Going Down by Elise Sax

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.
Going Down
Going Down by Elise Sax
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.” CHAPTER 2 “No, I’m not your girl,” I insist. “Yes, you are.” “No, I’m not.” “Yes, you are.” “Nope.” “Yep.” “Nope.” “Yep.” “I’m getting exhausted,” I say. “I need sustenance to keep me going.” Mack plops two scoops of ice cream onto a slice of cherry pie and brings it over to me. “Did you remember to warm up the pie?” I ask. “Hey, Mona Lisa didn’t tell Da Vinci how to paint. So, you don’t tell me how to serve pie.” But I know he’s warmed the pie because the ice cream is already melting on top of it. I put a big forkful in my mouth and let the sugar calm my nerves. “How long have you been coming in here?” Mack hovers over me as I stuff my face. “Two years,” I say with my mouth full. “Ever since I moved into the building.” “Two years. We’re neighbors, and I feed you every single day. That means you’re my girl.” We lock eyes. He’s got a magical thing going on with his eyeballs where he’s speaking to me through them. It’s like some kind of Vulcan mind meld thing but instead of Dr. Spock, it’s sexy diner owner psychic communication. I take another bite of pie without breaking our eye contact. I can’t break away. He’s got me in his tractor beam of hotness. But here’s the thing: After two years, he’s never made a move. Never jumped my bones. Never taken me into his arms and stuck his tongue down my throat. “So, we’re friends?” I ask. “I wouldn’t go that far.” Of course he wouldn’t. He’s been feeding me for two years, but we’ve also been fighting during that whole time. We don’t agree on anything. I eat the last of my pie. “Yep, that would be a stretch.” “Are you done? I’m locking up early today.” “You’re what?” Mack never locks up early. He’s always in the diner. He’s my go-to for breakfast, lunch, dinner, Thanksgiving, and the occasional midnight snack when I can’t sleep. Not that he’s in the diner at midnight. After diner hours, I have to pound on his apartment door to get him to feed me, which isn’t hard because he lives on the fourth floor right next door to me. He’s my landlord, and so far, he hasn’t made a stink about me being behind in the rent. “Locking up early. I got places to be.” “Places?” I wonder if he has a date. I don’t think he’s gone out with anyone since I’ve known him, which is odd, considering he looks like Channing Tatum and owns his own building. “You know. Places,” Mack says. “Sure. Places.” He yanks at my chair. “So, you gotta get up if you’ve finished stuffing your face.” “What do you mean stuffing my face? I didn’t stuff my face. You stuffed my face!” What nerve. I stand up and wag my finger at him. He’s tall, and I only come up to mid-level on his chest, but I’m spitting mad with a fabulous manicure, and I figure I can probably scratch his eyes out before he has a chance to retaliate. But he’s saved by the bell. The door opens with a ding, and Raine Harper walks in. She waves a picnic basket at us. “Sorry I’m late,” she says. “What a day!” Raine stops in her tracks. She stares at Mack and me and seems to give my finger, which is poised right under Mack’s nose as if I’m going to pick it, extra attention. “You guys will never change,” she says, rolling her eyes. “You’re like Tom & Jerry, but horny.” “What are you talking about?” Mack growls. “You’re talking Greek. No sense at all. I’ll get your order.” I think I’m hallucinating because Mack turns a deep shade of red, which is totally out of character for him. Nothing fazes him, normally. He grabs Raine’s basket and storms into the kitchen with his head down. “What’s with him?” I ask Raine. “Like you don’t know.” She plops down onto a chair and rests her elbows on the table, her chin in her hands. “You’ve got that man so tied up in knots, he’s six inches shorter.” I sit down next to her. “You think so?” I ask her, hopefully. “You should put him out of his misery and jump his bones. He probably has a major case of blue balls.” I gasp. “So, he’s not seeing anybody?” “Come on, Marion. He only has eyes for you. Is there pie around?” “I’ll get you a slice,” I say. “Don’t stop talking.” I grab a plate and fork from behind the counter and scoop her up a slice of pie, even though Mack hates it when I go behind the counter. But Raine stops talking, and her head slips off her hands and lands on the table with a loud thud. For a minute, I think she’s had some kind of stroke or heart attack and is slumped on the table, dead. But she moans, signaling that she’s still alive. It’s not a pain kind of moan; it’s more of an I-hate-life kind of moan. “Eat the pie. Quick. It’ll help,” I say, putting the plate next to her mouth. I find that food is the best medicine for just about everything. “I’m not hungry. I’m never eating again. I have to lose forty pounds by next Wednesday.” She moans even louder against the table. She’s slumped over in total defeat. I try to think of a diet that can melt forty pounds of fat in less than a week, but I can’t think of one. No carbs can only go so far. “Why do you have to lose forty pounds?” “By next Wednesday.” “Why do you have to lose forty pounds by next Wednesday?” “That’s when Wade Gates is coming back to town,” she moans again. Her face is in profile, and she’s talking out of one side of her mouth. Her arms are hanging down under the table, and her hair is flopped over. She hasn’t taken a bite of the pie, and I’m sorely tempted to eat it for her. Wade Gates is the best-looking man to ever come out of Esperanza. And the richest. He’s a big corporate attorney for one of the Silicon Valley monster companies. He grew up next to Raine’s family’s ranch by the lake, and Raine has had a crush on him since she learned to walk. “You don’t need to lose any weight for him. You’re beautiful.” I’m not lying. She’s beautiful. Piercing green eyes, thick black hair, flawless skin, and a button nose. But she’s also chubby, and Wade goes for the stick-thin model types. He’s a total jerk. He’s not an annoying jerk like Mack. He’s just a plain old jerk. Mean. “No, I’m not beautiful. I’m drooling on the table.” “You’re drooling on my table. There’s a whole puddle of it next to your face,” Mack growls. He’s returned from the kitchen, carrying Raine’s basket, and it’s filled with burgers and fries and other lunch food. I can smell it, and it’s giving me a hankering to eat something more than just pie. Raine’s family owns several vacation properties at the lake, and Raine handles most of the catering and deliveries. Some vacationers request Mack’s food, and I don’t blame them. Raine is an excellent cook, but Mack is the best at everything diner food. “Sorry,” she says, sitting up and wiping off the table with a napkin. “I was just contemplating burying myself alive.” “That sounds like a lot of work. The ground around here is clay. Very hard to dig,” Mack says. “Shut up,” I hiss. “Don’t you see that Raine’s in crisis? You’re such an oaf.” I punch him in the shoulder for emphasis. “Don’t worry, Raine,” I continue. “I’ll come by next week and do your hair and give you a manicure. You’ll look amazing.” “Wade’s a jerk, anyway,” Mack says. Raine hops up, and the chair falls back onto the floor. She’s fighting mad. I half expect steam to come out of her nose. Nobody bad-mouths Wade Gates in front of Raine. She’s got it bad. She stomps her foot and grabs the basket out of Mack’s hands. “What the hell do you know? You’re a jerk. You’ve got blue balls!” She throws open the front door, knocking the bell off its perch to land with a clang onto the floor, and storms out. I catch Mack adjusting his pants. His face is red, again, and I wonder just how blue his balls really are, and if he really has eyes only for me. Mack reattaches the bell onto the door. “That was pleasant,” he says. “But it won’t upset my day.” “It won’t?” I ask. If it were me, I’d be pretty upset if someone yelled about my blue balls in the middle of the diner. “Nope, because I’m going fishing.” “Oh…” So that’s where he’s going. Mack has his own fishing boat. He’s talked about it, but I’ve never actually seen it. He’s a fanatic fisherman. Half of his place is devoted to fishing gear. I like fish sticks and the occasional tuna sandwich, but I don’t see the attraction of getting seasick while I wait to hook some poor, unsuspecting fish through its mouth. I shudder. Blech. The thought of it makes me nauseated. “Oh my God!” I yell, suddenly remembering my audition. “I’m going to be late! I need to get dressed in a hurry.” I push Mack out of the way and make a beeline for the back door of the diner. “Hold on. I’m coming with you,” Mack calls out. I keep walking. I hear him close up the diner and jog toward me. We walk out the back door together, and he turns to lock it. “Can’t be too careful,” he says. I think you can be too careful. Esperanza isn’t exactly a hub of criminality. I think we’ve had one murder, and that happened in 1863. Since then, most people keep their doors unlocked. We walk through the tiny hallway toward the elevator. The building is quiet. I’m Mack’s only resident while he renovates. He doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to finish, and he’s doing all the work himself, renovating from the bottom up. “After you,” he says, letting me enter the elevator first. I push number four, and the door closes with an ominous creak. “One of these days, this elevator is going to die, and I think it’s sooner rather than later,” I say. “I’ll bet you a million dollars this elevator outlives us all. It’s built to last. Not like stuff is built nowadays. There’s no place safer than right here.” The elevator is small, and Mack stands very close to me. I can feel the heat bouncing off of him, or maybe it’s just that we’re in an enclosed space without any air conditioning. Nope. It’s definitely him. Mack traces my cheek with his finger and tucks a strand of hair behind my ear. “It was in your face,” he croaks. I nod. Time freezes. He leans over until our faces are almost touching, and I’m sure that he’s going to kiss me. I’m torn between excitement and panic. If we finally do something about this attraction, what will happen if it all goes kablooey? All of my relationships go kablooey sooner or later. It’s sort of a sure thing. If that happens with Mack, where will I get my coffee? Where will I find another landlord who won’t mind if I’m behind in my rent? And what will I do without my daily dose of Mack? CHAPTER 3 No need to worry about a failed relationship with Mack, because there isn’t going to be any kind of relationship with him. Before anything can happen between us, we arrive at the fourth floor, and the elevator doors open with a loud groan. “You’re so wrong about this elevator,” I say, stepping out. “Could be. I’m wrong about a lot of things. Good luck on your audition.” He steps out and heads down the hall to his apartment. “Oh!” I cry. “You never say good luck to an actress. You say break a leg. I need to break a leg.” “Sorry,” he says, unlocking his door. “I hope you break your leg.” “I don’t think that’s exactly what you’re supposed to say.” I stand by my front door, too scared to open it. Suddenly, I’m wracked with self-doubt. My self-confidence level has plummeted to new lows. What was I thinking? I can’t be an actress. I don’t know anything about acting. Actors train for years. They do theater before they do television or films. They starve for their craft. I’m not starving. I just ate pie. Besides, I’ve got nothing to wear to the audition. “What’s wrong?” he says, looking at me. “Go on in. What are you waiting for?” “What do I wear? I’ve got nothing to wear. Actresses wear clothes. I mean, they usually wear clothes. I don’t have clothes. I can’t go like this!” I shout, pulling at my tank top. “I’ll never get this audition. I’ve lost. I’m a big, fat failure. What was I thinking?” Mack turns toward me. “Relax. Relax. You have the no-sleeve black dress that goes just above the knees. You can wear that with your black sandals with the three-inch heels.” “You think so? You don’t think that’s too funeral-like?” “Well, if you don’t like that, you can wear your flowery minidress with your gold flats. Or you can go the slacks route and wear your pleated in the front white slacks with your tan pumps.” I’ve been holding my breath, and I take in a healing gulp of air. “Yes, that’s right. Of course. Those are good choices. Which of those do you think I should wear?” “I think you should go summery. Flowery minidress. Gold flats.” I clutch my chest and take a deep breath. “Okay. Phew.” “And whatever you got going on there,” he says gesturing to my push up bra chest. “Keep it. It works.” Mack goes into his apartment, and I enter mine. My place is big and bright, with the view of the square. I love it, even though it’s furnished with garage sale chic. I head right for the flowery dress in my closet and put it on. I slip on my flats and douse myself with perfume. I fly out of the apartment just as Mack comes out of his. He’s carrying his tackle box and fishing rod. He didn’t change his clothes except for his hat, which is covered in hooks and lures. “What are you going for here? The American geek award?” I ask, uncharitably. “Why? You think I got a shot?” “You could be the poster boy for geeks everywhere.” “Ouch. You’re brutal for an actress. It’s a good thing you’re not really an actress.” I stumble backward, as if he’s hit me right in the solar plexus. “I am too an actress,” I say, which of course, isn’t totally