Dead Men Don’t Chew Gum (Unedited Preview)

By Nina Cordoba

Rika

"What's wrong with these people?" I muttered as I drove past the last building in a town that ended thirty seconds after it began.

So much for Bolo, Texas. Maybe I should have expected this when the sign touted a population in the hundreds instead of millions like I was used to. But, jeez, ten-fifteen on a Sunday night and everything was closed?

The McDonald's. The Sonic. Even the Mary Queen, which was clearly an old Dairy Queen that had lost its franchise. The "Mary" part was painted in black letters on a white tarp and thrown over the front half of the sign.

But, while it was plausible that people didn't eat late around here, what about gas? The two convenience store-gas stations on either end of town were locked up tight as if no one could ever possibly need gas in the middle of the night.

My Honda Fit got good mileage, so gas wasn't my big priority at the moment. But I was starving. I was thirsty. And I had to pee like nobody's business.

As I pulled up to a red light, I ripped open a pack of gum—the last thing I had in my possession resembling food—and stuffed a stick of it into my mouth. I tapped my fingers on the steering wheel impatiently.

No cars across from me.

No cars to the right or left.

Not a soul in sight.

After living in L.A. and New York, this place looked like some post-apocalyptic movie set.

Then I noticed the antique three-story houses sitting on two of the four corners and realized this was the intersection where I needed to make my big decision. I could take the route the GPS, Google Maps, and Mapquest told me to use, or I could take the shortcut my friend Marly recommended, which would presumably get me to civilization faster. Otherwise, why would they call it a shortcut?

Shortcut it is.

When the light glowed green, I took a deep breath and turned left. A half-mile later, I turned right at the yellow flashing light...

Onto the darkest, most desolate two-lane road I'd ever seen. Or maybe it just felt that way because the moon, which had shone on me consistently the past couple of hours, suddenly disappeared behind a blanket of clouds.

All I could see was the pavement in front of my car and the vague outlines of stubby trees and scrub brush on the sides of the road. My hand jerked up to rub the nervous tingle off the back of my neck.

Maybe I should turn around and take the other route.

Either way, I had to admit it was a terrible idea to try to hide out for a couple of weeks before heading home to L.A. to face the I-told-you-so’s from my grandmother and aunts.

What a shitty f-ing day this had been.

Actually, I'd been driving for three days, stopping to nap at state rest areas when I got tired, but the time blurred together in my mind like one very long, lousy day.

It started when I went to my job as an E.coli tester in the lab of a meat-packing company in New York and worked for four hours before my boss arrived to inform me I was laid off.

Effective immediately.

As he shoved a wad of cash into my fist, he was wild-eyed, ranting about the FBI and a money laundering operation. I figured better to be jobless than imprisoned and got the hell out.

When I returned to the apartment I shared with my boyfriend Brandtt—okay, technically his apartment—I found a blonde with legs up to her neck, standing in the lobby, directing movers. Elias the doorman explained to me that Brandtt had found someone new, and I'd need to find another place to live.

Also effective immediately.

Nice.

The "good" news was that my belongings were already boxed up, and Elias had been keeping them safe for me. I nearly tipped him for his trouble, then decided if this situation were ever written up in an etiquette book, the dumper would be responsible for the tip, not the dumpee.

Shell-shocked, I sat on one of my boxes in the lobby for a half hour as I tried to call my boyfriend of two years. When Brandtt—"with two t's," as he always pointed out—didn't answer my calls or texts, I had to accept that I'd actually managed to lose my job, my man, and my home in one morning.

As I held onto the steering wheel with my right hand, I pressed my left palm to my stomach. It felt like someone had dropped a wet rag in there. I'd experienced the same sensation over and over, each time my mind replayed the lobby scene, all the way from New York to Texas.

And that was a lot of freaking times, let me tell you.

Okay, Brandtt and I were over, but couldn't he have handled the breakup in some other way? A way that didn't involve the doorman peering at me, dewy-eyed with sympathy, looking like he wanted to take me home and let Mrs. Doorman feed me arepas or tamales or whatever New York Puerto Ricans ate. Elias was so broken-hearted on my behalf, I felt like I should be comforting him.

Even worse, I could no longer ignore the nagging feeling that had plagued me for months. The thought that Brandtt, my handsome, charming boyfriend worshipped by millions—okay, thousands—of women...was a tool.

I guess on some level I'd known for a while, but I considered myself an intelligent person, and what smart person wants to believe she abandoned her own life to follow a tool all the way across the country?

Jeez. I rolled my eyes at myself for about the thousandth time since I left New York.

I met Brandtt when I was still in L.A. One night, I attended a stage adaptation of The Matrix—a terrible idea for a play, by the way—in celebration of finally reaching my goal weight. He walked out onto the stage in his black trench coat and tall, chunky boots and I was a goner. I was sitting in the front row of the tiny theater, and he sent a stagehand out to invite me back.

And, I mean, who can resist Neo?

I hate to admit it, but the sting of humiliation was much worse than the ache of losing Brandtt. Okay, there was no ache at all.

It had become clear a while ago that he and I didn't belong together. I just hadn't figured out what to do about it, yet. But being dumped unceremoniously out of his life like yesterday's iPhone still burned. Left me feeling like I'd felt throughout my teen years. Like I wasn't worth so much as a conversation.

I had nowhere to go in New York, since my three girlfriends had already flown to South Padre Island to stay at Marly's aunt and uncle's condo for a few weeks.

I'd passed on the trip because I didn't think it was right to go off with a bunch of very single women while I was living with a boyfriend. But with him no longer in the picture, recuperation time on a far-off beach sounded a lot better than heading back to L.A. with my tail tucked between my legs.

