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Sneak Peek
(this excerpt is beta read but unedited)

Themes Include: Middle-aged adult, ice queen, tropical romance, shared world (Rules of the Road & Burn It Down), paranormal, personal growth, menopause, dog adoption, HEA

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Paradise Lost and Found

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“Welcome to Paradise Island Resort, where we specialize in sun, sand, and self-improvement.”


Chapter One

“Lyss, Vanilla frappe two shots!”


Jess started at the similar name, but it wasn’t hers or her order. She was seated at a table against the wall in the Bean Bag. She had no choice but to stop on the way to work after her coffee machine gasped its last breath just that morning. Jess glanced at her watch and sighed. She had fifteen minutes to make a ten-minute drive and the baristas were taking their sweet time.


A tall man sporting a beard and ponytail called, “Jaye, Chai Tea Latte with whip.”


Jess drummed her fingers on the table as she waited. A young woman with a backpack approached and Jess reluctantly met her gaze. “Can I help you?”


“Uh, yeah. The B-Bag is pretty busy today and you look like you’re just waiting. Can I have this table?”


“If you’re so hot for the table, you should have gotten here earlier. I’ll leave when I get my drink.” Jess was tired, her knees ached, and she didn’t feel like standing to wait for, what was apparently going to be an eternity, in the coffee shop.


“Dude, you don’t have to be such a bitch. And you wouldn’t be in such a hurry either if you had gotten here earlier. Jesus.” The woman moved over to lean against a wall before Jess could respond.


“Anne, plain black coffee.”


Jess raised her hands like she was praying to a higher power. “Oh my freaking god, are you kidding me?”


A female barista behind the counter nearest to Jess gave her a strained smile. “Sorry, ma’am. We’re short-staffed today and the drive through orders are increasing wait times. Thank you for your patience.”


Drive through. She should have just done that because clearly, they were given priority over the walk-ins. 


“Coffee black, skim, two sugars—” Jess leaned forward to stand until the barista added, “Luce,” and she collapsed back into her seat.


She saw a tall, dark, and broad-shouldered woman striding away and muttered, “Fuck’s sake,” beneath her breath, then glowered toward the counter. 


“Peggy, caramel mocha latte.”


Jess glanced down at her watch again. It was 7:50. She was about to walk out without her precious bean juice when the hipster dude called her order.


“Jess, coffee black, skim, two sugars.”


“Ugh, it’s about damn time.” She grabbed her paper cup and strode out of the busy coffee shop. It would take a miracle or a lead foot for Jess to arrive at work on time but, come hell or high water, she’d do her best to make it.


****


Jess didn’t make it and her day hadn’t gotten any better by 9:00 AM. A traffic backup meant that she was five minutes late and she got a stern word from her senior manager about setting a good example. It wasn’t her fault. No amount of running yellow lights could compensate for idiot drivers.


Now she had to deal with this. Jess sighed and addressed the thirty-something man in front of her. “Listen, this isn’t rocket science. You’re not on the vacation calendar and I need you here. If you don’t come in to work, you’ll be disciplined and most likely fired as a no-show.” The firing part was a bluff but he didn’t need to know that.


The man shifted nervously with his hands clenched into fists. “But you told me a few months ago I’d probably be fine to take these two weeks off so Sue and I could bond before the baby comes in September.”


“I also told you to fill out a formal request a month in advance, exactly as policy states. And while two months ago may have looked good at the time, things change. New contracts come in all the time. You’re behind on your project and I need that finished by the deadline. A fact you’ve already been warned about twice.”


“Jess, I’ve worked for this company six years and that’s totally unfair. I don’t ask for much here. I just wanted this one thing before life gets crazy. I’m sorry I forgot to fill out the form—”


“There’s a saying around here, Jon. Your lack of planning is not my emergency. We have rules for a reason. The calendar is already filled those two weeks so your request is denied. Check the schedule for June or July vacation availability. You’ll still have plenty of time to bond or whatever then.”


Jon threw his hands in the air. “I can’t believe you. It would serve you right if I walked out and never came back!”


She smirked at him. “With a baby on the way? You may lack good planning skills, but you’re not stupid. My decision is final and I’d like to remind you, yet again, about the project you’re behind on.”


