Yes,” Hunter said with a smile. “I wanted it to be special. We can come back another time to see the spiders and lizards but tonight I didn’t want to share it with anyone but you.”

“You’re sweet,” Emily said, taking Hunter’s hand. He laced his fingers through hers and squeezed gently.

“It won’t be tomorrow, but there’s going to come a time when I won’t be able to remember what a butterfly is. As much as I want to remember how you look tonight, that will be gone too. I’ll hold onto it as long as I can, but there are no guarantees with this disease. Whatever time I have left, though, I want to spend it with you.” He took Emily’s other hand and looked into her eyes. “I know it’s selfish of me to ask you to commit to someone who’s sick, but I can’t imagine the rest of my life without you.”

“It’s not selfish. You know I’m with you because I want to be,” Emily said. “Alzheimer’s is a part of you, it’s not all you are.”

“Not everyone sees it that way,” Hunter said. “That’s one of the reasons you’re so special, and just one of the reasons I love you.” Taking a deep breath, he let go of her hands and reached into his pocket. The box didn’t seem to want to come out and he struggled with it, aware that both Emily and Robin were watching him. When he finally freed it, he held it out to Emily with a smile.

“Is this what I think it is?” She took the box and opened it to reveal a ring with a beautifully cut champagne diamond set in white gold with pale gold filigree. The stone caught the Christmas lights and sparkled, and Hunter nodded.

“Whatever time I have left, I want to spend with you, Emily.” Hunter heard a small noise behind him and looked over his shoulder to see Robin standing on her tiptoes, her eyes wide. He turned his attention back to Emily, who was looking into the box as if stunned.

“I told you I don’t have any regrets about Melissa, and it’s true. If there’s anything I learned from her death it’s that you can’t play it safe all your life, sometimes you have to take chances. Nothing is certain, you know that better than anyone. You can be the happiest woman in the world but it can all be gone in seconds.” She smiled up at Hunter, her eyes shining. “Melissa was always the brave one, but I’d like to think that she rubbed off on me just a little.”

“You’ve always been the brave one,” Hunter said. “It just took you longer to realize it.”

“You’re just trying to get me to marry you,” Emily said with a smirk, and Hunter gave her what he hoped was a suave smile.

“Is it working?” Rather than reply, Emily threw her arms around him and kissed him. Hunter put his arms around her waist and lifted her off the ground. Robin squealed with delight and clapped her hands as they kissed, and Hunter found himself wishing that he’d remember this moment forever. As soon as he set Emily back down, he took the box out of her hand and slipped the ring onto her finger. While she was admiring it, Robin ran over to them and hugged her tightly.

“Do I get to call you Mom now?”

“Only if I get to send you to your room,” Emily said, wiping tears out of her eyes. Hunter laughed out loud and put an arm around each of the women.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s see if the chrysalis rack is still over on the other side of the trees. Robin used to love it when we caught one hatching.” Robin hurried ahead of them and Hunter turned to see Emily looking down at her hand. “No regrets?”

“None at all,” Emily said, taking the empty box from him and tucking it into her purse. Hunter kissed her again, then pulled away when he felt something land on his hand. A butterfly had alighted on his finger and as he watched it open and close its wings, more joined them, fluttering around the couple as if curious. Hunter lifted his hand and the butterfly flew away, but Emily stayed by his side and even though he didn’t know what the next day, week, or year would bring, this time he believed she always would.

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The Absence of Intellect – Seventeen

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The coffee was too hot, so Emily blew on it absently while she scrolled through pages of data. It was all arranged neatly on spreadsheets, color coded the way she liked it, and she reflected on how nice it was to not have to play politics or answer questions about her methods. She tried a sip of her coffee and found it was still ridiculously hot. Setting it aside for the moment, she stopped to enter a few new numbers into the spreadsheet, then switched to a three-dimensional model of the new protein she was hoping would become the foundation for her next attempt at developing the neural bridge. The image looked a little fuzzy and Emily leaned closer to the screen, wondering if she needed glasses.

“Dr. Ashton,” a voice behind her said, and she turned around to see Haynes standing just inside the door. He was looking around her lab with his arms folded over his chest and she frowned as she stood up. “This is quite the little place you’ve carved out for yourself.”

“What can I do for you, Dr. Haynes?”

“What is it exactly that you’re working on that you need all this equipment?” He went to the chemistry analyzer that Emily hadn’t even gotten to use yet.

“I’m trying to develop—”

“Actually, I don’t really care. I’m not just the head of this department anymore, I’m the director of the company and I don’t think this research is needed any longer. There are better uses of your time and energy,” he said, his voice smug. “We can use this equipment out in the lab, replace some of the older stuff. You’ll be moved back to the general research area, of course.”

“This was set up under Dr. Chambers’ supervision,” Emily said, looking over her shoulder at the model. “I can’t do my research if I don’t have this lab and this equipment.”

“You can make do with the equipment in the general lab area,” Haynes said. “After all, you’ll be going back to sanctioned projects.”

“Dr. Haynes, please don’t take me off this,” Emily said, not even caring that she was pleading with the man. “My research is extremely important. If I can complete this neural bridge, it’ll help a lot of people, maybe even save lives.”

“Let me tell you a little secret, doctor. We’re not actually in this business to save lives, we’re in it to make money.” His words froze Emily’s blood and she looked up at him as if she was finally seeing him clearly. “Get this wrapped up by the end of the day. I’ll be dismantling this lab first thing tomorrow morning.” He turned, a look of satisfaction on his face, and opened the door. “I’ll see myself out.”

As soon as he was gone, Emily dropped heavily back into her chair and leaned her elbows on the desk. She put her hands over her face and let out a scream of frustration that was muffled by her palms. Being sent back to the main research area was the worst thing that could possibly happen. Not only would she not be working on the neural bridge, she would be stuck in the same lab with people whose dislike for her was evident in every word they spoke, if they even spoke to her.

I shouldn’t have to put up with this, Emily thought angrily. Then something occurred to her and she sat up straight. I don’t have to put up with this. She grabbed her cell phone and scrolled through her contacts until she found the one she wanted, tapped the screen, then put the phone to her ear and waited. She was expecting for it to go to voicemail when someone picked up on the other end.

“Emily?”

“Karen, hi,” she said, relaxing slightly. “Do you have a minute?”

“Sure. What’s on your mind?

“You still talk to Mitchell Berry over at UIC?” Emily picked up her coffee and took a test sip. It was considerably cooler and she took a second drink.

“Pretty regularly,” Karen said. “He’s been flying out to Minneapolis to help me with the clinical trials. What do you need from Mitch?”

“Just his phone number,” she said, lifting her coffee cup to her lips again. “I’ve got a couple of things to ask him about the neural bridge I told you I’m trying to develop. Would he be okay with my calling him personally?”

“Sure,” Karen said, a smile in her voice. “If you’re talking about neurological research, he’ll probably talk your ear off telling you about his before going completely crazy over yours. It’d be right up his alley. I’ll text you his number so you’ll have it in your phone.”

“Thanks, Karen. I really appreciate this.” Emily leaned back in her chair and hung up. Less than a minute later she had a text message from Karen on her phone with a phone number and the word ‘Mitch’ with a smiley face next to it. “Still the same old Karen,” she said, saving his number before calling it. His phone didn’t ring nearly as long as Karen’s had, and Emily was still drinking her coffee when he picked up.

