"Uncle Eric!" Ethan shouts after my mom, Sabrina and Karissa finally leave. "We have a mission to complete!"

"Yes, the mission!" Micah yells, jumping up and down next to me as he tugs my arm. "We have a mission!"

I glance at Annie, who is laughing as I pretend Micah is strong enough to pull me to the floor. I grin; I am beginning to like being around Annie. She has been great with my nephews and she mingled with my sister really well. I caught Karissa glaring at her, which made me feel . . . angry. Why would Karissa be glaring at Annie, someone I brought with me? I don't think Annie noticed, but if she did notice, she did a great job pretending.

"Okay," I say, looking between my two nephews. "First order of the mission is to ask Annie if she wants ice cream."

Immediately, Ethan and Micah run to Annie's side, jumping up and down as they both try to be the first to ask her the question.

Annie laughs, "I love ice cream," she says, her green eyes dancing. "With gummy bears."

"Yes!" the boys shout in excitement.

I chuckle as I pull my car keys out of my pocket.

"A few rules first," I say, holding up my index finger as the boys stand still. "I need you to be good and listen to me, and Annie. No fighting and no running away . . . and do not, no matter what kind of torture they put you through, tell your mom and dad that I took you out of the house. Do we have a deal?"

I look at Annie as she claps a hand over her mouth to hide her smile. I am starting to like that smile, a little too much. The boys agree to the rules and I motion to the front door, crouching as we pretend to be sneaky spies. Annie joins the game, walking close behind me as she holds Micah's hand. I hold Ethan's hand, since he squirms more than Micah does. It is a good thing I chose against taking the booster seats out of my backseat. It is easier than having to work out buckling in those monstrous car seats that Sabrina has in her minivan. Annie buckles Micah into his seat while I take care of Ethan. He resists for a moment, complaining that he is a big boy and does not need the booster seat anymore.

"You know," Annie says as she fixes her seat to get into the car. "Ethan, if you don't sit in the booster seat, we can't get to ice cream."

Ethan relents with an exasperated sigh. I mouth a 'thank you' to Annie. She smiles and waves it off with her hand. Once I get into my seat and the engine is running, I flip through my CDs in the radio until one of the boys' favorite starts to play.

"Yay!" Micah shouts, clapping his hands.

Annie giggles and I glance at her.

"You hang out with them a lot then," she says, motioning to the radio.

"I'm the favorite uncle," I reply, nodding as I put the car into gear. "Jacks' is not around enough to earn the title."

I turn onto the road and head towards the center of town, where I know of a good ice cream shop. The place my parents would took us kids when we were younger. Surprisingly, the car is silent, aside of the kids' music on the radio. I have a strange urge to look at Annie, but I need to focus on driving and not her smile. Dang, that smile. Something about Annie's smile keeps washing away the bitter feeling I keep having when my mind wanders to Karissa. That should be a good thing . . . but Annie is something else.

"Do you have a rubber band anywhere?" Annie asks as she rummages through her tote bag.

"Check the glove compartment," I reply, reaching across to open it. "Why do you need a rubber band?"

"To pull my hair back; its annoyingly tangled today and I don't want to deal with it."

I clear my throat. "But it looks nice."

Annie gives me a sideways glance, but she continues looking through the glove compartment until she finds a thick rubber band. Out of the corner of my eye, I watch Annie pull her hair back into a ponytail. Her freckles stand out more, now that her hair is no longer hiding her neck and cheeks. I pull into the parking lot and turn off the car. I glance at Annie, trying to avoid staring for too long. She has a dark patch of skin peeking out of her jacket, just beneath her neck. It is black and blue, with a ring of yellow around the edge. A bruise?

"What happened there?" I ask slowly, pointing to the spot.

"It's nothing," Annie replies quickly, zipping the jacket up further. "Don't worry about it."

I want to say that it does not look like nothing, but I drop the subject. Once we get Micah and Ethan out of the car, we jog into the shop, barely making it out of the coming rain. Annie is laughing as Micah leads the way to where the line to order begins. I hoist Ethan onto my back so he can see all the flavors behind the glass. Micah doesn't ask Annie to pick him up, but I catch a strange look in her eye. It is almost as if she wants to pick him up so he can see, but she can't for some reason. Lack of strength, maybe. I set Ethan on the floor and pick Micah up so he can have a turn. Ethan grabs Annie's hand, looking up at her with a smile. She smiles down at him, but she does not seem herself all of a sudden. I barely know her, but I can sense something is wrong.

"Are you okay?" I ask, setting Micah on his feet.

"I'll be okay," Annie replies at a whisper, closing her eyes. "Don't worry about me."

I nod, but I feel like Annie is hiding something. We move up in line and I order the boys small bowls of vanilla with gummy sharks. Annie and I decide to split a large waffle bowl of Neapolitan, covered in gummy bears. It is when we go to sit down that Ethan and Micah start hammering Annie with questions. She smiles and answers them as best she can, giving them equal attention. I watch her for a moment until she looks me in the eyes. Hidden beneath the happy shield is a clouded haze of darkness. I look away, not giving Annie enough time to assess what I might be thinking. What happened to you, Annie?

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