| Date Me, Baby, One More Time |
By Stephanie Rowe
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Today Derek LaValle was going to reverse the Curse, even if it meant saving the life of his blight-on-the-family-name cousin, Les LaValle.
Well, okay, most of the family would claim Les was blight number two. Derek was blight number one. Except when they wanted money from him. Then Derek was blight number one with an asterisk.
Derek’s cell phone rang just as he was walking up the broken front steps of the dump Les lived in. It was his second-in-command, Becca Gibbs. “What’s up?”
“The folks from McDonald’s are here to talk to you about selling our pretzels in their stores.” Her voice was slightly elevated; too much caffeine as usual. Becca was one high-strung woman. It made her a great business partner, though. She never slept and got more work done in an hour than most people did in a month. “The meeting’s in five minutes and you’re not here.”
He glanced at his watch. Three minutes until his cuz bit the dust. “I don’t have time to deal with them. Reschedule.”
“Don’t you realize what a huge opportunity this would be?” Her voice shot up a few more decibels. “You can’t miss this meeting!”
“I need to deal with Les first.” He swung the baseball bat loosely from his fingers as he rapped on the front door and rang the doorbell. “Les! Open up!”
“Derek! You blew off Dunkin’ Donuts last week because you were in the library doing research on that goblet, and you missed the Starbucks meeting on Friday because you saw a woman with a dragon tattoo at lunch and got arrested for stalking her.” She made a sound of aggravated distress. “These are incredible distribution opportunities and you need to take them seriously. McDonald’s wants an exclusive, and we need to think about whether that makes sense for us, and we can’t do it if you’re off chasing some damned mumbo-jumbo myth!” She was practically snarling at him now, and he grinned. His business would have been neglected into bankruptcy if it wasn’t for Becca.
“Go ahead and meet with them,” he said. “They’ll realize you’re a hell of a lot more on top of things than I am, and they’ll be thrilled to work with you instead of me.” Hiring Becca five years ago had been his best business decision since deciding to open Vic’s Pretzels. She was a business and marketing genius, and the stock price of Vic’s Pretzels proved it. Gave him time to pursue more important things, like saving his cousin’s life. Not that Becca agreed with his priorities.
Of course, everyone who knew of his plans thought he was insane, so he supposed the fact they didn’t support him was to be expected.
He tried the doorknob. Locked. “Les!” A quick glance at his watch told him he had only two and a half minutes now. Damn New York City traffic and his cousin for living so far out of the city. He felt his adrenaline kick in, and his heart began to pump.
But Becca wasn’t finished. “These people want to meet with the inventor of Vic’s No-Carb Pretzel, not his lieutenant. I will stall them for exactly thirty minutes and if you don’t get your designer-clad heinie over here by then, I’m going to hand them the recipe and tell them to have at it.” She slammed down the phone.
She’d sounded like she meant it. Crap. Time to save Les’s butt and get back to the office.
Barely two minutes left. “Les!” He slung the baseball bat over his shoulder and sprinted around the side of the house. The gate to the backyard was locked, but he scaled it easily, an advantage of being over six feet tall. He vaulted up the rickety stairs to the back deck and nearly crashed into his cousin, who was sprawled in a lawn chair, absorbing the rays. “Damn, Les. Didn’t you hear me?”
“Screw you.” Les had his feet cooling in a murky plastic wading pool, his bulging stomach hanging over the waistband of his Speedo. “I’m not listening to any of your b.s.”
“I don’t care if you listen or not,” Derek said. “I’m here to save your sorry behind anyway.”
“I don’t need saving. I take care of myself just fine.” For the last six years, Les had been collecting disability for an “injury” to his back. He now spent all his time furthering his Internet poker addiction and bullying the neighborhood children into going to the store for him. The only time he wasn’t at the computer was when he was too hungover to focus on the screen. Solution? Sun and beer for a couple hours to revive himself. “And if you keep running around insisting the LaValle men have been cursed, someone’s going to pack you off in a straitjacket.”
Derek shrugged. “Better insane than dead.” His family had already tried to have him committed more than once. Having a vast disposable income came in handy for purchasing his freedom. “Every LaValle man for four generations has died at the moment he turned thirty-one years, forty-six weeks, four days, six hours, three minutes, and five seconds old.” He looked at his watch and cursed. “That’s in just over a minute for you.”
He hoisted the bat to his shoulder and searched the yard for rabid pit bulls and homicidal yard implements that might develop a mind of their own. I know you’re out there, you murderous son of a bitch. I’m ready for you.
Les took another slug of beer. “The LaValle men have had a run of bad luck. Nothing more.”
