Tag Archives: Contemporary Romance

The Absence of Intellect – Eleven

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“We’ll leave the IV catheter in,” the nurse said as she unhooked the syringe pump from the line in the back of Hunter’s hand. “There’s one more infusion for the loading dose, then you’ll get an infusion once a month and continue the anti-inflammatories we’ve been giving you in pill form. Do you think you’ll be able to handle that schedule?”

“Yes,” Hunter said, watching her cap the end of the line. “I can set reminders on my phone. Maybe I’ll finally get one of those watches Emily always talks about.”

“Is Emily your caregiver?” The nurse started packing her things up and Hunter’s mind resisted this so strongly it was almost violent.

“No,” he said. “She’s my…” Hunter frowned. He wasn’t sure what she was to him, and it wasn’t because of the Alzheimer’s. They hadn’t talked about it, and Hunter couldn’t help being a little afraid of asking. He didn’t want her to think that the only reason he was with her was because she could help him, or because of the contacts that had brought him to this hotel room in the first place. Calling her his caretaker wasn’t accurate, and he didn’t want it to be. What he wanted was for her to be his girlfriend, or something like it, but if he asked her and she didn’t want to be, he ran the risk of losing her. Emily had only just started making his disease bearable, he didn’t want to drive her away by being presumptuous.

“We all need friends,” the nurse said with a smile. She zipped up her bag and put it over her shoulder. “Take the anti-nausea medication and the steroid, and rest. I hear there’s an NCIS marathon on one of the basic cable channels.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Hunter said. He stood up from the couch in the front half of his suite and walked the nurse to the door. The dizziness hadn’t hit him yet and he wanted to be polite while he still could. “Thank you.”

“I’ll be back in to check on you tomorrow.” She closed the door behind her and Hunter sighed as he went to the kitchenette and opened the refrigerator.

He’d been in Minneapolis for four days and hadn’t seen more than a grocery store, the Perrineau clinic, and a restaurant before he was too nauseous from the first treatment. The rest of the time had been spent in his hotel room watching television and talking with Emily as often as possible. She couldn’t exactly talk to him while she was at work so he’d had to content himself with reruns and trying to concentrate on a book he felt like he’d been reading for five years.

Thanks to the new medications, he didn’t experience the nausea he’d dealt with the first day of treatment but it also made him nod off. He couldn’t wait to get back to Chicago and the noise of the city. Minneapolis was busy, but not like Chicago. Hunter turned on the television and laid back on the bed with the remote, hoping he could find something more interesting than reality television, which was what he had been stuck watching the night before.

His phone rang and he woke with a start, looking around the unfamiliar room. The television was still on, but it was almost completely dark. The call went to voicemail and he picked up the phone to see who had called. It took him a minute to find his glasses, which he seemed to have taken off before he fell asleep, and when he put them on his phone was ringing again. This time it was a video call from Emily and he smiled and tried to rearrange his hair before answering.

“Hi!” She was immediately waving at him from his phone’s screen and he reached over to turn on the lamp by the side of the bed. “Were you asleep?”

“Just dozed off,” he said. “The meds they gave me for nausea keep making me fall asleep.” She looked pretty with her hair in a ponytail and a tank top with thin straps, and his mind wandered to kissing her in the kitchen before he’d left. “What are you up to?”

“Trying to decide what I’m making for dinner. I went ahead and made the stir fry without you the other night, I forgot to tell you. I read an article about onions getting toxic if you leave them out too long and I didn’t feel like getting food poisoning.” The background moved and he realized she was walking and talking. She stopped in the kitchen and opened the refrigerator, pointing her phone at it. “It’s pretty empty but I didn’t want to go shopping without you.”

“There should be some frozen dinners,” Hunter said. “I keep some around for when I’m too foggy to cook.”

“Maybe I’ll get one.” She closed the refrigerator and sat down, presumably at the island. “How are things going other than the nausea?”

“Fine. I’ve been watching a lot of television. Last night I watched five hours of a show about people buying small houses,” he said with a yawn.

“Oh really? And how was it?”

“I don’t know, I’m beginning to think I should downsize. I’m going to have to once I can’t work, maybe I’ll buy a tiny house.” He stood up from the bed and went to the kitchenette to get a drink. They’d told him at the beginning of the treatment to stay hydrated so he’d bought several packs of sports drink and had been steadily making his way through them. “I slept for almost six hours in the middle of the day yesterday so I was up half the night.”

“Are you going to stay nauseous once you come back? I mean, are you going to have to keep taking the medication?” She reached up and scratched the side of her nose, then got up from the island and went to the pantry.

“I don’t think so. They did tell me what I’m going to have to do to maintain this treatment, though. I need to have an infusion once a month for maintenance and take a steroid. They said they could ship the infusion to me rather than having to come to Minnesota every time, if my doctor was comfortable administering it,” he said, sitting back on the bed. “Hang on, I have to put my phone down for a second to open this.” He set the phone on the nightstand and twisted the cap off his drink while Emily went on talking.

“You know, I do still have a medical license. I could give it to you at home, no problem. I’d just need to get some basic supplies, but I’ll bet Karen would ship those along with the medication.” She took something out of the pantry and shook it, then closed the door and started walking again. Hunter couldn’t help smiling. “What?”

“Did you just refer to my house as ‘home?’”

“I guess I did,” Emily said. Her image started bobbing as she went up the stairs. “It was just force of habit, since I’ve been here so long. Hopefully the insurance company will get back to me soon.”

“I meant it when I said you could stay as long as you wanted. I’m happy to have you,” Hunter said. “I’m also fine if you want to call it home. I’m glad you feel that way.” He was more than glad, he was close to being overjoyed. Since Robin had gotten a place of her own, his house had sometimes felt too big for him. Emily and the cat had brought life to it again and he didn’t want her to go.

“I’m glad I didn’t offend you.” She had reached the guest room and leaned under the bed. The mother cat, who looked considerably more well-fed since he’d met her, looked up from where she was curled around her kittens. “Mimi and the babies are happy to hear it too. The last one opened its eyes.”

“The little one you’re calling Pipsqueak?” Emily nodded and he smiled. “I like that one. You should name the others.”

“It’s a work in progress.” She stood up again and turned off the light. “So if your last treatment is tomorrow, are you still coming home Saturday?” She’d said it again and he couldn’t stop smiling.

“Yes. You’ll be able to pick me up, right? Since you’ll be off work?”

“Of course. Even if I wasn’t, I’d come pick you up.” Emily sat on the bed she and Hunter now shared and leaned against the headboard. “I suppose I’ll let you go for now. I’m going to eat this entire box of Wheat Thins and go to bed.”

“Don’t go just yet,” Hunter said, sitting up. Emily raised an eyebrow at him.

“Why? You want me to talk dirty to you?” She pulled one strap of her tank top down so that her shoulder was bare and Hunter laughed. That actually would have been more than fine with him but he didn’t want to admit it.

“I’d rather wait until we can do something about it,” he said. Emily smirked but didn’t pull up her strap, which was also fine with him. “It’s still difficult for me to believe that anyone still wants to sleep with me.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Emily said. “Who wouldn’t want to sleep with you? You’re handsome, you love cats, you’re dedicated, intelligent, and very kind.”

“Intelligent,” he snorted, setting down his drink. “If you’re trying to make me laugh, you’re going to have to try harder.”

“You’re still very intelligent,” Emily said, the smile disappearing from her face. “A few misplaced words and wrong turns in the car aren’t enough to take that from you. And I very much want to sleep with you.”

“This disease,” he began, then lost the words he was thinking. “It steals so much, over and over. I can’t even remember what I was about to say to you. I can’t remember the name of the nurse who came over today, so I’m going to have to wait until she introduces herself again tomorrow. It makes me feel like I’m completely separate from other people and like I should stay away from them. I have this fear that if they get too close I’m going to infect them. I honestly never thought I’d have sex again.”

“You don’t have to punish yourself for being sick,” Emily said with a sigh. “Before you say that’s not what you’re doing, it is. And I plan on having so much sex with you that you’re going to beg me to let you up for air.”

“Maybe a little dirty talk is all right,” Hunter said, and Emily laughed.

“All right,” she said pulling down her other strap. “A little taste of what I have in mind.” She started to pull the neck of her top down to reveal the tops of her breasts and Hunter leaned back against the headboard again. This was exactly what he needed.

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The Absence of Intellect – Ten

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“You know, I’ve never cooked with anyone before,” Emily said, bringing a bowl of freshly peeled mangoes to the kitchen island. “It seems like everyone I’ve ever been with found out I liked cooking and just left me to it.”

“I used to cook with my wife all the time,” Hunter said, taking a mango from the bowl and putting it on the cutting board. “Ellen had this huge collection of old cookbooks that she got from somewhere, a relative or maybe a bookstore.” He frowned at the mango. “I can’t quite remember. But she liked to try new things and it was good for me. Good for Robin too. She was the only eight-year-old in her class that would eat sushi.” He sighed. “Or six. She might have been six.”

“I’m glad you were open to trying this,” said Emily with a smile. “So many people hear fruit and beans in the same sentence and hit the brakes.”

