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Copyright © by Alicia Crofton
Noah rolled over in his bed, his muscles aching in protest. Tangled strands of brunette hair draped across the pillow reminded him he wasn’t alone. The taste of the brunette’s cigarette mouth lingered on his tongue.
Was it Bridgette? Brianna? He couldn’t remember. Either way, it was a mistake—the last time he would let a cougar in his bed for a one-night stand, or so he told himself for the hundredth time.
It was as if Noah had a bullseye on his forehead for tourists looking for a good time, and the bar had been swarming with them last night. Brittney—or Blanca?—had been very handsy. He had cabbed home in a drunken stupor with her paws in his pants, and a whispered list of all the things she planned to do to him. Fuzzy memories confirmed she had gotten to them all, only this time he shuddered at the thought.
He was done with these casual flings.
All he had wanted was a night out with friends, drinking away his problems as if they didn’t exist. That had been his plan anyway. But like all the plans he had tried to make, it failed the moment Bianca or Brenda showed her vulnerable side.
Brenda. That had to be her name. Recently divorced with two kids in high school. It was all coming back to him now. His drunken heart had been swallowed whole the moment her eyes had shimmered in unshed tears as she talked about the fifteen years she had given that bastard. Her words.
He shouldn’t have taken her home, but that eighth shot of chiliguaro had taken charge at some point, abusing its responsibilities of helping him forget about his bigger problem. More specifically, the problem waiting for him at the warehouse.
It was no ordinary problem, either. No broken faucet or running toilet. It was far more serious.
Two hundred kilos of cocaine had been stashed in their family’s business. For weeks.
Two. Hundred. Kilos. The weight of a male tiger. Or a moose. And Noah wasn’t even a drug dealer. Or a drug user. The blow had shown up one day out of the blue, compliments of his oldest brother, Raffi, who had accidentally involved himself with a cartel.
Who accidentally gets involved with a cartel? An idiot, that’s who. That summed up his older brother in a nutshell.
Now a mountain of drugs, worth at least thirty million dollars, was currently stashed in their coffee delivery van, waiting for Noah and his more reasonable brother, Kai, to anonymously drop it off at the Limón police station.
Stress levels were high, to say the least.
Brenda moaned into the pillow, blinking a few times, and then pulled the hair off her face. Charcoal smudges blended in with dark circles under her eyes. Fine lines emerged across her forehead and around her mouth. Under the soft glow of the Costa Rican sun, Noah estimated she was at least fifteen years older than him.
Noah didn’t understand how this kept happening. It was a curse, really. He couldn’t go anywhere without being approached by an older woman. He was a good-looking guy, but not any better-looking than his brothers, and they never had the same problem.
He had been told before it was his charm that wooed the ladies. And if he were being honest, he always liked the attention from older women. They made him feel mature and respected—unlike how he was at home with the constant belittling he’d get from his two older brothers, and the babying he’d get from his mother. Older women treated him like the adult he was.
He had been happy to go along with the cougar phenomenon for a while, but lately the one-night stands had left him feeling empty and alone. He would’ve probably been better off if he had just stayed home.
“Good morning,” Brenda said, her voice scratchy.
“I had a really good time last night,” she said, tracing Noah’s shoulder with her finger. Her fingernail snaked up his neck and behind his ear. The gesture felt forced, her eyes not quite reaching his. He could almost see the escape plan forming in her mind.
She didn’t need to pretend this was anything more than what it was. He had thought he made that clear last night, but then again, he had thought he’d taken off his shoes too, but he felt them tug against his cotton sheets.
Had he had sex with nothing on but his Air Maxes on? He peeked under the covers to confirm. His dumb ass had been too drunk to take them off. At least he hadn’t tracked too much sand into bed from the beach bar.
“I had fun too,” Noah said, stopping her hand from caressing him any further. He gently gave it back to her before pulling his fully laced shoes out from under the covers. “I’ve gotta head to work,” he said, slipping his shoes through his boxers—not an easy task on the first try. Was he still drunk? “I can show you out before my mother wakes up.”
“Your mother?” She shot up, covering herself with the bed sheet. “You still live with your mother?”
“Well, yeah. Did I not mention that?” Noah said, scratching the back of his head. “I’ve been helping with the family business and—”
The woman cocked her head to the side, narrowing her eyes. She zeroed in on his face. “How old are you?”
She gasped. “Twenty-two?”
“Did I forget to mention that too?” Noah winced. “Sorry. I was so drunk and—”
“Oh my God, oh my God,” she repeated, over and over again.
His charm had apparently worn off. The woman frantically gathered her clothes while holding the white sheet to her chest. Her hands shook as she reached for her bra hanging over the edge of the bed. Noah grabbed the lacy fabric and handed it to her.
She snatched it, avoiding eye contact while she dressed. “This was a terrible mistake,” she said, slipping on her tank top and grabbing her heels.
Yep. He couldn’t have agreed more, but it was too late for that now. Regardless, he hated to see a woman in distress, and he stalked over to her, placing his hands on her shoulders to calm her down. “We had a good time. Don’t sweat it.” He smiled, coaxing a grin from her.
Brenda pulled her blouse over her head. “I should go,” she said, storming toward the door in a frenzy, reaching for the knob.
“Wait, hold on,” Noah said, stopping her from heading out first. He nudged her aside and opened the bedroom door, sticking his head out into the hallway toward his mother’s room.
Clanking plates and water running in the sink drew his attention toward the kitchen instead.
“Ma is up. We can either go through the window, or I can sneak you through the front door.”
The woman’s mouth dropped in horror. “I’m not climbing through that.”
“All right, then you’ll have to follow me. Don’t get caught.”
“Are you serious?” Brenda huffed.
“Just tiptoe behind me, and you’ll be fine.”
“This is ridiculous.”
“Shh,” he whispered. He tiptoed down the hall and poked his head into the kitchen.
Ma’s back was turned, her round hips jostling while she whisked a bowl of eggs. Bacon crackled on the stove.
“Now,” he mouthed, ignoring Brenda’s scowl.
Grabbing a hold of her hand, they crept past the kitchen and dashed through the living room, out the front door. Noah pulled Brenda onto the front step, lightly closing the door behind him. He let out a breath of relief. “We did it,” he said, beaming.
“I can’t believe I just had to sneak out of your mother’s house,” she said, strapping on her heels.
“Yeah, but it was fun, right? Sneaking around like a teenager?”
Brenda’s mouth tilted into a smile.
“There’s that smile,” Noah said, nudging her with his elbow.
“You are quite the charmer, aren’t you, Noah?”
“And you are quite the woman, Brenda.”
Brenda’s face fell, and she turned to leave.
“Was it something I said?”
“I knew this was a mistake,” Brenda huffed before turning back around to face him. “My name is Belinda.”
“Shit.” Noah cringed. “Sorry.”
“Whatever,” she said. With a flick of her long, uncombed hair, she turned on her heel and thundered down the sidewalk.
“Can I at least call you a cab?” Noah shouted.
“I’ve got it,” Belinda said, not bothering to turn around. She pulled out her cell phone while she marched down the sidewalk.
Noah crossed his arms at his chest, watching her take her post at the street corner. He waited to make sure she got into her ride safely. Of course, she didn’t look back to wave goodbye.
The emptiness was back, only this time it was worse. He had never, ever, made a woman feel as insignificant as he felt after a one-night stand.
Never again, he told himself.
Noah lumbered toward the rolled-up newspaper at the end of the driveway. It was his best excuse for having gone outside in his underwear and his damn shoes. And he needed to prepare for the interrogation he was about to get from Ma.
Creeping back through the front door, he jumped at the sight of her in the kitchen, standing with a hand on her hip and a spoon raised in the air. Long strands of white hair had fallen out of her bun. “What did I tell you about bringing women over to my house?” Ma said in English with her thick German accent, waving her spoon at him.
“What are you talking about? I was just getting the newspaper.”
“Don’t you dare feed me those charming lies of yours, boy. I can see right through you.”
Noah cowered. “Sorry, Ma,” he said, plopping the newspaper in the basket by the door. He averted her icy glare as he slumped his shoulders.
“When are you going to stop fooling around and find yourself a nice college girl? Someone your own age?”
Noah leaned down to give her a kiss on the cheek. Although she fought it, her lips curled into a smile.
“I’ve already kissed my chances at college goodbye, remember? I’ve got responsibilities here.” Noah had dropped out of his first semester of college when his father had become ill and his company was on the brink of bankruptcy.
“You’re not tied to the business anymore. Kai is going to sell it.”
“Yeah, but we still have that damn van of cocaine to deal with. If Kai hadn’t run out of the house for some chick last night, this whole ordeal would be over by now.”
Ma harrumphed. “Just let Kai handle the business stuff. You’re my baby. I can’t have anything happen to you.”
There she goes again. Always putting his older brothers in charge. And now that Raffi, the oldest of the three, had royally messed up by getting involved with the cartel, it was up to Kai and Noah to clean up the mess.
“It’s a lot of cocaine, Ma,” Noah said. “It’s too risky for Kai to handle it on his own.”
Noah still hadn’t gotten used to talking to his mother about the drugs. He and his brothers had tried keeping it a secret from her, but she had eventually found out. Now she was an accomplice, whether she wanted to be or not.
“Also, Ma, you gotta stop treating me like a kid. I’m an adult now.”
Ma squeezed Noah’s cheeks, giving them a tough yank. His pounding head felt like it would split in two. “You’ll always be my baby,” she said, returning to the stove. “Now, get some clothes on and eat some food. I cooked this American breakfast for you, just how you like it.”
After a quick rinse in the shower, he slipped on a pair of shorts and a shirt with the Greene Coffee Roastery logo printed on the front.
The surfboard in the corner of his bedroom called to him. He needed to clear his head.
Tomorrow. He would surf tomorrow, after the cocaine was out of his life forever. He’d baptize himself in the holy ocean and pray to the surfing gods for forgiveness for missing a day.
Noah had just finished pulling on his sneakers again when a knock came from the front door. He looked out his window to find a police car parked in the middle of their driveway.