I made a snap decision and headed south while I formulated my new life plan and procrastinated about facing the women who raised me.

In my defense, I did tell Brandtt I couldn't go to New York with him, initially. I'm not an idiot, and following a boyfriend across the country seemed like an idiot move. But he begged me to come.

"How can you make me go alone?" he'd whined.

I'm a sucker for a good guilting. I blame my grandmother.

Of course, explaining Brandtt's new job on The Real Millionaire Bachelors of New York to her had been the hardest part.

"If he's not a millionaire, why would they give him a job on the show?" she kept asking. She also still believes pro wrestling is for real.

As I watched the dark pavement disappear under my Honda, I spotted a bend in the road up ahead and crossed my fingers that I'd find a truck-stop diner or at least a 24-hour Walmart on the other side. I sucked in two big lungfuls of hope, slowed, and started around the curve.

Damn it. No Wal—

My headlights reflected off glass and metal on the right shoulder. In the moment it took my brain to register that a vehicle was parked, facing the wrong way on the right side of the road, a motor roared and the cab of the red pick-up truck lunged in front of my car.

I jerked the steering wheel to the right to avoid colliding with the bed of the truck. My foot mashed on the brake while the truck's tires sprayed my windshield with gravel they'd collected from the shoulder. The tiny rocks crunched under my tires as well, as my car left the road and slid to a stop.

I twisted around just in time to see the truck's tail lights pop on before it disappeared around the curve. I'd avoided smashing into it by mere inches.

Pressing my hand to my chest, I deep-breathed to recover from my near miss with a drunk driver. He had to be drunk, right? Who else darts out from the wrong side of the road with no lights on?

As my pulse slowed, my bladder began nagging at me again. I was amazed I hadn't wet myself when the truck jumped out at me.

I turned to peer into the dark through the passenger window. What kinds of wildlife did they have in Texas?

Rattlesnakes? Coyotes? Bobcats?

But I couldn't drive another mile in this condition. Glancing around, I found my cell phone, which had slid from the passenger seat to the floorboard when I threw on the brakes.

I leaned over and plucked it from the mat. I tried to turn its built-in flashlight on, even though it hadn't worked since a month after I bought the phone, the one negative I'd mentioned when I reviewed it on Amazon. I didn't return the phone because I loved everything else about it and that one feature hadn't seemed important in the bright lights of Manhattan.

My lightsaber key chain—Yoda version—would have come in handy. Unfortunately, I'd felt obliged to switch it out for the expensive Michael Kors key chain Brandtt had given me. He hated my lightsaber key chain, along with all my other geeky possessions.

So, the light from my cell screen would have to do.

I made it a rule to always try to learn lessons from my mistakes. Never give up the geek. That would be the lesson I took from tonight.

As I got out of the car, a warm breeze ruffled my thin summer skirt. At least I wouldn't have to wrestle with skinny jeans to make this happen.

Holding my phone out in front of me, I tried to look ahead, but the puny screen light only allowed me to see a few inches around me. I imagined snakes slithering on the ground and rose up on the balls of my feet, trying not to disturb them. My knee-high leather boots would have come in handy, but since I didn't pack the boxes in my trunk, I had no idea where to find them.

The Sketchers I was wearing would have to do.

I'd put them on before leaving the lobby of Brandtt's building—the only fuck-you I could think of, since he'd always hated to see me in anything that wasn't designer and certainly wouldn't approve of a skirt-tennis shoe combination. Pretty lame as fuck-yous go, especially considering only his doorman was watching.

The night outside the car was surprisingly noisy, full of the buzzing and chirping of insects. Chewing my gum faster, I tiptoed away from the road. Soft, barely discernable footfalls padded nearby.

Like a bobcat stalking its prey?

I imagined what it might feel like to become a bobcat's bedtime snack. Would he at least make sure I was dead before gnawing off my limbs?

I halted, held my breath and strained my ears to determine the direction I needed to run away from. But when I stopped walking, the sound stopped, too.

Duh. I was the bobcat.

I started moving again, hoping to get far enough from the road that a passing car's headlights wouldn't expose my naked ass to the driver, but not so far as to make me look like easy pickings to whatever carnivores might be prowling around. When I scratched my leg on something spindly, I imagined accidentally squatting on a cactus.

Eek! That would make for some miserable driving.

Something slithered by my foot, for real this time. I squealed and fled, lifting my knees high in an exaggerated jog until I ran right into a stubby version of a palm tree.

Ouch!

Stupid smart phone.

How smart could it be if it didn't even keep its owner from running into major foliage? I felt around the trunk, moving to the backside of the tree, and did what I'd been needing to do for the last three hours.

Whew!

As I pulled my underwear up, skirt down, I gave myself a pat on the back for braving the wilderness and taking care of business, old school.

I could totally survive the zombie apocalypse!

Smiling triumphantly, I looked toward the road. My car lights shone like beacons of hope, although I'd apparently wandered off at an angle while looking for the right spot to do my biz.

I pointed my Sketchers straight at the car, anxious to get back to safety now that I had zombies on the brain. But after only a few steps, my toe hit something and caught.

My body lurched forward. My palms hit gritty earth at the same moment my torso landed on a solid mass. A whoosh of air burst from my lungs at the impact, the gum flying out of my mouth along with it.

Dread oozed in through my pores and wrapped around my internal organs. No doubt, whatever I'd landed on didn't belong here.

In fact, it felt like...

No, I wouldn't let my imagination run amuck this time. Bracing myself with my left hand, I lifted my phone with the other, pointing the screen downward. I touched the home button. The light from the screen shook as it reflected off a pair of pale blue eyes.