accurate, but I’m desperate. I have to be something. And right now, that’s an actress. “No, you’re not.” Mack pushes the button for the elevator, and I slap his hand away. “No,” I say. “I’m not sharing an elevator with you. You take the stairs.” “You know I can’t do that.” Strictly speaking, there are no stairs. The staircase was ripped out and is being renovated. The only way to get down, besides the elevator, is to use the fire escape or jump out a window. “You could jump out a window,” I say. “You want me to jump out a window?” “Yep. That’s a good idea. Jump out a window.” I elbow him out of the way and leap for the elevator as the doors creak open. I push the button for the first floor, but Mack throws his arm inside and blocks the doors from closing. “Fine,” I say, crossing my arms in front of me. “But stand on your side of the elevator. I want to be as far away from you as possible.” He steps inside and pushes the button again. “It’s a thirty-second trip, Marion. I don’t think I stink that bad.” I’m halfway tempted to apologize to him. I’m not normally a bitch. But I’ve got a lot riding on this audition, and I’m nervous as hell. The least he could do is support me. I mean, besides not kicking me out of my apartment for nonpayment of rent. The doors close halfway and then stop. “What the—” “I’ll get it,” Mack says. He puts the tackle box down on the floor and leans his fishing rod against the wall. He struggles to pull the doors together, making the muscles on his arms and shoulders bulge. I bite my lower lip. “Just a little sticky. I’ll oil the doors later,” he says. The elevator groans back to life and begins to descend. Mack picks up his box and grabs the fishing rod with his other hand. He shakes his head. “Jump out a window,” he mumbles under his breath. I’m about to shoot back a real zinger when the elevator lurches to a stop, throwing me off my feet to fall against Mack. We’re stuck between floors. “You owe me a million dollars,” I tell him. Then, I panic. CHAPTER 4 I push the buttons, frantically. I try all of them, gently at first, and then I’m slamming my fists against the panel. “It’s not working!” I scream, punching the panel for all I’m worth. “Calm down, Bruce Banner. Let me look at that.” Mack clamps his hands on my shoulders and moves me to the other side of the elevator. He turns around and pushes every button. “I already did that. Why are you doing what I did already? Is that your only strategy?” I say, my voice hitched up a couple octaves. “Don’t worry. I’ve got a ton of strategies up my sleeve.” “You’re wearing short sleeves.” He ignores me and unclips a tool from his belt. It’s one of those all-purpose things that turns into a million kinds of tools. It’s like a New Age Swiss Army knife. He opens it to a fancy kind of screwdriver and uses it to unscrew the panel. “Here we go,” he says, looking at the wiry innards of the control panel. I push him out of the way to see what he’s seeing. “What? What? What do you see?” “I don’t see anything with you blocking the control panel, Marion,” he says to the back of my head. “Sorry.” I step to the side and urge him to stick his tool back into the maze of wires. “What is it? Can you fix it?” “Well…” He scratches his head. “I’ve never actually fixed an elevator before.” “Oh my God. I’m going to die! I’m going to die trapped in an elevator with you! And I’m not going to make it to my audition!” Mack pushes the wires back into the control panel and screws on the cover. Calmly, he pushes the buttons, again. Nothing. Nada. We’re stuck. “Do the alarm,” I say. “Push the alarm button.” “The elevator doesn’t exactly have an alarm.” “What do you mean, doesn’t exactly have an alarm?” “It doesn’t have an alarm.” My panic reproduces itself like an amoeba that you study in tenth grade biology class. The panic doubles and triples in size until my body is too small of a place to hold it, and it needs to burst out of me. “I’m going to die! I’m going to die! I’m going to die in a broken, old, ugly elevator!” I scream. I grab fistfuls of Mack’s shirt and pull him toward me. “I’m going to die!” He raises an eyebrow and seems to think a minute about the odds of us dying. It’s irritating as all get out that he’s so calm in the face of our terrible demise. I open my mouth to scream, again, but he stops me cold. Like a magic trick, his strong arms are suddenly wrapped around my middle, pulling me close and lifting me slightly off the ground. He’s massive, even bigger in the small space. “You’re really big,” I note. “Oh, you have no idea,” he says. To prove it, his hands slip under my ass, and he lifts me. He pushes me against his ever-growing bulge, which threatens to bust through his button-fly. I worry that there won’t be enough room in the elevator for the three of us: Mack, me, and his giant penis. He takes a step forward until my back is against the wall, and he goes in for the kill. I mean, he kisses me. Which is a killer. It’s the deadliest, takes your breath away, hot damn kiss that’s ever existed since lips were invented. I’m suddenly very grateful for lips. What a fabulous topper for the mouth. I’ve never fully appreciated lips before Mack Ryan presses his against mine in a broken elevator between the third and fourth floors. He doesn’t play around. No tentative peck. No timid nibbling. My mouth opens to him, as if he’s Ali Baba and he’s said the magic words. His tongue searches for mine, and once he finds it, he demands more. He’s very demanding. With one hand cupping my ass, his other hand travels to my breast. I discover I like it when a man’s demanding. In fact, I want more demanding. I demand it. My hands curve behind Mack’s neck, pulling him even closer. My fingers thread through the thick hair that pokes out from underneath his fishing cap. He’s all kind of good. I knew he was fine, but I didn’t know how fine. Even his neck is sexy. It’s long and muscled. I want to kiss and suck and lick his neck. If his neck is this good, I reason, the rest of him is probably off the charts. I need to inspect his everything to verify my assumption. I want to do all kinds of things to him. Different things. For the first time in my life, I’m hankering to bite a man’s ass. Oh, yeah. For a moment, I think I hear Barry White singing. Somehow, the R&B crooner has joined us in the elevator, and his deep voice is spurring me on to get naked in a hurry. It doesn’t seem odd at all to me that Barry White would appear out of nowhere to give a free concert while I kiss the man I’ve been crushing on for two years. But it’s not Barry White, I realize. It’s Mack. And he’s not singing. He’s crooning. There’s no other word for it. Officially, I guess it would be called moaning, but his voice is impossibly deep and smooth, and it’s so filled with arousal that it beckons me to glide my hands down his back and tuck them inside his jeans. His lips don’t stop. It’s the never-ending kiss. A few seconds more, and I’m sure the friction will ignite us into flames. But what a way to go… Dying in a ball of flames, brought on by the most talented pair of lips I’ve ever come across. It gets me to thinking. Lips. Tongue. Lips. Tongue. The possibilities are endless with two simple body parts. Oh, God. His hands are everywhere. Talented fingers explore my body while he kisses me in a familiar, seductive rhythm. I’m aroused from my head to my toes. My blood is pumping to my hoohah, like it’s going for gold in the Olympics. I’m also wet. Very, very wet. I’ve peed in my pants kind of wet. If I wasn’t ovulating before, I sure am now. I’ve probably got three eggs pushing each other out of the way to see which of them can make it down my fallopian tubes first. With the thought of eggs and fallopian tubes, I sober up. At least, I sober up enough to take my hands out of his pants, break off the kiss, and push him away. I’m still pretty drunk with arousal, though. It’s all I can do to not take a running leap at his midsection. “You kissed me,” I say, breathless. “Did I?” he asks. His chest rises and falls with heavy breathing. His fisherman’s hat has slipped over one eye, and he rights it on his head, taking a second to wipe his forehead with the back of his hand. His lips are red and swollen, and his eyes are predator dark. “Why did you kiss me?” I demand. His eyes travel up my body, pausing briefly at my chest. “You were panicking. I thought I would calm you down.” “I wasn’t panicking,” I lie. “And you certainly didn’t calm me down!” “You’re right. You weren’t calm. I like that.” “Oh, geez.” I slap my cheek to wake myself out my hormonal stupor. “Shut up!” I yell. “I didn’t say anything.” “Not you. My body. It needs to shut up,” I explain. “Sorry, I can’t help you with that,” he says with a grin. “I only know how to make your body talk.” “Gross,” I say and bite my lower lip. I notice that his jeans are still ready to explode, and his eyes are big as saucers. Flying saucer big. He’s definitely attracted to me, or maybe it’s just the trapped with a woman in an enclosed space that’s got him hot and bothered. But I don’t want to be kissed merely to stop from freaking out. In fact, it pisses me off. I’m about to work up the courage to tell him my lips are off limits forever, when the elevator lurches back to life. It creaks and groans, and for a glorious half a second I think we’re going down to the bottom floor, where I’ll be freed and will make it to my audition on time and become rich and famous or at least employed. But nope. It’s only a hiccup. A death rattle. A momentary last gasp from an otherwise dead machine. “No!” I yell. “Keep going! Keep going!” I hop up and down, trying to get it to start again. “Help me out here,” I urge Mack. I continue to jump up and down, but he doesn’t join me. The elevator sways from side to side, but it doesn’t budge. I keep jumping, but we’re as stuck as ever. “You might want to stop doing that,” he says. “We have to do something! You could at least help me.” He puts his hand on my shoulder. “I really think you should stop.” I give it everything I got, jumping up as high as I can to fall as hard as possible to give the elevator a shock into starting. “I think I’ve almost got it going,” I say, optimistically. Mack leans over and looks me in the eyes. “Please stop. If you don’t stop, we have a good chance of plummeting to our deaths.” “Deaths?” I stop jumping. Even if he’s wrong, I’m out of breath. I drop to the floor and curl into the fetal position. I close my eyes and pant, like I’m a dog. “What are you doing down there?” he asks. “There’s more oxygen down here.” “Are you claustrophobic?” “Only in small, enclosed spaces.” Mack sits down cross-legged next to me. He takes my hand and rubs my palm with his thumb. “We’re going to be fine,” he says. He’s so calm and strong that I almost believe him. “There’s plenty of oxygen. It’s not exactly airtight, if you know what I mean.” I take a deep breath. “Okay. What if I have to pee?” “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Let’s focus on getting help. Take out your cellphone and call 911.” Suddenly it’s easier to breathe. My cellphone. Of course. Why didn’t I think about that before? Esperanza’s fire department will get us out of here. “Where’s your cellphone?” he asks. “In my purse.” “Where’s your purse?” Where’s my purse? I look around the elevator. There’s Mack. There’s me. There’s a tackle box. There’s a fishing rod. No purse. I must have left it in my apartment when I was rushing to leave for the audition. “You’re full of shit,” I say. “There’s not a lot of oxygen in here.” Mack grips my hand tight. “Don’t worry. Not a problem.” “You’re using that word wrong. I don’t think you know what ‘problem’ means.” He grins. “I know what ‘problem’ means.” “You’re looking at me like you think I’m a problem.” “That’s not how I’m looking at you.” “You’re not?” “Nope.” We lock eyes, and I realize he’s not looking at me like that. He’s looking at me in a whole different way. Like a bulimic eyeing a bag of M&Ms. His thumb travels from my palm to the inside of my wrist. My skin erupts in goosebumps, and I gasp. We sit like that for a while, both of us watching his thumb on my wrist with rapt attention. “I didn’t kiss you to calm you down,” he says. “I’ve wanted to do that for a long time.” “Really? For how long?” I turn my other hand palm up so he can caress that wrist, too. He does. “Two years.” We’ve only known each other for two years. That’s when I moved in, which wasn’t that long after he moved to town and opened the diner. “That’s a long time to want to do something without doing it,” I say. “Tell me about it.” “I’m glad you finally did it.” Mack tugs my arm, and I sit up. He pulls me onto his lap. He smells like sex and expensive cologne. “You smell better than you think,” I note. “It’s probably a good idea if you work on your compliments. You start well, but then you slide off target.” “Do I? Maybe you should show me how it’s done.” Mack takes off his hat and tosses it into the corner. His lips brush my neck. “You’re the sexiest woman I’ve ever met,” he whispers. He continues with long, languid strokes of his lips on my neck, and then he sucks ever so gently on my earlobe. “Oh,” I moan. “Yes, that’s a good compliment.” “You drive me mad each time I see you. Mad to kiss you, possess you, to be inside you.” “That’s another good one.” My head tips back, as his lips make their way to the front of my neck. He trails light kisses down, down, down… “Sure, you’re a pain in the ass, and you’re flighty, and you can’t figure out what you want