Noah’s heart leapt in his chest. Muffled voices echoed from the living room. He opened his bedroom door a crack, pressing his ear against the edge of the doorframe.
“We have a warrant to check the warehouse,” a male voice said in Spanish.
“The warehouse? For what?” Ma shrilled.
Fuck fuck fuck fuck. How did they know? Who could have tipped them off?
A voice came over the policeman’s radio, and the air in his room stood thick and heavy. He had to do something. He had to get rid of the cocaine before the police got the wrong idea. They had never wanted the drugs in the first place, but the police would never understand.
If Noah didn’t do something now, his mother and his brothers would pay the price.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” the officer said. “I can’t say.”
“Officer, I,” Ma stammered. “I mean, I am shocked.”
“We’d appreciate it if you’d come with us to the warehouse.”
Noah’s stomach sank. He had to go right now. Grabbing his keys and his cellphone, he opened his window and leapt out into the bushes. Tiny branches scratched his ankles.
He hunched down low, scurrying to his car parked on the street.
Luckily, the cops were still in the house while he slipped into the driver’s seat.
Ma would eventually notice he was gone. Hopefully she could stall them while Noah got rid of the van with the cocaine.
Noah’s blood pumped furiously through his veins as his shaky key scraped against the ignition.
Maybe this was his chance to prove to Ma and Kai that he could handle things himself. He was a man, after all. Tired of being treated like a kid.
Okay, so he was scared shitless, but he’d be damned if he didn’t save his family from going to jail for a crime they didn’t commit.
Noah tore through his father’s office, or what used to be his father’s office. Kai had taken over and reorganized everything. The keys to the van were normally on the hook by the garage door, but they weren’t there this time. He checked all the drawers and cabinets before he had the idea to check the van itself.
Sprinting back to the garage, he climbed into the van’s driver seat, frantically searching the glove compartment and console. He stuffed his fingers in the seat cushions and under the floor mats.
Noah didn’t know how much time he had, but it couldn’t be long until Ma and the policemen arrived at the warehouse. The cocaine had already been stuffed in cardboard boxes in the back of the van. All he needed to do was drive away before he was seen.
Noah pulled down the visor, and the small ring of keys fell into his lap. “Finally,” he muttered as he turned on the engine and hit the garage door opener. He looked back at the cardboard boxes and cursed under his breath. What the hell was he going to do with two hundred kilos of cocaine? Where would he go?
Pulling out of the warehouse, he noticed a car parked across the street. A baby blue Mercury Sable with two men sitting in the front seats.
That was unusual. Nobody ever parked there this early.
Noah’s muscles tensed.
Paranoia settled into his bones as he pulled onto a main road, keeping an eye on the Sable in his rearview mirror.
It was probably nothing, Noah assured himself. If the cartel knew how to find the cocaine, they would have come for it days ago. Weeks ago, actually. It was impossible to think they would just show up today, of all days, while the police were on their way.
The Mercury Sable slipped out of view. Noah sighed, running a nervous hand through his damp hair. He wasn’t sure where he was going, but he knew he needed to get out of Limón.
Noah pressed the gas and drove forward, nervously tapping on the steering wheel.
This was all his brother’s fault. Raffi was a certified idiot.
Noah used to look up to Raffi as a kid, but that was a long time ago. It was hard to forgive him for dumping all his problems on the family. Granted, Raffi had tried handling things himself, but he only made matters worse, finding himself in jail for a completely unrelated crime.
Noah sighed again, pulling up to a stoplight as a prickle crawled up his neck. When he checked his rearview mirror again, his body seized.
It was the damn baby blue Mercury Sable, pulling up right behind him.
This was just a coincidence, right? Maybe they were hanging out in front of the coffee warehouse to figure out their directions. Or maybe the driver got lost on their way to brunch. That’s it. They were going out to brunch. Definitely. Probably meeting their mother at the diner down the street. The one with the really good churrasco and eggs.
When the stoplight turned green, Noah inched forward, expecting the Sable to make a left turn, but it drove straight through instead.
“The diner is that way,” Noah said aloud, hoping that somehow they’d realize their error and make a sudden turn.
Nope. They tailgated him instead and followed his next turn, despite Noah’s attempt at pulling the wheel last minute.
Okay, new plan. Noah reached for his cell phone and dialed his brother.
Kai’s voice came on the other line. “Hey, Noah. I was just on my way over to—”
“Kai,” Noah cut him off. “I may have done something really stupid.”
“What is it? What’s wrong?”
Noah proceeded to tell him about the cops showing up at Ma’s house and the blue Mercury Sable on his tail. “You need to go check on Ma,” Noah said. “She’s with the police now, but if these guys knew where to track down the cocaine, they might show up at the house. You need to get there, now.”
“Fine,” Kai growled. “I will take care of Ma, but then I’m coming to help you. Give me a time and place.”
A time and a place? Seriously? When could he have possibly come up with a plan? He was surviving by instinct. “I can’t. I don’t know where I’m going.”
“Pick a town. Any town.”
Noah looked in each mirror. The Sable was unrelenting in its pursuit. To keep his family safe and out of jail, he only had one option.
“I can’t pick a town because I’m going to try to outrun them,” Noah said.
“That is a terrible plan!” Kai shouted. “You’ll get yourself killed.”
“I’ve got this. You deal with Ma.”
“Noah, please,” Kai said urgently. “Don’t go—”
Beep. The phone shut off. The battery icon appeared on the screen, mocking him for forgetting to charge his phone last night during his drunken escapade.
Noah threw the cell phone in the seat and pulled up to another light. He made a right turn, and sure enough the blue Mercury Sable tailed close behind.
The signs for the highway came into view, and he did the only thing he could think to do: He pressed on the gas.
He might not have had a plan, but he knew he had to get the hell out of Limón and get rid of this cocaine once and for all.
The van rattled down the highway. Noah wiped his forehead with the back of his hand, his eyes frantically shifting between the road ahead and the rearview mirror.
The men in the Sable had been driving for almost three hours, and Noah’s pounding hangover headache had lingered the whole way. He had hoped that the men would eventually give up the chase or run out of gas, but they hadn’t backed down.
The exit sign for San Jose zoomed overhead. The city might be his only chance of escape—that is, if he was able to lose them in the intense traffic clogging the streets.
Giant towers sprang into view surrounded by a jungle of buildings atop rolling hills. The San Jose Mountains anchored the skyline with clouds settled around the peaks. The fresh, salty air was replaced by wafts of exhaust fumes and wet cement after the rain. The clouds had begun to part, and the sun shone down through the windshield directly into Noah’s eyes.
Noah yanked the steering wheel to the right, cutting off a truck full of chickens. A series of bawks and high-pitched clucks filled the air as he skidded over a median onto an exit ramp. Fixating on the rearview mirror, he prayed the Sable didn’t see his exit off the highway.
He held his breath, pumping the brakes as he pulled up to a stop light.
Just as a victorious smile reached his lips, the Sable snaked around a city bus and onto the exit ramp, picking up speed.
Noah’s heart pounded in his chest, and he gunned the van forward, driving over the sidewalk to pass the car ahead. He made a turn, cutting off a cab that slammed on its brakes with a loud screech. An angry horn quickly followed.
“Sorry!” Noah yelled out the van window.
He tore through the streets, dodging between cars and cutting corners.
It was beginning to look like he had lost the Sable between Avenue 16 and 18. He felt a wave of relief, and his breath began to normalize.
There was a brief opening in oncoming traffic, and Noah jerked the wheel to the left, nearly swiping a moped. More horns blared as Noah swerved around a businessman. He looked back in his rearview mirror as squealing tires were followed by crunching metal, the Sable colliding with a black SUV. All the cars in the intersection came to a halt. The Sable’s headlight hung from its socket.
“Yes!” Noah yelled, adrenaline ringing in his ears. He pumped his fist in the air, tearing up the street before he made a hard-right turn. The wreck slipped out of view. This was his chance to make his big escape. But where would he go?
At the next stop light, he could finally relax. Music from the shops and restaurants seeped into the van. A swarm of people crossed the sidewalk, ambling around with coffee cups and cell phones in their grips.
A billboard over the freeway featured a setting sun over the ocean. A silhouetted surfer held his board under neon pink letters that read “This way to Tortuga Bay.”
That seemed as good of a place as any.
He checked to see if he had enough gas to get to the west coast and took the exit onto Highway 27.
Tortuga Bay, here I come.
He had asked for her number once—for work, of course—but he had never used it. And it was driving Grace wild.
“Just go ask him out,” Tessa whispered. “There’s no better time than now.”
“Easy for you to say, Tony Robbins. I’ve never done anything like this before.” Grace had talked to boys, but she’d never asked them out. And they were never men. The guys in college were nothing compared to this strong, manly man with sexy stubble and a chest for days.
Grace didn’t have time to have a normal life, and she especially didn’t have time to date. But Tessa had given Grace the bright idea to try squeezing in her dates during lunch breaks. At first, Grace hated the idea, but the more she thought about it, the more she liked it. It was practical, and pretty much the only way she would ever get to kiss Todd Meyers.
“But what if he’s not interested in dating over lunch breaks?” Grace said.
“If he’s not interested in a lunch date, then he’s not worth your time.”
Grace pulled her orange soda lip balm from her pocket and swiped it across her lips. The citrus scent soothed her nerves. “I guess you’re right. And it’s not like I have any other options.” Grace looked around at Maritime’s employees scattered across the grassy field, solo cups in hand. The grumpy tech nerds hovered around picnic tables and lawn games in little clusters divided between their fandom of Star Wars and Star Trek.
But not Todd.
Todd was in sales, just like Grace. It was fate. It had to be. The problem was he wasn’t making the first move.
Grace was no longer satisfied with the stolen glances in staff meetings, or the casual smiles they exchanged down the halls. Grace was ready for more. And this was her chance.
Todd tossed a bean bag with poetic precision, landing in the three-point hole. The little fan club surrounding the cornhole game burst into cheers.
Grace sighed behind her Solo cup, watching the man of her dreams give high fives all around.
