Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Status Report - May 2021

Hey folks!

After putting out books every month since February 2020, I'm taking a little break for June and July this year. For those who haven't heard, DH and I will be first-time grandparents!

Adorable Spawn's due date is July 6, but babies like to come on their own time table. Not to mention Genius Kid and Significant Other live 1300 miles away, so we're keeping our options open.

That doesn't mean things won't be happening!

1) From now until the Fourth of July, Bloodlines: The First Boxed Set will be on sale for $0.99! The first three Bloodlines novels are sexy, hot hero fun when you're lounging by the pool or on the beach this summer.

[ETA] Oops! I forgot the buy links!

                                                         Amazon, all countries
                                                         Barnes & Noble
                                                         Google Play

2) The rest of the Bloodlines series (Books 2-9) are on sale from $2.99 to $3.21.

3) If you're outside the U.S. or you use another retailer other than Amazon, Blood Magick is free. For those of you in the U.S., Amazon set it to free last week, then abruptly raised the price on Friday. I've complained a few times, and the answers from Amazon have ranged from "It's a problem with your browser" to "Tough shit, we can do what we want".

So I'm asking you to please contact Amazon's customer service and complain. They will listen to customers before they will listen to me, though I plan to constantly nag them from now to Labor Day.

3) The two-month break doesn't mean I won't be writing. I'm working on rewriting the Millersburg Magick Mysteries, which I hope to have out by August.

4) I'm also working on August's new release, A Hand of Father (Justice #7).

5) The Soccer Moms of Apocalypse series is shaping up. However, I want to have all the books written before I start releasing them. That may mean the first release Pestilence in Pumpkin won't be until November. I really love this series, and I want to make it as perfect as possible,

6) The late release for Soccer Moms is because I'm looking forward to the chaos of A Very Hero Wedding (888-555-HERO #8). Let's face it--weddings can be crazy enough. I know mine was. Add in crazier supervillains on top of crazy relatives, and...

Well, you get the drift.

Anyway, that's what's happening in my world. If you have any comments or questions, enter them in the comments section below, or send me a private message through the Contact Me tab.

Next week, I'll start posting snippets from A Hand of Father.

Monday, May 24, 2021

I Need the Internet's Help!

I'm trying to put together some sales for the summer. That means lowering the prices at all the retailers. No problem, right?

Heck, I even emailed Amazon last Tuesday to ask them to price match Blood Magick at $0.00.

Which they did on all the stores.

For three days.

On Friday, the U.S. store raised the price. The weird part is if you are not in the U.S., and you log into the US Amazon store, you'll see the price set as free. But if you're in the U.S., you've got to pay.

So I'm asking you to please contact Amazon's customer service and complain. You can send them this link to show that Blood Magick is free on Barnes & Noble:

 Dang. I was hoping to make a big announcement on Wednesday, but I've got a wayward duck to wrangle.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Pestilence in Pumpkin Spice - Chapter 5

This will be the last chapter for this novel. We're at roughly twenty percent which is the max I can post without repercussions from the retailers. Too much is going on this summer to mess with taking down posts later.

I would appreciate it if you'd let me know what you think in the comments.

Next week's post will be a status update. Lots of stuff is happening in the land of the Angry Sheep!


Penny sat up in her hospital bed when Doctor Hudson strode into her room. After all the tests over the last twenty-four hours, she was beginning to feel like a guinea pig. Even worse, no one could tell her what was going on with her staff or her customers.

“Well, Doc?” Penny asked hopefully. Gene squeezed her left hand trying to reassure her, but after the scene at Java’s Palace, she wasn’t sure she’d be okay again.

Doctor Harold shook her head. “There was absolutely nothing abnormal on your MRI.”

“But she’s been having these headaches all week,” Gene protested.

Doctor Harold eyed Penny. “You said they started on Tuesday.”

“That was the first one,” Penny admitted. “Between the thunder storms and butting heads with Justine, I chalked it up to stress and the change in barometric pressure. But after a good night’s sleep, I felt fine the next morning.”

