It's well known that last June Avalon Books was bought out by Amazon. Almost as well known is the fact that, when that happened, those of us who wrote for Avalon were excited (and more than a little apprehensive) about the future of our books. A lot of things have changed since then, but one thing that has not is the warmth and friendship we writers still feel for one another. On the Acknowledgements page of my 2011 mystery, Left at Oz, I wrote:
"Writing for Avalon makes me part of a very special group of writers. Whatever our genres, we share a belief that 'happily ever after' is possible and that good will triumph over evil. Thanks to the wonder of the Internet, many of us have become friends, though we have never met face to face and our physical addresses span the globe. I am truly thankful for the encouragement given me by my fellow Avaloners."
I didn't know at the time that this would be my final Avalon book (though the Jennie Connors mystery series will continue) and am so glad that I expressed those feelings before it was too late.
One example of our close-knit camaraderie is the Avaloner Online Novel, which thirteen Avalon authors wrote together - one chapter at a time. It was great fun, full of twists and turns, and an ending that is sure to surprise. The first chapter is posted here. If you want to read the whole book, you can click on "Avaloner Online Novel" on the right side of this page.
ALONG FOR THE RIDE
by Beate Boeker
“It’s not a big deal.” My aunt laid her well-manicured hand on my arm and gave me a smile that shamed the restaurant lights above us.
“Not a big deal?” I cleared my throat with an effort and removed her hand. “Are you kidding? You’re asking me to go on a blind date in your stead and . . .
“It’s not really a blind date.” She lowered her voice and threw a worried look at the waiter who hovered in the vicinity.
Waiters always hover at the closest possible distance whenever my aunt is around. If they’re male, that is. Not that I blame them. Mel has cinnamon-colored hair, chocolate eyes, and skin the color and texture of strawberry cream. Appetizing, in a word.
She’s fifteen years older than I am, but for some reason, I always eclipse when she’s around - or so it feels. I’m more the “girl next door” type of girl, not the type that makes people want to kneel down and kiss the ground you walked on. Mel is that kind of woman, and even I, who should know better as I grew up with her, am not immune to her magic.
“Yes, it is a blind date.” I glared at her. “Talking to an unknown guy on the phone once and making a date at some God-forsaken-Starbucks in Seattle, of all places . . . I call that a blind date. Or semi-blind, at least.”
“I Googled him.” She said it with all the assurance as if she’d said “I met him in Kindergarten.”
“Big deal.” I drummed my fingers on the table. “And what did you find?”
“Nothing.” She gave me a sweet smile that showed her pearly teeth.
“Nothing!” A shiver crawled down my back. “If you don’t find anything at all about a guy on the Internet, he’s either a Yeti or a criminal who’s using a fake name.”
“Nonsense.” Mel shook her hair. “Besides, you know that we need to check out some package deals in Seattle, so this is the perfect opportunity.”
I sighed. “When I agreed to work with you at the travel agency, I imagined selling wonderful trips to wonderful people.”
She lifted her eyebrows. “That’s what you do.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t say I want to travel. I love Phoenix; I love it hot and warm; so I’m all for staying right where we are. However, for some inexplicable reason we only seem to specialize on rainy and cold places.”
“That’s because people like to travel to places that are very different from what they know.” She looked faintly pleased.
With a jolt, I realized that she looked happy because she had managed to get me off on a tangent, so I hastened to return to the topic on hand. “Never mind if you call it a blind date or not, but it’s definitely inacceptable that you’re asking me to take your place. There’s not even a word for it, so that just shows you!”
“Sonya.” Her chocolate eyes opened wide. “I have a special reason to ask you.”
Oh, no.“I don’t need a new man in my life. It’s been only three days that I broke off with Danny, and . . .”
“Of course not.” Mel shook her head with a slight frown.
“Then what is it?” I made sure my voice sounded gruff, but of course that didn’t stop her.
She took a deep breath. “I have a vodoo feeling about it. We have to be there.”
I swallowed with a dry throat. “A vodoo feeling?” I can’t recall when Mel first mentioned her vodoo feelings. It must have been when she was still a child and didn’t know the word for premonition, but that didn’t stop her from seeing things. By the time I was old enough to understand the concept, the family was taking them very seriously indeed.
