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As expected, the morning search for Kei’s stolen items came up empty.

Secretly, Gia was impressed -- irked, but impressed. If she had to be outwitted by anyone, it might as well be a mysterious, pangender teen icon who literally befuddled the world.

Besides, it had been a while since Gia had learned a new trick, and this one might just be a good one. If things went to plan, she would know it by the end of the day.

In the meantime, there was a schedule to keep.

Gia glanced out the main door on her way to the front desk to find all five kids right where they should be. Miserable, with no one making eye contact, but ready to go.

The front desk clerk greeted Gia wearing a dandy little vest, a name tag that said Hickory, and a smile much too bright for someone who had checked them in the night before.

“Everything look good?” Gia asked her.

“Everything’s great,” Hickory said. “You all were perfect guests. Come back and stay anytime.”

Gia couldn’t help but smile at the old-time charm in the woman’s tone. “I’ll keep you in mind, for sure. For now, where do I sign?”

“Yes, of course,” Hickory said, making a few clicks with her mouse before the printer purred awake and started pushing out a paper.

In her peripheral vision, one of Gia’s men stepped into view and gave her a thumbs up that the rooms were clear. Gia dipped her chin in acknowledgment just as Hickory handed her a single sheet of paper to review.

“No pay-per-views, or phone calls, or anything,” Hickory said, with a little too much enthusiasm. It struck Gia as odd.

Curious, she looked up from the bill and locked eyes with the clerk. Hickory lasted about half a second before her expression cracked a bit and she started smiling with almost cartoon innocence. 

Only then did Gia really take a look behind the front desk for anything amiss, and her eyes stopped on an empty hook that had not been empty the night before—just below the bottom row of keys.

“Where's the roll of tape that was there last night?” Gia said, gesturing toward the hook.

Hickory tensed as if she’d been caught red-handed. “Huh?” 

Gia pointed again. “Right there. There was a roll of tape hanging there when we checked in last night.”

“Oh, yes,” Hickory said with a nervous laugh. “The tape? We use that to secure wires when we host events so that no one trips or anything.”

“Do you know where it went?” Gia asked.

“I, uh, well…” she stammered. “I’m sure there's not reason to worry. I’m sure it’s around here somewhere.”

Gia glanced to Kei, who smiled back like someone who knew they had an alibi. 

“Let’s assume someone with me accidentally grabbed it and add a roll of gaffer’s tape to the bill,” Gia said.

Hickory blushed for some reason. “Well, I don’t think that will be necessary. I’m sure I—“

Gia slid a folded hundred dollar bill across the front desk. “Please.”

“O-okay,” Hickory said, making a few keystrokes on the computer. “So, what? Like, twenty bucks? Does that work?”

“Sure,” Gia agreed. “Add it on and we’ll be good to go,” with three minutes to spare, she couldn’t help but note as she glanced at the clock on the wall.

“Okay, then,” Hickory said, giving her a new sheet. “Here’s the amended bill.”

Gia looked over the list of expenses and signed.

“Thanks for staying at the Boondocks Motel!” Hickory said brightly as she took the paper back. “Travel safe and have a pleasant journey.”

“And a good day to you,” Gia said before turning to face her little breakfast club where they leaned against the van with their overnight bags packed up and ready to roll. 

They were the most pensive bunch of teenagers Gia had ever seen and it was time to get them on the road.

Gia strode out through the front doors and into the vibrant morning air, getting all the kids to look up as she moved to unlock the access door to the vehicle.

“When you get on board, you will find a menu,” she announced, watching Chad straighten and move to be first in line with almost comical speed. “Before we leave, I’ll take your order and you’ll get your food at our first stop, along with your usual five dollars.”

If Gia wasn’t mistaken, Bella sent a thank you up to heaven in response, which was good. It meant the mood was headed in the right direction.

Once the main door was open, Chad burst up the stairs in search of a menu. When Bella started up the stairs next, Gia made a point to catch Kei’s attention. 

“You,” she said when they locked eyes. “You’re on last. Let’s talk for a second.”

Gia’s tone seemed to catch Whitney’s attention and the blonde all but rubbernecked with interest as she took her seat and pretended to look at the menu. The girl was as subtle as a pug, but Gia did her best not to be distracted by her anyway.

Once Adam was on board, it was just Gia and Kei left standing in the roundabout entry.

“Want to tell me about some gaffing tape?” she asked.

Kei’s head tilted in interest. “You noticed?”

Gia leaned in. “Did you steal it?”

“Can something be stolen if it is itemized and paid for on a bill?” Kei countered.

Well, well, well. Wasn’t that just … a technicality.

“Also," Kei continued objectively. "May I point out that this is not a stop on tomorrow’s journey, but the start of today's, and no trail was left behind for anyone to follow.”

"So why was Hickory in there acting like your guilty accomplice?"

“We traded for it," Kei said easily. "I wanted something, she wanted something, and we traded.”