Pale, blue, lifeless eyes.

A zombie!

I scrambled off, tripping over its limbs as I tried to get as far away as possible. I may have screamed. It's hard to know if you're screaming on the outside when you're screaming so loudly on the inside.

When I reached the gravel, I went down hard. Skin ripped from the heels of my hands as I scrabbled over the rocks. I had to get to my car and I didn't care if I did it on two limbs or four.

Next thing I knew, I was sitting in the driver's seat, shaking, unsure how long I'd been there.

Had I blacked out? Maybe I'd fallen asleep driving and the zombie had been a dream. Actually, since it was just lying there, not trying to eat my brains, it didn't really qualify as a zombie. Not yet, anyway.

But this could still be a dream. Couldn't it?

Painful throbbing caused me to turn my hands over and examine them. My phone was still clutched in my fingers, a fresh crack jutting diagonally across the screen. The heel of my right hand and my entire left palm were scratched and bloodied.

According to the phone, only a few minutes had lapsed since I left the car. I couldn't have been here long.

Okay, this wasn't a dream, but I was fine. I was in control of my senses. And, unfortunately, the body I'd stumbled onto was no hallucination.

I dialed nine-one-one, closed my eyes, rested my forehead on the steering wheel, and answered the operator's questions until she figured out where the cops could find me.

When I finally heard sirens, I opened my eyes...

And saw the blood on my shirt.


 

 

Nick

I have to get out of this town.

That's pretty much what I was thinking every minute of every day. Even more so on nights like tonight, when mom called me over to her place to save her from yet another bogus threat.

This time, she'd been listening to town gossip about a group of Satan worshippers who were supposedly gathering in this part of the county to hold their rituals.

She called me a couple of hours ago, sounding both agitated and excited, because she was sure she saw someone in a black robe headed toward the old barn. I walked around the property for an hour and didn't find a thing.

Before the Satan worshippers, there was a mountain lion at her back door, which turned out to be her neighbor's fat tabby looking for a second dinner.

A week before that, I was called over to investigate the gurgling sounds coming from her upstairs bathroom—"like someone chokin' on their own blood"—which I fixed by jiggling the toilet handle.

I was pretty sure she didn't believe she was in danger. More likely, she was addicted to the drama and attention.

Regardless, I was bone tired, and I was too damn young to be this damn exhausted. But mom wasn't the only reason I had to get out of this place. I'd come back to Bolo for all the wrong reasons and that never got you anywhere you wanted to be.

I needed to move on and let the useless sheriff deal with mom's nutty complaints. Wasn't like he had much else to do around here, except look for "northerners," which is what he called anyone with an out-of-state license plate, and pull them over on trumped up traffic charges.

As I turned onto the highway, I was surprised to see the flashing lights of two county sheriff's cars on the gravel shoulder.

Huh. Sheriff Wade Strickland usually preferred to conduct his speed traps during the day and be home in time for dinner.

I rolled down my window as I eased up next to what I assumed was an accident. But there was only one civilian car on the scene and it didn't appear damaged.

"Hey, Nick," Deputy Daniel Scruggs called from between his car and the Honda. I stopped next to him, surprised to see his hand on the arm of a slim girl. Her hands were stuck behind her back like she was cuffed.

"What's up, Danny?" I asked, but my eyes wandered over to examine his prisoner more closely. She wasn't a teenager like I first thought, but an attractive young woman with long brown hair that flamed auburn as the red lights flashed through it. When I scanned her face, her eyes caught mine, holding me prisoner for several long seconds.

A guy could drown in those big, round puddles of chocolate. She probably cried Hershey's kisses.

She wasn't crying, though.

Interesting.

In my experience, women got pretty emotional over being arrested. Men did too, for that matter.

Still, there was something about her that made me want to hang around and see if I could help her out. She had New York plates on her car and seemed to be all alone.

"Looks like we got ourselves a murder!" Danny smiled, his eyes widening on the word "murder" like they did when he announced he'd won fifty dollars on a lottery scratch-off.

He'd always been kind of a dumbass. When he was a kid, his nickname was "Goofy," surprisingly, not because of the way he acted, but because the odd shape of his eyes and protruding teeth made him look like the Disney character.

Nowadays, in uniform, he seemed even more cartoonish, if that was possible.

"A murder?" My eyes flicked back to the woman, automatically scanning her for evidence. Was that blood all over her clothes? The damp fabric clung to her female curves. I noticed how nice those curves were, even coated in some murder victim's blood, and I felt a little creepy about it.

Damn, I needed to get laid. But that had brought me nothing but trouble in this town.

"Caught her red-handed," Danny said.

His prisoner huffed out a loud breath and focused a condescending gaze on him. "I called you, dipshit."

I chuckled as I watched the glee drain from Danny's face.

He tipped his head sideways toward her. "See, like most criminals, she has no respect for the law."

She rolled her eyes. "I had to remind your boss to put gloves on before he started collecting evidence."

Not surprised. Around here, calling the sheriff was only helpful if you had an intruder who could be chased away by the presence of police cars. Sheriff Wade Strickland and Deputy Daniel Scruggs knew how to turn on the lights and sirens. Otherwise, they were out of their depth.

"You'd better just pray for a good lawyer, missy," Danny said to the woman. 

A new expression crossed her face. Uncertainty? Fear, maybe?

My lips parted, ready to offer help. They were always willing to get me into trouble, saving damsels in distress. I squeezed them back together.

No more of that nonsense. I'd made myself a promise that once I was out of Bolo, I'd leave those bad habits behind. But why procrastinate? Tonight was as good a time as any to say adios to that addiction.

