Brian Ellis spent three combat tours planning out the perfectly normal, average, unexciting life he was going to have when he rejoined the civilian population. And if the house in the suburbs is the only progress he’s made towards that end, well he still has time to get a dog and find a girl-next-door-type to have 2.5 perfect kids with, and he won’t be an FBI agent forever, right? But then Winnie comes up with yet another harebrained scheme, and Brian, determined to keep her out of trouble, can’t refuse when she asks for his help. Because even though Winnie doesn’t fit the mold of what Brian thinks he should be looking for, lately he’s starting to realize that those dreams about playing it safe aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, not when love can be this exciting.
(Please note that this excerpt has not been through final editing.)
Winnie Porter burst through the front door of Brian Ellis’ house and strode down the front hallway toward the living room, not stopping until she stood directly in front of the 60 inch TV currently blaring baseball stats. Sitting on the brown leather couch she’d helped Brian pick out when he moved in six months ago, her brother Jack stared at her, his hand paused in the act of delivering a fistful of pretzels to his mouth. Brian sat next to him, quirking a brow at her. For once she didn’t even take a moment to savor a dramatic entrance.
Winnie flung out her arms. “The worst has happened.”
Jack was the first to speak. “What’s…on your head?”
“What? Oh I was doing this hair treatment thing when I got the news, so I threw your hat on.” Jack hadn’t bothered to answer any of her twenty text messages, and Winnie refused to let him ignore her so easily. Agitated and needing to vent, Winnie hadn’t wasted time changing out of her ratty sweats and her brother’s old holey Duke sweatshirt she was wearing. She’d just thrown on one of her brother’s ski caps over the shower cap to hide her silkening oil-covered hair and jumped on the first train leaving Washington for Philadelphia. She knew her brother would be hanging out at his best friend’s house—really, when weren’t Brian and Jack spending free time together?—probably watching some sporting event and eating junk food. She had ignored the strange looks other passengers on the train kept throwing her, because honestly a ski cap in June couldn’t be the strangest thing ever seen on the metro, even if the plastic cap was peeking out of the edges.
“Did you hear me? I said the worst has happened.”
Her brother was still staring at her head, apparently fascinated, but he managed, “You got a real job?”
Brian added, “Let me guess: they cancelled Dancing With the Stars?”
Jack continued, “Oh, I know: you’re here, blocking my view of the game?”
Really, brothers—and brothers’ best friends—were the worst, but she didn’t have time to school them. She needed help, needed someone to listen. “No, it’s much, much worse.”
Jack rolled his eyes. “What now?”
“Becky is getting married.”
Brian and Jack just stared at her. “And your best friend getting married is bad enough to send you racing up here on the train looking like, like… that?” Jack said, waving his hand towards her head.
“She’s marrying Seth Parker,” Winnie pronounced in the same voice she’d use if Becky was marrying Kaiser Söze.
Clearly giving up on the conversation, Jack said, “I have no idea who that is—can you move a little to the left?”
Winnie didn’t budge, just crossed her arms. Baseball was nothing compared to this, even if it was the Yankees. Something had to be done. She looked at Brian, but he was just sitting there, resting his head on his arm, smiling, like he was settling in to watch the Winnie and Jack show. Nothing new there. Winnie continued, “Seth was the same year as Becky and I in high school.”
“And you think he was your one true love or something?” Jack craned his neck to see around Winnie. “Come on, come on, yeah baby, look at that one fly.”
Coughing, Winnie said, “No, don’t be silly,” Jack snorted and she continued, “Really, he’s a total creep of the first order. Like major jerk. Major.”
“Right.” Jack sounded bored, and he tried using his foot to push her to the left.
Ugh. Feet. At least she knew his socks were clean because she had done his laundry this week. That’s what little sisters get when they live rent free with big brothers: turned into laundry and cooking slaves.
Winnie moved out of Jack’s reach. “I’m serious. He’s a total slimeball.”
“And you know this because he, what, called you names in high school?” Jack stuffed his mouth with pretzels.
Winnie paused. Swallowed. No way was she telling Jack and Brian how she knew what a slimy guy Seth Parker was. “No. I just…know.”
