You know your day is off to a great start when you wake up and your first thought is “No”.
Alexis woke with the early afternoon sun streaming in through her window, a mouth that felt like someone had dumped a tray of kitty litter in it, and a herd of elephants tap dancing its way through her head to the tune of Riverdance. Goddamn tequila shots.
Prying her eyes open, she rolled to face the door and found herself staring at her partner, covered in glitter from head to foot.
Alexis’ second thought was, “No.”
Tabitha rolled her eyes and handed her a bottle of water and pain killers. “You’re not even going to hear me out, just no?”
Alexis swallowed a couple of pills and drained the bottle of water before lifting her gaze to her friend. “Nope, not interested. You’re on babysitting duty and I’m on vacation. Pretty sure I’m winning in this situation.”
“You sure about that? You look like shit.”
Alexis hauled herself out of bed and dragged her hair into a loose ponytail. “I may look like shit, but it’s nothing a fuck-ton of coffee and a hot shower can’t cure. And I’m still on vacation. You get to go to work looking like Tinkerbell for days.”
Tabitha’s reply was interrupted as Alexis’s phone vibrated its way across the bedside cabinet. She answered without bothering to check the number, “Reynolds.”
“Good you’re awake,” Taylor Rivers’s voice rumbled down the line. “I know you’re on vacation, but–“
“No.” Alexis disconnected the call and made her way out of her room.
“Did you hang up on the Boss?”
“Yes. What part of ‘I’m on vacation’ do you people not get?” Alexis stumbled over the pair of shoes scattered down the hall.
“Lex, there’s something …” Tabitha trailed off as Alexis stepped into the living room and froze.
Blinking slowly at the sight before her, she mumbled, “I’m pretty sure I didn’t drink enough to still be hallucinating at one in the afternoon.”
“We have a bit of a situation,” Tabitha said from over her shoulder.
“No shit, Sherlock,” she said. “Why the fuck is Dante Griffin standing in my living room, half-naked and covered in neon body paint.”
Dante turned, bright ice blue eyes peering out from beneath the fluorescent pink paint that covered his front.
“Umm,” Tabitha said as Dante ran a hand through his hair sheepishly.
Alexis rolled her eyes, “Ya know what? Don’t answer that”. She turned on her heel and stalked to the kitchen, leaving her unwanted guests staring after her. When she emerged moments later, she held a bottle of tequila in her hand.
“Should you really be drinking more?” Tabitha asked, raising an eyebrow.
“You’re not the boss of me and for the last time, I’m on vacation. Fuck off.” She pointed a finger at Dante and added, “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.” She stomped back towards her bedroom, tripping over her shoes again, before slamming the door shut and collapsing on the bed with a huff.
Even as hungover as she was, she was still too sober to deal with the fact that Marc Dante Griffin, bit-part actor, and her high school crush, was standing in her living room covered in glow-in-the-dark body paint. She looked mournfully at the tequila, before placing it on the floor with a groan. She wasn’t going to be drinking that anytime soon. Her partner wouldn’t be in her apartment unless she needed help and Alexis couldn’t turn her away. When her phone rang for the fourth time in as many minutes she answered with a resigned, “So how badly did he fuck up, and what am I doing with him?”
* * *
“Tell me again, why I am stuck in a car with you for the next twenty-four hours, while we ‘drive’ from Missouri to Vegas?” Dante whined into the window.
Alexis rolled her eyes, squinting as the lights of an oncoming vehicle lit up the interior in a flash of monochrome. “You mean other than the fact you managed to get yourself thrown out of three clubs, left your PR manager dealing with enough paperwork she could single handedly deforest the Amazon, AND you managed to insult the only person in town with links to the Sicilian Mafia?”
“Okay first off, how was I supposed to know he had Mafia links? It’s not like he had it tattooed on his forehead or anything. Second, he deserved to be insulted. I don’t know what he served, but it sure as hell wasn’t pizza.”
You’re not wrong there. No one went to Milo’s for the Pizza. “And your excuse for getting thrown out of the clubs?”
“I was a little drunk,” he mumbled.
“A little?” Alexis glanced at her passenger in disbelief.
“Hey, I was still wearing my pants. I wasn’t that drunk.”
“Marc Dante Griffin, you turned up in my apartment, half naked, covered in glow-in-the-dark body paint and glitter. The only way those pants were yours, would be if you’d changed your name to Candy and taken up stripping.”
Dante’s face was almost as pink as the body paint he was wearing hours earlier as he tried to deny the accusation and couldn’t. “I’ll admit I did something stupid, but why are we driving across the country? Why not fly?”
It was Alexis’s turn to sigh, her hand clenching the steering wheel tight. “I don’t fly.”
Alexis could feel Dante’s eyes on her as she stared at the roadway in front of her. “You heard me. I don’t fly.”
“You. You threatened a guy who had at least a half a foot and a hundred and fifty pounds on you, with a Taser to his balls if he didn’t get out of your house. You swore at your boss and told him where he could shove his idea of a vacation and you work in security. But you are afraid of a three-hour flight?”
“‘I’m not afraid, I just don’t fly.”
“You’re afraid,” he taunted.
“Say that one more time and you can get out of the car right now.”
“Yea right. We’re going eighty-five down the highway in the middle of nowhere. I can’t believe you’re afraid of flying.”
Alexis’s knuckles turned white as she held the wheel in a death grip. “Did I stutter Griffin? I’m not afraid of flying, I just don’t. And if you don’t shut up about it, I have no issues with duct taping your mouth shut for the duration of this trip.” Her phone rang, cutting off any retort Dante had forming.
“What?” Alexis answered the call with a snarl.
“Nice to talk to you too Reynolds. Where are you?” Taylor River’s voice crackled across the speaker.