Rather than answer, he spun on his heel and stalked out of her office. Lucky for her, the door featured a soft-close device and couldn’t be slammed if you tried. And he tried. When she was sure Jon was gone, she retrieved a bottle of ibuprofen from her desk drawer, washing three down with the sad remains of her cold coffee. Then she tossed the cup in the trash can.


A quick wiggle of her mouse brought the computer out of hibernation. She stared at the company’s vacation calendar on the screen. The two weeks he wanted were already blocked off…by her. The two weeks immediately after were open but Jon already said he his wife couldn’t take those dates off. Company policy said none of the engineers could be off at the same time as a manager to protect project knowledge and information structure. They weren’t Jess’s rules but it was her job to enforce them. It wasn’t her fault he never submitted the forms and she forgot about the throwaway request from months before. “You snooze, you lose, Jonny-boy.”


A knock rattled the door and a five-foot, curvy, redhead pushed inside before she could close out the vacation calendar. Jess looked up to see Fabrimation’s HR manager, who also happened to be her best friend. Shell was frowning and Jess rolled her eyes. “Miss Stevens…of course you’d show up. I suppose you were his next stop?”


“You’re not making many friends today.”


Jess leaned back in her chair. “My job here isn’t to make friends. It’s to manage a bunch of millennials and gen z’s—whoever came up with those stupid fu—” A raised eyebrow made Jess amend her words. “—flipping names anyway? My point is, they all want exceptions made because everyone is so special.”


“That’s a little harsh, don’t you think?”


“We-have-rules-for-a-reason.” Jess emphasized each word with a knock to her desk.


Shell sighed and turned to make sure the door was shut tight, something that Jess dreaded because it usually meant her friend was going to get serious and personal. She took a seat across from Jess’s desk. “You’ve gotten a handful of official complaints for your attitude over the past few years.”


“And? I make sure the job is done and my team runs on time. My department has one of the best records in the company for quality and job closure.”


“As much as I don’t want to be the one to tell you this, frankly hon, you’ve turned into a…”


Shell trailed off and Jess laughed bitterly. “A bitch? It’s not the first time I’ve heard it today and it probably won’t be the last.”


“That’s your word, not mine. I was going to say grump. Have you considered taking some time away?”


Her suggestion put a ball of fear in the pit of Jess’s stomach. Jess needed this job. She was good at it but more importantly, she had a significant retirement setback thanks to bad trust choices and worse people. “Like a leave of absence? Are you reprimanding me for something?”


Shell held up her hands. “God no! But I looked before coming in here and you haven’t taken a real vacation in more than five years. You’re just nickel and diming it to give yourself long weekends and you’re not using your days fast enough. They’ll only carry over so long before you lose them.”


The memory of her previous vacation made Jess suck in a pained breath. She’d become adept at tucking feelings into little boxes and making herself forget about the ‘before’ times. “I’m pretty sure you’re talking about my last trip with Beth, before she left me for her university professor and took my savings and house in the divorce.” Jess laughed bitterly. “I’m glad she went back to school those last few years so that I could pay for her education and get screwed when she proved to have no income.”


“She was a witch, plain and simple. Tam and I never liked her.”


“Yeah, well, I sure don’t like her any more either. I’ve only just got my checking and savings built back up by living frugally and saving as much as possible.”


“I’ll admit, I didn’t see that drama with her coming. You both seemed to fit, you know?”


Jess shrugged. “You’re kinda right, I guess. I suppose there were little signs that we’d just…grown apart. You remember that was about the time I started menopause.”


Shell shook her head. “You were so early.”


“Eh, my mom hit menopause when she was thirty-eight. Unfortunately for me, my libido dropped and I’m sure that played a part in our decline.”


“Jess—”


“True or not, it’s a thought I’ve lived with for years. It doesn’t matter now. In the end I learned that puzzle pieces may look like they fit, but really don’t. And both will be damaged if you try to force them. You want to know the last time I remember having fun as a couple?”


“When?”


She thought back nearly five years. “It was that surprise birthday party that Brandi threw for Sal. You remember?”


Shell gave an undignified snort. “That party, ugh! You two may have had fun but we were dealing with drama.”


“Say what?”


