Alice in Wonderland cover

Love's a gamble. Play your heart out.

When a gorgeous fellow-American saves her from bleeding to death following a fluke shark attack in Australia, Alice Dahl is grateful to be alive. But when blond-haired, blue-eyed Lapin “Rabbit” Montgomery insists at the hospital that she recover in his luxurious hotel suite–one that’s the size of her house–she wants to thank the shark that bit her. Despite the sparks of attraction flying between them, though, Alice can’t help but wonder what game the wealthy sports reporter is playing when he offers to help her–a mere beginner in her first international poker tournament–win the multi-million dollar prize. But it’s not until he whisks her off on a romantic getaway to Sydney that she suspects his true talent isn’t playing cards, it’s playing people. Is trusting him with her heart worth the gamble?

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Enjoy an Excerpt from Alice in Wonderland

Chapter One

I have a totally unhealthy and unrealistic fear of being eaten by a great white shark. This is because I belong to a very specific demographic called American Child Whose Parents Made the Ill-Advised Decision To Allow Her To Watch the Movie Jaws At a Sleepover During Her Formative Years.

Multiple viewings of Steven Spielberg’s iconic film (and years of Shark Week on the Discovery Channel) left me terrified of oceans, lakes, creeks, swimming pools, bathtubs, and glasses of water until I was well into my teens. My sharkophobia was still at its zenith in tenth grade when I refused point-blank to participate in the P.E. swimming rotation, knowing that deep water was where sharks stage for people treats. I informed my nonplussed teacher that the drain at the bottom of the deep end appeared to me “as if the shadowy harbinger of aqua-death.”

This unfortunate bit of clumsy poetry made its way into My Permanent Record—not only earning me an F in P.E. that semester, but making me a shoo-in at the end of the school year for the title “Most Likely To Be Eaten By a Shark.”

Which is why, as an adult, I headed straight for the mountains of landlocked Colorado. Because you can’t be too safe, you know?

Unfortunately, at this very moment I’m striding into the turquoise waves of Surfer’s Paradise in Queensland, Australia like a crunchy, five-foot, nine-inch-long shark treat—something one might consider The Exact Opposite of Safe.

Are you going to tell me how it went, or do I have to guess?

My sister, Harlow, is over 8,000 miles away, but the disdain in her voice manages to come through clear as a bell.

“You have to guess,” I say, scanning the water in front of me, ready to make a break for it at the sign of any object larger than a water molecule. “I’m busy trying not to look like anything edible. And take me off speaker phone. You know I hate it.”

She promptly ignores me. “You’re doing it? You’re in the water?

“That’s affirmative. I’m almost up to my waist.”

Oh, my God, I can’t believe it! Well…how is it?

“It’s—I don’t know, it’s wet I guess.”

Her tone is dry. “Yeah, it’s gonna be wet, Faye. It’s water.

“Shut up, okay? I’ve never been this far out in the ocean before.” I feel a sudden surge of homesickness and frown. “I miss the cabin. I miss the woods.”

Okay, Laura Ingalls-Wilder, you’re in Surfer’s Paradise, Australia! The little house in the big woods is half a world away—

“And one day in the past.”

What?

“It’s already tomorrow here.” My eyebrows pull together as I exert real mental effort trying to understand where and when I am in the universe. “It’s still yesterday there. International Date Line, remember?”

Oh, right, I forgot. Gabe said that—what’s that rattling noise? Is our connection bad?

“That’s m-m-my teeth. I thought the water would be warmer.”

She laughs. “It probably is warm, dummy, you just don’t have anything but your hot tub to compare it to.

“Whatever. It’s winter here, remember?”

Well I know, but you said yourself it was in the seventies and that it was no different than summer here in the mountains.

This is true; winter on the Gold Coast does feel like summer, which makes me wonder what kind of blazing, hellish heat makes its appearance in February in this place. I groan. “Everything about this country is wrong!”

It’s the wrong season and the wrong day and the wrong time and the wrong hemisphere…is there anything right happening there?