Doctor Harold pulled the stylus off the tablet and jotted some notes. “Tuesday was also when you both said Justine came down with that stomach bug.”

“Yes,” Penny said.

“We followed the school guidelines and kept her home Wednesday,” Gene added.

“And you haven’t felt any ill effects?” Doctor Harold asked.

“None,” he replied.

The physician turned back to Penny. “But you had a headache Wednesday night?”

“Yeah, but it was nothing like Tuesday’s or Thursday’s.” She shrugged. “I never even finished my chocolate martini.”

Doctor Harold poked at the nosepiece of her glasses. “Did you have any alcohol the other two nights?”

“No.” Penny slumped against her raised bed. “And I only had half of the martini Dani made for me.”

Doctor Harold’s brunette ponytail waved back and forth as she shook her head. “None of this makes sense. None of it.” She stalked back to the door, closed it, and turned back to Penny and Gene. “We need to have a frank talk, folks.”

Penny exchanged looks with Gene, who appeared as confused as she felt. She faced the physician again. “What do you mean?”

“Have you imported any unusual foods or drinks from out of the country?” Doctor Harold asked while she walked back to the bed.

“None that didn’t go through my usual suppliers,” Penny said. “The only new thing I had on the menu was starfruit smoothies this summer, and I made sure to warn customers that if they can’t eat grapefruit because of the drugs they take, they shouldn’t be ordering the smoothie.”

“Hold on,” Gene said. “Why are you insinuating my wife did something illegal?”

“I’m not saying that.” Doctor Harold leaned one hand against the foot board of Penny’s bed. She stared at the floor for a moment before she eyed Penny again. “None of the people brought into the ER are exhibiting the same symptoms. And except for Justine’s stomach bug and your migraine level headaches, all of the symptoms point to diseases that aren’t common in the U.S., much less Illinois.”

“Symptoms like what?” Gene said.

“I can’t break HIPPA—”

“You can talk to a fellow doctor when you want a second opinion,” he asserted.

Doctor Harold sighed. “And you’re going to tell Penny if I consult privately with you, won’t you?”

“It won’t leave this room.” Penny crossed her heart over the ugly blue-striped hospital gown she wore.

“Nobody has the same symptoms.” Doctor Harold started ticking diseases off on her fingers. “One person presented as Dengue fever when they arrived. Another as African sleeping sickness. A third as Hantavirus. The only one we’ve confirmed through bloodwork so far is malaria, but before we could administer treatment, the patient recovered. The second set of bloodwork showed no sign of the parasite.”

“You sure it came from the same patient?” Gene said.

Penny could see hackles rise on the physician, but Doctor Harold forced them back down.

“Yes, I’m sure,” she said more calmly than she obviously felt. “Not one person from Java’s Palace has the same disease. We’re still waiting for results on the rest, but everyone seems to be responding to non-treatment.” She gave an uncomfortable chuckle.

Penny could feel her heart dive into her stomach acid. “You’re not letting any of us go tonight, are you?”

Doctor Harold shook her head. “Not until we figure out what the hell happened. Can I please have a list of your suppliers?”

Penny grabbed her phone from the overbed table. “What’s your cell number?”

She punched in the number the doctor rattled off and texted the document containing the master list of her suppliers to the physician.

Doctor Harold’s phone beeped. She looked at it and nodded. “Thank you. Someone will be in to take another blood sample shortly.” She strode out of the hospital room, closing the door behind her.

Penny looked at Gene and reached for his hand again. He took it and squeezed it.

“Don’t worry, sweetie.” He kissed the back of her hand. “Once the health inspectors’ took their samples yesterday, I called a cleaning service.”

She scrunched her face. “Norah?” Norah Ackles had been Penny’s cleaner since she opened the coffee shop. While Valerie and the staff kept up on the day-to-day stuff, Penny liked having Norah and her crew come in and do an even more thorough deep clean.

Gene sighed. “No, Safety Clean.”

“What?” Penny shrieked. “They’re a crime scene clean-up crew!”