Wow. So much premeditation, executed so strategically. And for what? Why did Kei want gaffer's tape? 

Not knowing made Gia nervous, and Gia did not like being nervous.

She angled herself so only Kei could hear her and Whitney couldn’t read her lips as she spoke. 

“I do not give many second warnings, Kei,” she said. “But I’m issuing this rare one to you: If you force me to see you as a problem one more time in the next seventy-two hours, I will send you home. Understood?”

Kei’s chin dipped in deference, eyes dropping toward her shoes. “Understood.”

“Good,” Gia said, gesturing for Kei to enter first. “Let’s get going then. It’s going to be a pretty drive today for those who can stay awake.”


Bella didn’t know much, but she knew Chad’s aftershave was much too loud to be worn this early in the morning.

He seriously smelled like the opposite of coffee, which was why Bella had chosen a window seat on the opposite side of the shuttle as Chad to crack a window to breathe through. 

The fresh, chill air Bella had been siphoning from outside felt life-saving as they drove further into the desert.

When she'd signed on to play bodyguard to Adam, she hadn’t counted on Chad showing up smelling like he was ready to hit a nightclub before sunrise. 

It was seriously overpowering.

Bella literally couldn’t smell anything else, and it was giving her a headache … a headache that reminded her that one of the reasons she was tired and grumpy was because of how many times Chad had woken her throughout the night flushing his toilet in the next room over. 

Bella was a light sleeper, so lots of things woke her throughout the night. But it was around Chad’s fourth flush when Bella started to get angry about how thoughtless he was being, in general. To the environment. To everyone -- not to mention people he shared walls with.

By his seventh flush, Bella had been arguing with Chad’s imaginary face on the ceiling with no hope of getting sleep again because she didn’t know whether to mad at him for being a jerk or worry that he might have a dangerous medical condition. 

Because that was a lot of flushing no matter who you were. And Bella might hate Chad for a hundred valid reasons, but that didn’t mean she wanted him to die going the speed limit on a short bus out in the middle of a desert.

Chad would seriously hate that.

So she was somewhere between not wanting Chad to die and not wanting to have to smell him either as she inhaled desert morning air while imagining the potato, cheese, sour cream, guac, egg, and bacon breakfast burrito with three sides of spicy hot sauce and a bottle of orange juice that would be waiting for her at the first stop.

A true breakfast of champions.

As far as Bella was concerned, the first stop could not come soon enough. Not only because it meant eating her favorite breakfast, but because it meant getting out of this box and upwind from Chad’s body spray for five minutes.

Whatever he was wearing was pooling in the van like a potpourri gone wrong.

How was everyone not gagging? 

Adam genuinely didn’t seem to notice any scent at all as he glanced Whitney’s way for about the hundredth time since sitting down.

He was completely obsessed with Whitney this morning and Bella wasn’t sure if she was ready to find out why before breakfast.

First, food. Then, she’d talk to Adam about Whitney.

Whitney was the only one Bella couldn’t really see at that moment. The blonde was sitting directly behind her and it was impossible to forget it because the blonde could not sit still for anything. Whitney just kept shifting and moving and sighing. And Adam kept turning and staring and frowning. And all the while, Chad kept stinking up the place while Kei gazed out the window and drew.

In a flash, Bella changed her mind about addressing things before breakfast. She couldn't rest if the people around her were restless. And Bella wanted to rest, which meant she had to find out why Whitney was twitching. 

Popping up on her knees, Bella knelt on her seat and peered over the back of her chair to catch a glimpse of Whitney. Then looked over at Adam.

They made for quite a snapshot of hurt and confusion.

On one side, Whitney looked like a simmering ball of rage. On the other side, Adam looked like he was locked in a dream where he was failing a math test because he couldn’t select the correct answer.

There was clearly a miscommunication going on between them somewhere. If Bella could just solve that, maybe Adam would stop staring and Whitney would stop fidgeting, and everyone could acknowledge that there was a reason to open more windows, and then Bella could nap until the food came.

All she had to do was figure out what Adam and Whitney needed to talk about to make things un-weird.

And, leveling her gaze on Whitney, Bella went for it. 

“Okay, what’s going on?” she said, pointing to Adam. “He was fine yesterday. What did you do to him?”

The blonde’s jaw dropped in genuine offense. “What did I do to him? Are you kidding me?”

A chill of surprise ran up Bella’s spine at Whitney’s tone. She sounded like a … girlfriend.

Not past tense -- not like an ex.

Present tense -- a current girlfriend acting like she was owed an explanation. So Bella went with it.

“Adam, do you know who this is?” she asked him. “This is Whitney. She sells skin and hair care online and goes by the name Little Lotus Blossom.”

When Adam chuckled as if she'd just told a joke, Bella saw why Whitney was flipping out. Then he spoke.

