Chapter One
Evangeline

Blind dates and internet hookups have taught me one very important lesson since I’ve been gathering information for my article. In the last twenty-five years, more mothers should have swallowed. After this date, and I use the term loosely, my partner Jonathan is going to get an ear full.

I check RateMyBeer.com all the time when I want to try a new microbrew. Why the hell hasn’t someone come up with RateMyDate.com, yet? This guy would have five stars for loser. Knowing this ahead of time sure could have saved me a lot of time and trouble.

“Yeah, college wasn’t my deal, but that’s where I honed my Smash Brothers skills. I may never get rich playing tournaments, but living in my mom’s basement keeps things good and cheap.” Scott fills a tortilla chip with salsa and crushes it between his teeth, pausing only long enough to wipe his mouth on his sleeve. “I figure I’ll find a woman to support my dreams.” A bit of tomato flies from his mouth, landing on the edge of my plate. He wiggles his eyebrows at me and smirks, and I swear to God I throw up a little in my mouth. “So, Evelyn, what kind of work do you do?”

This is all my fault. Why I thought combining two projects—late night restaurant critique at Cloudscape and a blind date—was a good idea is beyond my comprehension. I almost feel sorry for the coming rant Jonathan will have to endure.

“Actually, my name’s Evangeline, and my partner and I run an online magazine, Incompass. Maybe you’ve heard of us or the numerous awards we’ve won?” His eyes have yet to meet mine, and quite frankly, I’m getting a little pissed. “Scott.” I snap my fingers in his face, and when I have his attention, I point at my glasses. “My eyes are up here.”

His gaze flickers to mine for a nanosecond but darts right back to my cleavage. Real fucking classy, right there.

“What can I say? I’m a tit man. Big or small, firm or squishy, fat or flat, I like ‘em all.” He licks his lips in what I imagine he thinks is a seductive, flirty move. “And Evelyn, baby, you’ve got some great knockers on you.”

My phone vibrates on the table. It’s the only thing to save this moronic asshole from a sudden, very painful accident involving my fork and his testicles. Jonathan’s name flashes across the screen. Thank God for interruptions, and fuck this so-called date. I’m out of here. I don’t care that it’s taken me months to get a Friday night reservation, even if I had to accept a ten o’clock slot. It’s a loss I’m willing to take.

“Excuse me, but it’s my business partner. I need to take this.”

I ignore Scott’s sputters. In two seconds flat, my purse strap is over my shoulder, and my feet are burning up the distance between our table and the front of the restaurant. No goodbyes or call mes. The door falls victim to my vicious shove as I accept the call.

“So help me God, why did you not talk me out of this dating article? I was seriously thinking about castrating that slime ball with my fork. He should send you flowers to thank you.” Icy wind slams into me, reminding me of the coat I’d given to the hostess upon my arrival. Shit. It’s my favorite pea coat, too. The bright emerald green matches my eyes and makes my fiery red hair pop against my alabaster skin. Guess I’ll be making the trip into town tomorrow, because damned if I’m going back in there tonight.

A cab pulls to the curb, and I give the cabbie my address, settle back against the seat, and soak the warmth into my cold bones. As I fill Jonathan in on my date, his booming laughter hurts my ears.

“Why didn’t you stop me? Isn’t that what best friends are for?” I whine like a petulant child.

“Like you’d listen to a damn thing I say once you have a brain fart, Evangeline O’Leary. I believe your exact words were ‘it’ll be the greatest thing since sliced bread’. And don’t blame me, bitch. I told you your hare brained notions were going to get you into some interesting fixes.” His warm chuckle tells me he’s remembering the time I’d thought I needed the inside scoop on a day in the life of a sanitation worker. Riding in the truck wasn’t so bad, but I still have no desire to know what that smelly, sticky orange stuff was that had splattered all over me. Who knows what kind of cancer or disease I’ll get from it. Ugh, talk about nightmares for months.

While I’ve been reminiscing about possible toxic sludge, Jonathan is prattling away in my ear.

“You’ve got a place to stay until your dad and I get there in the RV. I’ve already talked to him, and he has no problem with the schedule.”

“Whoa, slow down there. Until my dad gets where? And when? Maybe you should start over at the beginning, and this time, I’ll actually listen.”

