Blown Away by Elise Sax

Oh crap. Oh crap. Oh crap. This can’t be happening. Please don’t let this be happening. Anything but this. Butt acne? Fine. Tuberculosis? Not pleasant, but I’ll take it. Permanent halitosis? I’ll sign up right this second. But not this. Not—oh, crap—this.

I’m cursed. I mean, I’m not cursed…with the curse. In other words, Aunt Flow hasn’t visited me, and I had no time of the month this month.
Blown Away
Blown Away by Elise Sax
My little friend didn’t bother showing up. The little bitch. In plain English, I was supposed to get my traitorous period ten days ago, but I didn’t. Yes, I’m sure. Not a drop. I only realized this disastrous hiccup in my life two days ago. What’s wrong with me? Why didn’t I notice ten days ago when I was supposed to get my period? I’ll tell you why. I’m too distracted by things, like my life and my career, to notice that my life and career are about to go way down the toilet. Like swimming with the alligators in the sewers kind of down the toilet. But I’m not ready to throw in the towel. I’m not going to admit that I’m pregnant. Those words are not going to come out of my mouth. I don’t care if I have four pregnancy tests in my purse that all say I’m preggers. Science can kiss my ass. I mean, science has been wrong before, right? For example, are we really locked down on the whole gravity thing? I think there’s some wiggle room, there. The Pythagorean theorem? Sounds fishy to me. So, that’s why I’m here, staring at this rundown wishing fountain, which my town on Summer Island decided to save from being destroyed. The fountain, with its cracked plaster and lopsided construction, looks like it’s halfway to destroyed, anyway. It doesn’t work, and even if it has seen better days, I’d bet that in those better days it wasn’t anything to write home about, either. But I live in a crazy place filled with well-meaning do-gooders. They couldn’t let a historic fountain get tossed out with the garbage. And that’s how we wound up with a dry, useless well in the center of downtown. It’s called downtown, but it’s really just the center of our village. Like a wheel with spokes, the center is a circular plaza with six streets emanating out from the center. Summer Island is the definition of a sleepy town. There isn’t a locked door anywhere on the island, and most of the excitement revolves around various town events, parades, and the high school prom. I guess the wishing well does kind of belong on Summer Island because it’s quiet too. There isn’t any water in it, but the bottom is coated with a light layer of assorted coins. Each coin represents a wish, if you believe in those sorts of things. Today I’m a true believer of those sorts of things because I am going to throw in my luckiest coin, the silver dollar my grandfather gave me twelve years ago for my sixteenth birthday. Up yours, gravity. To hell with you, Pythagorean theorem. Science has let me down, so, I’m going for a wish from a broken well. I rub my lucky coin between my thumb and my forefinger. I close my eyes tightly. Please don’t let me be pregnant. Please don’t let me be pregnant. Please, oh please, oh please, don’t let me be pregnant. I crack open my eyelids to make sure that my aim is true, and I throw the coin into the well, hard like a major league baseball pitcher. It hits the plaster with a loud noise and cracks the paint. I watch as the silver dollar bounces and rolls its way down the side of the fountain, shoving aside lesser coins until it reaches its final resting place. “Don’t fuck with me,” I tell the fountain. I don’t usually cuss, but you can imagine how stressed I am. None of this is in my plans. I have very detailed one-year, five-year, and life plans. So far, everything has gone to plan. That is until now. I was born and raised on Summer Island, which is located off the coast of Southern California, but I went to school at UCLA. After I graduated, I came home to work at the local paper, but I’ve got my eye on the LA Times. I figure I’ll be able to seal the deal for the new job soon, since they’ve already published a few of my articles. I practically drool when I think about working for them. I could use the better pay, and it will be heaven to be away from the wackos of my small town. That’s my plan. Until now. My phone chirps and I take it out of my purse in order to read the text. Where are you? You’re going to miss it, I read. It’s from my colleague and nemesis, Cade Reed. That’s okay. I’ll take the exclusive. Fine with me, he continues. Cade has been a thorn in my side since kindergarten. If we had ink wells in school, he would’ve dipped my pigtails in it. He pulled every dirty prank on me for years, never leaving me alone. He T.P.’d my house, froze my bras, and called me to see if my refrigerator was running and to chase it at least a dozen times. And all of that was just in the past six months. Somehow, we’ve wound up working for the same paper in our hometown, competing against each other like we’re in the Olympics of journalism. Each story about a cat caught in a tree, the mayor’s bunion surgery, or the library getting a fresh coat of paint is fought over between us like it’s the Battle of the Bulge. Obviously, in this example, I’m Patton and he’s a Nazi, but he’s a tough competitor and each story is a hard-won enterprise. And I’m so going to beat his ass today. Mind your own business. I’ll get there when I get there, and the only exclusive happening today is mine. I click send and hop into my electric golf cart, which is the only acceptable means of transportation on the island, except for bicycles, feet, and Segways. Hover boards were popular for a while until the mayor took a tumble on San Felipe Street and needed thirty stitches on his forehead. Since then, hover boards have been banned on the island, except for a brief hover board rebellion a year ago by the Women-For-Free-Speech group, but that was short-lived since the members never could get the hang of balancing on them. Cade got that rebellion story and ran with it. It still stings thinking about his byline above the fold when I was only on page three with a pathetic story about the run on organic radishes at the Summer Mart. I can’t let that happen again. Pregnant or not, today I’m going to get the story before Cade does, even if I have to kill him to get it. Olivier Samba, a deposed dictator who’s living on the island, has something to say, and I’m going to be the one he says it to. Seven minutes later, I arrive at Summer Field to cover my story. I see Summer Field long before I get here, because there’s a huge, multi-color hot air balloon sitting right in the middle, and there’s a large group of spectators surrounding it. Well, a large group for Summer Island, which in this case is about forty people. Some are holding protest signs against Samba and others are here just because they’re curious. I don’t blame them. This is the biggest news to hit Summer Island since a German U-boat was spotted off the coast in 1943. That turned out to be a whale, but there’s no doubting that today’s news is totally real. I spot Cade in the group, close to the main action by the balloon. I’m dressed in a tight black business suit with a short skirt and high heels, which sink into the damp ground as I walk. It’s definitely the wrong thing to wear for this assignment, and I’m about to take off my shoes when Cade shouts at me. “You look like you’re doing some kind of weird new aerobics activity,” he says. “Up down. Up down. Are you aerating the ground with those shoes? Digging for worms? I didn’t know you wanted go fishing. I’ll go with you, if you want.” Here’s the problem with Cade. I mean, here’s the problem with Cade besides his mouth. Cade is a dead ringer, switched at birth, doppelgänger twin for Hugh Jackman. Not today’s Hugh Jackman. I’m talking about Hugh Jackman from the first X-Men movie when Wolverine walks in, your panties magically drop to the floor, and you begin to drool like you’ve got a bad case of rabies. I’ve spent over twenty years defying Cade’s powers of attraction and his off the charts sex appeal. It’s been more or less easy, since he’s been the thorn in my side even years before he froze all my bras and short-sheeted my bed. But as far as I can tell, I’m alone in my ability to defy Cade’s whoa-Mama good looks. There’s always a long line of females trailing him to try to get his attention. I know that he had a serious relationship with a woman named Cynthia in college, but other than that, he’s remained on the prowl, ever single for his whole life. His casual sex resume is legendary on the island, and I think he’s in the town’s historical records as the only citizen to have bonked two women at once while floating in the water tank, which hovers over the island thirty feet off the ground and is painted with a rainbow and Summer Island in neon blue paint. After that escapade, the town had to drain and sanitize the water tower drum. I heard it ate into our Fourth of July fireworks budget for three years. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I sneer. Cade points down at my muddy shoes. “Your Donna Summer disco shoes. You’re having a hard time there.” I refuse to admit that I’ve worn the wrong shoes. Normally, I’m not this stubborn. Normally, I’m not this combative. Because the truth of it is that despite the competition and the frozen bras, Cade and I are grown-ups. Well, at least I’m a grown-up, and he has a driver’s license and pays taxes. In any case, we’ve more or less put aside our past in order to work together. And we’re always working. We practically put out the entire newspaper on our own, spending an inordinate amount of time together. In addition to work, we regularly do Netflix binge sessions together at my place and ping-pong tournaments at his place. In other words, we’re generally tied at the hip. Dammit. “What’s got your panties in a bunch?” he asks. “That time again?” I bite my lip. I wish it were that time again. It hasn’t been that time in fifty-one days. It reminds me of my purse filled with used pregnancy tests. I hate those little bastards. Dammit. Cade puts his arm around my shoulders and gives me a squeeze. “Okay. Okay. I give up. I know when to shut my mouth.” “Oh yeah? Since when?” “You got me. You see right through me.” I step out of his embrace and open my purse, digging out my reporter’s notebook and pen, careful not to let him see the pregnancy tests. “Has he said anything, yet?” I ask, changing the subject. “Nope. He’s too busy arguing with his butler.” I turn toward Cade. “His what?” “Boris. Or Sven. I don’t know his name. The guy in the funeral home outfit.” He points beyond the balloon with his perfect Hugh Jackman finger, and I follow his line of sight until I spot the guy in question. Yep, the deposed dictator Samba does indeed have a butler. At least he looks exactly how I think a butler would look, except that this one looks like he’s been dead for several years. I almost approach him for an autograph because I’m convinced that he starred in the Addams Family as Lurch, but that would make him almost one hundred years old. “No, he didn’t star in the Addams Family,” Cade says. “I already asked.” The man must be boiling. Our island is called Summer Island for a reason. We have sun three-hundred-and-thirty-five days a year. Tourism is our number one industry, and everything is covered in solar panels. But the funeral guy didn’t get the message. He’s dressed in head to toe black wool. A three-piece suit with tails. It’s a wonder the suit isn’t soaked through with sweat. The butler is the polar opposite of Cade, who’s wearing his typical worn jeans and tight Fruit of the Loom T-shirt. I catch myself staring at his defined pecs and abs, which show through his shirt, and I quickly change focus upward before he notices, as if I’m interested in the sky. Cade elbows me in the side. “Check it out,” he urges. The butler is arguing with his boss, who’s the subject of our assignment and why I trudged out in the middle of the field in my heels. Olivier Samba, a developing world despot of the worst order, made some kind of deal with the United States to turn himself in and spend the rest of his days in a white-collar prison. Samba has done despicable things in his life, not least of all completely bankrupting his country. Now, he’s taking his sweet time turning himself in, taking care of last-minute details and loading up the government with lots of information about other countries. With a vacation home on Summer Island, Samba has been spending his time here, much to the chagrin of our progressive, civic-minded locals. There’s been a nonstop picket line in front of his mansion since he arrived a couple of months ago. As weirdly dressed as his butler is, Samba doesn’t disappoint, either. He’s dressed all in white, with billowy eighties-style parachute pants and a peasant top that looks like it came from the women’s department in Neiman Marcus. To top off his outfit, he’s wearing a long silk scarf wrapped around his neck, which flows behind him with the wind. Just like Cade said, Samba and his butler are arguing. As far as Samba’s reputation goes, it’s a death sentence to argue with him, but the butler doesn’t look scared. In fact my money’s on him, not the man in a peasant blouse. The butler wags his finger at Samba, who in turn stomps his foot on the grass and yells back at him. I can’t make out what they’re saying. I’m just about to step closer to hear when Jessica Hemmings, the town gossip, slaps me on the shoulder with her picket sign. “I’m watching you, Millie Mossberg,” Jessica warns me, pointing at my nose. “I know your mother, you know.” Everybody knows my mother. Everybody knows everybody. It’s a very small island. But I understand her threat. If I don’t do my job right, if I don’t write an article about the dictator that she’ll like, she’s going to rat me out to my mother, and my mother is going to let me have it. What else is new? “We got this,” Cade tells Jessica, and her eyes glaze over and her pupils dilate, even though Cade is at least twenty-five years younger than she is. I wish I had his superpower to shut up busybodies and people who want to rat me out to my mom, but I’ve never learned the art of seduction. Cade has. He’s the Batman, Superman, and Incredible Hulk of seduction. “I can’t believe our town council allowed that man to come here,” Jessica screeches at me. As if it’s my fault. “It is a free country, Jessica,” I say. “The man does own property here.” It’s the wrong thing to say. Jessica doesn’t want to hear about our free country, especially how it relates to a despot who lives in her neighborhood. She cocks her head to the side and studies me. “Are you back talking me? Are you defending this criminal?” I’m not defending him. And normally I would never backtalk Jessica Hemmings, because even if I don’t have Cade’s powers of seduction, I do have a great survival instinct. If I’m back talking now, it’s because I’m getting impatient, and not just for the Olivier Samba interview. I’ve got four positive pregnancy tests in my purse and my breasts are starting to swell and tingle, which I don’t think is the effect of standing so close to Cade. Damned Cade. I slap him hard on his arm. He clutches at it in pain. “Hey! Why did you do that?” he demands, his eyes wide with horror. I bite my lip, but there’s steam coming out of my nose, and I think my eyeballs are going to explode out of my head. Why did I hit him? Maybe because you got me pregnant, you jerk. Oh, yeah. Did I mention that? Cade got me pregnant. CHAPTER 2 Alcohol is a villainous substance. If you never let alcohol past your lips, you’re a much smarter woman that I am. Actually, I don’t do too badly with beer. I rarely drink red wine because it gives me a migraine. I never go near vodka after the international incident with the ambassador from Russia. But tequila does me in every time. Yes, I’m going to blame the tequila. Hear that, unborn baby poised to give me stretch marks and destroy my metabolism? Yes, you’re a tequila baby. I’m going to call you Tequila and dust you with salt when I see you. It all started back in kindergarten when Cade Reed pummeled me with a dodge ball during recess, knocking me onto the ground and destroying my favorite dress with grass stains and mud. All right, sure I’m going far back in time. Normally people don’t hold grudges from when they were in kindergarten. But it really was a nice dress. Okay, I’m not telling you the whole truth. It has nothing to do with the dress. Yes, he pummeled me with the ball, but this is Cade I’m talking about, the superhero of seduction, and he already had his superpowers way back then. As I sat in the mud, with my cheek beginning to swell, dazed and confused and in a lot of pain, Cade leaned over me and offered me his hand. “Are you okay?” he asked. Of course I wasn’t okay. I had a bruise for three weeks, and I lost two teeth prematurely, which I swallowed and didn’t get a dime from the tooth fairy. But all of that was put aside when I was face to face with Cade. I was hooked. I had Cade fever. Just like the swiftness of a measles epidemic that sweeps through Disneyland, I was infected right there and then. My attraction to Cade burrowed into my body, altering my DNA forever. I was doomed. Ever since that moment, I’ve fought this attraction to Cade. I mean, how could I give in, when Cade was only interested in me to play beer pong, watch Marvel movies, or to torture me? Sure, he’s a great pal when he’s short-sheeting my bed, but I’m not going to be just another sock on his doorknob, another Jessica Hemmings, going goo-goo-eyed over his perfect bone structure and mutant good looks. Not to mention, Cade has never given me the slightest bit of interest in the romantic way. Not a peep of passion. Not an iota of intimacy. Not until the evil tequila. It was fifty-one days ago. Cade and I had just put the newspaper to bed. Dan Smothers owns the paper, and he’s the editor in chief, but Cade and I have been single-handedly running it for the past couple of years. I have to admit that working hand in hand with Cade has been a lot of fun. It’s sort of like working in a frat house, but with a cleaner bathroom. So, there we were at the office fifty-one days ago. It was around midnight, and because it was during the week, the bars in town were already closed. Cade wanted to celebrate the end of a stressful day. He opened the drawer of his desk and pulled out a bottle. It was the evil tequila. “Come on, Millie,” he urged. “You know you want it.” It had been a very hot day, and he was wearing a muscle tee and cargo shorts. It was like porn from Sears. “I don’t drink tequila.” “You’re not going to let me drink alone, are you? Come on. I need a drink.” His goo-goo eyes twinkled at me, and just like Superman’s laser beam vision, they shot right down to my uterus. I was made powerless. The next thing I knew I was handing over my coffee mug, and he was pouring tequila in it. “Listen to that,” he said. “What? I don’t hear anything.” “Exactly. Silence. Peace. Ain’t it wonderful?” He handed me the cup of tequila, and our fingers touched. He kept his fingers on mine, and I didn’t pull back. Whoa. Holy Moses. Hot diggity. It was electric. Immediate. Impossible to resist. My mouth went dry, as if all the liquid in my body was pooling down below, like it was getting ready for what was about to happen. I guessed I needed lots and lots of liquid for that. Oh, God. “What’s happening?” Cade asked me. I guess he was just as shocked as I was. Our eyes locked. His were enormous, his pupils fixed and dilated. I almost checked his pulse to make sure he was still alive. Or give him mouth-to-mouth to revive him. Oh, mouth-to-mouth. I really wanted to get my lips on him. Anywhere on him. “I don’t know,” I answered. “But hand over the damned tequila.” He did, and I gulped it down like it was a peach Snapple. He poured me another, and I slapped that one back, too. I was feeling warm all over, but it wasn’t from the drink. The office had gotten smaller, and somehow, Cade had appeared on the other side of the desk, our chairs facing each other, and our knees touching. I could smell his expensive cologne and something else that I suspected came from his pores. Yum. “You two need to stop moving. You’re making me dizzy,” I said. “There’s only one of me.” “Okay. Well, one is enough,” I said, grabbed a fistful of his shirt, and pulled him toward me. I slammed my mouth onto his and kissed him like my life depended on it. Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. I never actually wished to get into Cade’s pants, but I have to admit that I hadn’t stopped thinking about it since my mother told me about the birds and the bees and the dangers of getting into boys’ pants. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that there was something fabulous in Cade’s pants, and now after all that wondering and fantasizing and eating Snickers bars while thinking about it, I was about to go there. I was about to unzip his cargo shorts and hit the mother lode. But first it was all about the kiss. I had initiated it, but Cade took over pretty fast. His hand weaved its way under my hair, as he pulled my head closer. My mouth opened to let his tongue enter, and he slipped his tongue around mine and over my teeth and generally made my eyes roll back in my head. What were we doing? I had no idea. But I had never been kissed like that, and I didn’t want it to stop. I was dimly aware that Cade scooted forward in his chair, his knee parting my legs. His knee felt wonderful, and I wondered if his knee was that good, how great his other body parts would be. Then, it stopped. Cade pulled back, and I moaned in disappointment. I could hear him breathing hard, and I opened my eyes. He was wearing my lipstick, which was smeared all over the lower half of his face. It wasn’t his color, but he looked sexy as hell. His hair was mussed, even though I didn’t remember mussing it, and his face was flushed, even beyond the lipstick. “I’m going to hate myself for asking this,” he croaked. “But are you sure you want this to happen?” I wasn’t exactly sure what was going to happen. Were we flirting? Were we going all the way? Was one or both of us going to get naked and were bodily fluids going to get swapped? I was all for swapping. I was all for it all. All of it. Every last bit of him. The last time I was that horny for a man, it was my freshman year in college, and I stumbled on the quarterback in my dorm hall right after I had finished watching The Notebook. Oh, baby. I didn’t know how to answer Cade. It was a horrible mistake to have sex with him. I knew it. He knew it. It was one of those obvious mistakes, like eating two-day old sushi from 7-eleven. Mistake or not, there was a strong throbbing in my undercarriage that wasn’t taking no for an answer. So, I didn’t answer. Instead, I grabbed Cade’s crotch, which had grown to an impressive size, as it pushed against his cargo shorts. Holy crap. It was like someone had put a baseball bat in his shorts. A really big baseball bat. A wood one. My hand on his enormous erection seemed to be a good enough answer, and no matter if it was a bad idea, he was going for it as much as I was. He stood up, grabbed me around the waist and dragged me up, too. I melted against him, letting him carry my weight. He stared me down with his blue eyes that had turned dark as night. He was definitely a man on a mission. I held his gaze. I was swirling around in a cloud of hormones so powerful that it must have been illegal under the Geneva Convention’s rules against chemical warfare. I had gone over to the dark side, and I didn’t want to return. I wrapped my arms around his neck and lifted up on my tippy toes in order to reach him. I nibbled his earlobe and blew gently in his ear. He moaned, and his cargo shorts strained against the pressure, ready to explode. He dropped one hand and pushed it across the desk, sending everything on it crashing onto the floor. Then, he grabbed me once again by the waist and threw me onto the desk. I landed with a crash and a loud oomph, but he kissed me silent. I would have bruises for a week, but at the time, I was feeling no pain. My legs separated, and I kicked off my shoes, sending them flying across the office. My hand went to his button and zipper, freeing him, and his hands lifted up my skirt and cleverly pulled at the elastic on my panties, slipping a finger along my slick folds and into my wet core. I might have screamed… I don’t remember. Whatever it was, I’m certain I made a lot of noise, and who could blame me? I had gone from zero to a hundred-and-fifty in the fast lane. If I had been at the Indy 500, I would have blown them all away. My hormones were exploding all over my body, but I wanted them to explode even more. More. Bigger. Faster. I grabbed at him, urging him to press forward. This would have been an opportune moment for me to remember my eighth grade sex ed course. What had Mrs. Sullivan told the class? Something about condoms and birth control. Something about diseases that could make body parts fall off. And something about pregnancy. I got an A in sex ed class. I wrote a poem about periods in iambic pentameter that blew Mrs. Sullivan away. But at the moment when my legs were wrapped around Cade’s waist and the tip of his penis was teasing me in the best way possible, I completely forgot that Mrs. Sullivan ever existed. I couldn’t recall a single blue hair on her head or a single one of her dire warnings about genital warts or colicky babies. All I could think of was… “Hurry! Give it to me! Take me! Harder! Yes! Yes! Yes!” I grabbed at Cade furiously, pushing my hips up toward him, and he lifted my blouse and palmed my breast. I didn’t shut up until he entered me and after that I just gurgled like I was having a seizure, and maybe I was. It was the best feeling ever. If I could have walked around for the rest of my life with Cade’s penis in my vagina I would have been a happy woman, indeed. No need for a Pulitzer. No need to win the lottery or to lose the cellulite on the back of my thighs. All I needed to make me happy as a clam was his big circumcised wiener that filled me up completely and knocked against my cervix, like it was wondering if anyone was home. Speaking of a clam, my clam spasmed while Cade began to thrust. He leaned down, and kissed me, this time with an intense passion. I squirmed against him, my body in a hurry to climax. But he was taking his time, like he was eating a four-course meal by candlelight, whereas I was in the McDonald's drive-thru chowing down on a Quarter Pounder. He wouldn’t be rushed. He entered me slowly until our pelvises ground against each other, and then he retracted until he was almost out of me, entirely. Over and over and over, but every so slowly. When he was done with my mouth, he kissed his way down to my breasts and savored them, too. My body was on fire. I didn’t know how he could stand the heat from touching my burning skin. He should have been wearing oven mitts or at least have had a fire extinguisher handy. “Cade,” I moaned, drawing out his name into three syllables. I was melting into pure arousal. My estrogen was multiplying itself like an amoeba. I was a Victoria’s Secret Angel, porn star, and Olympic gymnast all in one. Cade lifted my leg until my foot was by my head so he could enter me even further. As if he could read my mind, he thrust faster, picking up speed. To top it off, he dropped his hand to caress me as he entered me. The rest is fuzzy. I’m pretty sure I levitated. For sure, I spoke in tongues and sang the Beatles’ “Revolution” backward. Within seconds, I exploded and Cade exploded right after. Completely sated, we laid immobile on the desk for at least ten minutes, him lying on top of me, and me gathering his body with mine, my limbs wrapped around him, and his exploding love stick still inside me. Yes, I was in bliss. Yes, I was in bliss because the sex was mind-blowingly mind-blowing and not because I had knocked back two tequilas. I was lying on an old desk with a stupid smile on my face and my body turned into melted butter. If I could go back in time, I would slap the bliss right off my face, because at that very second, Cade’s gorgeous, strong sperm swimmers were swimming through my cervix on their way to fertilize my traitorous egg. Those little bastards. We never spoke about the tequila night after that. For fifty-one days, we acted as if nothing happened, as if it wasn’t the best sex I ever had. Not a peep about a change in our relationship or whether friends-slash-colleagues should be lovers. Immediately after we caught our breath, still in the after-effects of the throes of passion, we got off the desk in an uncomfortable silence and stolen, sheepish looks. Then, we got dressed and picked up the office supplies from the floor. Like nothing happened. CHAPTER 3 I punch Cade, again. He responds by tapping my solar plexus, sending me teetering backward on my heels until I pop out of my shoes. They get stuck in the mud, and I fall on my butt. “Why did you do that?” Cade asks, staring down at me. It’s hot outside, but the cold mud is seeping through my JC Penny skirt, giving me the chills. “Why did I do that?” Insufferable jerk. I kick at his shins, but I can’t reach him. Cade offers me his hand, and I grudgingly take it. He pulls me up with no effort at all. “If you’re trying to make a good impression on Samba, you’re doing a miserable job at it.” Cade smirks and touches his nose, as if he’s trying to prevent himself from sneezing or laughing. Probably laughing. I wag my finger in his face. “Don’t laugh at me. It’s not funny.” “It’s kind of funny,” he says, arching an eyebrow. “No, it’s not.” “A little bit.” “No, it’s not,” I insist. “A shade less than George Carlin, but well above Louis CK.” I stomp my bare foot on the ground. “You have to be nice to me.” “I do? Since when?” he asks, honestly curious. “Since,” I begin but bite my lip. I need to tell him about the maybe probably baby, but I can’t bring myself to tell him. I’d rather tell him how much I weigh or watch him pick his nose. I would rather get a Pap smear or a prostate exam…if I had a prostate. Or a colonoscopy. Well, maybe not a colonoscopy. It’s a toss up…a giant hose up my butt or telling Cade that he’s going to be a daddy. “What’s going on in your brain?” he asks, interrupting my merry-go-round train of thought. “Nothing.” “Something awful is happening in there,” he says, pointing at my head. “Like Godzilla meets Chernobyl.” “Your mouth is Chernobyl. It’s spewing nuclear waste.” He gathers my shoes, and I balance with my hand on his shoulder while he kneels in front of me to help me slip my feet into them. “Breaking Bad marathon at my place tonight?” he asks. “Again?” We’ve already seen the entire series three times. With my feet re-shoed, he stands up and dusts his hands off on his jeans. “I got a limited edition DVD set with commentary by Peter Jackson.” Cade loves to re-watch TV shows and yell at the screen about how he could have made it better. “Peter Jackson directed Lord of the Rings, not Breaking Bad,” I say. “I know, but he’s a fan. He has insights. Come on. I’ll order pizza.” I love pizza. I’d do anything for pizza. “Anchovy and pineapple pizza?” “Oh, come on,” he groans. “Give a guy a break.” “Thin crust anchovy and pineapple pizza?” “Thin crust? At least give me a regular crust. It’s a lot of work eating around the anchovies and pineapple. The crust is all I got.” I hold my own and don’t back down. It’s either anchovy and pineapple pizza, or he has to shout at the screen by himself. It’s no fun for Cade to shout at the screen without a witness to see how clever he is. “Fine,” he grumbles after a moment. I probably shouldn’t wait until the Breaking Bad Jane dies in her own vomit scene to tell Cade about the bun in my oven. I need to get this out, now. I can’t keep it from him any longer. “The thing is,” I start, but Cade puts his hand over my mouth. “Shut up,” he hisses. “Mr. Wacko Psycho Dictator is about to speak. I hope this is over fast. I need to eat a big lunch to prepare for tonight’s pizza fast.” Sure enough, Samba and his butler have stopped arguing, and Samba is addressing the crowd with his hands up, as if he’s about to conduct Beethoven’s Fifth. His pants are a little too white, and with the sun shining just right, I can see that he’s not wearing underpants. Yuck. The vision is giving me my first dose of morning sickness. “You may be wondering why I gathered you here today,” he announces in his thick accent, which sounds like a mixture of French, Spanish, and Moon Doggy surfer. “I think I know why. I’m figuring that the people of Oz have called him home,” Cade says, pointing at the balloon. My pregnancy test-laden purse distracted me from the balloon before, but now I’m wondering about it, too. At first I assumed Samba was using the balloon as a dramatic backdrop, but now I’m not so sure. His butler is sour-faced, obviously upset about something. He continues to fiddle with the ropes that hold the hot air balloon down to the ground. It’s a battle between him and the cords, and the cords look like they’re winning. I’ve got a bad feeling. Samba is smiling, talking about his love for America, which is whipping the protestors into a frenzy of outrage. Nobody in the land of the free wants him walking around free here. Even though he’s richer than Midas, he’s bringing down property values. Samba seems clueless that people don’t love him. He continues a line of blah-blah with gusto and enthusiasm. I need to take notes, but I’m drifting. Why is the butler untying the balloon? How can I have a baby? How can I take care of it? I wonder if the Associated Press will give me a byline when I write this story and hand it off to them. Should I tell Cade about the baby now? Should I ever tell him? What is he going to say? I’m out of paper towels. I need to buy some on the way home, today. Oh, my God, the balloon. The ropes look like some kind of alien predator, and they’re taking down the butler. He’s tied up in the ropes, and he’s trying to extricate himself, but he’s older than dirt with zero percent muscle mass, and the ropes are getting the better of him. Poor half-dead, Adams Family butler man. “As a farewell gift, I will give an exclusive to one lucky journalist,” Samba says, making me jump to attention. My skin prickles with excitement. I would torture a puppy for an exclusive. Well, not really, but you get the picture. I want the exclusive bad. I feel Cade’s eyes on me, and I look over. He wants the exclusive, too. I can see the cogs turn in his brain, trying to figure out how to kill me and bury me so he can get the exclusive. “A tell-all before I go away to pay my debt to society,” Samba continues. A tell-all. My mouth waters, and I step forward. A tell-all could be my Pulitzer. I hop on my heels in excitement. I raise my hand, like I want to go to the bathroom. Cade takes two steps forward so that he’s blocking me. “Cade Reed of the Summer Island Gazette,” he announces. “I’m more than happy to do an honest, fair piece about you, Mr. Samba.” Samba frowns. He hates being called Mr. Samba. He’s old school autocrat. He needs pomp and circumstance. “Your Excellency,” I call, elbowing Cade out of my way. “Millicent Mossberg of the Gazette.” I don’t need to say another word. He loves being called excellency. Samba’s eyes light up, and he practically skips toward me. He takes my hand in his. Ew. His touch makes my flesh crawl, but I keep my exclusive-getting smile plastered on my face. There’s no missing his attraction for me. There’s mud on my ass, but his focus is fixed on my boobs. I take a deep breath to inflate them. Hey, I may have no shame, but I’m going to rip the exclusive out of Cade’s hands no matter what I have to do. Well, not no matter what I do. There are some matters I won’t do. Samba is caressing the skin between my thumb and my forefinger, and I want to vomit. “My beautiful Millicent,” he says, sounding a lot like Dracula. “Yes, I will tell you everything and you will tell the world, yes? “Yes,” I say and shoot Cade a neener neener face. Cade isn’t paying attention, though. He’s more focused on Samba’s fingers molesting my hands. It looks like Cade is jealous of more than just my scoop. “Come, you will interview me in the balloon,” Samba announces with a flourish, taking my arm and walking toward the balloon. “The balloon?” I’m not going in the balloon. I’m scared of heights. I’ve never gotten above the second rung of a ladder, and I’m pretty sure that a hot air balloon goes higher than that. “I will fly over this beautiful land with a beautiful woman and tell her about my beautiful life,” Samba announces in a sing-song voice, which gives the protestors a burst of outrage. He’s walking me closer to the balloon with Cade on my heels. The butler is still wrestling with the ropes, which have caught him, making him hang a foot off the ground. “There’s not a lot of land to fly over,” I say, a slight tinge of panic in my voice. “We’re on an island. There’s a big ocean all around us. With water. And sharks. Sharks with teeth. How about we do the interview on the ground? There’s no chance of drowning or getting eaten alive by sharks on the ground.” Samba doesn’t care about the Pacific Ocean and the possibility of a terrible death. He’s determined to fly in the balloon as some kind of statement before he’s locked up for the rest of his natural life in a white-collar prison, along with Southern California’s finest Wall Street manipulators, mutual fund defrauders, and general pension-stealing criminals. I tug my hand out of his grip and gnaw on a fingernail. No way am I going in the balloon. No way. Nuh-uh. Not gonna happen. I’m never going up in a hot air balloon. I’d rather have my eyes gouged out. I’d rather slide down a slide made of razor blades. I’d rather become a vegan. I’m not going in the balloon. I’m not. I’m not. I’m not. I need a miracle. I need an intervention. Somebody help me! “She’s not going,” Cade says, stopping Samba. “I’ll interview you and go in the balloon with you.” My hero. It’s the most chivalrous thing anyone has ever done for me. It’s