Stevie Roth gave up a chance at inter-dimensional adventure and settled for a life in the ordinary world. She almost convinced herself she made the right decision too, until Weldon Marks, out-of-this-world goofball and totally delicious dufus, shows up and reminds her exactly what she left behind. When he whisks her off on a job, Stevie couldn’t be happier. Except he vanishes again just as quickly, and his unpleasant parallel pops up to stalk her instead.
Now she’s back up to her neck in the insanity, and remembering quite clearly why she left. Weldon is acting cagey, his clone won’t leave her alone, and the invisible man is leading an investigation that seems hell-bent on spoiling any chance she has at keeping the one idiot she wants in her life for good.
Her world's turned completely upside down, her favorite snake has gone missing, and Stevie’s pretty sure the beat up box Weldon stashed in her living room hides something seriously illegal. If it does, she’s going to strangle him. If he doesn’t get himself killed first, that is.
Frances Pauli was born and raised in Washington State. She grew up with a love of reading and storytelling, and was introduced to Science Fiction and Fantasy at an early age through the books kept and read by her father.
Though she always held aspirations to be a writer, she chose to obtain her Bachelor’s degree in visual arts. The stories, however, had other plans for her. By the time she entered her thirties, they were no longer content existing solely in her head. Compelled to free them, she set aside her easel and began to write in earnest.
Her original love of Speculative fiction combined with her covert excursions into the Romance section led her into the realms of Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance, where she finds herself quite comfortable. Her fascination with Science Fiction and a growing passion for the NASA channel divert her happily into tales of the far future, alternate dimensions, and the wonders of space, usually with at least a touch of romance.
Frances currently resides smack in the center of Washington with her husband and two children. When not writing she dabbles in insane things like puppetry, belly dance and playing the ukulele. She collects rocks, and is a firm believer in good wine, fine chocolate and dangerous men. Her short fiction has appeared in Alternative Coordinates magazine.
Visit Frances online at http://francespauli.com
Stevie leaned around a clump of cactus and peered into the burrow. The Arizona sun blazed across the back of her t-shirt, no doubt burning the exposed skin of her neck and upper arms. She eyed the needles sideways and scooted an inch closer to the idiot squatting next to her.
“Is anyone home?” she whispered, focusing on the round, black hole. A mat of silk fanned out from the opening, marking their target as tarantula inhabited. Still, despite her search partner’s assurance that they’d found the correct hole in the ground, they’d yet to see so much as an appendage poking from the burrow.
“Yeah.” His voice fluttered under the strain of his adrenaline rush. “This is it.” He lifted the plastic, half-gallon milk jug in trembling hands and poured another trickle of water into the hole.
They’d dumped half their supply in already and, so far, no spider. The rest of the conference attendees scattered across the desert slope in pairs or small clusters. Each group had been armed with an assortment of plastic deli cups and one jug of water, but once the vans had parked and the eager hunters dispersed, the chatter of excitement faded into an expectant silence and the steady pressure of the Arizona sun in July.
“Joe.” She kept her eyes riveted on the hole. “Maybe we should try the grass thing?” Their deli cups leaned against the cactus, spilling into an awkward tower of thin, see-through plastic. She plucked the top cup and popped the lid. “Try tickling it.”
Joe sighed and traded the jug for a long, feathery blade of nearby scrub grass. He didn’t put much store in the grass trick. He’d told her as much on the drive up. It was all about the water, in Joe’s book. But the speaker last night had suggested the method, and Stevie longed to give it a try. Her partner rolled his eyes and poked the grass toward the hole. He’d humor her. She was pretty sure Joe hoped they could do more than hunt spiders this weekend.
At least Stevie had the tact to turn away before she made a face. She watched the closest huddle of fellow enthusiasts and sighed. She should have gone with a bigger group. She might have landed a partner who didn’t have quite the intensity of Joe. Stevie looked back to the burrow and chewed her lip. She could have taken a job in another dimension.