to be in this world,” he continues. “But I don’t mind all that.” I pull back and fall off his lap. “You slid off target,” I say. “You were doing great before that. You should probably take back everything you said, starting with me being a pain in the ass.” Mack pushes up from the floor and helps me up, too. “Nope. Sorry. Can’t do that. It would be false advertising.” I put my hands on my hips. “Are you playing with me?” “Yes, and I’m not done yet.” “I hate being played with.” “Well, I love playing with you. I’m planning on playing a whole lot more, once we get out of here.” “Are we getting out of here?” Mack scans the elevator, looking at the buttons, the door, and the ceiling. “It would have been easier if you had your cellphone with you,” he says. A bell goes off in my brain, signaling a stroke of genius. “Your cellphone,” I announce, slapping his shoulder. “You can call for help on your cellphone!” “I don’t have a cellphone.” “What do you mean you don’t have a cellphone? Everyone has a cellphone. Stop playing with me.” “I don’t have internet, either,” he says, studying the elevator doors. “Come and help me.” He sticks his fingers into the crack between the doors and pulls. I do the same, pulling in the other direction. “How can you not have a cellphone?” I ask, pulling at the door with all my strength. “And no internet?” He ignores me, focusing on opening the doors. When we manage to get the doors halfway open, I wedge my body between them, ready to be the first one out of the elevator. But there’s no exit. The doors open to reveal a concrete wall. “No!” I yell, pounding my fists against the wall. “Get back here.” Mack pulls at my hips, but I’m wedged between the doors. The pressure is terrible, and now I’m not only trapped in an elevator, but I’m going to be crushed to death between its doors. “Why don’t you have a cellphone!” I scream. “Take a deep breath.” He sounds like a drill sergeant, loud, deep, and bossy. I take a breath just as Mack yanks me quick and hard. I fly back, free of the doors and slam into him. He takes my weight easily and keeps me upright. I look down at my body and count all my limbs to make sure I haven’t lost anything important. “Sonofabitch!” I yell. “What? Are you hurt?” He turns me around and pats me down, looking for injuries. I stick two fingers in front of his face. “Yes. I’ve broken two fingernails. Two!” “I thought you were hurt.” “I am hurt. I paid fifteen dollars for this manicure.” Mack stares at me without blinking. His jaw clenches, and his face gets red. It looks like he’s going to explode. And he does. CHAPTER 5 Mack screams at the top of his lungs, as if he’s being murdered. He’s a booming baritone, and he’s got impressive lungs. He basically sounds like a foghorn. A foghorn in a six-foot-tall, heavily-muscled frame. I slap my hands over my ears. “It’s okay,” I yell over his yelling. “I can get another manicure. I mean, if you loan me fifteen dollars I can get another manicure. I’ll look as good as new.” “Come on,” he says, taking a break from his screaming. “Join me. Maybe somebody walking by will hear us.” It’s Old School cellphone. Nobody’s in the building, but he’s right that there’s a good chance somebody’s walking by. I’m not sure that they’ll hear us from inside the elevator, but like Mack said, it’s not exactly airtight. He starts hollering again, and this time, I join him. We sound like a couple in a horror movie, getting hacked to death by an immortal psychopath. We scream as long as our voices hold out. After we finally stop, we stand and wait for a sign that someone has heard us. But there’s no Good Samaritan running into the building, no police sirens, no nothing. “You were pretty convincing. Maybe you really are an actress,” Mack tells me. I slump against the wall and slide down until I’m sitting on the floor. “I’m not an actress.” “You can be an actress if you want to.” “Don’t patronize me.” “I’m serious.” I’m supposed to feel better. Mack’s saying all the right things. He believes I can be an actress. He’s opening the door to my dreams. My dreams. I struggle to see acting as my dream, but I can’t. Do I have a dream, beyond paying my rent? Does Mack really see me as an actress or as something else? Perhaps he can tell me who I am and what I should be in life. Maybe he has all the answers. But I don’t dare ask him. Besides, he’s too busy staring at the ceiling. “What are you looking at?” He takes his fishing rod and jams it with all his strength at the trapdoor in the ceiling. The door doesn’t budge, but the rod breaks in two. He holds the pieces in his hands and stares at them, as if it’s all a mistake and they’re going to regenerate into a whole fishing rod by the will of his mind. “Shit!” he yells. “Shit! Shit! Shit!” “I’m sorry. I know what it’s like,” I say, showing him my broken fingernails again. “Are you comparing your fifteen-dollar manicure to my fishing rod?” His voice is cold. Angry. “Well, my manicure is prettier than your rod.” “My rod cost me over a thousand dollars. A thousand. I’ll do the math for you, Marion. That’s sixty-six of your manicures.” “That’s a lot of manicures in a stick with a hook attached to it.” Mack shuts his eyes tight. “Are you sleeping?” I ask. “No. I’m picturing your boobs so I don’t get upset.” “Oh. Okay.” He stays that way for a while. At one point, he covers his face with his hand and sighs, pitifully. “We’re dead, aren’t we?” I ask. “This is it. We’re done for. Goners.” He drops the pieces of his fishing rod on the floor and grabs the tackle box. He slams it against the trapdoor, which is either bolted closed or so old that dirt and rust have sealed it tight. The box makes a horrible racket on impact, and I think it’s is going to fall apart, but it holds strong. The trapdoor, however, has met its match and cracks opens with a loud noise. Mack has managed to bend back a portion of the metal door, but it’s not totally open. Still, it’s our first bit of success since we got trapped. I hop up and peer into the gap in the ceiling. It’s just like the movies… a cable reaching up into a long shaft. “Are you going up there?” I ask Mack. “Yep.” He puts the tackle box on the floor, underneath the trapdoor, and he steps on it in order to better reach the ceiling. He pounds against the door until it bends further, opening up wider. It’s like opening a can without an opener. He’s got it open a little, but it’s not wide enough. “You can’t fit through that,” I say. “I’ll fit.” “No you won’t.” “Yes, I will.” “No, you won’t,” I say, shaking my head. I take off my shoes because I know where this is heading. I’m going to have to be the one to climb through the door. “Yes, I will.” “Fine. Go ahead and try,” I say. Mack clamps his hand on the ceiling ledge and pulls himself up. My whole life I’ve never been able to do a single pull-up, but he pulls himself up like it’s nothing at all. His biceps bulge with the effort, but otherwise it’s easy peasy for him to haul his big body up there. But it’s not easy peasy for him to fit through the small opening. He gets his head through and then one shoulder, and then he’s stuck. “You’re stuck,” I say. “I’m not stuck.” He’s trying to pull himself through, but he’s not moving. “You’re really stuck.” “I’m not stuck.” “You’re going to need the jaws of life to get you out of there. If you had a cellphone, we could call 911.” “I’m not stuck.” He punches the trapdoor with his free hand several times. It opens a little more, but not enough to climb through. He groans as he pushes and pulls, trying to unjam himself from the door. “You’re stuck.” He swings his legs to try and dislodge his body from the trapdoor, but he’s not going anywhere. “Sonofabitch!” he growls. “I told you that you were stuck.” “I’m not—” He begins but stops himself. He’s so stuck. “Don’t worry. I’ll save you!” I announce. “No! Don’t save me, Marion. I’ll get myself out,” he says with more than a hint of panic in his voice. “No way. I’m not going to have you die in here and leave me alone with a corpse. I’m going to save you, no matter what.” I leap in the air and grab onto his legs. I hold on for dear life, my arms wrapped around his thighs and my face smooshed up against his butt. “This is awkward,” I say, just as Mack finally breaks free with the force of our combined weight, and we fall to the floor together. We lie in a heap and catch our breaths. “I wasn’t stuck,” he says. “You were totally stuck. I saved you.” Our limbs are intertwined. My dress is hitched up to my hips, and my left leg is wrapped around Mack’s torso. Our faces are nearly touching, and I can smell his breath. Bacon and eggs, if I’m not mistaken. “I think you’re going to miss your audition,” he says. “I’m never going to be an actress. I should have had pancakes with my pie.” “You can be whatever you want to be.” He means it. He’s dead serious. Mack has faith in me, which is a first in my life. “No one’s said that to me since Mrs. Fletcher in third grade,” I say. “Smart woman, that Mrs. Fletcher.” Tears sting my eyes, and I wipe at them with my hand. Being able to be what I want in life isn’t the only issue, but I can’t talk to Mack about it. He would never understand that I’m aimless, that I don’t know what direction to take. He owns his own diner and apartment building. He knows what he wants in life and has taken every step to make it happen. My tears graduate to weeping. Mack kisses my tears away as they fall onto my cheeks. “Don’t worry. We’ll get out of here. Eventually somebody’s going to come by for a cup of coffee,” “No they won’t. You’re closed. You went fishing.” His mouth sets into a tight line. “True.” He caresses my leg, from ankle to hip. The air molecules shift and buckle, changing from confidences and friendship to seduction and something much deeper. Serious. Is this the normal evolution from friendship and attraction? Was this detour in our relationship inevitable, and should I go with the flow? Or is this wrong, wrong, wrong? Is it a terrible mistake to get cozy with a man I’ve been fighting with for two years? Is this unnatural, immoral, and just plain weird? Is this going to end in disaster, where feelings are hurt, hearts are broken, and I’m left without a place to eat really good pie? I have so many questions that I don’t know where to begin. “When’s the last time this carpet was cleaned?” I ask. My guess is never. It smells horrible, like rotten eggs and ashtrays. Mack doesn’t seem to care about the carpet. He’s ogling my body parts, and his hand has traveled the distance to the space between my legs. I feel a finger tug at my panties, and then Mack’s safely in the DMZ, that no man’s land between the thighs and the just-been-waxed that makes my eyes roll back in my head and makes me put my hand over his to guide him further. Sex in a broken elevator. Talk about some crazy-ass foreplay. But I don’t care. Gone is the worry about carpet-carrying diseases. Gone is the claustrophobia. Gone are the concerns about friends becoming lovers. Gone, even, is the certainty that if I don’t get to a bathroom on the double, I’m going to pee in my pants. That’s all because of Mack’s hand. His magical, warm, hand with one finger slipping inside me and the other rubbing me in just the right way. How does he know exactly how to drive me mad? Somebody moans. I’m pretty sure it’s me, but I can’t be totally certain because it doesn’t sound quite human. My body’s rocking to the rhythm of his hand. I’m so close to an orgasm. I’ve gone from zero to sixty in ten seconds. “You can kiss me now,” I suggest. Mack’s mouth captures mine with a wild ferocity. He possesses me totally. One arm circles the back of my head and pulls me even closer. I’m spinning around and around, and I’m about to take off to the stratosphere. That’s when the screaming starts. CHAPTER 6 “Hello! Can you hear us? Don’t worry! We’re going to get you out!” I hear the shouts as if I’m in a dream. “No, don’t go out. Stay right where you are,” I mutter against Mack’s mouth. He stops kissing me, and his hand stops moving, and he pulls back to listen. “No. No. No. No,” I moan. “I was so close.” “It’ll just be a second! Hang in there!” The shouts are saying. “Okay!” Mack shouts back. In a second, his hand is gone, he’s extricated himself from my embrace, and he’s hopped up and helping me up, as well. He pulls at my dress, which is up around my waist. I’m disoriented. I’m not entirely sure what’s going on. I’m still highly aroused, but I feel abandoned, rejected. I have a strong desire to suck my thumb. “You okay?” Mack asks. “You look sort of used.” “I wish.” “Your hair,” he says, pointing. My hands fly to my head. It’s a rat’s nest on one side, and flat on the other. “Oh.” There’s squealing and clunking and knocking. Men’s voices discussing elevator mechanics reach us. Then, the lights flicker, and the elevator creaks back to life. We descend for a few seconds, and then we stop. I’m just about to bemoan getting stuck again, when the doors open, pulled apart by two hunky Esperanza firefighters. They’re not alone. The whole fire department is there, along with two police officers, the mayor, and Raine. They look at us and the inside of the elevator, and they don’t say a word. All except Raine. She talks. “What did you two do in there? It looks like World War Three. Broken everything, and… Oh.” It’s written all over their faces that what we’ve just done and almost done is written all over our faces. And my hair. Probably my hair is a dead giveaway. “Thank you so much,” I say, acting cool as a cucumber. “That