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Playing with Matches

Lacey Schmidt


Back of the Book

Dr. Augusta, Gus, Stuart has devoted her adult life to supporting the mental health of disadvantaged children. A move to head a new clinic in San Antonio prompts her to realize she should do something to build her romantic well-being. Her foray into the world of Internet dating dashes her hopes of finding a reasonable happy-ever-after partner. Desperate for one good date, she lets a friend set her up with her ‘perfect’ match. That date, with the very contrary Callia Alexana, proves to be the most vexing of all. Their prickly debates are somehow as unexpectedly fascinating as playing with matches, and Gus reconsiders what preconceptions she is willing to burn to find true love. But will she get burnt instead?

Playing with Matches

Copyright © 2017 by Lacey Schmidt

Smashwords Edition

All rights reserved.



First Edition

PDF, ePub, mobi

Published: November 14, 2017

This book is Published by

Affinity eBook Press NZ LTD

Canterbury, New Zealand


Editor: CK King

Proof Editor: Alexis Smith

Cover Design by Irish Dragon Designs

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This work is copyrighted and is licensed only for use by the original purchaser and can be copied to the original purchaser's electronic device and its memory card for your personal use. Modifying or making copies of this work or distributing it to any unauthorized person by any means, without limit, including by email, CD, DVD, memory cards, file transfer, paper printout or any other method, constitutes a violation of International copyright law and subjects the violator to severe fines or imprisonment. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions.

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


Thank you to my soul mate, lovely wife, and caregiving hero, Laura. Thank you to my other perpetual heroes, Mom and Dad; and to my biological and acquired family for your love and support (without which writing would not happen)—especially my long-term, right-hand writing sister-in-crime, Carrie.

Thank you to the authors and women of Affinity.

Thank you to my brilliant and patient business partners for their continuous encouragement of my “second, secret career,” writing fiction.

And last, but most of all, thank you for reading. I’m convinced we make the world a better place every time we read a book and expand our own inner world.


To the people behind the people – the parents, siblings, children, spouses, and friends who love and support the caregivers, so we can keep giving care well, through disasters big and small.

And to Trey Garcia. We don’t die, we just go out with our stereo on. I still hear you.

Also by Lacey Schmidt

The Nightshade Lexicon

A Walk Away

Catch to Release

Love’s Luck (Affinity Holiday Anthology)

Table of Contents

Chapter One—Social Credibility

Chapter Two—Stuff Shrivels Up

Chapter Three—What Would don Quixote Do?

Chapter Four—Murphy Shits on Everyone

Chapter Five—Likely Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Chapter Six—High Dollar Help at Bargain Basement Prices

Chapter Seven—Twelve Years with a Mexican Stripper

Chapter Eight—Borrowing Family

Chapter Nine—Denial Is a River That Runs Strong

Chapter Ten—Wry Vinnie’s

Chapter Eleven—Dating Blinders

Chapter Twelve—Fanning the Flames

Chapter Thirteen—Red Crossed

Chapter Fourteen—I’ve Got a Kung Fu Heart

Chapter Fifteen—Morning Mullings

Chapter Sixteen—Unclaimed Baggage Is Even Worse

Chapter Seventeen—Kindling Sticks

Chapter Eighteen—Hot Flash

Chapter Nineteen—Warm Intentions

Chapter Twenty—The Frying Pan

Chapter Twenty-one—Fire Starter

Chapter Twenty-two—Baggage to Burn

Chapter Twenty-three—Cabin Fever

Chapter Twenty-four—Serious Interruptions

Chapter Twenty-five—Being Right Doesn’t Win You Anything

Chapter Twenty-six—Safety in Numbers

Chapter Twenty-seven—Better Laid Plans

Chapter Twenty-eight—Where There Is Smoke

Chapter Twenty-nine—Three-Alarm Fire

Chapter Thirty—On Three Conditions

About the Author

Other Books from Affinity

Chapter One

Social Credibility

Augusta Stuart was initially full of optimism and anticipation when her blind date, the ostensibly esteemed, local psychiatrist, Michelle Wynne, decided they should meet in person for the first time at the public library portal at the Briscoe Western Art Museum. Gus loved books, art, and history. And the more cautious side of her nature had also been pleased to discover the library was directly across the street from one of San Antonio’s police stations. At the time, she never thought she would contemplate dashing into it before the first hour of their date was done.

She struggled to figure out where she had gone so wrong, as Michelle pushed her into a bathroom stall with a lascivious growl and pulled the stall door shut behind her. “Um. I just need to use the bathroom.”