“This is Mitch Berry, who’s this?”

“Dr. Berry,” Emily said, swallowing her mouthful of coffee. “It’s Emily Ashton, from Apogee Pharmaceuticals, formerly of the neurology department at St. Cecilia’s. We met at the AMA conference a year or two ago.”

“Dr. Ashton, right,” he said cheerfully. “If I remember correctly, you were asking questions about reversing brain damage. How’s your sister?”

“She passed away recently,” Emily said, not wanting to talk about it but not wanting to waste what might be her only chance to make her research happen. “I’ve been doing research to that effect here at Apogee, and I’m afraid they no longer see the value of it. Would there be any openings at UIC?” She held her breath, waiting for him to answer.

“There is an opening for a researcher in my department but it would require teaching a class. Nothing strenuous, just a twice weekly lecture and grading tests. It could turn into a tenure-track position, though, if you’re willing to put in some work,” Mitchell said. “What sort of research are we talking about?”

“I’m working on developing a compound that can act as a bridge between damaged neurons, smoothing over and taking the place of the damaged areas, and acting as a catalyst to stimulate regrowth of cells,” Emily said, putting her hand on her mouse to stop it from shaking. “I already have some data, which I can bring over.”

“Great! That’s fantastic,” Mitch said, and Emily’s heart soared. “Forget having to teach a class, they’ll probably just give you a position. I can already think of at least ten applications for the sort of compound you’re describing. Can you come in tomorrow around ten and show me what you have? I’ll walk it up the food chain and get you in front of the big guys within the week.”

“Of course,” Emily said quickly. “Whatever time you need me, I’ll be there. Thank you so much, Dr. Berry, you have no idea how much this project means to me.”

“I’m excited to see your data. If I can get you in here soon, I’ll lend you my TA to write some grant proposals. It’s proposal season and if we can get you in on it, I have every confidence that your research is going to be funded for at least five years, possibly longer.” He laughed. “Apogee has no idea what they’re losing. See you tomorrow. And call me Mitch.”

“Okay, see you tomorrow.” Emily hung up and stared at her phone, considering her options. She could walk out the door and never come back, hoping that she really did have a lock on the position at UIC, or she could wait and see what happened at the university before she quit.

It seemed like all her life she’d played it safe, kept her plans to herself while smiling and nodding and not rocking the boat. Melissa had always been the adventurous one, the one who spoke her mind and went out on a limb. She’d pulled Emily onto roller coasters and into R-rated movies, talked her into a chorus part in their college musical when she was in a leading role, and got her to drink shots of pickle juice. Emily toyed with her phone, pushing it back and forth between her palms, hoping that something would happen to let her know which way she should go.

What would your sister do? Hunter’s voice popped into her head and she bit her lip. Do whatever you think would make Melissa proud. While she was considering this, the door to her lab opened and one of the women from IT came in with a clipboard. She checked something off a list, then looked over at Emily.

“You don’t mind if I take this do you?” She was motioning to the chemistry analyzer and Emily frowned at her.

“I thought everything was going to be taken tomorrow.”

“Dr. Haynes’ orders,” the IT woman said. “He said you’d be expecting me.” She shrugged and Emily closed her eyes for a long moment as she exhaled slowly. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine. Take the analyzer. Take whatever you want.” Emily stood up and picked up her backpack. “I’m going home early.” The other woman nodded and began unhooking wires while Emily found the number she needed, then packed her things into her bag, holding her phone between her shoulder and ear.

“HR,” a cheerful voice said, and Emily zipped her bag.

“Patty, it’s Emily Ashton. Can you tell me how much vacation time I have left?” She picked up her computer case and opened it, rummaging around in the bottom of the bag until she found a USB stick in one of the pockets.

“Sure,” Patty said, her voice still cheerful. “Give me one second.” Emily could hear her typing on the other end of the line while the woman from IT picked up the chemistry analyzer and took it to the door. Emily, impressed by her strength, held the door for her and closed it once she was gone. “Looks like you’ve got eighty-two hours,” she said. “You really need to take a vacation sometime.”

“I’m taking it now,” Emily said, plugging the USB stick into her work computer and opening the file explorer. “I’m sure Dr. Haynes won’t mind, but give him a call if you want.” She was only halfway listening to Patty, more interested in moving files from the hard drive to the USB stick that had an admirable full terabyte of storage on it.

“You’re all good, Dr. Ashton. See you in two weeks.” She hung up just as the files finished transferring and once she checked to make sure they were safely on the stick, she tucked it into the inside pocket of the computer bag. Then she moved the files that were left into trash bin and deleted them with a smile.

If it wasn’t an officially sanctioned project, Apogee didn’t own the data, and the research she’d done before she started working there was similarly her own. Even if they kicked up a fuss about the work she’d done while she was employed there, it didn’t matter since that attempt had failed. She could conceivably start over from the data she brought from her private research. Even so, she wasn’t going to make it easy for them. Emily zipped up the bag, then picked up her coffee cup and dumped the entire thing into the computer tower.

The result was instantaneous. The tower started to smoke, the monitor flickered, and the whole thing finally gave up with an enormous popping sound and a shower of sparks. Emily tossed the empty coffee cup on the desk and put her bags on her shoulders and walked out of Apogee Pharmaceuticals for the last time. As she was stepping onto the elevator, she put her phone to her ear again and smiled when the line connected.

“Hi,” she said to Hunter with a smile. “I’m coming home.”

The Absence of Intellect – Sixteen

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Even two weeks after he’d been let go from Apogee, Hunter was having a hard time dealing with the fact that for the first time in decades he didn’t have a job. After Emily left in the mornings, he spent the day reading the news and coming up with ideas for dinner. He’d read somewhere that doing puzzles was good for managing the progression of dementia, so he walked down to the grocery store and bought a book of crossword puzzles. He was on his fourth one when his phone rang and he snatched it off the coffee table, eager to talk to whoever was on the other end of the line.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Dad!” Robin’s chipper voice made him smile as soon as he heard it. “What are you up to?”

“Nothing much,” he replied, setting aside his book and pencil. “As a matter of fact, I was just doing a crossword puzzle.”

“That’s great,” Robin said. “I’m glad you took my advice for a change. They’re supposed to help fight dementia.” It struck Hunter that his daughter was probably where he’d heard about the puzzles and he smiled. Things were sticking, just not the ones he expected.

“I’ve got some bad news for you then,” Hunter said. “I’ve already got dementia. What’s going on with you, Rob?”

“I know it’s short notice, but I’m in the city for a couple of days and I thought we could have dinner or something. Go to a movie. What time do you get off work today?” Wherever she was sounded busy and he wondered where she was. He listened more closely to try and figure it out, snapping back to the conversation only when Robin spoke up. “Dad?”

“Sorry,” he said, rubbing his forehead. “What did you ask?”

“What time you got off work,” Robin said patiently. “I’ll come over and pick you up from the house.” Hunter’s stomach dropped. He’d completely forgotten to call Robin and tell her he’d been fired. “Emily too. I really like her, she’s perfect for you.”

“I’m actually at home already,” Hunter said, feeling slightly numb. He didn’t want to tell her over the phone. It was a conversation he’d much rather have face to face, and he supposed tonight was as good a time as any. “Why don’t you come on over?”