was… and we were… the thing just… and anyway…” Raine takes a step forward and grabs my arm. “Come on, Shakespeare. Let’s clean you up.” She yanks at my arm, and I stumble out of the elevator, stubbing my toe. “My shoes—” I begin to say. “Keep walking,” Raine whispers. All heads turn as we pass. I look down at the ground to avoid eye contact. Raine digs a large key ring out of her jeans pocket and searches through the keys. Finding the right one, she unlocks the back door of Mack’s diner. “I can’t believe he gave you a key,” I say. Mack is highly territorial, and the diner is his prized possession. “Sometimes I need to fetch some of our guests diner food at odd hours. Mack lets me use his kitchen in case of emergency.” Raine’s job is a lot of work. She’s at the beck and call of a whole slew of tourists and long-term renters. It’s a family business, but she takes a lot of responsibility for the nuts and bolts of its day-to-day running. It gets me thinking. “Here we are,” she says, opening the diner’s bathroom door. “None too soon.” I go right to a stall and sit down on the toilet. “I didn’t think I was going to make it. I thought I was going to leave a big puddle on the elevator floor. Although that might have cleaned the elevator a bit.” “Speaking of dirty,” Raine begins. “You guys finally decided to get down and dirty while you were trapped?” I flush and leave the stall. I turn on the water to wash my hands but am stopped by my reflection in the mirror. “Oh God.” It’s not just my hair. My lipstick has vanished, and it’s been replaced with a passion rash. Mack has kissed the skin off me. I look like I took a ride on the freeway, face first. My dress is one big wrinkle, too. “And it’s ripped up the back,” Raine tells me. I turn around. My dress is ripped up to the top of my thong, revealing all kinds of cheek. No wonder they watched me walk away. “I have sweats, a t-shirt, and flip flops in the car. I’ll go get them for you. In the meantime, here’s my brush,” Raine says. While she’s gone, I wet the brush and run it through my hair. Then, I wash the rest of the makeup off my face. After I put on her sweats and t-shirt, I look human, again. “They say the elevator is almost safe. They’ve got a whole team on it,” Raine tells me, after I’m dressed. “Mack is serving pie and coffee to the firemen, the cops, and the mayor. So, before we go out there, tell me what happened. I figure you must be pregnant, now.” “I’m not pregnant.” “Maybe a little pregnant? Like half pregnant?” “I’m not half pregnant. Not anywhere close to pregnant. Mack and I are just friends, and probably not even that.” Raine studies my face, as if my nose has slipped off-center or something. “Is that what the kids are calling it these days? ‘Friends’?” I try to decide how much lying I should do. Raine is a good friend. I’ve known her since kindergarten, and she was there for me when my mom died three years ago. She’s extremely hard working and sensible. Who better to tell my problems to? Who better to work my life out for me? “I might have a little crush.” “I knew that already, Marion.” “Okay. Okay. We might have kissed.” Raine points at my lips. “You think? They’re swollen to twice their normal size.” “Fine. We almost did it. We were close. Oh wow, was I almost close.” “Oh my God!” Raine yells, skipping around in a circle in the bathroom. “I knew it. I knew it. You guys are perfect for each other. I think you should name your first son Mark and your first daughter Mavis. Then, it would be Mack, Marion, Mark, and Mavis. How cute is that?” I flinch. “I don’t think it’s that cute, Raine. Besides, we didn’t discuss life after the elevator, you know? It’ll probably just go back to normal. He’ll give me coffee in the morning, and I’ll avoid him when rent is due.” “You could get married by the lake. I’ll cater.” “And we fight all the time.” “That’s called sexual tension. That’s good. I would cut off my left arm to have some sexual tension with Wade.” Wade is where Raine goes off the sensible rails. She’s been gaga for him for so long that she doesn’t see what a grade-A jerk he is. And I can’t tell her. She’s not ready for that information. “I know you would,” I say, putting my arm around her shoulders. It’s time to leave the bathroom—past time—but I’m too chicken to go out into the diner and face Mack, post almost-coitus. Maybe he’ll look different outside of the elevator. Maybe our little interlude was just a moment of insanity, brought on by our imprisonment. “Raine, I missed my audition,” I say, staring down at my broken fingernails. I’m embarrassed to ask her for a favor, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. Right? “And I sort of need a job.” “Audition for what?” “I was going to be an actress.” “Was?” “I’m back to not knowing what I want and aimlessly wasting my youth.” “Well, that’s good for me,” Raine says, smiling. “I’m short of staff and could use your help. I wouldn’t even have to train you because you know how our business works. Do you remember how to make apple crumble and hospital corners?” I’ve worked for Raine’s family on and off my whole life. I’ve been a maid, a cook, and a bottle washer. I even did the books for a week, before I screwed them up so bad they had to bring in a forensic accountant to fix the mess I made. “I do,” I say. “Perfect.” Raine invites me to start right away, to get updated on this season’s crop of guests and the schedule. I’m thrilled to go with her and to get away from Mack for the rest of the day. Mack confuses me. But Raine and her family make me feel secure, like everything is supposed to be just as it is. So, that’s how I have enough courage to finally leave the bathroom. Raine holds my hand as I open the bathroom door. The diner is crowded, but the town’s first responders and the mayor are filing out, probably going back to work. They’re careful not to say anything about seeing my butt through my ripped dress or my almost-had-an-orgasm hair. But they wave to me as they leave, and I can read their minds. And it’s not pretty. Mack is clearing the tables but stops when he sees me. We lock eyes, sending shockwaves to my lady parts. Wow. I mean, wow. Maybe Raine is right. Maybe I am a little pregnant. Just his look could probably do the trick. “I’m taking your girlfriend to work with me,” Raine announces, as we walk through the diner. “Not girlfriend,” I say. My face is hot, most likely bright red. “She didn’t mean girlfriend, Mack. I don’t know why she said that. No idea at all.” I push on Raine’s back to make her walk quicker. We’re close to the front door. I’m so anxious to be away from Mack’s sex stare that I’m tempted to take a running leap at the exit. Just as we get to the door, he steps in front of us, blocking our path. “No,” he says. “No?” Raine and I repeat in unison. “We have unfinished business, Marion. I’m not letting you run away.” CHAPTER 7 “I’m not running away,” I say, affronted. Who does he think he is, saying I’m running away? Sure, I’m running away, but how dare he think I’m running away? “Why would I run away from you? You don’t scare me. Do you think you scare me? Big bad Mack Ryan, scaring little Marion MacAlister? I don’t think so.” I punctuate my words by poking him in the chest. It’s hard as a rock. It’s like a super chest. The manliest of manly chests. I’ve never actually seen him without a shirt. Could his naked chest be as good as I think it is? “Mack, let Marion run away just for today,” Raine says. “Just for five hours or so.” “I’m not running away. I have a job,” I say. “Congratulations,” he says, giving me the sex stare again. “But you can start tomorrow. Today, we have unfinished business.” He steps forward, getting deep into my personal space. Heat and testosterone are bouncing off him like a trampoline at an amusement park. My heart starts to pound. I drop Raine’s hand. “Oh, my,” I breathe. “This is so good,” Raine says, looking from Mack to me and back again. She steps around Mack and goes right out the door without looking back or saying another word. “Traitor!” I yell after her. She’s abandoned me without having the decency to look back even once. I take two steps backward, out of Mack’s reach. “Hey,” I say, stomping my foot. “Why’d you do that? I need that job.” “The job will be there tomorrow. Raine loves you. She’ll hold the job a few hours for you.” He makes up the space between us and takes my hand. I pull it back, as if I’m burned. “Don’t you think this is weird?” I ask. “No.” “Not at all?” “No.” His voice is impossibly deep. He’s looking down at me from up high. Tall. Strong. I step back until I crash into a chair, toppling it over. “Nervous?” he asks. “Terrified.” He nods. A man in overalls enters the diner, and waves at Mack. “I just wanted you to know that Joe is on his way to San Fernando to get a part. Then, we should finish up the work on the elevator. It should be right as rain tomorrow morning.” “Tomorrow morning?” I ask. How will I get to my apartment? “That’s fine,” Mack tells the man. “We’re going to be gone until then, anyway.” “We are?” I ask. “Yep. We’re going fishing, remember?” “I don’t remember that.” “Remember the fishing rod that you broke? Remember the tackle box? Those signify fishing.” “They signify that you’re fishing, not me. I don’t do boats. I don’t do fish.” Mack yanks my hand, making my body slam against his. He wraps his arms around me and holds me close. “Today you do. Today you do it all.” I almost swallow my tongue. “What do you mean I broke your fishing rod?” I croak. * Mack parks his SUV in front of the 7-Eleven. “Are we getting Slurpees?” I ask. “If I knew that Slurpees were part of fishing, I would have been an avid fisherman my whole life.” “I wasn’t planning on getting a Slurpee. But if you want one, it’s my treat.” “Oh, you know I want one.” Mack owns an all-electric SUV. It’s fancy, with lots of doodads and widgets. It’s very different from Mack’s normal style of worn jeans and undershirts. I wonder if there’s more than meets the eye in regards to Mack Ryan. We’ve been sort of friends for two years, but maybe I don’t know a thing about him. We get out of the car, and Mack locks it with a beep. “I didn’t know you were a fan of Slurpees,” I say. “I’m not. Not since I was nine years old. I’ve graduated to more robust drinks.” We walk into Esperanza’s only 7-Eleven. I haven’t been in here for months. When I was a kid, my friends and I used to hang out here every day after school. So I’ve got the layout memorized. Slurpees and sodas to the right. Condoms to the left, directly in front of the cashier, because everybody tries to steal them. Beer, beer, and more beer straight ahead in the refrigerated section. I head straight for the Slurpee machines. “Blue raspberry isn’t working today, Steve?” I call out to the cashier. “Nah, been out for two days. But the Cherry Explosion is just as good,” he calls back. I have my doubts that the Cherry Explosion is anywhere near as good as blue raspberry. Just drinking something blue makes me happy. There’s no blue in the Cherry Explosion. Oh, well. I mix the Cherry Explosion with the Coke flavor in the biggest cup they have. Since Mack is paying, I go for the candy straw and slip it through the top. Yum. I meet Mack at the counter. He’s got beef jerky, Doritos, and a bottle of iced tea piled high. “So, what is it today, Mack?” Steve asks him. “Are you picking your own numbers, or are you going for the random pick?” “I don’t know. Let me think a second.” “You play the lottery?” I ask. I don’t know why I’m so surprised, but Mack never struck me as the lottery kind of guy. I rarely play the lottery. It’s not that I don’t think I can win, even though I’m pretty sure I can’t win, but most of the time I forget to play. Besides, aren’t you more likely to get hit by lightning twice in the same spot than win the lottery? Winning the lottery sounds fabulous. I could get a new manicure and maybe even a car! Hit by lightning odds or not, I’m hit with a strong desire to play. I must play. “I want to play,” I say. “Please! Please! I want to play, too.” Mack seems to think about it a minute. I guess playing the lottery with someone is kind of like a commitment. I’ve heard stories of winners suing each other over the winnings. But since lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place, I don’t see why Mack would hesitate. Still, I really want to play the lottery. And I want to play with Mack. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s a moment of lunacy. “Please,” I say, looking up at him. I can tell the moment he melts or makes a decision. His whole face changes. I really don’t know what’s going on in his brain, but he comes out on my side. “Fine. We’ll split it. You pick out half of the numbers, and I’ll pick the other half. Where’s your fifty cents?” I don’t have fifty cents. My purse is in my apartment, and there’s not much more than fifty cents in my wallet, in any case. I’m flat broke, and I’m pretty sure Mack is aware of that. “Can I borrow fifty cents?” “I don’t know. Are you good for it?” “Probably not, unless I win the lottery and then I can pay you back your fifty cents.” “Okay. Sounds like a deal. What’s your first number?” He holds a pen poised over a lottery card, which is covered in little number bubbles. I think hard, as if I’m taking the SATs or balancing my checkbook. What number to pick? What number to pick? “Thirteen. My birthdate,” I say, finally. “Lucky number thirteen,” he says, filling in the number thirteen bubble. “Okay. April, right?” “Why? Are you planning on getting me a present?” “Not if you win the lottery, because then you’ll be rich enough to buy your own present,” he says, smiling. “I guess if we’re going the birthday route, I’ll pick number two.” “November, right?” “Close. May.” “Oh, an Aquarius. I don’t think I’m compatible with Aquarius. That explains so much.” Mack nods. “Yes, it would explain so much, if I was an Aquarius, but I’m a Taurus. Next number. Your choice.” “Twenty-four. That’s how old my mother was when she had me.” “Twenty-four for the ‘aw, sweet’ number. If we’re going that route, I pick thirty-six,” he says, filling in the bubble. “Your mother was thirty-six when she had you?” “Nope. If I’m not mistaken, that’s a measurement on someone I’ve taken an interest in.” He gestures at my chest with his pen. Thirty-six is my bra size. I cover my chest with my arms. “I don’t want to know how you know that. There’s a certain creepy stalker quality to the fact that you know that bit of information.” Mack smiles and does a dancing thing with his eyebrows. Steve snickers behind the counter. “You mind your own beeswax, Steve,” I bark. “And forget that number.” Steve snorts. “Fine. I’m going to clean out the hot dog tray. Let me know when you’re ready to pay.” He walks over to the hot dogs, singing, “Thirty-six. Thirty-six” over and over. “Geez,” I mutter. “Your turn,” Mack reminds me. “Fine. One. To mark your measurement,” I say, pointing at his crotch. “One foot? Yep, sounds about right.” He’s smiling ear to ear and eagerly colors in the number one bubble. “I meant one inch!” I yell. “Too late. One foot. So accurate. I wonder how you knew. Anyway, time for the last number. The bonus number. I think the only bonus number could be three.” “Why is three the only possible bonus number?” Mack leans his hip against the counter. He searches my face for something, and I blush in response. “Well, when we get hitched, that makes two, and our first child will be the bonus. Three,” he says, holding three fingers in the air. CHAPTER 8 Time stands still. I forget how to breathe. I forget how to swallow. So, my eyes are stinging, and there’s drool coming out of my mouth. I stick my finger in my ear and wiggle it around, because I’m sure I’m hearing things. Mack finishes filling out the lottery card and calls Steve over. He pays for everything and picks up the bag of supplies. I finally get control over my mouth again. I wipe the drool off on my sleeve and take a sip of the Slurpee and a bite of the candy straw. He puts his hand on the small of my back, and we walk out to his car. He opens the car door for me, but I slam it shut again and slug his arm. “What do you mean, hitched? Where did that come from?” I demand. Mack rubs the place on his arm where I punched him. “Isn’t it the natural progression of all this?” “Of all what?” “This.” He pushes me up against the car. His hands reach behind my thighs, and he lifts me up, fitting himself between my legs. “People will see,” I say. “There’s only one person I care about.” Mack brushes his lips against my neck, making my skin come alive. I’ve never reacted so strongly to a man. Either he’s the most adept kisser in existence, or he really does it for me. Off the charts chemistry. Or could it be soulmates? “No,” I say, turning my head away from him. The “no” word is all it takes. Mack doesn’t second guess me. He stops immediately and puts me down, gently. “Sorry,” he says. “Too fast. It’s all too fast.” I talk down to the ground because I can’t bear to make eye contact. I can’t bear to see the emotion in his face. And I don’t know how strong I can be when I’m faced with his desire. He has a certain effect on me that’s disconcerting. Scary. * We pull out of the parking lot and drive toward the lake. The silence grows heavy between us. I’m torn between needing to explain myself and being a big chicken. I’m just about to come out on the side of being a big chicken when Mack breaks the silence. “Was it the hitched part or the three part that freaked you out?” “It was all the parts. This is going too fast. Just this morning, we were fighting over what I was going to eat for breakfast. Now you’re talking about getting married and having a family.” At the word “family,” I choke. Choke like I have a chicken bone stuck in my throat. Choke like an entire chicken is wedged in there. But I don’t have anything stuck. It’s just commitment that’s got me gasping for air. I hack and sputter. Mack pounds on my back a couple of times. Finally, a sip of my Slurpee calms me down. “Okay. My bad,” Mack says. “So, how about we make a deal?” “What kind of deal?” “We won’t talk about you know what and the thing that shall not be named.” “Deal!” I shout. Phew. What a relief. My stress level plummets, and I breathe a lot easier. The overwhelmed feeling I’ve had for hours leaves me, and finally I can enjoy being with Mack. “I’m not finished,” he adds, making my stomach lurch. “We won’t talk about any of it. However, if we happen to win the lottery tonight, we get married in the morning.” I explode with laughter. I roar with it. It’s the best belly laugh I’ve had in years. “If we win the lottery? We have more of a chance of getting hit by lightning twice in one spot,” I giggle. “So it’s a deal?” He puts a hand out, and I shake it. “Deal.” * “This is a fishing boat?” “I can fish from it.” It’s not a fishing boat. I’ve seen my share of fishing boats, living my whole life in a small town by a lake. The lake is lousy with fish, and the lake is lousy with fishing boats. But this is something altogether different. It’s longer, for one thing, two stories, and it’s flat on top. There’s a complicated barbecue thing going on the upper deck. It looks like a… “It looks like a house,” I say. Mack is holding my hand, and he gives it a little squeeze. “That’s because it’s a houseboat,” he says. “A houseboat,” I repeat. “Like a yacht?” “Nothing like a yacht. Totally different animal. Much more comfortable and perfect to glide around the lake, which is what we’re going to do right now.” “Gliding sounds okay. Gliding doesn’t sound like unbearable seasickness.” “Nobody gets seasick on Bessie’s Castle.” He points at the back of the boat where “Bessie’s Castle” is written in big black letters. “Who’s Bessie?” I ask, horrified at how jealous I sound. “My golden retriever. She died when I was sixteen. The love of my life.” I study him, trying to figure out if he’s pulling my leg. “You named your boat for a dog?” He nods. “The love of my life.” “I’m impressed, Mack. I love dogs, too.” “Come on,” he says. “Let me impress you, again.” He helps me onto the boat, and we climb the stairs to the top deck. It really is like a house. Nicer than any house I’ve ever lived in. An outside kitchen takes up most of the deck. A huge stainless steel barbecue takes up most of the kitchen. Cushioned benches wind around the top deck, giving guests a bird’s eye view of the cooking. “All this for a Slim Jim and Doritos?” I ask. “Those are for après l’amour. I’m making you a dinner to explode your taste buds.” “I’m not sure exploding taste buds is a good thing.” “Well, you know what I mean.” “What do you mean après l’amour?” I don’t speak French, but I get the impression he’s being presumptuous. “How do you know there’s going to be an après or a l’amour in the first place?” The sun is going down, and Mack is standing way too close to me. He’s not standing at an I’m-going-to-make-dinner distance. He’s at more like an are-you-going-to-be-on-top-or-shall-I distance. Totally inappropriate. Inappropriate in a good way, of course. He smells great, like he has access to a pheromone machine. I take a step closer to him. It may be my imagination, but I could swear he’s gotten better looking. He’s blown past Tatum Channing, and he’s full on Chris Hemsworth, now. And he’s looking at me. I mean, really looking at me. I wonder if he’s thinking about what he’s going to prepare for dinner, but I’m pretty sure he’s thinking about something entirely different. I’m thinking about something different, too. “Remember when I said it’s going too fast?” I ask. “It’s branded on my brain, like mad cow disease. What about it?” “I lied.” CHAPTER 9 I wrap my arms around his neck and jump. I’m a sex vixen. I’m fifty shades of grey, but I’ve flipped the roles. I’m the predator and he’s the prey. I’m the red hot mama in charge, and he’s going to submit. I’m also heavier than I look, and he’s caught off guard. He stumbles backward, swinging his grocery bag to try and catch his balance. But there’s this momentum thing happening, and we just keep going. Ah, physics. You’re a horrible bitch. We do a little dance: Stumble backward. Stumble backward. Teeter. Totter. Stumble backward. Stumble backward. Teeter. Totter. But then the stumble backward crashes into the teeter totter, and we hit the boat’s railing with surprising force and go right overboard. Do you ever have dates like this? We hit the water with a loud splash. We’ve fallen three stories, after all. Higher than Greg Louganis. And we land—the both of us—flat on Mack’s back. We sink deep into the water, but I’m a good swimmer. I dislodge myself from Mack’s neck and kick my way up to the surface, accidentally knocking my foot against his groin. I think I hear him scream, but it’s underwater and the sound is muffled. I make it to the top and gasp for air. It takes Mack significantly longer to come up from the deep, and I’m almost ready to dive down to find him when he breaks the surface. “Are you okay?” I ask. He puts a finger up in the air in the international gesture for “wait a minute.” “You’re blue,” I note. He puts his finger up again. “I don’t think you’re breathing,” I say. He shakes his head. “Do you need CPR?” He shakes his head, again. “That’s good because I don’t actually know CPR, but you’re awfully blue. Should I pound on your chest?” He furrows his brow. “I’m fine,” he gasps, finally. “My testicles are tucked away next to my appendix now, but I’m fine.” I feel guilty about kicking him. I hope the damage isn’t permanent. I was planning on using that part of his anatomy. “At least the fall wasn’t too bad,” I say, trying to look on the bright side. “Thankfully, something broke your fall.” “Yes… Oh,” I say remembering that he broke my fall. “Well, I guess we should get back on board.” I climb the ladder without looking back. I’ve sort of ruined the mood. Will we go back to being friends or has emasculating him with my super-strong leg put pie and his easygoing attitude toward my rent in jeopardy? I step onto the lowest deck. I’m soaked through, and Raine’s sweatpants now weigh a ton. Mack climbs up after me, and I’m relieved to see he’s no longer blue. “Do you have a bathroom?” I ask. He takes my hand and shows me to a very nice bedroom. There’s a king-sized bed with a blue and white comforter. The walls are paneled in wood, and the floor is wood, also. We’re dripping all over it. “Nice,” I say. The room is decorated entirely in bachelor chic, but it’s nice and tidy. And new. At first, I don’t notice that Mack is stripping off his shirt. He tosses it into the corner of the room and unbuttons his pants. He’s got muscles everywhere. Since he’s always in his diner, I can only imagine his muscles are genetic. Like his blue eyes. “You probably have no problem with jar lids,” I say, staring at his biceps. “The bathroom’s in there,” he says, pointing to a door. I nod, but I’m rooted to the spot. I’m not moving, and I’m not blinking, for that matter. Mack kicks off his jeans, and then it’s just his boxer briefs and his muscly everything. And me. The air grows thick with tension and anticipation. I swear I can hear his heart beating. “You all right?” I ask, gesturing toward his manly parts. “I don’t know. Let’s see if it still works.” He takes two steps forward and put his hands on the hem of my shirt and lifts it up. My arms follow, and he pulls my shirt over my head, throwing it onto the heap of his clothes. His fingers work their way under my elastic waistband and pull at my sweatpants until they fall to the floor. I shut my eyes tight and take a few deep breaths. “Meditating?” Mack asks. “I’m trying to remain calm so I don’t cause any more damage.” “You were pretty assertive before. Surprisingly strong for your size.” “Like King Kong, you mean,” I say with my eyes still shut. I feel his breath on my neck. It’s all I can do not to do a Gabby Douglas straddle jump all over him. “Like King Kong,” he agrees. His hands slowly travel from my back—where he deftly unhooks my bra—to my front, where he cups my breasts in his large, hot hands. My head falls back, and my mouth drops open. “This is going to happen,” he says, sounding almost surprised. I gurgle in response. His hands have rendered me speechless. Tamed. I have to hand it to him. Most men would have given up on our date after being almost drowned and having their balls kicked in. Not to mention everything else that’s happened today. But Mack is more determined than most. Lesser men would have left well enough alone. But Mack is focused on getting the show on the road right to Broadway. And by “Broadway,” I mean my vagina. He lifts me in his arms, carrying me like a child, and places me gently on his bed. He strips off his boxers, quickly. And there he is in all his glory. Lots and lots of glory. “Oh, my,” I breathe. He lies down on top of me, his body cradled between my legs. I’m still wearing my thong, and I struggle to remove it. But Mack is quicker than I am. He grabs some material and pulls, making it fall to