The Joan Wilder Effect

Road Trip Rendezvous, Book 1

Marlie Montague was smack-dab in the middle of exposing a massive government cover-up when her front doorbell chimed: Mission: Impossible.

Engrossed in the comic book she was illustrating, the sound didn’t click in her brain. She sat tailor­-style at her white drawing board, black charcoal pencil in hand, surrounded by a bank of computers, all expensive tech.

Beneath Marlie’s deft hand, Angelina Avenger’s eyes blazed, her guns drawn as she confronted a top-ranking CIA agent about his part in a global oil conspiracy.

She hollowed Angelina’s cheek­bones, honing her haunting beauty and inner toughness. Next, the eraser arched her heroine’s auburn eyebrows. Her character might be the most kick-butt crime fighter in the comics, but she never neglected her grooming.

Quite unlike Marlie.

For herself, she identified more with Joan Wilder from Romancing the Stone—a wimpy author who was nothing like her daring creation.

She glanced down at the rumpled black tracksuit she’d never once run in and shook her head.

Two o’clock in the afternoon.

On a tight deadline, she toiled for two days without a shower and had eaten nothing today besides her morning bowl of Froot Loops. When she hyper-focused, reality fell away.

Mission: Impossible played again. Irritated, she groaned and pushed back from her desk.

Perhaps UPS brought a box of free author copies of her twenty-eighth comic book, CIA Zombie Recruits. The upcoming March issue in which Angelina uncovers a secret government plot using social media and deep fakes to brainwash the masses.

At the front door, she rose on tiptoe to peer through the peephole. Being five-two presented a few challenges. Little wonder she’d created a six-foot Warrior Woman as her heroine. Wish fulfillment.

She squinted at the strange man standing on her porch, and the hairs on her forearm lifted.

He stood with his back to the door, gazing at the modest homes comprising her cozy corner of Oleander Circle, just a mile from the Gulf of Mexico.

Marlie pushed up her glasses and ogled.

He wore a sweat-stained navy-blue T-shirt and gray cotton workout pants. Despite their bagginess, the sweats did not camouflage his firm, muscular butt.

Oh. My.

He held a Pyrex measuring cup in one hand. Had her new neighbor come to borrow a cup of sugar?

More likely egg whites. She’d bet her Rembrandt pastels that this guy never put a bite of the sweet stuff in his mouth.

Two weeks earlier, he moved in next door. She spied on him as he lifted boxes with bulging biceps. Stripping off his shirt when he got overheated, he dazzled Marlie with a  view of righteous abs. He wore his hair cropped close. Not quite a buzz cut, but almost. She recognized the style.

Was he military? She hoped not. She didn’t trust military personnel.

Don’t sweat it, babe, Angelina said in Marlie’s head. He’s much more my type. You should’ve hooked up with your pal Cosmo when you had a chance.

Except Marlie and Cosmo were just friends. At least they had been until he sold out his scruples and left Corpus Christi. Going to work as a civilian computer cryptologist for the Office of Navy Intelligence in Suitland, Maryland.

She still missed her buddy. The only other people in her life beyond the neighbors, her bowling league, and her Mom were her online gaming pals. Charlee Champagne worked as a PI in Vegas and helped Marlie with her research, while twin sisters Maddie and Cassie Cooper beta-read the comics for her. Right now, she wished they were all here.

The riveting man on her doorstep pivoted, giving her a breathtaking view of his handsome profile. A sexy five o’clock shadow and eyes the intriguing blue-gray of the Gulf of Mexico in turbulent weather and as dangerous as a downed power line.

Mesmerized, her fingers tingled to draw his face and capture his effigy in charcoal. Her brain cast him in geometry. A circle for his head, an inverted triangle for his torso, a right-side-up one for his lower body, and rectangles for his legs.

He rapped the door. Sharp. Hard. Insistent.

Marlie gasped, jumped back, and almost fell over her black-lacquered coffee table.

