Somewhere in the back of beyond, Minnesota
SOS. Car broke down. Stuck in snowstorm. Check my location and alert troopers.
Sky Gonzalez pressed Send and threw her cell in the air as high as she could. There was nothing but trees and snow around, no cell coverage to be had where she was standing. Maybe another six feet up, the situation was different.
She caught the phone on its way down. Checked the screen. Nope. Jesus Christ, the whole country was infested with butt-ugly, fake-tree cell towers, and she had to get lost in a place where all the damn trees were real.
Turning against the gusts of wind and brushing flakes away from her face, she gave it another go, tossing as far as she dared. Which wasn’t far, really, because she wasn’t the most coordinated person in the world. If she dropped the phone and it smashed into a million pieces, or she lost sight of where it landed, that was it for her last lifeline to the outside world. She’d never find her cute, sparkly cell again—slick and thin and white.
In hindsight, going for that color had been a very poor decision.
Still no dice. Squinting, she tossed the device up again. Hopefully her message would eventually go through, and Lola would contact the authorities. After all, it was Lola’s fault Sky was in this bind. Of all the crazy shit her sister had pulled over the years, this stunt trumped every one of them.
Every. Single. One.
She caught her cell a third time. Nothing. Well, practice made perfect, right? Besides, she didn’t have much else to do except throw that stupid phone into the sky and continue walking. The road must lead somewhere. Sooner or later she’d arrive there. Or she’d get lucky and her cell would catch a signal. Or she’d freeze to death and become a cautionary tale to stupid girls. Whatever came first.
She looked back to where her car was being buried under a steady fall of big flakes. Steam was still coming from the hood. How a car could overheat in the middle of a snowstorm, she didn’t know. That annoying little red light on the dashboard that had flashed at her for the last twenty miles might have had something to do with it. Not that she could have done shit about it, seeing as the last person she’d crossed paths with was at a gas station a hundred miles away. Or so. She wasn’t great at calculating distances or reading maps.
Orienting herself wasn’t one of her fortes either, evidenced by the embarrassing fact that her destination should only have been about fifteen miles from the regional airport and she’d still managed to miss it. She’d tried backtracking, but she’d only succeeded in getting more lost. And that was hours ago. The car’s GPS had stopped working right after she left the airport, and her cell had been without a steady signal for a long while before the car itself died. For all she knew, she’d crossed state lines. Heck, she might be in Canada. Or in frigging Alaska.
Great way to kick off the New Year. Best first of January ever.
Eyes on her airborne cell, she tripped and fell flat on her face, the useless device landing on the back of her head.
Coordinate colors? Forecast fashion trends? Put together a knockout outfit from a thrift shop? All that she could do, no problem. But apparently, throwing an object up in a straight line and catching it on the fly were not in her skill set.
Aggravated, she got up, patted the snow from her pants, and burrowed her hands under her jacket. The wind wasn’t too strong, but the constant bee stings of flakes on her skin, along with her shitty clothes, made her feel like she was freezing. The extremely fashionable hand-me-downs from her boss were not designed for off-road snow trudging.
Then again, she should have been strolling around Paris’s Golden Triangle of luxury boutiques and haute couture labels. Or sitting in a cute little café, watching the sun set over the Champs Elysées, enjoying the mild chill of the French winter—which this year was supposed to be warmer than usual—sipping red wine, and munching on a baguette slathered in gooey cheese. For that, she was perfectly dressed.
Thank God she’d gotten that ridiculous white bunny-ear hat at the airport, ugly as it was, and the white bunny-paw mittens. The snowstorm must have caught other travelers off guard, because those had been the only winter garments in the tiny store. High heels and a bunny hat. Hell of a fashion statement. On the plus side, she was color coordinated down to her underwear. White pants. White jacket. White boots. White hat.