“That was right around the time Kelsey and Jamie got together. A misunderstanding occurred in the kitchen that had them both leaving upset. I’m glad they figured their shit out quick. Seriously, those two weirdos are perfect for each other.”


Jess shook her head. “I can’t even argue with you there. I’d heard the stories about Jamie, just like everyone else. But even I’ve gotta admit they make an adorable couple.” 


The room got quiet as both women remembered a calmer time. Shell without a two-year-old, and Jess mostly happy in in what she thought would be her first and only marriage. Shell reached across her desk and gave Jess’s hand a squeeze. “Hon, I know you got the crap end of the stick. Beth took you for a ride and karma will come around for her eventually. But until then you’ve got to start living again. What’s the point of making all the money back if you’ve lost your joy?”


There was no way she’d tell Shell that karma had already come around for her ex-wife. Feeling petty and vengeful after the divorce, Jess sent an anonymous tip to the university about the affair. They investigated and discovered past evidence that the professor had been sleeping with their students. Jess’s college buddy taught at the same school and spilled the tea that there was a disciplinary hearing and the professor was fired. From what Rob said, Beth also failed the class and the professor eventually landed a job teaching adult education somewhere.


Jess slumped back in her chair. “I don’t know. But I grew up poor with a lot of trust issues. Beth’s actions took me back to a very dark place and I’ve just been kind of wallowing. Building up my savings to feel secure again is all I’ve been focused on.” She considered her actions over the past few years. “I’ll admit that I’ve been a little more walled off than I used to be—”


Shell snorted. “Walled off? Jess, you’ve been frickin Fort Knox. You make ice queens seem cuddly. What you need is a getaway, or a retreat. Someplace where you can leave behind all the stress of job and romance and just get in touch with yourself again.”


Jess laughed. “Oh, trust me, after years of bachelordom, I’ve gotten very in touch with myself.”


“Why do I put up with you again?”


“Because you and Tam love my rainbow Jell-O shots at your barbecues?”


“I mean, that’s true but I’m being serious.”


She glanced at the vacation calendar displayed on the computer screen facing away from Shell. “I know you are and, on that note, I do have vacation coming up. It’s actually the two weeks that Jon was clamoring for. I got permission to take all four from the VP himself if I wanted. Apparently, they’re aware I never take time off and cleared another manager to take over my duties while I’m out.”


Shell narrowed her eyes. “Did you bump him for yourself?”


Jess sat forward abruptly. “I would never! You remember the drag queen bingo event we went to a little over a month ago for Kelsey’s birthday?”


“Yes. Jamie was supposed to be the DD but they all ended up piled into an Uber because the queens kept buying her shots.”


“Yeah, well I bought ten tickets for the raffle that night. They called me two days later and told me I’d won an all-inclusive two-week tropical vacation at some queer resort. I only had to pay for travel. I looked up the place and it had great reviews. I submitted my vacation request right away. Samson told me he was considering me out for the entire month and I’m waffling about whether I should return to work, or just putter around at home for a few weeks once I’m back.”


“Wow, that’s awesome! And you should definitely take the entire four weeks if you’re approved. It’s rare for them to do that, but you’ve been here for twenty freaking years so that tracks.”


“I started just out of college with a shiny bachelor’s in design engineering. I never dreamed I’d stay at the same company this long.”


“Lifer.” Shell laughed as if she hadn’t done the same thing with a slightly different degree. “But let’s talk about the trip though. You sure it’s legit? Sounds like a scam, even with paying for your own flight down. What’s the catch?”


Jess told her what the person on the phone said. “There’s a theme to the resort, like making yourself a better person. It’s still a vacation with arts, activities, and excursions. But it’s also a self-improvement retreat with classes, meditation, and exercises. Whatever it is, it’ll be warm, sunny, and filled with tropical flavor. I was told over the phone that I could extend my stay for a reasonable extra cost if I wanted. Who knows, maybe I will.”


“Honestly? That sounds like a dream. What’s the place called? If you end up liking it, maybe I can talk Tam into going for my 40th next year. I bet my mom would love to spoil Rory for a few weeks.”


“It’s—” Jess rubbed her lower lip in an attempt to jog her memory. “I think, uh, Paradise something.”
 