pieces. He holds his weight on his forearm and kisses me, his lips traveling lower until he’s laving my nipple with his tongue. His hand’s down between us, working to drive me crazy. There is a time and a place for making love, but this ain’t it. I’m ready to do the big nasty, and if I don’t do it soon, I’m going to explode. My hand wraps around his manhood, and I guide him inside me. Mack makes an inhuman noise, as we fit together perfectly. Pure arousal. “Holy hell,” he says. “Hell doesn’t have anything to do with it.” At least I hope it doesn’t. I mean, I’m feeling pretty wicked. With the foreplay out of the way—thank God—he begins to rock his hips. In. Out. In. Out. The nursery rhyme Home Again Home Again Jiggity Jig plays in my head. Mack inside me feels like home, like this is how it’s supposed to be. My knees lift to his hips, and I clutch the bars of the headboard above me. I’m hypnotized by his slow, steady rhythm, and my body meets him for every thrust. As his pace increases, faster and harder, I claw at his back, raking a trail from his butt to his shoulders. Once again, Mack Ryan has got me right on the edge of ecstasy. In the back of my head I worry that some repairman or firefighter is going to burst into the room and blow this whole gig for me just as I’m about to have the biggest orgasm of my life, but my worries are unfounded. Nobody’s coming but me. In a couple of minutes, my eyes roll back in my head and my body seizes in the miracle of the good old climax. Mack is not far behind me. He collapses next to me, his breathing labored. “That’s a relief,” he says. “I was worried.” “Worried?” “Well, we’re sort of a disaster together, but it turns out not where it counts.” He turns on his side and grabs my ass, pulling me close to him. “Where it counts, we’re the Fourth of July.” “Christmas,” I add. “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” “Ice cream birthday cake.” “TV marathon.” “Shoe sale.” “You,” he says, effectively ending that part of the conversation. I touch the bridge of his nose. It’s straight, like the rest of the planes and angles of his face. Like a Greek statue come to life. He’s uncommonly handsome. Striking. I can handle him being good-looking. I’ve been involved with several hunka hunka burnin’ loves. But it’s the romance that’s got me frazzled. It’s the way he’s looking at me. If I’m not mistaken, he’s got the love look. It’s either that or acid reflux, but I’ve been with him most of the day, and he hasn’t eaten a thing. “Me?” I ask. “As good as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?” “Yep,” he says. His voice is yummy and a dead ringer for Cary Grant’s, minus the accent. “I guess I shouldn’t have worried.” “Well, it’s been rough going between us.” “That’s behind us, now.” Gulp. Behind us means we’re well on our way to our future. I’m not sure it’s wise for me to be thinking about a future as a couple when I’m in the dark about what my future should be as a single. “What if this thing doesn’t work out beyond the whole mind-blowing sex part?” I ask. “It will.” “What if it doesn’t?” “It will, but if it doesn’t, we’ll handle it.” “But who will I talk to if it doesn’t?” My voice cracks, and my eyes burn with unshed tears. “What do you mean?” “I talk to you about—well—everything. If this doesn’t work out, I won’t have you to talk to, and I’ll need to. Do you understand?” It doesn’t matter if he understands, because for the first time I understand. I understand that Mack is my best friend, the person I go to when I’m sad or happy, the person I run to when I want to share news about my life. Maybe he’s not the only one with the love look. Maybe I have the love look, too. Maybe I’ve been a couple since the moment I walked into Mack’s diner two years ago. Being a couple might just be how I figure myself out as a single. Mack tucks a strand of my hair behind my ear and kisses me ever so softly. There’s so much in his kiss: Passion. Tenderness. Ownership. And there’s something else… A promise. I reciprocate, promising it all right back to him, and he accepts it with the trust that only a man in love can give. CHAPTER 10 My definition of a perfect evening has always been watching television in bed while eating chips and/or peanut M&Ms and reading a hot romance at the same time. Boy, have I been wrong all these years. My new definition of a perfect evening is what’s happening right this second. Mack has his head between my legs, and he’s doing something with his tongue. Something wonderful. I squirm against him. “There! There! Yes!” I call out. He’s very good at this. Like he should teach classes. “Do. Not. Stop,” I order. Poor guy. He’s been doing this for a while, and I’m slightly concerned his tongue will get injured—repetitive stress injury—but he seems unconcerned. Like he could go all night. Oh, God. I hope he can go all night. Despite his cardio fitness, I reach my end a minute later. My body crosses a bridge of heightened arousal until I peak in an uncontrollable seizure. I cry out, “Mack!”, levitating off the bed for a second and then floating back down with my heart slowed to an unnatural rhythm. “The little death,” the French call it. Died and gone to heaven is more like it. Despite dying, Mack doesn’t stop. He takes his tongue on the road all over my body, kissing and tasting and biting his way to every nook and cranny. His hands are everywhere, too. I must have been Mother Theresa in my past life to deserve this, I figure. If this isn’t Nirvana, I can’t imagine what is. With every inch of me kissed and loved, he cradles my body in his large arms and kisses my face. I’m spent. Totally relaxed. I’m a limp noodle. But his noodle isn’t limp at all. Nope. He’s got a very stiff noodle, and I get the impression he has all kinds of plans for his stiff noodle. He holds me as if I’m the most valuable thing on the planet. And he holds me like I’m his. “I should have done this the first time you walked into my diner two years ago,” he says. “That might have been odd, us naked with you on top of me, especially since I walked in that day during the lunch rush.” “No, you didn’t. You came in at three. It was dead.” He sucks on my earlobe, and I caress his shoulders. “No, you’re wrong. The place was packed. I had to sit at the counter,” I say. Mack stops sucking on my earlobe and moves off of me. He sits on his knees at the edge of the bed. “It was three o’clock. You were the only one in the place. The fry cook was even on his break.” I sit up and cover myself with the comforter. “Your memory’s faulty. It was packed. It took you forever to wait on me. I think I ordered the special.” “My memory is perfectly fine,” he growls. “You came in at three. You ordered chili cheese fries, paid in quarters and dimes, and you didn’t tip me.” “You own the place. Customers aren’t supposed to tip the owner.” “I’m just pointing out the facts.” “It sounds like you think I’m cheap,” I yell. Duh. Of course he thinks I’m cheap. I’m really cheap. I’m like Scrooge, but cheaper. “I didn’t say that.” His face twitches. “I just wanted to prove that I remember that day.” “I knew this wouldn’t work,” I say. I wrap myself in the comforter and roll off the bed. I walk toward the bathroom and stand in the doorway wearing my best pissed off expression. “You insist on being right all the time. But you’re never right. Never. You make me so mad!” I stomp my foot and then stomp it a second time to really make my point. Mack is angry, too. He runs his fingers through his hair, and his noodle looks cooked. He stands up in all his nakedness and marches toward the pile of clothes. I figure he’s going to get dressed and take me home, that our little romantic experiment is over. But he removes his wallet. “Are you going to pay me?” I ask, affronted and hopeful at the same time. “You came into my diner two years ago,” he says. “It was August 12. A Sunday. I had finished with the after-church crowd, and I was tired and out of butter. I gave my fry cook a couple of hours off and told him to go to the grocery store.” “Are you one of those photographic memory people?” “Don’t interrupt,” he says, wagging his finger at me. “You came into the diner. You were wearing a flowery skirt and a t-shirt with “I hated flies until I opened one” written on it. With the sun shining through the windows behind you, I could see right through your skirt. You were wearing Hello Kitty panties. Pink.” “This is getting specific.” “You made a crack about the diner being empty and how long would you have to wait to get a table. I told you to sit anywhere. You proceeded to sit at every table in the place.” “Proceeded? Big word.” “I yelled at you to stop it, and you said, ‘You told me to sit anywhere.’ I said, ‘I don’t serve smart mouths’. You said you were hungry. I pointed at the door, but you wouldn’t go. It went on for a while. Finally, you said, ‘If I promise never to be a smart mouth again, will you feed me?’ You wrote your promise down on a napkin, and I fed you.” Mack opens his wallet and takes out a soggy, folded piece of paper. He carefully unfolds it, I see that it’s not paper. It’s a napkin. He hands it to me. In my handwriting is a note. I can barely make it out, but I manage. “I promise not to be a smart mouth to the jerkface diner guy so that he will feed me,” I read. “You kept this?” I ask, astonished. Mack takes the napkin back and lays it out carefully on the nightstand, I suppose to dry out.. “Of course, I did. I fell in love with you the first moment I met you.” My mouth turns dry, and I have difficulty swallowing. “You fell in love with me because I insulted you on a napkin?” I croak. “Either that or it was your Hello Kitty panties that got me. It’s a toss up.” I let the comforter drop to the ground, and I walk over to him. “You win,” I say. “Your memory is better than mine.” “I won the moment you came into my life, Marion.” His eyes are huge and dark. The blue has turned almost black. “I think you deserve a happy ending,” I say. “Being with you is my happy ending.” “Don’t be so literal, jerkface diner guy,” I say and drop to my knees. Turnaround is fair play, after all. * “You have to turn down the grill. You’re going to burn the steaks,” I tell Mack. We’ve finally made it upstairs after hours of rolling in the hay. With everything we’ve done, we could add another volume to the Kama Sutra. But we’re tired—I think we’ve run out of bodily fluids—and starving. My stomach is rumbling louder than Mack’s is growling. “You’re telling me how to cook?” he growls, holding steak prongs in a threatening manner. I’m dressed in a pair of his boxers and an undershirt. He’s dressed the same. His hair is a tangle, and his lips are chapped. The upper deck of his boathouse is dark except for the lights of the barbecue, and we have a breathtaking view of the night sky with all its stars. The kitchen is stocked with food and drinks, and the cushioned seats are more than comfortable. Mack insisted that he cook for me, and I didn’t refuse, but he’s sure to burn the steaks. “Yes, I’m telling you how to cook when you’re going to burn the steaks. You have to turn down the heat,” I say, maneuvering to reach the BBQ controls. “Woman, don’t touch my grill. There’s no community property where grills are concerned.” He towers over me. He’s imposing and drop dead gorgeous. “You don’t scare me,” I say. Not really scared. But wary. I step back from his grill. I don’t mind burned steaks. “Steaks have to be cooked on high to seal in the juices,” he explains. He’s also made a salad and a sauce to go over the steaks. “Your ability to cook is almost sexier than that thing you do with your tongue,” I say, taking a seat. “Your tongue isn’t half bad, either.” He turns on the radio and smooth jazz comes out. Mack gives me his hand, and I take it, standing. He slips one hand around my waist and begins to dance me around the deck. He’s an amazing dancer. As smooth as the jazz. “What’s that sound?” he asks. “I think it’s Marvin Gaye.” “No, not the music. Listen.” There’s a faint sound. “Heavy breathing? Do you have another woman onboard?” “No. I don’t do that until the second date.” He dances me to the railing. We see and hear a woman running along the shores of the lake. She’s dressed in layers of sweats and hoodies, even though it’s a hot summer’s night. I recognize her, immediately. “Raine? What the hell are you doing?” I call as she gets closer. “Must—lose—forty—pounds,” she struggles to call back while running. She sounds like a locomotive. “We might need to call the paramedics,” I whisper to Mack. “You’re beautiful just as you are! Stop running. It’s two in the morning!” I yell at Raine. “I’m not going to stop running until I’m a size six!” she yells back and runs out of our line of sight. “Women are nutjobs,” Mack says. The music on the radio changes to Luther Vandross. “Women are not nutjobs,” I say. “Women are wonderful. Raine is perfectly sane. Men just make women slightly unbalanced because men are jerks.” “You think running in the middle of the night to lose forty pounds in a week is only slightly unbalanced?” “Yes,” I lie. “It’s not her fault. It’s the wiener Wade’s fault. Why do men want to sleep with a bone?” “I don’t want to sleep with a bone,” he says, smiling. He gives my backside a squeeze. I stop dancing and push away from him. “What does that mean? Are you calling me fat?” “Uh—” “I’m not a bone, but I’m not fat!” Mack’s mouth is open, and he looks like I just told him his favorite golden retriever was dead again. “I didn’t mean—I wasn’t trying—oh, hell,” he