She should have stayed in the broken car. No heat and a cramped space were a thousand times preferable to walking in the open, but she was so tired, she couldn’t afford to sit idle. She’d fall asleep in a second and wake up a Popsicle. Or, more to the point, not wake up at all.
That she’d been awake thirty hours and counting wasn’t helping. But why would she have wasted her last night in New York City sleeping when she thought she had a transatlantic flight ahead of her? Eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. Sky was infamous for drifting off in the weirdest places and the most impossible positions. Tourist class, no leg room, screaming babies? Bring it on. Heck, once she’d zonked out in a jumper seat and snored there for hours, back in the day when she flew standby, courtesy of a friend’s industry-discount tickets.
Looking forward to a cozy nap in coach, she’d gone partying with friends instead of resting—and checking her flight details. Now she was stuck in the middle of nowhere, sleep-deprived, knee-deep in snow, freezing her butt off, and probably catching the mother of all flus.
Minnesota. Where the heck was Minnesota? She was an East Coast person through and through. She hadn’t been this far west since that time she took the wrong train and ended up in Newark. That had been traumatic enough, thank you very much.
She glanced around. It was beautiful, though. Perfect snowflakes poured out of the sky, blanketing the whole landscape in white. Very… Christmassy. Too bad it wasn’t Christmas, and she was lost, alone, and irremediably soaked. Her hair and makeup were ruined. And let’s not talk about her brand-new manicure. Hansel and Gretel dropped bread crumbs. Her? She was dropping fake nails all over the place.
Damn the countryside. Not a single soul around to ask for directions. Where were aggressive taxi drivers when one needed them? Rude walkers, honking cars, hotdog vendors, a Starbucks on every corner—there was nothing like that here. No landmarks she would recognize. Just snow, trees, and a back road, poorly delineated and with worse signage, all of it getting fuzzier by the second.
And that was the view in the middle of the day. She shuddered to think how all this would look when it started getting dark. Were there wolves in Minnesota? Bears? Because if her high-heeled boots were shit walking in the snow, just wait until she had to climb a tree.
Sky was about to toss the cell up again, but she stopped. Sighed. Who was she kidding? She’d need a rocket launcher to make it past the treetops. She might as well put her phone to better use before the battery died or it got buried in the snow, Fargo style, until the end of time.
She pressed the recording function and started talking. “This is the last will and testament of Sky Gonzalez. This message is addressed to my sister Lola. I leave you, Lola, all my belongings, which you’ll find in a car buried under a ton of snow somewhere in the middle of Minnesota, where you sent me!” she yelled into the device. “Know that I blame you for everything, and I will haunt you from the afterlife for freaking ever! You’ll never have a good night’s sleep, I guarantee you. Damn your presbyopia! Yes, you’ve hit forty. Yes, you need glasses. Own it, for Christ’s sake!”
Screaming seemed to help, marginally. To vent her frustration, if nothing else. She knew she shouldn’t be mad at Lola. After all, it wasn’t completely her sister’s fault. Never mind how busy she’d been, Sky should not have asked her sister to fill out her application for the semester-abroad program. At the very least, she should have suspected something was fishy when the secretary in the placement department had been so glad about Sky’s choice of location, she not only arranged the flight for her, but also informed her that the position came with a voucher for a car rental. Big red flag if Sky ever saw one.
“I don’t need a car,” she’d told the woman. Why would she? Public transportation was a far better option in European cities.
The secretary had sounded confused. “Uhh, believe me, you’ll need a car. Any preferences?”
In all her years as a part-time undergrad at that school, taking classes here and there whenever she could afford it, Sky had never heard the old hag be so nice to anyone. So she went for broke. “Okay, if I can choose, a cute little Mini would work.” Driving in style trumped trunk space any day. Besides, parking would be at a premium in Paris.
She’d gone too far. “If it’s too much, I can—”
“No, no,” the secretary had hurried to interrupt. “It will be arranged.”