Shell snickered. “That’s a little cliché.”


“Right? I’d have to check my email to confirm the name for you. All I know for sure is that two weeks from now, I’ll be lounging by a pool with a drink in hand, not thinking about exes, St. Seren Michigan, this job, or money.”


Shell stood. “I think it will be great for you and I look forward to all the stories after your trip. Who knows, maybe you’ll meet a sexy lady for a little vacation boom-boom, yeah?”


Jess laughed at her phrasing. “What decade are you even from?”


She sniffed. “I’m at work and the head of HR. I have standards you know.”


“Uh huh, I’ve seen your standards showing often enough on a Saturday night at Culture. You’re a pool bully, and you don’t like to wear a lot of clothes on the dance floor.”


“And that’s why I like to keep my personal and professional life separate, thank you very much.”


Jess grabbed her the belly fat she’d become hyper-fixated on the past few years. “Anyway, I’m unlikely to get any vacation boom-boom, as you put it, with this body. I know I should exercise more, I just…” She sighed.


“Do you still have your bike? I remember you riding it to work all the time.”


“I do. It’s just that some days I feel like I’m barely getting through the day. You know? Frankly, this menopause shit has hit me like a ton of bricks. I’m old now and pretty sure my libido is well and truly dead.”


“Oh, come on, you’re not that big or that old. Seriously, you’ve got to work on your self-esteem. You’re one of those people who is stupidly cute, despite the age or weight you’re so concerned with.”


Jess looked back at Shell with wide eyes. “What?”


Shell ran a hand down her face, a familiar motion of frustration. “Do you ever look in a mirror?”
 

That prompted a scowl. “Unfortunately. And I see the same person as always. The same woman that couldn’t keep her wife from cheating. Clearly, I wasn’t any kind of attractive.”


Hands went up as Shell must have sensed she was treading dangerous waters. “Babe, without getting into all that, I can attest that your sense of self is warped by your shitty divorce. The only reason you don’t have ladies knocking down your door is…well, frankly, your attitude. Are you a little heavier than five years ago? Sure. We all are. But you’ve got the thickest eyelashes I’ve ever seen and fab hair that’s shiny in a way I couldn’t even achieve while pregnant. Tam says you have perfect lips, and you’ve never lost that bangin’ ass. Honestly, my favorite part about you though is your smile. Which you seem to have lost.”


Jess was nonplussed. “Tam said that about my ass?”


“Uh, no. The ass is my observation. Face it, you’re adorable and I think you could find someone great with a little attitude adjustment. Try to be more open and interested.”


She scowled. “Maybe I don’t want to be open or interested. Have you considered that?”


Shell shook her head. “I think you do but only you’re able make that realization so I’m going to stop trying.” Jess opened her mouth to respond and Shell held up a hand. “I’ll leave it alone. But I’m going to reiterate that you’re not that old. You’ve only got five years on me and I’ve had a kid. I’m still trying to lose that baby weight.”


“Five and a half years.” Jess persisted with her usual complaint, happy to leave the rest of the conversation dead in the water.


Shell rolled her eyes. “What I’m saying is that I know it’s rough right now, Tiger. Just take things one step at a time. I think getting away will do some good.”


“Yeah, yeah.” Jess waved her hand to shoo Shell out. “Now if you don’t mind, I’ve got some projects of my own to wrap up before I can go anywhere fun.”


Shell started for the door but paused with her hand on the knob. “Speaking of fun, Tam and I are having a yard party this weekend. You in?”


Jess burst out laughing at such a ridiculous idea. “It’s April for fuck’s sake, and the snow only just melted off last week!”


“True, but it’s still gone and it’s near the end of April. Besides, it’s supposed to be eighty-two degrees Saturday.”


Michigan was stupid in the springtime. “It was a high of thirty-six yesterday, and it’s going to be forty today.”


“You can’t argue with what is, only plan for what will be. Saturday will be clear, sunny, and in the eighties. We’ll grill brats, chicken, and something weird for Jenn. And don’t wander in all gay-late because Tam already pulled out the grilling tools and left them on the counter in the kitchen. There is no way I’m keeping her from firing up that grill as early as possible Saturday.”


“No Rory this weekend?”


