Chapter Three

A different kind of light played crimson shadows across her closed eyelids. What an odd dream, CC thought as she stretched luxuriously. The smooth feel of fresh sheets against her naked body mixed with the poignant, unfulfilled seduction of the dream. She still felt super-sensitized and her naked body tingled.

Naked?

She never slept in the nude. Why the heck was she naked? She flung her eyes open and cringed at the brightness of her bedroom, then quickly closed them again. It couldn't be later than 0730. Could it? Hadn't she set her alarm? Was she late for work? Her heart pounded.

Memories of the night came flooding back—the two bottles of champagne, the movie, the sudden brainstorm that led to the idea that led to the ritual. Here she cringed and tried to burrow down into her sheets, but her memory was relentless.

"You'd think I'd had enough champagne that I would have blacked it all out," she groaned.

She peeked over the side of the bed. The vanilla-rum candle had burned out. Well, at least she could be thankful she hadn't set her apartment on fire. She glanced down. Her nightgown made a rumpled, pale spot on her cream-colored carpet.

She shook her head and sighed. Two bottles of champagne—what had she been thinking?

"I forgot," she muttered. "The process of rational thought stops after bottle number one."

No wonder she'd had the weird dream; she'd been in a drunken stupor.

She glanced back at the nightstand and squinted at her bedside alarm clock, which read 11:42 a.m. CC's eyes widened. Panic banished the dream, and she sat bolt upright.

"It's almost noon!" She yelped, scrambling to her closet to frantically pull out a fresh uniform before she remembered that she didn't have to report for duty that day. She was flying out tomorrow, which meant that today would be dedicated to packing and tying up the loose ends being gone for three months created.

She took a shaky breath and ran her hand through her hair. Actually, the only reason she had to go on base at all that day was to stop by the orderly room and pick up her new set of dog tags. (She was still chagrined that she'd lost her old set during the move from Colorado.) Beside that, she just needed to buy some last minute toiletries for the trip, come back to the apartment and move her plants from the balcony to her living room so that her neighbor, Mrs. Runyan, could water them and finish her packing. And, of course, she had to remember to drop her key off with Mrs. Runyan before she left for the airport the next morning.

CC took a deep breath. What was wrong with her? She was usually so organized and logical about a deployment. She had planned to get up early that morning and finish her business on base, and then get her plants taken care of and her packing completed early so that she could spend the rest of the day relaxing. The trip to Saudi would be long and exhausting, and CC definitely was not looking forward to it—and that's not even considering how much she hated flying.

She shook her head. Instead she'd chosen to send herself off with an enormous hangover. CC marched into the bathroom and flipped on the shower. As the warm, soothing mist began to rise, she started searching through the cabinet for some aspirin for her tremendous headache. But before she found it, she stopped herself.

Headache? No, now that her heart wasn't yammering a mile a minute, and she wasn't afraid she'd been AWOL for half a day, she realized her head didn't actually hurt. At all. Actually, she felt fine. She closed the cabinet door and studied herself in the mirror.

Instead of the sallow, hollow-eyed look of a morning-after hangover, CC's chestnut-colored eyes were clear and bright. Her gaze traveled down her naked body. Her skin was healthy and vibrant; she glowed with a lovely pinkish flush. It was almost like she had spent the night being pampered in an exclusive spa, instead of drinking two bottles of champagne, eating a ton of KFC and getting caught in a thunderstorm while she danced in the moonlight.

"Maybe…" she whispered to her reflection.

A thrill of delight traveled the length of her nakedness as she remembered the moonlight and the electric passion it had fueled within her body. She could almost feel the night against her skin again.

The warm mist from the shower crept around her in thick, lazy waves.

"Like the pinyon smoke," she gasped, and her heart leapt. "Remember," she told her reflection. "You promised to break your mold."

Tentatively, she raised her arms, trying to mimic her movements of the previous night and turned slowly in a sleepy pirouette. The fog swirled around her, licking her naked skin with a liquid warmth that reminded her of her sensuous, bittersweet dream. Thinking about the handsome stranger her sleeping mind had conjured, CC continued to spin, catching quick glimpses of herself in the mist-veiled mirror. Her petite body looked lithe and mysterious, as if she had trapped some of the moonlit magic within herself.

"You believed last night; believe today, too." As she spoke something deep within her seemed to move, like smooth water over river pebbles.

"Magic…" CC whispered.

Maybe the night and the dream had been signs of things to come—things that would change—in her life. Maybe she just had to be open to change and answer when it called.

"Magic…" CC repeated.

She danced and laughed her way into the shower, loving the warm fingers of water that rippled down her body.