Probably she’d thought Sky was going to pull her application if she didn’t get her preferred car. Which she would have. In a heartbeat. Not because of the car, but because she had thought she was going to Paris, France. Not Paris, Minnesota. Who in her right mind would choose an internship in Minnesota when Europe was available?
Sky Gonzalez, apparently.
Entering the semester-abroad program had been an ill-omened idea. She should have accepted her destiny as an eternal student and sales clerk turned personal shopper’s assistant. Dressing in castoffs from her boss and living vicariously through others people’s pics on Instagram. Making ends meet, a big smile on her face, happy and satisfied with her lot.
But traveling to Europe in the hopes of becoming a buyer for a classy continental retailer? Not in the cards for a Gonzalez.
Sky blew warm air over her frozen fingers. Manipulating her cell with the mittens had been a no-go, so she’d stashed them in her jacket. Time to fish them out, or she was going to lose more than her nails. Rummaging in her pockets produced only one mitten. Oh, shit. She must have dropped the other one. Fantastic. Getting better and better. Her teeth were chattering. The storm didn’t look like it was lightening up anytime soon, so she put on the one mitten and picked up her speed.
She pressed Record again and spoke into the phone. “I left Arnie at the dog hotel, so you are getting your sorry ass over there and picking him up, Lola. To hell with your allergies.”
Arnie hated it there. Ungrateful mutt. Much as it pained Sky, she couldn’t take him with her overseas. She’d dished out an indecent amount of money, money she couldn’t afford, to that first-class kennel, and he’d looked at her as if she were dumping him into the pound. “If I freeze to death… which at this stage is a very strong possibility, because the clattering sound you’re hearing is my teeth… I expect you to care for him. The expensive doggie treats he likes. His massage and spa days. The whole shebang, Lola. Do not cut corners with my baby. You owe me.”
When Sky stopped yelling into the phone, she realized the screeching she was hearing wasn’t coming from her. It sounded like brakes locking. She turned around in time to see the shiny grill of a black monster truck barreling her way.
Her eyes opened wide. Holy shit.
It was a damn good thing she couldn’t feel half her body anymore, because this was sooo going to hurt.
The second that Logan saw a flash of long red hair and something resembling human eyes, he wrenched the wheel, sending the truck spinning to the shoulder, barely missing the tiny figure in the middle of the road. Jesus Christ. Who in her right mind wore white from head to toe in a blizzard?
The truck screeched to a halt, the passenger side a mere half an inch from the woman. He jumped down and ran around the front. She had fallen to the ground. Fuck, had he hit her? “You okay?”
“You… almost… ran… me… over,” she said, her teeth chattering. From fear or cold, he couldn’t tell. Well, he could. It had to be cold. Her clothes were flimsy at best. Flashy, but not warm at all.
“Are you crazy? Standing in the middle of the road, all in white? I could have killed you.”
He saw a gleam of defiance in her eyes. “White’s… trendy… this… year.”
Right. “There’s nothing ‘trendy’ in this part of Minnesota, lady. Where’s your car?”
“There.” She pointed in the direction Logan had come from. “Or there,” she corrected herself, pointing in the opposite direction. “Not sure now. It all looks… white.”
He tried to help her stand, but her legs buckled, so he lifted her in his arms. “Let’s get you somewhere warm, shall we?” After placing her on the passenger seat, he cranked up the heat.
“Can’t leave… without… my bags.”
He stepped outside and scouted the ground a little. Her footsteps indicated she’d been walking in the same direction he’d been driving, which meant he must have passed her vehicle and missed it. “What car are you driving?”
She sneezed, the useless synthetic-fur hood on her jacket flopping over her bunny-eared head. Out of the whole stupid outfit, that bunny-eared hat was the most sensible piece. “A Mini.”
Great. Wherever she’d left the car, it was probably buried now.
“We’ll come back for it tomorrow,” he decided, jumping back in and revving up the engine.
“My Manolos are in there.”
