Coming this fall… (Read this in a movie-announcer voice in your head.) A thrilling spin-off from the Intergalactic Dating Agency world, set in an entirely new shared universe…
Our heroine, Amy Long, is industriously cleaning the antique popcorn maker at Mr. Evens’ Odds & Ends Shop when Mr. Evens offers her a full-time sales associate position, and boy, is she excited…
Amy popped up, like she was one of those errant popcorn kernels late to heat up. “Full time? Oh, yes sir.” Thinking of the interview articles she read before moving to Sunset Falls, she added quickly, “I’m grateful for this opportunity to take on additional challenges in this position.”
He half closed his gray eyes with a half smile twisting toward a smirk. “I’m delighted that you feel you’re up for the many challenges to be found here in Sunset Falls.”
Why she said challenge? She wasn’t interested in challenges. She dropped out of community college because the competition at beer pong—not to mention student financial aid—was too much for her to handle. But Sunset Falls was kind of her last chance, so she wasn’t going to squander it. Still, she felt compelled to confess, “I’m afraid transactions have been a little slow today. I thought maybe we could move some of the more, ah, interesting pieces into the window to entice shoppers.”
“Enticing?” He glanced at the front window, where the view was obscured by a haphazard collection of yellowed paperback novels, a scattering of snow globes without their bases, and an overstuffed couch upholstered with the most bizarre print she’s ever seen—all giant asteroids zooming through space. He shrugged. “If you like.”
She’d already noticed he didn’t seem to care much about the day’s take. Maybe he was independently wealthy, although his trousers and the old man sweater with a hole in the elbow didn’t seem to come from money. But what did she know about money? And he’d talked about clients before, so maybe he was a stockbroker or something else that could telecommute. Although with the lack of connectivity in Sunset Falls, that didn’t seem possible either. Oh well, he was a mystery who wasn’t her business. If he trusted her to go full time, she’d make his business her business.
She gave him a decisive nod. “I can’t wait to get started.”
He chuckled. “It’s true that waiting rarely gets us where we want to go.” He turned to face the door a split second before the cowbell chimed again. “Ah, my client is here. We’ll be in the back office. Please see that we aren’t disturbed.”
She managed not to roll her eyes. Disturbed by who? Certainly not customers. He probably meant by her. Well, she wasn’t going to bother anyone—
And then she found herself gawking at the new arrival. Maybe those rumors about the celebrity dating resort were true. Because this woman was definitely not from Sunset Falls, Montana.
Though the newcomer had the bold, shoulder-squared stance of the confident outdoorswomen who flocked to Sunset Falls to hike and raft and hunt, her Amazonian height and gliding walk would’ve made her equally at home on a catwalk in Paris. Amy closed her loose-hanging jaw with a snap. The woman was glorious. No wonder Evens didn’t care if he made any money through the shop, not when he had “clients” like this.
The woman gave Amy a smile that was disarming, assessing, and dismissive all at once. The smile dropped and her dark brown gaze turned piercing when she looked at Evens. She strode toward him, her low-heeled, knee-high leather boots silent on the tile floor. Her whole outfit was custom-fitted leathers with buckles and zippers and sealed pockets that made Amy wistfully curious. She hadn’t heard the sound of motorcycle outside, but this woman looked like someone who had covered many miles on her own power and not been lonely for a moment of it.
The woman paused in front of Evens, rolling forward to the balls of those beautiful boots. Her dark eyes narrowed. “Is it here yet?”
He shook his head. “Patience,” he chided. “Soon.” He held out one hand in a gesture toward the back office door. “We’ll wait here. I have an excellent moon-brandy to make the time pass less boringly.”
The woman’s teeth flashed in a wide smile against her tawny skin. “Moon-brandy? I knew I’d like doing business with you, Evens.”
The two disappeared through the back doorway, their exit marked only by the soft click of the closing door. Amy let out a soft breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. So rustic little Sunset Falls really did have a glamorous, mysterious side. And she was going to be a full-time employee here. Woo-hoo.