“I’m headed into a meeting right now, it’ll be a couple of hours. Start thinking about where you want to go for dinner. On me.” She didn’t give Hunter time to protest before she spoke again. “I’ll see you tonight, Dad. Love you.”

“Love you too, sweetie.” She hung up and Hunter exhaled slowly and sank back against the couch. As much as he wanted to see his daughter, he didn’t want to have to tell her that the father she’d looked up to all her life had been thrown out of the company he helped create. He tried to think of a good way to tell her but nothing came to mind, and he was still sitting on the couch when the front door opened. “Robin?”

“No, it’s me,” Emily called. He turned on the couch to see her coming toward him with her computer bag over her shoulder. She leaned down and kissed him. “Are you expecting Robin?”

“She’s in town for couple of days and wanted to come by,” he said as she put her bag on the loveseat. “She’s coming after her meeting to take us to dinner.”

“That’s nice of her,” Emily said. “I won’t change, then.” She kicked off her shoes and sat on the couch beside Hunter, pulling her legs up and leaning her head on his shoulder. “You haven’t told her yet, have you?”

“No,” Hunter said, putting an arm around her. “I’d like to say I’ve been afraid to, or haven’t found the right words, but the truth is that I just didn’t remember to do it.” He sighed. “I guess that treatment isn’t working as well as we hoped.”

“It can’t reverse the damage that’s already been done,” Emily said. “It can only slow things down.” She was quiet for a moment, then looked up at him. “I’m sorry I couldn’t do more for you, you know. Maybe if I’d worked just a little harder on it or been able to devote more time to it—”

“It’s not your fault,” Hunter said, cutting her off. He pulled her closer and rubbed her shoulder comfortingly. “This thing was going to get me whether you developed that…that treatment or not.” He closed his eyes. One more thing lost in the ocean of his mind.

“Have you given any thought as to what you’re going to do now?” Rather than correct him, Emily had gently changed the subject and he loved her for it.

“I don’t know,” Hunter replied, looking down at her. “I don’t know what exactly I could do. I can’t think of many places that would want to hire someone they’d have to retrain every couple of days. Besides, Apogee gave me two years’ salary as a going away benefit. That plus my savings should keep me afloat until I have to go into a home.”

“I think they call it assisted living now,” Emily said. “And that’s a long way off. Now that I’m not spending money on Melissa’s hospital bills I have more than enough to take care of us.” She sat up straight suddenly. “Hey, I know what you could do! You could open a restaurant!”

“You can’t be serious.”

“No, I am! You said yourself you can still cook if you follow a recipe, and you’re really good at it. Plus you have experience with hiring and management, and it would be no big deal to hire an accountant for the money stuff. I think if you opened a little restaurant, it’d do great.” Emily sounded far more exciting than he did about the idea but her enthusiasm was infectious. “Of course, I’d help out however I could so we could keep it going as long as possible.”

“I’ve been thinking about that,” Hunter said. “After I lose it completely, I want you and Robin to be my beneficiaries. Even if you end up with someone else, the hope you’ve given me for the future means more to me than you’ll ever know.”

“Hunter, I’m not—”

“Hi, guys!” The front door opened again and Robin came in with a smile. She went straight to Hunter, who stood up to hug her. “It’s so good to see you again, Dad.” Emily got off the couch and smiled at her. “Emily, it’s nice to see you too.” She hugged Emily just as tightly as her father, then pointed at the ceiling. “I’m going to go put my bag in my room, then we’re going to dinner, so I hope you two were discussing where we’re going.” She went up the stairs, leaving Emily and Hunter looking at one another.

“This discussion isn’t over,” Emily said, and Hunter sighed. He was beginning to wish he hadn’t said anything about it. Even though he didn’t really know what he was going to say, he started to open his mouth anyway, only to be interrupted by Robin coming down the stairs.

“I’m exhausted after the trip and that meeting,” she said. “I had no idea a meeting could actually last for three hours. I’m going to make myself a drink before we go if that’s okay with you.” Emily grinned at her.

“That sounds like a fantastic idea,” she said. “I’ll come with you. My day was kind of a long one too.” Hunter started to join them but both women looked at him pointedly.

“You are not invited,” his daughter said. “You might drink with your meds while I’m not here but this time I’m being the parent.” She linked her arm through Emily’s and marched her into the kitchen while Hunter sat on the arm of the couch. Robin was definitely her mother’s child, and his curiosity about what they were talking about overwhelmed him. He went to the kitchen and stood just outside the doorway. “I swear, I worry about him as much as I would a toddler sometimes.”

“Tell me about it,” Emily said. “He’s pretty much the same as he used to be, though, so unless he’s having a bad day I don’t interfere. I’m sure it’s different for you because he’s your dad.” Hunter heard the clink of ice being dropped into glasses.

“Yeah,” Robin said, and the refrigerator door closed. “Speaking of, how are things going for you two? Romantically, I mean, not dementia-wise.” Emily sighed heavily and Hunter’s heart sped up. He wasn’t sure he wanted to hear what Emily was about to say but he couldn’t make himself move.

“They’re great, actually,” she said. “I was always jealous of my sister for finding such an amazing man who was so perfect for her. They complemented one another so well, you know? Hunter’s like that for me. It’s like I didn’t even know I was missing something until I met him.” Her words made Hunter’s eyes well up with tears and he took off his glasses so he could wipe them away before Emily and Robin came back in.

“You really love him, then,” Robin said, a smile in her voice.

“I do,” Emily said. “No matter what happens in the future, I want to be there for him. I just wish I could convince him of that.” The ice in her glass clinked together as she took a drink. “I don’t think he believes me and I don’t know what to say to make him understand.”

Hunter went back to the couch before they came out of the kitchen and sat on the arm again just as they entered with their glasses. They both looked like they had screwdrivers and he raised an eyebrow at Robin.

“You’re out of orange juice,” she said. “Sorry.”

“I’ll go get some more now,” Hunter said, standing up. “Otherwise I’ll forget to do it and be mad at myself when we have breakfast.” He looked at Emily. “Is there anything else we need?” She shook her head and sipped her drink.

“Not that I can think of. Do you want me to drive you?”

“I’ll be fine,” Hunter said. “I’m just going to the grocery store, it’s right down the street. If I get lost, I can just use my GPS to get back.” He didn’t give his daughter time to weigh in on his decision, going to the door and grabbing his keys from the bowl as he did. The door had barely closed before he remembered that he’d forgotten something, and when he opened it again Emily was standing there. “I forgot to kiss you.”

“I know,” she said. “But I knew you’d remember before you got out of the driveway.” Hunter smiled and leaned down to kiss her goodbye, trying to put a little more meaning into it than usual. If Emily noticed anything was different, she didn’t say so, and Hunter went out to his car. Emily watched him from the doorway until he was gone, and in his rearview mirror he saw Robin doing the same at the living room window.

On his way to the grocery store, Hunter thought about what he had overheard. He knew Emily loved him, there had never been any doubt in his mind about that, he just didn’t understand why she would be willing to stay and watch Alzheimer’s make him slowly become debilitated before finally dying. Watching her sister waste away had taken a toll on her and he couldn’t imagine her wanting to go through it again. If he was being honest with himself, he didn’t want her to have to do it. He wanted her to remember him as he had been, intelligent and confident, instead of what he would surely become. Emily wasn’t going to give up easily, she’d proved that in her years of care of Melissa. In his heart he did believe that she would stay with him, but his unreliable mind kept saying the opposite.