“They also specialize in biohazardous waste removal.” A hurt expression crossed his face. “Given the circumstances, the place was more than Norah and her girls should be handling.”

“I know Matt threw up but—” Penny began.

“Sweetie, he wasn’t the only one.” Gene lowered his voice. “Mrs. Langston and couple others in her knitting group vomited blood.”

“Oh, my god.” Penny stared at the ceiling. Once this got around Oakfield, would she even have a business left? That thought reminded her of Courtney’s strange comment.

Penny looked at Gene. “Did you pick up the mail at the shop?”

“Sweetie, you need to rest.”

“No.” She jerked her hand from Gene’s grip. “Right before everyone got sick Courtney was at the shop.”

“Are you suggesting—”

Penny shook her head. “She’s not intelligent enough for bio-terrorism. Bu she’s vindictive enough to let something slip about the land Java’s Palace sits on being sold.”

He stood. “If you promise me you’ll take a nap, I’ll run by the post office and pick up your mail.”

“I promise I’ll try.” She smiled up at him.

He kissed her forehead and left the room. She wasn’t sure what she’d do without him.

She plumped her pillow and returned to staring at the ceiling. None of this made sense. How could starfruit make people sick months after she’d used them up? Did any of this have something to do with Dani’s heart stopping Wednesday night?

Penny checked her texts. Everyone sent a message asking how she was doing. Even Francine. Penny took a deep breath and texted Dani first.

U still in hospital?

A minute later, Dani replied.

Home. Want me to sneak in milkshake?

Penny grinned and sent the thumbs-up emoji. She answered Wila and Francine’s texts before she set aside her phone. Maybe together, she and her friends could figure out the weirdness that targeted them this week.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Pestilence in Pumpkin Spice - Chapter 4

The next morning, Penny called Valerie after she dropped off Justine at school to say she would be in at ten. Valerie didn’t question why she would be late, which meant the Oakfield gossip network was working overtime. She didn’t care. She was more worried about Dani. Someone’s heart didn’t stop like that without something serious going on.

The heavy Friday morning traffic didn’t help her nerves one bit either. Every driver seemed grumpy, cutting each other off and laying on their horns. Maybe it was the overcast sky. The cold front had a solid grip on northern Illinois.

Or maybe it was her conversations with her own husband and Dani’s brother last night that colored her mood. Wila had called Penny while she’d driven home to say the ER doctor decided to admit Dani, and she would text Penny and Francine the room number once she had it.

Penny called Marty to let him know what was going on with his sister. Once she said Wila was at the hospital with Dani, he calmed down a bit. While Penny insisted that Marty tell Mark the truth about his mother, she rather suspected he wouldn’t.

When she arrived home and told Gene about the evening’s events, he’d surprised her by agreeing with Francine. According to his professional opinion, Penny was finally letting go of the trauma of Justine’s cancer, and he thought it was a good thing. For some reason, Gene psychoanalyzing her like one of his patients pissed her off.

And she wasn’t exactly sure why it made her angry.

Penny pulled into the visitors’ lot of the hospital as the clouds started spitting rain. She reached the automatic door as the sprinkles turned into a deluge. The odor of antiseptic made her stomach twitch thanks to all the sleepless days and nights she spent in the children’s hospital in Chicago. It was a good thing she’d forgone breakfast this morning. She headed straight for the elevators and nodded politely to the elderly ladies manning the information desk as she passed.

The lobby area became crowded as people waited for a car. One of the four finally reached the first floor. Penny resisted the urge to shove through the mass of bodies. Somehow, she managed to squeeze herself inside. Of course, the damn thing had to stop at every floor.

The elevator finally reached the CCU floor. The nurse looked up from her screen when Penny stepped out of the car. Once again, she exchanged nods with the nurse as she headed down the right hallway.

She knocked on the half-open door before she stuck her head around the edge. Dani looked normal and healthy except for all the wires and lines attached to various places on her body. Wila, on the other hand, appeared exhausted.

“Damn, girl, have you been up here all night?” Penny said.