His weary, ‘what did I expect from Eva’ sigh makes me grin. Jonathan’s been my closest friend and confidant ever since two eight-year-old Army brats met on post at Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany fifteen years ago. We’ve chased each other around the world, and when it came time to go to college, nothing short of a zombie apocalypse would have kept us from not only attending the same university, but also sharing a house off campus. Who needs to cry in her beer when she has a bestie with wide shoulders and strong arms. Not to mention, Jon Jon’s fashion sense is priceless, and his advice on anything and everything is always right. Every girl needs her own gay best friend, but damn if I’m sharing him. Oops, he’s talking again.

“Yes, Eva darling, I’ll talk slow this time, so tell your ears to keep up.” Papers rustle, and I picture him at his pretentious, dark cherry desk in our shared home office. “Analise Cameron has agreed to our interview request and has invited you to stay as long as you’d like, even through Christmas if you so wish.” God, I love it when Jonathan goes all business mode on me. “She’s available first thing day after tomorrow for your initial meeting. Given she’s smack dab in the middle of the holidays, she’s being very gracious in her accommodations.” He mumbles something about flight times I don’t quite catch. “You’ll land in Rapid City, and since I know how much you despise puddle jumpers, I’ve arranged a rental car for you. If you don’t like it, you can exchange when you check in. When I reserved it, there were no SUVs available, but I want you comfortable for the long drive.”

Analise Cameron. Finally! I’ve been pushing to meet her for years. An interview with her could open doors with the prestigious magazines Bon Appetit, Wine Spectator, and Gourmet. It’s a shame she left sunny California for the backwoods of Wyoming, but interviewing her is definitely worth taking a trip to the edge of nowhere.

“Okay. That sounds great, but I couldn’t understand what time you said I leave. Are you eating? Is it good? Can you save me some? I’ll be home in a sec. I’m starving now, but Scott was so gross, no way was I trying to eat around him. And I left my favorite damn coat at the restaurant, so I’ll have to go back tomorrow. Maybe then, I’ll actually get to order off the menu. I was really looking forward to eating at Cloudscape.”

“Damn it, Eva, focus on one thing at a time, please. Yes, I’m eating Chinese, and you know I made enough for you if you want it. I’ll take care of retrieving your coat. Just leave it to me. As for your flight, you’ll need to be at the airport at . . .” And then the bastard murmurs something, just quiet enough for me to almost miss it again. No way he said what I think.

I jerk my phone away from my ear to see if somehow it can’t find a good signal anywhere in the vast suburbs of Boston, but four bars and 4G stare back at me. The cab stops at our driveway, and after I pay the tab, I march to the front door and unlock it as quietly as I can.

“You want to repeat that? And this time, take your hand off the mouthpiece so I can actually hear you.” I slip off my heels beside the door and tiptoe down the hall to the office. Jonathan is hunched over his desk, shoveling noodles in his mouth and grinning like the Cheshire cat.

“I said,” he chews and swallows, “your flight leaves at . . .”

And sure enough, that son of a bitch puts his hand over the phone. His shoulders shake with silent laughter.

We’ll just see how long that lasts.

“Five thirty in the morning! Are you out of your fucking mind?” I screech.

Call me an asshole, but seeing the fork full of chow mein fly over his head when he jerks at my yell, well, it’s the highlight of my otherwise shitty day. It takes everything in me not to piss myself laughing.

“Oh, you’re home.” His fingers dart through his hair, and he snatches up his napkin to dab at the Chinese food he’s now wearing.

“Don’t you give me the sweet, loving Jon Jon when you’ve been playing the scheming bastard Jonathan.” My stomach clenches at the thought of leaving so early. Panic waves her little hand at me, and I barely hold off her attack. He knows I need no less than six hours sleep, or my productivity suffers. Not to mention, when I’m sleep deprived, my inner bitch loves to come out to play. “Jonathan, honey, a five thirty flight means getting to Logan Airport by no less than four AM, which would require me to leave here by three o’clock, at the latest. Which means, since it’s already,” I glance at the time on my phone as I stalk over to him, “eleven fucking thirty, I have less than four hours to pack for God knows how long, scarf down some food, try to sleep, and race against time to catch my flight.” My fingers grip the back of his leather chair and spin him around to face me. Pressing my forehead to his, I scream, “Are you out of your fucking mind?”

He grabs my waist, flips me around, and plops me on his lap. Next thing I know, he’s finger feeding me and putting his beer in my hand.

“Bags are already in the car. On top of your clothes, you’ll find a printout of what goes with what, and which shoes or boots to wear with each outfit. All accessories are packaged and numbered according to the list. I’ve also sent you an email with pictures attached, and if you need anything else, I can bring it with me when I come next week.” His clean hand (thank God) brushes my unruly curls out of my face and gently cups my chin to raise my eyes to his. “Darling, you mean more to me than anyone else in this world, and no way would I let you go off without taking care of you first.”