“No. They drive on the left side of the road here. I almost crapped my pants the first time I tried to cross the street.”

Just pretend you’re in kindergarten and look both ways, Faye.

I try not to laugh too loud, afraid a bark-like noise will be mistaken by any great whites lurking in the area as the distress call of a juvenile seal. “It’s not quite that simple, Harlow, but okay.”

I’m about to follow that up by explaining how a lifetime of looking left first and then right before you cross the street can’t exactly be undone in a space of a day when I hear a deep, muffled voice far in background. Harlow is back, laughing. “Gabe wants to know if they’ve kept your straight jacket tied nice and tight like he showed them.

My brother, Gable, doesn’t have a serious bone in his body. He’s also the oldest and most traveled of my five siblings, so I know he’s familiar with the downstream psychological problems caused by crossing the International Date Line.

“Whatever,” I say. “Tell him I left a comment on his Facebook page this morning. According to my account, it posted yesterday.”

My brother says something in the background in that baritone of his that sounds a lot like: “Told you before you left it’d screw with your mind.

I eye the azure water in front of me. “Well, tell Clark Gable that it would’ve been more helpful if he’d focused on the fact that it’s hot here in the winter. Then maybe I would have packed tank tops instead of Artic survival gear.”

Harlow deadpans, “He says he doesn’t give a damn.

Welcome to the Dahl House.

In age order, “the Dolls” are my brother, Clark Gable Dahl, followed by my big sister, Jean Harlow Dahl. Then there’s my sister, Marlene Dietrich Dahl, me, and my younger sister, Marilyn Monroe Dahl—collectively known as the “Baby Dolls.” For reasons no one has ever been able to explain to my satisfaction, we’ve all gone by our middle names (or shortened variations thereof): Gabe, Harlow, Dee, Faye and Munny, instead of Clark, Jean, Marlene, Alice, and Marilyn.

It’s complicated, but, basically, when our mother bellowed our first names as kids, we knew we were in serious trouble. Whenever I rattle off the names of my siblings to inquisitive strangers, the inevitable response begins like this: “What a lovely idea! Your parents must have really loved all those old films.” It typically ends with a frown , an awkward pause, and this: “So…if you’re one of the Baby Dolls, why did they decide to skip over you?”

Sigh.

Alice Faye was probably one of the biggest starlets of her time (who no one remembers). That’s because when she realized how many of her scenes in the 1945 movie Fallen Angel had been cut, she walked out of the screening, handed her keys to the studio gate guard, and drove away from Hollywood forever—at the height of her fame and popularity.

It might’ve been better for her legacy if she’d died at the age of twenty-six from renal failure, like Jean Harlow, or overdosed like Marilyn Monroe at thirty-six, but she had the bad luck to live until the ripe old age of eighty-three—plenty of time to fade into complete and utter obscurity, one of those smattering of actors who get polite “golf clap” applause when the Academy rolls through all the people who traded their SAG card for a dirt nap the previous year.

Harlow comes back on the line. “You should, like, send some stock tips or sports scores back in time to me since I’m still stuck in yesterday here. I’ll place a few bets, and when you get back we’ll have all the money we’ll need.

“Wow, that’s a really solid plan, Harlow.”

Hey, it worked in the movie Hot Tub Time Machine.

“Yeah, well, I think you should leave all the bet placing to me from here on out. I’m at the final table in ten days.”

Before my sister can answer, I see a shadow in the water about ten feet off my port side. I take a panicky step backwards, and suddenly I’m under the water, and up and down are moot points as my cell phone is ripped from my hand. I flail around in a blind panic until my feet find the sand, and then I’m hard at work trying to maintain my balance while simultaneously forcing salt water out of my mouth and eyes.

And then several things happen in a blurry succession: The female half of a nearby couple looks at me, screeches something incomprehensible, and swims, arms and legs flailing, in the direction of the shore. A microsecond later, her partner and dozens of other nearby people have also turned into human eggbeaters.

That’s when I look down to find myself in the middle of a slowly expanding circle of bright red. Like, blood red.