Manolos. Oh, boy, wasn’t that a blast from the past? Another shoe whore. Just what he needed. “They’ll still be here tomorrow, believe me.”
She was going to object, but a sudden sneeze derailed her. And another and another. He opened the glove compartment, took out a wad of napkins, and offered it to her. “Why did you leave the car?”
“Stopped working,” she answered, grabbing a napkin and wiping her nose. “And when I began walking… it wasn’t snowing so much.”
“You aren’t from anywhere around here, are you?” Her dumb clothes were a dead giveaway. Her actions too.
She shook her head, placing her hands in front of the air vent. “New York City.”
She narrowed her dark eyes on him. “Why?”
The heat had kicked in. She must have finally felt it, because her teeth weren’t chattering as hard. She was even getting some color back in her face.
He looked resolutely forward and edged the truck into motion. “For your information—next time you decide to take a stroll in the Minnesota countryside, you need better shoes. And clothes. You don’t assume the weather conditions will improve. And you never leave your vehicle. Ever. Under any circumstances. You don’t stand in the middle of the road without wearing reflectors. And—”
A sudden move from the passenger side caught his attention. He gave her a quick glance and saw, flabbergasted, that her head had lolled to the side.
“Lady, you okay?”
A light snore was all the answer he got.
“And you don’t get into a stranger’s ride and proceed to check out,” he muttered. Jesus fucking Christ. Talk about a lack of common sense.
Sky woke up enveloped in softness and toasty warmth. She stretched luxuriously. Wow, she hadn’t slept that well in tourist class since frigging ever. No cramps, no sore neck, plenty of leg room. Silence all around her.
Then the fogginess in her head cleared and it all came back to her. Slowly at first, tumbling and rushing after that. Minnesota, the snowstorm, the truck barreling in her direction, her screwed-up plans.
She wasn’t in a plane on her way to France. She was on a couch in somebody’s living room.
“Fuck. Shit. Crap. You’re so dead, Lola!”
A hearty laugh caught her by surprise. “Sleeping Beauty is finally awake. And she’s got a mouth on her.”
She turned toward the voice to find a mountain of a man leaning against the wall, looking pretty amused. He must have just come from the outside, because he still had on his jacket and a wool watch cap. Between that and the beard, she couldn’t see much of his face except the big green eyes staring at her.
“Sorry,” she mumbled, trying to get up. “I didn’t mean to—” She wasn’t sure what she hadn’t meant to, but the unstoppable itch in her nose wouldn’t be denied, and she choked out a sneeze. Then another and another. “Sorry,” she managed to let out. “Serial sneezer.”
“Here,” he said, handing her a tissue.
She took it and blew her nose. “Thanks. You’re the guy who almost ran me over, aren’t you?”
He pulled off the watch cap, freeing a dark mop of shaggy hair. “Guilty as charged. In my defense, though, you were perfectly camouflaged.”
Wow, the mountain man was handsome, in a rough, unkempt sort of way. He had lines of laughter around his eyes, very visible because the skin there was white and the rest of his face was deeply tanned. An outdoor tan, not a fake bake. It suited him. Most men she knew would have bathed in moisturizer or gone under the knife to make those lines less noticeable. Then again, most men she knew would have had a heart attack if they woke and found that out-of-control beard on their faces.
If this guy was anything to go by, then metrosexual didn’t seem to be a big thing around here.
“That I was.” She looked out the window. It was bright out there. Morning bright. “Seems like I dozed off.”
His chuckle was irritatingly male. “More like passed out. I carried you in and you didn’t stir, not even once. It’s been almost twelve hours since then.”
Twelve hours? She looked down at herself. She was still dressed, a quilt covering her. No jacket.
He must have read her mind. “Your jacket was soaked. Heads up: in Minnesota, you do need a real, waterproof coat. Your pants and sweater were wet too, but I figured you might object to waking up in a stranger’s house and wearing only your underwear.”
Object? She would have totally freaked.
