Chapter One

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A/N Welcome back to Willard's. I hope you find it's just what you need...

Daniel woke to the sound of his own scream. Late afternoon sun shone through a slit in the curtains, splitting the small apartment in half. He pushed back the sheets and sat up in the twin bed, trying to calm his breathing.

Disturbing dreams were nothing new, but the twisted intimacy of this one would be hard to shake off. He knew the source of his stress. The implications of Mr. Oliver's decision last week were impossible to ignore, even in his sleep.

He ran his good hand through his hair, then brought it in front of his face, flipping it over a few times, making sure he was nineteen and not a wrinkled geriatric. He wiggled the fingers on his right hand, anxious to be free of the cast.

It had been six weeks since the attack. Daniel still had nightmares about Mr. Travis popping out of the shadows, but instead of a flashlight for a weapon, he was wielding a sledgehammer. The face twisted in rage, however, was the same expression as the night he broke Daniel's arm.

He inadvertently touched the bump on the edge of his eyebrow. The stitches came out weeks ago, but the doctor told him he'd always have a scar, a reminder Daniel would be forced to look at every day.

Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, he felt the cold floor pressing against the soles of his feet. There was no opulent Willard's rug to cushion his steps. His apartment was sparsely decorated with the minimum necessities: a small round dining table with a wobbly chair and a kitchenette with a drawer full of plastic forks and knives and one broken can opener.

Daniel figured there was no need to settle into a place he thought of as temporary. He made his way to the window. It faced south—toward Willard's. Mary would be waiting for him, like every night shift.

His backpack lay sideways on the small kitchen table, several rolls of paper poking out the top. The result of his latest trip to the archives would please her. Despite the lingering tendrils of nightmare, Daniel smiled. I will save her. I will save them all.

The sun reflected off his white cast, now covered in ink and coloured marker. Petey's block letters took most of the space. The freckle-faced prankster had fought with Daniel the first time they met, but they soon discovered an impossible bond—Daniel's late mother, Virginia.

After a hasty shower with his right arm stuck awkwardly out of the spray, Daniel pulled on his jeans and hoodie and grabbed his backpack. He left his meagre apartment and headed down West 18th. The sky was a washed out blue, promising an early evening with enough warmth to entice diners to eat at the outdoor restaurants under newly leafed trees.

Springtime in Manhattan.

Taking a deep breath, he began to feel more awake as he neared the iconic store. A familiar sense of anticipation was building. Willard's was where he belonged. Daniel was the key to helping Mary and the others unravel the mystery of their existence, and one day they'd be able to leave the store. But until then, he was content to share every night shift with her.

A crowd of tourists created a pedestrian traffic jam on the sidewalk, preoccupied with taking pictures of the lavishly decorating window displays. The Little Mermaid on the other side of the glass seemed to wink at Daniel as he squeezed by, but he knew that was impossible; Mary would have mentioned if there were others still to meet.

He pushed through the main doors, then paused at the top of the stairs overlooking the ground floor. The golden tree with twinkling lights dominated the foyer. He'd only been away two nights, but it felt like much longer.

Honey, I'm home, he thought.

Daniel headed toward the staff room near the back of Menswear. Oscar was in his usual pose, close to the putting green. The peach-coloured polo shirt would probably be replaced with something more dapper once the day staff left. Oscar's cool demeanour and firm attitude were intimidating at first, but now Daniel thought of him as a wise friend, someone he could count on for advice.

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