Hunter looked around and was surprised to find he was in a parking space. He didn’t remember the drive to the grocery store but he was incredibly relieved that he’d gotten there safely. It was only about half a mile from his house to the store so it wouldn’t be too much of a hassle to ask Emily or Robin to walk down and drive him home, but he was determined to stay as independent as possible for as long as possible. He took his keys out of the ignition and got out.

When he stepped into the store, there was a young man refilling the stand that held the tourist brochures just inside the door. Hunter hadn’t remembered them being there before and stopped for a moment to look them over. There were brochures advertising all the usual Chicago tourist destinations. The tower, the bean, both zoos, and the aquarium were all represented, but one in particular caught his eye. He reached out and took it, his smile growing wider by the second. An idea was starting to form in his mind and he tucked the brochure into his pocket. Tomorrow was going to be much more interesting than today had been, provided he could remember to go through with his plan.

The Absence of Intellect – Fifteen

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There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and it felt wrong to Emily. Her sister was being lowered into the ground and the weather didn’t even have the good grace to mourn with her. It was as if nature itself was ignoring the fact that one of the brightest lights had gone out.

After years in the coma, her lungs being inflated by machines, her heart had finally given out. The doctors had been unable to revive her, and had explained to Emily that even if she had, the damage to her brain would have been profound. Even if the neural bridge had been finished, it wouldn’t have been able to bring her back. She’d stood over her sister’s body, looking down at it and feeling as if someone had scooped her heart out.

The feeling had only intensified at the memorial service, and Emily had stayed until they closed the casket, wanting to get one last glimpse of the other half of her heart, the one she had shared everything with since the day they were conceived. When the lid was closed and took her away for the last time, that was when Emily finally started to cry.

“You want to go home?” Hunter put a hand on her arm and she looped her arm through his, holding him tightly. He was there, anchoring her to reality, and she clung to him. “We can order something for lunch. Maybe Alice’s, you like their sandwiches.”

“Let me stay here a little longer,” she said, sounding like she was badly congested. Hunter nodded and kissed her on the top of the head as she leaned on him. “It’s so strange. Everything I’ve been doing, almost every dime I’ve earned, it’s all been for her. I put everything on hold to try and save her, but I couldn’t make it in time. What am I supposed to do now?”

“Just keep working on it,” Hunter said. “You can still help more people like her and me. That’s the best way to honor her memory.” Emily smiled at him with tears in her eyes. She was about to tell him how much his words meant when an older couple dressed entirely in black. Hunter was wearing a black suit with a dark gray shirt underneath and a black tie, and looked more well off than them by far. Emily thought it was appropriate, since he was the one who was paying for the funeral, the headstone, and the black Chanel suit she was wearing, and she tightened her grip on his arm.

“I hope you’re proud of yourself,” the woman said, her voice cold and hard. “You kept her alive all this time for nothing.”

“Hello, Mom,” Emily said. “It’s nice to see you too.”

“She could have been at rest years ago but you had to go and be selfish,” her mother continued. There wasn’t a tear in her eyes, and Emily knew she’d been rehearsing this for years. “You couldn’t just let her go, you were so sure you were smart enough to save her, and it didn’t matter what anyone else told you. She’s been dead since the accident, and you’re the only one who couldn’t accept that.”

“I had to try,” Emily said, unable to pull any strength into her voice. “She was my sister.”

“And she was our daughter,” her father said. “Don’t you think we knew what was better for her than you?”

“I’m your daughter too, in case you forgot,” Emily said. “It didn’t matter who knew better, she chose me to be her advocate. I did what I thought was right at the time.” The casket was almost entirely in the ground now and the guests were gone, leaving Emily and Hunter were alone with her parents. “Can we not fight today? Out of respect for Melissa?”

“Now you have respect for her?” Her mother’s hands were on her hips now, and Emily couldn’t summon the strength to argue with her. In her heart she knew her parents were right, but admitting it to herself would be too much at that moment. She could admit it to Hunter but absolutely refused to admit it to her parents.

“I’m not going to have this argument here,” Emily said, shaking her head. She looked past them at the grave and saw that the casket was out of sight, then tugged on Hunter’s arm. “Let’s go. There’s nothing left for me here.” He nodded and they started to walk away, leaving Emily’s parents at the gravesite where cemetery attendants were moving in to gather the chairs.

“That’s right,” her mother called after them. “Just run away, like you’ve always done. You have these grand ideas and you think you’re going to save the world, then you just walk away from what you’ve done when it all falls apart.”

“Don’t listen to her,” Hunter said. “Just keep walking, we’ll go back to the house and order lunch. We can order sandwiches from Alice’s, you like those.” Emily sighed and looked up at him. “What?”

“You already said that,” she said. Repeating himself made Hunter so self-conscious that she almost automatically made a joke to lighten the mood, but today she couldn’t make herself do it. Hunter pulled his arm away from hers and her stomach dropped. “I’m sorry, Hunter, I—”

“Don’t apologize. You don’t have any reason to. Now come on,” he said gently, putting his arm around her shoulders instead. “I’ll drive. You can give me directions if I get lost.”

“Yeah,” Emily said, trying to smile. “I know how you get when the houses start to have grass in front of them.” Hunter raised an eyebrow.

“Yards. I can still remember the word for yard.”

“Then the treatment must be working,” she said, finally managing a smile. “How are you feeling this time? Still nauseous?”

“No, that pretty much passed after a couple of days, thanks to the stuff you prescribed me. One of the perks of having a girlfriend who’s a real doctor.” They had reached the car and Hunter unlocked it and opened the door for her. Emily got in and let him close the door behind her as she put her hands over her face. Part of her wanted to go back to the grave for one last look at the coffin before they started filling in the hole, but she didn’t want to chance running into her parents again.

She knew how they felt about her decision to keep Melissa alive, they’d never hidden their disapproval. Now that her sister seemed to have taken things into her own hands, she’d known they would show up to throw it into her face. In spite of everything, she still didn’t regret a thing. Even if it seemed hopeless, if there had been the slightest chance her sister could be saved she would have done the same thing. Hunter got into the driver’s seat and started the car, and Emily looked over at him.

Hunter would understand. Out of all the people in the world, Hunter was the only one who would understand exactly why she had done it and she loved him for it. If he had been anyone else, she would have tried to hold his hand while he was driving but she knew he would be focusing on driving. Emily had no doubt that he would be fine but she understood why he was nervous.

“I think I’m going to get their chicken salad,” Hunter said as he pulled away from the curb. “The apples and celery really make it different.”

“Uh-huh,” Emily said, leaning her head against the seat and closing her eyes. Hunter’s car was much nicer than any she’d been in before and the smell of leather was comforting. Before she knew it, she was starting to nod off. She hadn’t slept much in the week since Melissa’s death. When she opened her eyes next, she was been shaken awake by Hunter.

“Hey,” he said, his hand on her shoulder. “We’re home.”

“What?” Emily sat up and looked out the window. “Already?” He nodded and she smiled. “See, I knew you could do it.” She got out of the car and followed him into the house with a yawn. “I didn’t realize I was so tired.”

“I’m not surprised, you’ve had a stressful week.” Hunter tossed his keys into the bowl by the door and loosened his tie. “You want the menu from Alice’s or do you already know what you want? I’ve got their number on my phone.”

