Winning Move by Skye Kilaen

Release Date: September 13, 2022
Kindle & KU / Goodreads

Clover Hill Heat Level 2
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Gina has a no-dating policy, but out-of-towner Marek’s nerdy charm is tough to resist.

No dating. That’s longtime divorcée Gina Kersey’s rule, and she’s sticking to it. Comfortably settled in her hometown of Clover Hill, she’d rather play board games than risk getting played herself. For company, she has her beloved if slightly meddlesome Great Aunt… who’s somehow made Gina promise to break her rule. She has to ask someone out. On a date. Maybe she could skip town instead?

Outgoing video game translator Marek Haas flew across the country to pick up the sports car of his teenage dreams—to celebrate getting over a breakup from the absolute worst boyfriend, not because he’s having a midlife crisis at thirty-five. In his automotive fantasies, though, the car didn’t break down in the middle of small-town nowhere.

Marek’s not a damsel in distress, but when Gina comes to his rescue on the side of the road, she can’t believe her luck. He’s handsome, charming, and most importantly, just passing through. Promise, meet loophole! When he turns out to be adorably nerdy as well, they skip drinks at the pub for a fun-filled night in Gina’s bed.

The problem? Marek’s vintage car needs parts the garage doesn’t have, so he’s stuck until they’re found. Meaning every time Gina turns around, her hot one night stand is still in her town, being all cute and friendly and sometimes taking his shirt off. Even worse, he seems to be falling for Clover Hill… and Gina might be falling for him.

Can Gina overcome her fears and take a chance on a geeky sweetheart who makes her weak at the knees, or will their unforgettable one-night stand end up as nothing more than a memory?


Preview

Chapter 1

Gina Kersey should absolutely, positively have beaten Great Aunt Ophelia at this blasted card game at least once today. The elderly woman propped up on fluffy white pillows in the hospital-style bed had been holding only two of the colored cards for Red7 as they neared the end of this round. Gina had three. That should have given Gina a way to outmaneuver her.

Instead, Ophelia had just won for the fifth time in a row.

“Dammit,” Gina said. She needed to spend another evening with the rulebook to hone her strategy. She won this game more often than not at Board Game Night at the library, but playing against her great aunt was something else entirely.

Ophelia chuckled with delight. “You’re very good, dear, but sometimes life is just random. The cards liked me today!”

Gina couldn’t fault the cards, or anyone else, for liking Ophelia. The woman was charming and compassionate. She’d welcomed Gina into her home ten years ago when Gina had crashed back to Clover Hill after a post-college divorce, and Gina couldn’t think of anyone else she could have so happily lived with for the last decade. Ophelia would be her favorite person in the world if it weren’t for her own niece making it a tie.

“Sweetheart,” Ophelia said, laying down her remaining card, “we need to talk.”

The favorite-people ranking might need to be reviewed. Gina wasn’t against talking. She and Ophelia talked every day, even now that Ophelia had moved into assisted living here at Cherryville Cottages, leaving Gina to live alone in Ophelia’s house. But no comfortable conversation began with the words We need to talk. And if Ophelia had waited to mention it until they’d played five games, it couldn’t be serious or urgent. There were two kinds of We need to talk conversations: serious stuff and busybody stuff. Gina had no interest in busybody stuff.

“What do we need to talk about?” Gina asked carefully, packing the Red7 cards into their box.

“I’m dying,” Ophelia said melodramatically. “Just like my namesake.”

Gina fought back a laugh. “She drowned. Are you drowning right now? Should I call the sheriff’s department for a water rescue?”

Ophelia rolled her eyes, settled back against her pillows, and pulled her quilt up. Neither she nor any of her bedding seemed in any danger of going under.

“Don’t be sassy,” Ophelia said sternly. “This is important.”

“I’m pretty sure ‘namesake’ is unidirectional, anyway. You’re saying Shakespeare named a character after you? Was there time travel involved?” Gina pressed the lid down onto the Red7 box and slipped it back into her bag next to Hanabi. She always brought one competitive and one co-operative game, so Ophelia could pick depending on her mood. Today she’d obviously been in the mood to trounce her great niece.