“Ass end of Nowhere, Texas.”
“Of course you are.” Alexis could almost hear the eye roll in her boss’ voice. “I suggest finding the nearest hotel and stopping for the night.”
“Excuse me? Why would I do that? The sooner I get to Vegas, the sooner I can ditch my tag-along and actually start my vacation.”
“Let me put this another way, Reynolds. It’s not a suggestion. The Idiot features PR manager has strongly suggested you stop so he gets his six hours of sleep. Because as she so politely put it, he’s a dumb fuck when he’s tired.”
“Dumb fuck is his usual state,” Alexis grumbled.
“Hey, I’m sitting right here,” Dante spluttered.
“This conversation would be a waste of breath if you weren’t Griffin,” Taylor deadpanned. “Now, use your supposed acting skills, pretend you like your bodyguard and convince her to stop for the night before she throws you out of the car. You’re paying for the room by the way.”
“Why am I paying?” Dante asked as the dial tone echoed around the car.
“Because this situation is entirely your fault. I’m supposed to be getting drunk with friends. Instead, I’m stuck ferrying you across the damn country.”
“If you flew, you’d be getting drunk faster,” He flinched as the door he was leaning against unlocked. “Umm,” he squeaked, staring at Alexis a little wide-eyed.
“I’m going to take the next exit ramp and find us a hotel, okay?” Alexis said calmly.
“Are you going to say anything stupid between now and when we get to the hotel?”
A hurried shake of the head this time, had Alexis biting on her lip to stop the grin from spreading across her face.
“Good, keep it up and you may make it to Vegas in one piece,” Alexis smirked, glancing at the GPS. Only fifteen hundred more miles to go — God help me.
* * *
“There’s one.” Dante pointed to the flickering vacancy sign in the distance. He’d been silent for the remainder of the trip, but tension had crept into his shoulders the longer they had driven through the silent town. Stopping for the night was all well and good, provided they could find something open at eleven pm on a Tuesday.
Alexis pulled the car to a stop outside the hotel, looking at the building with trepidation. It looked as if it had been plucked off a B Grade Horror movie set– broken neon “Hotel” sign and all. It was solidly built but in desperate need of a clean. Even with the spotlights shining on the building front, she couldn’t read the name clearly.
“Come on,” Dante said, sliding out of the car, overnight bag in hand. “It’s not like it’s the Bates Motel or anything.”
“Could have fooled me,” Alexis mumbled, grabbing her own bag from the back of the car and locking it. Standing in front of the glass entranceway, she glanced sideways at Dante. “You sure you want to stop here? It’s a few steps below your usual standard.”
He gave her an unreadable look before flicking his eyes back to the doorway. “Better than sleeping in the car,” he said, striding towards the entrance without waiting to see if she was following.
Alexis took a breath, letting it out slowly before following Dante into the building, silently hoping that the hotel at least had decent coffee and a continuous stream of hot water.
Stepping through the doors, she smacked into Dante, who had stopped, staring at the lobby in disbelief.
“Get out of the doorway you idiot.” Alexis shoved him to the side, then did her own double take at the scene. “I feel like we’ve stepped into the twilight zone,” she muttered under her breath.
Dante nodded, his mouth hanging open.
The lobby was pristine. Comfortable chairs and couches were scattered throughout the area. In one corner, near the elevator, a large tree appeared to be growing out of the highly polished floor, and a large reception desk lined the far wall. Despite the rundown, horror movie exterior, they’d clearly stepped into a upmarket establishment.
“Definitely not the Bates Motel then,” Dante said.
Alexis rolled her eyes and shoved him not so gently towards the receptionist. “Go get us a room.”
* * *
He was mad. So mad, Alexis was kind of surprised there wasn’t steam pouring out of his ears as he slammed open the door to their room. She only just resisted rolling her eyes at him as she followed him in, the door closing gentler than it had been opened.
“All right Griffin, what’s got your knickers in a wad this time?” she asked, throwing her bag on the bed closest to the door.
Dante spun around, glaring at her, a scowl on his face that probably would have had her peeing herself if she hadn’t spent most of her high school career, watching him try to perfect it.
“This time?” he clenched his fists, “This is just the icing on the cake. Not only are you dragging me sideways across the country by car, now I’ve gotta spend my downtime with you, confined to one room?”
“I’ve already explained why we need a single room, Griffin. Just be thankful she gave us a double and not the single she was itching to.”
Alexis pinched the bridge of her nose as he gaped at her. She was struggling to remember why she’d had a crush on the blue-eyed, brunet idiot and how she’d missed how dense he was.
“Okay, your PR manager wasn’t kidding. You really are as thick as two short planks when you’re tired. The receptionist’s eyes lit up like the fourth of July when I said we needed a single room. She was this close to humming the wedding march until I said a double.”
“Why…” Dante paused, swallowing hard as his eyes darted around the room, “Why would she do that?”
“You’re an actor, why is this so surprising for you?” Shaking her head, Alexis opened her bag, digging through it for a change of clothing. “Maybe call and ask her. And while you’re at it, you can order up some food. A burger if they have one.”
” What are you going to do?”
Alexis glanced up and found Dante staring at her, less angry than when he had set foot in the room. “I’m going to have a shower, eat whatever you get around to ordering from room service and pass the hell out for the next six hours. I don’t care what you do, just as long as you do it in this room.”
She turned and headed to the bathroom when he made no attempt to move, standing in the middle of the room as if he’d become one with the decor.
* * *
Turning the water on to heat, she stood in front of the mirror staring at her reflection, wondering if she was getting too old to keep up with the job. Wondering if she should have told her boss the true reason she hadn’t wanted to take the security job, a reason that had nothing to do with the fact she was on vacation.