“Yeah,” Emily said around a yawn. “I want the California club with kettle chips. I’m going to go get out of these clothes. I think my tights are cutting off my circulation.” She went up the stairs to the guest bedroom, peeked in on the kittens that were wandering around, then went into the bedroom she and Hunter were sharing to get undressed. The shoes were the first thing to go, and she sighed with relief when she kicked them under the bed. Emily rarely wore anything but flats or sneakers, and every time she wore heels she was miserable while they were on and extremely appreciative whenever they were off. She was just reaching back to unzip her dress when Hunter put his arms around her waist from behind and she turned to see Hunter smiling at her.

“They said it’ll be 45 minutes before the food gets here,” he said. “Lunch rush.”

“Maybe I’ll be hungry by then,” Emily said. “Unzip me?”

“Sure,” he said, pulling down her zipper. Then, to Emily’s surprise, he leaned down and kissed her back. “I have an idea about how we can kill 45 minutes and work up an appetite.” He pushed the sleeves of her dress down her arms and Emily bit her lip. It felt wrong to do this while Melissa’s grave was being filled in but at the same time there was nowhere else she wanted to be than in Hunter’s arms. “We don’t have to,” he said, and rather than reply Emily turned to face him.

“I’d rather we did,” she said. “My sister wouldn’t want me to stop my entire life because of her. She’d rest a lot easier knowing I was fighting with our parents and getting naked with my boyfriend after her funeral.”

“She would, huh?”

“Definitely. Melissa was always the one with the dirty mind.” Emily grinned. “She knew every filthy joke and could find at least a double entendre in anything. I used to tell her she stopped maturing at twelve.”

“Well then,” Hunter said, putting his arms around her and leaning in to kiss her, “I can’t think of a better way to honor her memory.” Emily laughed and threw her arms around his neck, and Hunter kissed her again, then took out his phone.

“What are you doing?” She frowned and he shook his head as he put the phone to his ear.

“Hi, this is Hunter Chambers, I just placed an order for delivery. Can you have the delivery guy just leave it on the front porch? My wife’s got a headache and I don’t want him to ring the doorbell and wake her up. Thanks.” He hung up and tossed his phone onto a pile of clothes on his dresser. “I’ve always hated working under a time limit.”

“This sounds promising,” Emily said, and Hunter raised an eyebrow at her. “I like a man who takes his time.”

“Then you’re going to love this.”

The Absence of Intellect – Fourteen

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The last person Hunter expected to call him at work was his housekeeper, so when he saw her picture on his cell phone he knew something was wrong. He grabbed it before it went to voicemail and put the phone to his ear.

“Hello, ah,” he paused, trying to remember her name and halfway panicking because he’d never forgotten someone’s name that he knew so well. His stomach lurched and he put a hand over his eyes in case his body decided it wanted to start crying. Then it came to him and he relaxed. “Patricia. What’s going on?”

“There’s a deliveryman here with a package for you but they won’t give it to me without your authorization.” Patricia sounded deeply affronted by this and he smiled.

“Hand him the phone, if you don’t mind. I’ll talk to him.” Hunter waited a moment, picking at the corner of a notepad they gave their drug reps to give as freebies. The phone changed hands and a man’s voice came over the line.

“Are you Hunter Chambers?”

“Yes,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “I’m currently at the office, so I give my full authorization for Patricia to accept the package for me. If you want, I can send a photo of my driver’s license to her.”

“That’s all right, sir, I just needed to confirm it was you. Thank you.” The phone changed hands again and Patricia returned to the line.

“I assume you didn’t know this package was coming,” she said. “Otherwise you would have told me that you were expecting it.” He heard the door close and the click of Patricia’s clogs on the floor. “The return label says it’s from Eagle Pharmaceuticals,” she said. “It also says to keep it refrigerated.”

“That’s excellent news,” Hunter said, a grin spreading over his face as he got up from his desk. “Just make a spot for it in the refrigerator and put it in there. I’ll take care of it when we get home. Thank you again.” He hung up and dropped his phone into his pocket, eager to go to Emily’s lab and tell her that his first round of the infusion had arrived.

His hand was on the door handle when it moved on its own and he took a step back so the door wouldn’t hit him when it swung inward. Much to his surprise, one of the three men who stepped into his office was the owner of Apogee Labs, Edward Kessler. Hunter smiled at him, hoping his face didn’t reflect the return of the sick feeling in his stomach. Standing alongside Edward was Derek Haynes, who was smiling in an unsettling way.

“Dr. Chambers,” Edward said as the third man closed the door behind them. He assumed that the man was Edward’s assistant, but didn’t ask. There was no point when he’d just forget it anyway. “I’m glad we caught you. How are you feeling?”

“Fine,” Hunter said, his nausea intensifying. “And yourself?”

“We’re not here to talk about my health,” Edward said. “We’re here because I’ve heard something extremely disturbing and I wanted to get confirmation from you before I moved on it.” His assistant closed the blinds on the window that looked out into the hall. “Dr. Haynes overheard you talking to Dr. Ashton in her lab – which we’ll be discussing later – and she asked if there had been any further progression of the dementia. Would you care to explain that?”

Hunter’s blood froze. He didn’t know how to answer. If he lied, it sounded as if they would be able to call him out on it. If he told the truth, he could lose his job, his insurance, and the reputation he’d spent his life building. He thought of Emily down in her lab, working on her new drug with no idea what was happening several floor up, and wished she was there to help him somehow. Even if she was, Emily had plenty to lose herself and he wasn’t about to throw her into the middle of it. Hunter took a deep breath, trying to steady himself.

“Dr. Chambers?”

“I have Alzheimer’s,” he admitted, not surprised that he was shaking. “Early-onset Alzheimer’s. I’ve had it for almost a year.” The three men in front of him were silent and he exhaled. “I’ve been on medication, and I’m in a clinical trial for a new medication that Dr. Ashton’s friend developed. It’s as close to stable as it can possibly be for the moment.”

“And that’s the reason you and she have been seen together so much recently?” There was more than a hint of disapproval in his voice and Hunter tried his best to remember if there was anything in the hiring manual about employees not being in relationships. Even if it hadn’t been years since the last update, his memory got even worse when he was stressed. The best thing to do was tell the truth, otherwise Emily could be in more trouble later.

“In part. We started out spending time together because of her research but it developed into more. We’re in a relationship now, and as far as I can remember there’s no rule against it.” It was a poor choice of words and he regretted it almost instantly.

“That’s not what’s troubling us,” Edward said. “I’m afraid I have serious doubts about your ability to run this company in light of this new information. You are responsible for the jobs of hundreds of people and oversee research that can affect peoples’ lives. We just can’t leave all of that in the hands of someone who might one day not remember his login credentials or misplace reports.” Hunter remembered the trouble he’d had in Emily’s lab and felt his face getting hot.

“What are you saying, Ed?”

“I’m saying that hiding your dementia is no longer an option, and we can’t allow you to be in a position of such enormous responsibility in your current state, much less the way you’ll eventually be. You know better than anyone that Alzheimer’s is progressive. You’re only going to get worse.” Edward sighed and shook his head. “I’m truly sorry, Hunter. You’re one of the most brilliant men I’ve ever met, and it’s a shame what’s happening to you. But as of today you no longer work for Apogee Labs.”