“What would I even say to him? ‘Hey Todd, nice cornhole. Want to have lunch sometime?’”
“You should totally lead with that.” Tessa snickered, taking a bite of her cider donut. She groaned, rolling her eyes to the back of her head. “Oh my God, this is so good.” She moaned so loud people turned their heads.
“I give that a level six on the foodgasm scale,” Grace whispered. “Not quite as lively as your level-eight cheese pizza earlier today.”
A dusting of cinnamon and sugar flew out of Tessa’s mouth as they both keeled over in a fit of giggles.
“Hello, girls,” a woman’s voice appeared. Tessa’s spine stiffened. “Having fun?”
Jane Lambert appeared in their periphery. Future CEO, and official pain in the ass.
“I see you’re enjoying the donuts.”
Grace wasn’t sure how Jane made that sound like an insult, but she had.
Tessa licked the sugar off her lips. “Hi, Jane,” she said flatly.
Tessa had been tasked to help Jane with her accounts. Jane insisted she was too busy to cover them all. Maritime Marketing Services was a company that sold experience packages to hotels and resorts. From wine tasting to ice cave hiking, Maritime offered it all. And it was the sales team’s job to constantly find new experiences and new clients, while also acting as the liaison between the Star Wars-loving tech team and their customers.
Tessa and Grace were lowly sales associates compared to Jane who was a senior sales associate only because she was the CEO’s daughter. Jane spent all her time bossing around employees as if they reported to her when they actually all reported to the same director. She was clueless when it came to the technical part of their job and didn’t cared to learn, so she would pretend to “mentor” the other sales associates, but in reality, she was only using them to do all her grunt work.
“Great turnout, isn’t it?” Jane surveyed the company picnic as if it was her very own kingdom.
Both Grace and Tessa muttered some version of mm-hmm in their cider cups.
Despite her better judgment, Grace turned toward the menacing blonde, mostly to be polite, but also because Tessa was blatantly ignoring Jane and making their small talk uncomfortable.
Jane was in her late forties, tall and slender with perfect breasts stuffed in a cream turtleneck sweater. Her black leather leggings were painted on runway model legs. Her sleek, blonde hair was cut in an angled bob that looked great on her but would add ten pounds of cheeks to anyone else.
Grace looked down at her own mustard cable-knit sweater ladened with pills and snags from overuse. The maroon corduroys she had bought in high school still fit but were frayed at the hem.
As much as Grace wanted to look as beautiful as Jane, she couldn’t afford it, and she didn’t have the time. She let her chocolate brown hair grow long and the spattering of freckles across her cheeks go without a touch of makeup.
Jane’s mouth twisted into a mischievous smirk. “I couldn’t help but notice you were staring at Todd Meyers, Grace.”
Grace exchanged a look with Tessa.
“Not really. We were just watching the cornhole game,” Grace said.
“He is cute, though, isn’t he?” Jane said, nudging Grace with her elbow. “Maybe a little old for you, though.”
Grace held back her retort. How young did Jane think Grace was? Todd couldn’t have been more than five years older than her own twenty-four years. He wasn’t too old. He was perfect.
Either way, it didn’t matter. Jane didn’t need to know about her crush on Todd, so she bit her tongue. “Like I said, I was just watching the game.”
From across the grass, Todd’s honey brown irises flicked up, and a slow smile emerged on his scruffy face.
A frenzy of butterflies emerged as he waved at her. Grace’s heart rattled in her ribs like a caged animal.
He waved. To her.
Grace’s heart was in her throat.
But something felt off. A prickling sensation at the back of her neck. She turned to find Jane glaring down the hill, her eyes darkening. A shudder ran down Grace’s spine.
“I’ve got to go mingle,” Jane said, blinking away the darkness in her eyes. “Enjoy the rest of the picnic.”
“You too,” Grace said.
“Oh, and Tessa?” Jane said pointedly.
Tessa looked up over her cup, her brown eyes like giant rounds of chocolate cake. “Yeah?”
“Send me all the files you have on the Tortuga account before you head out,” Jane said. “Please,” she added a beat too late. “I want to make sure I don’t have any flaws in this pitch.”
Tessa gulped, nodding her head. “Sure. I’ll send them out tonight.”
“Perfect,” she purred, although the look in her hooded eyes indicated otherwise. She sashayed down the grassy hill, her high-heeled boots aerating the grass along the way.
“What the hell was up her butt?” Grace said, looking over Tessa’s paled face.
“Jane’s on a rampage,” Tessa said. “Ever since her husband left her for a younger woman, she has it out for us younger girls. Like we’re competition or something.”
Grace shook off the creepy crawlies in her spine.
“I didn’t help things by calling her out on an error in front of a client today. She’s pissed.”
Grace winced. “Oh no.”
“And now she wants me to send all of those files. That can only mean one thing.”
“She’s going to take me off the Tortuga account, that’s what. I’m not going to get my chance to go to Costa Rica.”
“Don’t say that,” Grace said, rubbing Tessa’s shoulder. “She can’t be that catty, can she?”
“You don’t know Jane like I do,” Tessa said. “She is that catty. And mean. And I swear to God, if she takes me off this account, I’m going to quit. I hate this job.”
Grace scrunched her nose. “I know you wanted to go to Costa Rica, but Jane has been making you miserable. Maybe getting off the project isn’t the worst thing in the world.”
“But… Costa Rica.”
Grace sighed. “There will be other chances to go. I promise. Maybe you and I could go sometime.”
Tessa rolled her eyes, calling her bluff.
“Okay, maybe not in the near future. But one day. Just don’t quit on me, okay? I don’t know what I’d do without you. You helped get me this job, you can’t strand me here.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Tessa huffed. “I promise I won’t quit.”
Grace smiled, putting her arm around her friend. “Good.”
“And who knows, maybe Jane will cool off and everything will go back to normal tomorrow.”
“There’s the spirit,” Grace said, happily turning back toward the cornhole game.
“Enough about me,” Tessa said, giving her a nudge. “You know what you have to do now.”
Grace took a deep breath, her heart fluttering. “You’re right. It’s now or never.”
Grace had every intention of bounding down the hill and saying hello, but her Doc Martens were rooted to the ground, her limbs frozen in place.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, go!” Tessa said, giving Grace a big shove, putting her in motion. Slowly, she made her way down the hill. Her pulse quickened with each stride toward Todd and his posse.
Was she really doing this? Would he really go for dating… at work? Her palms were sweating, sticking to her cup.
Todd scored another three-pointer, and the crowd roared. He proceeded with his high fives. One by one, he eventually made his way to Grace.
She held her hand up and got a solid thwack from his palm. She might never wash her hand again.
“Nice job,” Grace croaked. She cleared her throat.
“Thanks,” Todd said, brimming with pride.
“You’ve got great cornhole—I mean, your cornhole game is great.” Oh God, this is a disaster.
Todd’s mouth tilted into an easy smile as he looked her up and down. His gaze left a tingling trail over her body.
“Thanks,” Todd said. “I could actually use a break. You want a turn?”
Grace’s eyes widened. “Oh gosh, no. I’m not a cornhole kind of girl. I was actually going to ask—”
“Come on. Try it,” he said, handing her a bean bag. He gestured to the other players to pause the game. “Let’s give Grace a try, guys.”
“No, really. I don’t throw things. I have zero hand-eye coordination.”
“It’s easy,” Todd said, his eyes glittering like a Christmas tree. “You just give it an underhand toss. Like this.” He stood behind her, the heat of him gave her heart palpitations. Then he took her arm and motioned it back and forth, mimicking a throw in slow motion. His fingers pressed into the skin near her elbow, and her insides turned into spiked rum-flavored jelly.
“Like this?” Grace said, swinging her arm back. Her fist connected with something behind her.
Todd hunched over holding his crotch, and Grace realized what she had done.
“I’m so sorry!” Grace said, dropping the bean bag to the ground in horror.
Todd’s face twisted in agony. “It’s fine. I’m fine,” he grunted. He waved off the crowd, regaining his composure.
“I’m seriously so sorry—”
“Don’t sweat it,” he said through labored breaths. “My nuts are made of steel.”
Grace was just about to run away in shame when Todd interrupted her exit plan.
“Hey, wait. Don’t go. I wanted to talk to you about something.”
“Do you mind if we go somewhere a little more quiet?”
Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.
Her stomach did a somersault. Was he really asking if they could be alone? She almost squealed with glee.
“Sure,” Grace said, hampering the extra octave in her voice.
He smiled before biting his lower lip. Promises of languid kisses and sweet caresses were written all over his face.
This was it. The moment she had been waiting for. Ever since she first laid eyes on the man, she’d dreamt of their first kiss. If it was even a fraction of what she imagined, she’d be floating in the clouds.
“Look over there.” He pointed across the park. “There’s a playhouse behind the trees, next to that swing set.”
Grace’s heart sputtered. She looked up the hill to find Tessa’s bright smile and two encouraging thumbs-up.
There’s no time like now. “That sounds great.”
“Excellent,” he said, holding out an elbow to escort her.
Holy moly. This was really happening. She was finally going to be alone with Todd Meyers.
As they strolled through the park, Grace felt her hands tremble. She squeezed his bicep as she stepped onto the playground box. The taut arm muscle flexed under her fingertips. She tightened her grip to steady herself.
Todd pointed up toward the top deck of the playhouse. “Here it is.” The wooden structure was just big enough for two adults to fit in. A plastic fishbowl window overlooked the scenic park and a steering wheel was mounted on the opposite wall.
“After you,” he said, grinning from ear to ear.
Grace stepped up the wooden slabs and entered the club house, sitting in the far corner.
“Ahoy,” Todd said, ducking to get inside. He looked out the fishbowl window. “I don’t think anyone noticed us go up here, do you?”
“I don’t think so.” Except for Tessa, who had been silently dancing at the top of the hill.
Todd took a seat next to her, his knee lightly grazing hers. The touch brought an earthquake of sensations. She hadn’t been touched by a boy since college. It had been too long.
Silence filled the space.