“Ah. Please don’t tell me this is the start of an ‘I’m psychic’ phase. Though I suppose it’s better than the wannabe actress phase or the cowgirl phase or the jack black dealer phase or—”
Brothers were also good about never letting you forget all your crazy failures, and when Jack got on a roll about her life, he was insufferable. Just once Winnie wished Jack would stop treating her like some silly idiot that could never ever possibly be right about anything.
“I’m serious, Jack.”
“Stop patronizing me.”
“Okay.” He yawned. He actually yawned. He had been working long hours at his job with the FBI, but still. He yawned.
Winnie suppressed the urge to stamp her foot. She wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of such an immature response though. “That would all be bad enough, but they’re getting married in three months. Three months! Can you believe it?”
“Yeah.” Jack set the bowl of pretzels down and he leaned back, looking resigned to the conversation now.
Whatever, she’d take it. She’d been holding this in for over three hours, trying to stay still and quiet in her seat on the train and not hop around like a raving lunatic the way she felt. “She didn’t even tell me she was seeing anyone, let alone someone from our hometown. I talk to her every few days. She never once mentioned Seth and they started dating four months ago. Four months! How weird is that?”
“So that’s what this is all about. You’re mad at Becky for not telling you sooner.” Jack smiled indulgently at her.
Winnie clenched her fists. “No, that’s not it. This isn’t about me.” At Jack’s look, Winnie hastened to add, “Okay, it’s a little bit about me. I am upset she didn’t tell me sooner. But. That’s not what this is really about.”
“What is this about again?”
“Becky is marrying the creep of the century who she’s only been dating for barely four months, and they’ve already set a wedding date! A wedding date! Becky wants a September wedding and doesn’t want to wait, so she’s getting married in less than three months. Three months! And the engagement party is in three weeks. Three weeks!” Even she winced at how shrill her voice had gotten.
“You’re still blocking my view of the game. The game!”
“Go ahead, mock me. You won’t be alone. You know I haven’t been back to Bliss Harbor for almost nine years—”
Jack hooted and interrupted, “Oh hey, do you think Travis will be invited to the wedding?”
“I wonder if Travis still rides a motorcycle…” Brian drawled, his green eyes dancing as he joined in.
Winnie groaned and walked over to the window, making sure her back was to her brother. She didn’t want him to see her face. Jack and Brian had teased her a million times about the Great Motorcycle Debacle over the years, even though they’d both been on deployment in Iraq at the time, and usually she went with it. But she couldn’t smile and joke about it, not today, not at the prospect of going back to Bliss Harbor.
Because even though it had been nine years, of course everybody in Bliss would remember the day town bad boy Travis Marks had roared up Main Street on his motorcycle, stopping in front of the crowd gathered there to watch the Can-Am days parade. They’d remember him turning to Winnie and saying, “I’m leaving this place for good, you coming?” And they’d remember the moment plain-Jane, unremarkable-in-every-way, afterthought-for-the-town Winnie Porter had hopped up behind Travis, wrapped her arms around his waist, and told him to gun it, ignoring the laughter and shocked looks of the people around as they blasted out of town, and out of Bliss for good.
They hadn’t even made it to Syracuse, though, before Winnie made Travis pull over so she could call her parents. It wasn’t her finest moment. She only had the clothes on her back, and no ID on her. Refusing to go back to Bliss or answer their confused questions, Winnie had her parents make arrangements for her to stay with Aunt Elizabeth in Albany until she started college in the fall.
She’d parted ways with Travis at a truck-stop on the highway, thunder booming around them, rain dripping in her eyes and mixing with the salty tracks on her cheeks as she tried to find the words to thank the only person who had known the truth of what happened and the desperation she’d been hiding. He had tucked her hair behind her ear, told her to take care of herself, and turned and jogged away, the mist of the summer storm swallowing him up before Winnie could untangle her tongue.
She hadn’t seen him since, and she hadn’t set foot in Bliss Harbor since her dramatic stunt, as her dad had called it, but she knew small towns had long memories. The townsfolk probably still pulled that story out when they were in the mood for reminiscent laughter and don’t-that-beat-all good ol’ boy stories.
Refusing to think anymore about that part of the past, Winnie turned back around. Jack had returned to the game, leaving Winnie to her thoughts, but Brian was watching her, his eyes intent and his brow furrowed. She plastered a smile on, but realized that wasn’t quite right either when Brian’s frown deepened.