Once, she had predicted that we should sell our house, and it turned out they were building a highway right next to it a mere six months later. Then, she told my mother to apply for a job as an art director, something she would never have dared without Mel’s encouragement. It proved to be her dream job. The same vodoo feeling made Mel turn up at our house ten minutes before the police came to tell me both my parents had been killed in a car crash. That was ten years ago, and I still felt icy whenever I remembered that evening.
Mel touched my arm. “You have to be there.”
“But I won’t be of any help!” I felt panic rising within me. It’s one thing to go on a blind date to replace a super-aunt, but that’s only a slight irregularity compared to the danger when Mel’s vodoo feelings enter the game.
“I can’t go myself.” She opened her handbag and pulled out a letter. “I got this today by special courier.”
I took the creamy paper with the embossed logo, skimmed over the lines, and felt my chin go slack. “You’re invited to speak at the Travel Agent’s Union in Santa Barbara?”
Mel gave me a happy smile. “Yes. The main speaker fell ill, and they pulled out my application instead. I have to go tomorrow.”
“Wow.” For an instant, I was diverted. The Travel Agents’ Union is the biggest congregation in our industry, and to speak at their annual event was not only an honor, but a major step forward due to the extensive media coverage. “Congratulations.”
“Thank you.” Mel fixed a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “I knew you would understand. So when they called an hour ago to follow up, I accepted.”
I held up a hand. “Wait. I haven’t . . .”
“He’ll recognize you by our brochure,” Mel said. “And by the way, his name is Stan.”
* * *“Stan.” I rolled the word around my tongue as a test to see how it sounded. It sounded odd - matching my feelings. I sighed and looked out of the Starbuck’s window at the pouring rain. Dusk was settling between the Seattle skyscrapers. I narrowed my eyes. With the rain streaming down outside, and the window steaming up inside, my pale face was reflected like a blurred ghost. A crying ghost, to be exact. Super. I averted my gaze to stop discouraging myself and concentrated on the white foam on my latte chioccolata.
It was quiet at this particular Starbucks. Behind the counter, a bony woman was wiping down the counter with slow movements as if it was some sort of meditation. Maybe this Stan would kidnap me and ask for a million dollars as ransom. I shook myself. Stop those stupid thoughts, girl. Nobody would pay a million dollars for you - you don’t even know a millionaire!
My gaze fell onto the brochure in front of me. TIPS FOR TRIPS. Our logo in sky blue and sunny yellow brought a ray of sunshine into this grey world. At least Stan would see it immediately. I had tried hard to get more information out of Mel, but she had been in a frenzy, organizing her trip and her presentation, so I didn’t get any further particulars from her.
Darn. I spooned a bit of milk foam into my mouth. It felt velvety and sweet - quite a contrast to my mood. If only Mel hadn’t brought her vodoo feelings into the game, then I could have told her to get lost. As it was . . . I was stuck. Mel didn’t play around when it came to vodoo feelings. At least, she had never done so before.
The door opened with a woosh, and a man rushed into the café and shook himself like a dog. Raindrops flew in all directions. “Hi, Annie.” He waved at the woman behind the counter.
She smiled. “Hi, Stan. I’ll fix the usual for you.”
My heartbeat exploded. Stan. It's him.
He looked around. His gaze rested for a moment on me, then it fell to the brightly colored brochure on the table. He smiled and advanced toward me, and all at once, it felt as if a ball of energy was making its way toward my universe.
I didn’t notice anything else, just this strange feeling of compact power being focused on me. I got up and stretched out my hand. “Hi.” It took all my concentration to get out this much.
“I’m so glad you came.” He shook my hand, just a brief touch, warm and strong, then made a move with his hand, showing me to sit down again.
Annie sidled in from the side and placed a tall glass with caffè latte in front of him.
“Thank you.” He smiled at her and sat down with ease, then focused on me again.
I returned his gaze, spellbound. The smell of cinnamon wafted toward me. Did it come from him or from his drink? With a superhuman effort, I decided to put my cards on the table, right now, before it became too difficult. “My name is Sonya.”
His eyes lost their focus. He looked at the distance, unseeing, as if grappling with some grave internal problem.
I opened my mouth to say something soothing, anything, but my throat felt as if someone had twisted it shut.
At this instant, without a word or sound, Stan toppled forward, nose first into his caffè latte.
IF YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS NEXT, CLICK ON "Avaloner Online Novel" UNDER "Free Reads" ON THE RIGHT OF THIS SCREEN.