Keeping one ear cocked to the back office (not that she could hear a thing and not that she was eavesdropping, but maybe Mr. Evens would need her for something and she’d get to talk to the glamorous woman again) she finished cleaning the popcorn maker. She munched on the last few kernels of especially salty, buttery-flavored goodness. Yeah, this gig was going to work out great, maybe the best thing that ever happened to her since leaving school.
Since she didn’t want to step out before her boss—needed to make a good impression, after all—she got to work on the front window display. The ugly couch was too big to move by herself, but she could use it as a setting to show off some of the shop’s more interesting pieces, as if this was the living room sanctuary of a woman as fascinating and obviously well-traveled as the lady in the back office. Letting her imagination roam—not that there was far for it to go in the small shop—Amy picked through the offering.
She just finished arranging a colorful stack of the less-yellow paperbacks when a strange noise brought her whirling around. It wasn’t like the chime of the cowbell over the door, but…
Fading away from the antique popcorn maker was a column of golden light. Oh no, had there been some sort of butter explosion? Shoot, not when the boss was right here.
She hurried to the machine as she unwrapped her apron. Maybe she could put out the fire with the thick canvas… Note to self: Have the boss invest in a fire extinguisher. This was not the sort of challenge she’d been looking for.
But there was no oil-fueled fire in the sparkling clean depths of the popper. Instead, there was a small black box.
She tilted her head in confusion. She’d just cleaned the popper, so she knew there’d been nothing left inside, not even a stray kernel. She opened the inscribed glass doors—Fresh! Yummy!—and caught a whiff of a strange smell. It wasn’t the butter-flavored oil or even the cleanser she’d used. It smelled like…like the fresh ozone of lightning bolt.
Well, she’d already noted that Sunset Falls was odd.
The matte black of the box was etched with silvery markings. It wasn’t an abstract design, but neither was it any language she knew. Sort of like the Hànzì calligraphic symbols from home, but kind of half Arabic, half Cyrillic. She squinted. The writing was every bit as exotic as the woman in the back room. This must be what Mr. Evens said they were waiting for.
Her pulse ticked up at the thought of talking to the woman, and without another thought, she reached into the popcorn machine to cradle the small box in her palm.
It rang. Louder and deeper than the cowbell, the sound rattled her bones. She staggered back a step, and her fingers spasmed on the box, clenching it hard. More sounds came out, like words but…not. Until suddenly the words made sense.
“Greetings, Great Space Racer,” the box intoned. “Ready yourself for adventure.”
Adventure? Amy gulped. Yup, this box was obviously meant for the other woman.
She pivoted on her heel toward the back room. The door was open and Mr. Evens and his glamorous client were jammed shoulder to shoulder in the doorway, trying to get out. Trying to get to her…
“Amy,” Mr. Evens barked. “Don’t you dare—”
The silver lines on the black box scintillated, a rotating glow moving faster and faster in front of Amy’s hypnotized gaze.
In the way back of her mind, she was dimly aware of Evens and the woman shouting. They wrestled free from their doorway traffic jam and raced toward her.
Great Space Race? What was that?
Probably she’d never know. She had to give this back to Mr. Evens. But the peculiar energy flowing through the box kept her fingers tight. An electrical hum raised all the tiny hairs on her body, and in another heartbeat her short black hair was mohawked straight up. She couldn’t help but giggle at the tickling sensation. If this was some sort of special-order sex toy, now she understood how boring Mr. Evens solicited such a glamorous client.
Reluctantly, she extended her hand and opened her mouth to explain. But all that came out was a gasp as the static hum sank all the way to her spine. The shock that bolted through her was terrifying, orgasmic. Silver sparkles eclipsed her vision, bright against a void of darkness, as if the stars themselves had come to claim her.
Then everything went black as deepest space.