“I distinctly recall asking for no more sass,” Ophelia said dryly, raising one delicate eyebrow. “This is important. That house I’m leaving you is far too large for one person. I’m settled in here, so you don’t have to worry about me anymore. You are thirty-seven years old. It’s time for you to find somebody to grow old with.”

Here Gina had been hoping this would be about her jobs. Half-time at the vet clinic as a receptionist, office manager, cleaner, bookkeeper, and occasional pet wrangler paired with half-time at her uncle Wyatt’s garage across the street doing roughly the same, except without the occasional cat scratches. Everyone in town knew that if she wasn’t at her desk at one place, they could call or walk over to the other. Ophelia considered it too chaotic, but it was a hell of a lot better than Gina’s stint in microbiology grad school. She liked not being condescended to or harassed, and she also liked mixing up her days and stretching her legs as she went back and forth.

She liked being single, too. Or rather, she preferred it to the alternative.

“The house is a perfect size,” Gina said. A garden, two floors, three bedrooms, and a dining room with a large table that was perfect for occasionally inviting select people over for board games. “I’m more than capable of taking care of it. You could reconsider leaving it to me and instead let me buy it from you?” Living with Ophelia for a decade meant she’d built up a decent nest egg, and the Clover Hill Credit Union would help her get a mortgage.

Ophelia waved the suggestion away. “My Norman made sure I’d be taken care of before he passed. I don’t need your money.”

Gina had to admit that was true. She was a signatory on her great aunt’s bank accounts, and Wyatt kept an eye on the investments Ophelia’s husband had left her, so between them they had the big picture.

“In any event,” Ophelia continued, “this isn’t about the house. This is about your future. I know you only need one or two people close to you, Gina, but I’m not going to be here forever. I’d like to see you settled before I go.”

Her great aunt seemed to be forgetting that Gina had been settled once, and the experience had been overwhelmingly painful. She did try not to make sweeping generalizations from one relationship, but the contrast between the stress of her marriage and the peace she’d found since recovering from it was so striking. She was a different person now. A better person. A happier person.

And at Great Aunt Ophelia’s last checkup, her doctor had said she was in wonderful shape for her age. These dramatics were just that: drama.

“I have you.” Gina leaned back in the chair she’d pulled to the bedside. “And I have Uncle Wyatt and Dr. Tobiansky.”

Ophelia frowned out the big picture window at the gorgeous gardens that had convinced her Cherryville was the right place for her. Granted, there were only two choices in town, and they were lucky to have two in a town this size. Gina still wished Ophelia had wanted an aide to come in during the day while Gina was at work, to help her with medications and getting around the house when she started to have more trouble several months ago. Ophelia had insisted she’d prefer to move.

If that had been the first step in a plan to get Gina partnered up again, no thanks.

“So you’re happy,” Ophelia said, refocusing on Gina.

“I am.” She had pleasant work that wasn’t too taxing, performed for bosses who treated her like a human being. She had almost enough people to play games with. Her parents seemed content to stay up in Baymill’s big-city comforts and trade breezy emails occasionally instead of bothering her with subtly judgmental visits. All was well.

“Explain to me rationally how there’s no possibility you could be happier,” Ophelia said quietly, holding out her hand.

Gina tamped down her frustrated sigh and took her great aunt’s hand. Even though Ophelia was being dramatic, Gina wouldn’t be able to hold that beloved hand forever. At thirty-seven, she was luckier than most to have any of her grandparents’ generation still with her. Plenty of people her age only had their parents and aunts and uncles left. Gina had Ophelia.

Whose mind was still sharp, but it was possible she’d forgotten how awful dating could be. The last time Ophelia had done it herself was right after the Second World War.

“Do you remember the guy from North Evelyn, the one I went out with two times and hadn’t kissed yet?” That had been a couple of years after Gina moved back to Clover Hill.

Ophelia’s eyes unfocused a little as she thought back. “Carpenter, wasn’t he?”

“Yes. What else do you remember about him?”

Her great aunt drew in a breath to answer, and then her face fell. “Oh. He was the one who sent the…”

Gina hadn’t wanted to discuss the phenomenon of dick pics with an elderly relative, but she’d dropped her phone in her bowl of cereal in shock and splashed milk all over them both. It had required a bit of explanation.

“Still,” Ophelia objected. “Not everyone is going to send unrequested pictures of their personal areas at six thirty in the morning.”