Sea green eyes stared tiredly back at her as she untied her red hair from its ponytail. She sighed. Maybe she needed to sleep and it wouldn’t be so bad in the morning.
Alexis groaned quietly and pushed herself away from the sink. “Yea right. You’re about to sleep in the same room as your high school crush. There’s no way this was going to be okay in the morning.”
She stripped and stepped into the shower, contemplating drowning herself under the hot spray.
* * *
Twenty minutes later she emerged sufficiently pruned, looking like a lobster, to find room service had arrived. Dante sat cross-legged in the middle of his bed, devouring the food.
“Dinners just got here, still should be hot,” he said around a mouthful of burger as sauce dripped down his shirt.
“Thanks. Should still be enough water for another shower,” Alexis said, shaking her head slightly as she stepped towards her bed and the dinner spread out across the sheets. She shouldn’t have found that attractive–no one should have. But her heart was starting a rapid-fire drum solo in her chest. Sheeze, get a grip. You’re a grown woman for god’s sake, not a giddy teenage girl. Swearing silently as a sharp intake of breath emanated from the bed behind her, she wished she’d grabbed a t-shirt instead of a tank top to sleep in. A top that did nothing to hide the tattoo across her shoulder blades: angel wings of blue and purple flowed down her back and around her rib cage and draped themselves across her shoulders and down her arms to end at her elbows, The tattoo hid scars, reminders of the accident that stole her husband.
Steeling herself for the inevitable questions, she grabbed her phone and leaned against the wall, facing Dante as she dug into her dinner.
To his credit, he just blinked and said, “Your phone has been having a monumental meltdown for the past ten minutes by the way.”
Glancing at the screen, she discovered her notifications increasing at an exponential rate before her phone flashed with an incoming video call.
Rolling her eyes, she said, “Sorry, gotta take this drunken FaceTime otherwise she’ll phone all night.”
“That’s fine, going for a shower,” Dante said, grabbing the clothes from the end of his bed as Alexis hit the accept button.
“Hey, Reese’s Pieces.” The blonde on the other end slurred.
“Oh god. Everything else died after high school, why the hell couldn’t that nickname,” Alexis groaned.
“Oh, come on there’sh nothing wrong with the name.”
“Sure there isn’t, Snickers.”
“Hey, I suit mine at leasht.” Ashley said, then hiccoughed. “I’m schweet.”
“And completely nuts. Who the hell did you drunk dial Ash?” Alexis heard a voice call out before the screen wobbled and a brunette appeared in view.
“Oh hey, Lex.”
Alexis raised an eyebrow. “Care to explain why I’m getting drunk-dialed Melory?”
“Oh no. You do not get to Melory me. This is your fault.”
“You are in Missouri, I’m in Texas and Snickers phoned me. Please explain how the hell this is my fault.” A second blonde entered the room from behind them, looking rather green in the dim light. “Oh.”
Melory smirked. “Oh is right. You do remember you are supposed to be here in Missouri, having a hens’ night for Laffy Taffy? There is no way in hell I can keep Snickers out of the booze, while I make sure Taffy doesn’t throw up her toenails.”
Alexis grimaced. She didn’t envy Melory’s job at all. Neither of the blondes could handle their alcohol well. “Sorry. If it’s any consolation, I’d much rather be there cleaning up, than where I am currently.”
Melory snorted, shuffling over to allow Kathy to collapse on the couch with a groan, while Ashley shuffled back against their legs, a drunken grin spreading across her face.
“Hey Laffy,” Alexis said with a soft smile, the scene reminiscent of many a night during senior year, although it would have been a sugar high rather than an alcoholic buzz they were coming off of.
“Reece’s,” Kathy croaked, her voice sounding like she’d been gargling razor blades for a few hours.
“How’re the toenails?” Alexis asked, shuffling back to lean against the wall, her arms resting on her raised knees.
“Still intact. Pretty sure my liver’s checked out though. Why aren’t you here keeping it out of trouble?”
“Oh please. She’d be the one plying it with more alcohol.” Melory snickered.
“Not like you wouldn’t be sitting right next to me with the next bottle opened Hershey’s.” Alexis grinned. “To answer your question, I got landed with one more job, Laffy.”
“You’re supposed to be on Vacation, Lex.”
“Believe me my boss is well aware of this, as is my client.”
“Will you still make it for my wedding?” Kathy’s lip popped out in a pout.
“Of course. We promised to make every major event in our lives. I haven’t missed one yet, and I don’t intend to start now. I will make your wedding, and I’ll even beat you to Vegas.”
“How’d you manage that?” Melory asked.
“Job’s escorting a client to Vegas. They need to be there around the same time as us.”
“Oh my god, someone got you on a fucking plane again,” Kathy said, her eyes wide in surprise.
Alexis shook her head. “Not in this lifetime,” she said darkly. Just as she had been there for all their major events, her friends had been there for the first crash that had shattered her ankle, and the second that had shattered her life. They may not have completely understood her fear, but they’d accepted her quirks and supported her while teasing the hell out of her about it.
“How did you get a client to agree to a fifteen-hundred-mile road trip in the middle of summer?”
“She didn’t ask,” Dante said, stepping into the room. Alexis had been so engrossed in the conversation that she hadn’t heard the bathroom door open, and she almost dropped her phone in surprise. “I’m being dragged across the country against my will.”
“If you hadn’t been such a dumb ass, you’d still be in Missouri and catching the next flight out,” Alexis snarked, almost swallowing her tongue as the ass bent over, digging into his bag — Why does the universe hate me, she groaned, the green and blue plaid sleep pants he wore hiding very little.
“Lex?” Melory asked, bringing her attention back to the phone.
“Tell me your client isn’t Dante Griffin.”
