By: Megan Hart

"Too bad. I'm sure someone else will." I wasn't surprised a man didn't want the paper. Embossed with gilt-edged flowers, it seemed a little too feminine for a dude.

Miriam's gaze sharpened. "You, perhaps?"

I waved the flowered paper aside and shoved my hands in my back pockets as I looked around the shop. "Not really my style."

She laughed and set the box aside. She'd painted her nails scarlet to match her lipstick. I hoped when I was her age I'd be half as stylish. Hell. I hoped to be half as stylish tomorrow.

"Now, how about something for yourself? I have some new notebooks right here. Suede finish. Gilt-edged pages. Tied closed with a ribbon," she wheedled, pointing to the end-cap display. "Come and see."

I groaned good-naturedly. "You're heartless, you know that? You know all you have to do is show me…oh. Ohhh."

"Pretty, yes?"

"Yes." I wasn't looking at notebooks, but at a red, lacquered box with a ribbon-hinged lid. A purple-and-blue dragonfly design etched the polished wood. "What's this?"

I stroked the smooth lid and opened it. Inside, nestled on black satin, rested a small clay dish, a small container of red ink and a set of wood-handled brushes.

"Oh, that's a calligraphy set." Miriam came around the counter to look at it with me. "Chinese. But this one is special. It comes with paper and a set of pens, not just brushes and ink."

She showed me by lifting the box's bottom to reveal a sheaf of paper crisscrossed with a crimson ribbon and a set of brass-nibbed pens in a red satin bag with a drawstring.

"It's gorgeous." I took my hands away, though I wanted to touch the pens, the ink, the paper.

"Just what you need, yes?" Miriam went around the counter to sit on her stool. "Perfect for you."

I checked the price and closed the box's lid firmly. "Yes. But not today."

"No?" Miriam tutted. "Why is it you know so well what everyone else needs, but not yourself? Such a shame, Paige. You should buy it."

I could pay my cell phone bill for the price of that box. I shook my head, then cocked it to look at her. "Why are you so convinced I know what everyone else needs? That's a pretty broad statement."

Miriam tore the wrapper off a package of mints and put one into her mouth. She sucked gently for a moment before answering. "You've been a good customer. I've seen you buy gifts, and sometimes things for yourself. I like to think I know people. What they need and like. Why do you think I have such atrocities on my shelves? Because people want them."

I followed her gaze to the shelf holding more porcelain clowns. "Just because you want something doesn't mean you should have it."

"Just because you want something doesn't mean you should deny yourself the pleasure," Miriam said serenely. "Buy yourself that box. You deserve it."

"I have nothing to write with it!"

"Letters to a sweetheart," she suggested.

"I don't have a sweetheart." I shook my head again. "Sorry, Miriam. Can't do it now. Maybe some other time."

She sighed. "Fine, fine. Deny yourself the pleasure of something pretty. You think that's what you need?"

"I think I need to pay my bills before I can buy luxuries, that's what I think."

"Ah. Sensible." She inclined her head. "Practical. Not very romantic. That's you."

"You can tell all that from the kind of paper I buy?" I put my hands on my hips to stare at her. "C'mon."

Miriam shrugged, and it was easy to see how she must have been as a young woman. Stubborn, graceful, beautiful. "I can tell it by the paper you don't buy. When you're an old lady, you'll be wise like me, too."

"I hope so." I laughed.

"I hope you'll come back and buy yourself that box. It's meant for you, Paige."

"I'll definitely think about it. Okay? Is that good enough?"

"If you buy the paper," Miriam told me, "I guarantee you'll find something worth writing in it."

Chapter 02

Shall we begin?

This is your first list.

You will follow each instruction perfectly. There is no margin for error. The penalty for failure is dismissal.

Your reward will be my attention and command.

You will write a list of ten. Five flaws. Five strengths.

Deliver them promptly to the address below.

The square envelope in my hand bore the faint ridges of really expensive paper and no glue on the flap, like the reply envelope included with an invitation. I turned the heavy, cream-colored card that had been inside it over and over in my fingers. It felt like high-grade linen. Also expensive. I fingered the slightly rough edge along one side. Custom cut, maybe, from a larger sheet. Not quite heavy enough to be a note card, but too thick to use in a computer printer.

I lifted the envelope to my face and sniffed it. A faint, musky perfume clung to the paper, which was smooth but also porous. I couldn't identify the scent, but it mingled with the aroma of expensive ink and new paper until my head wanted to spin.

I touched the black, looping letters. I didn't recognize the handwriting, and the letter bore no signature. Each word had been formed carefully, each letter precisely drawn, without the careless loops, ticks and whorls that marked most people's writing. This looked practiced and efficient. Faceless.