As much as he wanted to, Hunter knew there was no sense in trying to argue. He couldn’t deny that he wouldn’t be fit to run the company someday, but he had been doing fine up until that morning. It was hard enough accepting that he was being fired but asking him to accept the fact that he truly was unable to work in his former capacity was almost impossible. He became aware that Edward was still talking and tried to focus.

“—until the end of the day to clear out your office,” Edward was saying when Hunter’s attention snapped back to him. He wanted to ask his now former boss what he had said, but he knew it wouldn’t help his image and he had a pretty good idea of what he’d said. “Dr. Haynes will be taking over your position as of this afternoon. We’ll leave you alone to pack up but he’ll be moving his things in tomorrow.” He turned to go back out the door and Hunter took a step toward them.

“What am I supposed to do about my treatment? I can’t pay for my medication without insurance.” Hunter was aware that he sounded like he was whining but he didn’t care. Even though it didn’t seem to be doing much on its own, he was afraid to discontinue his regular medication. Edward turned to him and smiled kindly.

“As I said, we’ve put together a generous severance packet for you. Two years’ salary and you get to keep your insurance indefinitely. It’s the least we can do after everything you’ve done for us. I’m sorry to do this so suddenly,” Edward said. “We have to do what’s best for the company.”

“I understand,” Hunter said, even though he really didn’t. “I’ll have my things gone by the end of the day and I’ll turn in my keys.”

“Thank you for being so reasonable about this,” Edward said. “I told Dr. Haynes that you would be; you’ve always been one of the most levelheaded men I’ve known, and you deserved every award they gave you.” Hunter noticed that he was already using the past tense and he fought the sick feeling that had become so all-encompassing that his mouth had started watering. “HR will send the paperwork up to you this afternoon, you don’t even have to go down there and see anyone. We want to make this as painless as possible for you.”

“I appreciate that,” Hunter said, and though he knew it was his voice he felt like it was coming from someone else entirely. He was beyond appreciation, or understanding, or anything else that he might have mouthed while his brain was elsewhere.

“We hope to see you again,” Haynes said, sounding more condescending than anyone he had ever known. Hunter wanted to shout at him that he wasn’t incompetent, but he continued to sit in his chair as they walked out of the office that had been his for the last twenty-three years.

His entire body felt numb. It seemed like it had been days since he had gotten the call from Patricia about his package, but it hadn’t even been forty minutes. He looked around his office at his awards, his diplomas, and the trophy he’d gotten for winning the trivia contest at his favorite bar, the one that he didn’t even go to anymore. There was no way he was going to be able to get another job in his field, not if his Alzheimer’s was public knowledge, and thinking about his honors being relegated to a corner of his attic made him want to cry. Before he could, however, he shot out of his chair and went for the door. There was only one place he wanted to be at that moment and he had to get down there before he was barred from it altogether.

Everything that he passed made him more and more aware that he had been fired. The hall that led to the animal research area where Emily refused to go, the 3D printer that had been installed after a handful of senior employees begged for it, and the genetics lab that might have held the secret to helping Emily’s sister. He was no longer authorized to work with any of these things. In fact, he had a feeling they assumed he was cleaning out his office at that moment.

“Good morning, Dr. Chambers,” one of the research assistants in the pharmaceutical development department said as he nearly ran through it to the door that led to Emily’s small corner of the lab, the one he’d given her when he’d only just known her name. Through the door he could hear the loud dubstep music she used to keep the other researchers away from her lab, and he gripped the handle of the door tightly for a few moments, trying to gather his thoughts before he turned it.

He had no idea how he was going to tell her what had happened. Until Haynes and Edward had walked into his office, she was the only person at Apogee that knew what was going on with him. He’d hoped to keep it that way longer but there was no stopping it now, no going back, fixing the damage, keeping his job. Working on computers for so long had made it second nature to undo any mistake, and he found himself impossibly thinking that he could hit a button that would take him back to the moment he was diagnosed and make things different. Hunter exhaled slowly. Almost from the beginning, he’d told Emily the truth, even when it was blunt or hard to get out. She was kind about it, and her strength gave him what he needed to get through the mess his life had become. He needed that strength now, even if it was completely selfish to ask for it. He turned the knob and pushed the door open.

“Emily,” he began as he stepped through the door, only to see that she had her hands over her face and was shaking. All thoughts of his current situation fled from his mind when he saw her crying and he closed the door and knelt beside her chair so that he was in her line of sight. “Emily, what’s wrong?” Emily put her arms around him in response and held him tightly.

“It’s Melissa,” she said between sobs. “She’s dead.”

The Absence of Intellect – Thirteen

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“Wow,” Hunter said from the entryway of Emily’s apartment. “This place looks worse than I imagined.” The insurance agent looked over at him, pausing in his writing on a clipboard. “Sorry, thinking out loud.”

“Your boyfriend is right,” the agent said, shaking his head. “This place is a total loss. It’s a good thing you had your own insurance. Your landlord’s wouldn’t have covered any of your high-end items. You’ll be lucky if you get more than $1500 in compensation from his insurance company.” He looked back down at his clipboard. “You’ll have to speak to him directly about the terms of your lease but unless he has another property he wants to move you into, I’m going to guess your lease is terminated.”

“What about my neighbors’ place?” Emily was standing in the doorway of her kitchen and the agent pointed up at the holes in the shared wall.

“The fire was caused by a pizza box left in the stove while they were at the store, reportedly buying beer. Since it went unreported until it was visible from the neighboring houses, the damage was far more severe. Almost everything has been destroyed, and because the fire was caused by neglect very little of it will be covered.” He tore the top page off the form on his clipboard and handed it to Emily. “I recommend you start going through your things to find out what can be salvaged. Where would you like me to send your check?”

“Can you do direct deposit?” The agent shook his head, and she looked up at Hunter. “Is it okay if I have it sent to your place?”

“Of course,” Hunter said with a smile. “You can forward all your mail if you want.” His words made Emily’s heart swell and she picked her way across the water-damaged carpet to kiss him. “We’ll put your name in the mailbox when we get back.” Emily didn’t get a chance to reply to this before the insurance agent looked at his watch.

“I have to be going. If you have any other questions, feel free to email me.” He started for the door and Emily followed him.

“Thank you,” she said, opening the door for him. “Have a good day.” The agent nodded and went to his car, leaving Emily and Hunter alone in her apartment. “Well, I guess we’d better start figuring out what’s salvageable and what isn’t.”

“You’re going to need some sort of things to put things in. Those plastic things,” Hunter said, then closed his eyes. “You know what I mean, the ones with the lids.”

“Storage tubs,” Emily said, kissing him on the cheek. “You feeling up to running to Target and getting some for me? All you have to do is go straight down Addison. It’s fine if you don’t, I’ll completely understand.” Since she’d driven Hunter back from the airport after he came back to Chicago, Emily had done most of the driving and she had come to enjoy it when there was no traffic. Arriving at work at the same time as Hunter on a daily basis had gotten the attention of some of her coworkers, and for once the gossip she had caught was speculation about her relationship with the director rather than talking about her methods. “I can always go myself once we sort things into piles.”

“That shouldn’t be too difficult,” Hunter said, following her into the half room that she had made into a tiny office. “How many do you want?”

“I don’t know,” Emily said, opening the closet door. It was the smallest closet she’d ever seen but there was enough room for the squat gray safe that was inside. She knelt down, then grimaced as the knee of her jeans was soaked. “Ugh. How is this carpet still wet?”