Footsteps crunched to their right. The boredom had driven a few restless enthusiasts to wander and check on the progress of the more patient squatters. Stevie shook off thoughts of out-of-this-world adventure and turned her attention back to the burrow. This was enough excitement. The convention had been on her to do list for years, and she was having a fantastic time.
She squinted at the hole in the ground and watched a shadow fall across it. Their visitor stopped and bent over them. Stevie caught a whiff of his aftershave. Who wore aftershave on a spider hunt? She eyed the outline of the shadow, the shape of a very familiar hat. It couldn’t be. Her pulse did a nervous dance. Who wore a hat like that outside of a movie?
She turned her head to the side just a touch, just enough to make out a wide, cocky grin. “Heya, Sweetie,” it said.
Before she could grin back, before she could register her seizure of joy at seeing Weldon Marks, inter-dimensional exterminator, goof-off and totally delicious dork, the air erupted with a girlie squeal. For a moment, Stevie feared it had come from her, but her mouth hadn’t so much as twitched. Satisfied that she’d maintained her composure, she glanced to Joe. He squealed again.
“That’s a big spider,” Weldon said. “Want me to—”
“No!” Stevie watched the huge tarantula flex its legs and consider vanishing back into its burrow. She remembered how Weldon had dealt with the giant bedbug. Joe sat frozen. He inhaled, and she feared he’d start screaming again any second. Before he could, she slapped her deli cup down and managed to cover the startled arachnid. “Got it.”
“Nice.” Weldon let out a whistle. “Nice save.”
“Thanks.” She kept her eyes down until the heat left her cheeks. The cup’s lid waited by the stack, and she snagged it and gently slid the thin plastic under the spider, waiting for the tarantula to shift each leg onto the surface until it sat quite safely inside an inverted container.
“Aphonopelma chalcodes” Joe’s voice almost sounded male again. He straightened his spine, pressed his shoulders back and nearly fell over onto the cactus. Weldon put a hand on his back and helped him avoid the catastrophe, but he earned a scowl from Joe for his trouble. Stevie’s giggle probably didn’t help.
“Desert blonde.” She held up the cup and watched the two-toned spider explore the inside with its front legs.
“Pretty,” Weldon said. “What’cha gonna do with it?”
Stevie watched the spider and tried not to let her hands shake. Weldon Marks, damn. She’d never expected to see him again, hoped maybe, obsessed possibly, but never expected. She’d missed the asshole more than she’d ever suspected. The spider swiveled and checked the walls to all sides, trapped in a circle of plastic. Stevie frowned. She held the container out to Joe.
“You take her.”
His eyes widened. She could almost see him weighing his desire for the spider against his chances of scoring with her later. When he took the cup, she’d never been so happy to lose.
“You’re sure?” He didn’t even glance in her direction.
“Yeah. I’d have to ship her home anyway.” She didn’t add that she had to ship a box already, that the dealers’ rooms had turned up a few additions to her collection that wouldn’t pass the airline’s carry-on policy. She just stared at Weldon and let her grin loose at last.
“Thanks,” Joe mumbled. He faded into the background somewhere behind the way Weldon’s eyes flashed in amusement.
“What are you doing here?” Stevie shook her head. How the hell had he found her in the Arizona desert, in this Arizona desert?
“Duh.” He stood up and shrugged. “Looking for you.”
Stevie stood and brushed the dust from her jeans. Looking for her—she felt the blush again, turned her head away to catch Joe brandishing his new find for a growing crowd of admirers.
“Of course,” Weldon continued, “I didn’t expect to find you snuggled up to a spider hole with another man.”
“Snuggled?” She caught the flare of indignation and stifled it. “Joe hardly counts as another man.”
“So, I heard.” Weldon’s grin spread. He raised an eyebrow and tilted his head so that the hat cast his eyes back into shadow. He chuckled and looked at the group around her partner and the spider she’d caught. “That was some scream.”
He wore a leather vest over a dust-colored shirt. It matched the hat. Both looked like they’d been run over more than once. The only thing missing was the vacuum usually attached to his back.
Stevie sighed. “How did you get here, Weldon?”
“Yep.” He stretched, his elbows reaching back together and pushing his chest forward dramatically. “I’m in disguise.”