She didn't stop smiling the entire time she dressed and applied just a touch of makeup. The feeling wouldn't go away. It was like someone had taken a key and opened up something inside her, and now that it was open, it refused to be locked away again.

She stepped into her favorite pair of button-up 501 jeans. After listening to the decidedly cooler weather forecast, she pulled on her thick gray sweatshirt with air force written in block lettering across her chest. Her feet felt light as she grabbed a V8 Splash from the fridge and hurried out of her apartment.

The stairs that spiraled gracefully from her top-floor apartment were still damp from last night's storm, which made CC's smile widen. Everything looked preternaturally clear and beautiful. Her car was parked almost directly below her balcony, and as she unlocked it, she glanced up. Her lips rounded in a wordless O of delight. The light of the midday sun formed a halo over the rich green foliage that still sparkled with beads of rain, making her balcony appear more like something submerged in an ocean than something on land.

Magic is happening. The thought sprang unbidden into her mind, and instead of questioning it, CC took a deep breath and let the enticing idea settle.

The gate guard at Tinker's North Entrance was checking military IDs, and when her turn came, CC rolled down her window and beamed a cheery "Good morning!" to the serious-looking young airman.

The granite set of his face softened, and he returned her grin with an endearingly lopsided smile. "It's afternoon, ma'am," he corrected gently.

"Oops!" She grinned. "Well, everything's so bright and clear that it still seems like morning."

"Hadn't thought about it till now, but I guess you're right. It is real pretty today." He looked honestly surprised at the discovery. "You have a good day, ma'am." He waved her through the gate, but his eyes stayed fixed on her car and the lopsided smile was still painted his face long after she'd disappeared.

The Communications Squadron's orderly room was located in the Personnel Building. It was a typical military structure, large and square and made of nondescript red brick. CC was pleased to see that a front row parking space was open. Usually the parking lot was ridiculously crowded, and she had to park far away down the street. The lawn surrounding the building and the hedges that bordered the entrance were meticulously manicured. The sense of obsessive neatness carried through to the interior of the building as well.

CC pulled open the door and was greeted by the familiar smell of military clean. Yes, ma'am. You could eat off the floors, walls, ceilings and desks… literally. Directly in front of her a full-length mirror showed CC her reflection. She automatically read the words printed across the top of the mirror: does your appearance reflect your professionalism? CC started to grin sheepishly at her jeans and sweatshirt, then she did a fast double take.

Had her eyes ever looked so big? Entranced, she stepped closer to the mirror's slick surface. Her mother had always described her eyes as "cute" or "doelike." CC usually didn't give them much thought beyond being glad that she had twenty-twenty vision. But today they seemed to fill her face. Their ordinary hazel color sparkled with—

"May I help you, ma'am?"

The rough voice caused CC to jump guiltily. Her cheeks felt warm as she turned around to face a weathered-looking chief master sergeant.

"Uh, yeah. Can you tell me where I'd go to pick up my dog tags?"

"Sure can." As soon as she'd started speaking his gruff appearance softened, and he smiled warmly at her. "The office for tags and military IDs is on the third floor. You can take the elevator that's down this hall." He gestured to the right.

'Thank you, Chief," CC said and bolted to the elevator, face blazing.

The old chief stood for a moment looking after her.

"Now there's a pretty girl," he pronounced to the empty air.

The ID office wasn't hard to find—it was the busiest office in the building. CC sighed as she took a number and found a seat along the wall. Orderly rooms were always ultra-busy during the lunch hour. She should have known better. Trying to find an interesting article in an old Air Force Times newspaper, she wished she had remembered to bring a book with her.

The room was almost empty and the black hands of the government issue clock told her forty-five minutes had passed when her number was finally called and she retrieved her new set of dog tags. Finally! CC felt like she'd been set free. She punched the Down button on the elevator, and as the door glided open she ticked off her "To Do" list on her fingers.

One: go to the Base Exchange and get a few toiletries. Two: pick up some plant food—her stomach growled. And three: some people food. She'd eaten most of the KFC last night, and anyway she couldn't handle KFC two nights in a row. Or at least she shouldn't.

She had just begun to step forward into the elevator when a woman's commanding voice spoke a single word.

"Wait!"

CC hesitated and turned. The woman standing behind her was breathtakingly lovely.

"What?" CC asked stupidly, stunned by the woman's beauty. She was tall—she seemed to tower over CC's petite five foot one inch frame. And her hair was amazing; CC had never seen anything so beautiful. It was the color of rich earth and it cascaded to the curve of her waist. Her face was regal and her cheekbones were high and well formed. But it was her eyes that captured CC in their liquid blue depths.

"Wait, Daughter." The woman smiled, and CC felt the warmth of that smile envelop her. She wanted to ask why she should wait, and why the incredibly gorgeous woman would call her daughter, but her mouth didn't seem to want to work. All she could do was to stand there and grin inanely back at the woman like a nervous kindergarten child meeting her teacher.