“True,” Gina agreed, “but you have to admit, the rest of my dating experiences back then weren’t any more impressive.”

She’d gotten left with the check for dinner up in Baymill. She’d endured text conversations that took a turn from flirting into hearing bitter complaints about someone’s former partner’s toenail-clipping habits or worse. Then there was the woman who’d driven into town so she and Gina could catch a movie at The Hollydale. She’d somehow hit Gina’s car as it sat perfectly still in Ophelia’s driveway. Whenever Gina found herself insufficiently grateful for the peace and quiet of Ophelia’s house after a long day, remembering those incidents helped her find additional gratitude.

Ophelia squeezed her hand. “You might shrug all that off if it weren’t for how things turned out with your marriage. Or what’s happened with your cousin.”

Gina couldn’t help but make a face. Her divorce from Annabeth had been awful, but that was the past. The distance from her cousin was a continual and current disappointment. She and Lindsey had grown up together. First days of school, first crushes, first school dances, high school graduation. Then Gina had married a woman, and Lindsey had married a Republican who increasingly mainlined far-right news. These days, talking about even social and political opinions Gina considered noncontroversial — It’s good for people to have access to food stamps when they need help, actually — led to strained silences. Gina could never have imagined that the girl who helped fix her self-inflicted bangs-gone-wrong haircut in tenth grade could feel so far away.

“I don’t blame Lindsey’s marriage for her turning Republican.”

“That’s not true,” Ophelia corrected. “You just know better than to say it out loud.”

Okay, fine. “I’m certainly not worried about anyone turning me into one.” Gina’s marriage had made her miserable, but it hadn’t made her politically amoral.

“You both married young.” Ophelia released her hand. “Your marriage broke up, and I know that was so hard on you. Hers gave us our precious Savannah, but I can’t think of it as a success overall, not with how Lindsey’s changed. That doesn’t mean every time you meet someone it’s going to end in tears. You certainly shouldn’t let an intimate photograph from one rapscallion stop you from getting out there.”

Gina hoped they were done mentioning that photo now. She also made a mental note to call Savannah. They hadn’t really talked since their long-distance joint rewatch of Spirited Away. The little girl Gina had hosted for two weeks’ vacation in Clover Hill every summer since she was old enough to be away from home was thirteen now, and ridiculously bright and interesting. Her mood had seemed off during their movie date, and she hadn’t been responding to Gina’s pings with more than a few words since. Gina didn’t believe the propaganda that all teenagers inevitably got moody, surly, and adult-avoidant. Something about the situation felt weird.

But none of that, including her and Lindsey’s marriages, had anything to do with why she was done with dating. Even if further dating wouldn’t necessarily produce inappropriate digital imagery or another call to her insurance company, Gina simply couldn’t see any reason to mess up something that worked perfectly fine. Namely, her life. She sort of missed sex, vaguely, but after the first year or so without it had stopped seeming like a big deal. She hadn’t had cannoli in a long time either and she wouldn’t turn them down, but she didn’t find their absence distracting.

“I like things the way they are,” Gina said. “Anyway, who would I date? I already know everyone in town!”
“You do not,” Ophelia scoffed, “and even if you did, people move here from the city all the time. Mr. Sayeed sold his house to that nice couple with the twin toddlers, and they only live three blocks from you.”

She was not going to laugh in her great aunt’s face. “You’re trying to set me up with a couple with children?”

Ophelia threw her hands up in frustration. “You’re bi, and they could have an open marriage! How should I know?”

Gina wondered if a conversation like this would ever happen outside of Clover Hill. The queer-friendliness and general open-mindedness of her hometown wasn’t exactly working to her advantage in trying to shut down this particular proposal.

“I don’t want kids,” she pointed out. At least not of the size that required constant supervision and mess cleanup, which as far as she could tell was most of the years before they turned eighteen. “So they’ll have to find someone else if they’re looking. Do you want to play Hanabi or watch a movie?”

Ophelia pursed her lips. “We’re not done talking about this until you make me a promise. I am your great aunt. I have sheltered you and cared for you. I have listened when you needed someone to talk to. I will always consider myself fortunate to have lived long enough to do all those things, but now in return I want a promise.”