“Thanks for helping me out there.” She offered her hand. “Sky Gonzalez.”
He sat beside her and engulfed her hand in his. “Logan Nolting. You’re welcome.”
The sofa sank under his weight. Wow, Mr. Mountain Man was huge, with broad shoulders and bulging arms. The manspreading didn’t help either.
This close, she realized his eyes weren’t just green, but yellow and blue and brown. As if whoever had put him together couldn’t make up their mind. This guy was handsome. Well, the part she could see, because the shaggy hair and Duck Dynasty beard covered most of his face.
Sky broke the contact and looked away, noticing her bags off to the side. “You found my car.”
He nodded. “In a ditch, covered by snow. Oh, and this.” He reached inside his pocket and handed her her missing mitten. “It was right there, by the door. Paw-print facing the snow.”
“Of course it was,” she muttered, chagrined. “Damn Murphy’s Law.”
“Murphy’s Law is a bitch on the best of days. There’s no need to help it along and make matters worse.” She didn’t care for his tone, but before she could comment on that, he continued. “What on earth compelled you to rent a city car like that in the middle of a Minnesota blizzard? And a white car on top of that?”
She didn’t have a good answer. Nothing that would make the level of condescension in his voice diminish, anyway. By the time she landed in Minnesota and tried to change her rental to an SUV, it had been too late. There were none available. Guess she had to count her blessings that she hadn’t gone for a cute little electric car with an eighty-mile driving range. She shuddered to think what Mr. Monster Truck would have said about that.
“I nearly had to call the rental company and ask them for a GPS location,” he said. “It was that or wait for the spring thaw.”
“How did you know it was a rental?”
“Nobody in their right mind would buy a Mini in rural Minnesota. Nobody. You didn’t strike me as a nutjob.”
“Yeah, well. I wouldn’t bet on that. I better contact the rental company.” She reached down to the sofa table, where her cell and purse lay. “No signal. Color me surprised.”
“The whole town is located in between towers, in a protected zone. Reception is sketchy at best, unless you have a satellite phone. The landline is out too because of the storm. A tree fell and took out a telephone pole.”
“No internet?” she asked, already panicking. She hadn’t been without internet since… ever, really. She wasn’t sure she could survive.
He shook his head, as if it weren’t that big a thing. “You don’t need to worry about your car. We already had it towed into town.”
“Where exactly are we? What’s the name of this town?”
Logan snorted. “Good question. Can’t tell you.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, stiffening.
“The residents developed a strong objection to the town’s original name, so they voted to change it. But they can’t decide on a new one.”
“Fantastic. So I’m stuck in…”
“NoName, Minnesota,” he filled in. “It’s kind of temporary.”
“I guess that’s that for calling an Uber.”
A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “Yes—not that the locals would jump into strangers’ cars. So, who’s Lola and why is she dead?”
“My sister. Long story. Wouldn’t want to bore you. What’s the closest city? Or the next town? Does it have a name?”
“I don’t know what you’d consider a city. Paris is down Route 65 about half an hour. Turn right and you’ll wind up in Grand Rapids. Where were you going?”
She hadn’t been that lost. “New job in Paris.”
“Your car will be out of commission for a while. How soon are you starting? We’re snowed in, but once the main roads are clear, I can drive you to Paris.”
“Thanks, but my job isn’t starting for another three weeks. I came ahead of time to do some sightseeing.”
Logan stared at her. “I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you, but any sightseeing in Paris can be done in five minutes. Maybe less.”
“I know. Now. When I made my travel plans, I thought I was going to Paris, France. Not Paris, frigging Minnesota.”
Logan opened his eyes wide, a smirk emerging from under his facial hair. “You’re shitting me, right?”
“Nope. School arranged for the plane ticket and the car rental. As far as I knew, I had applied to be a student teacher of English in Europe. I discovered my mistake at the airport, when my flight wasn’t taking off from the international terminal.”
“So that’s why your sister is going to die?”