Shell grinned. “Nope. He’s going to grandma’s house until Sunday. Let me tell you, when they say terrible twos, they aren’t kidding.”


Jess nodded but as a childless only-child, she didn’t have a clue about babies or two-year-olds. “Who else will be there?”


“Just the usual crew. Me and Tam, you, Jamie and Kelsey, Caleb and Richard, and Jenn. BYOB and your cornhole boards.


“What happened to Tam’s Lions boards?”


Shell’s eyes darted away. “Apparently, mice chewed into all the beanbags.”


“You can order more.”


“Erm, and chewed the edges of the boards.”


Jess laughed. “I smell a rat, and not the kind that chews cornhole bags. You probably did it yourself. Everyone knows how much you love the Packers and hate the Lions.”


“Do you honestly think I would purposely sneak around the garage and hack away at Tam’s precious game? She’d kill me.”


When she put it like that… “I mean, I guess not.”


“Exactly! However, if I accidentally spilled something tasty on the bags and boards after we put them away last fall…and the rodents just happen to investigate, that’s no fault of mine, right?”


“Jesus, you’re as vindictive as Kelsey.”


“Saturday at two and don’t be late!”


“Yes, ma’am.” Shell was out the door before Jess finished speaking.


On a whim, Jess opened her vacation form and extended her time off by two weeks. She’d already been given permission and more time away from the office certainly wouldn’t hurt. Especially if it was paid. And if what Shell said was true, nobody at work would miss her.


****


Jess parked on the street near Tam and Shell’s house a little after three. She was late but it wasn’t a big deal. People were always late to parties. Jess had a cooler containing her Jell-o shots and drinks in one hand and her camp chair in the other. She left the cornhole boards in her Subaru knowing someone would help unload them later. The wind whipped her long, honey-blonde hair into her eyes. “Damn it!” Jess looked at her wrist and realized she’d left her hair tie at home in her rush out the door. Grumbling, she picked up the cooler and camp chair and started across the street.


Her lateness became a bigger deal when she pushed through the gate into the backyard to see everyone nearly finished with their meals. “What the hell? You couldn’t have waited until I got here.”


Shell was seated in a camp chair nearby with a paper plate balanced on her lap. “I told you two o’clock for a reason and texted you forty minutes ago.”


Jess set the cooler on the ground near the group. “Whatever, you suck.”


Tam laughed. “We love you too, J. Now have a seat and shove a wiener in your mouth.”


Jess flipped her off then and pulled her chair from the bag. “I was late because I was nearly out of gelatin so the layers took longer to set.” She scowled. “You’re welcome.”


Richard gave her a fake bow from his chair. “Thank you, Jess. I appreciate your sacrifice and hard work.”


The wind blew Jess’s hair into her face again and she gathered it all back, holding it behind her with one hand. “Do any of you have a hair tie?” She looked around the group of short haired people and sighed. “Hell.”


“I’ve got one.” Kelsey pulled a tie from her wrist and held it out.


“Babe, you got your hair cut months ago. Why do you have a hair tie?”


Kelsey shrugged at her girlfriend. “Habit. That and I like to always have one handy in case Pierre or Newman want to play on the nights we knit.”


Jamie snorted. “You are fucking weird.”


Tam threw a chip at her head. “But you’re living with her. What’s that say about you?”


In a surprise move, Jamie caught it in her mouth. After chewing and swallowing, she replied, “Oh, I’m weird too. The fact that Kelsey knits with her cats was one of the things that drew me to her.”


Kelsey poked her side. “I’m pretty sure it was my ass but you keep telling yourself that.”


Everyone laughed at their interaction. Jess wasn’t besties with either of them like Tam and Jenn were, but she’d been friends with the women long enough to know they were both oddballs and suited for one another.


Jess used the lull to pull her hair back into a ponytail. “Ah, much better. Maybe I should get a bob like Kelsey.” The voices all hit her at once.


“Hell yeah!”


“You’d look cute.”


“Do it. It’s only hair.”


Richard clapped his hands together. “Girl, yes! What’s it going to take to get you in my chair?”


She looked up through the fringe of long bangs and pursed her lips to blow it from her eyes. “You think I should?” Jess didn’t look at anyone but Richard, since he was the only hairdresser in the small group.