also a lowdown dirty trick to steal my story. “No,” Samba says. “No,” I say, a little louder, getting in Cade’s face. “This is my interview, and I’m going to fly in the balloon.” What am I saying? Has the surge of hormones made me flip my lid? Am I having a stroke? The words are coming out of my mouth, but it’s like they have a mind of their own. They’re imposter words that some jerk has put into my mouth. They’re usurper, poser, infiltrator words. Cade is angry at my words, too. He stares me down, his tall frame bent over to give me his best he-man scary face. It’s pretty scary. Cade is built like a lumberjack, like he cuts down trees with his bare hands all day long. I get side-tracked, staring at his strong arms with bulging muscles. I’ve felt all his muscles, and they all feel really good. Finally I blink, remembering where I am. “I’m going in the balloon,” I repeat like the moron I am. Cade grinds his teeth. I can hear them grinding. “You’re afraid of heights.” “I’m not afraid,” I say, embarrassed. “I just have a healthy respect for heights.” I respect them from afar, from the ground. And even from the ground, heights make my heart race and my armpits sweat like they’re the fountain at the Las Vegas Bellagio Hotel. But I’m a driven reporter, and I’m especially driven when it comes to getting the story before Cade. Nothing is going to stop me from getting the exclusive, not even a horrible death. Samba puts his arm around my waist and pulls me close to his side for a squeeze. “Good. So we go.” “We go,” I agree, trying to swallow. There seems to be something stuck in my throat. It’s probably my foot. “I'll go, too,” Cade insists. I see my exclusive fly away, and I panic. I start to protest, but he puts his hand up. “I go too, but it’s your story.” “You swear?” “Pinkie promise, double swear. It’s your story. I’ll just go along for the ride.” I search his face for a lie, but I know Cade well enough to know that he’s telling the truth. For some reason, he’s handing me the story and is requesting to fly in the balloon. I nod. To tell the truth, I’m relieved that he’s going, too. Maybe he can break my fall. “No electronic devices,” Samba says, smiling. “Just your notebooks and pens.” I’m used to all kinds of crazy requests from interviewees. As long as there’s no restraint on telling the whole, true story, I usually comply. I toss my purse on the ground, and Cade tosses his phone on top of it. It’ll be there when we get back. The last theft on Summer Island was the high school mascot in 1973, and it was given back two hours later. We walk to the balloon, as the butler is finally able to untie the ropes. It’s a breezy day, and even though the butler is managing the ropes now, the balloon is fighting against him, trying to free itself. As soon as he gets it untied, it starts dragging him across the field. We watch in shock while the butler digs his heels in, but it’s no use. He begins to waterski on the ground with the tails of his suit jacket flying behind him. “That was unexpected,” Cade mumbles. Samba speeds up, running to catch up to the balloon with Cade and me right behind him. As he runs, he’s talking a mile a minute, giving a loud speech to the protestors, who he seems to mistake for his fans. “So, I’m about to take my leave of you to suffer this beautiful country’s penal system because I’m a law abiding citizen of the planet, who… holy shit!” The balloon is taking off for real. Samba takes a running jump and climbs up, making the basket bounce on the ground. Cade gives me a hard shove on my rear end, and I fly forward, slipping out of my shoes again and landing face first against the balloon’s basket. Cade heaves me over the side, like I’m a sack of potatoes. I manage to get upright just as Samba falls on top of me. “Get off of her,” I hear Cade say. I peek around Samba to see Cade straddling the top of the basket. Samba pushes away from me, and I pull myself up. Cade hops down, and now all three of us are standing in the large balloon basket. It reminds me of the nursery rhyme the three men in a tub. “Well, that was a smooth takeoff,” Cade says. “Takeoff?” I ask and look down. Below us on the ground, the butler is staring up at us, giving us the finger. It’s his final salute to his boss, I guess. His finger gets smaller and smaller, as we get higher and higher off the ground. The island seems to float below us, and the ocean is getting closer. I’m gripped with horrible vertigo, and I drop to a crouching position so that the basket blocks my view. “How’s your respect for heights doing?” Cade asks, looking down at me with a satisfied grin on his face. “It looks like you’ve got a lot of respect happening.” “Yep,” I say and throw up on his shoes. CHAPTER 4 It’s awkward flying in a hot air balloon with two other people, once you throw up on one of their shoes. “Well, these are toast,” Cade says and carefully takes his shoes off and dumps them over the edge. I’m still terrified, but I’m getting used to the height. That doesn’t do me any good once we’ve reached the edge of the island and we’re going over the ocean. I’m still scared of drowning and getting eaten by a shark. “We’re going over the ocean,” I say, my voice hitching up like I’ve sucked helium. “We’re going to be lost at sea. We’re going to wind up the subject of a cable news show. I don’t want to end up that way.” Cade pats my back. “It’s okay. We’re going east, not west.” “What the hell does that matter?” I ask. “Because we’re heading toward the mainland. Not out to sea.” I take a deep breath. This is good news. We’re not going to float out over the largest body of water on the planet, destined to die. However, even though we’re flying in the right direction, there’s still quite a distance between Summer Island and the coast of California. We could die in a million ways before we reach safety. And besides, how does Cade know that we're going east? He was never a Boy Scout. “How do you know were going east?” I demand. “I’m reasonably sure were going east, Millie.” He avoids my eyes and works his jaw like he’s gnawing through leather. Cade can’t lie to my face, so he’s doing what he does whenever he tells me that there were only four Pop Tarts in a box. He’s looking away and grinds his teeth. If I had any more food in my stomach, I’d throw up again. I turn my attention to Samba, who seems enraptured by the balloon. He’s studying every aspect of it, the beautiful colors of the balloon itself, the flame in the center, and the ropes that hang below. “Forget the interview,” I urge. “Take us back to the island. We need to be over land, or we’re going to die. I don’t care what you have to say. Do it now.” I’m only five-foot-three, but I can get pretty ornery when I’m floating thousands of feet up in the air. “Just a minute, Millie,” Cade says. “Let’s not waste this chance. Mr. Samba, what was it that you wanted to talk about?” Samba furrows his eyebrows. “Are you kidding? I’m not giving any interview. I’m fleeing.” “What do you mean, you’re peeing?” I ask. Although I really shouldn’t judge, since I just threw up on Cade’s shoes. “Not peeing,” Cade says. “He’s fleeing. You’re fleeing?” Samba nods and bends down, riffling through some stuff in the corner of the basket. He stands up with a backpack in his hands and puts it on. “I don’t understand,” I say. “I’m not getting the interview?” “To be fair,” Cade says. “You just forfeited the interview, remember? You said you didn’t want it anymore and that he should just land the balloon. So, technically, this is my interview.” I want to stab Cade in the neck, but I don’t have a knife. “I don’t care what I said. The interview’s mine.” “Nuh-uh. Mine.” “Mine!” “No interview,” Samba says. “I don’t give interviews. Although, it would’ve been nice to spend more time with you, pretty girl.” He glides his fingers over my cheek. With the interview gone, the reality of being stuck in the balloon comes back to me. “Okay, whatever,” I say. “No interview. But how about you land this balloon?” Cade and I lock eyes, and I know he’s thinking exactly what I’m thinking. We may not have the exclusive interview with a despot heading off to jail, but we do have the story of the century of a lunatic trying to escape prosecution via hot air balloon. It’s almost worth dying for. “”How about you land this balloon?” Samba says. “I think you should talk to him,” I tell Cade. “He’s speaking your language. You know, five-year-old boy.” “Mr. Samba,” Cade says in his best grownup professional voice. “When are you planning on landing the balloon?” Samba shakes his head and smiles. “Don’t you understand? This is the genius of my plan. The balloon keeps going, and the authorities look for it. Meanwhile, I’m enjoying mojitos in the company of two very young and beautiful women.” Cade turns to me. “Nope. I don’t think that’s five-year-old he’s speaking. That’s more like…” He points at his head and makes little circles. I get the picture. We’re trapped in a balloon high above the ocean with a lunatic. “At least I was right about going east,” Cade continues, pointing behind me. I turn and look. Land. I’ve never been so happy to see Los Angeles smog. “Good,” I say. “How do we get this baby down?” Samba ignores me, but no matter what he said, I’m convinced that he’s working on getting the balloon down. As we fly over Los Angeles and up into the mountains, he pulls on a cord, and I wait for the balloon to lower. It doesn’t. Instead of landing, the balloon soars even higher. “I don’t like how this is going,” I say. “This is way too many of my nightmares wrapped up into one. Somebody pinch me. Wake me up, quick.” Cade grabs Samba’s arm, preventing him from pulling the cord again. “You’ve got to stop that, or I’m going to throw you overboard,” he growls. “Good idea,” Samba says and climbs up on the side of the basket. He stands there, holding onto the ropes. He’s a sneeze away from plummeting to his death. “Oh my God, he’s going to jump,” I shriek. “Don’t let him jump. He’s the only one who knows how to land this thing.” Cade swipes at Samba but only manages to knock his chest. He doesn’t tap him hard, but it’s enough to send Samba flying into the air. For one brief moment, it looks like the deposed dictator is actually flying. Is it possible that he has a superpower? Can he fly? I’d love to have a superpower to fly, because I’m sure that today is going to end with me walking into the light. I don’t want to die this way. I’m not going to look pretty after falling thousands of feet to the ground. I should’ve eaten chocolate cake for breakfast. If I get out of this, I’m going to eat chocolate cake every day for breakfast for the rest of my life. Who am I kidding? I’m never getting out of this alive. Samba floats in the air with his arms outstretched. It’s a nightmare, like watching a real life horror movie. But there isn’t a speck of panic anywhere in his expression. In fact, he smiles and waves goodbye to us, like he’s had a nice visit, but now he has to go run errands. I gasp. I’ve never seen someone die before. There’s not a lot of death on Summer Island. People are disgustingly health-conscious. If you’re not drinking a green smoothie while doing downward facing dog, you’re an outcast. Samba’s miraculous flying ability starts to fail him, and he dips down below us. I run to the side of the basket and look over the edge. There goes Samba, falling to his death onto the mountains below us. I want to say a prayer, but I don’t know what to say. It would take a bigger miracle than splitting the Red Sea for Samba to defy gravity and survive, and I’m not sure God wants to waste one of his biggies to save a war criminal. It turns out that Samba doesn’t need my prayers. A second after I’m sure that he’s a goner, he tugs at his chest, and a parachute pops out of his backpack, throwing him up into the air above us. “Today sure is full of surprises,” Cade says. I can hear Samba laughing. It’s the sound of triumph. Somehow, this man has evaded his capture, and now he’s sailing off into the sunset, while Cade and I are doomed in the balloon. If Samba didn’t know how to manipulate the balloon, he’s a pro at the parachute. He twists, turns, and pulls at it, and the parachute dives away from us. We watch, enthralled as Samba makes his escape. Meanwhile, we fly over the mountains. Trapped. Doomed. I clutch a fistful of Cade’s shirt and pull him toward me. “I do not want to die like this. Do you hear me?” I spit from between my teeth. “Tell me you know how to get this balloon down safely.” “I know how to get this balloon down safely,” he says. For a second I’m relieved, but then he shrugs. Shit. “Come on. Don’t look like that. There must be a way to do this. There’s probably instructions somewhere.” The idea comes as much of a surprise to him as it does to me. We furiously search the basket and the ropes for some kind of tag with the words pull here. But there’s nothing. No way to adjust the fire that’s keeping the balloon afloat. It’s like Samba has erased any possibility of us landing the balloon. “Maybe there’s another parachute,” Cade says. His optimism is starting to bother me. Doesn’t he understand that we’re going to die, die, die? Even though I’m fighting off the urge to pull out my hair and scream hysterically, I help Cade search the basket for more backpacks. We do find a small cooler with champagne and caviar in it, but there’s no other parachute. “What kind of crazy person leaves champagne and caviar for his murder victims?” I ask. “Did you notice there’s only one glass? That’s your glass.” My glass. I was supposed to be here by myself. I can’t imagine being stuck up here, alone. At least now I have Cade to keep me company while I die. I swallow, but my throat has gotten thick like there’s something in there. I know what it is. It’s guilt. Not only am I going to die, but I’m going to kill Cade, too. He grabs me and gives me a bear hug. “Don’t think that,” he says, reading my mind. “This isn’t your fault. It’s not even my fault. It’s the crazy guy’s fault. Remember that and don’t forget it. Somehow, we will get out of this.” “You’re such a liar,” I say into his chest. It does feel better to have him hold me, and I’m filled with the need to be honest with him, to tell him everything before we die. “It’s not just you and me,” I mumble into his chest. He rubs my back and nestles his chin on my head. “What was that?” “It’s not just you and me in this balloon.” “You mean the ghost of Samba is here? I think he took that with him, too.” I wrap my arms around him and slip my hands under his shirt for warmth. He feels so good. Comfortable. Comforting. “No, not Samba’s ghost. I mean the baby. Our baby.” There’s a moment of silence, and I can swear that Cade stops breathing. His hands drop and then come between us, pushing us apart. He arches an eyebrow. “Say that again. I heard something funny. I think my ears are playing tricks on me.” “I may be pregnant.” “May be pregnant. Is that like you may win the lottery and may be discovered by Hollywood? Or is that like you may get up in the morning or may eat dinner? What’s your definition of may? “Well, it’s not official.” Cade takes a step backward and clutches his chest, laughing loudly. “Oh my God, you terrified me. It’s not official. I really believed you there for a second. ‘We’re not alone in this balloon.’ Wow, you sure know how to scare a guy.” I laugh, too. “Right? It’s not like I’ve gone to the doctor. I just took some tests.” Cade stops laughing. “Test? You took a pregnancy test and it was positive?” There’s not a drop of color anywhere on his face. I can almost see right through to his panicking brain. “Four of them.” I stick four fingers up in the air. “But I haven’t seen the doctor yet.” He steps back again until he’s leaning against the side of the basket. “Four pregnancy tests? All positive?” I nod, biting my lip. I feel for him. I had the same reaction. “And you think this is my baby?” I put my hands on my hips and give him my I’m-going-kill-you stare. “Who else’s would it be?” “I don’t know your private life.” “Are you kidding me? I don’t have a private life. Every moment of my life is spent with you. I work with you. I watch TV with you. I only go home to shower and wash my bras. I even pick up my dry cleaning with you.” “That’s because the dry cleaners is next to Paco’s Taco Shack.” “Whatever. The point is that you’re the only one that I’ve ever had sex on a desk with, and the only one I’ve had sex with in a long time.” “But that’s the thing. We only had sex once. Once! How could you be pregnant?” “I don’t think you understand how this works,” I say. “It’s not like commitment. Sperm don’t take a wait and see approach. They swim hard, and it doesn’t matter if it’s the first time they’ve ever taken a swim. They’re goal-oriented.” It finally hits him. He’s going to be a daddy. He got his co-worker pregnant. He’s going to have to change diapers and save for college, even though he’s still paying off his student loans. His eyes flick to my belly and then back to my face, searching for something. There’s still no color in his face, and he’s stopped blinking. Then, he stops breathing. I check his chest for some movement, but yep, he’s stopped breathing. “Breathe!” I shout. “Breathe!” He doesn’t breathe. He crumbles like a house of cards, landing on the cooler in the corner of the basket. CHAPTER 5 “Wake up,” I say. “Don’t die and leave me here, alone. That’s typically selfish of you, Cade.” I slap him to bring him back to consciousness. He begins to wake up, and I slap him again, because I’m pretty pissed about him questioning if the baby is his. “Ouch!” He swats at my hand, and I slap his face, again. Just because. He opens his eyes. “What happened?” he asks. “You passed out.” “I don’t pass out.” “It’s the new you. The daddy you.” Cade sits up and rubs his back where he fell on the cooler. “This is a bad joke.” I sit down next to him. It’s not so scary deep in the basket. I can almost pretend that I’m not hovering thousands of feet in the air. “So, having a kid is worse than dying in a runaway balloon?” I ask, wanting to slap him again. “No, no. Of course not,” he says and looks away. It’s his tell. The sign that he’s lying. I slap him hard on the face. Four slaps are a bit much, but do you blame me? Cade’s head snaps back, banging into the basket. “All right,” he says, putting his hands up in surrender. “I guess I deserved that.” “You think?” “Well, you surprised me with your little surprise, you know.” “You passed out,” I say. “A man jumps out of a hot air balloon and leaves you here to die, and you don’t pass out. You find out that I’m pregnant, and you pass out. I guess this doesn’t mean you’ve dreamed about starting a family with me.” Cade opens the cooler and works to open the champagne bottle. “I’m not the white picket fence kind of guy.” I know that. I’m not the white picket fence kind of girl. Sure, I live on a tiny island in a village of quirky people who believe that cavities are caused by bad karma and acne can be cured by group chanting and throat singing, but I’m a career woman. I’m like one of Cade’s goal-oriented sperm…I’ve worked