“Well, I can’t remember if I’ve ever eaten black bean mango stir-fry but I like black beans and I like mango, so it was worth trying again if I have.” He cut the mango into cubes so precise that Emily could easily see the scientist in him showing through. She smiled and went to the sink to drain the beans that were ready on the stove.

It had been a week since she’d discovered that the neural bridge was never going to be a reality, and she still couldn’t shake the feeling that she was a failure. She was having a hard time concentrating on the new drug because all she could think about was what to do next with the neural bridge.

Thanks to her sister’s condition, she had collected a number of neurology contacts that she had been reaching out to over the last week, hoping that someone would have something that could help Hunter. She rinsed the beans once more and set them aside in the colander just as Hunter turned around with the bowl of mango.

“Here you go,” he said. “That’s the last of it, right?”

“Yeah. Bell peppers, mangos, onions and beans. Now, let’s see,” Emily said, picking up the magazine she’d set on the counter. “Okay, now we sauté the onions and bell peppers.” Hunter took the olive oil from the cabinet by the stove and turned on the burner.

“I’ll heat the oil, you go ahead and start the rice,” he said. Emily nodded and went to the pantry to find where he kept his rice. There were three glass containers on one of the shelves and she leaned back out and looked at Hunter.

“You have three kinds of rice?”

“I told you, I like cooking. It’s one of the only things I can still do without too many problems. Maybe sometime I’ll show you some of my recipes.” He poured the oil into the pan without bothering to measure it.

“Ones you’ve made yourself?” Emily picked the jasmine rice and took the jar to the island. Hunter nodded at her. “That’s impressive,” she said. Hunter turned to her and put his hands on her waist, pulling her to him. “Shouldn’t you be watching the oil?”

“It’s low heat,” he said with a devious-looking smile. Emily put her arms around his neck and returned the smile.

“What are you doing?”

“This.” He kissed her and pulled her close enough that they were pressed together, and as his tongue brushed against hers Emily wished she could melt into him. Instead she pulled away a little, gently tugging at his lower lip as she did. Hunter met her eyes and she smiled at him. “You’re so beautiful when your cheeks are red like that.”

“I’ve always blushed too easily,” Emily replied. “Everyone always knows what I’m thinking.” Hunter swayed with her.

“What are you thinking right now?”

“I think you can guess.” This time it was her turn to kiss him and Hunter didn’t waste any time. He met her enthusiasm with his own, reaching down to squeeze her bottom and pull her to him. It had been some time since Emily had been kissed quite so forcefully and she suddenly wanted to wrap her legs around him. She could feel his hardness against her and her body ached for him to be inside her. One of his hands moved slowly up her side beneath her shirt and he had barely had a chance to put his hand on her breast when Emily’s phone rang on the kitchen table.

“Leave it,” Hunter said into her ear, and Emily nodded. He slid his hand under her bra and brushed his thumb over her nipple. “Emily. I want to—” He was interrupted by the acrid smell of burning oil and let go of her. “Dammit!” Hunter turned back to the stove, which was now smoking, while Emily tried to catch her breath.

She had a feeling she knew what he had been about to say, and knew that her answer would be yes. She couldn’t remember the last time she had wanted someone as much as she wanted Hunter at that moment, and she took a step toward him to tell him to forget dinner when the smoke detector went off with a deafening shriek.

All thoughts of sex disappeared from her mind as she rushed to the patio door to open it and let the smoke out. Hunter fanned the pan with the magazine as Emily sighed. The alarm was like a knife through her head and she took the magazine from Hunter and continued to fan the smoke toward the open door while he went to disable the smoke alarm. As soon as it was silent again in the kitchen, Hunter shook his head.

“Sorry about that,” he said. He went to the stove and looked at the pan. “The oil is completely burned onto the bottom of the pan. I’m going to have to soak this before we can use it again.” He looked over at Emily. “We could always just forget dinner and pick up where we left off.” Emily was about to tell him that she was thinking the same thing, but she was interrupted by her phone ringing again. They both looked at it and she went to the table.

“Hold that thought.” The number on the screen was from Minnesota and Emily’s heart stopped for a moment. She only knew one person in Minnesota and she was the only person that could take her mind off Hunter. “Hello?”

“Emily, hi,” Dr. Karen Westbrook said. “I’m sorry to call you twice but it’s really important and I didn’t want to leave a message.

“It’s no problem,” Emily said. “I was just making dinner. Please tell me you’re calling to tell me you have something that can help my friend.” She wasn’t sure if Hunter would want her to call him her boyfriend – if that was even what he was – or that the brilliant Hunter Chambers was slowly drifting away so she’d told Karen that he was a friend. It wasn’t a lie, necessarily. He just happened to be the kind of friend that she wanted to throw her on the kitchen table and kiss every inch of her body.

“As a matter of fact, I am. I’ve been working on a new medication that works completely differently than the current generation of Alzheimer’s drugs. I just got the final approval to start clinical trials and I’ll be administering the first treatments tomorrow. One of the participants had to drop out at the last minute and I was wondering if your friend would want to take his place,” Karen said. “It would help me out and hopefully slow down his disease progression.”

“Thank you Karen, this is such good news. I’m certain he will,” Emily said. “Let me hand the phone to him.” Hunter looked at her curiously and Emily pressed mute. “My friend Karen works in research, and she’s got a spot in a clinical trial for a new Alzheimer’s treatment. She wants to know if you’d be willing to take it.”

“Yes,” Hunter said immediately. “Of course I do!”

“Talk to her, then,” Emily said, handing him the phone. “She can give you the details.” He unmuted her phone and put it to his ear.

“This is Hunter Chambers,” he said, then sighed. “Yes, that Hunter Chambers.” He listened to Karen while Emily started putting the cut fruit and vegetables into plastic storage containers. She moved slowly so she could eavesdrop as she did. “I’d love to participate, can you send me the details? I’d write them down but my handwriting is damn near illegible this late in the day. What time do you need me there?” Emily snapped the storage container with the mangoes in it closed. “I’ll be there. Thank you so much, Doctor.” He held the phone out to Emily, and she took it.

“I can’t thank you enough for this,” she said. “Hopefully your treatment works.”

“Me too. Dr. Chambers didn’t give me his information to send the details, can you send it to me?”

“Send it to my email,” Emily said. “You still have it, right?”

“Your personal one? Sure. It’s probably a good idea for me to send it to you anyway, if his memory problems have advanced to the point you described he might accidentally delete it or forget about it. He’s lucky he has you to look out for him.” Emily smiled at her friend’s words, then looked at Hunter. “Could you do me a favor and not use his real name?”

“Of course,” Karen said. “I can arrange for him to be given the treatment privately as well, and list him under a generic name. His identity will be fully protected. Will you be coming with him?”

“No, I’ve got work to do here. Take care of him for me, Karen.”

“Absolutely. Talk to you soon.” She hung up and Emily turned her attention to Hunter, who was looking down at the counter and gripping it with both hands.

“Are you all right?” She went over to him and put a hand on his shoulder. Hunter looked over at her and nodded, just as her phone vibrated to let her know she’d received an email. She opened her email app and saw a message from Karen with an attachment. “Here’s the information,” Emily said, opening the document. “They’re going to need you at the Perrineau Clinic tomorrow morning at 8:30. Karen said they could do the treatment privately, but you should still be there for the orientation. No one has to know that you’re there for the trial.”

“If I have to be there first thing in the morning, I’m going to have to leave right now,” Hunter said. He had a sort of dazed look on his face and Emily smiled at him. “I can’t believe it. This is all happening so quickly.”

“That’s a good thing,” Emily said. “Why don’t we forget dinner and go upstairs. I’ll find you some plane tickets and a hotel reservation while you pack. The first part of the trial is going to take five to seven days, so you’ll need a suitcase. I’ll help you stay on task.”

“Thanks,” Hunter said. He offered her a hand and Emily took it, then walked with him to the stairs. “I’m going to need a plane ticket, a hotel reservation, and uh, something else. Right?”

“Probably a rental car,” Emily said. “Which might be a bad idea, honestly. You shouldn’t be trying to navigate around an unfamiliar city. Public transportation might be just as bad, so the best thing might be to just use something like Uber.” They went up the stairs hand in hand, and Hunter nodded.

“You’re right. Would you mind driving me to the airport? It’ll probably be a lot faster than taking the train.”

“Of course,” Emily said. “Whatever I can do to help you, I will.”

“I know,” Hunter said, stopping in the middle of the stairs. Emily looked at him curiously and he took two steps down so they were face to face. “Thank you, Emily. You’ve given me hope.” She hugged him, then leaned forward and rested her forehead against his.

“No matter what happens, I’ll be here when you come back,” she said. Hunter took her hands in his and kissed them. “Let’s get you packed.” Hunter nodded and Emily pulled him up the stairs, hoping that it would work. They wouldn’t know right away but what he needed was time. The treatment could give him that. “Any preference on hotels and airlines?”

“I think I have a frequent flyer number for one of them,” Hunter said, frowning. “Not sure which one, though.”