"Well, I'll see you later, Danny." I lifted my foot off the brake.

The woman's eyes met mine again and, for a second, I could have sworn she was asking me not to leave her out here with these morons. Then I reminded myself she and I didn't know each other.

I was probably "projecting" my emotions onto her. At least that's what Gabe, my best friend and self-appointed therapist would say.

"Yeah, see ya, Nick," Danny called as I gunned the accelerator and high-tailed it away from the crime scene.

No way was I getting involved in a murder case. Not after what happened the last time.

No fucking way.


 

 

Rika

The next morning, I was led into a bland, empty courtroom. The same dipshit deputy from last night unlocked my handcuffs and gestured to one of two ancient wooden folding chairs behind an equally ancient wood table.

I was glad to sit down before anyone else got there. I'm not the fashionista type, but my jail uniform was pretty embarrassing.

Last night, when I got to the station, the sheriff insisted on taking my clothes as evidence. The top, I'd miss, but it was a total loss, the blood unlikely to wash out of white cotton.

I didn't care about the skirt. It was one of the expensive designer separates Brandtt bought me so I could adequately represent him as his girlfriend.

In hindsight, I realized that after watching guys turn away from me in disgust all those years, I kind of liked the job of trophy girlfriend, at least in theory. But that position was wearing thin way before Brandtt fired me from it.

Anyway, I thought I was okay with losing the clothes until the sheriff replaced them with what could loosely be described as Hello Kitty scrubs. Except the kitty faces scattered over the fabric were pixilated and missing one eye. Probably knock-offs that went so wrong, they couldn't be sold to pediatric nurses, the only people who should be wearing something like this.

To make matters worse, the deputy had taken it upon himself to over-bandage my skinned palms until all that was visible were my fingertips and thumbs. My feet were clad in a pair of pink flip-flops the sheriff had given me when he took my Sketchers.

On the up side, I felt pretty well-rested. After surviving on car cat naps for days, the puny jail mattress might as well have been a Stearns & Foster. I slept like a log, except just before I woke up when I had my reoccurring dream about being chased by a Twinkie.

After running in slow-motion for what seemed like hours, the Twinkie cornered me and was about to squirt me with its creamy filling. But just when I gave up, faced it, and opened my mouth to receive its gooey goodness, I woke up.

A Freudian psychiatrist would say my dreams are about sex, but I know for a fact they're all about the food. When I'm sad or stressed, there's nothing more comforting than a tummy full of carbs. I've known that since I was eight years old and my world crashed and burned.

The sheriff walked in. Actually, his big, round belly entered first, followed by the rest of him a couple of seconds later.

I hadn't noticed his hair last night, but in the bright lights of the courtroom, it was a shade of yellow typically found on canaries, or maybe lemons. Certainly not on fifty year old men.

After the sheriff, came a tall thin man with salt and pepper hair in a navy three-piece suit and bow tie. The two of them chatted for several minutes, the sheriff tilting his head toward me repeatedly. Then the suit sat down at the other table—the twin to the one I was sitting behind. I assumed he was the district attorney.

I felt like I was watching one of those movies where you're not quite sure about the genre. The sheriff and his deputy suggested this was a comedy while the D.A looked like serious business.

A dramedy, maybe?

A couple of other people ambled in and sat on the spectator benches. I wondered what I was supposed to do for a lawyer. Once arrested, I knew better than to say anything without an attorney present. But, even if I did know a lawyer, I couldn't afford to hire him. And, so far, no public defender had materialized.

A plain, middle-aged woman walked in and sat down at the court reporter's station.

Suddenly, the reality of my situation hit me full force. A tremor shook through me from the roots of my hair to my pinky toes.

Don't ask me how a court reporter could do to me what a sheriff, a pair of handcuffs and a jail cell couldn't, but my teeth began to chatter. My right eye twitched.

Maybe because everything since last night had felt completely surreal until this mundane woman in her cheap skirt suit and mousy brown hair showed up.

She was real. This was not a dream and soon a real judge would be sitting at the front of this real courtroom and...

And what? I was alone in an unfamiliar state and had no idea what was about to happen.

Shit! I was in Texas, the place where they executed first, asked questions later!

Man, I could use a donut right now.

No! I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and blew the craving out my nostrils, as my Jilly Crane counselor had taught me.

When I turned twenty and decided I had to change my life, the Jenny Craig Weight Loss Centers had been out of my price range, so I went with a cheaper competitor who Skyped with me from an undisclosed location.

Honestly, it was a relief that I didn't have to haul my butterball body to a strip mall and interact with the sure-to-be-skinny bitch—uh, counselor—in person.

Over the next couple of years, the visualization exercises and mantras had worked. I'd dropped half my body weight and exceeded my goal.

One day at a time, sweet Jesus.

I was only religious when it came to eating, since logic and religion weren't very compatible. Instead of "There are no atheists in foxholes," I think the saying should be, "There are no atheists in weight loss." A girl needs all the help she can get. I'd pray to a statue of Victoria Beckham if I thought it would help me drop a pound.

Breathe in.... Breathe out...

There, my craving had completely vanished.

When I lifted my eyelids, a round-faced Hispanic man in a black robe was coming in through the chamber door. Once he settled at the judge's bench, he opened the white box he'd carried in with him and pulled something out of it.

"Danny, could you pass these around? I didn't get any breakfast this morning," he said. "My wife's still in Laredo taking care of her mom. Personally, I think my mother-in-law's milking this gall bladder operation for all it's worth. She's always claiming Belinda doesn't spend enough time with her."

