Chapter One

In less than an hour, thanks to PayBuddy and a feeble password, everything in Jane’s life would change. But first there would be donuts.

Jane’s heart sped up just a wee bit as she pushed through the break room door and spotted it in the center of the table. Settled in the midst of various coffee accessories and random snack debris, the pink cardboard box sent a signal of pure joy.

She raised the lid only to have her hopes sag like cold, lumpy oatmeal.

The sole donut left in a box big enough to have once held at least a dozen was an old-fashioned. Greasy, dark, half-circle footprints across the bottom of the cardboard box signaled that there had been others, but only this lone survivor remained.

What was the point of an old-fashioned anyway? They were more cake than donut. The consistency was all wrong. Some of them, like this one, weren’t even glazed. This specimen is what Jane liked to call a “why bother” donut. If you’re not going to fry it and dip it in sugar, then what’s the point? Why bother?

Jane’s shoulders drooped and she let out a long sigh as she held the box lid open.

She’d been late for work and this was obviously her punishment. Just as she was about to reach for the sad little remnant, someone’s hand reached past her and grabbed it.

“Hey!” Jane looked up just as Jake broke the cake donut in half.

“Don’t go vertical jets on me. I was gonna share it with you.” Jake handed her one half as he made quick work of the other.

“What does vertical jets even mean?” Jane took the donut ration from him and settled into a nearby chair. She was going to make her half last at least a minute longer than his, which was already gone.

“You know, vertical, like a rocket.”

“Well then, why not say rocket instead of jets?”

“I’m a wordsmith. I like to create my own slang.” Jake poured a cup of coffee and took long chugs as he leaned against the counter next to the sink. His blond hair had apparently never been introduced to a comb. He was in his usual fitted plaid short-sleeved shirt, skinny jeans with just a hint of the boxers he wore underneath spilling out at the waist, and some hipster retro tennis shoes with no arch support that Jane was pretty sure she used to wear in junior high school. Jake was the children’s librarian, and despite his hipster persona, he did exhibit a sort of childlike wonder about the world around him that was almost charming. But sometimes his exuberance, especially early in the morning, annoyed Jane.

“Dude, saying indecipherable things doesn’t make you a wordsmith.”

Before the finer points of wordsmithing could be debated further, Elaine leaned in through the partially open door.

“Jane, Captain Underpants is here to see you.” Elaine’s dark hair fell haphazardly across her left eye, and she pushed it back.

“Come on, I just got here. I’m not even fully caffeinated yet.” Jane tried her best to deflect the request she knew was coming.

“It’s your turn and you’re in luck. He’s gotten himself a new cape. He’s over in nonfiction. If you hurry you might catch him.”

“Why me?”

“You were late, and this is what happens to people who are tardy.”

Jane had been working at this small satellite library branch for less than a month since she’d gotten laid off from the newspaper, and she already had a bit of a crush on Elaine. She was the living embodiment of the sexy librarian dream girl. Today was no exception. She was wearing some Catholic schoolgirl skirt that she’d probably found at a thrift store with a blouse and cardigan that were at least one size too small, hugging every subtle dip and curve of her slender body. The kelly green Doc Martens boots were just icing on the cake or, uh, glaze on the donut.

“I’m on it.” Jane finished her coffee and dropped the last bite of her donut back in the box. She was pretty sure Jake would inhale it the moment she left the room. “I hope he wore boxers this time.”

“Nope, tighty-whities.”

Jane groaned. “This kinda thing never used to happen in the newsroom, you know.” She brushed past Elaine and out onto the main floor. She headed toward the nonfiction shelves hoping that maybe he’d already made his circuit and left. No such luck. As she reshelved a book on frogs that someone had left on the floor, she spotted him in all his caped glory. The tube socks were a new twist.

“Excuse me, sir. Can you help me?”

It took Jane a minute to realize the elderly woman was talking to her. She’d been just about to approach Captain Underpants, but was stopped short. She’d been in the building less than twenty minutes, found no glazed donuts, been tasked with an exhibitionist retrieval mission, and now she’d been called sir. This Wednesday was shaping up nicely.

“Yes, ma’am. What can I help you with?” Jane stopped her forward motion and braced her hands on her hips. It was probably the bow tie that caused the gender confusion, but Jane was fairly certain that the bow tie gained her a few IQ points. This theory, however, had not been fully tested.

“I was looking for an edition of Fifty Shades of Grey.”

“That would be over there.” Jane pointed toward the fiction shelves. “And the books are arranged alphabetically, by author.”

“Thank you, young man.”

