Kate Henderson walked slowly through the city park at dawn, the sounds of morning birds twittering in the trees over her head.
The rising sun had turned the sky a lush pink, and a light breeze lifted her hair slightly.
If not for the scent of hot pavement and coffee from a nearby vendor’s cart, she might have thought she was really in the woods somewhere, far from the madcap scramble of the summertime city.
Though there were sidewalks in the park, Kate kept to the grassy knolls and hedges. She was unlikely to make it to her destination without being recognized, but there was no point making it easy for fans to spot her.
A sparrow trilled and Kate stopped walking for a moment to listen.
It should have been a perfect morning, but there was something off about the park.
She tried to figure out what. It seemed like a typical summer morning, everything looked the same as usual.
Except that it wasn’t.
There were no traffic sounds, no people sounds. There was no rumble of roller skates against the concrete sidewalk, no random baby cries, no acoustic guitars, no jogging shoes slapping a rhythm along the well-used path.
It was early, but the park was always teeming with life.
She made her way cautiously down the embankment to the nearest sidewalk.
It was utterly deserted.
She began to walk faster. Surely someone would be at the plaza in the center of the park. She swore she had just smelled the coffee cart.
But when she reached the plaza it was empty - no coffee vendor, no businesswomen in silk scarves, not even the daily dog walkers - just empty benches and a universe of birds and squirrels enjoying the morning.
Kate felt her the tension drain from her shoulders. She was alone and free. The park was likely shut down to film a movie. She might get yelled at if she bumped into the crew, but the south gate had been open, so she had done nothing wrong.
Just ahead, the path forked. The larger part of the sidewalk forged northward.
But a cobblestone tributary, likely original to the park, meandered off the beaten path and into the rose garden.
Kate had loved the rose garden when she was a kid. Now she seldom went. And if she did, she spent most of her time there answering questions from other garden visitors about her long-canceled TV show.
But this morning might be a chance to visit in solitude.
Kate led a regimented life, there was no built-in down time. If she wandered down that path, it meant skipping an expensive session she’d already paid for with a personal trainer.
You only live once, she told herself in a rare show of determined abandon.
Bucking her sense of duty, Kate turned off the sidewalk and followed the cobblestones toward the garden.
There were sounds coming from the Victorian pavilion that overlooked the sloping garden and the pond below. At first Kate thought it was the skateboarding kids who liked to sit in there, drinking sports drinks and telling dirty jokes.
But when the pavilion came into view she saw it was only a pair of squirrels scolding and chasing each other.
The lush greens and yellows of the park were suddenly a drab backdrop to dozens of blooming rose bushes.
Kate paused and took in the riot of colors and the heavenly scent. Last night’s rain had taken its toll on the blooms, leaving a carpet of scarlet and flame-colored petals scattered on the knoll, releasing the blossoms’ sweet perfume.
She took it all in hungrily - the roses, the black pond below, the blue sky above. She might never be alone here again, with the city’s beauty all to herself.
The thought had no more than formed in her mind before her chest ached with an overwhelming sense of loneliness, though what or who she was lonely for was a mystery. Kate had always been happiest alone.
As if she had called to him, a man appeared on the far side of the garden.
He stood at the curve of the hilltop, his face half in shadow, half illuminated by the rising sun. His dark hair lifted slightly in the breeze. A white t-shirt clung to his muscular form, faded jeans riding low on his narrow hips. He gazed at Kate with steel gray eyes.
Kate gazed back, nearly hypnotized. The breeze seemed to have taken on a life of its own. The warm air swirled around her, feathering her hair across her collarbone in a ticklingly pleasant way.
The petals on the lawn fluttered.
Something lightened in Kate’s chest.
The man stepped forward, his gray eyes flashing. He lifted his hands slightly, as if beckoning her.
Kate moved toward him instinctively. She was drawn to him, and it wasn’t just his masculine beauty. The dark hair and chiseled jaw were eye-catching, but there was something else, something about this stranger that spoke to her on a molecular level.
The birdsong and squirrel chatter went silent as she drew closer to him, close enough to see the shadow on his jaw, the long, dark lashes that framed those mesmerizing gray eyes.
She stopped when she was close enough to touch him.
He took her hands and smiled down at her kindly.
Kate smiled back, not her professional smile, but a real one, eye-crinkling and spontaneous.
Again, she felt that lightness in her chest, only this time it went all the way down to her toes.