Deputy Dan took the box, grabbed some napkins from a side table, and headed straight for me. "Ladies first."

I peered fearfully into the familiar container.

Shit! Donuts! I counted eleven left in the box.

Pink icing. White icing. Chocolate icing. Sprinkles. Three kinds of jelly. And that perennial favorite—glazed. I could almost feel the dough melting in my mouth.

Deputy Dan smiled and, with a flourish, laid a napkin in front of me as if we were on a picnic together and I wasn't the woman he'd accused of murder just last night.

My eyes flicked back to the donuts. One had always led to two, then three, then the whole box.

But not this time. This time, I'd choose one, the deputy would take the box away and everything would be fine. I reached in and selected the most perfect glazed donut ever created.

But weren't they all?

I nodded my thanks and made myself wait until he walked away. As he held the box out to the D.A., I bit off a chunk and chewed it very slowly, enjoying the feel of fresh endorphins swishing gently through my gray matter.

Carbs sweet carbs.

The deputy continued around the courtroom until everyone was holding a napkin with a doughnut on top. Just as I finished the last bite of mine, he returned and set the box on the table near me.

"I'll leave 'em here," he said. "You haven't had anything else to eat since we took you into custody last night."

Damn that scheming bastard! He'd not only left temptation inches away, he'd given me the rationalization I needed to eat more!

I tried to avert my eyes, but they kept flitting back to the box. All three filled doughnuts were still there, including one with a red substance peeking out the top.

Cherry, I presume? I thought flirtatiously. I had a tendency to treat carbs like they were a hot guy I was trying to pick up at a bar. Not that I'd ever had the courage to do that.

"All rise." Deputy Dan was now acting as bailiff. Everyone else stood, so I did to. "Here ye, here ye, the court of the Honorable Gabriel Martinez is now in session."

Everyone sat down.

The judge looked at me and frowned. "Wade?" he said to the sheriff, "Where's her counsel? Didn't she request an attorney?"

"She can't afford one, and Gordy wasn't available," the sheriff replied. "Gout."

"Well, we may have to..." the judge's voice trailed off as he lifted his chin and smiled toward the back of the room.

I followed his gaze to a tall, broad-shouldered man dressed in a teal polo shirt and khaki shorts who'd just entered the courtroom.

He pulled a golf ball out of his pocket, held it up and jiggled it back and forth as if asking the judge a question. His biceps flexed impressively with the motion, which prompted me to run another scan of his body.

Typically, I was not a fan of golf attire, even the simple solid-colored shirt-shorts combo he sported. But I had to admit, if I were hiring models for a golf catalog, he'd be the cover shot.

"It's gonna be a few minutes before I can go, Nick," Judge Martinez said. "But meanwhile, there's something you can help us out with. We're in the middle of a bail hearing and the defendant needs counsel."

"Now?" the man replied. "Where's Gordy?"

"Gout."

The man shook his head. His medium brown hair was cut short, like he went to a barber instead of a stylist. Regardless, he was so tall and well-built, especially compared to the other men in the room, that he looked more like he should be playing a lawyer on TV than actually being one.

In fact, with that build, he could also play a fireman, a Navy Seal, or pose as the hero on one those erotic romance novel covers.

I squinted my eyes, trying to see his face better. Was it my imagination or did he look kind of familiar?

Probably wishful thinking since I'd never felt more alone.

"Damn it, Gabe!" he said. "I just came to pick you up for our golf game!"

Hm. His voice seemed vaguely familiar, too.

"It's just a bail hearing," the judge replied. "We'll be done in a few minutes."

Nick, as the judge had called him, inhaled and blew out a breath so loudly I could hear it across the room. After a final, deadly glance at the judge, he crammed the ball back into his pocket and strode toward me.

The judge held a notepad and pen toward the deputy who brought it over and handed it to my reluctant attorney as he reached the table.

"Thanks, Danny." He looked at me. "I'm Nick Owen."

Wait, this was the hot guy who stopped by in the fancy black pick-up truck last night. If he was an attorney, why didn't he tell me then? It might have helped to have someone on my side at the scene of the crime.

Asshole!

He turned so his entire body was facing me, as if trying to block off some privacy for us. It worked. Between his impressive height and broad shoulders, I could no longer see the judge or the D.A.

As my brain tried to think of more expletives to call him, my body tingled under his frown. He had the most intriguing eyes. Not true blue. Not really green either. Ming? Or maybe Bondi Blue like that old iMac G3 my grandmother bought me years ago at a garage sale.

Since he was in a teal shirt, they were probably those chameleon kind of eyes that changed with their surroundings. And they seemed to reflect more than their fair share of light. The effect was kind of mesmerizing.

His gaze was momentarily distracted by my mummy hands before he shook it off and got down to business.

"Are you well-off?" His attempt at a private conversation had turned his voice husky—the tone a man might use while murmuring something sexy into your ear. It tickled down the sides of my neck causing my shoulders to give a little wiggle.

But he was all business as he stared at me questioningly.

"Huh?" I lowered my line of sight from his eyes to his mouth so I could concentrate on what he was saying.

"Money-wise."

"Oh... No. I have a savings account, but it's only got about fifteen hundred dollars in it. There's that and whatever was in my wallet from yesterday... I mean, a few days ago...when my boss told me to leave."

He quirked his head curiously, then decided against asking for details and went back to his line of questioning. "And your family?"

"No money there either."

"And you're not from around here?"

"No," I said. "I'm from L.A., mostly."

"Not that it matters right now, but what the hell happened last night?"

I sighed and began, "I had to go to the bathroom and nothing was open in this one-horse town, so..." I paused because I didn't want to get too graphic on our first date...um...meeting.