This was not good. Gina knew Ophelia wasn’t really holding anything over her head. Her love had never been conditional. But she also knew Gina would do just about anything for her.

Also, Ophelia had been the one to pick up the pieces after Gina divorced the woman she thought she’d spend the rest of her life with. Ophelia had been there when Gina’s sweetheart of an elderly rescue German Shepherd had passed peacefully in her sleep five years ago and Gina cried for two weeks. When Ophelia had taken a bad spill on an icy sidewalk two years ago, Gina had sat by her hospital bed every night after work until Ophelia could come home.

So when Gina opened her mouth, all she could say was, “What’s the promise?”

“Ask someone out,” Ophelia said simply. “The next attractive, eligible person you see, ask them out. They don’t have to say yes. You just have to try. I want you to take a chance.”

That was less awful than Gina was expecting. Asking someone out was no big deal. If someone didn’t like her, they didn’t like her. Plus, in this case, rejection would be a bonus. All she’d have to do to make Ophelia happy was try. Or if they said yes, fine. It wasn’t like in just one date she could end up used as a prop for someone else’s career success while her own desires and dreams were ignored, or turn into an unrecognizable version of herself who thought the biggest problem facing the country was too many regulations on big business. That was what long-term relationships were for.

Finding an eligible person in this town, however, was going to be the tough part, even for only one date. People moved to Clover Hill, true, and the town was a touch too big for her to know everybody, but Gina thought she knew most of the queer folks. Maybe there was an allocishet guy or two she’d overlooked because back when she dated, she preferred to keep it under the rainbow umbrella.

“I promise,” she said.

Ophelia let out a sigh and relaxed into her pillow. “Thank you, honey. That takes a big weight off my mind.”

Hearing it put that way, it didn’t seem like such a big sacrifice. Except for the part where once Gina asked someone out, half the town would know within an hour or two, undermining her last several years of broadcasting a don’t even ask vibe. Ah, well. She’d simply refer to it as the exception that had proved the rule.

“Movie?” she offered again.

“First give me an update on the redecorating.”

Gina frowned. “What redecorating?”

“The redecorating you should be doing,” Ophelia responded. “I’ve moved out. It’s time for you to make the place your own.”

“I did. I bought a new couch.”

Ophelia raised her eyebrows. “That was months ago, and my guess is you just moved the old one to the porch instead of giving it away. What else do you have in mind?”

“Watching a movie with you,” Gina said firmly, taking the Fifth about the old couch’s whereabouts. She’d already agreed to asking someone out. She was not accepting home decor assignments.

“Fine, put on that ballroom dancing one.” Ophelia waved her hand towards the entertainment center in the corner where she kept her significant collection of DVDs. “I love the scene where they dance behind the curtain.”

Halfway through Strictly Ballroom, Ophelia was snoring softly, and Gina started going through her mental map of the town for date possibilities. Could there be a new teacher at the high school, starting summer inservice? Or an artist in residence at one of the small galleries? She could ask Ozzie Kovacic, since he knew everybody in the local arts scene, if she could figure out how to make it not sound suspicious.

She’d figure something out. Because there was no way Gina would break a promise to Great Aunt Ophelia.

Chapter 2

Marek Haas loved his newly acquired vintage white 1989 Ferrari 328 GTB. It had only twenty-seven thousand miles on it, and he’d been assured it was in excellent condition despite the lower than market price. This model had been the sports car of teenage Marek’s dreams. Back then it had struck him as mesmerizingly fast and sleek, whereas twenty years later it seemed more charmingly retro, but either way, it should have made it from the pick-up point back to Cleveland with no problems.

Yet now he stood in front of his dream car on the shoulder of a country road, wondering what to do next. He’d pulled over once he realized Something Bad Was Happening. What exactly the bad thing was, Marek had zero clue. Though he’d fallen in love with this model of car when he was fifteen, he hadn’t used the twenty years since to learn much about fixing cars. Whenever the dashboard light on his recently sold Toyota had come on, he’d simply taken it in for service.

So here he was.

Also, he didn’t actually know where he was. It might have been a bad decision to trust his famously terrible sense of direction to get him and his new car back home. Marek slipped his phone out of his pocket and called his best friend.

Eugene answered almost immediately. “Hey, what’s up?”