“It’s probably the carpet pad,” Hunter said. “What’s in there?”

“Important family stuff,” Emily said. “Diplomas, financial information, and a few legal papers that can’t be replaced. I also have copies of Melissa’s and my birth certificates, her husband’s death certificate, and I think I’ve got their marriage license. There are some family pictures in here too.” She smiled and took out a small photo album, then stood up. “Check these out.” She opened the photo album and handed it to Hunter. “This is us as babies.”

“You’re so cute,” Hunter said with a grin. “You’re dressed alike. How did your parents know which of you was which?”

“See those little bracelets? They had our names on them.” She squatted in front of the safe this time to avoid getting her pants wet again and took out a small jewelry box. “I still have them. There’s some of my grandmother’s jewelry in here too.” She handed him a tiny bracelet with ‘Emily’ engraved on it in script.

“That’s a cute idea,” he said, turning the bracelet around. “I assume they stopped having you wear them when you got a little older.”

“Yeah, they started getting non-matching clothes for us when we got a little older and outgrew the family hand-me-downs. Mom gave these to Emily when she got pregnant and I got them after Emily died, along with some of her most precious photos and the jewelry Grandma Ashton gave her.” She took the bracelet back. “I think she intended her to give them to her granddaughter.”

“Did you ever consider having kids?”

“No,” Emily said, taking a second photo album out of the safe. This one was white and she opened it to the first page. “I assumed that since I have all the same genes as my sister, I could be carrying the one that caused her disease and I was worried about passing it to a child. Here, look at this.” She took the first album out of Hunter’s hand and set it on the desk beside the ruined computer and printer. “This is my sister and Brian on their wedding day. And if you flip all the way to the back her maternity photos are in it too.”

“It’s a good thing these were all in the safe,” Hunter said, turning the pages. “You can’t replace memories like these. Wouldn’t your parents want some too?”

“My parents and I don’t speak anymore,” Emily said, looking through the jewelry box so she didn’t have to look at Hunter. She didn’t particularly want to talk to him about her parents. Not because she didn’t think he could handle it, more because she didn’t want to talk about it to anyone at all. It was still too difficult for her to accept their ultimatum about Melissa, and she honestly didn’t know if she would ever speak to them again. “This is the engagement ring Brian gave her.”

“It’s gorgeous,” Hunter said. “I wish I could have kept Ellen’s. There was a mistake with her jewelry and her burial clothes and she ended up being buried with it. I had hoped to give it to Robin when she got old enough.”

“That’s too bad,” Emily said, closing the jewelry box. Hunter had never talked to her about his wife before, and she couldn’t help wondering what Ellen had been like. She knew firsthand about waiting until he wanted to tell her more, so she smiled. “Honestly, I could care less about most of this stuff. The only things that are really important are in this safe.”

“What about your computer?”

“I can probably have the data on the hard drive recovered, but the majority of my work is on my laptop and the computer at the lab. Insurance will cover the other hardware.” She sighed and put her hands on her hips. “I don’t want to do this, Hunter.”

“I know it’s probably hard to see your home ruined like this but you need to get your things. I’ve got plenty of room in my attic, you shouldn’t have to make any tough choices just yet.” He tapped the photo albums. “I’m going to get your storage containers. How many do you want?”

“Get me three to start, I guess. I’m going to see what clothes and books aren’t completely ruined,” Emily said. “I’m sure they all reek of smoke.” She walked to the door with Hunter. “If you have any problems, call me.”

“I will.” He leaned over and kissed her, then opened the door. Emily was just about to turn and go up the stairs to her bedroom when Hunter leaned back in. “That agent called me your boyfriend. Is that what I am now?”

“Maybe,” Emily said with a smile. “If you want to be.”

“It’s been a while since I was anybody’s boyfriend,” he said. “That being said, I can’t think of anything that would make me happier.” He closed the front door again and she put her hand on the back of his head and pulled him into a kiss that was much deeper than he had kissed her a moment earlier. Hunter held her tightly and kissed her back, then surprised her by picking her up and throwing her over his shoulder in something of a fireman’s carry.

“What are you doing?” Emily laughed as she slapped his back and he started up the stairs. “You’re going to hurt your back!”

“My mind may be going, but there’s nothing wrong with the rest of me yet and I intend to take advantage of it as long as I can.” The door to Emily’s bedroom was open and he dropped her onto the bed, then took his shirt off. The bed seemed to have dried out, though it smelled a little musty, and she decided that since it was probably the only time she’d ever get to have sex with someone in the townhouse, she was going to take advantage of it herself.

“All right,” she said with a smile, unbuttoning her jeans. “Don’t throw your clothes on the floor, though, they might get wet.” She tossed her jeans onto the dresser near her bed and took off her shirt as Hunter threw his pants on top of hers, followed by his shirt and finally his boxer briefs. He pulled Emily’s panties, the last piece of clothing she was wearing, off and dove into her. Once he was inside her, he rolled onto his back, pulling her on top of him.

A ridiculous sudden fear that her landlord would choose that moment to come back made her burst out laughing, and she decided she didn’t care. She started to ride him, thinking that if this was what having a boyfriend again was going to be like, she was extremely mad at herself for waiting this long. A moment later, all she could think of was Hunter and nothing else really mattered.

The Absence of Intellect – Twelve

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For some reason, Hunter had the nagging feeling that he was going to come out of the airport and find that Emily was nowhere to be seen. He wasn’t sure why, since he was fairly certain that a woman who was about to disappear on him wouldn’t have given him such an enjoyable and prolonged view of her breasts. When he reached the baggage carousel, though, he was relieved to see Emily sitting in the chairs by the wall. She had one leg thrown over her knee and was reading something on her phone, and she looked just as good in jeans as she did in her pajamas. She glanced up and when she saw him she jumped out of her seat.

“Hunter, hi!” Emily walked toward him, tucking her phone into the bag over her shoulder as she did. As soon as she was in reach, he abandoned his suitcase, took her face in his hands and kissed her more passionately and deeply than he’d ever kissed anyone before. Emily responded by putting her arms around his neck and pressing herself to him. When he released her, she exhaled slowly. “What brought that on? Not that I’m complaining.”

“I’m just happy to see you,” Hunter said. He picked up the handle of his suitcase again and offered her his hand. Emily took it and led him toward the door that led to the parking garage. “Got any plans for the evening?”

“Did you have an idea?” Emily smirked up at him and he raised an eyebrow.

“Not that idea. I thought it would be nice if I took you to dinner.” The automatic door slid open to let them through and Emily tugged him toward the crosswalk.

“That would be nice,” she said. “Where were you thinking?”

“Bernoulli,” he said airily, as if he was suggesting White Castle. Emily stopped in the middle of the parking garage and looked up at him, her mouth hanging open.

“That place is ridiculously expensive,” she said. “The valet alone is fifty dollars!”

“So you’re going to need to stop and get something to wear, is that what I’m hearing?” He looked around. “I’d be concerned that I don’t remember where the car is parked, but I’m not the one who drove here.”

“I have clothes,” Emily said. “I just can’t believe you want to take me to the hottest restaurant in town. I’m not exactly the target demographic.”

“You’re a brilliant neurosurgeon who’s going to figure out a way to reverse the damage caused by Alzheimer’s,” he said as she caught up to him. “You make more than enough to go to Bernoulli any time you want but you use your money in a better way. That’s why I want to treat you whenever I can.” Emily kissed him on the cheek.