Uh oh. Stevie spun toward the top of the slope, where the convention vans had parked along the dirt access road. Sandwiched between the last two was a rusty rig. She cringed and scanned to either side. Had anyone seen it yet?
“Weldon,” she growled. “Tell me that isn’t what you drove.”
He froze mid-pose and stared at her. “Yeah. Why?”
“There’s a dead bug on top of it, Weldon.” Stevie eyed the upside down, plastic rendition of a giant, dead cockroach and sighed. “This is a spider enthusiast convention.”
“It’s not a spider.”
“Some of these people keep roaches.” She grabbed his arm and pulled him up the slope.
“This is the weirdest dimension. You know that?” He followed, but his reluctant steps dragged compared to her hustle.
“You need to get it out of here.”
“And here I was thinking you’d be happy to see me.” He stopped dead, and her grip on his arm slipped.
Stevie stumbled forward. “I am happy to see you.”
He crossed both arms over his chest and gave her a look.
“I am, Weldon. I’m thrilled to see you. I’m beside myself with joy to see you.” She sighed and watched him shift into posing mode again. “But you need to go.”
“What?” He followed her willingly to the side of the van, but he didn’t look happy about it at all. “I’m disguised as an exterminator,” he pouted.
“You are an exterminator.”
“Yeah, but I’m disguised as one here. Get it. It’s supposed to be funny.”
“It is funny, actually.”
“You’re not laughing.”
Stevie sagged against the van’s side and rolled her eyes at him.
“Are you really thrilled?”
“Good. I need you.”
“I need your help.” He circled to the back of the van and popped one door open. “On a job.”
He peeked around the door at her, and she smiled and turned away. A few of the attendees clustering around Joe had noticed Weldon’s van. She saw at least one finger pointing in their direction.
“What do you say? Help me out?” His voice drifted over the clanking of whatever he rummaged with back there. She could guess. Infinite possibilities wandered through her mind’s eye. What tools did an exterminator with no dimensional boundaries require?
“Yeah. Sure.” She heard the door slam and the crunch of boots on dry scrub before he slid in between her and the van. Below them, the group’s attention shifted up the slope, to the giant plastic bug in permanent, legs-up slumber on his vehicle’s roof.
Stevie tore her gaze away from the frowns and found Weldon holding open the passenger door. If she drove away in that thing, they’d probably sack her room. The conference really had been a blast. It had just been a single dimension, nothing remotely alien, sort of adventure. She could have lived with that. She looked at Weldon. He tilted his head to the side and swept one hand out in a valiant, over-acted invitation to so much more.
“I have a suitcase full of my things back at the hotel,” she said.
“We can grab them on the way.”
“And I have to catch a flight tomorrow afternoon.”
He raised an eyebrow sharply and shook his head.
“Oh yeah. Right.”
“I can have you home by midnight.”
Earlier than she’d expected, but then, she imagined the time in between would be more eventful, more absolutely mind boggling, than whatever she’d have done here. Stevie nodded and stepped to the door. Helping him with a job was a start, and if she knew Weldon, he didn’t really need her. She’d guess he usually preferred to work alone. If she knew Weldon, but then, did she really? A few days alone in a hole with someone could be misleading.
“Is that girlie man looking this way?”
She looked down the hill and nodded. They all were watching now.
Weldon grabbed her. She squeaked and turned into the unexpected embrace. He kissed her, fast but firm and with a possessive edge that matched his grip on her shoulders. She remembered that kiss, and damned if he didn’t get it just right. When he let her go, her legs wobbled ever so slightly. She found the door, let him help her up into the cab and waited without saying a word while he shut the door and circled around the front of the vehicle.
So she’d miss the last day. She’d had some fun, bought some spiders...even caught one in the wild. What more could a girl expect from an ordinary, single-dimension adventure? She watched him climb into the driver’s seat, cocky, over-confident and with an unpredictable streak three times wider than his common sense. She had missed him.
“You ready to roll?” he asked.
“Yeah.” Stevie grinned and grabbed for her seat belt. She’d never been more ready for anything.