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Chapter One

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Please note: This novel has undergone a major re-write from the original version posted back in 2015. The comments featured on some chapters are based on the original text. The paid version is new and not representative of past comments. Older comments may contain spoilers - read at your own risk. 

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THE MARK


No. Effing. Way.

Natalie Powell limped into her favorite Fitzrovia pub, the heel from her suede ankle boot in one hand, her cell phone in the other. Expletives fell from her mouth like rain. As she crossed the threshold, she stopped mid-curse when she heard her voice echo throughout the mostly empty bar. Half a dozen judgmental heads snapped in her direction.

"Uh..." She flashed an apologetic smile at the pub patrons staring her down. "I'm gonna have to call you back," she whispered.

Head down, she ended the call and retreated to the bar.

"Vodka martini, please." She slid onto a stool. "Very dry."

"Actually, can you make that two?" A man took the barstool beside her. "With two olives please."

She could feel the man's eyes on her but she kept her focus on the collection of bottles on the wall. Engaging in polite chit-chat with a stranger wasn't on her Final Night in London to-do list. Thankfully, the bartender was quick with her drink. She reached for her handbag but the gentleman beside her was too fast.

"Allow me." He pulled his wallet from his hip pocket.

"Thank you." She didn't bother to make eye contact.

She kept her attention on the collection of bottles on the wall, eager to disappear inside a frosty glass of Grey Goose and vermouth. She was only a few sips into her drink when the man stood and removed an object from his pants pocket. He placed it on the bar equidistant between them then parked himself back on the barstool without a word. A stealthy glance revealed something unexpected--a vintage silver pocket stopwatch quietly ticking off the time.

"Been a bit since we've seen that 'round here." The bartender tapped the bar top with a grin.

"That's because there hasn't been a reason for it until now," the man said.

Natalie's interest was piqued. While not a regular customer, she did drop in to the pub a couple of times a month with good friends who lived in the area. Enough times to know that the bartender's name was Eddie, that he was also the owner, and had no problem personally tossing drunk and disorderly patrons from his establishment. In the times she'd visited the pub, she'd never seen the gentleman beside her. Not that she'd taken a real good look at him--but she'd have definitely remembered his voice and his slow American southern drawl. A refreshing sound but painfully out of place in London.

"How long you givin' it?" Eddie asked.

"This one might take a little while. Don't think I'll be setting any records," the man replied.

"Don't sell yourself short, mate. I have a feeling tonight might be just the opposite." He winked.

Their conversation ended. Eddie went back to his task of prying open cardboard wine boxes with a pair of utility scissors. Several minutes passed. A rugby match played on the flat screen behind the bar, its commentary the only voices filling the air. The man beside her continued to nurse his martini in silence. As discreetly as possible, she eyed the stopwatch. A total of six minutes had passed since he'd placed it there. She knew exactly what he was doing. His methods were unconventional, creative, and snarky. His profile was strong, handsome, and she liked the natural wave in his thick, dark hair. She couldn't help but play along.

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