Michelle laughed and unbuttoned the top button of a silk shirt, exacerbating the severe plunge of its neckline. “Why Dr. Stuart, I didn’t realize my psychological colleagues could be so shy of obvious attractions on first dates.” She licked her lips suggestively. “We have so much in common, professionally, personally. Don’t you think it’s nice just to unconsciously let go and act on our more physical impulses? It could be very nice. Right now, in fact.” Her voice literally purred.

She was a beautiful woman. Voluptuous. Her hair was thick, straight, and incredibly lustrous in the florescent lighting. She scraped perfect teeth slowly over her berry-red bottom lip and eyed Gus provocatively.

Gus squirmed. “It’s a restroom. We’re in a public bathroom.”

“Yes, we are.” Michelle ran one finger down Gus’s bare forearm, bringing goosebumps to the surface of her skin in the wake of her touch.

Breath accelerated, Gus eyed the walls of the stall and tried to collect her thoughts into some semblance of order.

Michelle leaned in and whispered hotly near her ear, “Are you afraid people will hear us and think less than charitable things about our propriety?”

The hairs on the back on Gus’s neck stood at attention. She nodded.

“Hmm. Well, darling, you know it’s not too healthy to worry about what others will think.”

Gus shook her head, nodded, shook her head again. That wasn’t the point, she thought, or maybe it was, but no, she was sure she had another point…

Michelle let out a loud throaty groan and several overtly excited oh’s for emphasis. An amazing actress. Gus stood shocked and silent, unable to keep the abject horror out of her eyes.

Michelle laughed her great musical laugh and gave a coy smile. “See there, you’re already guilty of it as far as every library patron can tell. We might as well make the most of it.”


Michelle put one of Gus’s hesitant hands on the swell of her breast. “You have something better to do?”

Gus stood frozen.

“We’re both healthy, consenting adults. It’s okay.”

And that gave Gus the clarity she desperately needed. She withdrew her hand. “But that’s just it. I’m sorry, Michelle, but I am not consenting.”

“Ah.” Michelle smiled sadly. “Looking for something a little slower?”

Gus nodded.

“Seems we’re not the best match then.” She unlocked the stall door and stepped back, allowing Gus some sight of freedom. “I can’t say that I’m not disappointed. But of course, I respect your needs.”

“Thank you,” Gus whispered.

Michelle nodded and gave Gus another once over that Gus felt pretty sure should have incinerated the clothes clean off her body. “It was still a pleasure to meet you.”

Politeness automated Gus’s answer. “And you as well.”

Michelle barked a laugh. “I’ll let you go then. I’m guessing you do have better things to do.” She waved and sashayed out the bathroom door, leaving Gus flummoxed in the stall.

“I do. I need to call home,” she whispered to the now empty room. “And finish unpacking. And maybe rethink this online dating service idea.”

“You did what?” June’s thick Georgian drawl rose an octave at the end of her question.

Gus smiled at the incredulity in her older sister’s tone. “I joined an online dating service called San Antonio Matches4All.”

“What for?” June’s skepticism was accompanied by the voices of her nephews’ squabbling.

“Because I’m tired of being alone, but don’t tell Mama that.”

June laughed through her nose. “Yeah, we know her answer. She would tell you to quit trying to save the world and come back home to Atlanta where you’re needed and loved. And you know what? I’m not so sure she isn’t right.”

“This is a good opportunity to use what I’ve spent the last decade learning and wanting to do, June. I can’t give it up now.”

“I get it. You want to help children. I even get that you want to help impoverished children, but I don’t see why you can’t do that here in Atlanta.”

Gus squeezed her eyes shut and rubbed her forehead. “My chance to build a mental health service program for impoverished youth is here in San Antonio. I get to establish and direct the whole program from its start.”

June snorted softly. “I think those two years with the Peace Corps in Guatemala turned you into a bleeding-heart liberal.”

“You’re one to talk. Besides, I think it was my fellowship at Harbor House that gave me the bleeding-heart and made Tyler Foundation interested in offering me this job.”

“Your fluency with Spanish probably didn’t hurt either.” Her sister clicked her tongue.

Gus smiled. “Yeah.”

“You know we’re proud of you. I just worry about my baby sister, playing with matches online and all that.”

“And Mama is putting the pressure on you to put the pressure on me, since July got engaged.”