says. I hear Raine approaching on her latest lap. “Mack says I’m fat!” I call out as she gets close to the boat. “Remember I’m catering your wedding!” she calls back. “Wedding? There’s no wedding!” I shout. “Nobody’s getting married here!” “I’ll give you a choice of beef or fish!” she huffs and puffs. “Nobody wants chicken at a wedding.” On the radio, Luther Vandross’s song ends, and the DJ comes on to announce the time as 2:30 AM. “And for that lucky someone in Esperanza who picked the right lottery numbers, today, congratulations,” he says. “Sixty-five million dollars. Spend it, wisely, lucky person. I know a certain DJ you could spend it on! Just kidding. But here’s those lottery numbers, in case you missed it: 1—2—13…” “Christ,” Mack says. “Do you know what this means?” “… 24—36…” the DJ continues. “Yes,” I say, pointing at the grill, which is billowing out smoke. “You burned the steaks.” The End Read on for the first two chapters of Man Candy, the next book in the Five Wishes series Man CANDY EXCERPT CHAPTER 1 Wade Gates is mine. His gorgeous, perfect, hotter-than-hot everything is all for me. I’ve waited my entire life for him—ever since I fell in love with him when he lent me his glue stick on the first day of preschool—but now I’m through waiting. I’ve pined and dreamed and hoped and prayed. I’ve hinted and suggested and plotted, and during one particularly humiliating drunken evening, begged. That’s all over now. Twenty years later, he’s going to give me his proverbial glue stick, and give it to me good. Better than good. Perfect, if I’m not mistaken about Wade’s potential. And not just perfect. Forever. Wade’s forever, perfect glue stick. Mine. All right. Sure, I admit that Wade doesn’t know he’s mine. He has no idea, in fact. It’s not just that he’s playing hard to get. It’s more like he doesn’t know I exist. Yes, he grew up next door to me in a house on the lake. Yes, we went to school to together all the way through high school. But I was invisible all that time. Fat girl invisibility. It’s an official disease. You can look it up on WebMD. Symptoms include the inability to get help in a store. Normally, I’m perfectly happy with how I look. But Wade Gates only has eyes for model thin women. He likes Keira Knightly, and I’m more like… well, nothing like Keira Knightly. But I’m determined to make him see me. After years away, he’s coming back to visit our town, Esperanza, and it’s now or never, as far as I’m concerned. I’m thinking all these things, as I take another lap, running around the lake late at night. It’s T-minus six days until Wade lands back in Esperanza, and I’m sweating calories as fast as I can. I hate running. I’d rather have a root canal than run. I’d rather take a math class than run. Just as I had spent the past few years successfully avoiding root canals and math, I’ve never actually run before. I mean, not unless you count that one time at the Walmart after-Christmas sale, but I don’t count that because I only ran a few steps before I was trampled by sadistic discount shoppers, hell bent on hundred-dollar flat screens. But tonight I’ve been running for thirty minutes straight. Thirty minutes of one foot after another, pounding the hard sand of the lake’s shoreline. Thirty minutes of hell. I ran out of oxygen twenty-five minutes ago. I’m pretty sure I’m going to have brain damage. I’ve got a stitch in my side, and since I’m not wearing a sports bra, I think I’ve permanently injured my boobs. No wonder I’m not skinny. Who would voluntarily do this to themselves? I would. All for the love of Wade Gates. “On your right,” a man announces behind me. I turn to see him, just as he catches up to me. In the dark, I can only make out his outline, but he’s big, in great shape, and he’s not wearing a shirt. “Are you okay?” he asks me. “Just keep moving, bub,” I gasp and sputter. “You might want to rest. You’re breathing pretty hard.” “Nothing to see here,” I pant, waving him along. “I just need to alter my pace. I’ve been running full out for too long.” “Are you running? I thought you were walking.” “Ha. Ha. Funny,” I say with the last bit of air left in my lungs. I’ve reached the end of my breathing ability. “Gah!” I sputter, and then my legs refuse to go any further. Stopped dead in my tracks, my knees lock, and I fall over. Flat on my face. * I’m spinning around and around. What is this? Astronaut training? In the distance, I see the fountain in the middle of the town square. I spin my way to it and finally stop spinning to land on my butt. The fountain is over a hundred years old, and it’s bone dry. It’s never had water in it, as far as I know. A coin appears in my hand. I’m desperate to throw it into the fountain, but I can’t stand up. I can’t even move my legs. If I don’t throw the coin into the fountain, however, my wish will never come true, and I need it to come true. I can’t be happy unless my wish comes true. Wait a minute. The coin, the fountain, my wish… it’s all familiar to me. I’ve been here before. In fact, I’ve already made my wish. “Are you coming around? There you are.” I hear the voice as if it’s coming from inside a toilet bowl. Far away with a flushing sound. I will my eyes to open. It takes a few attempts, but they finally flutter open. “Good morning,” he says. I’m lying on my back in the sand. I have a perfect view of the star-filled sky and the shirtless man, who is holding up my legs, I’m guessing to make the blood flow back to my brain. “Who are you?” I ask. “Let go of my legs.” “Dirk.” “You’re not wearing a shirt.” “It’s hot,” he explains. I notice he hasn’t let go of my legs. “How many shirts are you wearing? Six?” He’s close. I’m wearing four layers. “I’m in training.” “For what? Your funeral?” “What do you know? Let go of my legs.” He drops my legs, and I struggle to stand. He tries to help me, but I shrug him off. “I’m fine,” I say. And then everything goes black. CHAPTER 2 I don’t know how long I’m unconscious, but I come to on a couch, staring up at Dirk the Shirtless Man. He doesn’t look real. Much too good-looking. And he looks familiar, too. I rub my eyes. “I’m seeing things,” I say. “You passed out. Here. Drink some water.” He slips his hand under my neck and lifts my upper body slightly off the couch. With his other hand he gently puts a glass of a water up to my lips. I take a sip. “Slowly. You’re pretty dehydrated.” I steal a look at him while I drink. He has dark blond hair and big brown eyes. His eyelashes are twice as long as mine. His nose is slightly bigger than perfect, but otherwise, he’s got the whole proportion and symmetry thing down. Like a Greek God. “Where am I?” I ask. “In my cabin. Well, not really my cabin. I’m renting it for a couple weeks.” I sit up. The cabin is decorated in Turkish rugs, samovars, and a large poster of a belly dancer. Bizarre for a California cabin in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, but I know why it’s decorated that way. “This is my cabin,” I say. “I mean, my family’s cabin. You’re renting it from me. From us. Oh, my head,” I moan, lying back down. My head feels like it’s in a vice. “You’re dehydrated. That’s why your head hurts. I like your cabin, by the way.” I nod but keep my eyes closed. My family has lived on the lake for a hundred and fifty years. We have seven properties, which we rent out as vacation rentals and for special occasions. I’m the caterer and errand boy for our family business, which keeps me busy about thirteen hours a day. Something occurs to me, and I open one eye. “How did I get here?” “That would be me,” he says, putting the glass up to my lips, again. I take a couple sips and push it away. “But how?” “I carried you,” he says, matter of factly. “With your arms?” “With my arms.” “With your two arms you carried me from the lake into the cabin?” “Why is that so hard to understand?” He sits down on the coffee table next to the sofa and takes a sip of water from my glass. A lump forms in my throat, and I try to swallow. I hold back my desire to touch his biceps. “Nobody has ever carried me before. Not since I learned to walk.” Just how many calories did I burn from a thirty-minute walk? How many pounds did I lose to allow a man to carry me such a long distance? I pat my stomach to see how much it’s shrunk. But it’s still there, just as soft and lumpy as always. If someone pokes me, I’ll giggle like the Pillsbury Doughboy. So, I’m still the same, but I’m not entirely dressed. “Where are my clothes?” I ask, alarmed. “On your body.” “Not all of my clothes!” Shirtless Guy touches my knee and leaves his hand there. A zing goes up from my knee to my hoochie mama, and I have a small orgasm. Or a seizure. I’m not a doctor so I’m not totally sure. “I just took off a few layers. You were overheated and dehydrated. I was trying to help.” “What? Did you say something?” I mutter. I’m entirely focused on his hand on my knee. His magic hand. “I said that I just took off a couple layers. You’re not naked. You know, you’re lucky you’re okay. Why were you doing that to yourself?” I snap out of my catatonic state and slap his hand off of my knee. I don’t like any criticism about my strategy to hook Wade Gates. “I told you. I’m in training. What’s your name, again?” “Dirk.” He’s so familiar. His face. His body. His name. I wag my finger at him. “Dirk,” I say. “You’re going to laugh at me, but has anyone ever told you that you look exactly like Dirk Adams?” He doesn’t blink. He combs his perfect hair with his perfect fingers. I jump up off the couch. “Oh my God! Oh my God!” I yell, pointing at him. “You’re Dirk Adams! You’re Dirk Adams!” I take two steps backward and knock into one of the samovars, sending it crashing to the floor. I scream really loud, like I’m being murdered. Dirk Adams rolls his eyes. I’ve seen every movie he’s starred in, but I’ve never seen him roll his eyes before. I scream again. He stands and waves his hands for me to shut up. My mouth slams shut in embarrassment. I didn’t realize I was screaming until he pointed it out. My face grows hot. I must be beet red. “Totally normal reaction,” he says, smiling. “Happens all the time.” “Dirk Adams touched my knee,” I tell him, as if I’m giving TMZ an exclusive. “Dirk Adams carried me.” He nods. “Yes, I know. I was there.” “Dirk Adams took off my clothes,” I continue. “My clothes!” I point at him and hop up and down. “Dirk Adams isn’t wearing a shirt!” Dirk runs into the bedroom and comes out a few seconds later, slipping a t-shirt over his head. The thin piece of cotton covering his upper body calms me slightly. At least, I’m no longer screaming. He gestures toward the sofa. “Please,” he says, calmly. I take a seat, and he sits back down on the coffee table. Our legs are almost touching. I bite my lower lip to stop the scream I feel building in my throat. “What are you doing here?” I whisper. “I’m on vacation,” he says. “But this is my cabin. I would know if you were here,” I whisper. “And now you know.” “But why wasn’t I told before? I’m in charge of the food.” I’m still whispering like an idiot, but it’s either that or I’m going to start screaming, again. It’s some sort of psychosis that a person develops when they’re in close proximity to the biggest movie star on the planet. “I guess you were kept in the dark because they didn’t realize you how calmly you would handle my presence here,” he says. “Oh,” I nod. “Maybe.” “And I like to cook. I cook for myself. Are you hungry?” “Yes,” I say without thinking. He slaps his thighs and bounces up. I watch him walk away toward the kitchen. He’s looks exactly like he does in the movies. Tall, heavily muscled, with an ass you can crack walnuts on. “Are you coming?” he asks, turning his head. Continue reading for the first chapter of SWITCHED SWITCHED EXCERPT CHAPTER 1 I cleared my throat and readied myself for my wedding toast. I’m not what you’d call an experienced public speaker. As a CPA, I’m perfectly happy to sit alone in my gray cubby and crunch numbers all day. Not exactly Hillary Clinton, right? But my life was perfect, and I wanted to tell the world, or at least my four hundred wedding guests. Don’t get the wrong impression. I wasn’t a bridezilla. My mother-in-law-to-be was the bridezilla for me. She was the one who insisted on the gorgeous white mermaid gown with crystal-appliquéd bodice, the Waldorf Astoria Chicago ballroom wedding venue, a twenty-piece orchestra, enough flowers to reforest the Amazon, and an intimate gathering of four-hundred guests. Nothing was too good for her son. She was right. Nothing was too good for Jackson Remington. He was perfect, and he deserved perfect. He was brilliant, kind, gorgeous, and his family was old money. Old as Chicago itself. For some reason he picked me, which made my life perfect. That’s why even though it’s unusual for a bride to give a wedding speech, I was determined to do it and share my perfect happiness. I had prepared my twelve note cards months in advance, even before picking out the flowers with Jackson’s mother and the wedding planner. “My life is perfect,” I started, clutching on to my note cards with one hand and smoothing out the silky skirt of my gown with my other hand. “Three years ago I met the love of my life, Jackson Remington. He had just become partner at Huntsman, Jones, and Shapiro, and he went to a local tavern to celebrate.” I choked up and wiped away a tear at the memory. It had been the evening that had begun my perfect life. My best friend Stacy and I had ducked into the Hog’s Arms Pub to get out of