“Little Lotus Blossom is a known catfish account that is run by either the Russian government or some anarchist in Kentucky. I’ve been told by experts it's one of the best baiting accounts out there, and I must agree.”

Whitney looked at Bella like, Are you hearing this??? 

And, yes. Bella was definitely hearing it and rethinking her decision to this conversation before a proper breakfast. She'd had no idea the waters were this deep when she poked the bear, and now she wasn’t sure how to back out.

“I’m literally sitting right here, Adam,” Whitney said, pointing to her chair. “I’m Whitney. I'm Little Lotus Blossom--”

“Not officially,” Bella pointed out. "You don't have a blue check."

Whitney looked offended. “Oh, my gosh. Did you, like, stalk me, or something? How do you even know about my  account?”

Bella shrugged. “I had a guy look you up at a gas station yesterday. You have two million followers, but no blue check. Why?”

The blonde immediately deflated. Oooh, weak spot. Blue checks were a trigger for Whitney.

Good to know. 

“I … don’t think that’s relevant,” Whitney stammered. “What’s relevant is that I am Little Lotus Blossom. Adam and I have been talking for over two years, and now he’s sitting here like he has no clue who I am when I say, Hi, my name’s Whitney.

Wow, was all Bella could think as she looked to Adam to see how he would respond. Because Bella honestly had no bones to throw him at this point. He was on his own on this one because Whitney definitely had a case to plead before the court and things did not look good for Adam.

“Adam,” she said, waiting until he gave her eye contact before she continued. “Whitney has literally passed a background check to be here. She is who she says she is.”

Adam shook his head, defiantly. “She's lying. The Little Lotus Blossom account was specifically highlighted in a training I took about catfish-marketing accounts designed to instill behavioral addictions.”

The moment those words left Adam's mouth, Bella realized she'd definitely miscalculated. She should have waited for her burrito. Then she should have spoken to Adam alone next. This bright idea of popping up on her chair and butting into their business had not been her best idea ever. Far from it.

Because, damn. There was a lot to unpack with these two.

“You can't be serious,” Whitney groaned at Adam before looking Bella's way. "Right? There's no way he's being serious." 

Wellllll, now that Bella thought of it?

“He might be,” she said, motioning for Whitney not to speak as she turned to Adam. “I want you to answer a question for me.”

“Okay,” he said, sounding anxious.

“Which is more likely,” Bella prompted. “Option 1: you have a pirate device that has gone undetected by your parents and Little Lotus Blossom is a Russian sales bot, or, Option 2: Your parents know about your device, Whitney is a real person they never wanted you to meet, and we need you to catch up real quick on the fact that she’s a real person no matter what a professional presentation you saw told you.”

It was like watching his face go full-bluescreen when her words landed. Whitney saw it, too.

Adam looked gobsmacked as he shook his head against the idea she had put in his head. “That is not possible.”

And, in that moment, Bella saw the problem.

Adam was in love. 

How that had happened and what he and Whitney had talked about for two years was still pretty unclear. But there was obvious history between, and Bella needed a solid breakfast in her before she could even pretend to help with the level of heavy lifting they seemed to be dealing with.

She had to bow out.

“Okay,” she said, looking at Whitney. “So, not to drop and bomb and leave, or anything, but I can’t do this before breakfast. So I’m going to move up a row now and pretend you two don’t exist until I've eaten. Sound good? Okay. Byeee.”

Bella quickly grabbed her bag and her space blanket and exited, leaving Whitney and Adam to stare at each other with perhaps a little less skepticism and rage than had been there a few minutes ago.

Or maybe she had made things worse. It was hard to tell.

Either way, it was up to them to them decide as Bella settled into her new seat and cracked open another window.

Ah. This was much better.

No Adam staring. No Whitney fidgeting. And now she had double the fresh air to breathe.

For a moment, it was quiet. Even Chad didn’t make a sound.

Then, “Are you okay, Adam?” Whitney's voice asked quietly. 

“I … don’t know," Adam said, sounding far away. "I think I need a minute. Is that okay?”

“Yeah,” Whitney said with surprising gentleness. “But I’m freaking out here, too. And I have questions. So don’t leave me hanging too long, okay?”

“Okay,” Adam replied. Then everything went quiet again and there was only the hum of tires rolling.

And, as she drifted toward sleep, Bella smiled at the knowledge that Adam’s life would never be the same after today. It couldn’t be.

Just yesterday he’d been talking about an arranged marriage like a passionless, foregone conclusion.

Today, he’d found out that his internet friend was not only a real person but a hot blonde that was totally into him. 

That changed things for a guy. Or, at least, it should.

The last thing Bella remembered before the white noise of the road lulled her to sleep was how Adam’s voice had changed as soon as he realized who Whitney was.

Protective, yet vulnerable. It was adorable.

They’ll figure it out, was Bella's last thought before drifting into a dream of a breakfast burrito covered in hot sauce that tasted like Chad’s cologne.


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