Jane smiled and resumed her mission. Captain Underpants was a regular. They even knew that his name was Edmond Furber, but calling him Captain Underpants was a lot more fun. They had code names for almost all of the eccentric, sometimes downright odd, regulars.

Not all of the odd regulars actually made an appearance at the library. Some of them just phoned. The Chef, for example, never came in the building, but he called every day and asked for someone to read him recipes over the phone, sometimes three times a day.

Captain Underpants, on the other hand, showed up once a week and traipsed through the library, usually lingering near the computer desks to protect users from the dangers of technology. He never wore anything but underwear and a beach towel that doubled as a cape. And apparently, today he’d added bright white tube socks ringed at the top with orange stripes.

Just as Jane was about to interrupt his rant about Skynet and his prophecy that machines were going to take over the world, she felt the vibration of the phone in her pocket. Absently, she pulled it free from her jeans and glanced at the screen. The incoming call was from her roommate, Ethan. Jane put the phone back in her pocket without answering.

For the hundredth time, she was going to inform Captain Underpants that Skynet was fiction and that the former governor of California was not in fact, a terminator. The phone vibrated again.

Must be some sort of kitchen disaster, like the time he overfilled the dishwasher with liquid soap, or the time when he cooked an entire chicken in the Crockpot with the little plastic bag of entrails still inside. Jane catalogued the long list of possible disasters in her head as she took the call.

“Dude, I’m working. What’s up?”

“Jane, uh, there’s a situation here at the house.” Ethan’s voice sounded oddly stressed.

“What kind of situation?”

“There’s a woman here to see you.” Ethan was being annoyingly vague.

“What sort of woman? Is she hot?”

“Yes.”

“Do I know this woman?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Is she happy, angry, selling magazine subscriptions? Can you just be a bit more specific, Ethan?”

“Hard to say.” Ethan hesitated before continuing. “Women with Russian accents always sound angry to me, but she’s smiling, so I’m not sure.”

Okay, this conversation was going nowhere.

“Listen, I’ve got a situation of my own here. I’ll come to the house as soon as I can, okay?” She ended the call.

 


Chapter Two

Captain Underpants faced the opposite direction as Jane approached, so her view was mostly of his beach towel cape.

“Excuse me, Mr. Furber, but I need to ask you to leave.”

“Skynet is everywhere.” He turned to face her, and she realized, painfully fast, that his tighty-whities were way too tight.

Jane cleared her throat and motioned for him to follow her toward the side exit of the library. Away from any small children, she hoped.

“Skynet is the world’s first automated defense network. It processes information at ninety teraflops.” He began to rattle off facts as he adjusted his glasses on his bulbous nose.

“Yeah, I’ve seen the movie.”

“Skynet pools data. It has control over everything that contains a CPU.”

“But only if the CPU was made by Cyberdyne Systems, which none of ours were.” Jane figured it was easier to play along than try to argue with a guy who thought his beach towel was a cape. She attempted to shuffle him toward the library exit without making any actual bodily contact.

As she crossed toward the main help desk, her phone vibrated in her pocket again.

“Are you coming home?” Ethan really sounded on edge.

“Dude, I’ll be there as soon as I can. You know, but I have this annoying thing that most of us refer to as a day job. Maybe you’ll even have one someday.”

“Yeah, hilarious. Can you just hurry up and get here?” He dropped his voice to a barely audible level. “She’s super hot and she keeps looking at me and smiling. I’m really starting to freak out.”

“Okay, okay. I’ll get there as soon as I can.” Jane ended the call, shaking her head. She needed to come up with an excuse to leave, but Jane was a notoriously bad liar. Maybe she should just tell the truth.

Elaine was at the checkout desk. Jane leaned on the counter so that she could speak in a low voice.

“Hey, I need to run home for a minute. There’s an…emergency.”

Elaine wasn’t really Jane’s boss, but she was the most senior person on the floor at the moment.

“What sort of emergency?” Elaine asked but didn’t look up from the computer screen.

“Uh, Ethan is being held captive by a super-hot Russian woman.”

Elaine stared at Jane for a few moments. “Okaaay.”

“I’ll be back in an hour. I’ll just skip lunch to make up for it.” Jane grabbed her bag from behind the counter and headed out the door. Elaine just watched her go with a somewhat shocked expression on her face.

Doris walked through the entrance just as Jane was about to reach for the door. Jane wasn’t sure she’d call Doris a friend, more like a sidekick for a superhero. If Jane were a superhero, then Doris would have been her inept sidekick. Maybe inept was too strong a word. The thing was that Doris was very invested in always helping Jane out, whether Jane needed it or not. She’d made several attempts to join the county rescue squad, the fire department, the local EMT unit, but had yet to land a position. It always seemed to come down to not passing the physical training.