“A long, agonizing death, I assure you.”
“I guess you don’t have a place to stay either.”
“In Paris, France, I did. In Paris, Minnesota, I don’t.” She had maxed out her credit cards paying for the cute European hotel she’d planned to stay at for the three weeks before her internship started. Her savings had gone to buying euros and paying for Arnie’s boarding. “But don’t worry. If you let me make a call once the landline is repaired, I’ll contact the rental agency and be out of your way in no—” She held her breath, reached for a tissue from the box, and sneezed again. “—time.”
“There’s no hurry. The roads are blocked. Better to sit this one out.”
At her first chance, she was going to get her hands on a working phone and contact her school. There had to be a way to change her application, damn it. If she had to stay in the US, then she could do so in a major city, not some backwater where they didn’t even have internet.
At that moment the doorbell rang.
“Excuse me.” She lost sight of Logan as he went to open the door.
“Good morning,” said a woman’s voice.
“Hi, Carol, what can I do for you?”
Plastic rustling. “This is for you, Alchemist.”
“Say, I heard you had Bart tow some weird car into town. Where’s the owner?”
“She’s resting. The car got stuck—”
“She? You have a ‘she’ here?”
“I don’t think now’s the time—”
Whatever he thought, it was irrelevant, because a middle-aged woman peeked through the doorway from the hall. She smiled widely and walked toward Sky. “Hello, I’m Carol McGowan. The neighbor.”
Logan was behind her, looking aggravated and holding a white plastic bag, tightly knotted.
“Sky.” Unable to repress it, she let out a sneeze and the guest stopped dead in her tracks. “Sorry,” Sky mumbled, mopping her nose. “Got a nasty bug on my way here.”
“Oh, boy,” Logan muttered.
Carol took a step backward, then another, an expression akin to terror on her face. “I remember now. I forgot something in the oven. Gotta go. Nice to meet you.”
Their guest left in a hurry.
“What was that?”
Logan shrugged, leaving the white plastic bag on the table and taking off his jacket. “Nosy people being nosy. Don’t mind her.”
“Did she call you ‘Alchemist’?”
“Nosy people being nosy and nuts. You okay?” he asked as she sneezed again. “You look flushed.”
“I think I have a fever.”
He leaned close and touched her forehead, pinning her down with his gorgeous and worried stare. If her temperature hadn’t been high before, it was now. It had skyrocketed at the contact, so much that she could almost forget about the shaggy hair and Unabomber beard.
His clothes—ratty jeans and a black T-shirt—weren’t much better. A fashion statement, this guy wasn’t. Such a pity, because the frame was spectacular. Great eye candy.
“Yes, you do,” he assented, totally oblivious to her lecherous thoughts. “Let me get you something for that.”
She must be delirious, because she was ogling his ass. Fine as that ass might be, it was attached to a whole lot of failed hipster look she totally hated.
As he came back with a thermometer and an aspirin bottle, his cell beeped.
“Hey, why does your phone work?”
“Satellite.” He checked the message and said resignedly, “That was fast.”
“What was fast?”
“Emergency town council meeting.”
The mayor scowled down from the podium. The pandemic squad surrounded him, standing in judgment. “What the hell were you thinking, Alchemist? Bringing a potential patient zero into town!”
Logan looked up at the ceiling of the council room, praying for patience. He could feel the eyes of every adult resident of NoName focused squarely on him. Of all the towns in America, why oh why did he have to end up in one run by crazy preppers? As if that weren’t bad enough, he had to live next door to Carol McGowan, head cheerleader of the frigging pandemic squad, a bunch of relentless wackos who believed the world was one influenza away from total extinction. Sky could have waved an automatic rifle and Carol wouldn’t have blinked, but a sneeze? Ha! That had sent the lady running so fast, it was a fucking miracle his property wasn’t cordoned off. Then again, the day was young. Lots of shit could still go down.