“We’ll figure it out,” Emily said, hoping he understood that she meant more than just the numbers. “We’ll figure it all out.”

 

The Absence of Intellect – Nine

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He’d been tired when he came home from work so Hunter had laid down on the couch and dozed off while he waited for Emily to get back. She’d been staying there for almost two weeks and he worried every day that she would tell him it was time for her to go.

After she’d kissed him in the elevator at St. Cecilia’s, dinner had been something of a blur. He couldn’t say he remembered what they talked about or what he’d eaten, but the image of Emily in a vibrant dress that brought out the green in her hazel eyes was one he was grateful he couldn’t get rid of. Her hair, her clothes, even her shoes were firmly ingrained in his memory and he smiled.

At the end of the date he had walked her to the guest room door because it had seemed somehow appropriate, and she had thanked him and kissed him on the cheek before disappearing into the room he was coming to think of as hers. He wasn’t sure what he had been expecting but it had been a little disappointing.

Lightning cracked outside the window and woke him with a start, and Hunter was surprised to find that he was in total darkness. He was disoriented for a moment, and the sound of rain pouring outside didn’t help. He looked at his smart watch and saw that it was 10:00, then grabbed his phone and called Emily.

“Hunter?” She picked up immediately and her voice relieved some of the tension he felt. “Is everything all right?”

“It’s fine,” he said. “I’m fine, I mean. I just woke up and it was dark, and you weren’t home yet.” The word had escaped his lips before he could stop it, and he cursed himself for the further erosion of his filter. “Where are you?”

“I’m at Apogee,” she said, her voice somehow expressionless. “In my lab, I mean. I’ll be heading over soon, don’t worry.”

“It’s raining really hard,” Hunter said. “Let me come pick you up.”

“Should you be driving at night?” Emily sounded concerned, and while he was glad she’d gotten over her fear of talking to him about his disease, he couldn’t help wishing she wouldn’t worry so much. “I’ll be fine. I’ve got an umbrella, and it’s not a long walk to the bus stop.”

“Emily,” he said. “I’ll be fine. I got a new GPS so all I have to do is follow the directions. I’m not going to argue with you about this.” He got up from the couch and went to the door, scooping his keys out of the bowl on the table. “Just wait for me in the lab.”

“All right,” Emily said, the resignation in her voice more worrisome than the thought of her trying to make her way home in the rain, but he still didn’t want her to do it. “I’ll be here.”

“Good.” Hunter took his umbrella from the stand by the door and popped it open as he stepped out into the rain. It wasn’t raining as hard as he’d expected, which was good news because this would be the first time he’d driven after dark since his symptoms had started worsening.

Over the years, he’d made the drive to work hundreds of times but this time he did it clutching the steering wheel so tightly that it made his hands hurt. He missed more than one turn with the water distracting him and had to double back, but when he pulled safely into his parking spot he was able to relax. He’d never hoped he would forget something as much as he did that moment, but he had a feeling the drive was going to stay in his head forever.

He found Emily in her lab, sitting at her desk with her face in her hands. She didn’t look like she was crying but he knew that didn’t mean she wasn’t. Not wanting to startle her, he cleared his throat and she spoke without moving her hands.

“I heard you come in this time,” she said, as if she was reading his mind. Hunter came over and put a hand on her shoulder.

“What’s wrong?” Emily looked up at him and he could see that she had definitely been crying. He was about to kneel beside her when she stood up and took his hands in hers. “You’re about to give me some bad news, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” she said. “I was doing some research into the proteins that I’d thought would be a good framework for the neural bridge, but every time I tried to simulate its use the protein disintegrated. It was my best idea, and the theory I hinged all my work on. If the protein can’t be used, I’m back to square one. I said it would be months before it’s ready for clinical trials but now I’m afraid it’s going to be years. Best case scenario it’ll be five years, but that’s being very optimistic.”

“What?” Hunter’s body went cold. “I don’t have years.” He realized how selfish that sounded and looked away. “Your sister doesn’t have years.”

“I know,” Emily said. “I can’t do anything for her. I’m going to stop working on the neural bridge for now and concentrate on getting the new cholinesterase inhibitor ready for clinical trials. I know it’s not the breakthrough you were hoping for, but it was never meant to be curative. I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right,” Hunter said, trying to force a smile. “You did your best, right? It’s all any of us can do.” Emily looked up at him, her eyes slightly red from crying, and it occurred to him that even if they started an actual relationship, he didn’t know how long it would be before he would forget her face at that moment, or even who she was at all. Tears welled up in his eyes and spilled onto his cheeks before he could even try to blink them away, and the futility of the whole situation came at him from all sides. There was no cure coming. He was going to keep losing parts of himself until all Emily was left with – if she even wanted to stay with him – was another empty body. This thought broke him and he put his arms around her and held her as tightly as possible as he cried.

I’m going to forget her, he thought. I’m going to forget her, and I’m going to forget Robin, and Ellen too. I won’t remember my wedding day, or Robin’s birth, or my mother and father’s faces. How can I go on living knowing this? What do I even have left to live for?

Then, arms encircled his neck gently. They were surprisingly strong.

“I know,” Emily said, her lips somehow close to his ear. She didn’t tell him things were going to be all right, or that she knew how to fix things, she just stroked the back of his neck and let him cry. “I’m so sorry, Hunter.”

When he finally loosened his grip on her, Emily guided him into her chair and put her hands on his shoulders. Unable to look at her, he studied his hands instead. She put her arms around him again, and he leaned his head against her chest.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his eyes closed. Emily was stroking the back of his neck. “It seems like I’ve gotten more emotional lately.”

“I know,” Emily said, a smile in her voice. “You’ve told me. But there’s no reason for you to apologize. Not to me, not ever.” This made Hunter look up at her at last. He was surprised to see that her eyes were filled with tears as well. “Come on, let’s go back to your place. We can have a glass of wine and get you in bed.”

“I’d rather have whiskey,” Hunter said. He took her hands and wasn’t surprised to see that his were shaking.

“Maybe I should drive,” Emily said. She let go of him and took off her lab coat, then hung it on the peg by the door. Hunter took his keys out of his pocket and handed them to her. Emily twirled them on her finger. “That was easy.”

“I’m hoping that you actually know how to drive,” Hunter said, getting to his feet. His legs felt as shaky as his hands but they held him so he followed her out of the lab. Emily laughed.

“Of course I do,” she said. “Just because I make use of our city’s superior public transportation doesn’t mean I don’t renew my license every five years like everyone else. I sometimes rent a ZipCar when I need to get a case of water or huge order of groceries. Or cat litter, though that’s been more of a recent development.” She looked up at Hunter. “Speaking of, how do you feel about cats? The vet’s been boarding Mimi all this time and I have no idea what it’s costing me.”

“It just so happens I love cats,” he said. “I was just thinking that what my place needed was a large cat and four smaller cats.”

“Mimi’s hardly large,” Emily said with a smile. “Thank you, though. I’ll keep them in my room.”

“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that,” Hunter said, pressing the down button on the elevator. Emily looked at him curiously and he tried to find the words to express what he wanted to say. It felt like they were trapped, and he knew what he wanted to tell her but it was too late in the day for nuance or teasing. Before he could get himself upset about it, though, he decided just to say it. “I want you to sleep with me.”

“You what?” Her eyes widened and he felt himself getting red.

“In my bed. Not in the other room,” he said, his frustration growing with every word. He sounded like a five year old, which made the subject matter feel incredibly sleazy. Emily smiled at him, and he felt a surge of affection as he saw understanding in her face.

“I was hoping you’d ask,” she said, reaching a hand out to him. Hunter took it, feeling lightheaded with relief, and they stepped into the elevator together. “It’s so nice seeing you first thing in the morning, it’ll be even better waking up beside you.” She squeezed his hand and he smiled. For a moment he couldn’t remember what he’d asked her but he knew it had made her happy, and that was what was important.

Robin, he thought, hoping that saying the names of the two most important people in the world to him would keep him grounded. Robin Sophia Chambers. Emily. Emily Ashton. He turned to look at her.

“What’s your middle name?” The question was blunt and abrupt, but Emily didn’t seem fazed in the least.

“Melissa,” she said. “My parents thought they were being clever by naming me Emily Melissa and my sister Melissa Emily. I used to hate it, but now I don’t mind so much. We’ve been a part of each other since we were in the womb, after all. It’s only right that—” Hunter didn’t let her finish. He leaned in and kissed her, grateful for once at his inability to be patient.

“Emily Melissa Ashton,” he said, trying to wedge it into his brain. “Dr. Emily Melissa Ashton.”

“M.D.,” she added, lacing her fingers through his. Hunter laughed.

“That’s right. You could stitch me up if I needed it.” He kissed her again, more quickly this time, as the elevator doors opened on the ground floor. “Come on, let’s go home.” Out of the corner of his eye he could see a strange look on Emily’s face but he couldn’t quite understand why. Rather than ask her, he concentrated on remembering where he’d parked his car. He knew it was in his parking space but he couldn’t quite figure out where it was. The fog was setting in and he clenched his jaw.