June gave a rolling laugh. “You know it, sister. Ever since our darling baby brother conned that sweet girl into marrying him, she’s been telling me there is undeniable proof of miracles and asking how come it’s so hard to find a wealthy, healthy lesbian to make her most educated daughter a wife.”

“That’s exactly why I signed up for the online dating site. I’m telling you all, it’s impossible to find myself a wife if I never date—and you don’t want me recruiting lesbians in bars.”

“And they don’t go to church?”

“Oh, sure. And you know the Catholic Church is so welcoming of gays these days; they’ve even taken to hosting lesbian socials in the most Catholic city in Texas.”

“Now there is no reason to be so sarcastic with me, missy.” June chuckled. “With that kind of obstinacy, it’s no wonder we can’t marry you off before you’re an old maid.”

“Well, that’s probably a good part of the truth.” Gus brushed aside a strand of her unruly, brown hair and gave a small sigh.

“Oh now, don’t go getting all morose and moody on me now. You make friends with a fence post easy enough.”

“Yeah, but it’s hard being so far away from you all again. And if things work like I want them to here, that means I will remain far away from you all.”

“You can always decide you’ve done enough and come home, Gus. It doesn’t have to be forever, no matter how well it goes in San Antonio.”

Gus twisted her cellphone charging chord around her index finger and let it loose again. “Yeah. You’re right. I think I’m just P-M-S-ing on top of stressing over the move.”

“You’ve done it before. You did fine for your two years in the Peace Corp in Guatemala, though Lord knows how many years in school, getting that fancy degree of yours, and even through your two years of fellowship in Nebraska for heaven’s sake. You’ll do fine in San Antonio, and we’ll send care packages.”

“Ooo.” She anticipated the delicious goodies. “With some chocolate-covered goobers?”

“Sure, and some of my pecan pie cookies.”

“You’re the best.”

“I know.”

“Modest much?”

“Nah, my sister, the psychologist, told me too much humility damages my self-worth and ruins my social credibility.”

“Blah, blah, blah. Your sister uses too much psychobabble.”

“Yeah, she does. I love you, Gussie. I gotta go change your niece’s diaper.”

“I love you too, June. Kisses to all.” Gus smiled, as she heard her newest niece, March, give a hearty squall.

June’s reply was harried but warm. “And sugar back at ya. Bye, hon.”

Chapter Two

Stuff Shrivels Up

A silken tongue hammered butterfly strokes over her tight, pulsing clitoris. Callia Alexana felt the waves of her orgasm mounting to crest over her entire body, tingling from the top of her head to the tips of her toes.

And then, her cherished, old alarm-clock radio sprang to life. A National Public Radio segment on Syria shattered her dream. She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to retain enough of the tattered remnants to achieve some relief, but the NPR segment ended and an announcer advertised one of her father’s restaurant franchises, “Sponsored by Baba Alexana’s Greek Deli.” Her father’s voice intoned an empathic, “Opah, good eats,” for good measure, and she gave up the dream completely with a muttered curse and a sigh. There are just some things you can’t do for yourself, and that kind of oral pleasure is damn sure one of them, she thought, as she lumbered out of bed and padded toward the shower. Saturday morning or not, she and Andy had some important logistics to work out if the Red Cross was going to have food and medical supplies for any of those Syrian refugees arriving in Caracas on Monday.

Nearly ten hours later, Cal squeezed her eyes shut and tried to ward off the headache building from the tensed muscles at the back of her neck.

“He doesn’t give a rat’s ass if we’re bringing in medical supplies or not. No charter flights are allowed in from stateside, only boats.” Andy tugged on his left ear and scowled. “Damn it, Cal, what else can we do?”

Cal paced, one long agitated leg in front of the other, in the small room like a wired panther. “He’s going to have hundreds of families in need of medical attention in that bloody, back-assed, murder-happy hell hole.” Cal slammed the meaty side of a closed fist against the closest wall before pacing back toward Andy’s desk.

Andy grimaced.

Cal felt like she was at a breaking point. She could cuss like a sailor, but rarely did unless tthe anger bubbled up too hot and irrepressible. She knew she got that from her father. He appeared so mild mannered—like Clark Kent—or like baba ghanoush, the Levantine eggplant dish he was nicknamed after. He was calm and kind, ninety-five percent of the time, but if you ruffled, or heaven forbid, pulled on his feathers too much, then cuss words would fly out of him just like a chicken with Tourette syndrome.

“We’ll have to use a boat,” Andy suggested.