"Are you saying, out of the thousands of acres of land around here, you happened to pick the one spot with a dead guy on it?"

I started to nod, then shook my head. "I didn't pee on him. I just tripped over him on the way back to my car. Then when I called the police, they arrested me."

He looked up at the judge, shrugged and half-nodded, half-shook his head.

"Go ahead, JJ," Judge Martinez said to the other attorney.

"Your honor, we're requesting bail be set at a million dollars."

A million dollars? My eyes flitted to the donuts again. If bail was set at a million, I'd have good reason to eat the rest of the box.

Now, I wasn't sure which outcome to hope for.

"You've got to be kidding me," Nick said.

"She's not from around here, therefore a flight risk and—"

"I'm requesting she be released on her own recognizance," Nick said firmly. "It's ridiculous for her to spend any more time in jail just because she happened to be the one to report the body." He glared at Sheriff Strickland.

I straightened my spine and added my "take that" look, but the sheriff was only paying attention to Nick.

"You know I can't release her on her own recognizance," Judge Martinez said. "This is a murder case and she has no ties to the community. Bail is set at two hundred fifty thousand dollars."

Two hundred fifty thousand? Might as well be a million. I reached out and slid the box closer.

How many donuts do you get when your bail is set at a quarter of a million dollars? My Jilly Crane counselor never covered that.

"I don't guess you can get your hands on the ten percent—twenty-five thousand—for the bail bondsman?" Nick asked.

Ignoring the insulting fact that he assumed I couldn't figure ten percent of two hundred fifty thousand, I shook my head. "No," I said. "Not even close."

Murder trials took forever. I'd be in jail for months...years...

I snatched the cherry filled from the box and shoved as much as I could into my mouth all at once. When I pulled the remainder away, I knew my lips were covered with filling, but I didn't pick up the napkin. If I left the red goo where it was, I'd have something to enjoy later.

Nick gave me a strange look, then eyed the napkin before turning back to the judge. "I'll act as her bail bondsman." He shrugged.

"What the hell?" Sheriff Strickland cried. "You can't do that! He can't do that, can he, Gabe?"

"Well, it is unusual..." Judge Martinez began.

"But perfectly legal in the state of Texas," Nick said.

"Okay," the judge replied. "And I'm ordering you to continue as her court appointed counsel."

"What?" Now Nick was the one yelling. "You know I'm moving away!"

"You've been moving away for the past two years. What firm are you joining in Houston?"

Nick's jaw tensed. He pursed his lips then mumbled. "I'm not sure yet."

"Do you have an address there?"

Nick sucked in an angry breath, which caused his chest to swell, filling out his polo completely.

Nice. After resisting the urge to poke at his pecs with my sticky fingertips, I let my gaze trail down to the middle of his shirt. Did he have a six-pack under there to match?

I squeezed my eyes shut. I should be worried about my murder case, not my hot attorney. But, really, as soon as some of the evidence was examined, they'd realize I wasn't the killer.

This was a no-brainer. Within a couple of days I'd be out of this mess. Then I'd head straight home to L.A., like I should have in the first place.

Still...it wasn't right to leave half a doughnut unfinished, so I stuck it in my mouth before any mantras came to mind.

"Gabe, you know—" Nick began.

"I know you're the only attorney in the county qualified to try a murder case other than Mr. Boyle, here." He pointed to JJ, the D.A. "It'll take some time for them to process her out. We can still get nine holes in."

My new attorney expelled another loud breath and looked at me like I'd shown up just to screw with his life.

Gee, sorry for cutting into your golf time by being wrongly accused of murder, jerk.

He looked back at the judge. His shoulders dropped, his expression defeated, which didn't bode well for my future.

"I'll pick you up from the jail in a couple of hours," he told me, then he turned and followed the judge into his chambers.


 

 

Nick

Gabe and I rode to the golf course in his Suburban. I didn't say a word all the way over. Just listened to him prattle on about how the women in his life were driving him crazy.

We both knew I was pissed off, but Gabe always assumed I'd forgive him. Normally, all I had to forgive was his and Belinda's attempts to fix me up with their legion of female relatives. But this time, he'd pushed our friendship to the limit.

I got out of the truck and let my eyes drift over what passed for a golf course around here. Old Mr. Baumgartner decided he wanted to build his own course on his family's land. He managed to get nine playable holes done before he died.

His middle-aged stoner son didn't care about golf, but figured he could make some money off his dad's hobby. However, Lonny Baumgartner soon realized he didn't like spending time at the course or doing any manual labor whatsoever.

The result was a course that tended toward sickly green on its best days, beige on its worst. Since collecting the money was too much trouble, Lonny set up a locked wooden box with a slit in the top where you could stick your check before you played.

My mind wandered to the Houston metro area, where a man could play on a different—lush green—course every day for over two months without hitting the same place twice.

Maybe that's what I'd do. Forget the law. Travel the world on the pro golf circuit.

Except, now, I was stuck in Bolo as sole counsel on a murder case.

By the time we were standing at the first tee box, Gabe still hadn't said a word about what happened at the courthouse. As he pulled his driver from his golf bag, I couldn't stand it anymore.

"You know I don't take murder cases." I'd tried to say it casually, but couldn't keep the edge from my voice.

He rubbed an invisible spot off his club with a golf towel. "You were the youngest attorney in Texas to win three murder cases in a row."

Sure, throw that in my face. "I wasn't even lead counsel on—"

"On the first one," he interrupted. "But Anderson saw the jury wasn't buying what he was selling. The decision to have you question the last two witnesses and give the closing argument...that's what won the case."