“What would you have me do?” he asked, standing and addressing the crowd. “I couldn’t let her freeze to death.”
Carol tsked him. “Who’s talking about letting her freeze to death? Maybe point her in the right direction? Away from here?”
“She was freezing,” he repeated. “She had no means of getting anywhere. No way of sitting out the weather either.”
“What do you mean? Didn’t she have a bug-out bag?” At his shake of the head, Carol lifted her arms in dismay. “Who goes on the road without one of those?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Logan muttered under his breath. “Normal people?”
Damn doomsday preppers.
Ty, sitting beside him, leaned closer. “I should’ve figured all this fuss was because of you. What’s going on?”
“What’s going on? These crazy people are up in arms because of a fucking sneeze.”
Tyler barked out a laugh. “What did you do now to get these nice ladies’ panties in a twist?”
Nice ladies? The pandemic squadron was a bunch of innocent-looking women who were nothing short of radical lunatics, ready to invade your house at the drop of a hat to demonstrate, whether you liked it or not, how to survive the end of civilization by boiling, sterilizing, and isolating. And God forbid you didn’t listen.
The first time he’d met his lovely neighbors, they’d been running a drill while wearing hazmat suits. He’d committed the ultimate offense and offered them his hand in greeting. Apparently, a hand had more germs on it than a toilet seat. They shoved a pandemic-preparedness kit at him and ordered him to glove himself before contact.
Such a pity no one had photographed his facial expression upon hearing those words. It had been epic.
After the shock wore off, he’d questioned how his germs could make it through their hazmat suits even if he didn’t wear gloves. Second fatal mistake. Almost two years of drills later, he still didn’t know how their theories of transmission worked, but he’d learned not to question. Faster that way.
“You understand we have to quarantine her, don’t you?” Carol said, interrupting his thoughts.
Like that was going to go down well with Sky. She seemed like a very independent, capable woman. Hooked on being connected and on the go all the time. Flashy and dressed to show.
He’d known his share of those. Dancing to others’ tunes wasn’t something they tended to excel at.
Ty frowned. “Whom exactly are we quarantining?”
“Logan found a sick lady and brought her home,” somebody whispered behind them.
“I see,” Ty said, amused, and turned to Logan. “What? Can’t convince healthy chicks to go home with you, so now you’re kidnapping unhealthy ones?”
“She was healthy when I met her, you ass. Well, mostly, but that’s beside the point.” Logan addressed the pandemic squad up on the platform. “Sorry to break it to you. This is a free country. You can’t go quarantining people at will.”
“Wrong. Exactly because this is a free country, we can.”
There were some mumbles of agreement from the crowd, “That’s right” and “You got it” and “Try to stop us.”
“We live in a democracy. Let’s take a vote,” Carol suggested. “All in favor of quarantining Patient Zero, please raise your hands.”
Everyone, including a smirking Ty, raised their hands.
“Oh, come on,” Logan grumbled. “Really? You serious?”
“Motion accepted,” Carol said, wrestling the gavel from the mayor and banging it on the podium. “Besides, Patient Zero doesn’t have to know she’s been quarantined. Just keep her indoors by any means necessary until she gets better.”
“Or she kicks the bucket,” somebody chimed in.
Nuts. The whole bunch of them. Down to the very last one.
“She’s not Patient Zero, people. Her name is Sky and she’s got the flu, damn it. Not Ebola. Just a common, garden-variety flu.”
“By our calculations, Patient Zero has been here almost twenty-four hours. We’re late on containment,” Carol said.
Logan shook his head in dismay. Man, like talking to a wall.
“You had her hidden away for a whole day?” Ty asked impishly.
“She was just sleeping on my sofa.” Logan realized his mistake right away and turned to Carol and the rest. “You are not burning my sofa. Are we clear?”