“My client isn’t Dante Griffins,” Alexis parroted.
“Alexis Rhiannon Reece, did you just lie to me?”
“Nope, you told me to tell you he wasn’t my client,” she said. Melory’s grin got even wider, and she added, “You also know I can’t talk about my current assignments, so stop probing. Snickers, stay away from the booze, you’re a lightweight. Laffy, drink water between shots, your liver will thank you for it. And Hershey’s …” Alexis paused as her friend twitched an eyebrow, her grin morphing into a wicked smirk. The kind of smirk that had gotten them into a myriad of trouble in high school.
With a small shake of her head, Alexis finished, “What can I say, you don’t listen to me anyway. Don’t let them get so drunk they can’t fly. See you in a few days.” She ended the call and dropped the phone with a groan.
“Interesting conversation,” Dante said. When Alexis glared at him, he shrugged and added, “I only heard the end of it. Guess the fear of flying has been around for a while then.”
Alexis clamped down on the urge to hurl her pillow at him. “You gonna be awake for a bit?” she asked, eyeing the laptop he’d dug out, not at all staring at the muscled shoulders and chest she could see over the lid.
Dante shrugged again. “Since I’m under house arrest, I figured I’ve got time to catch up on everything. That a problem?”
“Nope, don’t care what you do. Don’t leave the room and don’t post where you are staying.”
“I’m not a complete moron, you know,” Dante said softly, “Plus the fact I have no fucking clue where I am.”
“Texas.” Alexis picked up her phone and found a solitary text from Melory.
“You are so screwed 😉 Stop pining and just talk to him”
Alexis groaned and buried her head under her pillow. “I need better friends.”
Alexis woke with a start several hours later, still holding her breath. She let it out shakily, glancing at the other bed, its occupant still asleep, blissfully unaware of the nightmare that had jerked her awake. Grabbing her phone, she checked the time and flopped back on her pillow with a sigh. 3:17 am. She knew from experience she wouldn’t be getting back to sleep anytime soon. She clambered out of bed an hour later, cursing quietly as her brain continued to replay the accident in high definition and surround sound. The memory of the cold Hudson river washing over her, something that hadn’t happened in over a year. Glancing around the small hotel room, she grabbed her phone and blanket off the bed and stepped out onto the small balcony. Sitting on one of the small metal chairs, the blanket wrapped around her shoulders, she stared out across the town, watching as the world woke up in colors of pink and blues. The sounds of life drowning out the death of her dreams.
Silencing the alarm before it could start, Alexis looked over her shoulder as the balcony door opened. Two mugs of coffee poked through the curtains, followed by a barely awake Dante, his usually immaculate hair standing up in twenty different directions. He folded himself into the second chair with a grunt and shoved a cup at her.
“I think I remember how you take your coffee.” His voice was husky with sleep.
Alexis grabbed the mug and downed half of it as her brain gleefully reminded her that he looked as rumpled and goofy as he had for the entire senior year, before screeching to a halt as his words caught up with her.
She turned her head and stared at the man sitting next to her for a moment, “Dante?”
“Humm…?” His eyes were shut as he inhaled his coffee almost as fast as Alexis.
“How do you remember how I take my coffee?” she asked.
Dante swallowed, his eyes fixed on a spot on the horizon. “Um,” he whispered, red creeping across his cheeks rivalling the pink stealing across the sky.
Alexis blinked at him in surprise, briefly wondering how far down his chest the flush crept before her brain kicked into gear and she realized that she’d never actually seen Dante blush.
“You might want to answer that,” Dante said burying his face in his coffee as Alexis’s phone rang.
Alexis glanced at her screen and rolled her eyes before accepting the call. “Oh hello, my fair leader. What can I do for you at ass O’clock on this fine morning?”
“You really are the worst employee I have,” Taylor Rivers grumbled.
“I’m also the most efficient employee you have, so what else are you going to attempt to saddle me with. I’m supposed to be on vacation, remember.”
Alexis’s hand twitched as she listened to her boss swallow hard. He never showed any emotion. Not even when Alexis had shot out his knee cap when he’d snuck up behind her. Alexis scrubbed her hand across her face and muffled a groan. “Taylor?”
“Where exactly are you?”
“Butt fucking Texas. I can find the exit number if it’s important.” Dante flinched at her tone.
Alexis heard her boss take a breath, before he said, “We’ve lost Tulumeu.”
The phone creaked ominously in her ear. “I’m sorry . . . . . . You’ve gone and done what now?” Alexis asked, her voice honey sweet.
“Oh put a fucking sock in it, Reynolds. It’s not like you could have done any better,” Taylor snapped. “We know Tulu was assigned to deal with Griffin. We’ve been on his tail since the clubs but lost him about six pm yesterday.
Alexis rolled her eyes and buried her face in her palm. “Please explain to me how the fuck you managed to lose a five foot five, greasy haired wannabe hitman in fifteen hours? Especially one who lives above the restaurant he does security for and the only other place he goes is where Uber Eats sends him.”
“He does Eats?” Taylor mumbled. “How do you know this?”
She glared at her phone, wishing the technology allowed her to reach through it and strangle her Boss.
She took a deep breath and suppressed the urge to scream at him. “Because unlike you, I didn’t burn all my bridges when I left SWAT. People still talk to me.” Alexis downed her coffee as she listened to Taylor grinding his teeth in her ear. She knew he wanted to deny it, but he didn’t have a leg to stand on. “While you are trying to decide on a witty comeback, I’m gonna hang up and go pack.”
“Actually, you’re not. You’re in lockdown till we find Tulumeu.”