“So,” Grace said.
“So,” Todd replied.
Grace’s heartbeat went into hyperdrive as his eyes trailed down her sweater.
“I like your outfit,” Todd said. “You’ve got a Velma Dinkley vibe goin’ on. It’s cute.”
Grace blushed. He thought she was cute.That was a good thing, right?
“Why does that name sound familiar?”
“She’s from Scooby-Doo. You know, the smart one in the van.”
“Oh, right,” Grace murmured, remembering the nerdy character from the show. Her heart sank. The word cute no longer felt like a compliment.
“I’m sorry,” Todd said, running his hands over his stubbly cheeks. “You don’t actually look like Velma. I mean, she had short hair and glasses, and you obviously don’t. Crap. I don’t know why I’m rambling. I think I’m nervous.”
Todd cleared his throat, shifting his weight back until he leaned against the wall. He peered out the fishbowl window, deep in thought.
The brightness in his eyes was gone, and Grace sensed the shift in his mood. She waited for him to say what was on his mind. She’d talk more about cartoons if he wanted, anything to get his mouth moving and eventually on hers.
“So,” Grace said, “you wanted to talk?”
Todd glanced at Grace nervously. “Right. Yes.” He pressed his lips together, gazing into Grace’s eyes. He leaned forward.
This was it. The moment she had been waiting for. Well, a little out of order of how she had imagined things, but that was okay. Kissing first. Lunch dates later.
She sucked in a breath and held it the moment he stopped leaning forward. He placed his elbows on his knees and cradled his chin in his hands.
“I was going to ask about Jane.”
“I saw you talking with her up the hill. Are you two friends?”
Grace’s mouth dropped open. “Friends? With Jane?” She couldn’t think of the word she would describe her relationship with Jane. What do you call someone you avoid entirely?
“Did she say anything about me?”
Grace choked on the saliva that slipped down the wrong tube. “What?” She felt her face grow hot as she coughed and gagged on her own spit. She grabbed her cup of cider and slugged the last of it to calm her throat. “She didn’t mention you. Why?”
“Well,” he started, scratching the back of his head. His face scrunched up, turning a deep shade of pink. “I…”
The words he couldn’t get out, the agony in his face. Grace should have known.
He liked Jane. Of course, he liked Jane. Sure, she was twenty years older than him, but she acted young. She was beautiful and confident and impeccably dressed. How could Grace have been so foolish to think Todd might actually be interested in her instead?
Hopes and dreams burst like bubbles blowing into a barbed wire fence.
“I didn’t realize you liked her like that,” Grace said quietly.
“Actually, there’s something else. I—”
“Ah-hah!” Jane trilled, appearing at the foot of the playhouse with her cellphone in hand. “Smile for the camera!” A burst of light blinded Grace.
“Jesus. You scared the crap out of me,” Todd said.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Was I interrupting something?” Jane said, batting her eyelashes.
It all made sense now, why Todd had waved in the first place. She had been standing next to Jane.
“I was just leaving, actually,” Grace said.
“Oh, come on, Grace,” Jane crooned. “I didn’t mean to break up your little party.”
Grace stepped down from the playhouse, catching a glance at Todd. At least he had the courtesy to appear sad that she was leaving. The crease in his forehead was a nice touch.
“I’ll leave you two alone.”
“Grace, wait,” Todd called out.
She looked over her shoulder to find Todd, pleading with his eyes. “Don’t go.”
It almost seemed like he truly didn’t want her to leave. But that couldn’t be. He was only being polite. Grace squashed the kernel of doubt and turned to go.
She stepped off the play structure and onto the bark chips. Before she took another step, she heard Jane’s muffled words behind the plastic fishbowl window. “She’s a bit of a party pooper, isn’t she?”
Grace didn’t linger to hear Todd’s response. She marched over the bark chips, gritting her teeth. With a heavy heart she slogged back to the company picnic, fighting back the tears that threatened to spill on her Velma Dinkley sweater.
Marching past the cornhole game, she found Tessa standing by the round of ladder golf.
“I’m heading home,” Grace said.
Tessa’s eyes widened in surprise. “You are? What happened? Did he hurt you? I’ll cut him.”
Grace shook her head. The lump in her throat was too heavy to overcome.
“It’s okay. There’ll be other guys.”
Grace sniffed. “You’ve seen the guys here. There’s literally no one other man here that wears deodorant.”
Tessa brought her in for a hug, letting Grace rest her head on her shoulder. She smelled like pineapple rum and cinnamon.
“Want to talk about it over coffee tomorrow?”
“Sure,” Grace said, releasing her friend. “See you in the morning.”
Grace took a few steps up the grassy patch when she heard, “Watch out!” A pink golf ball tied to the end of a rope was flying through the air. The golf ball collided with her cheekbone with a hefty thud, and she found herself lying on the cool, damp grass.
“Grace! Are you okay?” Tessa’s voice warbled around in her head.
She laid there with a shattered heart and a splitting headache. Two solid reminders why it was better to just stay home.
“Good grief! What happened to you?” Aunt Judy trilled from under a mountain of blankets. The television lights flickered, illuminating her worried, wrinkled expression as Grace hung her purse by the front door.
“I got hit in the face with a golf ball.” Grace slipped out of her muddy boots and plopped on the couch.
“You look like hell,” Aunt Judy said.
“Gee, thanks.” Grace put up her feet, crossing her ankles on the coffee table. She took a big whiff. “Why does the house smell like pee?”
Aunt Judy frowned. “Bobblehead over there made brussel sprouts,” she groaned, motioning toward the kitchen. “You might as well put me out of my misery and shoot me now.”
“I heard that!” Tamara’s voice sprang from behind the kitchen wall. Tamara poked her head around the corner and gave Grace a friendly wave. She had teased her hair out particularly big that day.
Grace bit back a laugh. “I’m sorry,” she mouthed.
Tamara shook her head, a hand perched on her hip. She and Aunt Judy were always bickering, but deep down, Grace suspected they were friends in secret. Tamara was the best worker at Sunrise Homecare, if only because she showed up to work on time and helped cook dinners, even though the latter wasn’t in her job description.
In the past year, Judy had cycled through many Sunrise workers who consistently showed up late, if at all. Not to mention that they constantly messed up her medication schedule as well. Sunrise was not the best ranked institution in the state, but it was all Grace could afford on her sales associate salary.
It was better than a nursing home. At least, that’s what Grace kept telling herself.
Grace’s aunt had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis right around the time Grace’s parents died. Aunt Judy had saved Grace from the foster care system then, and now Grace was returning the favor, saving her aunt from the nursing home. Even if it meant foregoing the preschool teaching career Grace had wanted for herself. A teaching salary wouldn’t pay for the expenses Grace needed to keep Aunt Judy out of a home. Luckily, Tessa had helped her land a job at Maritime, which covered the cost of Sunrise and kept Aunt Judy safe and sound at home.
“Can I grab you a bag of frozen peas for that eye?” Tamara said.
“I got it,” Grace said, pulling herself up off the pillowy cushions.
“Sit down,” Tamara said, emerging with a bag of peas. “You need to take it easy.”
Grace thanked her, accepting the bag. The icy plastic crunched on her cheekbone, and she winced. The initial bite of cold settled against her skin, and she sat back down.
“I was just about to head out. Brussel sprouts and baked chicken on the stove,” Tamara said.
“Thanks, Tamara,” Grace told her.
Aunt Judy stuck her tongue out. “Bleh.”
“Can I do anything else before I leave?”
“Yeah, you can put that garbage you just cooked in the trash and order us a pizza.”
Grace glowered at her aunt.
“Ignore her. Have a great night.” Grace didn’t bother to ask if she was able to get Aunt Judy outside today. She already knew the answer. Aunt Judy refused to go outside in the cold, blaming it on the damn wheelchair, cursed by the devil himself. Grace had stopped asking a while ago.
Tamara shrugged on her coat. “I’ll see you bright and early tomorrow.”
“Don’t let your hair blow you away on your way out,” Aunt Judy said.
“Always a pleasure, Judy,” she deadpanned.
Aunt Judy lifted her middle finger in response. Grace caught Tamara’s smile before she walked out the front door.
“Be nice,” Grace scolded her aunt.
“I am nice,” Aunt Judy retorted, snuggling up with her favorite cream afghan with tassels worn into tangled clumps of yarn.
Grace rolled her eyes and turned toward the television. “Which movie will we be watching tonight?”
“Magic Mike is on cable.”
Grace stuck her tongue out. “How about something a little more romantic and less thrusty?” Her aunt had a slightly more scandalous taste in movies than Grace. “What about The Sweetest Thing?” Grace said. “Or any Meg Ryan movie.”
“All right,” Aunt Judy said, pointing to the remote control. “You can pick, since it looks like you had a rough day.”
“You have no idea,” Grace said, grabbing the remote control. She was sure Sleepless in Seattle was still in the DVD player from the last time they watched it, and she hit play. The tension left Grace’s forehead as the familiar jazzy notes came over the speakers.
This was her happy place. Chick flicks and comfy blankets. Sheltered from the cruel, dangerous world. Protected from menacing golf balls and real-life rejection.
“Do you want to use the dinner trays tonight?” Grace said.
“Sure, but I may never be able to watch Tom Hanks again without the lingering taste of piss in my mouth.”
Grace chuckled. “They’re just tiny cabbages. Get over it.” Grace stood up from the couch and nudged Aunt Judy’s shoulder on her way to the kitchen. She cut up Aunt Judy’s dinner into tiny pieces to make it easier for her to eat. Her MS brought on a fierce trembling in her hands, making it impossible for her to eat with a knife and fork.
Grace placed the food in a bowl, grabbed a spoon, and set up a dinner tray in front of Aunt Judy’s recliner chair. She tucked a napkin in Aunt Judy’s shirt and brought over her water.
“You all set?”
“Mm-hmm. Thanks, sweetheart,” Aunt Judy said, an appreciative sparkle in her eye. “You’re too good to me. Before you put the movie back on, tell me about that picnic. Did you finally get the nerve to ask that boy out?”