“I know, and I love you for it.” My bottom lip pokes out in a sulk, and I bat my eyelashes at him. “But when do I get to sleep?”

“When you’re dead, so cut the whining.” He pushes me off his lap, smacks my butt, and stands, leading me to the kitchen. “I couldn’t let this opportunity pass you by, and sometimes it’s easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.”

When he lifts the cover off the wok, the loud growl of my stomach makes us laugh.

“Now, darling, let’s get you fed and showered and dressed. You’ve got an adventure to take,” he says as he fixes my plate and tells me all about this new assignment.

*****

My flight is fairly smooth and easy, considering the storms brewing between Boston and Rapid City, South Dakota. While the plane circles the airport for landing clearance, I get a good look at a lot of trees and a small glimpse of Mount Rushmore. That’s one place I hope to visit before I head home.

When I walk out of the car rental agency, the light snow falling makes me wish an SUV had been available. But no, I’ll be making the five plus hour drive in a Toyota Prius barely big enough to hold my luggage, not that I’m complaining that Jonathan’s sent so much with me. How I’d dress myself without him is not something I’m willing to think about. Knowing and loving him is a precious gift I treasure.

As I punch in the address for Shaw Creek Ranch, I pray to the GPS gods for accuracy. I’m the type of person who would have trouble finding her way out of a box . . . on its side . . . with the flaps open. Unlike Jonathan, who has a photographic memory, my sense of direction is quite clearly off kilter. He claims it’s because my brain can’t sit still for a minute. And I’m left wishing all that running my brain does counted as cardio exercise and could trim down my generous ass and thighs.

Three hours into the drive, and my eyes are heavy with sleep. A quick stop at a convenience store takes care of three problems at once. After filling up with gas and using the facilities, I grab two large cups of coffee for the rest of the trip. Of course, this means I’ll probably have to stop again, but with little to no sleep last night, I can’t fall asleep behind the wheel.

Before my cellphone dies, a chat with my dad helps the drive fly by faster, and before I know it, I’m in Ten Sleep, Wyoming.

Shaw Creek Ranch, here I come.

Man, it sure is pretty around here.

*****

A scraping noise breaks through the edge of my unconsciousness. I feel like I’m floating sideways on a cloud of spiked nails. My body is suspended over nothing but air. What the heck is cutting into my side? White confetti drifts around me, and I brace against nothing, preparing for the sounds of loud noise makers. Is it New Year’s Eve already? I hope I didn’t pass out at a party. How embarrassing would that be, though certainly not a first for me.

Swish. Swoosh.

What is that sound? No matter how hard I try, only one eye follows my brain’s command to open. Weak light shines through the biggest spider web I’ve ever seen. Sure hope its owner isn’t anywhere around, or I’m in trouble. Oh shit, I think my legs are frozen. Literally. They’re like chunks of ice.

Okay. Someone dimmed the lights. What the hell?! This trick isn’t funny.

Swish. Swoosh.

I don’t know who keeps playing with the light switch, but now, the room is brighter again. Maybe I should just close my eyes. Woah, dizzy much? Good call, Eva.

God bless America, would someone please tell the Mariachi band in my head to shut up! And maybe move the elephant off my chest, while you’re at it. My lungs are full of razor blades.

Swish. Swoosh.

Something freezing splats my face, and the shiver that rolls through me sends shards of pain dancing over my body. Nausea crawls up my throat. Do. Not. Puke. The minions in my head will surely revolt.

Good God, now it’s raining. No. Not rain. Snow melting when it hits my skin. Well, that explains the confetti. The icy mess hitting my face makes me a little more alert of my surroundings.

The pain in my side is the seatbelt. What I’d thought to be a spider web is my cracked windshield. Thank goodness, there’s no tarantula, but seeing as how I’m dangling in the air, I’m not quite sure it makes much difference. I have no idea how to free myself without crashing down on the passenger door.

Swish. Swoosh.

Windshield wipers clear the webbed glass. The dark sky and thick falling snow kind of make things hard to see, but there’s no mistaking the over-sized spotlighted sign in the curve.

Dead End Road. How fucking appropriate.

Dead GPS. Dead cellphone. Dead car. Dead end.

Well, at least I’m not dead, right? I snort at the thought, and the band picks up their instruments to torture my brain. Blackness creeps in on the edge of my vision, and I welcome the numbing it will bring with it.

©2016 by Eliana Stone Peters