He squeezed her hands and leaned down as if to tell her something.
But movement in her periphery caught Kate’s attention. She turned to see what it was.
Rose petals were swirling up off the lawn in the breeze. She watched as they lifted from the emerald grass - scarlet and flame colored petals levitating in slow motion, like rain falling upward.
Kate stared at it, the feeling that something wasn’t right tugging at her mind for the second time.
Then it hit her.
There was no breeze now. The air was perfectly still.
Yet the petals still lifted. Thousands of them floated now, hanging in the air like glitter in a snow globe.
“What’s happening?” she whispered.
When she turned back to him, he let go of one hand and cupped her face in his palm.
Kate felt her cheeks grow warm.
He fixed his eyes on hers and leaned in, as if he were daring her to pull away.
The flowers were forgotten as Kate waited a split-second eternity for him to kiss her.
A cocky half smile of victory tugged up one corner of his mouth just before he pressed it to hers.
Kate nearly swooned with the rightness of his warm lips against hers, the feel of his strong arms around her.
Desire flooded her body, and Kate tried to go up on her toes to deepen the kiss.
But her feet were no longer touching the ground.
That can’t be right…
But she couldn’t bring herself to break the kiss to see what was happening. Her body hummed with need. She twined her arms around the stranger’s neck.
Faraway bells began to ring. The sound was beautiful at first, but it grew steadily louder and more irksome.
His hard body relaxed around her, the sensation of the kiss fading as the bells jangled louder and louder.
They began to coalesce into a familiar sound.
No, no, no…
But it was too late.
Morning light was already leaking in from the other side of her eyelids. She could feel the cotton comforter wrapped around her.
Kate flapped around for her phone and turned off the alarm.
It was just another regular day.
She sighed and slid out of bed, heading straight for the shower as she tried to imagine what would have brought on that dream. It had seemed so real.
You’re tired, Kate. That’s all. And you shouldn’t have had wine with dinner last night.
But she was embarrassed to feel a sense of loss and longing, not unlike the impossible sadness she sometimes felt at not being able to meet her favorite, now-dead playwrights.
Kate was a no-nonsense person, but her agent inevitably negotiated luxurious housing for her. This condo was a perfect example. The city was gorgeous through floor-to-ceiling windows, but Kate cringed at the thought of what the rental had cost the Comic Con organizers. She’d given up begging Carol to just go for money instead of perks. Carol was convinced that insisting on fancy digs and meals was part of the branding that got Kate higher appearance fees.
And Philly must have been affordable compared to LA, because Kate was in a big enough condo that she had somehow taken on strays.
She knew Cecily from the business, at least. Cecily knew everyone. The chatty make-up artist could probably have had her pick of celebrity condos to crash in. Kate kidded herself that Cecily had chosen her place for the company, but it was more likely that Cecily appreciated Kate’s quiet manners and the brunch she cooked on off days.
Beatrix, on the other hand, really was a stray. She was a graphic novelist, which meant she was both wildly talented and continually on the brink of starvation. But her latest series was a breakout, and she’d been at every Con that Kate had attended this year.
When Kate overheard that the girl was Craig’s List couch surfing for the summer, it only seemed the decent thing to do was offer her a room in this palace. Of course, there was no guarantee there would be enough space when their little caravan moved on to the next city for the next Con. But Kate had a feeling Carol wouldn’t let her down.
She passed Beatrix’s room on the way to the bathroom. The door was slightly ajar. Kate could just see the pen and ink drawings taped to the walls, and Beatrix’s small form under the covers as she passed. Beatrix wasn’t a morning person. If she wasn’t up by the time Kate was leaving, Kate would knock on the door to wake her. And Beatrix would groan back grumpily like a hibernating bear. It was their ritual.
Cecily’s door was shut when she passed, but Kate knew Cecily had been at the Convention Center painting faces and gluing on scales for hours by now.
Kate opened the door to the bathroom for yet another city view.
The shower really was a senseless thing - all marble tiles with a glass door that must be hell for the maid to keep clean, and a precarious ledge too shallow to balance a real shampoo bottle on. But the water was hot and it felt good to lose herself in the steam.
Kate thrust her hands through her hair, wetting it efficiently.
Dream or no dream, she was going to shake off her mood and do her job today. Being Katie Henderson was a lifelong gig, and there wasn’t a stand-in.