“We both have,” Dani grumbled.

“At least, one of us got some sleep.” Wila scrubbed her face. An ashy hue covered her dark skin, a sure sign she was stressed out, too.

“What’s the word on Dani’s condition?” Penny asked.

“You know I’m laying right here,” Dani snapped.

Wila chuckled. “You want to explain?”

Dani’s mouth opened, then closed with a snap of her teeth.

“That’s what I thought,” Wila teased before she faced Penny. “In layman’s terms, the staff has no fucking clue of what happened last night. Within two hours after arriving here last night, her vitals were all back to normal. They’ve been running tests most of the night.”

“Her heart?” Penny asked.

Wila waved at the EKG machine. “Like I said, rock steady for the last eight hours. They’ve done an x-ray on her head and chest plus an ultrasound and a CT scan on her heart.”

“And they’re going to run a stress test some time this morning,” Dani added.

“So they’re not releasing you any time soon?” Penny grimaced.

“No,” Dani and Wila said at the same time.

Penny eyed Wila. “Go home and get some rest. I’ll stay with her for a while.”

Wila pulled on her jacket and slung her purse strap over her shoulder before she gave Dani’s unencumbered hand a squeeze. “Text me after the stress test.” “You just want to make sure I survive the damn test,” Dani grumbled some more.

“Damn straight.” Wila grinned.

Dani stuck her tongue out at Wila. The paramedic slipped out of the room with a laugh and a wave of her fingers.

Penny slid off her own jacket and hung it and her shoulder bag on the back of the visitor chair Wila had vacated. She plopped on the set. “Joking aside, how are you doing?”

Dani grimaced. “I feel fine.” She stared at Penny, her huge brown eyes glimmering with tears. “Please tell me Wila was exaggerating about me passing out.”

“I wish I could, sweetie.” Penny took Dani’s left hand in both of hers. “You scared the crap out of all of us last night.”

Dani snorted. “I’m sure Francine is worried it’s something contagious.”

“Actually, she put something together that has been bothering me, too.” Penny hesitated. She didn’t want to worry Dani unnecessarily. “Have you noticed anything weird about me?”

Dani’s mouth twisted. “I didn’t want to say anything…”

When she didn’t say anything else, Penny prompted, “But?”

“You didn’t freak out about Justine vomiting all over your van.” Dani played with a fold of her hospital blanket.

Penny swallowed hard. “Have I been that bad?”

“Girl, none of us blame you.” Dani squeezed Penny’s left hand. “I’d be a wreck if Mark developed cancer. But Justine’s okay now. Gene’s more than willing to cover his share of parenting. You are just having a hard time letting go of things. Believe me, I did something similar after Heath’s accident. You pulled me out of the worst of my grief.”

Tears stung Penny’s eyes. She always viewed herself as the strong one of the group. Had she been lying to herself all this time.

“But I’m not grieving.” She waved her right hand, but her left hand kept a tight grasp on Dani’s left hand. “Justine’s alive. She’s healthy.” She rolled her eyes. “She’s definitely going through puberty. How can I be grieving?”

Dani chuckled. “You can grieve over things other than a loved one’s death. Face it, Justine’s illness changed yours and Gene’s life plans. And the afternoon we met, you’re the one who told me grief has its own damn pace no matter what anyone else says.”

“I really hate it when you throw my own words back in my face,” Penny mock growled.

Dani cocked her head. “Doesn’t make them any less true.”

* * *

Dani’s words still swirled through Penny’s brain as she drove back to Java’s Palace. Maybe she was guilty of holding on too tight to Justine. Dani would definitely understand from the child’s point of view. Her dad Chuck charged onto the CCU floor a couple of hours after Penny’s arrival and immediately raised holy hell over the fact the medical staff didn’t know what was wrong with his baby girl. Hell, Dani turned forty this year, and Chuck still tried to control her life.

She pulled into the coffee shop’s parking. A little guilt seeped in at leaving Valerie and the girls alone for the morning rush. Maybe letting them go home early would assuage some of her feelings.