an April sleet storm, which was pretty typical weather for Chicago. Inside was pretty typical for Chicago, too. A bunch of Teamsters truck drivers were tipping back a cold one after work. We tried to lay low in a corner behind a pile of chili cheese fries, but we quickly drew attention anyway. We were the only women in the bar, and we were soon surrounded by drunken truckers who wanted a lot more than we were willing to give. “Now, there’s a fine piece of ass,” one of them said to me. He smelled like onions and body odor, and he took a seat at our table, leaning into my face as if he was planning on giving me a dental exam. I’m not really a fine piece of ass. Stacy is. She’s a catalog model, and she ordered the chili cheese fries just to smell them. She’s rail thin and so drop-dead gorgeous that she’s driven men mad with wanting her. She’s so used to men chasing her that she’s constructed this invisible attitude bubble around her of I-don’t-care-about-men that seems to hold them off. Next to Stacy, I’m not much, but if I’m standing a good distance away from her, I’m not bad. I’ve hovered at a size eight since puberty. I have shoulder-length light brown hair, green eyes, and a straight nose. I’m a C-cup, my legs are strong, my feet huge, and I’ve been told that I have kissable lips. I’ve had my share of boyfriends but nothing serious. Besides, I never wanted serious. I wanted to be successful. That’s why I worked sixty hours a week. “Why did we have to come in here?” I muttered to Stacy, as the truckers crowded in, leering at my breasts. “My shoes were not made for sleet,” Stacy reminded me. I looked down. I was wearing sensible boots for the weather, along with a sensible suit and a sensible purse. I was a sensible accountant, and this wasn’t the way I wanted to die, in a bar, gang-raped by twelve truckers on a mound of chili cheese fries. I wanted to die from old age, secure in an assisted-living condo in Miami while enjoying the benefits of a generous 401(k). The truckers were huge and drunk, and they graduated from leering to jeering, closing up the space between us pretty quickly. “This might be a bad situation,” Stacy said, stating the obvious. With visions of gang rape filling my head, I panicked. In a moment of pure survival instinct, I stood, pulled my arm back like a bow and let it fly, punching the closest trucker in the jaw. My fist made impact with a loud crack, breaking my hand in two places. My face went slack with pain and shock, but you should have seen the other guy. He went down like a ton of bricks, landing face-first in my fries. He was out cold. “Shit, you’re Mike Tyson,” Stacy said to me, eyeing the trucker’s prone body. I was more shocked than the Teamsters. They recovered pretty quickly from their surprise at a five-foot-four, twenty-something woman coldcocking their hulk-like buddy. They lifted the unconscious man out of the fries and pulled the chili beans out of his nose. Then their attention turned to me. “Uh-oh,” Stacy said. I snapped out of my shock and into the reality of my dangerous situation. With the fear of a painful death taking all the space in my mind, the pain in my hand disappeared. My brain raced around my head like a hamster on a wheel. What to do? What to do? “I know Krav Maga,” I announced to my killers. Total lie. I had signed up for the self-defense class, but in my professional life, I had no time for extracurriculars. In fact, the most I could do was spray them with my can of Mace, but I had left that at home in my other purse. Despite the fact that I had knocked out their friend, they rightly guessed it was only a lucky punch, and they were not at all impressed or intimidated by my martial arts claims. I gulped and closed my eyes. I tried to think of a prayer, but the only thing that came to my mind was the tax code’s doubtful debts provision. Then, just like that, everything turned around. The sexiest man I had ever seen broke the tension. He flashed his business card to the crowd. He was a handsome young lawyer in a tailored, expensive suit. Whether it was his six-foot-five frame, his threats of litigation, or his offer to pay for a round of beers, the Teamsters forgot about revenge, removed their wounded friend, and cleared out to the other side of the bar. I patted my body with my good hand, searching for bleeding wounds and more broken bones. But as hard as it was to believe, besides my broken hand, I was intact. Jackson paid the bill, hailed a cab for Stacy, whisked me off to the emergency room, and stayed with me until they set my arm and doused me in pain medication. Then he drove me home, tucked me into bed, got my number, and kissed me good night. Normally I’m not the kind of woman who allows a perfect stranger — and a male at that — into my home, especially at night when I’m wounded and under the influence of a hardcore pharmaceutical-grade narcotic. Normally I go on at least three dates before I do the dirty deed, and normally I Google-stalk a man for hours before I go on a first date. Google-stalk for days. I’ve watched too many True Crime shows on TV to trust anybody with a penis or a deep voice. But it was different with Jackson. I trusted him. I trusted him even though he was a thief. He had stolen my heart from the first moment I met him, and I was hopeless and helpless there in my bedroom, face-to-face with the love of my life who wanted me with a raw passion I had never witnessed before. Jackson got to my bedroom door and turned around. He had dark eyes, and they grew darker when he looked at me. “You know,” he said without the barest hint of embarrassment. “I’m glad you broke your hand. It gave me time to be with you.” It was a crazy thing to say. I could have taken it badly. But I felt the same way, and it was just one more in a string of connections I felt the moment I laid eyes on him. “I’m glad I broke my hand, too,” I said with only my head sticking out from under the covers. My hand had completely stopped hurting, either because of the extra Vicodin I took in the bathroom or because Jackson looked like a movie star in his suit, and he was eyeing me like I was his leading lady. He took a step toward me, and I realized I was pretty near naked in my bed, and I could get down to the full monty in record time if he wanted. He wanted. Hell, I wanted. “I want to court you,” he said, his voice low and sultry, making the hair stand up on my arms and making me warm and melty under the covers. “I want to wine and dine you. I want to spend long hours listening to your life story. I want to know you. I want to take care of you.” “That all sounds good,” I said. “But here’s my quandary. More than all that, I want to taste you, Debra. I want to feel the dips and curves of you under my fingertips. I want to fit inside you. I know we’ll fit together perfectly.” I gurgled in response. My tongue had swollen in my mouth, and I couldn’t get words out, but I was communicating pretty clearly. I imagined my pupils had dilated to the size of saucers, and my face was burgundy with the flood of desire Jackson was bringing out of me. Jackson was Edward to my Bella, a romantic hero come alive in my tiny bedroom. To hell with being a serious professional accountant, I was his, his, his. Even with my inability to speak, Jackson got the picture pretty quickly. He stripped down next to my bed, baring his beautiful body in slow, precise movements. Strong. Lean. He obviously worked out. I guessed weights and probably a lot of cardio. I had been meaning to hit the gym, just as soon as I lost five pounds. He slipped under my covers and lay on his side, close but not touching me. Our eyes locked, and I sighed as if he took my breath away, and I guess he did. Jackson radiated heat. I pushed the covers off of me without thinking. I meant only to cool my body, but it was obvious he took the action as a message that I wanted to get things moving. The corners of Jackson’s mouth curved up in a smile. Happy. I smiled in return. It briefly occurred to me that I was crazy, allowing a stranger in my bed like this, but I was happy, too. It felt right. I threw away my last doubts, secure in the cloud of desire that surrounded us. “Crazy, right?” Jackson whispered, reading my mind. “I’ve only just met you, but I know you. And I want you. You were made for me.” With no more preamble than that, he kissed me. There are more varieties of kisses than colors of jelly beans. Our first kiss was the best color with a long-lasting flavor. A giant jelly bean, sweet and satisfying, full of calories and not an ounce of guilt. Our lips moved together, deeper and deeper, our tongues exploring each other. My eyes closed, and our bodies drew closer until the length and breadth of us were touching. Lying in my bed, wrapped in a man’s arms, I grew dizzy. The room spun around, and it wasn’t because of the Vicodin running through my veins. Jackson was a much more potent narcotic than anything the pharmaceutical companies could dream up. The pores of my skin opened and sprouted goose bumps. It was the Olympic gold-medal jelly bean kiss. And it went on and on. It occurred to me that I had just met my forever man, and he was mine. “Jelly beans,” I murmured against his lips. “Jelly beans,” he agreed and kissed down my neck and then farther down after that. That was three years ago. *** Stacy handed me a tissue, and I wiped my nose. “He saw me, and it was love at first sight for the both of us,” I blubbered, reading from my wedding toast note cards. “Since that moment it’s been a perfect life. A lifelong love, a beautiful condo with a view of the lake, a Porsche Cayenne, and this.” I held out my left hand where a gorgeous diamond ring hugged my third finger until only this morning. “Are you done?” Stacy asked me. I dropped the note cards to the floor and wiped my nose with the lace hem of my wedding dress. “Y-y-y-yes,” I cried and broke down in heaving sobs, throwing my body onto the leather recliner/massage chair I bought for Jackson as a wedding and welcome home present. “Do you feel better? Do you feel a sense of closure, making your wedding speech, even though, you know, you didn’t get married?” Stacy asked me from her seat on the couch. She didn’t give me a chance to answer. “How many calories are in Jordan almonds?” There were four-hundred ribbon-tied packages of Jordan almonds on the coffee table in the gorgeous condo Jackson bought as part of our new life together. The almonds were just some of the casualties of my canceled wedding. “Help yourself,” I blubbered. “It’s not like anyone is ever going to eat them.” “It’s like the botanical gardens in here, like a potpourri factory exploded. Why did they dump all the flowers in your place?” “Because I-I-I-I paid for them.” I broke down in more tears, curling up in a fetal position on Jackson’s chair. Stacy covered her mouth and nose with a tissue. “I’m thinking all these flowers aren’t healthy,” she said. “I’m thinking wearing your wedding dress isn’t healthy.” I lifted my head and wiped the snot from my nose on my bare arm. Stacy was sitting on the couch, looking around at my wedding decorations-stuffed luxury condo with an expression of disgust. I was peeved at her non-best friend attitude. “You’re supposed to pat my head and tell me it will all get better,” I said. “It will all get better,” she said absentmindedly. “I’m looking around for a suitable weapon to kill Jerkface. But Jerkface only left you with half of the bills on a ludicrously expensive wedding after he jilted you three hours before the ceremony.” “He’s not Jerkface,” I cried. “He’s Jackson. He’s wonderful.” “He’s Jerkface with a rich family, who could have easily paid for the whole thing.” “Jerkface’s — I mean Jackson’s — mother told me that I needed to pay half to maintain my self-respect as a businesswoman,” I said. Stacy snorted and moved some of the flower bouquets onto the balcony. I knew what her snort meant. In the past three years, I sort of let my career slide off the partner track while I focused on being in love. I had joyfully maxed out four credit cards to fulfill his mother’s idea of a perfect wedding, knowing that I was going to spend the rest of my life with the man of my dreams. “At least he left you this condo?” Stacy asked me hopefully, dusting pollen off of her yoga pants. The minute we learned that Jackson had called off the wedding, she had thrown her bridesmaid dress in the trash. “Uh, I think so,” I said. She raised an eyebrow, put her hand on her hip, and tapped her foot on my hardwood floor. She was a lot smarter than you’d think for a model. Wise. “Did you put it in both of your names?” I returned to my fetal position and sobbed. No, we didn’t put it in both of our names. It was Jackson’s alone. He had explained to me why that was the better way to go, and I trusted him. “And you, a CPA,” she said, pointing her finger at me. “Homeless.” “You’re supposed to be my supportive best friend!” “I am! That’s why I’m going to kill Jerkface.” “He’s not Jerkface,” I said. But Jackson was going to prove me wrong. As if on cue, the doorbell rang. I jumped up from the chair. “It’s him! It’s him!” I cried in a whisper. “He’s changed his mind.” I tried to wipe the mascara from under my eyes, did a last swipe at my nose, and charged for the door. But it wasn’t Jackson at the door. It was the process server with a notice for me to vacate the premises. “Six weeks,” I read. “It says I have six weeks to move out.” “Jerkface,” Stacy said.

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