She’d been especially invested in Jane’s relationship with Dorothy and upset by their recent breakup. Jane sort of suspected Doris carried a massive crush on Dorothy, even though she’d never owned up to it.

“Hi, Doris.” Jane didn’t want to stop and chat. She wanted to make a quick exit and find out what the heck was up with Ethan.

“Hey, there, just returning some books.” Doris had an armload of books of various sizes, precariously held together into a mismatched stack under one arm.

“Do you need help with those?” Jane thought at any moment the books might explode from their captivity and go sailing across the front entrance of the library.

“Nope, I’ve got it.”

Jane waved and trotted toward where she’d parked her Jeep. The quickest way to find out what was really going on was just to head home and sort out the mystery woman for herself. Clearly, Ethan wasn’t in a position to speak openly over the phone. Not that he was ever a wealth of information on any given topic, but usually he wasn’t nearly this opaque.

It only took fifteen minutes for Jane to drive the distance between the library and the waterfront trailer park at Spud Point where she and Ethan had recently rented a double-wide. Its interior design was unnervingly similar to the trailer in Raising Arizona. The shag carpet had probably been in the trailer since its inception sometime in the early ’80s, and it had the wallpaper to match. In place of what in a normal house might be wainscoting, there was some material similar to vinyl that extended from the baseboard halfway up every wall. It was plaid. Jane liked plaid. She might even go as far as to say she loved plaid. But this was not that kind of plaid.

Jane opened the door to find Ethan dressed as usual in a rumpled flannel shirt and faded Levi’s. He sat in an armchair, looking very uncomfortable across the room from a truly gorgeous woman seated on their futon, which also doubled as the guest room.

To say the woman was gorgeous might have been an understatement. She had long, full, dark hair with soft waves, a narrow waist, dark brown eyes set off by delicate sculpted cheekbones, and dark red lipstick. Frankly, she looked like a model—one of those super-hot European models with the full, pouty lips and extra-long legs. Her clothing matched the rest of the package, low-cut, skintight, barely-there black dress, and four-inch heels.

Jane marveled at how the woman managed to navigate the deep pile of the multicolored shag carpet in the spiked heels. Her line of sight traveled down to her own sad-looking red Converse sneakers and then back up to regard the smiling woman who sat with perfect posture on the sagging futon. Bookended by Jane’s dogs, Olive and Rusty, it was rather comical to see the woman in the tiny black dress sandwiched between a chubby wiener dog and a scruffy mutt. In this environment, she looked like an alien. A gorgeous alien who’d just finished a shift as a runway model for Fashion Week in New York.

Ethan extended his arm toward the dark-haired stranger. “Jane, this is Natasha.” Natasha seemed at ease in the sort of erect pose that Jane had never quite mastered, much to her mother’s displeasure.

“Hi. Do I know you? Did we have a meeting that I somehow forgot?” Jane knew full well that there was no possible way she’d forget a meeting with a woman carrying this much eye-popping visual appeal.

“We make meet up online,” Natasha explained with a very thick accent.

“We did?”

“Da.” Natasha reached in her large, stylish shoulder bag, pulled out a printed sheet of paper, and handed it to Jane. “Do you not remember?”

As Jane took the sheet from her hand, she noticed for the first time two very large black rolling bags sitting nearby. Alarm bells began to sound in her head. She tried not to show her rising panic as she read the printout Natasha had handed her.

Jane spoke in a tiny, barely audible voice as she motioned for Ethan. “Uh, Ethan, could you come here for a minute?”

Ethan leaned in to focus on the sheet of paper she held in her slightly shaking hand. He rubbed the stubble on his chin as he read. Ethan looked from the paper up to Jane’s face, his eyes wide, then back at the paper, and then back at Jane.

“Uh…” was all Ethan could say.

“This can’t mean what I think it means, can it?” Ethan took the paper from her and read it again.

“I think you bought yourself a mail order bride.” Ethan smiled at Jane. It was as if he and Jane had forgotten Natasha was in the room until she spoke.

“Da.” Natasha nodded in agreement from the futon.

“Holy shit, Jane, this is awesome! Congratulations!” Ethan seemed truly happy for the first time since Jane had entered the trailer. He slapped her on the back in his excitement, almost making Jane topple forward.

“No, Ethan. This is not awesome. I didn’t order a bride online. This has got to be a mistake.” She yanked the paper from his hand, and then remembering Natasha was still in the room, smiled tentatively in her direction. “No offense, Natasha, but I think there’s been a mix-up.”

“Nyet, I explain. I have receipt.” Natasha pulled out more paper from her extravagantly oversized handbag and passed it to Jane.