Penny parked and locked her minivan. Her stomach warped when she spotted Courtney’s gold SUV. What the hell did she want now? Or had she found what Penny had written with caramel on yesterday’s coffee?

She’d have to suck it up if Courtney wanted to bitch. Why the hell did she keep coming here other than to harass the staff and throw her weight around?

Penny entered the cafĂ©. Matt was in the closest corner working on his latest novel, his half-eaten bagel forgotten with his rapid fire typing. Mrs. Langston’s knitting club was across the dining room, their needles flashing as they gossiped and sipped their drinks.

And of course, Courtney complained loudly to Valerie. Penny’s vision blurred, a warning signal a migraine was about to start. Damn, she hadn’t had a stress migraine since she left her corporate job with a certain restaurant chain whose name she swore she’d never say again.

“What’s your problem this time, Courtney?” she barked. Her voice was loud enough to interrupt both Matt’s keystrokes and the knitting club’s clicking needles. Penny could feel her customers staring at her, but she didn’t care.

Courtney sniffed contemptuously. “I wanted to see your face when you learned you were about to lose your precious coffee shop.”

Penny cocked her head. “What are you talking about? Did you lie to the health inspector?”

“I didn’t have to,” Courtney said primly. “The land Java’s Palace is sitting on is about to be sold.”

“My landlord has to give me thirty days’ notice.” Not to mention, Penny had the right of first refusal if Mr. Ross decided to sell the land. She’d been putting every extra dime and nickel away in order to buy the parcel. Mr. Ross said he was willing to subdivide the property, but her long-term plan involved purchasing the entire strip mall where Java’s Palace was located. But she wasn’t going to give the bitch any more ammunition.

“Then maybe you should call him.” Courtney’s saccharine smile was enough for Penny to want to deck her. “Have a nice day!” She sauntered out of the shop. Matt approached with his cup, obviously needing a refill. “What was that all about?”

“Would you believe crazy parents in a kids’ soccer league?” Penny forced a laugh. Her brain was pounding behind her eyeballs.

Valerie reached the pot with Jamaican Blue Mountain. She held out her hand for his cup and frowned when her fingers touched his. “You feeling okay, Matt?”

“No.” He had a yellowish cast to his skin, and he rubbed his stomach. “I was okay until a second ago. Now, I feel like—” An alarmed expression spread across his face before he whirled away. Vomit sprayed across the tiled floor.

“Matt!” Pain exploded in Penny’s head. She dropped to her knees. “Valerie, call, call…”

Penny fell into the blackness with a symphony of puking in the background.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Pestilence in Pumpkin Spice - Chapter 3

Later that night, Penny pulled into Wila’s driveway and frowned. Dani was right. They all had the same make, model, and year of minivan. The front of Wila’s house looked like a satellite branch of Neal Astin’s dealership. But then, Dani would never have purchased a minivan if it weren’t for her dad. And Penny had a suspicion Dani hadn’t paid for the minivan either.

Which was a whole nother issue.

Wednesday night was girls’ night at Wila’s. Three of them needed a break from their families, and Wila hated being alone while her son Derek spent the evening at the ex-husband’s house.

Penny opened the driver’s door before she grabbed the bags of munchies she brought, including chocolate of all types. Francine would bitch, which was why Penny bought a bag of the gluten-free, fat-free, and taste-free chips Francine loved.

Or claimed she did. Penny swore a cereal box tasted better than those chips.

She slammed the door shut and jogged up to the front door. Before she could press the latch, the door swung open.

“’Bout time you got here!” Wila gestured for Penny to come inside. “Hurry. We need something to counteract the alcohol.”

“You started without me?” Penny shrugged out of her coat while Wila took possession of the reusable bags.

“No, Dani’s mixing chocolate martinis right now.”

Penny groaned. “Another raise?”

“Another raise,” Wila confirmed.

Penny hung her coat on a peg and followed Wila into the kitchen. Dani stood at the counter, the shaker in her hands and ice clattering as she mixed their drinks. Spotting Wila with the reusable bags, Francine jumped up from the bar stool she had been perched on.