"WAIT, MA'AM!"

The shout came from the far end of the hall, and she turned her head just in time to see a man dressed in a firefighter's uniform launching himself at her. The tackle carried them several feet from the elevator's open doors. As soon as they slid to a halt the firefighter jumped up.

"Are you okay, ma'am?" He was trying to help her to her feet while he brushed nonexistent dirt off her jeans.

CC couldn't believe it. The wind had been knocked out of her, so all she could do was gasp for air and glare at the man.

"Sorry, ma'am. Didn't mean to be so rough, but I had to stop you from getting in that elevator," he said.

"W-what," CC sucked air and wiped her tearing eyes, "are you't-talking about?"

"Well, the elevator, ma'am." He pointed at the still-open doors.

The doors must be stuck, CC concluded.

"You knocked me over because the doors were sticking?" Thankfully she was regaining her ability to breathe and speak at the same time.

"No, ma'am. Not 'cause the doors are stuck." As if on cue the doors closed. "Because the elevator is stuck." He paused, letting CC absorb his words. "On the first floor."

"That can't be," CC spoke woodenly. "I just rode it up here."

The firefighter made a scoffing sound. "Sure, and an hour ago it was working. It just stuck 'bout five minutes ago. We were running an exercise next door for some new recruits when the First Shirt asked us to give him a hand in posting the warning tape and being sure that everyone on this floor knew about the problem."

For the first time CC noticed that clutched in one hand he had a roll of yellow warning ribbon much like the tape civilian police used to secure crime scenes.

"I don't believe it," she said.

'Take a look for yourself. Just be careful." He stepped out of her way.

CC approached the elevator and pressed the down button, just like she had only minutes before. The doors swung smoothly open and CC peered down into a dark shaft of nothingness. She felt dizzy.

"Good thing I saw you. I'd hate to think what would have happened if I'd been a second later." The firefighter shook his head and pursed his lips.

"But it wasn't you," CC said shakily. "I was getting ready to step into the elevator." CC looked wildly around the hall, ashamed it had taken her so long to acknowledge the woman. "It was the woman standing behind me. She warned me—that's why I hadn't already walked into the elevator."

CC felt a wave of nausea. She hadn't been paying attention to her surroundings; she'd been too busy tallying errands.

"Uh, ma'am," the firefighter said gently. "Are you sure you're feeling okay?"

"Of course. I'm fine." CC was still looking down the hallway, trying to catch a glimpse of the beautiful woman.

"Maybe you should sit down for a while."

"What are you talking about?" CC snapped. First the guy tackled her, then he was trying to analyze her. She checked the stripes on his arm. Yep. She even outranked him. "I just want to find the woman who warned me so that I can thank her."

"That's what I mean, ma'am. There was no one else in the hall with you."

A chill shivered through CC's body. She shook her head in disbelief. "Yes there was. She was standing right behind me. I was talking to her when you knocked me over."

"Ma'am," he took her arm and eased her down the hall away from the open shaft. "You weren't talking to anyone. You were just standing there getting ready to step into the elevator."

"She was right behind me," CC repeated.

"No one was there. No one is here now." His gesture took in the rest of the hall. "There's only one way out be-sides the elevator, and that's the stairwell, right there." He pointed at the doorway from which he had emerged. "She would have had to walk past me to get there, and she didn't."

"You didn't see her?" CC asked numbly.

"No, ma'am," he said quietly. "And people don't just appear and disappear like magic."

Magic… The word echoed in CC's head and she had to struggle to pay attention to the rest of what he was saying.

"Maybe you hit your head. You know you could have blacked out for a second. I knocked you down pretty hard. Our guys can take you to sick call at the clinic and have you checked out."

"No!" CC swallowed, regaining her wits. "See, I'm fine." She ran her fingers through her close-cropped curls and around her head, pushing and prodding without cringing to show there was no tenderness.

The door to the stairwell opened and another fireman appeared and yelled down the hall. "Hey, Steve! Got that tape run yet?"

"I'm working on it," CC's fireman answered.

"Well, hurry it up. We don't have all day to play with pretty girls." He smiled and tipped his helmet to CC.

Steve's face colored, and CC took the opportunity to make her retreat.

"I'll let you get back to work." She headed quickly for the door, which the second fireman held wide open for her. "And I do appreciate you saving me from a nasty fall."

She ducked into the stairwell and Steve's "Don't mention it, ma'am" drifted after her, but CC hardly heard him. She was too busy repeating a single sentence that she could see clearly in her memory. It was written in her concise cursive on blue ink against plain white paper.

I want magic in my life.

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