Winnie aimed for looking exasperated instead. Actually that wasn’t that hard considering her brother couldn’t give her fifteen lousy minutes of his attention when she needed talking down from this ledge.
She marched over to her brother, yanked the remote out of his hand, and turned the TV off before tossing the remote at Brian. It was still his house, after all.
“Hey! I was watching that,” Jack said and made a grab for the remote, but Brian moved it out of reach.
“Jack, do you really think you’re going to be able to just sit here and enjoy the game if I haven’t finished yet?”
He rolled his eyes, sighed long and dramatically, and waved his hand imperiously for her to continue.
“As I was saying, I haven’t been back to Bliss in years and I didn’t plan on returning, you know, ever, if I didn’t have to. But at least if I had to, it should be with me as a CEO of a company or a famous inventor or something, not some bum waitress living with my brother and trying to figure out my life after all my other jobs didn’t work out. But none of that would really matter if I was making my less than triumphant return because Becky was marrying the man of her dreams. She’s my best friend and I’d do it. But somehow she’s gotten engaged to that…that weasel. I don’t even know how that’s possible.”
“I’m sorry, I’m still on the CEO or famous inventor part. How exactly did you get stuck in the kindergarten what-do-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up game again?”
Winnie growled. “I’m trying to be serious, and ask you for help.”
“What exactly would you be inventing?”
“An untraceable way to murder you maybe,” Winnie said, reaching down to yank her flip-flop off her right foot and intending to chuck it at his idiot head, when Brian stood up.
“Hey, I was just thinking maybe it’s time to think about dinner.”
Winnie lowered the footwear weapon and reluctantly smiled at that. Brian always seemed to step in right when Winnie was about to deliver Jack’s just desserts. “Were you going to do more than think about it?”
“Well now that you’re here…” He gestured toward the kitchen.
Figuring she’d get more cooperation if they had food in their bellies—and hoping she could sneak in a shower because her head was starting to itch—she said, “I’ll get something started.”
Winnie went into the kitchen, Brian close on her heels. He must have known she’d take the train up and visit this weekend because his fridge was stocked with items she knew for a fact he had no idea how to cook. Actually, if it didn’t come out of a takeout container, Brian didn’t know what to do with it. She pulled out a package of chicken breasts and got to work, saying after a couple minutes, “Looks like you were expecting me.”
“Pretty much every week, yeah.”
Winnie paused her knife strokes and looked back at Brian, surprised. He was leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed, a gentle smile on his face, and it struck her that it was his usual position when she made dinner for him. She hadn’t realized she’d been taking the trip up to his house regularly enough to notice that. “Well, if I didn’t cook for you, you’d starve and then Jack would probably throw himself into the Potomac in grief at losing his other half and I’m kind of fond of him. Usually.” Winnie went back to cutting the chicken into bite-sized pieces with a vengeance.
“Hey.” Brian walked over to stand next to her, put a hand on her shoulder. “You’re really upset this time?”
“I am. No kidding this time. Seth Parker really is the worst. I…” Winnie stopped, took a deep breath to clear the absurd urge to cry. High school was a really long time ago. “I know that Jack thinks I’m just being silly but…this time? I’m not. He’s bad news.”
“Tell me how you know that.” Jack said from the doorway, and Winnie turned to face him.
“Can’t you just take my word for it? Seth Parker hurt people when he was in high school, seriously hurt them, and people don’t change that much.” Well, hurt one person. Two, if Winnie counted Travis.
Maybe it was something he saw in her face, or the catch in her voice she couldn’t quite hold back, but this time Jack seemed to take what she said seriously and considered it for a moment. “I’m assuming whatever you’re referring to, Becky doesn’t know about it and should. Did you tell her?”
“She didn’t know. She never paid attention to that stuff in high school, she was too buried in schoolwork.” That wasn’t why Becky didn’t know, though. Becky didn’t know what Seth Parker had done because Winnie had never told anyone, and she planned to keep it that way. “And of course I didn’t tell her. She called with her grand news, all bubbly excitement and effusive apologies for not telling me sooner. She barely let me get a word in edgewise before she was off to do a million things, even if I did want to go all monsoon on her parade. And of course she asked me to be her maid of honor.”