“Did you bring chocolate?” She grabbed a bag from Wila and fished out the bag of dark chocolate raspberry truffles.

Penny exchanged looks with Wila who merely shrugged.

“That time of the month?” Dani asked with an amused expression. She carefully poured the chocolate martinis into the glasses while Francine dumped the rest of the contents onto the kitchen counter.

Francine shook her head. “Ever since yesterday’s storm, I’ve been craving chocolate.”

“It’s those damn smoothies,” Penny said. “Too much depravation isn’t good for the soul or your body chemistry.”

Francine made a face at her and popped another truffle in her mouth.

Wila accepted a martini from Dani. “You sure you’re not pregnant?”

“Bite your tongue,” Francine snapped. “I can barely handle the one I’ve got. She started her first period today.”

“You had supplies for her, didn’t you?” Penny asked.

“Of course.” Francine rolled her eyes before she sipped her drink. “It’s just that we both ended up on the floor of her bathroom crying.”

“Why the hell were you crying?” Wila’s eyebrows formed a sharp “V” between her eyes. “It happens to almost every woman.”

“You don’t have a daughter.” Francine’s eyes glistened. “You don’t understand.”

“You think raising a son is easier?” Dani shook her head. “Dad and Marty are trying to be Mark’s male role models, but some of the information they give him…” She took a healthy swig of her martini. “He’ll either never date, or he’ll turn into a slut puppy.”

“Just because your brother was Mister Popular in high school, it doesn’t mean Mark will serial date like he did,” Penny said.

“How’s Justine feeling?” Wila reached for the bag of cheddar crisps.

“Feeling?” Francine edged away from Penny, but she took the bag of raspberry truffles with her. “Is she sick? What was she exposed to?”

“Chill.” Penny dug out the crackers and spray cheese from her other bag. “The vomiting was probably due to her own period starting yesterday morning.”

“Vomiting?” Dani’s expression turned to one of alarm. “She and Mark—”

“It’s been over twenty-four hours,” Wila said soothingly. “If any of the team picked up norovirus from Justine, all of our kids would be puking right now. Penny’s right. It’s probably related to the poor girl’s period. When I was her age, I bawled from the pain.”

“If you guys are going to talk about gross bodily functions, can we please play Euchre while you do?” Francine whined.

“Fine,” Penny grumbled. “But I want another martini first.”

* * *

The ache Penny thought had gone started pulsing behind her eyes as she stared at her crappy hand. “Pass.”

“Pass,” Wila said.

“Pass.” Dani laid her cards face down on Wila’s pine kitchen table. She rubbed her temples.

“Well, this sucks.” Francine pursed her lips and turned down the ten of diamonds.

“You dealt the cards,” Wila snapped.

“Stop yelling at me,” Francine bit back. “Your call, Penny.”

Dani’s olive complexion shifted to a sickly color.

Penny laid her own cards face down on the table. “Dani, honey, are you okay?”

“No.” She started to shake her head and thought better of it. “I had a nasty headache since Dad bought that damn minivan. I felt better last night after some sleep, but it’s coming back with a vengeance.”

“You, too?” Wila cocked her head. “I thought I was stressed out from the extra shifts I been pulling.”

Francine turned to Penny. “Did Justine complain of a headache before she got sick yesterday?”

“No, but I had a similar headache before I got to the field yesterday.” Penny chewed in her bottom lip as she thought. “I chalked it up to the weather front.” She turned back to Dani. “Do you need to lay down?”

“No, but I think I’ll go home while I can still drive.” Dani handed her cards to Wila. “I’m sorry for being a bummer.”

“Wait a minute.” Wila grabbed Dani’s wrist. “You’re hot.”

“You’re sexy, too, but I’m not ready to try girls yet,” Dani said.

“No, I mean I think you have a temperature.” Wila pushed back from the table and stood. “Let me get my touch thermometer.” She charged out of the kitchen. Footsteps thumped up the stairs.