Emily Melissa Ashton, he thought determinedly, using her name as if it was a charm. I’m not going to forget. I can’t. I won’t.

The Absence of Intellect – Eight

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With her wallet safely in her computer bag, Emily stepped off the train and looked around to orient herself. St. Cecilia’s was a few streets away and her mind worked tirelessly as she made her way to the hospital.

The fire department had given her clearance to go into her house and get her wallet, along with anything else she needed, but she’d hardly opened the door when she knew it was going to be a while before she could even begin to sort through her things. Smoke damage covered the walls, mainly concentrated around several large holes in the wall that separated the two sides of the townhouse where it had poured through. The smell of burnt plaster hung in every room, and what wasn’t completely ruined was soaking wet. It was too much for her to deal with at one time, so she decided to go to the hospital and try to calm herself down.

The automatic doors slid open as she approached and the temperature dropped to a carefully controlled coolness as soon as they closed behind her. She walked through the lobby toward the elevators and hit the button for the fifth floor, leaning against the back of the elevator while she tried to think about Hunter instead of her ruined house.

She welcomed the distraction. The townhouse was what she was able to afford at the moment, and if she had to find somewhere else to live it was probably going to be several steps down. Getting the money together for another deposit was going to be difficult so soon after the last move, and she sighed. At least she’d had the foresight to get renter’s insurance. That would help with some of it. Emily forced herself to turn her mind to her date.

If his housekeeper hadn’t walked in, he almost certainly would have kissed her and she almost certainly would have let him. The attraction she’d felt for him since they’d met had only intensified being so close to him, and she hoped she wasn’t mistaken that he felt the same way. She wondered if he would be offended if she kissed him first after their date, even if it was just on the cheek.

The elevator doors opened and Emily stepped into the hall of the long-term care unit. She raised a hand in greeting to the duty nurse at the desk, and the woman nodded at her as she passed. Emily was a regular visitor, and the nurses knew her on sight. Most of them even knew her coffee preference. Each of the rooms had a window set in the door, and a small placard that gave the name of its occupant. Emily stopped beside the one that read Melissa Amell and took a deep breath as she put her hand on the door. It always took a moment for her to prepare herself, even though it had been nearly four years. She pushed open the door and stepped inside.

Unlike the other rooms on the ward, the person who occupied the bed was unconscious. The rhythmic motion of the ventilator that forced air into her lungs was the background to the beeping of the machines that monitored her vitals. The numbers displayed on the screen told Emily that the woman was stable, her vitals as even and calm as a person who was asleep. If it weren’t for the machines and IV lines that were attached to her, she could have been asleep. Beneath her closed lids, her eyes were the same hazel as Emily’s, and her close-cropped hair was the same golden brown. Emily went to the side of the bed and took the woman’s cool, still hand.

“Hey there,” she said softly, as if speaking in a normal tone would disturb Melissa. “Just came up to check on you and tell you that I’m still working on something that will help you. It’s going well. I even got my own lab to work on the neural bridge. Let me tell you about what’s going on at BioGen, though, it’s really, really promising.”

A noise from behind Emily made her turn, expecting a nurse to come through the door with a cup of coffee or a more comfortable chair. What she found instead was Hunter standing behind her with a white paper sack in his hand. This time, however, he didn’t startle her.

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” he said in a voice that was similarly quiet. “I was here picking up some medication from my friend and saw you get in the elevator. I thought I would catch up with you and maybe give you a ride to wherever you’re headed next.”

“Thank you,” Emily said with a smile. She patted Melissa’s hand. “As long as you’re here, I may as well introduce you. This is Melissa. She’s my older sister.” She wasn’t surprised to see the confusion on Hunter’s face as he looked from Emily to her sister and back.

“She looks just like you.”

“We’re twins,” Emily said. “She’s older than me by twenty minutes and she never let me forget it when we were kids.” She chuckled. “She always took care of me. Now I’m the one taking care of her.” There were two chairs by the wall and Emily motioned to them. “Feel free to have a seat if you want. I don’t spend too much time here. I’m not sure if she even hears me and it makes me sad to think she might not.”

“What happened to her?” Hunter rolled the top of the bag closed and set it on the chair, then met her at the side of the bed. Emily looked back at her sister.

“Her lungs are paralyzed,” Emily said. “The doctors don’t even have a name for what’s wrong with her. It happened a little at a time and they were still trying to run tests when it wasn’t so severe, but she was on oxygen at home all the time. She was stable for a while and she even managed to get pregnant, against medical advice of course. Then some drunk driver ran a stop sign and hit her and my brother-in-law while they were in the crosswalk.”

“What happened to him?”

“He was killed instantly. They made it to the hospital with Melissa, but had to do an emergency c-section to deliver the baby. As soon as she was off the ventilator, she flatlined. The doctors were able to bring her back, but once her lungs had stopped, they never started working again.” She reached up and brushed her sister’s hair off her forehead. “My nephew didn’t make it either.”

“I’m so sorry, Emily.” Hunter put a hand on her shoulder and its warmth was comforting. It wasn’t a feeling she was accustomed to when she was in this room. “Is this why you were living in the townhouse?”

“Yeah,” Emily said. “Almost all my money goes to Melissa’s care. The doctors keep telling me that there’s no hope for her. If her lungs won’t work, she can’t live off a ventilator, and there’s no way of knowing just how much damage there is to her brain after the accident and the resuscitation. Not to mention the time she’s been in the coma.”

“But you don’t accept that,” Hunter said. Emily shook her head and he looked at Melissa. “What did you mean, you’re working on something that might help?”

“Hunter,” Emily said, taking a deep breath. “If I tell you this, you have to keep it between you and me. It’s not only a conflict of interested with Apogee Labs, it’s also probably illegal. I know that you’re my boss and you have an obligation to take action on something like this, but I can’t let Melissa just die without a fight.”

“Even if we weren’t—” In spite of the situation Emily held her breath to hear what he was going to say next. Hunter didn’t seem to be able to find the words, though, and she didn’t know how to help him. “I wouldn’t fire you for trying to save your sister,” he said. “I’m not a monster.”

“All right,” Emily said. “I’m sure you can guess that the reason the neural bridge is important to me is because it might be able to help restore some of her brain function if she wakes up.” She closed her eyes. “My friend works at BioGen. She’s letting me use the lab after hours to do some testing. I’m trying to culture lung tissue and use a biological matrix as a scaffold to basically grow her new lungs.”

“How are you going to do that? Setting aside the fact that I have no idea what a biological matrix is anymore, if you use her cells for the culture, won’t those lungs be diseased too?”

“Possibly,” Emily said. “There’s really so much we don’t know about transplant medicine. We also don’t know much about the genetic component of this sort of disease, so I’m trying to create the new lungs from healthy tissue.” She looked up at Hunter. “We’re identical twins. She’d still have to take immunosuppressants but the risk of rejection would be lower.” He looked somewhat confused and she smiled. “I’m using my own cells.”

“How?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Emily said, not wanting to make him feel bad. “It’s a slow process. That’s what I’ve been doing at night, though. It’s been my top priority for more than a year.” She looked back at Melissa. “Everything I’ve done has been to take care of her. I don’t regret it, though. When she’s able to open her eyes and take a breath on her own, it will all be worth it.”

“Maybe it’s time for you to think about yourself,” Hunter said, squeezing her shoulder. “Even if it’s just long enough to go to dinner.” Emily put her hand over his.

“You won’t tell anyone, will you?” She already knew the answer, but she wanted to hear him say it out loud.

“Of course I won’t,” Hunter said. “You’re keeping my secret, after all. Even if you weren’t, I’d still keep this quiet. Whatever anyone else might think about it, I think it’s wonderful of you to do this for your sister.” Emily put her arms around him without thinking, and hugged him tightly. Hunter responded by putting his arms around her and laughing softly. “If I’d known this was going to be my reward, I would have said it sooner.”

“Thank you,” Emily said. “You don’t know how much it means to me to hear someone say that.” She could hear Hunter’s heart beating and closed her eyes. Even though she knew that this was a completely inappropriate thing to do by her sister’s bed, she let herself relax in his arms. If anyone would understand why she was doing this, it was Hunter.

“We should get going,” he said after a few minutes. “Don’t want to miss our dinner reservation.” Emily nodded and let go of him. “I’ll drive us back to Forest Glen. There’s no reason for you to drag a suitcase on the train.”

“There’s no suitcase,” she sighed. “Not even a duffel bag. Everything’s wet so all my clothes either smell like smoke or mildew. I may just have to throw all of it out. Which means that I’m going to need to buy a couple of things if I don’t want to wear the same two outfits until I get things figured out.” Hunter nodded and picked up the paper sack from the chair by the door.

“I guess this means we’re going on a shopping spree,” he said with a smile. Emily picked up her backpack and slung it over her shoulder.

“Not quite. I was thinking more like a quick Target run.” It was the first time she’d been able to joke as she walked out of her sister’s room, and she was more grateful to Hunter than she could express. As she passed, Hunter put a hand on the small of her back for just a moment and she felt a rush of warmth as she remembered how close they’d come to kissing that morning.