toward fulfilling my journalistic dreams for years. I’ve never dreamed of a white picket fence or a white wedding dress or a white baby. I’ve done very little dreaming about white things. Cade uncorks the champagne and takes a long swig. He holds the bottle out for me, and I grab it, bringing the bottle to my lips. Then I remember about the positive pregnancy tests, and I hand it back to him. He arches an eyebrow in question, and a second later his gaze flicks toward my belly, as he remembers what’s in there. “You’re wrong, you know,” he says, taking the bottle. “I’m not wrong. Wrong about what?” “I have thought about it,” he says, taking another drink. “About picket fences?” “About a family. You know, with you.” It’s my turn to pass out, and I’m shocked that I’m still conscious. It’s a hell of a time to stop drinking. “Open the caviar,” I demand. He twists open a large can of caviar with Russian lettering on it. I take the caviar from him, dip two fingers into it, and shove it into my mouth. Yum. Normally, I need a Snickers bar when I’m confronted with shocking information from my life-long crush. But caviar will have to do, considering the circumstances. I eat about a thousand-dollars-worth of the Russian fish eggs before I’m physically able to respond to his confession. “You thought about having a family with me?” I ask after I swallow. “I’ve sort of had a crush on you since kindergarten. I thought you knew but didn’t care. Didn’t you notice that I couldn’t leave you alone?” Of course I noticed he couldn’t leave me alone, but I never figured that T.P.’ing my house was a sign of attraction. Maybe I’ve been wrong about Cade’s seduction skills. He definitely needs a tutorial in flirting. The real Hugh Jackman would never freeze a woman’s bras. Still, Cade’s confession has broadsided me. I’ve almost swallowed my tongue. It’s hard to believe that he’s had a crush on me since kindergarten. It’s a lot to digest. I scoop more caviar into my mouth. It isn’t working to calm me. Cade hands me the champagne. I take the bottle, but I refuse to drink it, just like a good mommy-to-be. “Maybe we can make this work,” he says. My body seizes up in shock, and I drop the champagne bottle. Cade puts it back in the cooler. “Work how?” I ask. “I’m a family man, a happy man, a working man.” “That’s three men.” “I’m serious,” he says, and his goo-goo eyes are back, the same eyes that made me pregnant. I’m terrified of those eyes, but they draw me in, anyway. He’s got some gorgeous kind of eyes, and they should be registered with the FBI as dangerous weapons and with Planned Parenthood as unplanned parenthood weapons. Chemical weapons. Biological weapons. Terrible weapons wrapped up in a gorgeous package. “What do you mean, you’re serious?” I ask, purely for informational reasons. I have no idea if his serious is my serious. His serious could mean anything. It could mean that thinking of me gives him indigestion. He points at me and back at himself. “You, me, baby makes three. That kind of thing. That kind of serious.” I gasp. “Yeah, right. Sure. I’m ready for the punchline.” But I’m secretly hoping there’s no punchline. I’m secretly hoping that I’ve won the commitment jackpot. “No punchline,” he says, caressing my cheek. “I’m serious. I wouldn’t mind putting the toilet seat down or eating home cooking for as long as we both shall live.” “You would have to do the home cooking. I’ve never even owned a frying pan.” “We’ll order in.” I nod. “It’s more than that. More than the toilet seat and the toothpaste cap.” “I didn’t agree to anything about the toothpaste cap.” “Let’s be clear here,” I say. “You would have to agree on the toothpaste cap. But it’s more than that.” But I don’t know what the more is. I’m an only child. I’ve never babysat, and I’ve certainly never had a baby before. What does it take to make a successful relationship, a happy family and home? I’m clueless. I wish I had chocolate. The caviar isn’t doing the trick. “This is a lot to think about, but I don’t want you to think you’re alone. You’re not.” I realize that I’ve been holding my breath, and I exhale. “Okay,” I say. I study his face to determine how much of what he said is truth and how much is bullshit. I haven’t had a lot of luck with men in the past, and I’ve no reason to believe that Cade is going to change his hide just for me…and for the little bean growing in my belly. I don’t know if I see truth or lies in his face, but we lock eyes, and then I’m sure of what I’m seeing. It’s all written in his killer, fertile eyes. Whoa, Nelly. I guess Cade likes pregnant women, because I’m pregnant, and his big dark eyes focused on me tell me that he likes me a whole lot. He crawls toward me until he’s almost on top of me. His breath smells of champagne and I’m-going-to-get-you-pregnant-again. Thankfully, Mrs. Sullivan taught me that I can’t get pregnant again while I’m pregnant. It’s like a get out of jail free card. “What are you doing?” I ask, scooting backward until I’m leaning against the basket. “What do you think I’m doing? I thought you were pretty familiar with this kind of activity.” “You want to do it when we could die any second?” “Millie, we can always die any second. Life is full of surprises, as you know too well.” Cade’s voice is dark and filled with hubba-hubba. I melt at the sound of his voice. His lips lightly touch mine, and I put my hand on his shoulder to push him back a little. “In a balloon basket? You want to do it in a balloon basket?” I ask. “The mile-high club, Millie. Come on, be a sport.” Be a sport. Be a sport. I try to wrap my mind around the idea of being a sport in a hot air balloon basket in the minutes before my likely death. But Cade is ready to go. He’s nuzzling my ear, making me squirm with pleasure, and he’s busting out of his jeans. I beg my common sense to make an appearance, and it makes a half-hearted attempt at re-routing the situation. “Calm it down, buddy,” I moan, as he continues to nuzzle my ear. Wow, I could have him do that all day long. Ear nuzzling is woefully underrated. “There isn’t enough room in here for the two of us plus one-eyed Willy.” My protest is pretty lame, and Cade has a clever solution about where to put one-eyed Willy so it won’t take up too much room in the basket. His lips move from my ear down my neck, and my traitorous hands reach around his neck and draw him in closer. Oh, what the hell. You only live once, and if you get the chance to have sex in a runaway hot air balloon, you should take it. CHAPTER 6 Since movement in the basket is difficult, we only get partially naked, revealing just the parts that are absolutely necessary. Despite the cramped quarters and our impending doom, Cade takes his time, and I let him. I take back every negative thing I thought about Cade’s seduction abilities. He’s big-time talented in the seduction arena. Without saying a word, he’s seduced me right out of my panties. He sits down and lifts me up onto his lap. I wrap my legs around his waist, and he holds me tight against him. Our lips touch, and then he’s devouring me with his mouth. Tongue, lips, tongue, lips, tongue. We’re like the grand champions of Dancing with the Stars but with our mouths. I can hear the judges: Perfect scores to Millie and Cade for kissing. Extra points for tongue action and the ability to do hot, sweaty snugglebunnies, even though Millie’s head is spinning like a top with dizziness and her blood is rushing through her veins like it’s the pace car at the Indianapolis 500. As impossible as it seems, Cade is growing underneath me, like his penis is angry it’s being neglected and wants some attention. I squirm against it, and it moves in gratitude. Cade moans, his voice deep and guttural. “Holy shit, woman. You’re the best.” I take him at his word…I’m the best. I’m super vagina, able to leap tall penises with a single bound. Cade slips his fingers between us, touching my most sensitive skin. My insides melt, and the panic of my pregnancy and uncertain future fades away in a cloud of passion that makes my eyes roll back in my head. I begin to pant, doing a pretty good impression of a Pomeranian, when Cade suddenly stops. Before I can complain, he shifts me onto my back, and his tongue replaces his finger. His…tongue… His glorious, talented, I-didn’t-know-tongues-could-do-that, tongue. I begin to sing opera. Somehow I manage to sing an entire aria from Aida, even though I’ve always been tone deaf and I don’t know a word of Italian. Cade doesn’t stop his performance during my performance. All of his years of incessant talking have given his jaw enormous powers of strength and endurance. He has great eye-hand coordination but even better eye-tongue coordination. He’s magical. He’s the wizard of oral sex. He’s the Dumbledore of cunnilingus. Have you got the picture? He’s amazing at giving head. I writhe in ecstasy as I reach my climax and a high C. As soon as I’m totally sated with a line of drool running down my chin and my heart rate down to a comatose five beats per minute, Cade hops to it, flipping me up and over his lap, again. With his hands on my hips, he lifts me up slightly, and when he puts me down again, he’s inside me to the hilt. My heart rate speeds up, and I’m wide awake. “Look at me,” Cade orders. I look at him, and he’s looking right back at me. The lust and desire are still there, but now they’re joined by another look. A look like he wants to look at me for a very long time. A deep connection look. A commitment look. My skin is alive, red, and on fire, despite the cold air. Our second sexual escapade has evolved into something deeper and more important. I try not to read too much in the gentle way he rocks against me, connecting our bodies. I try not to believe that this is something more than a roll in the hay, or in this instance a roll in a rattan basket, or whatever the basket is made of. But no matter how much I try not to, I’m reading all kinds of things into Cade’s sensual lovemaking, his butterfly kisses, and the emotion that’s emanating from his pores. I’m overcome and made silent by the emotional intensity, but the physical intensity is pretty powerful, too. Wrapping my arms around him, I pull myself closer and trail light kisses down his throat, tasting his salty skin. He thrusts faster, clutching my hips tightly. I meet him thrust for thrust, and I know that he’s close to finding his fulfillment. He fills me completely, and I tighten my inner core, holding him, which makes him groan loudly. His lips take mine in a ferocious, territorial kiss, while his body retracts and then explodes inside me. Holy Moses. We stay locked in an embrace, our bodies still connected, for a long time. Cade combs my hair with his fingers, and I rest my head on his shoulder, nestling my face against his neck, breathing in his heady musk. Very slowly, reality comes knocking on my head. I try to bar it from entering, but reality is a cruel bitch with a vicious left hook. It breaks into my brain and won’t leave. And boy is it loud. You can’t decide to be together just because you’re having a baby, the cruel bitch insists. A family has to be based on more than a surprise pregnancy. I try to block out reality, but I know what she’s talking about. It’s not advisable to create an entire life from nothing, from an accident and two explosive sexual encounters. We would need more than that to build a lifelong relationship to parent together. You need to love each other, the bitch says. Love…the golden unicorn of single life. There’s no way Cade loves me. If he loves me, he would have told me at some point during the past twenty years. Instead of saying he loved me, however, Cade called me fart-attack for three years after an unfortunate incident in the middle school cafeteria after my second breakfast burrito. The reality bitch is right. Fart-attack is not a euphemism for love. Cade doesn’t love me, and a life-long crush, amazing sex, and his genetic seed growing in my body doesn’t mean that I love him. I inhale his scent deeply and sigh. This is not going to happen. This is impossible, just like flying over the continental U.S. in a hot air balloon that neither of us know how to handle. The balloon is going to kill us, and so will any kind of artificially constructed arrangement between us. That’s what I tell him. Slowly, I extricate myself from Cade’s embrace and get dressed. I insist that he cover up, and when we’re both totally G-rated, I tell him that even if I’m bearing his child, we can’t be together. His reaction is suitably shocked without a hint of relief on his face. It’s kind of him not to shout “yee-hah” or some other cheer of euphoria because he’s off the hook and doesn’t have to commit to me or buy me a ring. “We can’t build a relationship on an oops and good sex,” I explain. “Oh,” he says with a lost expression on his face. “I thought that was what you wanted, but I guess this way is smarter.” I want to smack him again. I understand now. He only said all of those things about toilet seats and commitment because he felt guilty and thought it’s what I wanted. Of course it’s what I wanted! But he should have wanted it, too. Rejection is a bitter pill, and it’s leaving a bad taste in my mouth. “Where’s the caviar?” I ask. I need to stem the hurt somehow. “You ate it all.” “I ate a one-pound can of caviar?” No way. Not possible. Cade nods. Oh, God. I’m going to be three-hundred pounds by the time I have this baby. I’m never eating again. From now on, it’s only chicken breasts and broccoli that goes past my lips. But for now, I’m still hungry. “Check the cooler for something else. I could go for Fig Newtons or a Pop Tart. Or a turkey.” I’m talking very loudly, kind of like I’m hailing a cab or I’m a mad woman at Bellevue who won’t take her meds. Cade shoots me a panicked look and opens the cooler. “I don’t see any food,” he says. “Hold on a sec. What’s this?” He pulls out a large white package wrapped in plastic. It looks like a brick of confectioner’s sugar, which normally would make my mouth water, but the niggling doubt that a deposed dictator would store twenty pounds of powdered sugar in his hot air balloon has erased my hunger. “Uh oh,” I say. It’s a buttload of cocaine. “I think Samba left something behind.” “It looks like he left his retirement account,” I say, and it makes me wonder if he was supposed to jump out with the cooler but forgot in all the excitement. “Maybe he figured it was stored in his parachute backpack?” Cade asks. We stare at the giant block of cocaine for a moment. It’s really big. Cade’s bicep bulges as he lifts it. It must be worth millions. Millions. Millions is a lot of dollars. It’s like looking at a winning lottery ticket, a new house, and an easy future. It’s also like looking at twenty-five to life, getting tattooed with a ballpoint pen, and being the unwilling intimate companion of a large woman named Ted. I shudder. “I think we’re in trouble. This is going to end badly,” I say. “You figured that out, huh?” “I don’t mean just the balloon.” I lift my eyebrows toward the cocaine. “You have a point. Unless we’re planning on setting up shop on the mean streets and compete with the Colombian cartels, we need to get as far away from the ton of happy powder as possible.” Cade puts the cocaine back in the cooler and stands up, dusting his hands off on his jeans. He helps me up, and I get dizzy from the view. With all of the commitment talk, the sex, and the cocaine, I pretty much forgot that we’re hanging precariously from a balloon as it passes through the Rockies. I slap my hand over my eyes and will the world to stop spinning. Vertigo. I hate heights, but I will myself to take a deep breath and get over it just for now. I peek through my fingers after a moment. There’s lots of blue sky, a few clouds, and mountains all around us and right underneath us. I could almost jump out of the balloon and land safely. The proximity to the ground makes me a lot less anxious. “This isn’t so bad,” I say. “We’ve lost a lot of altitude.” I take a deep breath, optimistic for the first time since we got stuck in the balloon that we might make it out unscathed. “We haven’t lost any altitude, Millie. We’re in the mountains. Really, really tall mountains.” I look down. We’re passing over a peak and ahead of us is a forest of trees. A gust of wind hits us hard, and our basket knocks into the top of a tree, jolting us and sending the basket swinging from side to side. We swing wildly, and I’m sure this is it. This is the way I die. I almost tumble out, but Cade catches me with one arm and pulls me close against him while he holds onto the basket with his other hand, preventing us from falling to our deaths. It seems to take forever for the basket to steady itself, and I can feel Cade’s body tense, as the fear wears off and irritation takes its place. He’s angry, really angry. “All righty,” he says. “I’m tired of this shit. Time to get proactive.” Proactive sounds good. I’m all for an alternative to dying. “What’s your plan?” Cade opens the cooler, again, and pulls out a large knife, pointing it at me. I put my hands up. “Don’t do it! I want to live!” “For pity’s sake,” he mutters and puts the knife behind his back. “I’m not going to kill you. I’m not even married to you.” I put my hands on my hips. “Then what the hell, Cade?” “It’s the plan. You’re going to take the knife, climb up on my shoulders, and puncture the balloon so that we can land,” he says, like he’s telling me to go to the store to pick up a half gallon of milk. “I’m totally on board with me taking the knife,” I say. “But you lost me after that.” “It’s the only solution to our problem.” “The only solution to our problem is for me to climb onto your shoulders to pop the balloon and plummet to our death?” I ask. “I’m reasonably sure that it won’t pop. We will simply float downward. It will be a gentle landing.” “Define reasonably sure.” He takes my hand in his and looks deeply into my eyes. “Come on, Millie. Let’s not wait for death to get us.” “Are you kidding? I would much rather wait for death than jump into its waiting arms.” He bends down and slaps one of his shoulders. “Come on, old girl. Heave ho.” “’Old girl?’ ‘Heave ho?’” He slaps his shoulder, again. “Let’s do this thing. Don’t worry. I’ve got you.” The man has obviously flipped his lid. He’s come down with a sudden case of mad cow disease, which has turned his brain into jelly. I look up at the giant balloon above us. It’s huge, much closer to the sky and much further away from the ground. There’s no way I’m going up there. I’m hit with another wave of vertigo, and I stumble. Cade grabs hold of me. “You can do it,” he says low in his throat, making me want to kiss him. “There’s already a hole in the balloon,” I whine. I’m not lying. There’s a large hole at the bottom, where the fire is billowing up into the balloon, making it stay afloat. “I know. You’re going to put a big rip in it higher than that.” “Higher than that? Higher than that?” I screech, sounding like I’ve been sucking on helium. “I can’t go higher than that. Why don’t you do it?” He holds me and pets my head with his knife hand. “I can’t do it because I can’t climb onto your shoulders. You wouldn’t be able to hold my weight,” he says, logically. Damned logic. “You drank all the champagne,” I accuse. I want to be drunk more than anything. “I was saving our baby.” Oh. Our baby. His ownership catches me unaware, and I’m stupidly persuaded to risk my life. “I’ll hold tight to you. I promise.” “Okay,” I croak. I want to slap back the words into my mouth. I mean, what a shitty plan. Any plan would be better than this. I wrack my brain, trying to think of any other plan, but before I can come up with a Mission Impossible life-saving plan, Cade moves quickly. He slices the front of my skirt up to my crotch with the knife. “What do you think you’re doing?” I yell. My skirt is in tatters with the pieces billowing up around me. “You need to be able to move your legs,” he explains, handing me the knife. I look at it. It’s long and sharp, the kind of knife to use for some kind of chopping for cooking. I don’t know. I don’t cook. “You gave me the knife. Are you insane?” Cade shrugs. “I thought it was even money whether you’d stab me or not. I’m betting that your maternal instincts will kick in and weigh on the side of my safety.” I wield the knife in a threatening manner, but he’s right. I can’t kill the father of my child. Besides, I don’t like blood, and no way am I going to die alone in this balloon. “Are you sure it’s going to work?” I ask. “Are you kidding? I’m not sure at all. I’m just winging it.” Cade slaps his shoulder, again. He squats and grabs my thighs, moving me to straddle him. Sure enough, ripping my skirt allows me to separate my legs and hop onto Cade’s shoulders. With little effort, he stands up with his hands clinging tightly to my thighs. Up on Cade’s shoulders in a hot air balloon thousands of feet above ground is much higher than the second rung of a ladder. Birds don’t fly this high. Bill Maher has never been this high. It’s really, really high. Oh my God, I can’t be this high. It’s way too high. The wind whips around, blowing my hair and the pieces of my skirt. My freak-out is growing exponentially, and I feel myself going over. Well, not really, but my freak-out is telling me that eventually I will go over. I grab onto Cade’s head with a death grip, which makes sense since I’m about to die, and I drop the knife to the floor of the basket. “My eyes! My eyes!” Cade shouts. My thumbs might be gouging out his eyes, while I hold on for dear life. As much as I don’t want to gouge out his eyes, I can’t force my hands to let him go. Screaming in agony, Cade slams down on his knees, and I roll off him. “You blinded me! I can’t believe you blinded me!” “I can’t believe it, either because I didn’t blind you. Don’t exaggerate,” I say and hold up two fingers in front of his face. “How many?” “Three?” he asks, squinting with tears streaming down his face. “Exactly,” I lie. “You’re fine.” Cade wipes his eyes with his sleeve and hands me the knife, again. “Okay. Here we go. Don’t let me down, Millie.” His red, blotchy eyes are doing a great impression of a stray puppy. I’m a sucker for puppies, but an even bigger sucker for not letting people down. He knows my kryptonite… Guilt. I straddle him, again, but this time I hold on to the top of his head, leaving his eyes alone. He clutches tight to my thighs as he stands, bracing his feet to balance us. I’m hit with another wave of vertigo. “The world is going around,” I complain. “Yes, I know. I learned that in third grade science class. Don’t worry about it. Think happy thoughts.” I try to think happy thoughts, but they all end with me falling to my death. “Reach up and slash the balloon,” he commands. “Do it! Slash it! Go ahead! Reach up there!” Reaching up entails letting go of Cade’s head. I’m hovering over the basket, only one hiccup or slip on a banana peel away from doing the world’s longest swan dive. I’m shaking like a leaf. My heart is pounding in my chest like it’s the Marine Band. It’s all I can do not to pee on Cade. I will my knife hand to release him, but my fingers won’t comply. “Reach up! Reach up!” Cade yells. He’s not quite as steady on his feet as he was a moment before. In a burst of either bravery or stupidity, I release his head and reach as high I can, swinging the knife above me, trying to cut the balloon to shreds. I manage to reach it, but the balloon is tougher than I thought or the knife is duller than I thought because I can’t make any progress. I slice at it, but the balloon seems to bounce away. I give it one more whack with everything I have, but I lose my balance and the knife goes flying out of my hand and over the side of the basket. For a split second, I worry that I’ve killed someone with my clumsiness, that some poor shlub is going to get stabbed to death by the knife I’ve sent flying to earth. I don’t worry for too long. A second later, I start to go over, too. So, screw whoever I might have impaled. The only person in the world I’m worried about is me, me, me. In the blink of an eye, I’m hanging off of Cade’s shoulders at a ninety-degree angle with his head wedged in my crotch. It doesn’t stay there for long. “I’m going over!” I scream. CHAPTER 7 Cade’s strong hands are like vises on my legs, but even if he were Superman, there’s no way he can save me from falling overboard. I’ve completely lost my balance, tumbling forward, my crotch up and over his head and falling fast out of the basket toward a terrible death. It’s the ultimate cliché, but my life is flashing before my eyes. I see the whole thing from my premature birth right up until my premature pregnancy. After the replay of the highlights, my mind shifts to the life that I’ve left to live. My unborn baby. I want to call her Beryl…Okay, I can work on the name. And then there’s Cade. I’m going to miss Cade. We would have had a great life together. Sure, he can be aggravating, but a life with him would be a fun kind of aggravating with lots of laughs and adventures. Scratch that. I don’t want any more adventures. In my flash of clarity of consciousness between life and death, I’m sure of one thing: A life with Cade would be a life full of love. So, this is how it ends. Death by splat. Totally unfair to end my life before it even begins. I feel shorted, ripped off, like the sucker who bets on a sidewalk card trick performer. My card never comes up. Oh, well. No use dwelling on tragedy. I accept my fate. I’m going to die. My body is going to flatten like I’m the star of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. The fall is going to break every bone in my body. I don’t have a medical degree, but I bet that’s going to hurt. I’m over the side of the basket, about to make a perfect impression of a bird, when I toss my acceptance aside and my survival instinct kicks in. My inner bitch rises to the surface, and I decide to fight back. Finally. I swing my arms and attempt to defy gravity, but I keep falling. Gravity is a tough bastard. I wish I did more ab exercises in my life. Or at least some ab exercises. Any ab exercises. But no, I have no core strength, and I can’t manage to lift up my torso and save myself. “Hold on!” Cade shouts. “Hold on to what? Air?” I shout back. I have nothing to hold on to, but Cade is doing a good job holding on to me. He manages to grab more of my body and begins to pull me from the abyss. It’s hit or miss for a moment, but miracles do happen, and Cade saves me. Finally safe, we fall in a heap inside the basket with my back wedged up against the cooler. “The knife?” Cade asks after a minute. “I hope I didn’t kill anyone.” He sighs and slaps his forehead. I don’t blame him. It’s totally my fault. We don’t have the knife, no way to rip the balloon, no way to save ourselves. And it’s all my fault. “It’s not my fault,” I say. “Totally not my fault.” Cade gathers me to him and tucks a strand of hair behind my ear. “It’s not your fault. I shouldn’t have forced you to do that.” “Oh,” I breathe. Even as we’re about to die, he’s looking at me like he’s on Weight Watchers, and I’m a Costco-sized cheesecake. I could melt into him and merge our two selves to make one really great person. “We’re going to die.” “Everyone’s going to die.” “Yes, but they’re going to die later. We’re going to die now.” He doesn’t say a word. What can he say? It’s a done deal. We’re going to fall off the side of a mountain or drown in a deep lake. It’s not going to be pretty. I throw out a wish to the universe for a miracle. Come on universe, give me a nice juicy miracle to save our lives. I close my eyes and make a wish, as if it’s my birthday, and I’m about to blow out my candles. I wish with all my heart and then I open my eyes. Cade is still looking at me, like he’s trying to memorize my face. No miracle happens. It’s just him and me floating in the sky, waiting to die. As proof of our demise, the balloon makes a terrible noise, like metal on metal, and we jolt in space. “What the hell was that?” Cade asks and stands up. I follow him. We pass the top of a mountain, and below us is a large, lush field. The balloon makes another terrible noise, and we look up. A metal box, connected to the fire apparatus is blinking red. The fire dims, and there’s another grinding noise, like gears coming to a halt. “Uh…” Cade says. I throw my arms around him and nestle my head in his chest. I’m not an engineer, but I’m sure the grinding noise is bad. The balloon sounds like it’s shutting down. It sounds like death is upon us. “I love you,” I say, surprising the hell out of myself. “I love you, too,” he responds, surprising me even more. I close my eyes, waiting to drop, just like I would do on a roller coaster, but we don’t drop. There’s no plummeting going on. We don’t even blow up. No explosion. The light flashes, the gears grind, and we float gently down to the open field, surrounded by mountains. “It’s been programmed to land,” Cade says, looking up at the metal box. “This was planned all along.” I push back out of Cade’s embrace. “A practical joke?” “I don’t think it’s a joke, but I think it was planned,” he says, eyeing the cocaine-filled cooler. The ground gets closer ever so slowly, and finally we land with a thump. The basket bounces, and the balloon deflates, getting blown sideways and taking us with it. The basket falls on its side, and Cade holds me, taking the brunt of the fall. The deflated balloon is being whipped by the wind, pulling us along the field like a sled. We may have survived the fall, but I’m not sure we’re going to survive being dragged at twenty miles per hour. “Brace yourself!” Cade shouts, as we bounce over grass and rocks. “Do you know something I don’t know?” I ask. There’s no way to see where we’re going, but it’s obvious that eventually we’re going to hit something. I hold tight to him and hope that he’s holding tight to the basket. A minute later, we finally crash land and come to a stop, bumping into a tree. On impact, we’re thrown out of the basket onto the grass. Cade holds me tight, protecting me from the worst of it. “See?” he says when we come to a stop. “That was easy.” We lie on our backs in the grass, catching our breath. It’s a gorgeous day without a cloud in the sky. There’s a light breeze which fills my nostrils with the sweet smell of grass and untouched wilderness. Heaven only knows where we are. We could be in Colorado or California or in some alternate universe. My money is on the alternate universe. “This just goes to show that we should never be negative, never pessimistic,” Cade says. “Everything turned out peachy.” “Peachy?” “I thought it was the right word for the occasion. Are you okay to get up?” He stands and puts his hand out for me. I take it, and he pulls me up. I’m barefoot, and my skirt is torn to shreds. I touch my hair. It’s like a rat’s nest up there. Cade, on the other hand, looks perfect, like he was just made up by professional hair, makeup, and fashion stylists for a GQ photo shoot. He turns around, probably getting his bearings. “I think we want to go that way,” he says pointing behind me. “That way? What way is that way? Is there an IHOP that way? I could go for some pancakes. Or maybe a shoe store is that way? I could use a pair of shoes. I’m barefoot, you know.” “I don’t know about an IHOP or a shoe store, but I’m reasonably sure we go that way.” I put my hands on my hips. “You have no idea where we are. You have no idea what way that way is. Admit it. What state are we in?” Cade raises an eyebrow and shoots me a flirty smile. “We’re in a state with mountains.” “I knew it. We’re doomed.” “No, not doomed,” he says, taking my hand. “It’s common knowledge that anywhere in America, a person is only a one-day walk to a Walmart. Three hours tops to a Starbucks.” “Starbucks sounds pretty good,” I say and yawn. It’s been a hell of a day. The relief of being alive has let the wave of the day’s stress hit me like a tsunami, and now I’m all washed out. If I were a camping kind of woman, I would insist that we stay put and get some sleep, but I’m the opposite of a camping kind of woman. I’m a Starbucks kind of woman, and I would kill for a mocha and a scone. And a hairbrush. I hope that Cade’s right about us being a three-hour walk to a mocha. “I’m sorry this happened,” Cade says, completely out of character. It’s the first time I’ve heard him apologize in all the years I’ve known him, and it rubs me the wrong way. It’s not his fault that we got abducted in a hot air balloon. However, he’s responsible for a whole host of annoying things in my past, which he’s never bothered to say he’s sorry about. I open my mouth to yell at him, but he’s too fast for me. He covers my mouth with his, enveloping me in a strong embrace. All of his faults are forgotten as he turns my brain into mush with the power of his kiss. I no longer care that my feet are cold, that there’s a breeze up my open skirt to my hoo-hah, and that we’re probably further than a three-hour walk to Starbucks. Cade tops the kiss with a boob hand-job, which makes me moan. The sound bounces off the mountains and comes back at me, as if nature is as aroused as I am. “There. That’s for the road,” Cade says, ending the kiss. I stand in post-kiss euphoria while he rummages in the balloon basket and comes out with the cooler. He takes my hand and starts walking in the so-called Walmart direction. “Is that wise?” I ask, pointing at the cooler. “Probably not, but it’s also proof. Don’t ask me proof of what. I have no idea. But it’s a lot of cocaine, and I’m thinking it’s important.” I agree. The journalist in me thinks it’s important, too, and it will make a great visual whenever we get access to a camera. As we walk across the field, I begin to feel better. At least I’m not alone, and now Cade knows about the baby and is more or less happy about it. And for the topper, he loves me. “All in all, this has been a pretty good day,” Cade says, giving my hand a little squeeze. “I understand. I mean, sure we almost died, but at least you had sex.” “Any day with sex is a good day,” he agrees. “But there was more than sex. I’m rethinking our agreement.” My skin prickles. What rethinking is he talking about? We agreed to go our separate ways, not to do the whole relationship thing. After all, how could we force a relationship just because I’m crazy fertile, and his sperm are super swimmers? That’s not enough for a relationship. It has to be built on something more. Cade squeezes my hand again and guides me around a rock. I’m preparing to lay it all on the line, to tell him that I might want to rethink, too, when the roar of an engine breaks through the quiet field. We turn in the direction of the noise. Far on the other side of the meadow, a large Jeep is barreling toward us. A few seconds later, it’s joined by two other off-road vehicles. Cade pulls me close. “This is probably not peachy,” he says. CHAPTER 8 At first I think Cade is wrong and that we’re about to be saved. It looks like the marines or the National Guard are on their way, thundering through the meadow, tearing the grass underfoot and breaking through saplings and over rocks, like they will do anything to get to me and bring me back to civilization where I can brush my hair. I wave my hands at them and jump up and down. “Over here! Over here!” I shout, happily. They’re so close, I can almost make out their faces. There’s one open Jeep, one Hummer, and another large SUV. I think it’s a Mercedes. I bet it has seat warmers, and I bet if I ask nicely, they would get me to an IHOP and a Starbucks, pronto. Maybe I could get the Starbucks first and bring my mocha into the IHOP. It would go great with silver dollar pancakes. I love silver dollar pancakes with raspberry syrup. Yum. But as the vehicles get closer, I realize something’s off. The military doesn’t use Mercedes, and it’s quite a coincidence that our maybe saviors just happen to be in the middle of nowhere and are waiting around to save us. I think back to the flashing light and the grinding noise in the balloon that signaled our landing. It was an awful lot like an automated program. Maybe Cade is right and Samba didn’t forget his cocaine in the balloon. Maybe it’s a gift for whoever’s in the SUVs for helping him escape. Whatever the answer is, I don’t think friends are barreling toward us. “Don’t wave. Don’t call out,” Cade urges. He grabs my hand and tugs me in the other direction away from the cars. We run full out toward a grove of trees, where we can hide under cover. It’s our best chance to get to safety, even though it’s unclear what the danger is. “Maybe you should leave the cocaine,” I yell as we run. It’s a good chance that they’re after the million dollars’ worth of illicit drugs in the cooler, and if we leave it for them, they’ll leave us alone. But Cade has other ideas. He holds onto the cooler for dear life as we run. I ignore the rough twigs and rocks under my feet, focused solely on the grove of trees ahead of us. Of course, there’s no way we can outrun a collection of environmentally-irresponsible V-8’s. We might as well stand still and let them run us over. But there’s something to be said for stupid optimism…it’s stupid. So we keep running toward the trees. I’d like to say we almost make it before we’re cut off, but we’re nowhere close. The trees are still far in the distance when the three vehicles catch up to us and make a circle around us, coming to a screeching halt. Cade pushes me behind him, but there’s no safe place. We’re surrounded. The car doors open, and four gorgeous men hop out. They’re all dead ringers for Antonio Banderas, except they have mustaches. Each mustache is a work of art in different sizes and shapes. Our pursuers look like seventies porn stars who’ve escaped from the Playboy mansion. Each one is a genetic mutant for good-looks. The shortest Antonio Banderas with a handlebar mustache waves a large gun at us. One Antonio Banderas grabs my arm and another Antonio Banderas grabs Cade’s arm, while another Antonio Banderas takes the cooler. They pull us away from each other, but I scream and hold onto Cade as if my life depends on it, and I’m pretty sure it does. “Let’s calm down and talk about