“Okay, I’ll reroute the flight to San Juan, and we’ll get that barefoot cruise skipper who motored supplies to Haiti last spring to move them on to Caracas… He’s taken sanctioned dive trips to Venezuela before, right?”

“Yep.” Andy smiled.

Cal thought about how good they were at this. No matter the red tape and hassles, it still felt good being adept at doing something that helped. She worried though. Lately, it seemed like even the big wins didn’t keep her smiling much. She dialed the skipper on her smartphone and negotiated the details with her shoulders thrown back and tried to keep her tone positive. She usually kept her hair short, so it stayed under her motorcycle helmet, but she had gone too long without a haircut again. A glossy, black strand fell forward along her jawline. She swiped it away with a frown and heard herself being no more than polite and quick with the skipper. She couldn’t help but contrast her tone to when she’d spoken to the jovial skipper, Jeff, last spring. They’d traded banter and beer like baseball cards at a comic convention.

Sighing, Callia looked at Andy and announced, “Done.”

Andy acknowledged her with a tilt of his head and finished bartering online with the charter flight service.

“I’ll text Drs. Loftis and McPherson and let them know they’ll have to meet the supply boat,” Cal confirmed. She crumpled into an office chair nearby, with her fingers already wiggling over her phone screen. Fading daylight poured in the frosted, plate glass window of their office from the empty street outside, reminding Callia that it was approaching six o’clock on a beautiful spring evening. She glanced at Andy and found him looking back at her.

“Huron, Nik and Emily are grilling steaks. You know you’re invited,” Andy said.

Cal sighed. “I know.”

“But?” Andy asked.

“Nothing. I’m just in the mood for a little downtime, alone, at home.”

“Ah, must be a really big nothing if it is keeping you from hanging with Nik.”

Cal loved all of them, but none so fiercely as her baby brother, Nikolai Alexana. Nik was even more of a black sheep than his lesbian sister. He had appeared to follow the family hopes when he got his degree in culinary arts, much to the pride of their restaurant-mogul dad. Nik also married into the upper crust of San Antonio society when he fell in love with Huron Tyler’s little sister, Emily. But Nik and Emily had promptly set up a low-scale, healthy-eating cafe that had no connection to Huron’s grocery supply business or Baba Alexana’s restaurant chains. They’d also set up shack in a one-bedroom renovated hotel apartment across from the county courthouse, shunning the empty Tyler mansion in Alamo Heights. While Nik, Emily, and Cal had always been a tight group, Cal thought their common opposition to the wills and wants of Huron Tyler and Baba Alexana over the last year had united them even more in their black sheep pack. She shoved her phone into the hip pocket of her jeans. “I saw Nik at lunch. He thought Emily would probably be late tonight, anyway. She’s getting the new Harbor House facility ready for some psychologist they hired to build up the mental health clinic.” Sarcasm slipped a more caustic edge into her tone than she intended. “And I can’t really think of anything more fun than being the lone feminine sanity surrounded by you guys in the unchecked throes of your carnivorous testosterone.”

Andy grimaced. “Hm. On second thought, you’re right. Can I come be solitary with you? I’m sure Huron will feel the need to talk about his latest exploits in bimbo land.”

“Sorry, vaquero, you’re on your own.”

Grinning broadly, Andy put his hands behind his head and leaned back in his chair. “I’m not.”

Cal cocked an eyebrow at him. “Andreas Arturo Pena, are you trying to intimate that one Miss Minola Jones has finally accepted your proposal?”

Andy gripped the armrests of his office chair and leaned forward. “I think so, Cal. I hope so. At least, Mina finally said she would think about it.”

“When she said she’d think about it, did she also do that big buxom thing where she says,” Callie inhaled a big breath and lowered her voice a register to imitate Mina’s, “What’s a rico, suave veteran want with an overweight, black woman and her two bastard children anyway?”

Andy shook his head. “No. She just said, ‘I’ll think on it sweet-cheeks,’ and kissed me good-bye.”

“Congratulations, Andy. I knew you would win her over.”

“Persistence pays.”

“Don’t we know it.” Callia smiled at him.

Andy blushed and blinked. “So when are you gonna go on a date again?”

Cal mock hissed, “Never.”

“Aw, come on. You can’t be abstinent forever. Stuff shrivels up.”

“Ick, Andy. It does not. And nobody said I was abstinent.”

“Now that’s gross, Cal. Either you’re getting physical with a girl you’re ashamed to bring home to your family or…”

Cal studied the Saltillo tile floor and shook her head vaguely.