They got on the elevator together and Emily pushed the button for the ground floor. Then as the doors slid closed, she turned and kissed him very lightly on the lips. She wasn’t sure what to expect, but when Hunter pulled her into his arms and kissed her back, she was more than relieved. She felt like she was right where she was supposed to be for the first time since her sister’s accident. Emily wanted to thank him but she knew it would sound strange if she did. When they parted, Emily searched for the right words but was interrupted by the elevator doors opening.

“You really want to go to Target?”

“That’s where I get most of my clothes,” Emily said. “Have you even been in one before?”

“Are you sure you don’t want to go someplace nicer?” She started to speak and he held up a hand. “I’ll pay for it.”

“You absolutely will not.” She shook her head and he led her to the parking garage with a smirk.

“We’ll see.”

The Absence of Intellect – Seven

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It wasn’t his alarm that woke Hunter in the morning, it was the smell of bacon frying. It took him a moment to remember that he wasn’t alone in the house, and he sat up in bed and rubbed his eyes, then felt for his glasses on the nightstand and put them on. With a yawn, he slid out of bed and grabbed a t-shirt from the side of the hamper where he’d hung it before bed. He followed the aromas and sounds of breakfast to the kitchen, where he was stopped in his tracks when he saw Emily.

She had her back to him, and he was surprised by the colorful tattoo that covered the entirety of her shoulders that was visible. It looked like it was a riot of flowers and it made him wonder what the rest of it was. Her hair was in a ponytail that bounced on the back of her neck as she moved to the music only she could hear from her headphones, and even though she was wearing a pair of Robin’s flannel pajama pants she looked nice.

Emily turned to the island to tip the bacon onto two plates and jumped when she saw Hunter standing in the doorway staring at her. She put the pan back on the stove, pulled the earphones out of her ears and set them on the counter. Hunter held his hands up.

“Sorry, sorry,” he said. “I just can’t seem to stop startling you.”

“It’s your house,” she said. “Besides, I should have expected it. I just woke up with a song stuck in my head. Thank you for the phone charger, by the way.”

“You can keep it if you want. I just got a new phone, so I’ve got one for almost every outlet at this point.” He nodded at the two plates. In addition to the bacon, there were scrambled eggs and what looked like homemade hash browns. “This looks amazing. Did you make the potatoes?”

“Yeah,” Emily said. “They were going to be home fries but I changed my mind at the last minute. Your cheese grater is soaking in the sink, by the way.”

“I have a cheese grater?” This was news to Hunter, and he wasn’t sure if he hadn’t known about it or just didn’t remember. Emily nodded and picked up the plates, then took them to the kitchen table and set them across from each other. She took a bowl of fruit out of the refrigerator and set it in the middle of the table. “I can’t remember the last time someone made me breakfast,” Hunter said. “I don’t really know what to say.”

“You don’t have to say anything,” Emily said. “I like cooking.” She poured two cups of coffee and brought them to the table. “Have a seat. I don’t know about you, but I’m starving.” Hunter sat down and smiled as she sat across from him and picked up her fork. “Did you sleep all right?”

“Much better than I expected,” Emily replied. “I thought I was going to be up all night, but I guess I was worn out from everything that happened.” She watched Hunter take a bite of his hash browns anxiously.

“They’re great,” he said with a smile. Emily seemed to relax and took a bite of her own food. “I’m glad you cut up the fruit, too. I keep buying it and then forgetting about it until it basically turns to mush in my crisper. My housekeeper probably hates me.”

“I love fruit,” Emily said. “It’s so expensive, though.” She reached for the bowl just as Hunter did, and their fingers touched as they both went for the same piece of cantaloupe. A shiver went down his back, though not an unpleasant one, and their eyes met. He didn’t think he’d ever noticed that her eyes were hazel, either that or he hadn’t really been looking. Emily turned bright red and pulled her hand back, much to Hunter’s dismay. He would have liked to take her hand, even if it was just for a few seconds. “Sorry,” she said. They fell into a clumsy silence as they ate their breakfast and Hunter tried to think of something to say.

“So,” he said, taking the cantaloupe, “what’s the plan for today?”

“I’ve got to go see if my place has been cleared for me to go inside and assess the damage. If it’s still off-limits I need to go get some clothes, which means I at least have to figure out a way to get my wallet.” She sighed heavily. “I also have to make a trip to St. Cecilia’s,” she said, then smiled at him in what he hoped he wasn’t misinterpreting as a mischievous way. “Then tonight I have a date with a very handsome scientist.”

“A date, you say? I’ll try not to get in the way,” Hunter said with a half-smile. Emily smirked and took a sip of her coffee. “By the way, I’ve been wondering. Why do you live in a townhouse with college students on the other side of you?”

“I live by myself,” Emily said, looking down at her plate. “There’s no reason for me to spend money on a big place.” Hunter got the feeling that she wasn’t being completely honest but even though he was sitting in his kitchen in his pajamas with Emily, he didn’t feel like he had the right to push. “I may be in the market for a new place, though.”

“You can stay here as long as you like,” he said, picking up a forkful of eggs. “Especially if I’m going to get meals like this once in a while.”

“I’m glad you like it,” she said, smiling up at him. “I looked up the restaurant yesterday and it’s really nice. Even if my house wasn’t currently smoldering, I was going to have to buy a dress. I thought you had to have reservations for Cerise.”

“You do if your former wife’s brother isn’t the owner.” This made Emily almost choke on the mouthful of eggs she was eating. She swallowed hard and laughed out loud. “I didn’t get this far in life without using connections every now and then. Plus, I wanted to impress you.”

“You did?” Emily looked surprised, but she was smiling. “Now I feel even sillier sitting here in your daughter’s pajamas.” Hunter was about to tell her that she looked beautiful but she went on before he could. “How old is she?”

“She just turned 25, about a month or so ago,” Hunter said. “It was a new memory loss milestone for me, I forgot my own daughter’s birthday.”

“That’s not so bad,” Emily said encouragingly. “Normal people forget birthdays all the time. I still can’t remember if my father’s birthday is June 8th or 18th.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“No, it’s true! I have to put an alert in my phone to remind me to text him.” She finished her breakfast and wiped her mouth. “I’m going to go up and get dressed,” Emily said. “When you get finished, leave your plate in the sink and I’ll wash them.”

“I’m done,” Hunter said, finishing the last of his hash browns. “You don’t have to wash my dishes, the housekeeper will be coming later and she actually gets offended when there’s nothing for her to do.”

“Don’t be silly,” Emily said, leaning down to pick up his plate. He realized that she was closer to him than she’d ever been before, and he put a hand on hers. She looked up at him, surprised, and her lips parted slightly, making him want more than anything to kiss her. Hunter was relieved when she didn’t back away, and he was reaching up to pull her closer when his front door opened.

“Dr. Chambers?” A woman’s voice called out in the living room and Hunter dropped his hand. Emily straightened and looked back to see who was there. An older woman with a long braid of white hair came through the kitchen door. “I’m sorry to show up unannounced, but I had a cancellation and thought I’d get an early start.”

“Not a problem,” Hunter said, thinking to himself that it was a huge problem. “Patricia, I’d like you to meet Dr. Ashton. She’s going to be staying in the guest room here for a little while, so if you wouldn’t mind going through there when you come that would be great.”

“Of course not,” Patricia said with a smile, taking an apron from the peg on the back of the pantry door. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Doctor. Please feel free to leave any clothes you want me to wash in the hamper.”

“Sure,” Emily said as Patricia took the plates out of her hands. “Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome. I come three times a week. If there’s anything you need in particular, anything you need from the store, just leave me a note.” She went to the sink and Emily looked at Hunter, then pointed at the stairs.

“I’m just going to go get dressed. I’ve got to get home and try to get my wallet.”

“Wait,” Hunter said, getting up from the table so quickly that his coffee nearly tipped over. He followed Emily to the stairs. “Where do you live? Do you want a ride?”

“Roscoe Village,” she said. “It’s no big deal, though, I live right off the Brown Line.”

“I’d really like to take you home,” Hunter said. “Please? I’d consider it a personal favor.” Emily paused at the top of the stairs and raised an eyebrow at him.

“You really want to drive me across town so I won’t ride the trains?”

“I want to drive you across town to save you the forty minutes it’ll take for you to get to the fire station and get your wallet.” Hunter looked at her, hoping that what was left of his charm would convince her. “You know, I need to go up to Apogee and pick up some files. It would be on my way.” Emily started walking again and shook her head.

“Fine,” she said. “You just don’t give up, do you?”

“It’s one of my remaining talents,” Hunter said. “You said your day was packed, I’m just trying to save you some time. Wouldn’t want you to be late for dinner.” She smirked at him, then reached up and tapped his nose.

“Go put on pants,” she said, opening the door to the guest room. “I’m going to make a fashion statement by wearing last night’s clothes. The kind I usually make the night after I leave someone’s house in the morning.”

“You technically are leaving a guy’s house in the morning,” Hunter said as she closed the door. He smiled and went down to his room, feeling like he’d won something.