Grace sighed, picturing Todd and Jane together in that playhouse. “He likes someone else.”
Aunt Judy frowned. “Then he can eat a bag of d—”
“Don’t you dare finish that sentence!” Grace gasped.
“What?” Aunt Judy shrugged.
“You’re a bad influence.”
“Well, someone ought to be.”
Grace rolled her eyes. “Not this again.” She felt a lecture coming on.
“You know, you should really get out more.”
“I get out plenty,” Grace said, setting up her dinner tray in front of the couch. “I have a job.”
Aunt Judy snorted. “I’m talking about going out. Living a little.”
Aunt Judy was always giving her a hard time about being a homebody. What she didn’t realize was Grace was doing it for her. Somebody had to rake the leaves and do the dusting. Water the plants. Pay the bills. It was her duty as Aunt Judy’s only living relative. And it was the least she could do after Aunt Judy took her in and raised her as her own.
“I’ve been giving it a lot of thought, and I’ve been a burden on you long enough. I think it’s time we consider putting my old withering ass in a nursing home.”
“No! Aunt Judy! That’s crazy. I’m not sending you to a nursing home.”
“No offense, Grace, but look at ya,” Aunt Judy pointed. “You’re wearing a sweater I bought in the seventies. You haven’t had a haircut in over a year. You haven’t been out on a date since… ever. You’re not living your life, Grace. And it’s all because of me.”
Grace’s heart clenched. “But I like being here with you. I like watching Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks movies. I like my life just the way it is.”
The few white hairs left on Aunt Judy’s eyebrows slid up her forehead. “That’s just the thing, Gracie. You’re too comfortable. And if I don’t get out of your hair now, you’ll never have a life of your own.”
“Stop right there. Let’s say you asked out that dreamboat and he said yes. What was your game plan? How were you planning on going out on a date if you’ve gotta be home before Dolly Parton needs to clock out?”
Grace frowned. “I figured we’d have lunch.”
“Lunch?” Aunt Judy gasped, clutching her chest. “You’re not going to snag a husband having lunch. You’d be better off going to the senior citizens’ happy hour at Applebee’s.”
Grace stuck her lip out. “Actually, that’s not a bad idea.”
“You’re hopeless! This is no way to live at your age. Your parents—”
“My parents were reckless and irresponsible,” Grace snapped. “They got out. Lived their lives to the fullest. And look who paid the price.”
Aunt Judy’s face softened. “Now, Grace, I didn’t mean to upset you.”
Grace’s cheeks burned. She turned away, hating the fact that after so many years she could still be upset with them. It’s not like it was their fault the helicopter pilot lost control of the damn thing, but they were foolish enough to get on it.
“I like my life here with you,” Grace said. Safe and controlled. The way life ought to be.
The silence was heavy, like a thick cloud hovering between them.
“Grace, I’m afraid this just isn’t up to you,” Aunt Judy said.
“Please don’t leave me,” Grace said, unable to escape the quiver in her voice.
Aunt Judy’s shoulders slumped as she released a deep breath. Her hazy grey eyes seemed to droop even more. “All right, fine. I won’t leave you until you’re ready. But we have a problem.”
Grace recalled her aunt’s doctor’s appointment earlier in the week. Had they found something serious? She had been feeling a little light-headed lately. The last time they checked her blood, her platelets were low.
Grace wouldn’t be able to take the bad news. Her Aunt Judy was her everything. Her only family. Grace noticed her head trembling in a way it did when she was nervous. Stress had a tendency to flare up her symptoms.
Grace braced herself for the news.
“I received a letter the other day from Sunrise. Turns out they’re raising their rates. Probably trying to get an old grump like me out of their registry.”
Grace let out a breath of relief. “I thought you were going to say something way worse.” Grace sank into the cushions. “How much is the increase?”
“I don’t want to say.”
“Aunt Judy. Cough it up.”
Aunt Judy shook her head like a petulant child.
“Tell me right now, or I’m going to have to tickle it out of you.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” Aunt Judy snapped.
Grace stood up, her fingers curled, twitching in the air, threatening to tickle Aunt Judy’s toes until she fessed up. It was a little cruel, but it worked.
Grace’s fingertips just barely grazed her aunt’s stockings when Aunt Judy kicked wildly in response. “Fine! You win, you evil child!”
Grace giggled, smiling triumphantly before resuming her seat on the couch.
“And on top of that they’ve added an additional annual registration fee. Fifteen hundred dollars.”
Grace’s eyes grew wide. Her mouth fell open. “Are you serious?”
Grace set her jaw. A twenty-percent raise and an annual fee was more than they could manage. She had barely been able to cover the costs as they were. “There’s got to be another option.”
“Yeah. It’s called a nursing home,” Aunt Judy said, pointing toward the remote in her nonverbal way of telling Grace their conversation was over.
“I can make more money.”
Aunt Judy scowled. “No, Grace—”
“I’m going to ask for a raise.”
“Nonsense. The nursing home around the corner is half the cost we’re paying now,” Aunt Judy said. “Sweetheart, I know you’re not ready for me to leave, but you’ve got to find a way to let go.”
“No. I can take care of this on my own.”
“What you should be doing is taking care of yourself. Now put Tom Hanks back on the screen before I really get upset.”
Grace hated when she did that, using the TV to end their discussion. She had always found a way to get the last word. And Grace had let her.
But not this time. Not when it involved breaking up her family of two.
Grace reached for the remote and pressed the power button. The television went black.
“Wh—What are you doing?” Aunt Judy stammered.
“I’m asking for a raise whether you like it or not. I will not move you into a nursing home if I’m perfectly capable of taking care of you myself.”
“No buts. I can handle this. And I don’t want to hear another word about that damn nursing home or the fact that I don’t have a life!” Grace’s voice echoed off the paisley wallpapered walls. “I’ve had enough!”
Grace had never shouted at her aunt before. Regret instantly consumed her, but she held her ground. She would not back down. Not this time.
Aunt Judy sat in stunned silence. Her mouth opened and shut like a fish out of water.
“Okay,” Aunt Judy said finally, her hands floating up in surrender. “But you’ll have to do one thing for me first.”
“What is it?” Grace said more softly this time. “I’ll do anything for you.”
“Good, ’cause I just crapped my pants.”
The sun peeked behind the trees, reflecting off the large panel windows of Maritime Marketing Services. An icy breeze from Lake Michigan blasted her in the face. Grace shuffled toward the front door, a steaming to-go cup of coffee warming each hand. The weather was just beginning to turn into one of Michigan’s never-ending winters. Frost had already coated the grassy lawn out front, and it was only October.
Grace’s teeth chattered, but not from the cold. Her nerves were getting the best of her. Asking for a raise was not something she had ever done, nor was it something she looked forward to. To help get her mind off the impending task, she stopped by her favorite coffee shop on the way to work.
Grace loved surprising Tessa with coffee. Her excitement for the little things in life was infectious, and Grace could use all the enthusiasm she could get today.
Plus, Tessa certainly needed a little pep too, given everything going on with Jane Lambert, evil manipulator and stealer of men.
Grace hoped that Tessa would still get to go to Costa Rica. She had been talking about it for weeks. But also, selfishly, Grace was excited to live vicariously through her. She couldn’t wait to hear about Tessa’s trip.
Grace yanked the front door open and waltzed inside, grateful to be out of the cold. She took her first step up the stairs when the elevator pinged in the back of the lobby, catching her attention. Most people didn’t use the elevator. The building had only two floors.
Out of curiosity, she peeked around the corner to see who was stepping through the sliding doors.
Tessa’s reddened face emerged. She was holding a cardboard box in her arms.
Tessa let out a snort that was half-sob, half-laugh.
“What happened?” Grace said.
“She fired me. She freaking fired me.”
“Who fired you?” Grace said, switching to a whisper. “Jane?”
Tessa sniffed, gesturing for her to follow her out the lobby, back into the cold. As soon as they gave the building enough clearance, Tessa went on a warpath, setting her box on the trunk of her Toyota Corolla.
“I knew that wench had it out for me,” Tessa said. “I just knew it.”
“But how can she fire you if you don’t report directly to her?”
Tessa rubbed her face, wiping away the smeared mascara underneath her eyes. “Jane can get anyone fired. All she has to do is call Daddy, and they’ll find some excuse. HR called me in this morning and said I was getting laid off due to ‘budgetary reasons.’ It’s all crap. I know Jane was behind it.”
Grace rested the coffees on the car hood and brought Tessa into a hug. “I’m so sorry. That’s awful. She’s awful.”
Tessa wiped away a tear. Her eyes drifted toward the coffee cups. “Are one of those for me?”
Grace nodded her head. “I was going to surprise you.”
Tessa smiled, her skin blotchy. “You’re the best.”
“This probably isn’t going to help you feel any better, but here you go.” Grace grabbed one of the cups and handed it to her. “Is there anything I can do?”
“You know what you can do?” Tessa said, straightening her spine. “You can stay away from that shrew. She’ll make your life a living hell.” Tessa took a sip of her coffee and her face brightened a touch. “Thanks for this. It does help.” She closed her eyes for a moment. “Honestly, I think this was the best thing for me. I’ve been unhappy here for so long. It’s time I find a new gig.”
Grace put a hand on Tessa’s shoulder. “I’m just sorry it had to end on Jane’s terms, not yours.”
“Meh,” Tessa said. “Screw her. She’s dead to me now. I don’t have to put up with her crap anymore, so there’s a silver lining for ya.”
“That’s true. I’m sure she’ll be on to harassing her next victim in no time.”
Tessa handed her coffee to Grace while she opened her trunk, setting her box of personal belongings inside. She pulled Grace into another hug and squeezed. “Better get inside. You’re shaking.”
Tessa sat down in the driver’s seat and closed the door, rolling down her window. “You know, you never told me what happened with you and Todd yesterday.”
“Oh, right,” Grace said. “Come by the house tomorrow, and I’ll fill you in. I’ve gotta be with my aunt all day.”
“That sounds good.”
“I’m going to really miss having you here at work.”