"But—"

"And you were lead on the next two, right after that." He slid the tee into the soft ground and set his ball on it.

I hated to talk about my time as a defense attorney. Come to think of it, the past in general was no friend of mine.

"I was also lead on the one after that," I said. "The one I lost."

"Nobody wins every time," Gabe said matter-of-factly, but when he swung, he shanked the ball off to the left, a sure sign the guilt was eating at him.

"I lost the one that mattered," I replied.

"They always matter, Nick."

"Not like that one." I shook my head, still unable to accept the unthinkable outcome. "I don't know if the three I kept out of jail were guilty or innocent. They all had criminal records. They'll all be doing time again, sooner or later. But Johnny Chavez..."

"Didn't have an alibi. Had a motive."

"He was innocent. He didn't kill that girl any more than I did."

"He's got a lot of supporters in Austin and San Antonio," Gabe said. "And a good chance on appeal with a great firm defending him, thanks to that fund you started."

This is why I hated to talk about the case. No one felt the loss in their gut like I did.

"But, right now, he's a nineteen-year-old kid sitting in prison for a crime he didn't commit," I said. "He's the first thing I think of when I get up in the morning. Every night, I go over the case in my head before I fall asleep...what I could have done differently..."

"We're not gods, Nick. We're just people working within the constraints of the system we've got."

I yanked my driver out of my bag and teed up. "You know I want to get out of criminal law."

Gabe let out a long dramatic breath. "But my responsibility when I'm sitting on that bench is to make sure things are as fair as I can make them. JJ has tried murder cases before. Who else around here is a match for him? Gordy Smithe? JJ would eat him for lunch. And Wade... Well, you know."

Yep. I knew. Well, I didn't know for sure, but I'd heard the talk. There was a good chance Sheriff Wade Strickland was into some shady dealings. I'd heard talk of bribery. There had even been some speculation the corruption had spread to the private lab the sheriff used to run forensics.

That was the scariest rumor of all.

I swung and was pleased as my ball sailed straight up the fairway toward the hole. Gabe whistled through his teeth as he watched the textbook landing. At least something was going my way today.

"Look on the bright side," Gabe said as he slid his club back into his golf bag. "She's got to be the prettiest client you've ever defended."

"Huh." I gave him a sour look. "You know my track record in that area just gets worse every year. I've sworn off women for a while. Besides, she's off limits. I'm her attorney."

"Yeah, but maybe having her around will remind you you're still young and there are still a lot of possibilities out there."

It was true that I was younger than Gabe by nearly ten years. I just wished I could feel it, lately. I leaned over and pick up my golf bag. "Gabe?"

"Yeah?"

"Does it not seem the least bit ironic to you that a month ago you informed me I had an unhealthy savior complex with women, and, today, you handed me a woman to save?"

"Yeah," he patted me on the back. "I guess that is pretty ironic."

"And pretty shitty," I added.

"And pretty shitty," he agreed as he went off to look for his ball.


 

 

Rika

I'd heard of people killing themselves after being arrested. I always assumed it was because they'd done something terrible, been busted for it, and knew their lives were over. But I had a whole new perspective on jailhouse suicide now.

For the last two hours, I'd watched an elderly white-haired woman—Deputy Dan referred to her as "Ms. Tommy June"—painstakingly hunt and peck on my release papers using an ancient Selectric typewriter.

Yes, I said typewriter.

When that ordeal was over, I was moved to the chair next to Deputy Dan's desk, where I watched him take Ms. Tommy June's form and enter that same information into a turn-of-the-century Gateway computer—also using the hunt and peck method—while staring into the oldest CRT screen I'd ever seen.

I imagined sinking a sword into my stomach and committing seppuku, also known as hari-kari to people who don't spend enough time on Wikipedia.

How could anyone stand to operate at sloth speed in this day and age? The inefficiency in this place was mind blowing. If my tablet-sized computer wasn't stuck in the backseat of my confiscated car, I could have done both their jobs in under five minutes.

I closed my eyes and counted the ways.

One, type the information in using the keyboard—and proper hand position, of course. Two, speak into the microphone and let the voice recognition app fill in the blanks. Three, connect wirelessly to their system, pull up the form and write the answers longhand on my screen with the stylus. Four, use the advanced auto-fill app I'd written for myself—with a little help from a Youtube video—that would fill in every possible piece of personal information in the blink of an eye. Five...okay, maybe there were just four, but still, this...

Tap...long pause...tap...tap...

...was nuts. Maybe that short cut I took had somehow Dr. Who'd me back to the mid-twentieth century.

Worst of all, Sheriff Strickland had kept my cell phone as evidence. How long can a person be absent from social media before she's declared legally dead? It was torture sitting here doing nothing without my phone to pacify me.

I was bored. And I wanted another doughnut. Someone had taken the box away just before they led me out of the courtroom. But not before I'd grabbed a third one—chocolate icing with sprinkles.

I figured I deserved it. As hot as my lawyer was, he didn't exactly inspire confidence with his negative attitude and golf clothes.

He did inspire something else, though.

I allowed myself a moment to mentally re-examine Nick Owen. After all, I'd been an inmate for over sixteen hours, and inmates were supposed to be horny.

Hmm...tall. Six-three, maybe? Broad, thick shoulders. Strong chin. I've always felt the chin's importance was underestimated as a facial feature. In Hollywood, if you don't have a strong chin, you'd better be able to do comedy.

Nick had more than just a chin, though. His lips were what I called Goldilocks Lips. Not too thin. Not too thick. Just right.

And those eyes. Holy mo—

A door slammed, jarring me out of my mind's collection of Nick pics. I turned my head and saw him walking in from behind me.