Even though he was just taking her across town he wanted to look nice, so he picked out a pair of dark jeans and a thin sweater. He really didn’t need to go to the lab but spending a little extra time with Emily was worth the lie. Now that he knew what it was like to be around her outside work, he wanted to be with her as much as possible.

He waited for her by the door with his keys in hand, and when she came down the stairs his heart sped up. She looked lighter than the night before and he tried to figure out why that was. Emily smiled up at him, and he realized that without the heels she usually wore to work she was several inches shorter than he was used to seeing her.

“I hope you don’t mind that I’m leaving my backpack here,” she said. “I don’t need any of the stuff in it and it’s heavy.”

“Of course not,” Hunter said, leading her out to his car. “It’ll be safe here. What about your computer?” Emily patted the slim case that was on her hip.

“I do need this. It’s got a full inventory of my house for insurance purposes, and some of my research. I bring it anytime I might have to sit in a waiting room.” She got into the passenger seat and buckled her seatbelt. “I know I was being a pain in the ass about you giving me a ride, but thanks. I’m not used to accepting help from anyone.”

“Don’t consider it help, then,” Hunter said, starting the car. “Consider it a personal favor for an old scientist who’s falling apart at the seams.”

“You said the favor part already. And you’re not old,” Emily said with a smile. “You can’t possibly be more than forty-five.”

“First of all, I’m flattered,” Hunter said as he backed out of the driveway. “Second, how old exactly do you think I was when Robin was born?”

“Twenty? People have kids when they’re still in college,” Emily said, taking out her phone. Hunter couldn’t help laughing.

“Next month I’m going to be fifty-four.” He shook his head. “Twenty. You’re going to have to give me directions to where I’m going. My GPS finally died for good last week and I haven’t had a chance to get another.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Emily said. “Let me put it in my phone. I don’t know the streets out here as well as I do the ones around Addison.” She pulled up her mapping app and went about finding directions while Hunter drove, grateful for the fact that he was still sharpest in the morning.

Once he’d dropped Emily off with the promise of seeing her back at his house before their date, he decided he might as well go to Apogee and check his messages. They always managed to get away from him over the weekend. On the way, his phone rang and he answered it on the Bluetooth.

“Hello?”

“Dr. Chambers,” a familiar voice said. “I’m sorry to call you on the weekend but you wanted me to call you as soon as we knew anything about the combination medication.”

“Yes, of course,” he said, sitting forward. “When can I pick it up?”

“I’m going to be flying out this evening, but I’ll be up at the hospital for another couple of hours. If you can make it over here, I’ll be happy to give you some of the samples we use for the clinical trials. Off the books, of course.” The man on the other end sounded distracted and Hunter gripped the steering wheel tighter.

“I’ll be there.” He hung up the phone by pressing the button on his steering wheel, then headed for the nearest electronics store. Someone with his memory problems was only going to get in trouble driving around Chicago without a GPS, and he wasn’t going to risk missing his date with Emily. He just hoped he’d have good news to give her when he saw her again.

The Absence of Intellect – Six

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It was about a four block walk from the Blue Line station to Emily’s house and the night was nice, so she didn’t mind. She’d walked in terrible weather plenty of times, but there was a slight breeze and it was still a little cool so she took her time. There was a sandwich shop on Roscoe that within walking distance of her place, and she decided to take a detour.

“Hey, Emily,” the girl behind the counter said. “You made it just in time, I was about to turn the sign over. We still have some of our famous chicken salad left if you’re interested.”

“That sounds fantastic, Jenny,” Emily said. “Can I just get whatever you have left? I’ve got some ridiculously good bread at home and I can have the rest of it for lunch tomorrow.” Jenny nodded and produced a plastic container and what looked like an ice cream scoop.

“There’s not quite a pint here,” she said as Emily swung her backpack around to the front and unzipped it to get out her wallet. “Is that okay? I won’t charge you for the whole pint.”

“Sure,” Emily said, digging in the front pocket. She frowned as her fingers found pens, a flashlight, a paper-wrapped straw, but not her wallet. “Jenny, I think I left my wallet at home,” she sighed. “Of all the stupid things to do. How did I manage to have my transit pass and not my wallet?”

“You’re the doctor, you tell me.” Jenny scooped the chicken salad out of the dish anyway and packed it up. “Here, just take it. Otherwise it’s going to go to waste.” She handed the container across the counter and Emily took it from her.

“You’re a lifesaver,” Emily said. “If it’s not home, I might have dropped it at the university and I do not want to go back out there tonight. I promise I’ll come back and pay for it.”

“Don’t worry about it. You come in here enough, you deserve a little treat. Now scram. I want to close up and go home.” She came around the counter and walked with Emily to the door. “Be careful out there, there are a lot of weirdos.”

“That’s the pot calling the kettle black,” Emily said as she left, turning so she was backing out. “Who even says ‘scram’ anymore?” In response, Jenny stuck out her tongue and closed the door, then flipped the CLOSED sign over and turned off the lights.

Seeing Jenny and getting a free dinner almost made up for her missing wallet, so she couldn’t make herself be too upset. She could picture her wallet on her dining room table and had every confidence that she’d walk in and find it waiting for her. What she didn’t expect when she came around the corner was the fire department in front of her house.

“What the hell?” Emily broke into a run. There were firefighters tromping around her house and she grabbed the nearest one. “What happened?”

“Fire in the left side of the building. Not sure what caused it yet, we’re still trying to determine whether or not it’s safe.” He looked at Emily. “I get the feeling you’re the next door neighbor.” She nodded and he pointed at the roof. “I don’t know how much fire damage you’ve got in there, but almost everything is soaked.”

“My cat!” A sick feeling gripped Emily. She hadn’t had the cat long enough to trust that it wouldn’t run away with its kittens if it was in danger, and she was relieved when the fireman smiled.

“We took her to a vet,” he said. “We went in looking for you and found the cat. Sent her and her babies to the vet just to be checked over. They’re fine as far as I know.”

“Thank god,” Emily said with a sigh. “I guess I’m going to have to go to a hotel for the night. I’ll just run in there and grab my wallet and some other stuff and get out of your way.” She started to go around the fireman, who grabbed her arm.

“You can’t go in there, we’re still working.”

“Are you serious? Where am I supposed to stay?” Before the fireman could answer, another member of his team motioned for him to come over. He went to join him, leaving Emily standing helplessly at the curb.

Without a wallet, Emily wasn’t sure where she was supposed to go. She didn’t have many friends, and the ones she had weren’t likely to have room for her. An idea came to her and she smiled as she turned around and took out her phone. She had already initiated the call before she could stop herself and held her breath.

“Hello?” Hunter’s voice filled her with relief and she smiled.

“Hi,” she said. “It’s Emily. Sorry to call like this, but I’m kind of in a weird situation.” She looked over her shoulder at her townhouse. “There was a fire at my neighbors’ place and mine was damaged. I need a place to stay and I wasn’t sure who else to call.”

“Of course,” Hunter said without a moment’s hesitation. “You’re more than welcome at my house, I’ve got plenty of room. I’ll text you the address.”

“Thank you,” Emily said. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.” She hung up and started walking back to the train station, glancing down at her phone when it vibrated. Hunter’s address was over in Forest Glen and she smiled. It wouldn’t take too long to get there on the Brown Line and she’d be able to figure out what to do about her house the next day without worrying about how much the hotel was going to be costing her.

While she was riding the train, it occurred to her that she didn’t have the chargers for her watch or her phone. She sighed and leaned her head on the window, looking down at the chicken salad. At least she had something she could bring to Hunter’s place. She couldn’t help feeling a little strange about the whole thing. Even though she’d worked at Apogee Labs for a little more than three years, the most contact she’d had with Hunter Chambers until a month ago was seeing him speak at a few conferences, and now she was going to his house.

She zoned out on the bus, watching the concrete of the city give way to the trees and expensive single-family houses that were hardly ever seen in the city. Before she’d moved into the townhome to save money, she’d lived in a gorgeous condo in the Loop and got used to buildings all around her and never quite being in complete darkness. There were no trains clattering across the tracks, no people arguing about baseball, just the smell of grass and leaves when she got off the bus and started walking toward the address Hunter had given her. His house was in view when her phone rang and Emily looked down to see that it was Hunter. She put the phone to her ear and smiled.

“Hi, Dr. Chambers,” she said. “I haven’t gotten lost.”

“I was just a little worried,” he said. “It’s been almost forty minutes since you called, and I realized I didn’t know where you lived. Or that you’d told me and I’d forgotten.”

“Off Roscoe. The buses get a little busy on Friday nights, so I had to wait.” She came up the walk to his house and pushed open the gate.

“You took the train? Stay where you are, and I’ll come pick you up.”

“No need,” Emily said, walking up the steps and ringing his bell. “I’m already here.” She waited for Hunter to open the door, still holding his phone to his ear. “Hi,” she said, raising a hand and wiggling her fingers.