“I’m going to miss you too.” Grace grabbed her coffee from the hood and stepped away for Tessa to back out of her spot. She watched as her best friend drove out of the parking lot and onto the road of a fresh start.
Grace stood in front of her boss’s office, her heart pounding. Her fingernails biting into her palms. She raised her hand to knock, but it hovered in front of the door, unmoving.
Raises were not something that were handed out like Halloween candy. Grace would likely have to work for it. She’d beg if she had to. She’d do anything to keep her aunt at home.
What if her boss said no? What then?
Would Grace have to find a second job?
Maybe she could work on the weekends. The housework would suffer, but Grace could learn to live a little less tidy.
Who was she kidding? She couldn’t work weekends. She was already putting in hours of work on Saturdays and Sundays as it was. Grace didn’t have time for a second job.
This raise was her only hope.
Her hand remained frozen, suspended in the air, unable to knock.
Knock, gosh darn it! You can do this.
Just as her knuckles grazed the door, it swung open. Miranda squealed, clutching her chest. “You scared me,” Miranda said. Her face paled, nearly matching her white hair. “Good heavens, what happened to your eye?”
Grace reached for her cheek. “I accidentally got in the middle of a ladder golf game at yesterday’s picnic.”
Miranda winced. “Ouch.”
“Do you have a minute? I wanted to talk to you about something.”
“Sure, come on in,” Miranda said. “What’s on your mind?”
Grace sat in the chair across from Miranda’s desk. The metal frame felt cool against the heated skin of her forearms. She looked up to find Miranda comfortably leaning back in her chair. Waiting.
Miranda’s brows were plucked so thin they were just faint lines across her face. She wore a power-red lipstick and a white collared shirt. Miranda was usually easygoing, but today she looked like Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada.
“Yes?” Miranda said, her chin in her hand.
“I was wondering if it would be possible to ask for a raise?”
Miranda jerked her head back. “Oh, I see.”
“As you know, I’ve been working really hard. I acquired my own account earlier this year. I’m full of ideas. Lots of ideas. Brimming, even. Anyway, my family is in a bit of trouble and—”
“Say no more,” Miranda said.
Grace opened her mouth, then promptly shut it.
“You have been doing a great job as an associate, I will give you that. But I can’t just go around handing out raises.”
Grace looked down at her hands.
“I’ve got a better idea,” Miranda said, prompting Grace to look back up into Miranda’s eyes.
“Tell me what to do. I’ll do anything. I’ll take extra work if I have to. Please. I can’t tell you enough how much I need this.”
An image of Aunt Judy sitting in a four-walled cell floated across Grace’s mind.
“As you may know, Maritime is about to land our first ever international account.”
Grace sucked in a breath. “The one in Costa Rica?”
“Exactly.” Miranda formed a tight-lipped smile.
The room blurred. Grace attempted to focus on Miranda’s head, but for a moment there, she had three.
“You mean… the account Tessa was on?”
Miranda frowned. “Yes. Unfortunately, Tessa was impacted by a recent layoff. For budgetary reasons, of course.”
Grace clenched her jaw.
“Jane needs to acquire that account. And I need a strong sales associate like you to help her do it.”
“As you know, rumor has it that Jane is next up as CEO. When that happens, her role opens up.” Senior Sales Associate. Grace hadn’t even dreamed of getting a fancy title, but if it would help keep her aunt from moving into a nursing home, she was on board. The promotion should be enough to cover the home care expenses.
“Go with Jane to Costa Rica. Help her land that account. If you can impress her and get her to recommend you for the job, it’s yours.”
Slight problem. Grace had never flown before, and Costa Rica was a long way away.
She felt the blood drain from her face and the back of her neck begin to itch. How could she get in a plane after what happened to her parents? It was risky and unsafe to fly. Could she really get on an airplane and travel across the world? Could she leave her aunt behind with full-time home care?
“Are you all right?” Miranda said. “You look grey.”
“I’m fine.” Grace swallowed, a cold sweat emerged above her brow. “I just need to figure out how I’m going to pay for my aunt’s home care while I’m gone.”
“Expense it. Expense anything you need to land Tortuga Bay.”
Grace stared, wide-eyed. She was out of excuses not to go, other than fear itself.
“Is it a deal?” Miranda said, her eyes fixated on Grace’s hairline, probably watching her sweat beads form into giant droplets.
Grace couldn’t say no to an opportunity like this. This was more than she could have ever asked for, despite having to work with Jane.
Tessa had warned her about Jane, but what other choice did Grace have? She could get along with Jane. She had to. For Aunt Judy.
Grace shook her head yes, the word stuck in her throat.
The traffic had cleared up once Noah left the city. A plan had begun to take shape: He could dump the cocaine near a police station, make an anonymous call to let them know, then find a place to lay low for a while, preferably on a beach somewhere where he could stay out of sight.
Noah rolled down the window, letting the wind whip through the van while he zoomed through the smaller towns on the outskirts of San Jose. After an hour, had passed, the sun was shining directly in Noah’s eyes. He squinted under the glare, cursing himself for not remembering his sunglasses.
The highway eventually cut through a vast mountain range covered in the greenest grass he had ever seen. Emerald-green palm trees covered the rolling hills and fresh air barreled in, replacing the lingering fumes of the city.
When a gas station came into view, he was tempted to stop. He needed water and shades. His mouth was parched, and his eyes were strained from darting between the road ahead and the rearview mirror. If he could just make it to Jaco, he’d stop for gas and supplies.
He hadn’t seen the Sable since San Jose, but those men could have gotten Noah’s license plate. They could have eyes all over the country. Noah could only guess how connected they were.
He had heard of the horror his older brother saw when the last delivery went awry; the dead bodies everywhere, the gore. Noah had never seen Raffi so shaken up before.
Noah would have gladly handed over the drugs to these men if he hadn’t been afraid of getting gunned down. The cartel were dangerous, obviously. He would have to be careful wherever he went.
Noah cursed out his older brother again for tangling him up with the cartel. He had been a good kid growing up. He had played by the rules—well, mostly, when he wasn’t cutting classes to surf. But he was a straight-A student and had been accepted into the best universities in Costa Rica.
He had the perfect life planned out. He’d graduate with a degree in hospitality and work his way up the ranks until he managed his own hotel. And he would have pursued all that if his father had been in better health and hadn’t needed Noah’s help.
How could Noah leave for college while Pop was in the hospital and his business was failing? He couldn’t do that to him, or Ma. They’d needed him, so he’d stayed. But working at the roastery had opened Noah’s eyes to how bad things had gotten.
His father had made several bad investments with little return. He bought a fancy technology system that would open up their distribution across the country, but then didn’t have anyone to sell their coffee to.
Pop had big dreams, but no follow-through.
When Pop had put Raffi in charge of sales, it only got worse. Raffi was a wild card, disorganized and unreliable. In the last year of Pop’s life, they had lost more accounts than they gained.
Noah witnessed the downfall of his father’s health and business firsthand, watching failure after failure. It was heartbreaking and disorienting to see his idol fail at the thing he desperately wanted to get right.
Noah had insisted that he could jump in and help with sales, but Pop and Raffi said no, demanding that Noah work the roaster or make deliveries instead. You’re too young, they had said.
And Noah had let it go. His first big mistake.
Maybe he should have been more persistent. Maybe he should have demanded that he step up and take charge. But he had kept quiet, afraid that if he had stepped up, he would have failed just as they had.
No fancy college degree could fix the fuck-up gene that ran in his blood. Noah was just like them.
If Noah could have it his way, he’d escape it all. He’d build himself a yurt off the coast somewhere and surf all day.
It wasn’t that Noah didn’t want to work, he just didn’t want the big responsibility anymore, especially when it came at the expense of others. Noah’s dream to manage his own hotel one day was out of the question now. If it turned out he was as big of a failure as Pop, it would impact hundreds of people. Noah couldn’t have that weight on his shoulders.
He’d rather find a job helping people where the stakes weren’t so high. A job he knew he’d be good at and not disappoint himself along the way. Maybe he could teach kids how to surf or learn to be a tour guide in a rainforest. Whatever it was, it had to be simple and only involve himself.
He wanted a stress-free life, without the drama of the cartel on his ass, without the women that left him feeling empty inside. He wanted pura vida, the simple life. The reason he fell in love with Costa Rica in the first place.
Noah sighed, resting his elbow out the window, letting the wind cool his skin.
A street sign zoomed past him, reminding him of his destination. He was just outside of Jaco, off the Pacific coast. It was only a matter of time before he would be free from the cocaine, free from the burden that plagued his family the moment Raffi decided to make the cartel his get-rich-quick scheme.
He couldn’t wait for a fresh start, even if he had to stay in hiding the rest of his life.
“Costa Rica?” Aunt Judy shrieked from the living room. She strained her neck toward the kitchen where Tessa and Grace stood in front of the microwave. “What do you mean you’re going to Costa Rica?”
Grace finished explaining what had happened with Miranda just as the microwave dinged. A waft of buttery hot popcorn spilled out of the paper bag.
“I was going to tell you last night,” Grace said, “but I’m not even sure I can go through with it.”
“Of course you can.” Tessa bopped Grace’s shoulder. “You have to.”
“Are you upset that I took your place?” Grace said, pouring the popcorn into one giant bowl for Grace and Tessa, and into a smaller bowl for Aunt Judy.
“I’m not upset, but I’m a little worried for your sake,” Tessa said. “Jane is going to make your life miserable if you don’t kiss her ass.”
Grace whimpered, carrying the bowls into the living room. She set one on Aunt Judy’s lap and the other on the coffee table before taking a seat at the far end of the couch. Tessa followed suit, draping a blanket over their laps.
“But you’ll be fine,” Tessa amended. “You’re far more patient than I am. You can deal with Jane better than I ever could.”
“I’m not stressed about Jane, really. It’s the trip to Costa Rica that has my guts all twisted up. I’ve never been in an airplane before.”
“Are you flying first class?”
“Business class,” Grace said. “I don’t even know what that means.”