Alexis froze. “Lockdown?” She didn’t miss the way Dante flinched again and cast a fugitive glance in her direction. “This is Tulumeu, we’re talking about. If brains were made of dynamite he wouldn’t have enough to blow his nose. The only way he’s dangerous is if you forget he’s stupid.” She stood and made her way into the room, hoping to be able to yell at her boss in private.
“I know the guy has issues finding up without instructions. He’s an idiot, but he’s an idiot with a gun. Let us find out if he’s still chasing Griffin.” Taylor said. “So, lock down it is. Enjoy the start of your vacation.”
“Spending more time locked in this hotel room with Griffin is not my idea of a vacation.”
“Tough,” her boss answered, ending the call.
Alexis stared down at her phone, anger seething.. Rationally she knew Taylor had a point. They had no idea if Tulumeu was still chasing them, and it made little sense to get killed on the off chance he was. That didn’t stop her fuming at Dante and his fucking awful sense of timing. If he’d waited another twenty-four hours he would have been someone else’s problem and she’d be starting her vacation how she planned to continue, drunk and partying up a storm, instead of being stuck in this hotel for the foreseeable future.
She flinched as her phone vibrated with an incoming text.
“Don’t kill the client. And don’t get your knickers in a twist. Extra days added to your vacation.”
Throwing her phone on the bed with a huff, she turned and found Dante standing in the doorway, his ice blue eyes still hazy with sleep despite the coffee. Alexis did a double take as he blushed, shyness not part of his usual repertoire.
“So, on a scale of one to ten, how badly do you want to kill me right now?” he asked.
“Oh, I’m hovering around the high thirties. But Taylor Rivers is currently higher up the shit-kicking list.”
“Ah.” Dante had the grace to look guilty. “So, how long are we stuck here for?”
“God knows. Until the rest of the team can find where one greasy Sicilian has managed to hide. Why couldn’t you have pissed off the rednecks?”
“There are rednecks?”
Alexis watched as Dante opened his mouth, making some abortive hand gestures as he tried to contradict her statement, before shrugging. “You have a point.” Taking a couple of steps towards his bed, he added, “Since we aren’t heading out any time soon, I’m going back to sleep.”
“Might as well, it’s not like we have anything else to do,” Alexis said, making her way to her own bed and collapsing in a heap, trying to decide whether sleep was going to be an option, or if she was just going to stare at the ceiling for the next few hours.
She watched as Dante crawled up his mattress, star-fished across the middle of it and was asleep in minutes. Alexis shook her head, wondering how the hell someone could fall asleep that quickly. Digging her phone out, she snapped a quick picture and sent it to her best friends.
I’m so fucked
The response was instant.
Alexis sent a picture of her middle finger. Dropping the phone to her chest, she stared up at the ceiling.
Yeah, I really do.
* * *
“Well, that was …” Dante stared at the TV.
“That was fucking awful, and if you suggest watching another one, I will shove the remote so far up your ass you’ll be able to change channels with your tongue.” Alexis had no idea what they’d just watched, but she was pretty sure her brain had dribbled out her ears an hour ago.
“Sorry Your Majesty, but there’s not exactly anything else to do in this godforsaken hell hole other than watch crappy TV shows or sleep.”
“So, go to sleep and quit whining. Us being trapped here is your fault.” Alexis stood, stumbling towards the bathroom. She needed to get away from Dante before she bricked his mouth up. They’d been needling at each other for the best part of six hours, trying to see who would snap first, and it looked as if she was going to win that particular challenge.
Locking the door behind her, she sat on the edge of the bath and stared at the floor, willing the simmering anger away. She knew it wasn’t all Dante’s fault. She was the one dragging them across the country because of her fear of flying–not a fear damn it. She had a pretty good reason for not flying. The crashes had failed to kill her twice, she didn’t want to give them attempt number three.
She sighed, the anger fading away now that she wasn’t facing him. He didn’t deserve all of the aggravation she was sending his way. When they weren’t sniping at each other, he was actually pleasant to be around, reminding Alexis of how he’d been back at school, which wasn’t helping her crush at all. Neither were the thousand snickering text messages she’d received from her friends.
When Alexis had calmed down enough to leave the bathroom, she found the TV off — thank god — and Dante had cleaned up the remnants of their lunch. He looked up from the manual he was holding and gave her a half smile that sent her heart rate skyrocketing.
“What?” Alexis asked, struggling to hear over the sound of blood rushing through her ears.
“I said I’m sorry. This is mostly my fault and I’m sorry you’re stuck with me for however long this takes to get sorted.”
Alexis blinked. She hadn’t expected to get an apology from him. She had her own half-formed in the back of her mind. As she fumbled for something to say, Dante took her silence as encouragement to keep talking.
“Um, so I know I’m not your favorite person today.”
“You’re not my favorite person on any day,” Alexis muttered.
Dante huffed out a laugh. “Okay, I’ll give you that. Do you think we could be adult enough to go out for dinner?”
He waved the book in Alexis’s direction. “Still within the hotel. Surprisingly there are at least five restaurants here.” Blushing, he added, “I need to get out of this room, I’m going stir crazy.”
Alexis looked at him for a moment, half of her brain doing cartwheels at the thought of having dinner with Dante, the other half trying to take control and slip back into protection mode.
Dante quirked an eyebrow. “You know, most people would jump at the chance to have dinner with Dante Griffin,” He said. Alexis caught a hint of self-loathing in his voice, and made up her mind, mentally telling her work self to take a holiday.
“Honestly, I don’t think it’s Dante that’s asking.” She stepped forward, taking the book out of his hands, and glanced at the list of restaurants. Pointing at one she added, “Let’s get dinner at that one . . . Marc.”
He laughed softly, dragging a hand through his hair. “Holy shit, you do remember me. I haven’t been called that since I left for LA. And why would Dante not be asking?”