"Got the papers ready, Danny?"

Deputy Dan poked one last key and the dot matrix printer roared to life. "Hey, Nick! Just printin' 'em out. You've got perfect timing," he said cheerfully.

Why did everyone act like this was just a typical day at work for them? I was under arrest for murder, for God's sake!

Nick reached over and pulled the first page from the printer. "And how are you doing Ms..." He snuck a peek at the form. "Martin."

"Martín," I replied testily. "It's pronounced Mar-teen. There's supposed to be an accent on the i." I looked up into his intriguing eyes and the anger drained right out of me. There was an underlying earnestness in his gaze, even though his voice had been business-casual. "You can call me Rika."

I suddenly wished I hadn't eaten those donuts. Nick would like me better thin.

I slapped myself—mentally, of course, but I made sure it stung. From what the judge said, this guy might be my only hope, legally speaking. I certainly didn't need to complicate things by crushing on him.

He was studying the form again. "It says here your first name is Paprika," he said doubtfully. "Middle name Anise."

I cringed as I did every time my real name was spoken aloud.

"Those are cooking spices." His eyes flicked over and zapped Deputy Dan with an "Are you an idiot?" look. The tops of the deputy's ears turned pink. "This isn't a joke." Nick's gaze bore down on me like I was a child he was about to ground, and I knew how Dan felt.

Wait. He was in the wrong here.

"That's my name. My dad's a chef and my mom was a...free spirit type. But they pronounced it ah-nees, instead of an-iss. My dad had a Spanish accent and—"

He narrowed his eyes at me. "This is the name on your birth certificate?" Jeez, if he believed I'd given a fake name, maybe he believed I was a killer, too.

"It is," I said, narrowing my eyes right back at him. I'd been stranded in a tiny Texas town, stripped of my belongings and accused of murder. And, if that wasn't bad enough, I was still covered in deformed cats while my unwilling attorney looked at me like I was a big fat liar.

It was the last straw. "I was named after fuc—" I saw Ms. Tommy June lean forward in her chair, her eyes big as DVDs. "...freaking spices, okay?"

He raised his hands to chest level, palms out. "Okay, Grumpy Spice. Simmer down." He pressed his lips together, but his eyes crinkled a little in the corners.

"Did you just combine a Seven Dwarves reference with a Spice Girls reference and a kitchen idiom?" I asked.

"I did," he replied.

Our gazes caught and locked as a thrill tingled down the back of my neck, splitting five ways, racing through my limbs and straight down my center. My thighs twitched.

He was witty! God, I was a sucker for a witty man, which explains why, as a little girl, my first love was Jay Leno. But this guy was the whole package—smart, funny, and hot.

"Nicely done," I said, trying to appear less affected.

But I suddenly felt the need to examine his face more closely, and as I stared as his features, I realized they weren't quite perfect. Something about his nose. A slight quirk in the bridge as though it had been broken at least once.

Between that, the strong jaw and those captivating eyes, he hit the sweet spot halfway between Calvin Klein model and cowboy. Which made him both witty and ruggedly handsome. He nodded a thanks as his expression broke into a full-blown smile.

Holy mother of Zeus!

I couldn't swallow now that I knew how truly beautiful he was. I stopped breathing until he turned away to grab a nearby chair and roll it over to face me. While he wasn't looking, I pinched my thigh hard, forcing myself to jerk in a breath.

Once he sat down, I watched his long, thick finger skim quickly to the permanent address section of the form. Funny how something as simple as a finger can be arousing on the right person.

I glanced down at my boxy scrubs. Not that my arousal mattered one bit. He was way out of my league. He was that guy. The quarter back, homecoming king, girl magnet. He moved with the physical ease of the popular kids. An ease I'd never experienced.

I was the geeky, awkward fat girl who was ignored when I was lucky and bullied when I wasn't.

"Oh..." He chuckled. "Paprika Anise from California. That explains everything."

"Yeah, because Texas is so normal," I replied, angry now that I'd sorted him into the appropriate high school clique. His kind and mine were natural born enemies.

He ignored my moodiness and went back to reading until my stomach let out what can only be described as a howl.

"When'd you last eat anything other than donuts?" he asked.

"Yesterday morning, maybe?" The past few days were such a blur I couldn't be certain.

He frowned. "Danny, what the hell?"

The deputy startled. "Huh?" He was only a few yards away, but had been staring vacantly into space, unaware of our conversation.

Nick closed his eyes as if praying for patience. "Come on, let's go." He jerked his head toward the door and started walking as if I were a trained dog that would go wherever he commanded.

"Where?" I asked.

"I've got steaks marinating at my place."

Steaks? I hadn't eaten steak since just before I started my job as an E.coli tester, which had sort of ruined them for me.

But I'd ingested no protein in the last thirty-six hours. I was starting to feel like one of those reality show contestants who had to eat whatever she could catch on some remote island off South America.

At the mention of steak, my mouth had started watering so fast I was afraid drool would leak out the corners. I stood and, as I followed Nick, his shorts tightened over his firm round ass with each step.

After that, a little drool did leak out the corner of my mouth. I quickly reached up and swiped it away.

But wasn't it kind of weird for a murder suspect to go to her lawyer's place for dinner?

"I don't want to be any trouble," I said. "You weren't expecting company. Maybe you could just drop me off somewhere?" Although, I was unsure how I'd pay for dinner or a place to sleep when all my credit cards were in the sheriff's possession.

"Nowhere to drop you," he replied. "And it's no trouble. I was planning to have Gabe—Judge Martinez—over for dinner after golf, but he's on my shit list now. Come on."

I shrugged and followed him out the door.