Whether it was clear or not, Logan didn’t know, because Carol ignored his words. “And we’ll be monitoring you,” she added while the rest nodded. “At the slightest indication you’re sick—”
“Yeah, yeah, you’ll quarantine me too, and if I don’t get better fast enough, you’ll shoot me and cremate my remains.” Along with the damn couch, of course.
Carol rolled her eyes. “Don’t be silly.”
“Yeah, don’t be silly,” someone interjected. “We’ll autopsy you before that. Dissect you into tiny pieces.”
Jesus fucking Christ. Why couldn’t his neighbors have been the gearheads prepping for solar flares that would fry the grid? More kumbaya. Less ready to dissect.
“This is all your fault, Megan,” he said to his sister, who was sitting two rows behind him. “Couldn’t you have moved somewhere else? A normal fucking place?”
She just laughed. “You heard the lady. Keep Patient Zero indoors—by any means necessary.”
“What? Skills too rusty to keep a woman indoors?” she asked.
“I can help,” Ty added. “Is she pretty?”
Gorgeous, actually. Big, dark eyes. Olive-colored skin. Delicate features. But that was beside the point too.
“Fuck off, both of you,” Logan muttered. Raising his voice, he addressed the crowd again. “You’re certifiable. All of you.”
“I totally agree,” Carol said. “We give you far too much leeway. Look at how flexible we’ve been about your toxic contaminants.”
Toxic contaminants? For the love of God.
“Yeah, and all the unmarked vans coming and going,” someone else added. “We like living off the radar. That much movement draws attention.”
“Not to mention your interns, who are a grave security risk,” Carol said.
Logan frowned. “What are you saying? That my crew is a security risk because they’re foreigners?”
“Not because they’re foreigners, but because we don’t know them,” Carol scolded. “You know we don’t discriminate. For us, every person is a possible security threat, regardless of race, religion, or nationality.”
That was true. Preppers didn’t discriminate. They treated everyone according to the same crazy standards.
Why did Megan have to find the love of her life in this godforsaken town? Too bad that in his quest to save the world and keep his sister close by, he hadn’t stopped to think before following her and setting up shop. For such an innovative project, raising funds and international awareness were very important. Thanks to these tinfoil wackos, recruiting interns who wouldn’t run for the hills by the second day was becoming more and more difficult.
“These people see our modus operandi and they talk. We don’t know who they talk to. They could even be taking pics for the government.”
“Which government? Ours or theirs?” Logan asked jokingly.
“Both, probably,” someone said.
Even more murmurs.
This was so ridiculous.
“Sure. I’m teaching them to build dirty bombs in my top-secret lab. What is this? Am I the only topic on the list today?” Because it seemed to him like a waste of everybody’s time to call an emergency town meeting for a couple of sneezes.
That Sky had a fever of 102 degrees, he was keeping to himself. Otherwise this crowd would skip the quarantine and move straight to dissection.
“What about voting on a name for the town?” Logan suggested.
“That’s right,” somebody seconded from the crowd. “I need an official address for my business.”
And there they went, all talking at once. Fighting over it.
Logan reckoned they would be without a name for a fucking long time. But quarantining a poor, innocent woman and violating her rights because of a sneeze? On that they unanimously agreed. “As much as I’d love to stay and debate with you guys, I gotta go.”
Sky hadn’t looked so hot when he left. Well, correction, she’d looked hot. Too hot as a matter of fact. Hopefully she’d taken his suggestion and gone straight to bed, but who knew. She might have decided to go out to cool down. If the pandemic squad found her on his porch or, God forbid, wandering the streets, they would freak out. What the government did to aliens—if they existed, as everyone around here believed they did, of course—was small potatoes compared to what these nutcases would do to her. And to him by extension.
He’d stop by the diner. Get her chicken soup. And then take a detour to the general store. Stock up on Tylenol PM to knock her out for the next couple of days.
As he was leaving, his sister called out, “Remember, keep Patient Zero indoors by whatever means necessary. Use your charm.”
Right. Forget Tylenol. He’d better resort to Valium.