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A Low Blue Flame by A.J. Downey (1)

Prologue

Lilli…

I wasn’t confident in most things, but as I bounced once, then twice, on the diving board, I knew I had this. I arched through the air and sliced perfectly with minimal splash into the sapphire pool that was as warm as bathwater. I smiled in the depths to myself and fanned my arms out in front of me, dragging myself towards the surface and breaking it, drawing breath to a smattering of applause.

I laughed and turned to my new friends, some of the older kids belonging to dignitaries and the like. Emilio, my new number-one fan, was eleven and sitting on the edge of the pool, feet dangling in the water.

“Show me how!” he called and I laughed, working my way to the edge of the pool, hauling myself up onto the edge to sit beside him and wring the chlorinated water from the ends of my dark blonde hair.

“It takes practice,” I told him, and he got up, trotting to the board enthusiastically.

It was the grand opening of the Echelon Tower, the newest, most technologically-efficient building in the Indigo City skyline, and even though I had signed on the dotted line and purchased my apartment – excuse me, condo I didn’t belong here. My bank account said I did, and a small part of my heart agreed, but for the most part, I felt like an intruder. Unlike almost all of the rest of the people who were moving in, I hadn’t been born into money. I’d gotten lucky and had become the next big thing in the literary world, and Hollywood had come knocking what felt like only moments later.

I had more money than I knew what to do with and more coming in every day. On top of that, I was blessed with no shortage of ideas on where to go from here when it came to my writing… so I had no idea why I felt so empty.

Yes, you do. You’re lonely, and no matter how much money you have, no matter how much you reinvent yourself, you still don’t belong here.

I sighed, the ever-present voice of self-doubt slowly deteriorating my good mood.

Stop it. I told myself sternly. You’re here to start over. Reinvent yourself. So stop whining and do just that!

“Lilli! Like this?”

I looked up to the diving board and called back, “Feet together, don’t bend your knees! Okay, go back and remember what I showed you about the hurdle!”

He went back to the beginning of the board, took his steps, bounced and… didn’t quite stick it, but he was much closer in execution than he had been the last time. He came up, dark head bobbing above the deep blue water, and I applauded.

“Did I do it?” he asked, grinning, and I told him the truth but tried to remain encouraging.

“Not quite, but you were much, much, closer. Keep practicing!”

I got up and he asked, “Where are you going?”

Truthfully, I needed a bit of adult time, and a hot soak. I was beginning to get chilled sitting on the edge out of the water like that.

“I’m going to head on back over to the grownups,” I told him, smiling.

“Yuck! You should just stay here with me!”

I laughed. “Maybe later.”

“Will you be here tomorrow?”

“Should be, I like swimming. It’s part of why I moved here.”

“Okay! I’ll see you!”

“See you later, Emilio.”

He paddled over to the edge of the pool and the ladder, got out and went to dive again. I pulled my feet from the warmth and left the enclosed pool area, going out to the group of layered and leveled steaming pools of water more geared towards the adult residents of the Echelon.

I slipped into the warmest one with a sigh, around five or six other people already taking up room on the low benches, and crouched on one. I was short, much of my height in my legs, and so, if I were to sit on one of the benches properly, the waterline would reach just below my nose, covering my mouth. Not cute.

A handsome man, almost beautiful, sat across from me, his long hair brushing his shoulders. He had a sexy little smile painted on his lips as he looked me over appreciatively, without being slimy or creepy.

“Hi,” I murmured shyly, blushing.

“Name is Mark,” he said politely. “What’s yours?”

“Lillian,” I replied, softly.

“Have to say, Lillian, you’re a beautiful and unexpected addition to Echelon.”

“Aw, thank you!” I said, laughing lightly but not believing a word he said. Me? Beautiful? Ha!

“What floor?” he asked, making small talk.

“I’m on forty-four, you?”

“Don’t live here,” he said. “I’m just a guest, sadly.”

“Oh, well, what do you think of the building?” I asked.

He drifted across the steaming pool to me and sat next to me, eyes traveling over me in a way that made me feel electric, appreciated. It was unexpected and charming, and I couldn’t have written it any better.

“It’s amazing,” he said, making direct eye contact.

I smiled and felt my heart flutter. He had an amazing pair of green-blue eyes and his dark hair, swept back from his face, made them all the more startling. His body was trim and fit without being overly musclebound and I liked that. He looked like a man who wore a suit for a living. Someone with a dangerous mind, and I liked that, too.

I lost my balance a bit, crouched on the bench, and he reached out to steady me. I laughed nervously, wondering how, out of all the beautiful people in Echelon, I would be so lucky that he would be talking to, or even interested in, me.

“Steady…” he said, voice low.

“I’m too short,” I breathed, and he smiled.

“You’re just perfect.”

Again with that little flutter in my chest. He pulled me around gently, his hands nowhere out of bounds, the attraction seemingly just as intense on his end as mine. He settled me safely over his lap in the circle of his arms and smiled at me.

“So,” he murmured. “Tell me everything there is to know about you…”

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