Richard set his empty plate on the ground then came closer. He moved around her with intent focus, turning his head one way then another and touching different areas of her hair. “Hmm, you’ve got this total ‘modern Farrah Fawcett’ thing going on. And I’m not saying it’s bad, but you could definitely use an update.”


Jamie called out, “What are you thinking? Undercut?”


“Maybe. We’d have to leave a little extra length on top.”


Jess tried to recall exactly what an undercut was. It sounded short. “Uh, I don’t know if I want to go that short. I’m not butch.”


“I agree with you. Your face shape is too delicate to be butch. Hold still.” He pulled the phone from his shorts pocket and snapped a few quick profile pictures. She watched as he uploaded them into some app. He hit a few more buttons then turned it to show her the result. It was her face with the promised style. The hair was lighter, very short on the sides and styled up on top.


“Wow. The picture is like Pink, but older and fatter. That’s seriously what I’ll look like?”


“Ooh, let me see!” Shell jumped up and crowded next to Richard to look at his phone. He passed it around the group for the rest to see.


“It’s your face, isn’t it? You’ve got the length to do anything, and your hair is the perfect texture.”
Jess swallowed. It was a huge step. She’d had her same hairstyle for at least ten years. “I don’t know…”


Chanting began. “Do it, do it, do it.”


Maybe it was time for a change. It had been years since she’d stepped out of her comfort zone. She threw up her hands. “Okay. I’ll do it.”


A cheer went around her group of friends.


Richard got his phone back and closed out the app then brought up another. “I’m bringing up the salon schedule right now and getting you on the books before you change your mind. Give me a day and time.”


Jess scheduled her appointment then opened the cooler and began tossing the shots around her circle of friends.  Richard caught his and held it up to the light. “So pretty!”


Jamie pointed to Richard as she caught her own shot. “What he said.”


Once Jess had all but one served, she reached back into the cooler and pulled out a solid purple Jell-O shot. “Hey Jenn,” She called.


“You know I don’t eat those.”


Jess smiled. “I made this small batch just for you. They’re vegan.”


“Oh really?” She made grabby hands. “Gimmee! How do they taste?”


“Like ass, but at least you can eat it. Is Malcom at his dad’s?”


Jenn sucked the shot out of the little plastic cup. “He’s actually spending the weekend with Mia and Ash.”


Kelsey burst out laughing. “How did that come about?”


“He’s fifteen this year and has been making noises about going into a career in emergency services.”


Tam tossed a potato chip at Jenn. “You mean he doesn’t want to be a doctor like his mama?”


Jenn shook her head. “He’s smart enough to do it. But he’s also smart enough to look at the years of education and student debt and consider other options. Besides, he’s been hooked on that new firefighter show lately and Ash agreed to give him a tour of the station. Plus, grandmama Mary is going to teach him how to make her famous biscuits.”


Kelsey sighed. “God, I love that woman. She’s such a spitfire.”


“Babe, your abuela is twice as bad.”


Kelsey winked at her girlfriend. “Good point.”


“Hey Jess, Sal is putting together this year’s softball team and we’re short a few so she told me to ask around. You interested?”


She scowled at Tam. “Dude, it’s been five years since I last played. How desperate are you?”
 

The short, butch woman shrugged. “I mean, I never played with you but Shell says you’ve got a killer bat and right arm.”


“It’s true!” Shell sat forward in her chair, feet not even touching the ground. Both her and her wife were on the short side and it made Jess snort every time she saw them sitting in their oversize camp chairs. “We played together for years. You’re good. You’ve hit more homeruns than anyone else I know.”


Played was obviously the key word in her statement. “While I used to be pretty decent—” She held up her hand to stave off Shell’s protests. “That was probably five years and forty pounds ago.”


“Come on, Jess. It’s not like they’re playing in the Olympics.”


She looked at Jamie. “If you’re so gung-ho about it, why don’t you play with them?”


“Oh, I am.” She pointed to Kelsey. “We both are and she doesn’t know shit about softball. This should be a blast.”


“Hey!” Kelsey punched her arm and Jamie leaned away, laughing. Then Kelsey tilted her head and shrugged. “Eh, but she is right. James is taking me to the batting cages tomorrow to begin my training.”