Francine turned to Penny. “See what you did? You unleashed disease on all of us.”

“You’re going to be lucky not to be puking after eating the entire bag of raspberry truffles,” Penny shot back.

Francine frowned and peered into the bag. “I only remember having a couple.” She looked over at the counter. “I’m still hungry.” She rose and snatched the unopened bag of milk chocolate peanut butter truffles.

“Are you feeling okay, Francine?” Penny stared as the other woman tore the bag open, unwrapped a truffle, and popped it in her mouth.

“I’m better than you guys are,” Francine said around the mouthful of candy. “No nausea, no headache, no fever.” She sat on one of the counter stools. “Just hungry and staying away from the rest of you.”

Penny turned to Dani. Her card partner’s eyes rolled back in her head, and she slid bonelessly off her chair.

“Dani!” Penny shouted. She jumped up from the chair, circled the table, and knelt next to her card partner. She pressed her fingers to her friend’s wrist, searching for a pulse. “Dani?”

Footsteps thumped down the stairs, faster and louder than before. Wila raced into her kitchen. “What happened?” She laid the thermometer she’d retrieved on the table and knelt on the other side of Dani.

“She passed out and fell out of her chair.”

“Should I call 9-1-1?” Francine hovered over them.

“Call them.” Wila’s voice was cool. Sure. “She’s not breathing, and I can’t find a pulse.”

Penny’s heart pounded. Too bad she couldn’t give some of those beats to Dani.

Wila went through the basics from the CPR class she’d taught. The one she made the other three women take because she was afraid no one would show up. She tilted Dani’s head back and checked her airway.

“I don’t see anything.” Wila looked up at Penny. “I’ll do compressions. You remember how to do mouth-to-mouth?”

Penny nodded, her own mouth suddenly dry. This was her friend, not Annie the CPR dummy. And she was dimly aware of Francine on her phone, rattling off Wila’s address the 9-1-1 operator as Penny tilted Dani’s head back.

Wila did a series of fast compressions. Penny pinched Dani’s nose shut and breathed into her friend’s mouth. They continued performing CPR. Wila counted her compression and then paused for Penny to blow air into Dani’s lungs. Sirens wailed in the distance.

“I’ll flag them down.” Francine raced out of the kitchen. Penny couldn’t blame her. Their friend was dying.

Penny and Wila finished the twelfth round of CPR when Dani’s eyes popped open.

“What the hell are you two doing to me?” Dani started to sit upright then collapsed back to the floor. “Oh, my god! Why does my chest feel like an elephant sat on it?”

Penny exchanged looks with Wila before asking, “Sweetie, what’s the last thing you remember?”

“You and Francine arguing about the chocolate.” Dani blinked and looked around. “Why am I on the floor?”

“You passed out and hit the hardwood before anyone could catch you,” Penny said while Wila check Dani’s pulse. “You stopped breathing, and we couldn’t detect a heartbeat.”

“She’s in the kitchen,” Francine said. She rushed into the room with two paramedics on her tail.

“Dang!” The younger paramedic blurted before he turned to his older, graying partner. “I told you this was Wila’s house, Dick.”

Penny scrambled out of their way, and Dick knelt beside Dani.

“I can’t believe you called 9-1-1.” Dani groaned.

Dick looked up at Wila. “Dispatch said the patient was unresponsive with no respiration or pulse.”

“Swear to God, guys,” Wila said. “She was not breathing, and we couldn’t find a heartbeat.” She rattled off everything she and Penny done along with the vitals she took when Dani woke.

“Did she hit her head?” Dick asked as he flashed a light at Dani’s eyes.

“I wasn’t in the room when it happened.” Wila looked at Penny.

She shrugged. “I don’t think so. Her head was on her arm by the time I got around the table. We laid her straight to perform CPR.”

“Can I please get off the floor?” Dani whined. “It’s cold down here.”

“Sorry, chica,” the younger paramedic said. “I’ll get you a blanket.” He jogged out of the kitchen.