Andy continued, “Yeah, I know you’re picky. So it’s the other alternative, where you’re secretly dating some fantastic woman who deserves to know your family and vice versa.”

“Nah, neither.” Cal felt the heat of a blush descend from the roots of her hair.

“Oh. TMI.” Andy blinked.

“Right.” Cal toed the tile.

“Anyway, my point is you should date, and you should just come out to Huron and your family.”

“It’s no secret.”

“The hell it isn’t. Have you ever said it out loud to any of them?” Andy gestured his concern with both hands.

“Yeah, I told Nik and Emily.”

“That isn’t what I’m asking and you know it.”

“What good would it do to tell Baba out loud? What difference would it make? He would just go on plotting my life for me anyway. He’s had me betrothed to Huron in his mind since we were knee-high on a grasshopper.”

“Your father is stubborn, Cal, but he’s a good man. I think he wants to see you happy more than he wants to see you do things his way.”

“Bullshit. He can taste a Tyler-Alexana dynasty so clearly, he’s already got a draft of a prenuptial operating agreement.”

Andy shrugged. “I doubt it, but that still doesn’t mean you should stay celibate. I mean that’s like thwarting your nose to spite your face.”

“No, my friend, that’s reducing the complications I have to deal with for now. One day, I’ll happen onto the woman who makes doing otherwise worth it, but I’m not gonna wrestle that fire-breathing dragon until I must.”

“You know better. Just look at how long it took Mina to start to trust me. You don’t seriously expect to bump into the right woman. You have to do some looking.”

“There is no point in looking until my house is in order, so to speak.”

“Yeah, so get your house in order, Callia Persephone Alexana.”

Cal could tell he was excited now. The whole-name thing was something they only did to each other when they were serious. “Not now, Andy. Not yet. I’m not in the mood.”

Andy frowned. “At this rate, you’ll be older than dirt and the pickings will be slim by the time you’re in the mood.”

“Maybe. But not everyone gets true love anyway. There are other ways to be happy. See you mañana, stud.” Cal picked up her motorcycle helmet and her skid jacket and walked for the door, leaving Andy to lock up the place.

Chapter Three

What Would don Quixote Do?

Gus sat on one of the piles of cardboard boxes spread around her tiny new living room and stared at her Converse sneakers. The sole on her left shoe had a blowout. Rubber flapped whenever she walked, and she couldn’t even begin to remember which box labeled office supplies held the super glue or even which one had the rubber cement. She needed to find the box with her dress shoes, for that matter.

The sun was finally setting. It was still spring and it was already too hot in the afternoons for her pleasure. She stood up and shuffled across the newly buffed long-board floors of her rented duplex to the front screen door. The old house was small, but the inside was remodeled and clean. The bright, white walls and blonde wood floors felt cheery to her. A small central AC unit had even been included, and Gus was beyond-the-moon grateful. She stepped out onto the porch and pulled the old, wooden inner door shut to keep in the cooler air. The screen door gave a jovial tinny bang, as it shut behind her on its own automatic closing spring. She wanted to go for a walk and learn the neighborhood, but the flapping at her left heel reminded her that a stroll probably wasn’t the best idea for a Zen moment right now.

A voice from behind her echoed her thoughts, “I don’t think it’s so safe to go out here at dark.” Gus turned to find the speaker and noticed a boy of indeterminate age. He was too tall for ten years old, but too small and innocent appearing for fourteen. Maybe twelve years old.

“I’m Maverick,” the boy said to the porch railing, his fingers picking at the new paint.

“I’m Gus. I just moved in here.”

“Gus is a boy’s name.” Maverick looked her over with wide brown eyes.

“Yes, you’re right. My whole name is Augusta. I was named after my grandmother, who was named after her dad, August. It is an old-fashioned name. Most people just call me Gus.”

“People call me Mav. Or Martian,” the boy offered.

“Nice to meet you, Mav.”

No further response came forth. Watching the boy’s polite but distant face, Gus suspected Mav might have what the diagnostic manual once called Asperger’s syndrome. You could send the clinician home, she thought, but that didn’t mean the clinician could leave the diagnostic tendencies at work. “Why do they call you Martian? Do you live next door?” Gus tried a broad gesture toward the door near hers, but Mav was still looking at the porch railing. She waited, thinking that the good Lord gave her plenty of patience, and patients. She smiled to herself at the old joke.

“I am going home, Gus. See you later.” Mav slipped quickly along the porch railing, then along the front wall of the house and into the door beside her own.