“It’s basically first class. Spacious. You’re going to love it,” Tessa said.
“Great. I’ll be nice and comfy while I plummet to my death.”
Tessa and Aunt Judy exchanged a glance, like a silent negotiation to figure who would address Grace’s irrational fear this time. They’d been a tag-teaming duo ever since Grace brought Tessa over to her house for the first time when the girls were twelve.
Tessa leaned back and proceeded to stuff her mouth with popcorn while Aunt Judy straightened in her chair. “What happened to your parents was a fluke. You hear me? Airplanes are completely safe.”
“Let’s say I get there safe,” Grace said, her heart pounding in her chest. “I’d be in a foreign country. I don’t know the language. I don’t know my way around there. What if I get lost on my way to the resort? What if—”
“Relax,” Aunt Judy said. “Breathe. You’ll be fine.”
“What about you?” Grace said. “I’m going to be leaving you for three nights. I’ll have to hire the night shift. Are you even comfortable with that?”
Aunt Judy placed a kernel of popcorn in her mouth and leaned back in her chair. “If you set me up in a nursing home, then you wouldn’t have to deal with that, would you?” she said with a smug tilt of her head.
“We’re not talking about this right now,” Grace said stubbornly.
“I’m just sayin’,” Aunt Judy said, pressing play on the remote. The beginning credits of You’ve Got Mail danced across the screen.
“She’ll be fine, right, Tessa?”
Tessa turned off her phone and grabbed another handful of popcorn. “You’re going to have so much fun. I mean, this is an experience of a lifetime.”
Of all the words for Tessa to say, she chose the ones her parents used before they hopped in that Alaskan helicopter, never to return home again.
Grace shoved down the niggling fear and replaced it with a handful of popcorn and a swig of diet cola. Then she looked over at the collection of snow globes on the mantel, each a memory of her parents’ adventures. The globes reminded her of her parents, and the happiness she always felt when they came home. But they also reminded her of the Alaskan globe she never got, and the price they all paid for an experience of a lifetime.
“This will be good for you,” Aunt Judy said, following Grace’s line of sight. “Maybe you could bring back a snow globe to add to your collection.”
There was empathy in her aunt’s voice. Empathy and love. She knew how hard this was going to be for Grace.
Grace guzzled the rest of her soda until she felt the fizz in her nose. Settling under her blankets, she took a shaky breath. The fear of flying and the guilt of leaving her aunt behind would all have to take a back seat. She was going to Costa Rica in two weeks, and that was that.
Nothing would stop her from keeping her aunt out of a nursing home.
Grace fumbled with her buckle, eventually getting her shaky hands to cooperate and click it into place. She struggled to focus on the flight attendant’s directions on how to put on her mask. Shouldn’t they practice this before take-off?
Outside the airplane window, the sky was an inky blue. Grace watched airport workers in bright orange vests transport a cart of luggage. Each bag tossed into the belly of the plane made a large thump, jostling the aircraft and her nerves.
“Champagne?” the flight attendant asked sweetly, holding a tray of flutes.
“No, thanks,” Grace said. She was sure her trembling hands wouldn’t be able to hold the stem without spilling it all over herself.
“Champagne?” the flight attendant asked Jane across the aisle.
“Do you have anything stronger?” Jane said.
“Yes, but you’ll have to wait until our flight service.”
Jane pursed her lips and grabbed a flute anyway. “I don’t usually drink,” she told Grace, taking a sip of her bubbles. “But it’s been a long day, and I hate airplanes.”
Grace shifted in her seat. “I’m not a fan, either.”
Jane smiled, holding her champagne flute out as if she were toasting Grace.
The engine—or whatever was making all that racket—was getting louder. Grace squeezed her eyes tight.
“Want one of these?” Jane said, breaking Grace’s focus on each sound the plane made. Grace couldn’t tell what was normal and what was a mechanical failure the technicians had missed. She opened her eyes to find Jane holding a white oval pill in her hands. “It’ll help with your nerves.”
“Suit yourself,” Jane said, popping the pill in her mouth.
The plane pulled forward, picking up speed.
This was it. There was no turning back.
All of a sudden, she was hot. Really hot. Sweating. Her thermal shirt was sticking to her back. Grace reached for the nozzle above her head, pointing the air toward her damp face.
Her stomach lurched with the plane as the ground drifted away.
“Are you okay over there?” Jane asked.
“Fine. Just fine.” A lie. She needed something to distract herself from the impending doom. Her thoughts drifted to Todd and Jane, an upsetting distraction. She pictured them in the playhouse during that company picnic and a jolt of turbulence shook the question right out of her mouth. “So what’s going on with you and Todd?” she blurted out, hating herself for it. But then again, it was helping her forget about being hundreds, possibly thousands, of feet in the air.
“Nothing,” Jane snapped. “Why do you ask? Do you think he’s too young for me or something?”
“No, not at all. I asked because I got the impression that he liked you.”
Jane arched an eyebrow. “Is that so?”
“He was asking about you when you showed up at the playhouse that one day. I figured you two might be dating or something.”
Jane tossed her head back with a laugh. “You are so precious, Grace. I’m not dating Todd. I can’t be in a relationship with anyone at work if I’m going to take over the business one of these days.” She looked down at her flute, studying the bubbles before drinking it down in two gulps. Her eyes glittered under the overhead light. “Between us girls, though, I will admit I do like toying with him.”
Grace wondered if Todd knew he was being used as a toy. Or if he cared at all. Either way, he had made it clear he preferred Jane over her, so it shouldn’t matter anymore, despite the lingering ache that came with an unrequited crush.
“Young guys give me a little boost, you know?” Jane continued. “After what Bobbie did, it’s nice to be reminded that I’ve still got it.”
“Bobbie ismy piece-of-shit ex-husband.”
“Oh, right. I’m sorry.”
The overhead speaker crackled on and the captain announced they hit thirty-five thousand feet.
Grace took a deep breath. As painful as this conversation with Jane was, at least she made it through take-off.
“Don’t be sorry for me. I’m fine.” Jane scoffed, leaning back in her chair. She crossed her legs with her empty flute dangling in the aisle. “Can someone please take this before I break it?”
A flight attendant rushed over and whisked away the empty flute.
“Anyway, if Bobbie thinks he’s better off with a perky college student, that’s fine with me.” Jane reached for her purse below the seat and pulled out a tube of bright pink lipstick, applying it in the compact mirror while she spoke. “I’m having the time of my life being single again.” She blotted her lips with a pop.
She was silent for a moment, staring at herself in the mirror, inspecting the skin under her eyes and around her mouth. “It’s a good thing we couldn’t have kids after all,” she said quietly. Grace almost didn’t hear her under the hum of the airplane.
Jane snapped her compact mirror shut and shifted in her seat. There was pain in her eyes, despite what appeared to be an attempt to hide it with her smile.
Grace didn’t know what to say, or how to console her.
“Wipe that pity off your face,” Jane said. “I told you I was fine. Never been happier. Truly.”
All of a sudden the air blasting overhead had become too much. Grace shivered under the icy woosh. She quickly turned the nozzle off.
The flight attendant appeared, setting a small cup of ice on Jane’s tray. A tiny bottle of vodka and a can of tonic water followed. “Compliments from the gentleman in 6C.”
Jane’s eyes widened in surprise, exchanging a look with Grace as if to say she couldn’t believe it either. Together, they turned their heads to check out the man three rows behind them.
6C was wearing a business suit. His hair was slicked back with speckles of white on the sides, contrasting with his deep brown skin. He held his drink up, saluting Jane from across the seats.
“O.M.G.,” Jane mouthed to Grace. “He’s a hunk.”
Grace nodded in agreement. He looked like one of those beautiful Latino men in a telenovela.
“What do you think, should I go over there?” Jane said, not even looking up for Grace’s response as she poured the contents of her little mini bar into her cup and unbuckled her seatbelt.
Jane slapped on her dazzling smile and sauntered over to 6C. She took the empty seat next to him and began chatting.
Grace turned back around, wondering what it would be like to meet a man like that. To be desired instantly. She looked down at her oversized I [heart] NY sweatshirt her father used to own. She wore plain black leggings and her favorite Christmas socks she wore all year long. Dirty sneakers on her feet. She was like a walking man-repellent.
Grace hated to admit it, but something needed to change. If she really wanted a boyfriend, she might actually have to put more effort into it, and not just her looks.
She shut her eyes, deciding she would worry about it another day. She needed to focus on getting some rest during this red-eye flight so she could be fresh for the presentation tomorrow.
The captain’s voice shook Grace out of her dream, informing the cabin and crew they were ready for their descent. Grace rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and looked over to Jane’s seat.
Jane wasn’t there.
Grace peered behind her chair toward 6C, but the hunky businessman wasn’t there either.
Grace rubbed her forehead. Panic settled in. Did she oversleep? Had she missed her stop entirely? Did that even happen on flights? Her pulse quickened. Was she missing the presentation this very moment?
The bathroom door opened, and the hunky businessman stepped out, running a hand down his shirt, adjusting his belt buckle as he strolled down the aisle.
Grace let out a relieved sigh. She shook off the rest of her brain fog and relaxed in her chair.
A moment later, the same bathroom door opened, and Jane stepped out and walked back to her seat next. She sat down gingerly, snapping her buckle in place.
Did she just…
Grace had heard of the mile-high club before, but she didn’t think people did it for real.
Jane looked out her window. The back of her hair was a wild mess, with chunks of hair going in every direction. And as Jane leaned even further, looking out the window, her heel turned up. A long sheet of toilet paper was speared at the tip.
Twenty minutes later, they landed in the San Jose airport before the sun had a chance to rise. Jane carried the streamer of toilet paper all the way to baggage claim.
The airport was surprisingly busy at five in the morning. A crowd of people, including Jane, stood around the baggage carousel, but Grace gawked out the sliding doors instead. The sky had turned a deep purple, the hint of early morning light. Palm trees lined the median between a two-way street, and a rush of warm air washed over her every time someone walked through the sliding doors.
The clicking sound of Jane’s heels drew near, and Grace turned to see Jane’s frantic face.