“I’m on the side of the road staring at my Ferrari, which seems to have just broken down.”

“Broken down where?” Eugene asked, suspicious.

“I have no idea.”

This wouldn’t come as a shock to Eugene. He’d once thrown a birthday party at a farm in college, for reasons Marek still didn’t understand. Marek had put on jeans and boots so he wouldn’t get too many insect bites, and plugged the address into his dashboard GPS. An hour and a half later, after following the destination dot around on the screen to the best of his ability, he’d finally called Eugene from the parking lot of a construction equipment rental company. Turned out the place was a forty minute drive from Marek’s apartment.

“Marek,” Eugene said with a sigh, “your Toyota was a good car. Was there no other way to have a midlife crisis?”

Thirty-five was hardly midlife, was it? Marek wanted to live past seventy. Besides, this car was about the one year anniversary of the worst breakup he’d ever had. Now that he was out from under the threat of criminal prosecution for something he hadn’t even known was happening, it had seemed like exactly the right time to indulge in a fantasy he’d been saving up for over the last seven years. Owning a vintage sports car was a little ridiculous, and yeah, he was probably more of a Toyota kind of guy. Plus, his German father was beside himself about Marek spending that kind of money on an Italian car. But something deep in Marek’s soul had still wanted a white Ferrari with a targa top. He hadn’t even gotten the chance to take the top off yet.

“I could have flown to Europe instead?” he offered. For a lot less money, too, though he couldn’t resell a trip to Europe later if his finances changed.

Eugene laughed. “At least they wouldn’t have let you fly the plane, so I’d be confident you’d get there. Would you please re-open the map on your phone so it can show you where you are?”

He’d tried that already. “I don’t think I’m near anywhere.” Unless you counted an empty field. There was one on each side of the road.

“Hang on, let me look.” They’d given each other location access on their phones before Marek flew out to pick up the car. Eugene had said it was a safety thing for both of them, but Marek had been well aware he was preparing for a situation like this. “The biggest city nearby is Baymill, but the closest town is Clover Hill. Have you seen any signs for Clover Hill?”

No, because Marek had trouble hearing what the phone was saying while simultaneously reading signs. “Do they have a mechanic?” He was probably going to need a hotel, too, if this wasn’t a quick fix. Marek had a feeling it might not be, given what the car’s seller had said about the availability of parts. Of course, he could always get lucky.

“They have one mechanic,” Eugene reported. “Latimore Motors, no website. I’ll text you the number. Doesn’t look like there’s another one within fifty miles, so you’re probably stuck with whatever they charge you.”

Marek heard the notification chime of the text. “Thanks. Sorry about this.”

“No worries. When the Korean character dialogue doesn’t get turned in on time for this mobile game, I’ll just blame you.”

Big talk from somebody who never missed a deadline, even when he had to video chat with his teenage cousins in Daegu multiple times to get some piece of slang right.

“I had to turn in the German and the Czech before I left, so no sympathy.” The game companies that paid for their translation services didn’t usually want to pay for Czech, because of the smaller size of that gaming market. So it had been well worth putting in crunch hours for the satisfaction of working in Czech again. Marek had worked for years to become fluent in the language spoken way back on his mother’s side, after her genealogy bug bit him too, and he didn’t want to lose it.

Also, it had kept his mind off the investigation while that nightmare was still ongoing. Marek hadn’t been familiar with the term forensic accounting before the day his life had gotten upended. He could stand to live the rest of his days without hearing it again.

“Call the mechanic,” Eugene advised. “And keep me posted on when you’re getting home, yeah? We need to pick a time for you to fly up here and find an apartment.”

So true. Marek was pretty much done with Cleveland, and starting the next chapter of his life living in Madison, Wisconsin near Eugene was something to look forward to. “Will do. Hey, who knows, this Clover Hill might be a fun place for a couple days’ vacation!”

“Your preposterous dream car broke down in the middle of nowhere the day after you bought it. Are you psychologically capable of seeing the glass as anything other than half full?”

Marek didn’t want to make things awkward, but… “The day I was put in a police car in handcuffs, I did struggle to see the upside.”

“Okay, yeah,” Eugene said. “Point taken. But that’s all behind us. We’re moving forward.”