this,” Cade tells them. My arms are wrapped around his middle, and he’s holding onto me, too. Even though they’re four people with four guns, my brain is telling me that as long as I’m touching Cade, I’m in the safe zone and nothing can hurt me. Oh, my, how Cade has grown in my estimation. Any bra-freezer in a storm, I guess. They pry my hands off of Cade, but he holds tight, and I’m not going anywhere. “Come on, guys,” he says in his best diplomatic voice. “I think you’ve made a mistake. We’re journalists from Summer Island. We just made a wrong turn.” Oh, boy. He said it all. “No mistake,” the guy in charge says, waving the gun at us. “Let’s go.” One Antonio Banderas yanks me hard, and I go flying into his arms. Cade pulls me back, forcefully with one hand and with his other, he sucker punches the guy. He flies backward with a loud crack as Cade’s fist makes contact with his nose. Antonio Banderas releases me while he falls to the ground. Free from them, Cade acts quickly. He takes my hand and begins to run away from the porn stars. We run faster than I’ve ever run in my life. Even barefoot and scared out of my mind, I manage to run like Usain Bolt. Well, I run like him if he was in a one-meter race. That’s as far as we get. One meter. Three feet. One. Two. Three. By the time we get four feet away, we’re captured. Cade is heroic, punching one of them right in his mustache, but they’re four men with guns, and we’re two barefoot journalists armed with nothing but a killer way with words. Luckily, nobody gets shot. The guy that Cade punched in the mustache sends a flying Taser wire into Cade’s back, taking him down to the ground. I scream, again. I’m not proud of my wimpy female scream-queen behavior. I always thought that I would be a kickass Katniss Everdeen or GI Jane when confronted with this kind of situation, but I’m totally Scarlett O’Hara. Worthless. Dropping to the ground, I’m overcome with emotion at the side of Cade’s prone body. I only manage to get a couple tears out before an Antonio Banderas picks me up and swings me over his shoulder. I hit his back with everything I have, but it doesn’t stop him. Within a couple minutes, my hands are zip-tied behind my back, and I’m thrown into the back of the Mercedes. An unconscious Cade is tossed in next to me. His hands are zip-tied, too, and he slumps against my shoulder. As we begin to drive off, he comes to, groaning. He opens one eye and looks up my nose. “I’m thinking this isn’t good,” he croaks. “Perceptive.” He struggles to sit upright. “Are you okay? You feeling okay? Is the—you know—doing all right?” Sure I’m being abducted, but I can’t help feeling warm and fuzzy from Cade’s concern over the little bundle of joy in my middle. I’m starting to think that this accident, mistake, life-altering, screw up might be a good thing. An image of little Beryl riding on Cade’s shoulders fills my mind, and it makes me happy. “About our agreement,” I begin. “Our agreement? We’re being abducted.” “I know, but…” “Don’t worry. I won’t pressure you. We’ll do this in your time. I understand if you don’t want us to be a couple. Hey, I’m a big boy. I’m not a stalker. Don’t worry about me. I’ll lay off.” “Oh,” I say. It’s the opposite of what I want him to stay. “Not even a little bit of a stalker?” He shakes his head. “Nope. I know when I’m not wanted.” “Oh.” “On the other hand, the Pulitzer is all mine. I’m not sharing a byline.” “Excuse me?” “This is my Pulitzer,” he says smiling wide. “This is a great story.” “We’re being abducted. We could be dead in an hour.” Any hint of romance has flown out the window. “They could torture me or worse. They could torture you, too, you know. They could shove hot pokers up your ass and feed your eyes to feral cats. They could pull your tongue out with needle-nose pliers and force you to listen to Kanye West award speeches in a never-ending loop. They could electrocute your balls and give you a home permanent with sulfuric acid.” “Am I wrong or have you given torturing me a lot of thought?” “No, no of course not,” I say. “Then you just pulled that out of your hat? Feral cats eating my eyeballs?” “I might have been saving it,” I say. “No talking!” our driver shouts. “No talking,” I say, changing the subject. The good thing about being rejected by the father of my child is that it totally takes my mind off of being abducted and the fact that the circulation in my hands is being cut off by the zip ties. “I’m not going to let them hurt you,” Cade whispers. “I’ll protect you.” My eyebrows knit together, and my lips purse into a tight oval. Cade’s hair is standing up because of the Taser, his socks are torn from running outside in them, and he’s sitting on his hands. “You’re going to protect me?” I ask. “Yes.” “How? You brought someone with you?” “Shit, Millie. That hurt worse than feral cats.” “No talking!” the driver yells, again. The Mercedes follows the other cars through a gate and parks in an empty lot in front of a dilapidated, empty factory building. “We’re in New Mexico,” Cade whispers in my ear. “I caught a sign. If you get out of this, and I don’t, call for help and let them know we’re in the northwest corner of New Mexico.” “What do you mean if you don’t get out of this?” Cade doesn’t answer. His door is opened, and two men drag him out. He doesn’t fight them, but it’s hard for him to catch his balance, and they more or less drag him to the factory building. I pinch myself behind my back. Nope. I’m still awake. Bummer. My door opens, and an Antonio Banderas takes my arm. “I need to pee,” I say, calmly. “It’s the baby. Ever since I got pregnant, I have to pee every twenty minutes.” I’m not lying and I haven’t peed since my last morning pregnancy test hours ago, but I’m just trying to get my abductor’s sympathy. I figure I should get special treatment if I’m going to become fat, get hemorrhoids, suffer morning sickness, and cry for no reason. At least I should get special dispensation, like not getting murdered in the middle of nowhere. Or murdered anywhere. “Hey, Felipe,” the man shouts. The man with the handlebar mustache shows up, and he seems annoyed. “What’s taking so long?” “She’s with child.” Felipe stares at my flat stomach. “You’re pregnant?” “Four months,” I lie. I’m only fifty-one days pregnant, but four months sounds more substantial, more like I should be in the first group to be allowed on a plane. “I carry well.” Whatever that means. Felipe nods and pulls a long, hunting knife out of his pocket. I flinch and hold my breath. Before I can scream and dive for the floor, he pushes me forward, and with a flick of his knife, cuts my binds and frees my hands. “You want some water? Milk?” he asks. “I wouldn’t say no to a cream soda.” Gently, they help me out of the car, like I’m a delicate flower. An Antonio Banderas takes my arm and escorts me to the building. I’m still kidnapped, but I’m breathing easier. The inside of the building is exactly what I expect. It’s a vast empty shell with bubonic plague-filled puddles on the cracked concrete floor and tetanus-laden rusted metal everywhere. In the center is the kidnapper’s stereotypical standing lamp with a single light bulb, an old desk, and two chairs. Cade is sitting on one of the chairs. His eyes track every step I take. Either he’s worried about me or jealous that my hands are free, while his hands are still tied behind his back. Even though my hands are free, I’m scared. Really scared. This is just like a Quentin Tarantino movie. I’m half-expecting Samuel L. Jackson to appear, call me a motherfucker, and shoot me in the face. Felipe takes my hand and helps me sit, like he’s my date at the prom. They’ve forgotten about getting me to a bathroom…maybe because there is no bathroom, but I don’t have the courage to remind them about my pregnant bladder. A bottle of water appears from nowhere, and they hand it to me. Two of the Antonio Banderases huddle by the door, speaking in hushed tones, and the other two are somewhere else outside of the building. I take a sip of my water. “Funny meeting you here,” Cade says. “How’s your Pulitzer coming along?” I ask. “The story is heavy on drama but light on detail,” Cade says. He’s right. We have no idea what’s going on. Obviously, the gorgeous mustachioed kidnappers are the bad guys, but what kind of bad guys and why have they abducted us? What do they want with us? Cade isn’t much help. He’s hopping around in his chair. Useless. Felipe and his friend walk back toward us, and Felipe points at Cade. “Why are you here?” he demands. “Because you abducted us and dragged us here.” “Where is the cocaine?” “In the cooler,” Cade says. “Not that cocaine. Where’s the rest of the cocaine?” Cade stops hopping around in his chair. “The rest of the cocaine?” he asks. “There’s more cocaine?” I ask. The other Antonio Banderas is eating a burrito, and it smells wonderful. “Is that a carne asada burrito?” I ask. “Doughnut burrito,” he says with his mouth full. “A doughnut in a burrito?” “You want some?” he offers. Disgusting. He can’t be serious. “Are you serious?” I ask. “Like a real doughnut?” “Krispy Kreme. It’s still warm.” I put my hand out, and he hands it over. The doughnut burrito is delicious, and I scarf it down in three bites. Cade stares at me, and I don’t think it’s because he wants a bite. I shrug. “I’m eating for two,” I say. “Where’s the cocaine?” Felipe demands again, impatient. “This is a mistake,” Cade says. “We were trapped in the balloon. Olivier Samba tricked us. Do you know Olivier Samba?” I have a feeling they know Olivier Samba. I have a feeling that Samba tricked them, too. Where’s the cocaine? Where’s the cocaine? Samba probably ripped them off for a lot of cocaine. “I ask the questions, here,” Felipe says. “Sorry. Work hazard,” Cade says. “We don’t know about the cocaine,” I say. The atmosphere has changed. The burrito-sharing, concern for the pregnant woman vibe has altered, and I’m pretty sure that we’re heading into a Reservoir Dogs vibe. The shit is about to hit the fan. We’re up a creek, and there isn’t a paddle anywhere. Even Dick’s Sporting Goods has run out of paddles. In a burst of a self-preservation and a monster doughnut burrito sugar rush, a flood of words flies out of my mouth. “We live in a small town, and we had the exclusive interview,” I explain. “I mean, I had the exclusive interview. Cade just tagged along. And then Samba jumped, and I ate the caviar, but I swear I didn’t touch the cocaine. Look, I admit that I haven’t read What to Expect When You’re Expecting, and it’s doubtful that I’m going to start eating kale or royal jelly just so that my baby’s brain will be big. I mean, her father is Cade so no amount of kale is going to make her smart. But even though I’m not a kale eater and I really don’t know what I’m supposed to eat, I do know I’m not supposed to be playing around with cocaine in my condition. Cocaine is bad. Good mothers don’t snort bad cocaine. Not that I’m a good mother. Actually, I’m kind of new to the whole mother idea. Motherhood wasn’t in my plan. I was supposed to work for the L.A. Times, not burp babies. I had a plan. Now my plan has been unplanned. But you can understand that no matter how unplanned my plan is, cocaine is not in the unplan or the plan. No cocaine. No plan. Sure, I ate the caviar. I admit it. But we left the cocaine alone. We’re Amish. Amish people don’t snort cocaine. That’s not true. We’re not Amish. We’re Seventh Day Adventists. We don’t eat meat or snort cocaine. That’s not true, either. We eat a buttload of meat. Lots of cows. But we didn’t know about the cocaine. We don’t do cocaine. I’ve never even been to Studio 54. I don’t like disco music. Read my lips. No cocaine. Phew. I really need to pee.” With the last word, my sugar rush ends, and the sugar crash begins. I’ve run through a dictionary, and I’m out of words. The Antonio Banderases focus on me, as if they’re trying to translate what I said, and I don’t blame them. It would be near impossible to separate the English from the blah-blah. “What I mean is,” I begin again, but I’m interrupted when Cade stands up. Somehow, he’s managed to get his hands free, and he’s lifting the chair over his head. The mustachioed Antonios are just as surprised as I am, and even more so when Cade slams the chair on Felipe’s head and side-swipes the other one. They fall like bowling pins. A strike. Cade wins. “What did you do?” I ask. He doesn’t answer. As our kidnappers lie unconscious, Cade riffles through their pockets, coming out with a Taser and a key ring. Smart guy. Maybe he’s right, and he does deserve the Pulitzer. He grabs my hand, and we run out through the back of the building. When we get outside, we hear voices, and we slam our backs against the wall. “We’re so going to die,” I say. “We’re not going to die by the hands of drug smugglers. I’m going to have a fatal heart attack bonking your brains out when we’re eighty.” “Eighty? Does that mean we we’re going to be together for fifty years, or do you mean that we’re going to go our separate ways and then look each other up on Facebook in fifty years and you do some kind of booty call?” “You’re a lot of work, do you know that?” “You didn’t answer the question,” I say. Cade shushes me. “Do you hear that?” “Sorry,” I say, embarrassed. “The doughnut burrito is tearing through my colon.” “Not that. Listen.” Sure enough, I hear a man speaking in a strong accent. A mixture of French, Spanish, and Moon Doggy surfer. “Samba,” I breathe. “He’s here.” CHAPTER 9 We tiptoe along the side of the building. There are two other Antonio Banderases somewhere, along with Samba, and the two inside will be conscious any second. We don’t have a lot of time to make our escape. We sneak a peek around the corner. Olivier Samba, the deposed dictator and fugitive from justice, is sitting cross-legged in a cage, which is just big enough to fit his folded body. “Let’s work this out,” he’s telling them, but they don’t seem to be receptive to negotiation. One of them is holding a cattle prod, and I don’t think it’s because he’s a rancher. “We had a deal, and you broke it,” one of them growls. “There’s a large block in the balloon.” “Where’s the other three blocks?” “I had some unforeseen expenses,” Samba says. “What a moron,” Cade whispers to me. The three cars are now parked behind the cage. “How do we get away?” I ask. Cade looks ahead of us and then behind us. Somehow we have to sneak around the two Antonio Banderases or sneak behind them. We decide on taking the behind them route, but a second later, we hear the echo of the men’s footsteps inside the building, and they’re coming for us. We’re trapped between two pairs of Antonio Banderases. No way out. “Uh,” I say. “I’m not going to let anything bad happen to you,” Cade whispers. “You mean like crash-landing a balloon and getting abducted by drug runners?” Cade scowls. “Everyone’s a critic.” The footfalls in the building get louder as they get closer. Cade takes a deep breath, grabs my hand, and we run toward the cage and the other two kidnappers. It’s like running into a hurricane. It’s insanity, and I’m sure we’re going to die. But Cade has other plans. The two kidnappers don’t see us until we’re on top of them. As we get near, Cade shoots the cattle prod guy with his Taser and takes his cattle prod and zaps the other guy. Zap. Zap. They’re unconscious. “What did you do?” I ask Cade. “I saved you. I’m a hero.” I look at him differently. Suddenly I see him as dressed in tights, a cape, and boots. No, not the drag queen kind of tights, cape, and boots. The superhero kind. His long, lean, muscly Hugh Jackman body leans over his victims, emanating masculinity from his body. His face is earnest and strong. Resolute. While I search his face, he searches mine, and that’s when I see it: The emotion. The caring. The love. I understand him now. I don’t know why I didn’t notice the real Cade before. He holds out the key chain and pushes a button. The Mercedes’ lights flash, and its doors unlock. “Come on. Let’s get out of here,” Cade says, squeezing my hand. “Take me with you,” Samba urges, rattling the bars of the cage. In my goo-goo cloud of Cade rapture, I almost forgot about the despot in the cage. There’s no doubt that Samba deserves prison time, but I don’t believe that a small cage behind an abandoned factory is what the justice system had in mind. “No way,” Cade says, pulling me toward the car. I pull back. “We can’t just leave him here in a cage.” “Are you kidding? He left us in a balloon to die.” “Not true. Not true,” Samba says. “It was programmed to land safely. I just used the pretty lady to prevent suspicion and give me time.” “Come on,” Cade says, pulling me toward the Mercedes. Too late. The two men burst out of the building and run right at us. There’s no way to outrun them, and surprise is no longer on our side. Cade drops my hand, and for a moment I fear that he’s abandoning me. But Cade surprises me, again. He dives for the cooler, which sits next to one of the unconscious men. He opens the cooler and pulls out the large package of cocaine, raising it high above his head with one hand and points at it with the cattle prod in his other hand. “Stop, or the cocaine gets it!” he shouts. The two Antonios stop. “Don’t do it!” Felipe shouts back at him. Cade moves the cattle prod closer to the bag of cocaine. “Get back! We’re leaving here, and you’re going to let us go.” “He’ll do it! He’s crazy!” I shout. Cade shoots me a look and purses his lips. “We don’t know where the other cocaine is!” I add, nodding toward Cade. “You let us go, and I’ll leave this with you,” Cade says. “You let us go, and he’ll leave this with you,” I repeat. “Millie,” Cade hisses. “Shh!” “I’m helping you.” “Stop helping me.” The two men take a couple steps forward, and Cade sticks the cattle prod closer to the cocaine. “Stop right there. Millie, get to the Mercedes.” “What about you?” I ask. “Don’t be a hero.” “Don’t argue. Go to the Mercedes.” “What about you? I can’t leave you.” “I’ll be right behind you.” The men on the ground are moaning and waking up, and the other two men are shifting on their feet, as if they’re preparing to attack. “I’m not going without you,” I insist. “And what about Samba? We can’t just leave him here.” Cade rolls his eyes and looks up at the sky. “Fine,” he growls. “Let him out, Millie, but Mr. Samba, if you’re going with us, you’re going to jail. Do you hear me?” “And you’re giving us the exclusive,” I add. Cade’s mouth drops open in surprise. “’Us?’ Why, Millie Mossberg, does this mean you love me?” He’s right. Sharing the exclusive with Cade does mean I love him. “Of course I don’t love you,” I say, but a smile gives me away. I open the cage, and Cade instructs me to zip tie Samba’s hands behind his back. We run to the Mercedes, and when we get there, I turn around. Cade is still standing with the heavy brick of cocaine over his head. I know that he doesn’t work out normally, but he’s sure in shape. The defined muscles of his shoulders and back show through his thin T-shirt, and I bite my lower lip. There’s something about being close to death, having a boatload of pregnancy hormones running through my veins, and getting an eyeful of Cade’s perfect body to make me crazy horny. “Not another step!” Cade shouts at the men, waving the cattle prod at the cocaine. “Don’t do it!” Felipe shouts back. “Leave it here, and you can go.” It’s a dicey situation. Somehow, Cade has to hand over the cocaine and not get killed in the process. Damn it. He forgot to give me the keys. Samba’s eyes are riveted to the scene, as well. It’s like waiting for a car wreck to happen. I don’t want Cade to be in a car wreck. We’re just starting to get along, and then there’s the whole baby thing. The two Antonio Banderases who Cade zapped unconscious stand and take stock of the situation. Now it’s four against one. It’s worse odds than the Alamo, and look how that ended. I try to figure out how to help Cade. Nope. I can’t think of anything. “Don’t come any closer,” Cade warns, but now with the overwhelming odds and the lull in the action, they don’t seem to believe him. Uh oh. I begin to cry. Nothing loud, but a few tears. The men advance, and I prepare to throw myself on them and save my sort of lover, maybe husband to be, and can’t deny the father of my child. But just as they get within an arm swinging length to Cade, he cattle prods the cocaine. I don’t know what I expected to happen. Maybe barbecue the cocaine or something. Maybe nothing. But the prod makes a loud crackling noise, as it hits the brick of cocaine over Cade’s head, melting the thick plastic that binds it and releasing the illegal powder in a cloud. “Holy smokes,” Samba says next to me. A light breeze blows, and the cloud of cocaine completely covers the five men. It’s a cocaine tornado. A white out. “So many kilos,” Samba moans. “That’s a lot of blow, right?” I ask, trying to sound cool. “It’s pure. If it’s cut, it will buy you ten of these SUVs.” “That’s a lot of SUVs.” We stare at the white cloud. “They might be dead,” Samba says and leers at my breasts. I hope they’re not dead, and not just because I don’t want to be stuck alone with Samba. Even with his hands tied behind his back, I think he can get handsy. Even so, I’m more worried about Cade. The white cloud still covers Cade and the bad guys. I’m tempted to run into the powder to try and save him, but I’m reasonably sure pregnant women should stay away from ten kilo clouds of cocaine. I shift on my feet, growing more desperate by the second, when Cade finally bursts through the white out. He swings his arms. “Get in the car! Get in the car!” he shouts, shaking the cocaine out of his hair. “I don’t have the keys!” “It’s open.” Oh, yeah. I forgot. I open the back door and shove Samba in. Then, I get in the passenger seat, as Cade flies for the driver’s door. The Antonio Banderases are after us, but Cade is the Bionic man of fleeing journalists. He starts the car, and peels away. “I didn’t think I was going to make it,” he says, talking a mile a minute. We drive away from the building as if we’re Jeff Gordon on his best day and rush head-long toward the gate. “A gate. Like that’s going to stop me,” Cade continues, gunning the engine. “If four ninja drug runners with killer zebra cheetahs with death stars can’t stop me, a gate isn’t going to stop me.” I have no idea what Cade is talking about, but he doesn’t take a breath and give me an opportunity to cut in and ask him. “Wow, is it hot in here?” he continues. “It’s like live butt lava from Kilauea surfer hot in here. Going to melt Harrison Ford’s face. Boy, Princess Leia won’t like that. I’ve got a great idea for a story. Space alien reporters… I think I’m going to start running, do the Ironman but double it. You know?” “Your boyfriend is tripping snowflake,” Samba says from the backseat. “Do you think he’ll be okay?” “Sure. It might take him awhile, though.” “Good,” I say, relieved. “Or he’ll pop a few vessels in his brain,” Samba continues. “It can go either way.” We crash through the gate and make it onto the highway in record time, and I put my seatbelt on. I don’t know if we’re being pursued, but if we are, they won’t catch up to us unless they’re using jet fuel. Cade is driving like a bat out of hell. He doesn’t shut up, either. “High school teachers can go to hell,” he says. “I deserve a B in chem lab. Look at that cloud! Can you turn down the radio? Turn it down, now.” “The radio isn’t on,” I say. “Then why is Prince singing?” CHAPTER 10 Cade talks all the way through New Mexico and Arizona and begins to crash when we cross the California border. We stop at a gas station, and Cade takes Samba to the bathroom. The prison is just outside of Yuma, and we’re only a couple of hours away. Samba wants to go to the Cracker Barrel before he has to show up to spend a decade behind bars, and we’ve been negotiating for hours. Since Cade is in dire need of pancakes and grits in order to wipe away the last remnants of cocaine in his system, we finally agree to take Samba, and I promise to spoon feed him while he remains bound with the zip ties. Cade looks awful as he walks out of the bathroom. He rinsed off the cocaine back in Arizona, but he’s obviously just dunked his head under the faucet, again. He looks used. It might just be that he’s fed up zipping Samba’s fly after he pees, but I think it’s the blow crash that’s got him haggard. I probably look worse. I’m half naked, barefoot, and covered in dirt. Hopefully, I’m glowing, though. I hear that moms-to-be glow. We pile back into the car, and Cade starts the motor. *** Cracker Barrel is worth the time and the expense. They seat us in a corner, far away from the other diners, but at least they serve us. I wasn’t sure they would at first since we look like we escaped from an episode of The Walking Dead. More than likely, it’s the first time they ever had a customer with his hands zip tied behind their back. We order a feast, and it’s exactly what we need. We don’t stop chewing until our plates are wiped clean. “I’m starting to feel my face, again,” Cade says, happily, touching his chin. It’s been a long trip. With our bellies full, we finally make it to the prison. There’s a lot of hullabaloo about us capturing a fleeing war criminal. The warden lets us to take a selfie with Samba with all three of us dressed in orange jumpsuits, and we’re allowed a six hour exclusive. After the interview, I call my mother to tell her I’m fine, but she’s not aware that I left the island. In fact, nobody was suspicious about the balloon at all. After the protest, everyone went about their business, assuming that the balloon landed safely. No one was aware that the balloon even left the island. While we talk to Samba, the DEA tracks down and captures all four Antonio Banderases, who are still higher than Everest when they’re arrested. Cade and I file our story, putting it out on the wire, after a big fight about whose byline goes first. I win. Nobody seems to mind when we borrow the Mercedes to drive home. Outside, the fresh air seems fresher. We stand by the Mercedes in the prison’s parking lot and take it all in. We’ve had the adventure of a lifetime. We almost died, we captured a fugitive, thwarted four drug smugglers, and wrote a Pulitzer-worthy article. There’s only one thing we haven’t had closure on. The biggest thing. “You look good in orange,” Cade says, leaning into me. He pushes my back up against the Mercedes. “You look pretty good in orange, too.” He’s very handsome, even more handsome now than he was a few hours ago. I feel a wave of happiness that I’m with him, even if it’s just for this moment. “So,” he says and arches an eyebrow. “So.” Obviously, we suck at closure. “The thing is…” Cade interrupts me, capturing my mouth to kiss me ever so tenderly. He breathes into me, and I take strength from his essence. My hands wrap around him, and he deepens the kiss. So sweet. So gentle. We’ve gone from excitement to passion to tenderness. I’m a fan of all three, but the tenderness wins me over completely. A sadness bubbles up in me as I think about our agreement. Objectively, I know it’s stupid to jump into commitment. However… We kiss for a long time, until all of the stress and the emotion of the day are worked out, and we’re depleted. Worn and sated, we climb into the car, and Cade drives down the street, away from the prison with everything left unsaid. As we reach the road, we see a young woman hitching for a ride. She has long red hair and is wearing a blue sundress and flip-flops. She’s carrying a large duffel bag, which is bigger than she is. “We should pick her up,” I say. “She’s probably coming out of the prison.” “Karma,” I point out. I’m not sure I believe in karma, but we’re in the middle of the desert in the middle of nowhere, driving a stolen SUV with icy air conditioning. How can we not give the girl a ride? Cade pulls over and unlocks the door. The woman climbs in but pauses when she sees our orange jumpsuits. “They’re loaners,” I explain. “Our clothes got dirty. We’re journalists,” I add because she doesn’t seem convinced. “I’m Cade Reed, and this is my fiancée, Millie Mossberg,” Cade says. “Fiancée?” I breathe, barely able to get the word out. “We’re getting married next weekend, and we’re having a baby,” Cade continues. There it is…Closure. I’m overcome with joy. This is what bliss feels like. “Next weekend,” I repeat. “A small wedding with a few friends and family. And we’re having a baby.” Every word builds on my happiness. The woman seems happy with the explanation. She puts on her seatbelt and closes her door. “I’m Beryl. Beryl Meyer.” I gasp. “That’s our baby’s name!” “It is?” Cade asks. “Are you sure?” “Where are you headed, Beryl?” I ask. “To Long Beach to take the ferry to Summer Island. Have you heard of it?” “It sounds familiar,” I say. “Are we sure about the baby’s name?” Cade asks, pulling away from the curb. “What takes you to Summer Island?” I ask Beryl. “I inherited an inn.” “Wow, that’s exciting. Sounds like a good story. We write for the Summer Island Gazette. Which inn?” “The High Tide Inn.” Beryl is beautiful. She’s a natural beauty, like an earth goddess with porcelain white skin. “That’s been closed for decades,” Cade says. “Real run down. You sure you want to take on that challenge?” “It’s got to be better than prison. After two years staring at gray walls, anywhere is better.” I want to ask her why she was in prison and how she thinks she can renovate a dilapidated inn by herself, but my brain refuses to think about anything except for Cade’s roundabout marriage proposal. I touch his leg, and he takes my hand, bringing it to his lips. “Not too bad, sharing an exclusive, right?” he says. “Speaking of exclusive, we’re exclusive, right?” “Duh. That’s what marriage means, Millie.” “I had to ask. Who knows what you’re planning next for the water tower,” I tease. “I was sixteen years old!” I shrug. “Once a dog, always a dog. How do I know you won’t be bringing three women at once to the water tower next?” “No more water tower. I promise.” “I don’t know. You’re kind of partial to heights.” “Not anymore,” Cade says, smiling. “Now, I just have a healthy respect for them.” I turn around to Beryl. “You’re a witness, Beryl. Cade has given me the exclusive.” “The exclusive for life,” Cade adds. I lean over and kiss his cheek. “I never thought this day would come.” “Me either. I’m blown away.” Download your copy of Inn & Out, the next book in the Three More Wishes series. Continue reading for the first chapter of Inn & Out, the next book in the Three More Wishes Series: INN & OUT Excerpt CHAPTER 1 No more kissing. I can’t stand it one more second. This is not at all how I expected to spend my first day of freedom in two long years. I can’t look at any more swollen lips smashing against each other or tongues darting in and out of mouths. Lots and lots of tongues. It’s like tongues are multiplying exponentially. It’s like a tongue block party. A tongue reunion. Tongues. Lips. Lips. Tongues. Normally, this would be a good thing, but I’m not the one doing the kissing. None of these lips or tongues are mine. They belong to Cade and Millie, the ones who picked me up hitchhiking. Cade and Millie have been smooching in the front seat, while I’m in the back seat witnessing all of the spit-swapping. Six hours of oh, baby in their Mercedes SUV as we travel from Yuma, Arizona to Long Beach, California. Thank goodness Cade is a good driver, or we would have crashed for sure. Talk about distracted driving…sheesh. And if Millie wasn’t already pregnant, she would have gotten pregnant from the kissing. I know it’s normally impossible to get pregnant that way, but in this case, I can totally see it happening. This is Mach five, code red, ultimate smooching. This is hardcore. I guess this is what they call love. Love. I’m not exactly an expert on love. Every time I think I’m in love, it’s with a mouth-breathing knuckle-dragger who ruins my life. I don’t know why I fall in love with those losers. I never seem to recognize mouth-breathing knuckle-draggers for who they are until it’s too late and my life is ruined. My warped brain tells me that they’re Prince Charming on a white steed, even though they’re really Darth Vader in a monster truck, behind on the payments. Yes, that’s right… I’m a bum magnet. The last bum I attracted set me up for a crime I didn’t commit, and I wound up at the women’s correctional annex of the minimum security prison in Yuma. I don’t know why they call it minimum security because they still shoot you if you want to leave for say, an ice cream. Shooting a person for Rocky Road spells maximum security to me. But today I’m finally free, and I’m going to stuff my face full of ice cream the first chance I get. Anything to wipe away the effects of two years in prison for a crime I didn’t commit because of a man I thought I loved. Obviously my love radar is way off base. I hope that Millie’s love radar is right on target. She seems to be in love with Cade and he with her. They’re engaged to be married, and she’s pregnant with their baby. At the very least, they seem to have the kissing thing worked out. Despite the annoying public displays of affection, I’m thankful for the ride. They picked me up hitchhiking right outside of the prison when I was released today. I was planning to walk to the bus station, but luckily they’ve given me a ride all the way to Long Beach. It turns out that we’re all going to Summer Island, which is a ferry ride away from Long Beach. Driving in the luxurious Mercedes SUV to the California coast is a much better option than paying for Greyhound. Millie and Cade are very nice, and I hope that Cade isn’t a bum and Millie finds her happy ending. In other words, I hope that love really exists. But I wouldn’t bet on love. I’m never getting sucker punched from that particular emotion again. I’m going to duck and weave like Ali. From now on, I’m totally in control over my own life, and nobody is going to screw me over or even screw me. No more screwing. I’m done being screwed. I’ve had two years in prison to think about it, and I’ve come to the determination that my happy ending means no to all men in my life. No more love for me because in my case, love is always wrong. I thought I was in love, and because of my stupidity, my entire life savings now consists of thirty-seven-dollars and all of my belongings fit into a duffel bag on the seat next to me. “Here we are,” Millie announces as we arrive at the ferry parking lot. It’s a two-hour ride to Summer Island from here. We hop out of the car. “You forgot the keys in the ignition,” I tell Cade. “The Mercedes belongs to the drug smugglers and kidnappers,” he reminds me. It’s a long story, which they told me between kisses, but the upshot is that Cade and Millie are journalists, and they had a run-in with criminals, who they put in prison. Cade and Millie borrowed their car, which is fair because somehow the criminals took their clothes, or at least did something to their clothes, and now they’re wearing orange prison jumpsuits. Cade and Millie are getting more of their share of looks because of the jumpsuits, which takes a load off of me. I was worried that my ex-con status would be written all over me, but at least I’m not dressed in orange with Yuma Correctional written on the back. Next to Cade and Millie, I’m completely anonymous, and that’s exactly how I want to remain. “I can’t wait to get home,” Cade says to Millie. “Your place or mine? Mine has satellite TV. The whole sports package. Yours just has cable.” They kiss for a couple of minutes and then argue about the pros and cons of television coverage all the way onto the ferry boat. They sit inside, but I decide to sit on the top deck away from their kissing. Besides, I’ve just spent two years without a lot of fresh air, and now I want to take advantage of every available breath of oxygen. It’s a gorgeous day without a cloud in the sky. Seventy-five degrees with a cool breeze. The ocean is pretty calm, and our ferry cuts through the water fast, like a knife through butter. In the distance, I spot a whale. I close my eyes and breathe in the sweet air. Paradise. Freedom. Finally, it’s a moment of serenity after years of sustained stress. I try to relish the moment. My resolve to never let a man ruin my life again and the promise of a fresh start helps me relish it. This is my first trip to Summer Island. Supposedly, three generations of my family have lived on the island, but that’s three generations I never knew. As far as I was aware until two weeks ago, I’ve been family-less. My parents died when I was a toddler, and I was raised by foster parents, who died shortly after I graduated from high school. But two weeks ago, I was informed that I had an aunt. Since I’ve been family-less for most of my life, this news came as quite a shock. At first, I fantasized about Thanksgiving dinner at my aunt’s house, about shucking peas with her on her porch while we sat in rocking chairs, about her giving me my mother’s wedding dress, which she held for me all these years in an old trunk in her attic. I enjoyed all of these delicious fantasies for a wonderful thirty seconds upon hearing the news of her existence. But not so fast, oh wonderful happiness bubble. My new-found aunt was already dead. Dead for only a few days. She had been alive for her whole life, and nobody bothered to tell me about her. She never bothered to tell me about her. But now I know all about her. But she’s dead, and that’s why I was finally contacted about her. I don’t have any living family members, but it turns out that I have a whole army of dead ones. Since I found out about my aunt, I’ve been told that about half of all the dead people on the island are related to me, and I’m the sole survivor of this once great extended family. Having such a big, dead family hasn’t gotten me anywhere up until now, but that’s all changed. My dead aunt has left me something. As her sole surviving family member, Eleanor Thatcher has left her home and working inn to me, Beryl Meyer. It’s my first kismet, good-timing, lottery type of miracle. It’s my chance for a new life. No, I’m not going to run an inn. I don’t want to be tied down