Alexis shrugged. “Pretty sure I’ve never seen Dante blush, ever. Yet, I have a clear recollection of Marc blushing so hard you were almost glowing.” She glanced up and watched as another blush crept across his features. “Yeah, just like that.”
Dante shoved her gently out of the way, “Shut up. So, dinner?” he asked, changing the subject.
“Dinner. On the proviso that if anything crops up, you follow my instructions without argument. Still have no idea where Tulu is.”
“Yea, I think I can do that. Kelsey will fire me if I get myself into any more trouble.” Dante gave her a small smile.
“And Taylor would take great delight at reaming me a new one if I let you get hurt.” Alexis looked down at what she was wearing, then grabbed her bag from the foot of the bed. “I’m gonna change, don’t think Pj’s are exactly dinner wear.”
Dante snorted and dug through his own bag for appropriate clothing.
A huff echoed down the silent hall as the lift doors closed behind the targets.
I have targets.
A snicker followed that thought as a figure detached himself from the large plastic tree he had hidden behind, running a hand through greasy black hair. Finding the targets at this hotel had been a surprise. Hell, the hotel was a surprise. He was sure he’d never been in here before despite visiting the address weekly to deliver food to Rooster Kirkpatrick on the Ground floor.
Tulumeu shook his head, trying to clear that thought from his mind. He knew he wasn’t the brightest of Milo’s security team, and having more than one thought at a time confused him. But what he lacked in smarts, he made up for in persistence and stubbornness. After staring at the closed door for a few minutes, making sure the targets weren’t going to come back any time soon, he made his way down the hall towards their room, thinking it might be fun to hide behind the curtains and jump out at them when they got back. And hiding would give him time to work out how to get them to come back and help Uncle Milo with his pizza recipes, because even he’d admit most of the pizzas tasted like soggy cardboard.
Tulumeu was so wrapped up in his thoughts that he didn’t realize he’d limped past the room he wanted until he was almost nose to chrome with the lift door.
Huh, missed it.
He turned around and peering back the way he’d come, blinking as the hallway seemed to swim and shimmer like a mirage and saw what appeared to be a tentacle weaving its way across the far wall. “Might go see if I can find them somewhere else. This hotel is weird.”
They rode in silence, leaning against the back wall of the lift as it returned them to their floor. Standing almost shoulder to shoulder, Alexis felt herself leaning into the body heat to her left. Dinner had been fun, more banter than snark. Opening up to each other over a bottle of wine, confirming that even though they’d spent twelve years at school together, they really didn’t know each other. And Dante had remembered her coffee order from the local diner she frequented as a Senior.
I worked in the kitchen. I wasn’t stalking. Honest.
She straightened up as the elevator ground to a halt between floors ten and nine.
The lights flickered, dimmed, and went out, the emergency lighting snapping on in their place.
“Well shit.” It was very soft and deeply heartfelt.
Alexis looked at Dante, mouthing “Fuck” as she pressed the buzzer for security since she was closest to it.
Moments later, a voice said, “Reception.”
Alexis rolled her eyes. Of course, it had to be the same receptionist as the night before. “Um…so, you probably want to hear this as much as I want to be saying it, but we’re stuck in the elevator.”
“Oh right. Of course, you are. Unfortunately, we have suffered a power outage throughout the entire hotel, that maintenance are working on repairing as soon as possible. I will send Waldorf to your location as soon as the power is back.”
Alexis glanced sideways, taking in Dante’s panicked stare. “Any idea what sort of time frame we are looking at?”
The receptionist barely paused. “Hope you two have something to read.”
“Well, fuck,” Dante muttered, sliding down the wall to hug his knees.
Alexis joined him on the floor, her arms wrapped around her own knees. “You okay?”
“Hmm,” Dante squeaked, his voice a couple of octaves higher than normal. “Don’t like confined spaces.”
“Oh. Can understand that. You want me to distract you?” Alexis asked, shuffling a little closer.
Dante nodded, his eyes wide and panicked.
Alexis smiled. “Why did you never talk to me while we were at school?” she asked before clamping her hand over her mouth in shock. “Sorry . . . you don’t have to answer that.”
Dante rested his chin on his knees, staring at a spot only he could see for a moment. “You scared me.”
Alexis’s mouth fell open. “I what?”
“You scared me. You were so on to it, you knew what you wanted and you really didn’t give a shit what anyone else thought of you. You hit high school with a plan for your life. I hit high school and lurched from one bad decision to another. Trying to fit in and failing miserably.”
Alexis tilted her head and looked at the man sitting next to her. “How did you fail? You were friends with just about everyone. The teachers all loved you, the Drama club got rave reviews for the three shows you were the lead in. I had three friends the entire time I was at high school. Was Emo before there was even a term for it. Pretty sure the teachers all cringed when they realized they had me in their class. The only reason I didn’t care what anyone thought about me was because no one actually gave a shit about me,” Alexis said. Then, laughing quietly, added, “I was so forgettable, I even got missed in that stupid bet during Senior year.”
“What bet was…” Dante trailed off and blushed furiously as the memory caught up with him “Oh, that bet.”
“Yea, that one. Did anyone actually win?”
Dante turned even redder, so much that Alexis started to worry he’d combust. “Um, did you get kissed by anyone in the Drama club?”
Alexis shook her head. “I didn’t get kissed by anyone outside of the Drama club either.”
“Then no one won,” Dante said, staring off into space again. “And you were not forgettable. It was a stupid bet. I never should have set it up.”
“You were the one who made that bet?” Alexis leaned back against the wall. That surprised her. Dante had been the least chauvinistic male of their year. “Why?”
Dante chewed on his lip before turning to look at her, ice blue eyes seeming to glow under the emergency lights.