He was persistent. Twinkie points for stubbornness.

But what if she was wrong?

What if this guy wasn’t her next-door neighbor? She was so busy staring at the dude’s body on move-in day that she ignored his face.

Her comic books drew con­troversy. Last week, she got a death threat mixed in with her fan mail.

Not the first either.

She received ten letters in total, and she notified the police with the initial one, but they blew her off. After that, she didn’t bother. In the best of times, Marlie avoided authority figures whenever possible. Seven years of researching, writing, and illustrating her conspiracy theory comic books fueled her suspicion.

Plus, her father, a whistleblower, died under mysterious circumstances while in protective custody, and the Navy accused Dad of espionage.

You’re paranoid. Open the door.

“Easy for you. You’re a fearless crime fighter.”

You’re just too chicken to talk to him.

Guilty.

With a deadline looming, she longed to slink back to her office and pretend Mission: Impos­sible never played.

That’s right. Blame it on work.

“I’m not sticking my head in the sand.” Bad habit, talking to the figment of her imagination. A major drawback to living alone and working from home.

Prove it.

“I am not the slightest bit interested. He’s military.”

Jumping to conclusions is your middle name.

“Check him out. His posture is so perfect it’s as if someone nailed a two-by-four to his spine.”

Do you think the dude has a weapon stashed down the front of his sweatpants? Then again, maybe he does. Angelina started humming, “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.”

“I can’t open the door looking like this.” Marlie’s unkempt hair flopped in her eyes. She wore no makeup, and a coffee stain marred her white sweatshirt at an embarrassing spot.

Excuses, excuses.

“Hello? Anybody home?” The hypnotic voice, all sinful and chocolate, lured her.

Double dare you to introduce yourself.

“Okay, fine, all right. Give me a second to freshen up.”

Hurry before he leaves.

Marlie couldn’t say what motivated her, but an odd compulsion welled up from deep inside, daring her to fling open the door. She valued information over safety when push came to shove because enough knowledge could ensure safety.

He’s gonna leave.

Stripping off her coffee-stained shirt, she dashed into her bedroom. She pushed back the black-beaded curtain she used in place of a closet door and dislodged her bowl­ing ball. It escaped, bumping away across the hardwood floor.

She ignored the fugitive, snatched a clean white sweatshirt from a hanger, and hurried into the bathroom.

The doorbell again.

This is your mission if you choose to accept it. Ange­lina snickered. Open the door to your mystery date.

“Hush,” she mumbled to Angelina, then raised her voice. “Coming!”

She gargled with Lysterine while­ releasing the elastic band, keeping her unruly brown hair pulled back. She ran her fingers through the curly tan­gles, dabbed on a subtle pink lipstick, and stared at herself. Semi-presentable.

She turned and rushed down the hall, so focused on her goal she forgot about the bowling ball. Her ankle clipped it, and the ball rolled between her legs.

Marlie tumbled, sprawling facedown on the floor, and found herself peering underneath the sofa. Ouch. That was gonna leave a mark.

Wow, Angelina said, check out those dust bunnies.

The doorbell rang again.

Hustle, this mission will self-destruct in seven seconds.

“Hang on!”

Dragging herself to her feet, she hobbled to the door and threw it open, but her sexy neighbor had vanished.

In his place stood the UPS man.

“Where’d he go?” She cocked her head and craned her neck, but all she glimpsed was the boxy brown truck parked at the curb.

“Who?” asked UPS.

“The other dude.”

“Huh?”

Marlie expelled a sigh. Between the gargle and the bowling ball mishap, her neighbor must have gone home, and in the meantime, the delivery man arrived on the porch.

Oh, well, all for the best. At least Angelina couldn’t accuse her of not trying. She blew out her breath, disappointed. Shaking her head, she reached out to take the box…

But behind the parcel, the UPS man clutched a SIG SAUER P226 just like Dad’s.

With a silencer attached.