“I don’t know about brilliant, but you’re the best,” she said. “If we’re going someplace fancy, I want to take a shower and wash my hair.” She quickened her step and Hunter grinned and followed her to the car. “You want to drive home?”

“You go ahead,” he said, putting his suitcase in the backseat. “You’re probably going to do it better than I would.”

It felt a little strange being in the passenger seat, but as Emily drove them out to Forest Glen he couldn’t help noticing how relaxing it was. For months he’d been tense when he was driving because he had been afraid he would make a wrong turn and get himself lost or worse. Landing himself in the hospital due to dementia was the fastest way to lose his job, short of getting someone killed.

While Emily took her shower, Hunter unpacked his suitcase. Not wanting to bother with sorting the clothes he’d taken, he dumped them all into the hamper for Patricia to take care of the next time she came by. It was far easier for a man to get dressed for a night out, and by the time Emily was finished getting ready, he’d already shaved, put on his nicest suit sans tie, and put in a call to Ellen’s brother to pull the necessary strings to get them a table at Bernoulli on short notice. He was sitting on the couch drinking his last sports drink when Emily came down the stairs and stopped his heart.

She was wearing a button-up silk blouse in a very flattering shade of plum, whose neckline was deep enough to show a hint of cleavage, and a black pencil skirt that just brushed the tops of her knees with a pair of black heels. Her hair lay around her shoulders in thick curls, one side pulled back with a black clip. She’d looked good when he took her to dinner before, but this time she was stunning.

“Sorry to take so long,” she said. “I don’t put on evening makeup nearly often enough to do it quickly. I think it came out nice, though,” she said, opening her purse and looking into it. “I did make sure to put my lipstick in my bag though.” Hunter put a hand on her hip and kissed the side of her neck in reply. “Hunter, we have reservations. Don’t we?”

“I don’t care,” he said into her ear. “I want this more. Do you?”

“Of course I do,” Emily said. “I’ve wanted this since we had breakfast in your kitchen.” She pushed his jacket off his shoulders and he let go of her so he could shrug it off and toss it onto the chair beside the couch. Then he kissed her and leaned her back on the couch. Emily put her arms around him and pulled him closer, kissing him back as she rested her head on the throw pillow. Hunter planted a knee on the couch between her legs so he could lean over her and push up her shirt. Emily laughed and pulled away.

“My shirt has buttons, you know,” she said, and it took Hunter a moment to realize what she was talking about. “Some genius.” He laughed and took off his glasses, setting them on the coffee table, then unbuttoned the first two buttons of her shirt. He lowered himself so he could press his lips to the space between her breasts and she reached back to put her hand on the back of his head. Hunter moved down, kissing her as he unbuttoned another button and pulled her shirt open to reveal a pink and gray lacy bra.

“When did you get this?”

“Does it matter?” Before he could answer, she reached down and unbuttoned his pants. “I bought the set, though.” Hunter kissed her again as she started to unzip his pants, and he put his hand on her thigh to push up her skirt. He had it halfway up her legs, fully intending to take off his pants and make love to her, when the front door opened.

“Dad? Are you home?” Robin’s voice filled the front hall and Hunter froze. The last thing he needed was for his daughter to see him having sex on the couch, and he sat up just as she came into the living room. Thankfully she was on the opposite side of the couch so she couldn’t see Emily pulling down her skirt, her face bright red. Robin beamed at him and he hurriedly buttoned his pants.

“Hi, sweetheart,” he said, reaching for his glasses. “I didn’t know you were coming home.” He smiled at her and Robin frowned.

“What are you doing on the couch?” She was unfortunately as intelligent as her father and Hunter looked down at Emily, who shrugged as she buttoned her shirt. “Is there someone over there with you?” In response, Emily sat up and smiled. Her hair was coming down from its clip and her cheeks bright red, and in spite of the awkward situation he couldn’t help thinking how beautiful she was.

“Sweetheart, this is Dr. Emily Ashton from Apogee Labs. Emily, this is my daughter Robin,” Hunter said, and she waved a little.

“Hi,” Emily said, and Robin put her hands on her hips and looked at her father.

“On the couch, Dad? You’re not sixteen anymore.”

“What exactly were you doing on the couch when you were sixteen?” He stood up, relieved somewhat that his daughter’s sudden presence had made it possible to stand up without embarrassing himself. Emily stood up, taking the clip out of her hair so it would look more presentable. Hunter had a feeling his own hair looked just as bad and he ran a hand through it. “Emily and I were just about to go out to dinner. You can join us if you like.”

“No thanks,” Robin said. “You two look like you need some alone time.”

“It’s fine,” Hunter said. “You came all the way here, I want to spend some time with you.” He looked at Emily, who nodded.

“Go on,” she said. “I’ll go over to Apogee Labs and get some work done. I need to work on a couple of things, and I can check on my samples again.” She gave him a rather disappointingly chaste on the cheek. “I’m going to go up and change clothes.” Emily started toward the stairs and Robin shook her head firmly.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Robin said. “You and Dad go out, I’ll get something out of the refrigerator. I don’t want to ruin your dinner plans.”

“How about we order something? Thai food sounds good, and you always did like that tea.” Hunter looked at his daughter, whose blue eyes were almost exactly like his own, and knew that she was about to dig in. She was as stubborn as her mother and him combined. “I just got back from out of town and I’d like you to get to know Emily.”

“You were out of town? Why?” Robin sighed. “Of course you’re not going to tell me, I’m just your daughter who constantly worries about you.” Hunter took his phone out of his pocket, not bothering to respond to that particular snipe. She turned to Emily. “It’s great to meet you,” she said, offering her hand.

“It’s nice to meet you as well,” Emily said, shaking it. “I’ve seen pictures of you and I was hoping I’d get to see you in person.”

“I swear, Dad never tells me anything. I’m so glad he’s finally dating again, though. It only took him fifteen years.” Hunter ignored this too, dialing the Thai restaurant instead. “Have you worked together long?”

“About three years,” Emily said. “We’ve only started, um, going out recently.” Her eyes flicked to Hunter, who smiled and covered the bottom of his phone.

“Less gossiping, more ordering,” he said. “What do you two want?”

“Green curry,” Robin said. “Go ahead and get me a Thai tea too. I’m going upstairs to change. I hope neither of you mind if I wear my pajamas to dinner.”

“That actually sounds like a great idea,” Emily said. She looked at Hunter. “Pad khing for me, please, and I’ll have a Thai tea too. I love those.”

“You’re going to love this one,” Robin said. “They have my favorite in the city.” She waited for Emily to join her on the stairs, and the two women went up together talking about food. Just before they disappeared she heard Emily mention that she’d worn Robin’s pajamas the first night she stayed at Hunter’s house, and he smiled.

He’d known as soon as he spent time with Emily that she would get along with his daughter if they ever got the chance to meet. They were more alike than her mother had been, even though Emily was close to the age Ellen would have been if she was still alive. He didn’t have a chance to think about it much more before the Thai restaurant picked up the phone and Hunter realized that what his daughter and Emily wanted had completely disappeared from his mind. He just about ran up the stairs to the second floor and covered his phone.

“Emily, Robin? What was it you two wanted again?” They shouted their answer at the same time and he rubbed his forehead as he went toward Robin’s room to get her order again.

If this treatment didn’t work, he was definitely going to have to stock up on notepads.