Chapter One

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William Murphy never saw it coming.

The old-fashioned brass bell tinkled above the doorframe. Will looked up from his French toast and watched a woman step inside the diner. Honey-blonde hair skimmed her shoulders and dipped over her face, obscuring her features like a mysterious dame in a forties noir film. The modern day Veronica Lake leaned between the stools at the bar and asked Ray, the chubby owner behind the counter, if there were any cinnamon twists today. He nodded, and she turned to look about for an empty table. Will smiled at her when her gaze skimmed over him and settled on the booth beside his. Well, happy birthday to me!

The man tending to his running nose had looked at her too. Dressed in a black-trimmed chef's tunic, his disheveled, dark red hair matched the bushy beard poking around the edges of the white handkerchief swabbing his nose. His slender fingers stopped moving. Frozen in an awkward nose-picking pose, he stared at the woman. The handkerchief dropped as the redhead shot to his feet. His thigh joggled the square table, pitching it to the left then right, tipping his mocha. Creamy chocolate slopped onto a slice of pie and a cannon shot of cocoa-laced coffee vaulted across a sea of linoleum tiles. Milky brown starbursts splattered Will's black shoes.

In three strides, the scruffy man had gripped the woman's elbows. Tufts of her red sweater welled like blood between his fingers. He jerked her onto her toes and drove her against the counter hard, bending her backwards, snarling fraught, incomprehensible, words into her face.

'Alex!' she screamed.

Alex let her go and backed away, shaking, gasping, as Will—and the other café patrons—watched her run from the diner. Shuffling, sniffling, Alex sat back at his table, leaned his elbows into the dripping pale brown mess on top, and dropped his head into his hands.

The moment of WTF shock wore off and Will hurried after the woman. By the time he'd made it outside she'd disappeared. With an irritated huff, he went back into the diner. He wiped chocolate milk from his shoes and dropped the soggy napkin on top of his half-eaten cinnamon French toast. He folded his newspaper, gathered his umbrella, and put on his raincoat with the torn sleeve. The tear was new and had happened during his the walk to the café. His umbrella had been turned inside out by a ferocious gust of Chicago wind, spidery spokes poked through the blue waterproof fabric, snagged the left sleeve of his raincoat, and ripped it on an exposed metal arachnid leg.

The hole in his sleeve should have been a clue that his birthday wasn't going to turn out very happily. It was barely past ten and events had already spoiled his day: his raincoat, witnessing a public display of near domestic violence, and sitting there gaping as the train wreck played out, doing ... nothing.

When did I become a man of inaction?

He glanced back at his napkin-covered breakfast. Did his inertia have anything to do with his French toast? Could he place the culpability for his inaction on the French toast? Was it really fair to hold sugar-dusted, egg-dipped fried bread accountable when his motivation this morning had been all about the French toast? He loved French toast. French toast and coffee were the highlight of his weekend breakfast, and he'd been eager to enjoy himself, and ...

You hedonist.

Hedonism had been his downfall. The French toast, the first cup of coffee, the woman and her Veronica Lake hair, he'd enjoyed all of them—until the sniffling nose-picker had entered with the gladiatorial spectacle of woman versus red-maned lion.

William Murphy, hedonist, examined the rip in his coat sleeve, and wondered if his birthday had turned him into something sluggish and lame. He wondered if a deeply hidden part of his mind was telling him to slow down, that this birthday meant he wasn't far off being like his octogenarian neighbor, who'd just moved out and into a gated retirement community.

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