“Hi,” he replied, hanging up the phone and putting it in his pocket. Emily noticed that even though it was almost ten o’clock, he was still wearing the suit he’d worn to work. “Glad you made it safely. I was getting worried about you. I checked my call history, it’s been forty minutes since you called.” He stepped aside and motioned for her to come in.

“Thanks,” Emily said, deciding not to acknowledge that he was once again repeating himself. “This was definitely not how I planned my Friday night.”

“It’s a good thing you weren’t home,” Hunter said, closing the door behind her. “You might have gotten hurt in the fire. Come on, I’ll show you where you can put your bag.” He led her to the stairs and Emily followed, looking around the house as she did. It looked like it had been recently renovated, or possibly that his housekeeper did a really good job.

“You have a beautiful home,” Emily said as she joined him at the top of the stairs. “My place is a lot more cluttered.”

“Ever since my daughter moved out, it’s just been me living here. I don’t make much of a mess, except in the kitchen.” They walked down to the end of the hall and Hunter opened a door. “This is the guest room. It’s not as nice as my daughter’s room but she has a habit of dropping by, and it would be hard to explain why there’s a strange woman in her bed.”

“It’s perfect,” Emily said with a smile. She set the chicken salad on the dresser and dropped her backpack on the chair in the corner. “I’m just happy to have a place to sleep. There was a decent chance I’d be sleeping on a train running the Loop.”

“I’m glad you called,” Hunter said. “Is that all you have with you? A backpack and tuna salad?

“It’s chicken salad,” Emily said, picking up the container again. “And yes, this is all. I’m just glad I went home and changed into jeans. If I had to spend the rest of my weekend in a skirt and heels I’d probably have one hell of a public tantrum by Saturday night.”

“Then I’m glad you went home,” Hunter said. “We’re having dinner tomorrow. I’m taking you to…” He looked confused for a moment, then frowned and shook his head. “Somewhere. I put it in my phone so I wouldn’t forget, even if I forgot. You still want to go to dinner with me?”

“Of course I do,” Emily said. “Right now I’m starving, though.”

“That I can fix,” Hunter said. “I don’t cook as much as I did when my daughter lived here but I’m pretty good in the kitchen.” He went back into the hall and Emily looked at the chicken salad. She couldn’t believe that he’d forgotten the chicken salad already and held it tighter. Hunter stuck his head back in the room. “Are you coming?”

“Yeah,” Emily said, smiling at him in the hopes he wouldn’t see her concern. She followed him into the kitchen and sat on a barstool beside a granite-topped island while he went to the refrigerator. “You still cook?”

“It’s one of the few things that hasn’t really changed for me,” Hunter said, opening the refrigerator. “Even I can follow a recipe as long as I make sure I don’t take too many breaks. The breaks are when I start losing things.” He took out most of a quiche. “Eggs sound good to you?”

“Sure,” Emily said with a grin. “I love eggs.” She carefully set the chicken salad on the stool next to her so he wouldn’t see it, and Hunter cut a piece of quiche out of the dish and put it on a plate for her. “This smells wonderful.”

“Do you want me to heat it up?” He nodded toward the microwave and Emily shook her head. “All right, here you go.” He put a fork on the plate and handed it to her, then considered the quiche. “I think I’ll have some myself. I haven’t eaten yet.” Emily watched him serve himself a piece, then cut off a bite of the quiche and smiled.

“This is fantastic. I haven’t had quiche this good that didn’t come from a restaurant.”

“I’m glad you like it,” Hunter said with a grin. Emily’s heart fluttered and she realized she was staring at him. “Wine?”

“I could definitely use a glass of wine,” she replied. “It’s been a red wine kind of night.”

“You’re in luck, then,” Hunter said. He took out two stemless wine glasses and a bottle of red wine. “I just opened a bottle of Beaujolais.” He poured a glass of wine for Emily and handed it to her, then poured a glass for himself while she took a sip.

“This is the perfect wine,” she said. “It tastes expensive.” Hunter shrugged and corked the wine, then leaned on the island and took a drink.

“I thought you said you had plans tonight.”

“I did,” Emily said, cutting off another piece of quiche. “I was at the university checking some samples. I’ve been working on a side project with my friend and the only time I have to do that is after work. This isn’t how I expected my evening to go, but I can’t say I’m not happy with how it turned out. If those idiots next door hadn’t set their place on fire, I wouldn’t be sitting in your kitchen drinking wine with you.”

“Here’s to your neighbors, then.” Hunter lifted his wine glass and Emily clinked hers against it. His eyes flicked toward the second barstool and he frowned. “What’s that?”

“Oh,” Emily said, feeling her cheeks turn red. “It’s the chicken salad I brought.”

“That’s right,” Hunter said with a heavy sigh. “You did bring that, didn’t you?” Emily didn’t answer, and he took a long drink of his wine. He uncorked the bottle and freshened his glass. “I get worse at night. It’s not unusual, it happens to a lot of people with Alzheimer’s.”

“Yes,” Emily said, holding out her glass for a refill. “I’m familiar with it. They call it ‘sundowning.’” She put the chicken salad on the table. “I didn’t want to bring it up. I thought it might make you uncomfortable if I did.”

“Maybe it would have a year ago, but I’ve grown a thicker skin since then. I can’t quite laugh at myself yet but I’m sure I will sometime. For now, I don’t want you to feel like you can’t bring up my missteps. Not if we’re going to spend time together outside of work.” This made the blush that had just disappeared from her cheeks to come back with a vengeance, and she looked down into her wine as she swirled it around the glass. “If you still want to spend time with me after staying at my house, that is.”

“Of course I do!” Emily looked up at him. “I want to get to know you better, Dr. Chambers.”

“Good,” Hunter said. “I want to get to know you too. And it’s Hunter. If you’re going to be sleeping in my guest room and drinking my wine, we should be on a first name basis.”

“That’s fine with me,” Emily said, grinning, “but you have to call me Emily.” She speared the last bit of her quiche while Hunter took the chicken salad to the refrigerator and put it on the middle shelf, then collected both of their plates and put them in the sink.

“Remind me I put that in there,” he said. “We can have sandwiches for lunch.”

“Sounds good to me,” Emily said. She drained her wine glass and Hunter held up the bottle. “No thanks. I’m kind of a lightweight.”

“Suit yourself,” Hunter said. He put the bottle in the refrigerator and closed the door. Emily smiled at him.

“You’d probably do better keeping that in the pantry,” she said. Hunter looked at her as if he was trying to figure out what she was talking about and she went to the refrigerator and took out the wine. She looked around. “Where’s your pantry?”

“Over here,” Hunter said, taking the bottle from her and opening a slender door alongside the stove. He put it on the shelf and looked over at Emily. “Thanks for that. I probably should go to bed before I put another piece of foil in the microwave.” Emily’s eyes widened in alarm and he laughed. “I needed a new one anyway.” They left the kitchen and Hunter turned off the lights as they did.

“I can’t thank you enough for letting me stay here,” she said. Hunter smiled at her.

“It’s my pleasure,” he said. “I’m sorry about the fire, but I’m glad you’re here. I don’t believe I’ve ever had a brilliant neuroscientist as a guest, much less one as beautiful as you.” The combination of his words and the wine she’d drunk made Emily dizzy for a moment and she reached out to steady herself with the bannister. Afraid of what she’d say if she opened her mouth, she stayed quiet. Hunter walked her all the way to the guest room, pointing at the largest bedroom as he did. “That one’s my bedroom, feel free to knock if you need anything. The guest bathroom is right across the hall. There’s not much in the way of shampoo and soap, so feel free to take whatever you need from Robin’s bathroom.”

“Thanks,” Emily said. “I could definitely use a shower before bed. Oh, and do you have a spare phone charger? Mine was in my apartment.”

“Sure, I’ll get you one from my room. I only have about ten of them. Make yourself at home. Do you need something to wear to bed? You’re about the same size as my daughter, I doubt she’d mind if you grabbed something from her dresser.” They stood outside the guest room, Emily wondering if he suddenly felt as awkward as she did. They’d planned on going to dinner but Emily hadn’t thought of anything past that. The wine was making it hard for her not to say something stupid about having a crush on him, and she cleared her throat.

“I guess I should go raid your daughter’s room for pajamas,” she said. “It’s been a long day.” Hunter nodded.

“Same here. I should go to bed before I say something that embarrasses us both. See you in the morning.” He went down the hall to his bedroom and closed the door behind him while Emily went into the guest bathroom. As soon as she closed the door, she sat on the closed lid of the toilet and exhaled slowly. When she’d left the university she hadn’t had anything on her mind other than going to bed and resting up for the next day. She had to go to St. Cecilia’s before she and Hunter had dinner, and she was very much looking forward to one and not at all to the other. Now she’d have to make time to go and see if she was allowed to go into her house too.

Emily leaned her head back so she could look at the ceiling. She couldn’t help wondering what Hunter had on his mind that would embarrass them both. She imagined him getting ready for bed, possibly taking a shower of his own just down the hall and sat up straight.