“I did it because I thought it was the only way I was ever going to get to kiss you. I’d had a crush on you since our freshman year, and I was too scared to talk to you like a normal person.”
Alexis’s heart threatened to pound its way out of her chest, and a colony of butterflies took up residence in her stomach as she stared back at those eyes. “You what?” she squeaked, her brain derailed by his revelation.
A clunking from overhead had them both glancing upwards as the main lights flickered on.
“I guess the power’s back,” Dante said, scrambling to his feet and holding out his hand.
Alexis looked at it for a moment, before reaching out and letting herself be hauled off the ground. Standing in each other’s space, he mumbled, “Sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything.”
She shook her head slowly, “Yes, you should have. Twenty years ago would have been nice,” she said, a blush creeping across her face that almost rivaled Dante’s for intensity.
God, they were both bloody idiots.
Dante’s eyebrows threatened to disappear into his hairline as Alexis’s words registered. “You…” he paused as the doors slid open, then muttered, “What the hell?” at the sight in the hallway.
Alexis glanced over her shoulder and wholeheartedly agreed with the sentiment. A tall, slightly dumpy gentleman wearing coveralls and a utility belt wasn’t that out of the ordinary. The hot pink and white striped beanie he wore a surprise. What tipped the sight over into the weird category was the small brown goat standing calmly next to the maintenance man, chewing on a cigar.
“Ah, Waldorf?” she asked dragging her eyes off the goat.
“Nope, Sergio. Waldorf’s the hat. Do you want it?” there was almost a pleading tone in the rough voice, as the small name badge on the front of the beanie flashed: Hi, I’m Waldorf.
Dante shared a concerned glance with Alexis, “Um…no…that’s okay. Will the goat attack if we get out of the elevator?”
Sergio glanced down at his furry companion. “Well?”
The goat chomped on the cigar and glared at the elevator before trotting off down the corridor.
Alexis and Dante stepped out into the hall with a sigh of relief. Looking around for the exit sign, Alexis said, “Let’s take the stairs back down.”
“End of the hall, turn left, follow the sound of typing,” Sergio grumbled stepping into the elevator. The doors closed, leaving them to stand in awkward silence. The good humor they’d found during dinner having disappeared with the lift.
“Come on,” Alexis said, leading them down the hall, casting side long glances at Dante, her heart still trying for a 12-8 drum solo. Watching Dante chewing on his bottom lip and his downcast eyes, Alexis decided to throw caution to the wind and talk about it. The lack of talking in High School had led them to pine on opposite sides of the campus for four years.
“So. You liked me when my hair was Rock star blue?”
Dante flushed. “And when it had washed out to snot green and you couldn’t decide what color to go next.”
Alexis cringed. “Bubblegum Pink probably wasn’t my wisest choice that year.”
“Oh, I don’t know, it made your eyes stand out more.” Dante threw her a small shy smile. A smile that turned her insides to jelly, something that hadn’t happened since her husband was killed.
“Ummm…” she mumbled intelligently.
“I also liked you when you dyed your hair black and went full goth for a semester.”
“Pretty sure I still have those corsets floating around somewhere.” Alexis said, then slapped a hand over her mouth as her face flamed. “Oh shit, just ignore I said that.”
Dante laughed. “Not likely. You looked good in those corsets.”
Alexis poked her tongue out at him. “Since we seem to be going for full disclosure here, I had a crush on you since I was about fourteen.”
“Really? I was tall and lanky at fourteen. I looked seriously underfed.”
“You also played Robin Hood in the school production and wore incredibly tight pants.”
Dante stopped, leaning against the wall as he laughed. “It was the pants?”
“It was the pants.”
Dante’s laughter faded away, his gaze flickering over her face. “And the reason you didn’t talk to me during high school was?”
“I was shy, and you were so far out of my league it wasn’t funny.”
“How did you figure that?”
“Hello, three friends remember? I was the weird one with technicolor hair, odd hobbies and the only school activity I did was stats for the freshman basketball team. You were friends with everyone, in most of the clubs at school. Out of my league.”
“So it’s only taken fifteen years to work out we’re both idiots.”
Alexis snorted. “Pining so hard there was a whole forest between us.” She gave him a rueful smile. Then frowned. “God, What is that noise?”
Dante’s brow creased as he listened, quiet, but rapid tapping creeping its way into the hallway.
He turned and pointed to the door to his left. “It’s coming from there.”
Alexis listened for a minute but still couldn’t place the strange noise. “Get behind me,” she said, her eyes flicking to the door that was slightly ajar.
Dante raised an eyebrow,
“Just humor me,” she said, slowly pushing the door open. There was no resistance, no push back from the self-closing mechanism. She glanced up. Okay, no self-closing device, explains why the door was ajar.
Stepping into the room, she noticed a sliver of light emanating from beneath the door at the far end, the rest of the suite clothed in darkness. A warm hand in the middle of her back had her twitching for a second.
“What are we doing?” Dante whispered, his breath sliding around her ear, leaving goosebumps in its wake.
“That noise is odd and the door was open. I’m making sure every thing’s okay,” she murmured back.
“You’re not a cop.”
“I used to be,” she hissed, “and it’s a little hard to switch that part of me off.” They’d reached the main doors and the tapping was louder, more of a clacking sound, followed by an occasional crisp metal crunch. She glanced behind at Dante, who shrugged, and turned the handle.
The door opened smoothly into a brightly lit bedroom, a bed in the far corner of the room, rumpled covers evidence of its use. On the opposite side of the room was a large wooden desk, a manual typewriter taking pride of place in the center. Seated behind the machine sat a skinny, sandy-haired man, in bright blue pajamas. Thin rimmed glasses, comically large were perched on his nose.