to anything, and I have no idea how to be a hotel owner. Instead, I’m going to sell the inn, invest my money, and live on the proceeds. I’m going to get a little place in Seattle or Portland and live a perfect life on my investment. I’m going to find myself. I’m going to be re-born, learn to meditate, and drink vanilla lattes. What a relief to finally have security. What a relief to leave my old life behind me. After a couple of hours on the ferry boat, Summer Island comes into view, and we dock at the small harbor. The village is quaint and colorful, and I half-expect Opie to appear. “Would you like a ride to the High Tide Inn?” Cade asks me after we disembark. His lips are swollen and chafed, and his orange jumpsuit is hanging off his shoulders at an angle. Kissing has done some damage. I decline his offer, since I have a meeting at the attorney’s office in charge of my aunt’s will in the center of town before I can go to the inn. Cade and Millie wave goodbye to me, kiss each other one more time, hop into a little golf cart, and putt-putt away. I’ve made it to the next phase of the new phase of my life, and I’m all alone. The island is swarming with golf carts and the occasional Segway, but I don’t see a car or a taxi. Luckily, the attorney’s office isn’t far away. Swinging the duffel bag over my shoulder, I take a step off the sidewalk and head down the street, which is lined with colorful, two-story buildings. The buildings’ bottom floors are devoted to cute shops, and as far as I can tell, the second floors are apartments. It’s a lot like Disneyland. I wouldn’t bat an eye if Mickey Mouse popped around the corner to say hi. At the end of the street, I arrive at a plaza with a dilapidated, dry fountain in its center. Whereas the rest of the village is well-kept, the fountain is a mess. Its plaster is cracked, and there isn’t a drop of water in it. Still, I’m drawn to the massive structure. I take the time to walk across the street and peek inside. The bottom of the fountain is covered in a layer of coins, as if everyone on the island has tossed change into it, like it has some kind of magical powers to make dreams come true. Even though the fountain’s dry, it’s a wish magnet. To prove my point, a tall, muscular man joins me. He stands across from me at the fountain’s edge, and he’s looking down in it, just like I am. After a moment, he closes his eyes and tosses a coin in. It falls with a clank, as it hits the dry plaster and some of the other coins. He looks at it for a second and then seemingly content, he walks away. Oh, why not? If the fountain is so popular for wishes, I might as well give it a shot. I take one of my last coins out of my bag. Closing my eyes, I focus on my wish. Please let me sell this inn and get the money I need for my investment so that I can find myself and spend my days at coffee houses with hipsters and learn how to meditate and do whatever hipsters do with crystals. Please let me sell the inn. Please let me have money. Please let me get a credit card and basic cable. Please, please, please. I tentatively toss the coin in. It barely makes it over the lip of the fountain, and rolls down the side, making its way around the other coins until it finally rests by the muscly tall man’s coin. They lay there side by side…my dull nickel and his shiny quarter. Hmm…I don’t feel any different. There doesn’t seem to be a wave of magic happening. No Freaky Friday, alternate universe, change of life in a non-hormonal way, woo-woo wish-granting. Nothing. Truthfully, I don’t know if wishes are even real. But it only cost me a nickel, and that’s a pretty good deal, even if things go haywire with the will. I’m reasonably sure they won’t. This is a done deal. I have the letter in my bag to prove it. I’ve got the inn. It’s for sure. See the lawyer. Sign the papers. Get the inn. Sell the inn. Easy peasy. With my wish made, I pick up my bag and walk the rest of the way to the attorney’s office on the other side of the plaza. I think I’ve got the right address, but this can’t be the place. The lawyer for my aunt’s estate is supposed to be at number two Plaza Circle, but the sign over the door says this is Apple Love, which turns out to be a store for apple-headed dolls and not some weird juicing place for alternative sexual persuasions. Inside, the store is terrifying. It’s like a horror movie on acid. Like a nightmare after eating Chinese food at midnight. Like Saw but with an abundance of lace doilies and American flag curtains. There are shrunken apple heads with beady eyes staring at me from every surface. And there’s a lot of surfaces. Multiple, multiple surfaces. There are shrunken apple heads on tables, shrunken apple heads on shelves, shrunken apple heads behind glass, shrunken apple heads piled on the floor. It’s a massacre. I shudder and swallow down bile, which is rising in my throat. Apple head bile… the worst kind. I close my eyes and breathe through my nose, trying to calm myself. After a few seconds, I take a peek, and they’re still staring at me. Apple heads. My heart races. Who would have thought that I would be so scared of an old apple dressed in a pinafore dress? “May I help you?” an old woman asks, making me yelp in surprise. She’s around eighty years old, and she’s wearing a pinafore dress just like seventy-percent of the dolls. In fact, she’s a dead ringer for half of the dolls in the store. Her face and head look wrinkled and shrunken, just like a desiccated apple. Yikes. “Miss? You okay?” she asks. “You’re awful green. You want some taffy? I’ve got some banana taffy that will knock your socks off.” Suddenly, I’m not creeped out anymore. Anyone who offers me candy is good with me. Besides, I’m very hungry. “I would love some banana taffy.” It’s not quite as good as ice cream, but I have a killer sweet tooth. I would happily live off of Skittles and Tootsie Pops. Putting my duffel bag on the floor, the apple-head old lady gives me a fistful of taffy. I unwrap one and put it in my mouth. It’s delicious. Sweet and it makes my teeth stick together. “That’s better,” she says. “You look almost human.” That’s funny coming from a woman who looks like a desiccated fruit, but she’s right. The taffy is making me feel much better. I didn’t know how worn out I was getting released from prison and traveling all day. I pop another taffy into my mouth. “Yum,” I say with my mouth full of the sticky candy. “I think I’m lost. I’m looking for a lawyer named Robinson.” She points upward. “Second floor. The stairs are in the corner past the Fourth of July dolls and the I Like Ike dolls.” I thank her and grab my duffel. With a mouth full of taffy, I climb the stairs. The lawyer’s offices take up the entire second floor, which isn’t that big. There’s a waiting room with a receptionist, and behind her is a door to what I suppose is the attorney’s personal office. There’s wood paneling on the walls, and the floor is covered with avocado green carpeting. The office looks like a scene from That 70s Show. “Beryl Meyer to see Mr. Robinson,” I tell the receptionist. She looks like the prison warden of the prison I just left, and I break out into a panic sweat, thinking for a minute that this is all a practical joke, and I’m going back to the slammer. “Please have a seat. He’s running a little late.” Her voice comes out like Glinda the Good Witch of the North, which is the polar opposite of the warden’s jackhammer gravelly voice. The difference between them breaks me out of my panic. Relieved, I take a seat in the small waiting room. That’s when I notice him. He’s been sitting in the waiting room on the other red plastic chair the entire time. It’s the guy from the fountain, and boy is he handsome. Outside, I only noticed that he was tall and muscular, but now I can see the entire package clearly. The entire Gerard-Butler-in-300-can-eat-my-dust package. He sits with his muscular back straight and his large hands in his lap. He stares straight ahead. It’s like he’s got the whole sentinel pose down. He’s wearing fatigue pants and a Brock Lesnar MMA T-shirt. His jaw looks like it was cut by a stone-cutter, and his bone structure is sharp and perfect. Michelangelo would look at this man and give up sculpting because no way could he ever make anything close to this perfect. One look and he would take a hammer to David. I’ve known men like this before. I mean, not as good-looking, but damned close. It’s called false advertising. Mind-blowingly, drool-inducing beautiful on the outside but jerk on the inside. He’s got the false advertising down better than anyone I’ve seen before. He’s Chris Pratt on his best day mixed in with a crapload of holy wow. “I’m not falling for it,” I tell him, jutting my chin up. “Excuse me?” he asks. Damn. His voice is sexy, too. “I’m not falling for it,” I repeat, slowly, enunciating every word. He furrows his eyebrows and studies my face, like he’s posing a silent question. “Mr. Johnson is ready for you now,” the receptionist interrupts. I stand up, but the hunka-hunka guy stands up too. “I’m sorry, but I have an appointment,” I tell him. “I was here first.” His voice is still like velvet, melted butter with a sharp edge that slices through my pelvic region. He’s looking down at me like I’m a fly that needs to be swatted. The receptionist stands between us. “The appointment is for both of you,” she explains, looking slightly concerned. “Both of us?” he asks. “I think you have me confused with someone else,” I say. “We’re not together.” The receptionist rolls her eyes and gives me a shove toward the office. “You are for this appointment. Go on. He’s waiting for you.” The attorney is a middle-aged man with an old-fashioned comb over and a large pizza sauce stain on his striped shirt. My stomach growls, thinking about pizza. The lawyer doesn’t bother shaking our hands. “Sit. Sit,” he urges waving his hands at the chairs. He takes a seat at his desk and opens a file. “I’m the executor of Eleanor Thatcher’s will.” He looks up and throws me a sympathetic expression. “Lovely woman. She will be missed.” I take his word for it. I didn’t even know my Aunt Eleanor existed until two weeks ago. “She was a lovely woman,” the man sitting next to me says. I check him out. He’s young and good-looking. Could my aunt have been some kind of super cougar? “You weren’t her…” I start. “Her what?” “No, you couldn’t be.” “Couldn’t be what?” He never quite relaxes. His body is tense, like a spring ready to get sprung. He narrows his eyes, as if he’s daring me to say it. “You know,” I say charitably. I don’t want to say it. He’s in his early thirties, and my aunt had to be older than dirt. Was he her gigolo? Were there still gigolos these days? “I don’t know. Enlighten me,” he says, sounding angry. “Thor was a friend of the family, and knew Eleanor his whole life, isn’t that right, Thor?” the lawyer says. Thor nods. “Thor?” I ask, dragging out the word, as if it has four syllables. “Are you for real?” But I know the answer. He can’t be for real. He looks like a Greek god and has a Viking god’s name. He’s all kinds of god and no kind of real, but I don’t like where this conversation is headed. Is Thor going to hone in on my inheritance? This can’t be happening. “What’s going on here?” I demand before Thor can answer. “I’m getting to that,” the attorney says and hands each of us a key. “Eleanor left you the High Tide Inn, all of its contents, and all of the land that surrounds it. Congratulations.” “Why are you giving Thor a key?” I demand. “Because she gave it to both of us,” Thor says, his voice a dull roar. “You and me.” “Halfsies?” I squeak. Discover how it all began with the Going Down, book 1 in the Five Wishes Series: GOING DOWN Excerpt CHAPTER 1 I clutch my lucky silver dollar firmly in my hand. I don’t want to give it up, but this wish is really important, and I can’t leave it up to chance. I’m down to my last two hundred bucks. I’m a month behind in my rent, and I’m in pain from giving myself my own bikini wax in order to save money. Nothing can get between me and this wish coming true. The wishing fountain is in the center of town, right next to my apartment. In fact, I can see it from my bedroom window, but this is the first time that I’m trying it out. I’ve been saving up my wish for when I’m desperate. And boy, am I desperate. It’s the ugliest fountain I’ve ever seen, bone dry with just a few coins, dirt, and a used condom at its bottom. But it’s famous for its wishes. I’m not crazy to believe in it. It has a long history as a wishing fountain. It’s been on the news. Katie Couric. Oprah. I focus on my wish, pull my arm back, and release the coin. Please let me get this role. Please let me ace this audition. With my wish out into the universe, I shut my eyes and throw the silver dollar into the fountain. It lands on the cracked plaster, making a loud clanking sound in the town square. A breeze blows, which I take as a good sign. I swear I feel different, like I’m infused with good luck. I sure need some good luck. I open my eyes, half expecting an angel to appear, or at the very least, a leprechaun. But I’m on my own. The sleepy little town of Esperanza isn’t exactly bustling with people on its busiest day, and today it’s particularly dead. I step down from the fountain and go on my way. I don’t have to go far. Just across the street to the diner, which is located on the bottom floor of my apartment building. Built in the 1950’s, the building is no-frills and covered in pink stucco. There are twelve units and four flights. I’m on the top floor, next to the landlord. This location has its good points and its drawbacks. I get woken up every morning with the smell of fresh coffee brewing from the diner downstairs, which is a good point. However, I’m also tempted to eat a slice of Mack’s homemade cherry pie to go along with it, which is a drawback. And that’s the other plus and drawback: Mack. I open the door to the diner, making the bell ring. The diner is enjoying a lull in the day, that time between breakfast and lunch where everyone is busy at work or at home. Mack is wiping off a table but looks up when I enter. “Sit anywhere,” he says. I take a seat by the window. Without having to order, Mack fills my mug with coffee. He looks like he does every day. He’s a scruffy, thirty-something guy with perfect bone structure, thick dark hair, and blue eyes that will laser beam right through any woman directly to her uterus. “I got pie,” he says. “I don’t want pie. I’m an actress. Actresses don’t eat pie.” “You’re an actress?” “You know that I’m an actress. So no more out of you.” At least I’m trying to be an actress. I’ve never actually gotten a job, but I’ve taken three classes, and a casting agent, who I met while shopping at The Gap, told me at the pocket tee table that I have what it takes to become a star. “How about a sandwich?” Mack asks. “I have to be skinny.” “You are skinny. You’ve got no ass, no boobs, and your collarbones are sticking out.” “I do too have boobs.” It’s true. I do have boobs. I’m a 36C, which is huge on my small, five-foot-two frame. I don’t know what he’s talking about. Is he blind? Mack takes a step back and studies me. Most specifically, he studies my chest. He cocks his head to the side and squints, as if he’s having a really hard time finding my cleavage. It’s not hard to find. I’m wearing a tank top and a push up bra. I’m the queen of cleavage. I’m cleavage and nothing else. I could signal ships at sea with my breasts. He shrugs. “Yeah, maybe you do have boobs. But last time I looked, you don’t have an ass.” “What the hell do you know? You don’t understand what Hollywood wants. I need to be skinny.” “Okay. Okay. How about a salad?” “No! Salad will bloat me.” “So, you’ll fart. Problem solved.” “Mack, you don’t understand. Being an actress is very demanding.” He plops down on the chair across from me and leans forward. His eyes are big and they suddenly turn dark and focus entirely on me. My heart does a little hiccup, which I try to ignore, but Mack always has this effect on me. If he was on the menu, he would be the house special. Delicious and probably very bad for my health. “I’m not going to leave here without feeding you,” he says. “I’m sure Meryl Streep eats.” “Nobody cares about Meryl Streep. They care about Angelina Jolie, and she doesn’t eat.” At least I don’t think so. I mean, she’s awfully skinny. No bloat there. “What the hell do you mean nobody cares about Meryl Streep? Deer Hunter? Sophie’s Choice?” he says, counting on his fingers. “Tomb Raider, Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” I counter, sticking my fingers in his face. Mack shakes his head. “Even skinny Angelina Jolie eats,” he says, obviously annoyed with me. “No, she doesn’t.” “If I have to shove the food down your throat, that’s what I’m going to do.” “That’s charming, Mack. Violence against women. Not your most attractive quality.” Mack grins and raises an eyebrow. He drags his chair on the linoleum floor and puts it down next to me. He sits down so close that his knees graze my legs. I clamp my mouth closed, in case he really is going to shove food down my throat. But I’m not exactly scared. First of all, I’m hungry. Hungrier than Angelina Jolie. Second of all, Mack’s chest is stretching the fabric of his t-shirt, making my hormones do the Take Me Mambo. His hair is so thick and gorgeous. I’m sorely tempted to run my fingers through it, but I hold myself back. I hate that I’m so attracted to him. He’s a gruff, contemptuous man. A confirmed bachelor, who I’m sure doesn’t even like women. I mean, he’s never been nice to me. However, he smells nice. And even though his wardrobe is stuck in the Grunge period, he definitely takes care of himself, and his jeans fit perfectly in all the right places. He scoots even closer. His cheek is almost touching mine. There’s a zing of electricity between us, which feels fabulous, and if I’m not mistaken, is coming directly from him. He touches my forearm, letting his fingers trail up and down in a sensual, seductive way. “Angelina Jolie has nothing on you, Marion,” he says, his voice low in his throat, deep and gravelly, like he’s choking with desire. At least, that’s how I want to look at it. He probably just has phlegm. Meanwhile, my tongue has swollen, and I think I might be having a coronary. “Okay. Pie à la mode. Two scoops of vanilla, and be quick about it,” I hear myself say. I’m immediately racked with guilt. I’m positive Angelina Jolie doesn’t eat cherry pie and ice cream. But I have no choice. Since I don’t drink or do drugs, pie is my only recourse against an overwhelming desire to jump Mack’s bones. “That’s my girl.” Mack pats my arm and hops up, dragging his chair back to the other side of the table and tucking it under. He trots to the counter to fetch me my pie. I catch myself staring at his ass as he walks, and I pinch myself. It’s a psychological training technique I picked up when my mother tried to stop smoking. Every time I’m attracted to Mack, I hurt myself. “I’m not your girl,” I say to his back. “Oh, yes, you are.”

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