Again, she thought he loitered somewhere on the autism spectrum. She pushed the thought away and tried to leave well enough alone for the evening, but she wasn’t very good at it. She’d come here to help kids exactly like Mav.

She sighed and straightened her arms over her head, standing up onto her tiptoes until she felt her back give a satisfying pop. Tomorrow, she would start her first day as the supervising clinician at the Harbor House’s brand new mental health services clinic for disadvantaged youth. “A supervising clinician in charge of myself alone at the moment,” she whispered to herself and huffed out a breath.

She’d have to get the services started and wait for the board to find her the funding to staff up the place.

The press of trucks and SUVs parked along the curb on her narrow street made her realize that there was, no doubt, a certain car culture in San Antonio. For the umpteenth time since agreeing to take the job in south central Texas, she wondered if she should have bought a car. She’d never owned a car in her life. The youngest girl of six kids from a Georgia Cracker family, she knew plenty well how to survive without wheels. She’d tried out the bus route to the clinic twice already. It was a near straight shot, with only a few blocks’ walk on each side, but the schedule was less than predictable from what she could tell. She thought it would be best to drag a change of clothes to stash in the office, in case she got too sweaty waiting out the bus on the way in—or missed it entirely and had to hike the two miles up St. Mary’s Street to the renovated 1950s era shopping center that housed the clinic and it’s football-field-sized gravel parking lot. She wondered how many of her patients would have cars and how many struggled to get from a home on the southern outskirts of town to work in the touristy hotspots downtown.

Her new clinic was set on the southern edges of downtown, convenient to the bus from the south-side neighborhoods. Census estimates indicated they would desperately need access to some kind of mental health services for youth. The dilapidated shops were in stark contrast to the pleasantly green and rustically tended grounds of the Tyler Grocery headquarters, directly across on Cesar Chavez Street. Obviously, the grocery distribution company did well.

A few blocks up from the clinic, Gus had discovered the Bexar County Courthouse and some other civic offices that could make the clinic more convenient for families traveling into the city center. Beyond the courthouse was a pretty square where Gus hoped to have time for an outdoor lunch or evening dinner, one day when the weather wasn’t reminiscent of a glass-making furnace in operation.

She took a deep breath and wondered what changes the next six months would bring. The work she did over these next few months would determine if the clinic was worth having around. She knew that no matter how late she worked, no matter how much she scrapped and fought for resources, there would always be too many disadvantaged children and not enough mental health services to go around—but she wanted to make a dent. “I want to be don Quixote,” she mumbled and fanned herself with one hand. “I just have to remember not to sacrifice so much of myself to the cause that I become a hollow, loveless husk. That’s why I’m braving this Internet-dating bullshit. Surely, someone else out there is ready for a healthy, enduring, baggage-free romance.”

Her self-pep talk fell short of inspiring any optimism. Intent on finding the box with her dress shoes before she went to bed, she trudged back inside as night slipped its cooler hands more thoroughly around the shrinking throat of daylight in the west.

Chapter Four

Murphy Shits on Everyone

The overcast sky put a lead-balloon ceiling over the world as far as Gus could see. Rain had threatened each day for the last two weeks. An empty threat. Street dogs spent most of the day barking in anticipation of a thunderstorm that would never come near her neighborhood. Summer storms in the Atlanta of Gus’s childhood came over Lookout Mountain at a charge and let go for all they were worth. The squalls that rolled over the Nebraskan plains, where she’d interned with Boys Town, were much the same, and storms that blew over Guatemala during her Peace Corps days were often dreaded for how fast and long they let loose over the land. Texas held onto rain like an oblivious monarch taunting the peasants with cake. At first, she’d thought the overcast sky would be a relief from the oppressively bright heat, but the heat remained and the added humidity left her irritable at the sweat that constantly gathered underneath her hair.

The only benefit was that she could smell the water in the air. Gus looked up at the sky and gave a full sigh, as she stood, again, waiting for the bus.

A motorcycle sped around the corner and passed Gus in a huff of hot air. The loud engine gave a deafening rumble, as it carried its lithe, obviously female rider toward air conditioning. Even though Gus knew the rider must be hot and miserable under all that protective gear, she scowled her displeasure at the deafening decibels. “Future organ donor,” she grumbled at the rider’s graceful back, despite the spark of energy her libido got from the view.

The pale-skinned brown-haired woman waiting for the bus on the corner snagged Cal’s attention, and she wasn’t sure why. In those few sparse seconds, the air sizzled with something besides heat and humidity, but the traffic light turned green before Cal reached a stopping point. She didn’t have time to look twice before she drove on to work.