Alexis froze, blinking rapidly at the scene before her. The typewriter explained the noise.
Dante stepped up beside her. “Huh.”
They watched in silence as the typist reached the end of the page, removed it from the machine, and grabbed a clean sheet of paper.
“Umm,” Alexis said, looking at the used page, “there are no words on that sheet.”
The man looked up, suddenly realizing there were people in the room. He looked between them, down at the pile of papers beside him and back up. “The words will show when they are ready,” he said in a reedy voice.
Alexis cast a confused glance at Dante, who was looking equally perplexed.
The blank piece of paper was put into the typewriter and the typist paused, looking up again. “Okay since you two obviously aren’t going to kiss yet. Can you at least take two steps to the right so you don’t bleed all over my papers.”
“What do you mean bleed?” Alexis asked.
“Umm, kiss?” Dante said in a strangled voice.
“Oh, there you are. Come on, Milo wants to see you.” A voice boomed from the doorway, causing everyone to jump.
Alexis spun around attempting to shove Dante behind her as she recognized Tulumeu Sperlinga standing in the doorway, a pistol held loosely in his hand as he eyeballed the three of them.
“What do you want, Tulu?” Alexis asked wryly, watching as the gun switched between his hands as he nervously fidgeted.
“Ah, Uncle Milo wants to talk to him.”
She twitched as the gun was pointed in Dante’s direction. “He said the pizza tasted like crap.”
“You’ve got that right,” Dante said.
There was a sharp intake of breath, a sneeze and all hell broke loose. A bang and the smell of gunpowder filled the room. A searing pain radiated down Alexis’s arm, as Dante yelled, “Holy Shit!”
Alexis stumbled back, sitting on the edge of the desk, looking at Tulumeu in shock.
“You shot me, you prick.”
“I didn’t mean to, I sneezed,” Tulumeu whined, “I wasn’t meant to hurt you. Uncle Milo was very specific about that.”
“He wants to beat me up himself?” Dante asked
“What? No.” Tulumeu looked genuinely confused by that comment. “He wants your help to make his pizzas taste less like crap and more like food.”
Dante sat heavily on the edge of the desk next to Alexis, both their jaws threatening to hit the floor.
“You mean to tell me, Milo sent you after Dante, so he could get his opinion of pizzas?” Alexis asked when she finally got her brain working again.
“Yes.” Tulumeu’s answering grin was wide.
“I got chased across three states and Alexis got shot, all because your uncle wants to chat with me?”
“Yup.” Tulumeu nodded. “So, can we go now? Uncle Milo doesn’t have much patience.”
Alexis and Dante stared at him in disbelief, as the writer, sighed. “Kiki, I need the first aid kit, she’s bleeding all over my notes.”
That comment had them both glancing at Alexis’s left shoulder. Blood ran freely down her arm to drip off the point of her elbow and onto the desk. Dante’s tanned face turned green. She rolled her eyes. “Okay, if you are going to be sick, the bathroom is out that door. Tulu, why the hell did you bring a gun if you weren’t supposed to hurt us? And”– Alexis looked over her shoulder at the writer — “Who the hell are you, how did you know I was going to bleed on your desk and who’s Kiki?”
“I didn’t bring the gun. I found it on the body in the laundry chute,” Tulumeu said, dropping it to the ground.
“Body in the” — Dante shook his head– “This hotel has issues.”
The writer stood, moving towards the lamp in the far corner of his room. “This hotel does not have issues. It just has a lot of stories to tell. Stories that I write. Tim Ross. And I saw this accident coming about five thousand words ago. Although to be fair the sneeze surprised me.” He reached out a hand, accepting a large first aid kit that appeared to pass through the wall. “This is Kiki.”
She was definitely suffering from blood loss as there was no way in hell she just watched a metal tentacle wave at her, and nothing Tim was saying made any sense.
Tulumeu made a noise similar to a mouse being squashed. “Nope. Tentacle monsters is where I draw the line. I’m going home and taking a holiday. I’ve obviously been working too hard.” He turned and hurried out of the room, leaving his targets staring after him.
“Kiki’s harmless.” Tim shook his head and headed back to his desk. “Okay, since you are not going to throw up, hotshot, you can help me stitch her up so she stops bleeding on my desk and I can get back to writing. Thanks so much for the interruption.”
He dug through the kit, piling the supplies on the desktop, and handed Dante a pair of scissors with the instruction to cut her shirt.
Twenty minutes later, Alexis’s arm was bandaged and in a sling. The bullet had passed through her upper arm, meaning she only required a few stitches. The blood had been removed from the desk, and they had all but been shoved out of the room and the door slammed shut behind them. A muffled, “And hurry up and kiss, damn it,” following them down the hall.
“This hotel is fucking weird,” Dante said, an arm slung around her waist as he helped her down the stairs. The pain and loss of blood made her light headed, but neither of them had wanted to risk the elevator again.
“This whole trip has been weird. The hotel just takes the cake.”
Dante chuckled, “So what now? I’m not being chased by the mafia anymore.”
“My list of shit to do has gotten considerably shorter since that revelation. Still, have a few things to tick off though.” Alexis smiled up at him.
“And they are?” Dante pushed the door to the floor open, steering her through the opening.
“One, calling my boss to tell him I’m officially on holiday and he owes me sick leave as well as holiday pay. Two, ordering a few more bottles of wine and trying to forget this day ever existed. And three–” Alexis paused, blushing furiously.
“Was there a time frame put on that bet?”
“Ah, I don’t remember stipulating one. Why?” Dante’s voice dropped an octave, causing a shiver to run up her spine.
“According to the writer upstairs, there is supposed to be a kiss, and I’d kind of like to collect.”
“I think that can be arranged.”