The group started laughing and Jess thought about it. She missed playing. Truth was, she gave up a lot after her divorce. On the other hand, she didn’t want to humiliate herself by trying to push her jiggly bulk around the bases. She looked back at Tam. “What fields are you playing on this year?”


“All at Riverside Park.”


There were quite a few softball fields scattered around St. Seren. Some were utter trash, with hidden holes in the outfield that guaranteed at least a few people would end their seasons with a sprained ankle. Others had a short back fence but a giant outfield. They were the best ones for in-the-park homers. But all the Riverside fields had shorter outfields with tall fences. They were perfect for her deep hitting style. Most of her homeruns were slammed over those fences. Jess took a swig of her beer and sighed. “Damn it! While it sounds like fun to swing the bat again, I’m going on a much-needed month-long vacation in a few weeks. I’d miss too much of the season.”


Shell grinned. “Actually, the first game doesn’t start until May tenth, you’d only miss a few practices and games.”


Jess knew when she was beat. “Fine. You can put me down as an alternate. Let me know what the fee is and I’ll give Shell that and my shirt size at work this coming week.” She pointed her finger around the group. “But it’s on all of you if I have a freaking heart attack running those bases!”


Caleb held up both hands in surrender. “Hey, don’t lump me in with the les-folk! I’ve got nothing to do with this. I just attend the games for the social.”


Richard nodded. “Same. Let’s not forget drinks and bar food at Cranker’s after.”


“It’s too bad Thai Guys or Beast Burger couldn’t sponsor.” Shell mused.


Kelsey pointed at her, wearing a big grin. “Oh, hell yes! I’d totally be down for that.”


“But, babe, Thai Guys doesn’t have alcohol.”


“Good point. Okay, I’ll satisfy my noodle fix on the weekends and settle for greasy bar food after our games. And the Beast is a heart attack waiting to happen anyway.”


Jamie held her hand up to fake whisper to the rest of the group. “She says that like she didn’t order wild style every other week before I met her.”


A potato chip hit Kelsey’s head and Tam said, “It’s true. You’d eat anywhere as long as you don’t have to cook.” Before Kelsey could come after her, Tam stood from the chair and grabbed a handful of shots from Jess’s cooler. She tossed them around the group one by one. Then she held her second rainbow-layered Jell-O shot aloft like a torch. “Here’s to warm weather, big balls, pretty alcohol, and the best friends we could ask for.”


“Cheers!” The group called out at once, then slurped down another shot.


Jess shook her head and winced at the strong rum shot. They were all going to be feeling it in the morning. Someday they’d learn, but it wasn’t going to be that day.


****


Two weeks later, Jess woke to silence. No lights from the noise machine or her charging pad on the nightstand. Just the sound of the trash truck making its rounds on a Saturday morning. She picked up her cell phone and a panicked. “Fuck, my flight!”


Jess scrambled out of bed, cell in hand. It was a lucky thing she’d packed and showered the night before. She’d just be able to check-in and make her plane on time if she did the bare minimum of grooming. She quickly dressed and pulled her black, Scion ballcap over her new, light blonde, haircut. She was surprisingly in love with it and hated wearing the hat, but time was of the essence.


Her doorbell rang while she was brushing her teeth. Jess pulled the toothbrush out long enough to rush through the house to answer. Toothpaste dripped onto her shirt as she yelled “What?” to the hapless pre-teen girl on the other side.


“Uh, hi. I’m collecting cans and bottles for my soccer team. Do you have any you can donate?”


Jess glanced to the left at her overflowing returnable bin and scowled. “Listen kid, I don’t have time for this right now. Come back in a few weeks.” Then she slammed the door in the girl’s face and hustled back to the bathroom so she could spit and rinse. She was a big meanie, sue her.


Fifteen minutes later, Jess hit the gas pedal to rush through the yellow light at the intersection near her house. Tires screeched somewhere behind her, followed by a loud bang before a reflection in her rearview mirror briefly blinded her. Jess blinked and she blew out a sigh of relief as she safely merged onto the highway. There was no time to stop for whatever accident missed her. She hoped everyone was okay but Mai Tais waited for no one.

 

THOUGHTS?

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