Jane examined the printed material in shocked silence. She looked at Natasha, then at Ethan, then at the paper. As she studied it closely, she could see in tiny print along the bottom the name of the company who’d issued the receipt. “Sexy Brides of Transnistria” was printed across the bottom. Where the hell is Transnistria? Jane scanned the page for more clues about her very attractive mystery guest from afar. And then she saw it, a notation that the funds were transferred from PayBuddy, PayPal’s distant and obviously less secure online cousin. Jane held the paper close to Ethan’s face and pointed.

“What?” asked Ethan.

“This! This is all your fault. You and your obsession with using startups rather than ‘following the herd’ and going with a reputable, mainstream company!” Ethan accepted the paper from her hand while Jane continued her rant. “Don’t use PayPal, you said. Nooooo, PayBuddy has lower fees. They donate a portion of their proceeds to subsidize accessible clean water in poverty-stricken countries.” Jane paused to see if anything she said was sinking in. “Dude, someone hacked my account and now this! Natasha thinks we’re getting married!”

“Why does my account never get hacked? I’d be happy if someone sent me a bride.” Ethan sounded dejected. “Oh yeah, probably because I never use jane123 as my password.” He scowled at Jane.

“This says that I paid ten thousand dollars. I don’t even have ten thousand dollars!”

“Well, technically you do. Remember? We linked your VISA card to this PayBuddy account. So once the account balance was at zero, they just maxed out your credit card,” Ethan explained.

“Argh!” Jane clinched her fists and seriously considered punching Ethan in the face.

Natasha snapped into action, finally speaking up from the cheap seats. “Ten thousand dollars? My fee was two thousand only!” She stood up and yanked the paper from Ethan’s hand, clearly taking offense at the news that in this transaction the middleman made out with eight thousand dollars’ profit. “Someone rip us off!”

“You think?” Jane asked rhetorically.

Natasha was clearly angry. The tall pile of the carpet snagged Natasha’s stiletto heel as she shifted her stance. Annoyed, she slipped out of the shoes, which made her about four inches shorter than Jane.

“When the taxi driver pull up to this tin house, I was disappointed to find that you did not live in the houses from Real Housewives of L.A.” Natasha began to pace back and forth in front of them barefooted. “It is believed in my country that all Americans live in giant houses with palm trees and know how to surf. This was not so?”

“Uh, no.” Jane was mesmerized by Natasha’s near rant.

“Then I say to self, this not so bad. At least I not have to marry scruffy man in plaid shirt, but instead tall, skinny blond woman, who looks like boy. Although, you look different than photo you send.”

“Did she just call me scruffy?” Ethan looked at Jane for confirmation.

Jane nodded. “Right after she said I look like a boy. Apparently, scruffy is a universally understood word. And what photo? I didn’t send a photo.”

“Some people not photogenic. Is okay. Do not feel bad.” Natasha handed the paper receipt back to Jane. “It is no problem. We sort out later.” She paused, flashing Jane a seductive smile. “We make sex now?”

“What?” Choked by her sudden terror at the suggestion, Jane’s response sounded more like a nervous cough.

“You like girls, da?”

“Uh…da…I mean, yes.”

“I like girls too.” Ethan attempted to interject on his own behalf.

Ignoring Ethan, Natasha pointed at Jane. “You like girls, I like girls, we married now, we make sex.” Natasha reached out and took Jane’s hand and headed toward the hallway. “Come.”

Natasha’s grip was firm as she led Jane out of the living room toward the back of the trailer, leaving Ethan to scowl after them.

“Even when things go wrong for you, they go right!” he shouted.

Natasha pushed open the first door she came to. After a quick glance, she bypassed Ethan’s incredibly messy man cave. She continued down the hallway. Behind the next door was Jane’s room. She pulled Jane inside and closed the door. Natasha shoved Jane backward onto the bed like some sexy dominatrix who was about to have her way with a frightened novice.

Panic ran through her chest like a scared white rabbit as Jane regarded Natasha from her reclined position. Sure, she liked girls, but clearly, Natasha was not a girl. Or if she was, she was a girl in a league of girls that Jane had only dreamed about or seen in movies or cut out of magazines to hang on her wall. Her heart pounded like a bass drum in her ears as Natasha took a step toward the bed.

This can’t be happening. How could she stop it? She wondered if the receipt in Natasha’s possession was any sort of binding contract that implied marriage. If she had sex with Natasha, that would consummate the marriage. Right? Then there’d be no figuring anything out. They’d be married for real and she’d probably never get her credit card company to refund the ten thousand dollars if they were actually considered married. Not to mention the fact that Jane’s recently ex-girlfriend, Dorothy, would be really pissed off.