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DELANEY'S SHADOW
by Ingrid Weaver

Genre: Paranormal, Romantic Suspense

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Delaney’s palm slid down the tree as she sank to the ground. She dug her fingernails into the arch of a root, anchoring herself in the here and now.

Yet the budding vision persisted. A feeling of warmth, of unconditional welcome was enveloping her. She glanced around to ensure she was still alone, then drew her knees to her chest, wrapped her arms around her legs and focused her thoughts on Max. 

The picture of him wavered, then reformed, stronger than before. Blotches of crimson and yellow sparkled against the sky. The mist around him thinned, as if stirred by the same wind that rustled the leaves over her head. 

Instead of coming closer, the figure in the center turned away from her.

“Hey, Max,” Delaney whispered. “Don’t go yet.”

The shape that was Max appeared to stiffen. He paused where he was and tilted his head to one side, as if he were trying to hear her.

“That’s okay, Max.” Incredibly, she heard a chuckle bubble past her lips. How long had it been since she had laughed? “Talking to myself is bad enough. I don’t expect to get answers.”

The light around him brightened, and details began to appear. He was still turned away, so she couldn’t see his face, but his hair was the same dark brown it had always been, gleaming with streaks of auburn where the sun touched it. 

He was taller than she remembered. Much taller. As a matter of fact, he was far too tall to be a boy. And he was no longer skinny. His shoulders had the breadth of a man's and his biceps stretched out the sleeves of his white T-shirt. He stood with his feet braced solidly apart in a stance filled with self-confidence.

Delaney blinked. Her imaginary friend had grown up.

This time, her laugh came more easily. It was bad enough to regress to her childhood by imagining Max. It was downright pitiful to fantasize about him being a fully grown man.

But what had she expected? She wasn't a child any longer, either.

“Deedee?”

The voice startled her. She hadn't heard it, she had felt it. It was inside her head. It was deep and rough, stroking through her senses like summer heat.

Years ago, she had imagined Max's voice in her head, too. They had giggled together as they'd played their pretend games, and sometimes he would join in when she sang her nonsense skipping rhymes. Back then he had sounded like a child. Now his voice was as unmistakably mature as his appearance.

This was some fantasy, Delaney thought wryly. The doctors would have a field day if they knew. So would Elizabeth. She’d haul her into a competency hearing so fast...

But no one had to know. That was the beauty of having a secret friend. “Long time no see, Max,” she murmured.

There was a pause, then the spots of color that surrounded him began to move, elongating and twining around themselves. Sunshine gleamed not only from his hair but from his broad shoulders. The image was strengthening. His arms became more defined. She could see a smear of crimson on his sleeve, and a streak of blue on his jeans.

Max pressed the heels of his hands to his temples. “Deedee?”

The distress in his voice took her aback. “I know it's been a while,” she began.

“What the hell is going on?”

“I just wanted...” She caught herself. He was a figment of her imagination. Why was she trying to explain anything to him?

He dropped his hands and half turned toward her. There was a hint of a sharp cheekbone and strong jaw, but she still couldn’t see his face. “Go away, Deedee. I don't have time to play.”

“Play? I don't want to play, Max. I only want to remember.”

“I don't.”

“But you can help me.”

“No.” He strode away. The colors whirled around him, melding with the shades of green at the edge of the lawn.

“Max, wait!”

“No.”

“Max–”

“Dammit, Deedee. Get out of my head!”