Now I’m embarrassing myself, she thought. We haven’t even been on a date yet. Tomorrow might not even be a date, just dinner. Emily got up and went down the hall to Robin’s room, resisting the temptation to stop at Hunter’s door and listen to see if he was showering. And this is why I don’t drink. She pushed open the door to his daughter’s room and looked around. The room looked like it belonged to a college student and Emily wondered how old she was. For that matter, she didn’t know how old Hunter was. His hair was still almost entirely dark brown enough to look black, and he looked like he was in his forties in spite of his glasses. She went into the bathroom and grabbed the first shampoo and conditioner she saw, then rummaged through Robin’s drawers to find a pair of pajama pants and a tank top. It wasn’t the usual sort of thing she would wear to bed but it would be comfortable and, most importantly, clean.

It occurred to her as she walked back down the hall to the guest bathroom that she was going to have to buy something to wear to dinner if everything in her place was ruined and Emily sighed. She’d have to squeeze that in somewhere as well, and she didn’t have a huge well to draw from money-wise. It was worth it, though, as long as Melissa was taken care of. She smiled in spite of herself as she imagined what Melissa would say in that situation.

”Just buy the damn dress and quit thinking about it. When was the last time you did something nice for yourself? Or went out with a man at all?”

“All right,” Emily said to the silence as she closed the door and pulled her hair out of its ponytail, hoping Hunter didn’t hear her talking to herself. “You win. You always did.”

The Absence of Intellect – Five

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“Good morning, Dr. Haynes,” one of the research assistants said as the head of the pharmaceutical research department stepped out of the elevator just in front of Emily. She kept her eyes on her phone so it looked as if she didn’t care that the assistant didn’t so much as acknowledge her presence. “Can I get you some coffee?”

“Sure,” Dr. Haynes said. “Black, two sugars.” He glanced over his shoulder at Emily, then kept walking without a word.

Since they worked in the same department, Emily was forced to walk behind him to get to her corner of the lab and endure the steady stream of greetings directed to Dr. Hayes. Not a single person in the lab said hello to her, and as much as she wanted to pretend she didn’t care about it there was a part of her that wanted to be popular. She’d had more than a few friends in school, and her parents had supported her in everything she wanted to do. When she’d worked at the hospital, she’d been one of the top surgeons. Here she was a pariah because she’d dared to show compassion, but she couldn’t leave until she’d at least mapped out the framework for the neural bridge.

It was a relief to finally get to her lab and shut the door behind her, and she swapped her backpack for her lab coat on the peg before using the app on her phone to start playing the dubstep channel at top volume. If her presence wouldn’t keep her coworkers out of the lab, the music almost certainly would.

Emily booted up the computer and logged in, thinking about the day before with a new perspective. It was entirely possible that the reason Hunter hadn’t wanted to log in to her computer was that he couldn’t remember his credentials. She wasn’t sure how he was getting into the intranet if that was the case but she wasn’t about to ask. The last thing she wanted was to embarrass him further, or herself for that matter. She still couldn’t believe she’d told him she found him attractive. It would be a miracle if he wanted to be alone in a room with her after that alone, not to mention the times she’d unintentionally made him feel uncomfortable.

She was just about to sit down at her desk when a loud knock got her attention and she turned to see Hunter opening the door. Her heart began to beat faster and she smiled as she used her watch to turn down the music.

“Sorry,” she said. “If I’d known you were coming down I wouldn’t have had it up so loud.”

“It’s no problem,” Hunter said. “I made sure to knock this time, though. The last thing I want is for you to associate me with jumping out of your skin.”

“I appreciate that,” Emily said. “I’m actually glad you came down, Dr. Chambers. I wanted to say that I’m really sorry about last night. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”

“You didn’t,” Hunter said. “If anything, I should apologize for just showing up at your house and for all the times I’ve snapped at you. It seems like my temper has gotten shorter lately.” He sighed. “Or maybe I’m just frustrated.”

“It’s understandable,” Emily said, turning to her computer and typing in a few commands. “I was a neurologist for almost ten years before I came here. I’ve seen first hand the way Alzheimer’s erodes your emotional stability as well as your memory.” She looked over her shoulder at him. “Not yours specifically, just in general.”

“You were a neurologist?”

“Yes,” Emily said with a smile. “I was affiliated with St. Cecilia’s Hospital. Their neurology department is the best in Illinois, and I had this hope that one day I could be a neurosurgeon so I observed as many surgeries as I could.”

“I can’t believe you gave up a career as a neurosurgeon to come work for Apogee,” Hunter said, shaking his head. Emily laughed and clicked on her email program.

“Your talk was extremely convincing.” She scanned the list of messages but didn’t see the name she was looking for, and closed the window again. It was meant as a joke but Hunter’s silence gave her the impression that he wasn’t taking it as such, and she opened her mouth to apologize.

“At the risk of being inappropriate, I was wondering if you’d have dinner with me,” he said, surprising her. Emily blinked at him in disbelief. “You can say no, it won’t hurt my feelings.”

“No, no,” Emily said quickly. “I’d love to have dinner with you.”

“Great!” Hunter grinned at her, making her blush. He’d always had more of a reserved smile on his face when she’d seen him and this open, genuine one suited him more. “For a minute I thought you were going to make me feel like I was back in high school.” Emily looked at him curiously and he shrugged. “I wasn’t exactly the most popular guy. I was quiet and more than a little awkward.”

“Popularity is overrated,” Emily said. “You may not have noticed, but I’m not especially popular around here either.”

“Why is that? You’re a nice person and your ideas are revolutionary. I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to work with you.” He walked around the tiny lab and Emily sighed.

“It’s possibly the most ridiculous reason you could think of,” she said. “Really just popular kid lunchroom crap that only halfway grew up.” Hunter watched her expectantly, and Emily couldn’t help noticing just how blue his eyes were. “It’s because I won’t experiment on animals.”

“Are you serious?”

“Yeah. I don’t like it and I feel like the same results can be achieved with simulations and human tissue cultures. Sometimes even better results, and with better results we can go straight to clinical trials as long as we give full disclosure and have airtight waivers for the participants.” She shook her head. “I know that makes me sound like some animal rights activist, but it’s how I feel.”

“First, do no harm,” Hunter said. “The difference between a medical doctor and a scientific one, I suppose. I don’t see why that would make people not want to work with you.”

“Because they think my methods would have adverse effects on their projects. Keep them from getting FDA approval, stall them in the research phase for years, that sort of thing.” She folded her arms over her chest. “That thinking just spreads like a virus in a small environment like this one.”

“So why do you stay? There are plenty of companies that would love to have you and your methods. Why did you give up being a neurologist?” His words sent a chill down Emily’s back. He’d asked the same question less than ten minutes earlier but she could tell that he didn’t remember asking it, much less the answer.

“We can talk more about it at dinner,” Emily said, afraid of embarrassing him again. She really did want to go out with him, and hoped that if they spent more time together and talked more, he wouldn’t be so sensitive about his condition. “Where do you want to go?”

“There’s a nice place called Cerise that’s on the Mile,” Hunter said. “I went there for dinner with some drug reps from Borkin Pharma and it had great shrimp. If you like shrimp, I mean. I know some people don’t like shrimp. They have other dishes there if you’re not a fan of shellfish.” Emily tried her best not to laugh but she couldn’t suppress a smile. “Apparently I haven’t outgrown all of my unfortunate teenage awkwardness.”

“I prefer to think of it as a sort of boyish charm.” She picked up her phone and unlocked it. “And I love shrimp. Let me give you my number so you can put it in your phone. You already have my address.” This made Hunter smile. He took out his own phone and offered it to her. When Emily took it, she brushed his fingers with hers, making just enough contact to send a spark of electricity up her arm. She typed her name and phone number into his address book, then looked up at him. “Do you want to try and set something up now?”

“Sure,” Hunter said. “Tonight?”

“I’m sorry,” Emily said. “I’ve got plans tonight and probably tomorrow.” She regretted having to tell him she couldn’t see him so soon, but a night of work could make or break her research. Melissa was counting on her to finish it, she couldn’t stop until it was done. “Saturday?”

“Fine with me,” he replied. “Could I talk you into coffee before then?”

“Well, since you’re twisting my arm,” Emily said with a grin. “I happen to be free for a few minutes at the end of my lunch break. I have an errand to run during lunch, but I can make time for coffee.” She handed him back his phone. “Only for you.”

“My day’s looking up, then.” He dropped his phone back into his pocket and headed for the door, much to Emily’s disappointment. Seeing him at lunch would make up for it, and she used her watch to turn the music back up. Hunter stuck his head back into the lab. “I don’t think I said it before, but I’m sorry for my behavior last night,” he shouted over the music. Emily forced herself to smile.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said. Hunter looked relieved as he ducked back out and Emily rubbed her temples hard enough to hurt. She couldn’t keep acting like he wasn’t repeating himself but she also didn’t want to upset him. It was a fine line, and not one she had ever expected to walk, especially not with Hunter. With a sigh, she dropped back into her chair. Splitting her time between the neural bridge and the new drug was going to be the death of her. At least I have dinner to look forward to, she thought as she pulled up the data for the cholinesterase inhibitor. I just have to make it to Saturday night.