“What’s wrong?” Grace said.
“I forgot the portfolio,” Jane said, her face turned white. “I think I left it on the plane. Why didn’t you remind me to get it?”
Grace gaped at her. Me? Remind you?
Technically, they didn’t even need the boards. And technically, they could have done their presentation on a video call and saved the company thousands of dollars, but Jane had insisted on taking the old-fashioned approach. She had said it gave them an edge to sell their concepts in person, and the boards were meant to show her human side.
“Don’t worry. I have everything saved on a PowerPoint. We can project from my computer.”
“No!” Jane’s eyes were wild. “I’m not good with all that technology stuff. We need to reprint.”
Grace bit her tongue. Their whole company was based on technology and web development. The fact that Jane couldn’t handle a simple PowerPoint presentation was a little unnerving if she was going to be the CEO.
“We only have four hours until our presentation. It’s going to take at least an hour and a half to get to the resort. We don’t have time.”
“Yes, we do. We can check in at the hotel and find a print shop nearby. I’m not giving a presentation without my boards!”
Grace blinked at her.
There was no sense in arguing. Not if Grace needed to stay on her good side. She nodded her head and followed Jane out the doors toward the line of cabs.
This was going to be a very long two-day trip.
Grace opened her hotel room and gasped. Giant sliding glass doors showcased the garden just beyond her patio. Palm trees swayed in the breeze, welcoming her to the gorgeous resort. The ocean glittered in the horizon.
She had never seen anything so beautiful in her entire life.
She opened her patio door, and the salty air rushed in.
A large white, king-size bed with two magenta roses sitting on top of a folded swan towel held a handwritten note from Fernando, the hotel owner.
I hope your stay here is very pleasurable. We are all looking forward to meeting you soon.
Grace glanced at the alarm clock on the nightstand. They were running out of time. She threw down her carry-on and tore through her clothes, letting them fly wildly in her perfectly clean space. If she didn’t help Jane get this account and her promotion to CEO, she’d have to get that second job and learn how to live like this all the time. Why not start now?
She picked a navy pencil skirt and a cream floral blouse that she’d found at a thrift store. It seemed like a good idea at home, but it looked out of place in this tropical resort. Ah well. It’s not like she had better options anyway. She got dressed and dabbed a little orange soda lip balm on her lips.
Grace knocked on the hotel suite door that connected her room with Jane’s. “Are you ready?”
The door opened, and Jane was holding an earring to her ear. “Come in.”
Jane’s charcoal eyeliner and long false lashes brought out her hazel eyes. She wore a white sheath dress that hugged her in the middle and around her slender hips.
Grace looked like a spinster next to Jane.
“Are you sure we have enough time?” Grace asked, clutching her computer bag as if it were keeping her afloat.
“Of course we do.”
It was a quick trip to the print shop, but the language barrier had slowed down their process of printing seventy images. Jane must have spent a fortune on reprints of the same pictures, over and over again. And she completely underestimated the amount of time it would take to cut everything out and paste them on the boards the way she wanted them.
By the time they were done, they only had fifteen minutes to get to their meeting.
Grace’s stomach began to ache. She didn’t want to make a bad first impression, especially when the account was so important to Maritime.
“Pulling up an Uber now,” Grace said, stepping out onto the sunny parking lot.
Jane was shielding her eyes, overseeing the strip mall when she paused.
“Check out that hottie,” Jane said.
Grace waited for the Uber app to pull up before following Jane’s gaze toward the gas station next door.
A young guy, probably around Grace’s age, was standing near a white van with a Greene Coffee Roastery logo plastered against the side.
“A hottie who delivers coffee,” Jane purred. “Two of my favorite things.”
“Mm-hmm,” Grace said, typing in the resort address into her phone.
“I wouldn’t mind letting him roast my beans,” Jane said, giggling to herself.
Grace pinched the bridge of her nose. Scanning the app, her mouth flew open. “There are no Uber drivers out here.”
“What? Let me see that,” Jane said, tugging Grace’s phone from her hands.
Grace ran her fingers through her hair. What were they going to do? “I’ll have to call cab.”
“A cab will take too long. I have another an idea.” Jane handed Grace’s phone back and marched across the parking lot toward the gas station.
Grace’s stomach dropped when she realized she was approaching the van guy.
Oh no. No. No. No.
She wasn’t about to ask a stranger for a ride, was she?
Grace trotted behind her. “Jane. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably best—”
“I know what’s best,” Jane snapped, continuing with her long strides.
“You can’t ask a stranger for a ride. Especially one with a windowless van! Jane, please. This isn’t safe. This is how girls’ faces get put on milk cartons.”
“Let me handle it. If he gives off a creepy vibe, we’ll call the damn cab.”
Grace stopped in her tracks. “Can’t we just call and tell them we’re going to be late?”
Jane ignored her, merely yards from the guy now. He was putting the gas nozzle away when Jane approached. “Hey! You there!”
The guy looked up and smiled. As Grace got closer, she could see that he had freckles across his sun-kissed nose and cheeks.
“Hi,” he said. “Can I help you?” He had an accent of some kind. It sounded American, but with a hint of something. British, maybe? German? Grace couldn’t quite put her finger on it.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” Jane said, fixing her hair. “But my assistant and I are in a bit of trouble.
Assistant? Grace bit her tongue.
“We have a presentation to be at in ten minutes, but there are no drivers to take us in time.”
Van Guy got an eyeful of Jane, then turned to Grace. His eyes flared. They were a stormy sea-green. His mouth twitched into a smile, sending Grace’s pulse humming in her veins.
“Would it be too much to ask for a quick ride? The resort is only one mile away,” Jane said.
“You need a ride?” The guy looked at his van and rubbed his neck. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”
“Surely you have room for the both of us. I’ll pay you. Twenty bucks.”
“I’m sorry,” Grace cut in. “Jane, we can’t just interrupt this guy’s day like this. He’s probably super busy with important things, or whatever one does with a windowless van.”
Van Guy tilted his head, his eyes twinkling in amusement.
“Don’t be a prude. He’s our only chance.”
“But he’s a stranger.” Grace felt Van Guy’s eyes on the side of her face, but she refused to look up at him.
“Easily fixable,” Jane said, holding out her hand. “I’m Jane. This is Grace. See? Now we’re not strangers.”
Grace found the strength to look up and saw the flicker of concern on his face.
“Fifty bucks,” Jane burst out. “If we leave right now.”
Van Guy glanced at Jane and then back at Grace, his hands on his hips. He finally said, “I’m Noah. Noah Greene.”
Greene. Just like the logo on the van. Somehow that made Grace feel better. A serial killer wouldn’t plaster his name all over his own moving vehicle, would he?
“It’s nice to meet you,” Jane said.
“The pleasure is all mine.” The sparkle in his eye had Grace forgetting how to use her tongue. She gaped at him, unable to process a consistent string of thoughts.
This is not a good idea.
Why is he so good-looking?
Hitchhiking in a foreign country is not safe.
But his dimple is so mesmerizing.
Get yourself together, Grace.
“Let’s get you to that meeting,” Noah said.
Jane squealed. “Thank you! Thank you!” She pulled him into a hug and jumped into the passenger seat.
Grace stood frozen in place, assessing his extraordinarily white teeth. Homicidal psychopaths didn’t have white teeth like that, right? Or were they more likely to have white teeth? A shudder went down her spine.
“You’ll have to sit in the back,” Noah said. “Is that okay with you?”
Grace nodded, watching the muscles in his arms flex as he opened the back doors. He smiled, holding the doors open for her. His boyish grin was disarming and Grace lost all sense of reason.
“I will admit, you don’t give off a creepy vibe,” Grace said.
“Thanks?” Noah said, furrowing his brow. “You don’t either.”
Grace peered in the van. “What’s in the boxes?”
“Body parts. Kidneys. The usual black-market stuff.” Noah grinned, holding out his hand.
“Funny,” Grace said, eyeing him cautiously.
Noah continued holding out his hand. “It’s just coffee,” he said, a slight tick in his jaw.
There weren’t any knives or hooks or body bags from what Grace could see. And it did smell like coffee, which was reassuring.
“You better not be lying to us, Noah Greene.”
Noah smiled, shaking his hand for her to grab it. “You asked me for a ride, remember?” he said.
Grace slid her hand onto his palm. His fingers clasped around hers, helping her into the van. An odd sense of calm coursed through her. The tensed muscles in her neck and shoulders relaxed.
Noah held her hand a millisecond longer than necessary, probably to make sure she was steady on her heels. “You can grab onto the handle over there,” he said, pointing to the bar above her head. “But I’ll drive nice and slow for you,” he said with a playful shimmer in his eyes.
Boxes covered the floor bed, unmarked with strips of red duct tape sealing the seams. It seemed odd to have duct tape, not packing tape, on the boxes, but what did she know?
Grace found a place to sit while Noah waited patiently.
“Are you going to be okay back here?” Noah asked.
Grace nodded, and he shut the doors and ran to the driver’s side.
“I don’t know how I got so lucky to have two beautiful ladies riding in my van today, but I’ll take it. Maybe this is the universe making up for some of my bad luck.”
“What kind of bad luck?” Jane said. Her hand rested on the back of Noah’s chair.
“I’m just having a hard time with this coffee delivery. That’s all.” He put the van in drive, and as he promised, he drove slowly over the bumps in the road.
His gaze caught Grace’s in the rearview mirror, and she couldn’t look away.
Her stomach did a cartwheel and tingles rushed down her spine.
“You doing okay back there, Blue Eyes?”
Blue Eyes? She had never been given a nickname before.
Grace flushed, not sure if she was okay or not.
Grace. Noah loved that name.
She thought he was busy and important.
Noah rubbed his jawline, looking in the rearview mirror again, catching those intoxicating aquamarine eyes staring back at him. They were staggeringly blue, like two tropical lagoons.
Every glance felt like magic, the kind that could make him fly from thinking happy thoughts.
He almost forgot she was sitting on thirty million dollars’ worth of drugs.