“So everyone says.” So his dad had claimed until the moment he’d become the victim of a wayward butter knife. Died right in front of fifteen-year-old Derek, while they’d been sampling a no-calorie waffle together.
“There’s no Curse and I don’t need you here to protect me against some crap you made up.” Les folded his flabby arms over his saggy chest and glared at Derek.
No Curse? Not likely.
Not when you consider the way they’d died. One had been found impaled on his toothbrush. Another had choked to death on lemonade. How about the one who’d been kicked in the head by a newborn baby and suffered fatal brain damage? One unfortunate sod had actually shot himself in the head while cleaning his gun—although that could have been legit. The one that had been mauled to death by a pet hamster? Seemed a little fishy. As if fate was grabbing whatever was available at that precise moment.
“I’m going to call my mom and tell her you’re over here talking about the Curse again,” Les whined. “And then I’m going to call the cops and—”
“Shut up and let me concentrate.” If he could keep the Curse from succeeding with Les, he was hoping that would be enough to stop the chain before it hit him and his fraternal twin when they reached the right age. Which was in just over a week.
Forty-five seconds. “Maybe you should go inside,” Derek suggested. “You could drown in that pool.” His bat wasn’t going to be much good if the water suddenly swelled up in a massive tsunami and swept Les away.
“You go inside. Get me another beer.” Les belched and let his head drop back against the lounge chair. “Order a pizza while you’re at it.”
Derek looked up at the sky. No lightning bolt could come out of that blue sky, could it?
Ten seconds. He kicked an old pizza box off the deck. Not sure how cardboard could be deadly, but he wasn’t taking any chances.
Les yawned. “I’m gonna take a nap.”
Les belched again and picked up a beer.
“Give me that bottle. I don’t want glass near you.” Before he could grab the bottle, Derek’s watch alarm went off, and a huge rock came careening over the back fence, heading straight for Les’s head.
Les screamed and dove out of his chair. Derek swung for the rock. It shattered his bat but ricocheted away from Les and smashed through the living room window. “Believe me now, Les?”
No sound from Les.
Derek spun around. His cousin was lying on the deck, motionless, his neck twisted at an angle that was unnatural and very, very wrong.
Frustration ripped through him. “Dammit, Les. Why didn’t you listen?”
No one listened. And everyone died.
Well, Derek wasn’t going to die, and he wasn’t going to let his brother die. He glared at the overgrown backyard. “You’ve just taken your last LaValle man, you hear me?”
He could have sworn he heard laughter on the wind.
Great. So he was burdened with a Curse that had a warped sense of humor.
Four hours later, after dealing with cops and the ambulance and begging forgiveness from Becca for skipping out on the fast-food meeting, Derek banged open the door to his twin brother’s office, making Quincy LaValle jump and spill coffee all over his desk.
“Damn you, Derek. Why do you always do that?”
“Because I like to pick on my little brother. Hello, Wendy.” Derek nodded at the assistant filing in the corner as he moved a stack of papers off a chair, and dropped into the seat.
Then he looked again. Wendy Monroe had been working for Quincy for the last two years. Every time he’d seen her, she’d been wearing some gray outfit that barely showed she was a woman. No makeup. Glasses. She was the epitome of a nerdy intellectual and a perfect match for his math professor brother, if only Quincy would pull his head out of his books and realize it.
But today she was wearing a red sweater and her hair looked like it had been marked up with blond or something. What did women call that? Highlighted. Right. She looked like she’d gotten her hair highlighted. A monumental change for her. She actually looked like she had a personality. “You look nice today, Wendy.”
She smiled at him and looked him in the eye. Another first. “Thank you, Mr. LaValle.” She pulled open a drawer in Quincy’s desk and pulled out a napkin, barely keeping her hip a proper distance form Quincy’s arm.
“Derek,” he corrected her, as usual.
“Of course.” As she mopped up the coffee spill, her gaze flicked toward Quincy, and he was pretty sure he saw a light in her eyes he hadn’t noticed before. Had she suddenly realized what every other woman on campus already knew? That his antisocial, absentminded brother was apparently a total chick magnet? That would account for the new sweater and colored hair. “Quincy? Do you need anything else?” she asked.
Quincy was already back at the computer typing away. He waved his hand vaguely in her direction. “All set. Have a good weekend.”
She gave Derek a knowing smile. It was Monday at one in the afternoon. She still had a thirty-five-hour workweek until the weekend, but it was beneath Quin to keep track of things as mundane as the day of the week. “You have to teach class in forty-five minutes. I’ll remind you.”
Quincy looked up from the computer. “Really? Today? What class?”
“It’s your freshman lecture.”
“Oh. Right.” He frowned and Wendy set a sheaf of papers in front of him. “These are the tests you’re handing back to the students today. And on the top are your notes for your lecture.”