“That’s the spirit!” Marek said reassuringly. He meant it, too. He had a great job, great friends, and now his dream car. Maybe he could find an apartment within walking distance of Eugene and his husband’s, so he could watch their cat when they went out of town. That would be fun.

A bright blue car was approaching in the distance. It slowed as it got nearer. Marek gestured for it to go around, but instead the driver put on their right turn signal and pulled into the shoulder behind him.

“I gotta go,” Marek said to Eugene. “Someone’s pulling over.” Hopefully they could give him directions to tell the mechanic.

“Please don’t get shot on the side of a country road. I don’t know any other gamer nerds who grew up speaking German.”

“I promise.” Marek put his phone back into his pocket, then walked slowly around his car to meet the other driver.

The person who got out was gorgeous. The lightweight, flippy short denim skirt meant they were possibly but not definitely a woman. She was white, and her shoulder-length hair was dyed an orange-red color, totally unnatural. He loved it. The contrast between her hair color and her acid green t-shirt made her look like a brightly colored bird against the backdrop of trees and fields.

She took a step towards him, then paused. Marek could have sworn that her eyes flicked up and down his body… appreciatively.

Or possibly she was worried about being alone with a large, unknown white man on a deserted road and looking for obvious weapons. Marek hoped it was appreciation. It wouldn’t be bad to have a drink or two this evening with somebody so pretty. Someone who’d been kind enough to pull over and ask if he needed help, to boot. Most people wouldn’t. Not that he’d blame anyone for not taking the risk.

“Hey,” the woman called. “Car trouble?”

Right. The car. Marek just about shook himself. “Yes. I bought it yesterday and I was driving it back home. I don’t know what happened. I was about to call a mechanic in…” What was the town’s name again?

She smiled. “That’d be Uncle Wyatt. He has the only tow truck around here.” She raised her phone in her hand. “I can call him and tell him where you are, if you want?”

Oh, Marek wanted several things. Her name. A solid indication of whether she was interested in guys. However, a tow to the garage he’d been going to call anyway was much more realistic.

“I’d appreciate that,” he said. “I’m Marek Haas. Nice to meet you.”

“Gina Kersey, she/her.”

So he’d guessed right. Not that her gender mattered in how attractive Marek found her. But it was interesting that people introduced themselves with their pronouns in Clover Hill, or at least one person did. A positive sign if he was going to be hanging out for a few days. He wasn’t planning to bust out his Bi Bi Bi t-shirt for daytime wear in an unfamiliar small town, but maybe Gina could fill him in on the queer-friendly places to kick back.

“He/him,” Marek said hastily, when he realized he’d waited a beat too long to take his turn in the conversation.

Gina nodded in acknowledgement, walked back towards her car, and dialed. Her uncle answered right away, which Marek found heartening. If it was going to be a long wait, though, he could keep himself entertained. He never traveled without his e-reader and he’d started a new mystery last night, the next one in the series with the bi woman detective.

He heard a couple of barks from Gina’s car as she appeared to be finishing the call. Gina turned to look, and Marek ducked down to peer through her windshield. A fluffy-looking Corgi was standing up with its feet on the back of the driver’s seat and wagging its tail.

“That’s Puffball,” Gina said as she walked back towards Marek. “Mrs. Dacosta wasn’t feeling up to driving today and he needs his shots, so I ran out to get him.”

How thoughtful. Marek waved to the dog. When he looked back at Gina, she was staring at him with this quirked smile, as if she wasn’t quite sure what to make of him. If she judged him for waving at a dog, so be it. He wouldn’t go through his life not waving at happy dogs just to avoid pretty people thinking he was strange.

“Thanks for organizing that,” he said. “I’ll wait here, I guess? So you can get Puffball on his way.”

Gina’s possibly-amused smile had turned into a contemplative expression, however. “Is your cell reception okay out here? Do you need to check in with anybody? Boss?” She paused. “Partner, spouse?”

Marek shook his head. It was sweet of her to ask. “Phone works fine, and it’s not too hot out, so I should be all set.” Summer up north was way better than in Texas, where he’d grown up.

“My uncle should be able to get you on your way pretty quickly,” she said. “He’s amazing with vehicles. Cars, trucks, tractors.”