Ignoring the threatening clouds that she knew from experience wouldn’t produce any rain, she parked her motorcycle at the foot of the loading dock behind the old adobe-walled warehouse she had rehabilitated into the headquarters of MediXenia. Andy’s Prius wasn’t parked there yet, but she scanned the building’s few windows for lights on anyway, knowing Andy sometimes walked the mile from his apartment. Only the security light showed. She keyed the fingerprint lock to the backdoor. The metal security door swung on well-oiled hinges and opened to the deeper silence of the positive-pressure building. The well-conditioned air tasted dry and clean, as she walked past the hurricane-proof steel and glass walls that defended their racks of dedicated, secure GPU servers. She rested easy in the knowledge everything was duplicated to a similar room in a bunker near Los Alamos.

“Murphy shits on everyone sooner or later,” she whispered to herself, as she wandered into the kitchenette and started up the professional espresso machine retired from one of her father’s restaurants. The pungent smell of perfectly roasted Kenyan AA coffee beans spoke directly to her cortex and almost brought an appreciative smile to her face. She placed her steel Yeti mug under the spigot and watched the black, liquid gold steam into it. “At least this always goes well.” She patted the machine fondly, leaving it on for the others to use when they wandered in closer to eight o’clock. She took her steaming mug to the office she shared with Andy in the corner of the building.

It was dark, dry, and cool. As she stepped through the doorway the lights came on. Per habit, she rebooted both of her laptops and her desktop, then dropped into her ergonomic desk chair to wait for everything to fully cycle back on. She picked up the tennis ball to the left of her keyboard and proceeded to bounce the ball on the wall above her panel of monitors. Normally the routine helped clear her mind, but she found her thoughts straying further afield, back to the tatters of her last argument with her sister-in-law, Emily.

Only Andy, Em, and her brother Nik explicitly knew she was a lesbian. She didn’t think there was any reason to point out the giant elephant in the room to the rest of her family, when they so obviously wanted to ignore it in preference of their dream that she would one day come to her senses and marry Emily’s brother. Huron was her childhood friend and heir to the Tyler Grocery fortunes. Andy and Emily were becoming more persistent in their conviction that it was important to declare her sexuality, out loud, to the entire family. Cal knew it didn’t matter though. Huron and her father would only see her sexual orientation as a minor obstacle to manage in their manipulations. She’d ruined her last and best chance at a relationship with her belief in that certainty, but she couldn’t find it in herself to tell Andy, Emily, or Nik about that.

It had been over eighteen months since Jennifer Kim declared their almost relationship was officially finished. Cal remembered the resignation in Jen’s dark, almond eyes, her beautifully broad-cheeked face smoothly determined not to give away any emotional dismay, as Jen explained she wanted out of the closet. The fact that Jen was closeted in the first place was what had made their relationship work so well. As a finance attorney for a very conservative, regional energy company and a first-generation Korean-American, Jen had as many reasons as Cal did to keep love, family, and work neatly compartmentalized. Keeping their affections on the down-low worked well for both of them, until Jen evolved. Cal loved her enough to let her go, knowing she would not make similar progress with her own family any time soon and that Jen would only come to resent her closeted role in Cal’s life.

Telling Andy or Emily about Jen would only add fuel to their argument; and following their advice to bring home a girlfriend would only ignite an ugly cycle of denial, protest, and resentment among herself, Huron, and her father.

The panel of monitors in front of her came to life, as all systems came online. She caught the tennis ball’s return from the wall one more time and set it aside. Shaking her head, she told the stillness around her, “And that is why I should just keep my problems to myself. No sense burdening friends and family with worries they can’t fix.”

A notification window from her voice mail popped up on her left-side monitor, indicating there was a voice message waiting from someone at the Red Cross regional office. Cal clicked play.

The treacle voice of the new Red Cross regional disaster response director slinked around the room as she hit play. “Hello disaster service coordinators. This is your new regional executive director, Dan Argyle, calling to remind you about our next meeting in Austin. While we appreciate your long history as a volunteer, please remember that those who do not attend will not be allowed to continue volunteering. Also, please remember, I expect each coordinator to recruit at least two new corporate ready-when-the-time-comes sponsors before the end of the year. See you soon.” Cal sneered as the canned recording concluded, and she remembered his smarmy leer over her the last time they spoke. That guy really gave her the heebie-jeebies, and she rued the day she didn’t apply for the job herself—if only to avoid his leadership.