The shit-ass grin Wila wore said she was about to stir the pot. “Hey, Dick, is Ramon seeing anyone right now?”

“Shut up,” Dani hissed. Penny chewed on her tongue to keep from laughing.

Dick smirked. “Nah. Last one got pissed because he didn’t want to go to med school.” He looked at Dani while he pumped the blood pressure cuff. “You aren’t a gold digger, are you?”

She blushed a deep rose. “I’m a single mother. Most men don’t want children in their lives.”

“Who doesn’t want children?” Ramon asked as he jogged back into the kitchen with a navy blue blanket that matched his and Dick’s uniforms. He spread the fabric over Dani’s form.

She clamped her mouth shut.

“My friend thinks because she’s a widow with a preteen boy she’s off the market,” Penny said.

Ramon looked up at Wila with a sour expression. “You couldn’t have introduced me to your friend before today?”

“Yeah, Wila.” Francine piled on the verbal abuse. “Why’d you wait until Dani practically died on your floor?”

“The CPR obviously worked.” Dick ripped apart the Velcro holding the cuff to Dani’s arm, but your blood pressure is awfully high.” He looked at his partner. “What are the pulsox readings?”

Ramon shook his head as he examined the device he clipped to Dani’s right index finger. “Pulse is ninety, and blood oxygen is waffling around ninety.”

“Ms. Elante, it’s best we take you to the hospital,” Dick said gently.

“But Mark—”

“Is at Marty’s spending the night with his cousins,” Penny gently reminded Dani. “I’ll call him and let him know what’s going on here.” Penny motioned for Ramon to bring in the gurney. Luckily, he picked up on her hint, and he headed back out to the living room where they’d left the gurney.

“I’ll follow the ambulance to the hospital,” Wila said.

“And I’m picking up Mark tomorrow anyway,” Francine added. “He and Brittany are supposed to work on their project for the science fair, and he can stay for dinner.”

Penny tried not to wince at that news. It explained part of Justine’s attitude over the last two weeks. She had a major crush on Mark. Penny didn’t want to bring it up to Dani. The woman would positively freak. Her son was her connection to Heath whom she still loved desperately and passionately five years after his death.

Ramon rolled the gurney next to Dani.

“But—” she protested.

“You are getting checked out,” Penny said in her best mom voice. “We’ve got the rest.”

Once the paramedics loaded Dani onto the gurney and Wila followed them out of the house, Penny and Francine started cleaning up the remnants of their aborted girls’ night.

“I know the rest of you don’t think I’m that smart,” Francine said softly. “But even I know a person doesn’t bounce back from their heart stopping like that.

Penny paused in loading the dishwasher, unsure which of Francine’s statements bothered her more. She set the plate in the bottom rack and eyed Francine. “First of all, none of us think you’re not smart. No one earns a master’s degree if they don’t have something going for them.” Penny sighed while dried her hands. “And you’re totally right about Dani. Something happened tonight, and…” She pursed her lips. All of them, including herself, mentioned headaches, but there seemed to be more going on.

“It’s not just Dani passing out,” she murmured. “You were practically inhaling chocolate.”

“So?” Francine shrugged as she placed the unopened bag of her special chips into one of Penny’s reusable grocery carriers. “You guys constantly get on my case about my eating.”

“And you have never backed down once.” Penny folded her arms across her chest. “Then there’s Wila trying to pick fights with everyone.”

Francine propped herself on a barstool. “You noticed that, too? There’s also the fact that you’d be freaking over Justine getting sick and you didn’t.”

Penny leaned against the counter. Francine was right. After Justine’s stint with leukemia when she was a toddler, both she and Gene were practically paranoid over their daughter’s health.

“What about the headaches we’ve all been experiencing?” she finally said.

“Something in Dani’s new minivan could be causing hers.” Francine frowned. “I’ll ask Neal if they changed one of the prep cleaners. But for the rest of us?” She shook her head. “I don’t know.”

Penny shivered. She didn’t know what was going on either, but she couldn’t escape the feeling that none of it was good.