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“Stow it, McCarty,” Ryan said. “Claire, Nina…this is Matt, and that’s Pat.” He gestured to the officer wrestling Matt’s hand to the table. Final y, Pat succeeded.

“I was distracted!” Matt said.

Ryan laughed. “You’re such a baby, McCarty. Take the loss like a man.”

Matt tapped the table. “Come on, then, Scotty. Put your money where your mouth is.”

Ryan watched Matt pul out a fifty-dol ar bil , slamming it on the table. Claire’s body language was notably different. She raised her hand to her mouth, subtly trying to cover the slight grin that touched the corners of her mouth.

Ryan saw Claire's expression as wel , prompting him to sit, and then rol up his sleeves. “Let’s do it.”

Their hands and arms shook as they pushed against the other. Matt’s face was red, and a vein had popped out on his forehead like a pulsating worm slithering under his skin.

“You gonna let the rookie beat you, McCarty?” Pat said, smiling at the spectacle.

A few moments later, Ryan slammed Matt’s hand to the table. “Yeah!” he grunted, standing up in celebration.

“Oh, brother,” Claire said, rol ing her eyes. “I thought you invited us to lunch, not a pissing contest.”

“You wanna stab at it?” Ryan asked, returning to his seat.

Claire stiffened. She was competitive, and being forced to lose to Ryan to protect her identity was not something she would handle wel .

“Don’t do it,” I whispered.

“I won’t be easy on you just because you’re a girl,” Ryan said.

Matt laughed. “I don’t know. She’s got some eggs on her arms.”

By the look on his face, Ryan knew exactly what he was doing. He had experienced her strength before, and he was going to test his theory.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” she said, uninterested. “You’re stil healing.”

Ryan shrugged. “Then I’ll use the other arm. I’ll stil beat you.”

Claire sat in the open chair.

“Claire, no,” I said.

Ryan held up his hand, and Claire took it. She lowered her chin, glaring into Ryan’s eyes.

“She’s feisty,” Matt said, intrigued.

“Shut up, McCarty,” Pat said.

“Say go, Nina,” Claire said.

“This is stupid….” I said, attempting a last chance to avoid the only two products of their ridiculous stand-off—neither of them good.

“Go!” Matt yel ed.

Their arms turned rigid, and then their hands began to tremble. I knew the shaking was on Ryan’s part; Claire looked bored. After fifteen seconds, the officers around the table began harass Ryan.

“I thought you said you wouldn’t go easy on her, Scotty Dog?” McCarty smirked.

“Come on, Scotty. Quit foolin’ around,” Pat said.

Ryan’s face turned several shades of red, and then beads of sweat formed on his brow.

Claire raised an eyebrow, and then pushed a bit, leaning Ryan’s hand closer to the table.

McCarty laughed out loud. “She’s gonna beat him! Scotty’s gonna get beat by a girl!”

Ryan took a deep breath, and then pressed his lips together, holding his breath and straining so hard, I thought he might pass out.

Claire looked at Matt, and then back at Ryan. She rol ed her eyes, and the slight tension in her arm gave way. Ryan slammed her hand to the table.

The officers al cheered, and Ryan stood, rubbing his arm.

“You’re not serious,” Matt said, doubtful.

Claire patted the empty table space in front of her and smiled. “Have a seat, Sweet Pea.”

“This is bad, bad idea,” I said. “Claire, it’s time for us to go.”

Matt put up his hand, and Claire took it.

I turned to Ryan. “Don’t let her do this. It’s going to draw attention.”

“To what?” he asked, focused on my eyes.

I recoiled from his stare. “Nothing.”

“Go!” Pat said.

Matt’s arm stiffened against Claire’s. Before long, his face was as red as Ryan’s had been just moments before.

“Holy, God, you’re strong!” Matt grunted.

“Claire, please,” I said. “We have to go!”

“Okay,” she said, slamming his hand to the table, immediately bringing it back to the start position. “Officers…,” she nodded.

It was hard not to sprint to the car. Jared’s reaction was at the forefront of my mind. “Stupid! That was so….!” I wheeled around, stopping Claire in her tracks. “Stupid!”

Claire kissed my nose. “No, it was fun. Let’s go.”

Chapter Fifteen

The Truth in Sixty Seconds

Jared shut the curtains, al owing me to relax a bit. The morning sun hurt my eyes, and the ache in my head throbbed every time my heart beat. I turned another page of my textbook, trying to catch up to classmates that hadn’t missed the last two days.

I pressed my fingers against the skin between my eyebrows. “The computer guy didn’t know what he was talking about,” I said. “I said simple.

This laptop is impossible.”

Jared rubbed my back. “Not impossible. You just have to adapt to change.”

I slammed my book shut. “That’s al I do, Jared: Adapt to change. The only thing that is constant is the fact that everything keeps changing.”

Jared smiled, kissing my shoulder. “I’ll leave you alone to finish your paper, and then we’re going to get out of the house for a while.”

“Thanks,” I grumbled, opening my book again.

My eyes passed over the words, but nothing sunk in. Wedding plans, Kit Anderson's children, Ryan being in danger, dead birds and the whereabouts of the book danced around in my mind. Each thought lingered only for a few seconds and then I flipped to the next one like the channels of late-night television. When I caught myself wandering from the topic of my paper, I would force my focus back to reality. Each time that happened, I grew more frustrated.

Two hours and six pages later, I pul ed on my boots and met Jared outside. The crisp air surrounded me as I walked down the drive, and I buttoned my coat to ward off the cold.

The Escalade was left running so I wouldn't have to shiver while the cab warmed to a tolerable temperature. Jared helped me inside with a smile, kissing my red nose before shutting the door, and then we made a new set of tracks down the street. The sky had dropped another six inches of snow on the ground, but only after a few hours of sleet had laid down a solid bed for the snow to stick to.