She’d taken another step closer. Marek noticed her copper earrings now as they swayed in the wind. A gust caught her skirt, and he was glad she was close enough that he wasn’t tempted to look down at her legs. Okay, he was tempted, but the angle would be awkward at this close distance, and gawking was rude anyway.

“They warned me parts might be scarce?” he admitted, and Puffball barked again. “I guess I’ll wait on what your uncle says, and then figure out a hotel if I need one.”

Gina’s nose looked extremely cute when wrinkled in amusement. “No hotels. Several B&Bs. We get a lot of tourism, but you can still probably find something.”

As long as the town was pleasant and the B&B had Wi-Fi, Marek hadn’t been joking with Eugene about taking a couple of days to hang out. One advantage about having organized the company as a co-op: they all owned it, so they were all in charge of their own time. A bed and breakfast sounded lovely for an accidental semi-working vacation. Clean sheets, fluffy pillows, maybe some scones for breakfast? He didn’t have to put in too much time until the MMO contract finally got signed, though the disadvantage of co-owning the company was he rarely stopped working completely.

“Wonderful,” he said to Gina, trying to sound as grateful as he felt. He’d have managed somehow if she hadn’t come along, but she’d made his day a lot easier. “Thank you. Really. Maybe I’ll see you around later.”

She took a visible deep breath. “Or if you end up staying in town tonight, you could have a drink with me?”

Oh. After the dog waving, he’d figured that would be a no. Marek was probably grinning excessively now, but too bad. “Your drink’s on me, to thank you for getting me out of this jam.”

“How can I turn that down?” Gina asked with a cheeky grin. “I’ll check for you at the garage around seven? I got Wi-Fi set up in there last spring and there’s A/C, so it’s not a bad place to hang out and wait for the verdict if you don’t mind my uncle’s musical choices. Or if he’s going to be a while, you can wander around town. There’s Spellbound Subs a couple blocks away from there if you start needing food.”

“Sounds perfect.” She was going to find him sitting in the garage lobby whether his car was fixed by seven or not.

Gina nodded. “Absolutely. Hope to see you later, Marek.”

His name sounded great in her voice. It was even his name, instead of Mark, which was what about thirty percent of new people called him after hearing it.

He liked this gal already.

Gina gave him a brief wave as she pulled away, and then she and Puffball were gone. Marek took his phone back out while he waited and texted Eugene.

Marek: Tow truck’s on its way. And I have a date.
Eugene: With the tow truck driver??
Marek: With his drop-dead gorgeous niece.
Marek: Orange-red hair.
Eugene: Out of a bottle?
Marek: Yep.
Eugene: AND HE’S BACK IN THE GAME!!!
Marek: It’s just drinks.
Eugene: Whatever, you’re an extrovert, you’ll have fun with the flame-haired lady and she’ll love your sexy German accent. Also I’m proud of you for taking the risk.
Eugene: I take back every bad thought I had about you driving across the country unsupervised.
Marek: I’m glad you didn’t tell me all of them.
Eugene: Me too. Go, enjoy!
Marek: tty tomorrow

Marek popped the trunk while he waited, to evaluate his outfit choices. If he was going out tonight, he was definitely picking nicer clothes than the comfy shorts and t-shirt he’d worn to drive in. He’d worn something nicer on the plane flight out.

He wasn’t expecting anything to come of tonight, obviously. He was hundreds of miles from home, and Gina had asked him for a drink based on what? That he was lost, with a broken expensive car, and possibly she liked his looks? Could be she just felt sorry for him.

Whatever. He’d take it. After all the garbage of his past year, Marek was determined to carpe the hell out of any diem that crossed his path. Gina Kersey was gorgeous, and he was seeing her at seven.

He’d simply stay within two blocks of the mechanic’s in the meantime so he didn’t get lost.


Content warnings

These are as spoiler-free as possible, but to the author it’s more important that folks who need content details can get them.

On-page or significant discussion:

  • Explicit sex (Chapters 3 and 14)
  • Strained relationship with some members of biological family due to conservative political and religious beliefs

Off-page or brief mention:

  • Plans to drink alcohol
  • Teenager rejected by conservative parents due to orientation (Epilogue)
  • Elderly relative hospitalized for a stroke (Epilogue, positive outcome)