Derek grinned as he watched Wendy take care of his brother with calm patience. The perfect woman for Quin. Maybe he ought to encourage Quincy to notice he had a female working in his office.
After they’d taken care of the Curse, of course. Until they beat it, relationships were pretty much doomed. Nothing like telling your date that you’ll be dead by age thirty-one to scare her off. Somehow being beheaded by a green bean didn’t seem to mesh with domestic visions of white picket fences and 2.3 kids, as their dad’s unfortunate butter knife encounter had proven. Just think of the situation Derek would put his kids in if he had any: How do you explain to your friends at school that your dad was the victim of a wayward kitchen utensil that had been momentarily possessed by a supernatural force?
Wendy finished instructing Quincy on his plans for the afternoon, then stepped back from the desk. “Do you need my assistance for your meeting with Derek? If not, I’ll keep filing in the corner.”
Derek cleared his throat. “Um, would you mind giving us some privacy?”
“No problem at all.” She flashed them a small smile and then hurried out of the room.
Derek set a tossed salad and a tuna sub on Quincy’s desk. “Brought lunch.”
Quincy grinned and began unwrapping the sandwich. “Great. I’m starving. I forgot to eat again.”
“I figured that would be the case.” The door clicked shut. “Les died.”
Quincy looked up sharply. “When?”
Sharp lines tightened behind Quincy’s glasses. “At what time?”
“Nine fifty-four and seventeen seconds. As I predicted.” Maybe this would convince Quincy. It had to. Derek needed help to figure what was going on and how to stop it. Time was almost out, and eighteen years of solo pursuit hadn’t gotten him any answers. He needed a partner, and since Quin was the only person who let Derek discuss the Curse without threatening to get him committed, Quin got the nod.
His brother frowned. “You were there?”
Typical intellectual. He needed every fact before drawing a conclusion. Derek sighed and filled in his twin on the details, then fell silent.
“Huh? That’s all you can say?”
“Well, what do you want me to say? Oh, sure, I believe all the LaValle men are cursed and you’re going to die in a week and I’m going to die ten minutes after you?” Quincy shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I don’t buy this paranormal spooky stuff. There has to be a logical explanation.”
“Math is based on logic. Curses aren’t. Forget what you know and open your mind.”
Quincy pulled off his glasses and shot Derek a superior stare. “Math is real. Curses are myths. There has to be something else going on besides some fantastical intervention by fate.”
Derek ground his teeth. “Listen to me, Quin. We have to find out how to stop it. One week and then we’re dead. The leisurely approach is no longer an option.”
“I’ll do some research on the statistical odds of all these deaths happening at such similar times and—”
“Quincy!” Derek slammed his palms on the desk. “This isn’t math! It’s something more! You’ll die if we don’t fix this.” Derek hadn’t suffered all those black eyes and the broken nose defending his nerdy brother just to let him die from a rabid ballpoint pen or something equally ridiculous. A fatal carjacking in the city? Fine. That’s fate. A damned ballpoint pen? He had his pride and he simply wouldn’t be bested by a blasted writing utensil. “Don’t ignore this, Quincy. I’m not crazy.”
Quincy leaned back in his chair and gave Derek his tolerant professor look. “What would you have me do?”
“Let’s find this Goblet of Eternal Youth. Find the Guardian.”
“And then what? Kill the Guardian and steal the Goblet as the journal says must be done for the Curse to be broken? This is the twenty-first century. We can’t go around killing anyone.”
“What if it’s the Guardian’s life or ours? You think I should stand back and let us die?”
Quincy leaned forward. “Face it, Derek. There’s no Goblet. There’s no Curse. There is simply bad luck among the LaValle men. I’ll write up a few equations and show that it’s mathematically possible for all twenty-nine men to have died without any supernatural intervention.”
“Fine.” Derek stood up. “You do that.”
“And then you’ll let this go?”
“Sure.” He turned away before Quincy could see the lie in his eyes.
Curse or not, Les was going to be the last LaValle man to die at age thirty-one.
He was going to find that Guardian and do what he had to do. But his gut dropped at the thought of killing anyone in cold blood, even to save his brother.
He hoped she tried to kill him first. Then he could behead her with a clean conscience. Murder in the first degree wasn’t exactly befitting of a pretzel mogul. And what was the point of dodging the Curse if he had to spend the rest of his life in prison dodging . . . well . . . yeah. Probably best not to think about that.
First things first. Find the Guardian.
Deal with the rest later.
Excerpted from Date Me, Baby, One More Time , by Stephanie Rowe . Copyright (c) 2006 by Stephanie Rowe . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top