Cal clicked delete. “You’re an ass wipe, Dan. Can’t wait to endure you again.”

“Good morning to you too, sunshine,” Andy said as he entered the office.

Finally, Gus sat down at her desk, in the relief of the clinic’s air conditioning. She took the opportunity before her first client appeared to go through both personal and work e-mails. With alarm, she viewed the two hundred and fifty-three notices from her San Antonio Matches4All profile and whispered, “Sweet Jesus. How the hell do I weed through so many?”

Chapter Five

Likely Narcissistic Personality Disorder

“How was your date with the gynecologist?” Gus’s sister asked with evident glee.

“Horrible. Another dud. I’m starting to think this online dating schema is completely worthless.”

“I told you,” June said.

Gus clutched her cellphone tighter and rubbed her forehead. “Yeah, but you’re not supposed to rub it in.”

“So, what was wrong with the gynecologist, besides the weirdness of dating a woman who looks at a lot of other women’s parts for a living?” Davis, June’s husband, snorted in the background and said something Gus couldn’t make out.

“She had fake, red nails long enough to be chopsticks and a laugh that was difficult to distinguish from a braying donkey. Plus, I’m pretty sure she went into medicine to facilitate her own hypochondriasis.”

June laughed. “Well, at least she probably knew the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist and didn’t ask you to prescribe any antidepressants like that copywriter, right?”

“There is that.” Gus shuddered, as she remembered the copywriter with the startling underbite and wooly eyebrows.

“What about the artist?”

“She lives in a silo, literally, and thinks everyone should.”



“The physicist?”

“A Wiccan who reeked of cheap patchouli and cat pee. I sneezed for hours after ten minutes in her presence.”

“How about the bank teller? Did you set up a meeting with her yet? Her profile picture is pretty hot.”

Looking out her office window, Gus watched the sun flare orange as it started to sink beneath the broad expanse of live oak branches hanging over the edge of the center’s empty parking lot. “I set something up for this Friday evening, but I got a package from her yesterday.”

“You what? How’d she know where to send anything to you?” June’s voice went up two octaves.

Gus scanned the parking lot again. “That is a very good question. She sent it to the center; so I’m guessing she had to do some online research to find out my last name and place of employment.”

“That is a little disturbing, but I guess I might do something similar if I felt attracted to an online contact. What was in the package?”

“A gold bracelet with a diamond charm.”

“Holy shit.”

Gus chuckled. “Yeah. That’s a pretty giant red flag.”

“Yeah, so what are you gonna do?”

“I already repackaged it and mailed it back to the return address. I sent her an e-mail politely explaining that I thought it best we cancel Friday’s date.” Gus rolled her neck until she felt a helpful pop.

“Oh. How did that go?” A pot or pan clacked in the background as June spoke.

“She sent me back a five-page e-mail rant about how I was a controlling, manipulative bitch. I didn’t respond. This morning, I got another two-page e-mail saying how sorry she was for her behavior and asking for a second chance to understand my needs.”

“Whoa. Charming.” Running water murmured beneath June’s retort, and Gus pictured her sister cooking, with a baby on her hip and the phone pressed to her other ear.

“Mmm-mmm. Likely narcissistic personality disorder,” Gus said.

“So the beautiful bank teller is out. What next?”

“I should get going, June. I’m still at work.”

“Gus. It’s almost eight o’clock your time. Why on earth are you still at work? Mamma would have your hide if she knew.”

June’s concern inspired Gus’s first big smile in hours. “I know. I promise to be better tomorrow. There was just so much to do today, so many clients to see that I couldn’t resist putting in a few extra hours.”

“That is a good sign. At least your work ambitions are playing out well there.”

“Don’t worry, June, I haven’t forgotten that I can come home anytime. I promise I will work out my romantic and social life too. I just need more time.”

“Well, unlike Mamma, I’m okay if you take your time. I’d rather you make her more grandbabies with your soul mate.”

“She would too, she’s just worried my ovaries will be duds by the time I find said soul mate.”

“There is that.” June giggled.

“If I hurry out now I can catch the next bus home. I love you all.”

“We love you too. July says to give him a call Sunday.”

“I will. Good night, June.”

“Good night, sister.” June hung up, and Gus gathered her stuff together with one last look at the empty parking lot. She hoped the batty bank teller wouldn’t decide to make any personal appearances after hours.

Chapter Six

High-Dollar Help at Bargain Basement Prices

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