Winnie put the rice noodles in a pan to soak and pulled broccoli, peppers, and carrots out of the fridge to chop for a quick stir-fry. She set out the wok she’d made Brian buy when she was up for a visit a few months ago, telling him at the time that it would make her job of feeding him a lot easier. She felt both Jack and Brian watching her work, their eyes weighing on her as they tracked her movements.
Finally Jack spoke. “What are you going to do?”
“I’m still deciding.”
“Thank God. Promise me, you’re not going to do anything stupid or completely impulsive.”
“I’m an adult now. Do you really think I’d go off all half-cocked on this?”
“Yes,” Jack and Brian answered in unison.
Winnie laughed. “You say tomato, I say—”
“Something that doesn’t even start with ‘T,’” Jack finished for her.
Winnie laughed harder, and poured some sesame oil in the wok.
“You’re going to go to the engagement party right?” Winnie could just imagine how much her brother would not want to spend his rare free time back in Bliss for that type of thing, especially since their mom had moved to Florida after their dad died.
“Please? I’m going to need your help.” As much as she mentally complained about big brothers, Jack wouldn’t let her down.
“Winnie…” Jack practically whined.
She wasn’t giving up though. She would need reinforcements. “Please Jack?” She waited him out.
Giving in, he said, “Fine. If I can make it work with my schedule. But you’re going to owe me. Big.”
“Okay. Hey, I know how to pay you back, why don’t I do your laundry and cook all your meals for you…oh wait.” The chicken was done, so she scooped it out of the wok and into a bowl, smacking Brian’s hand when he would have burned his fingers snagging a piece. She added the vegetables to the still-hot wok, along with some sugar, soy sauce, and a splash of vinegar.
“Oh hey, why don’t I help you find that new apartment you’ve been saying for months you’re going to get…” Jack said, reaching to grab a piece of chicken before quickly dropping it. “Ow.”
Winnie shook her head. “Children.” She decided to leave the topic of her nonexistent apartment hunt alone and looked at Brian. “This will be ready in about two minutes,” she said, mixing in the rice noodles.
“Great, I’ll set the table.” Brian reached up into his mostly bare cupboards to grab three plates. Place settings for four were about the only kitchen related items Brian had bought without Winnie’s prodding since he moved in. Jack would eat like an animal, standing at the counter, shoveling food in, if you let him, but when Winnie cooked Brian always made sure they ate at his dining room table, one of the few things he’d bought to furnish his place.
Winnie added the chicken back into the wok, gave the mix a quick stir, scooped it all into a large serving bowl and carried it into the dining room. As usual, Brian had even set out glasses of milk, probably fulfilling some long-wished-for Norman Rockwellian desires.
They dug in and Winnie wished she’d taken the time to rinse the silkening oil treatment out of her hair because it was starting to take all her concentration not to itch it.
“Thirsh irsh wrarly goosh.” Amazing that Jack was over thirty years old and had been entrusted by the government to protect things like freedom and people when simple table manners were so beyond him.
Winnie opened her mouth to blast him with a what-would-mother-say reminder, but Brian beat her to it.
“What I think Jack meant was, thank you. You always make it seem so simple and the food always tastes so good.”
“You’re welcome.” Winnie shot Jack a pointed look to say, see that’s how adults converse at the table. “I’ll cook the rest of the food before I leave so you’ll be set for the week.”
“You’re an angel,” Brian said gravely.
“You should tell Jack that more often.”
“Hach!” cried Jack as bits of stir-fry flew out of his mouth.
“Ugh. For that, you get to do the dishes. And now if you don’t mind, I need to wash this gunk out of my hair.” Winnie looked at Brian, who nodded. She knew where he kept towels and everything, and she stood up to leave but then thought better of it and said, “Thanks, Jack.” She probably didn’t say that often enough.
“Um, what exactly are you thanking me for?” He eyed her suspiciously.
“For agreeing to help.” So much for thanking him. Hadn’t he been listening earlier?
“Wait, help with what? The party?”
“How is that helping, again?”
“Well…I haven’t decided quite how yet, but I’m definitely going to need your help.”
“I’m scared to ask.”
“Don’t be. Compared to rescuing hostages from terrorists, this will be a walk in the park.” Winnie turned to leave.
“What exactly is this walk in the park?”
Winnie paused at the doorway to answer, “We’re going to stop that wedding.”