My severe sharkophobia excepted, I’ve never been a panicky person. In fact, in moments of crisis, I’ve always been able to (in my mother’s words) “downshift into calm.” This time is no different. My mental voice, always cool, assesses the situation and delivers this assessment: Calm down, Faye. It’s just your hair.

An arm slips over my shoulder and tightens in a lock around my neck, yanking me off my feet. I end up on my back, clawing at the arm, thrashing to get loose while trying not to inhale more seawater. “Let go! Let me go!”

The arm disappears just as a warning siren erupts over our heads. I look up to see a helicopter buzzing the shoreline, a loudspeaker affixed to the side crackling to life with this helpful announcement: “SHARK! Get out! Run for your lives! Go, go, go, go, go!

Well, I exaggerate a little. Actually, I exaggerate a lot. What the guy from the Shark Control Program Aerial Surveillance is really saying (with all the garbled urgency of a sleepy drive-thru attendant repeating a burger order) is this: “Attention. Please clear the water. If it’s convenient for you, clear the water, please. At your own pace, of course. A large, carnivorous fish has been spotted. Eventually, the beach will be closed. If, of course, everyone decides to evacuate the water. You know…whenever.

“Shark” is all I need implied to shift from calm to pure panic. Faster than you can say “you’re going to need a bigger boat,” I’m churning the water into a meringue-like froth with my legs, past my would-be rescuer (as well as several less-motivated swimmers), until I’m back on terra firma. Struggling to breathe, I lurch back to the pile of my belongings on the sand and pluck my burgundy beach wrap off the ground. I’m trying to double the knot when a wave of dizziness rolls over me, so strong that I nearly fall onto the sand. I sit down—hard—arms crossed over my bent knees, taking deep breaths, trying to get on top of whatever this is.

Sunstroke? I think. Maybe I should just go back to the hotel and take a nap.

“Hey, are you okay?”

The accent of a fellow American gets my attention, and I turn around. Then my mouth falls open.

Wearing white swim trunks, and holding a white hotel towel and a pair of sunglasses in one hand, a man ambles towards me. I use the word “man” loosely. A better description would be “the most beautiful specimen of Homo sapiens sapiens with a set of XY chromosomes to grace the planet Earth at this moment, or any other era, epoch, or age in history.” And it’s not just me who thinks this; his good looks and amazing body leave mute, slack-jawed women from eighteen to eighty in his long-legged wake.

He comes to a stop in front of me, and runs a hand through his still-dripping, platinum blond hair. “Are you okay? Did you step on a piece of glass or something?”

“Glass?” I know I sound like a dork, but that’s all I can get out of my mouth. It’s his eyes. They’re a disconcerting, otherworldly blue, flecked with streaks of frost white. Framed by the tanned skin of his face, they glow like an acetylene torch. And his hair. I mean, even wet you can tell it’s white-blond, the kind you normally only see on toddlers, the kind that turns green in chlorinated water.

It sounds cliché, but the guy’s making my little heart go pitter-patter. In fact, it’s beating so fast that it’s getting uncomfortable. I cover my chest with my open hand, as if this alone will slow things down.

His eyes narrow. “Wait, it’s your head that’s bleeding, isn’t it? I should go get a lifeguard.”

I look at the reddish liquid that’s running from my neck down my arms, and dripping off my fingertips onto the pristine white sand. I shake my head. “I—my hair—it’s just dye,” I stammer.

“All that red in the water…that was your hair?” He crouches next to me and takes up one of the sopping wet, fire engine red locks spilling over my shoulders, dabbing it with his towel. When he pulls it away, the white’s stained bright crimson. He cracks up laughing. “Someone thought you’d been attacked by a shark!”

The line from Pulp Fiction—the one Samuel L. Jackson shouts at John Travolta as they’re trying to wash blood off their hands—pops into my head: “I used the same soap you did and when I dried my hands, the towel didn’t look like no fuckin’ maxi-pad!” I almost—almost—share this most quotable of cinematic quotes with him, when I remember it contains The Word.

You know: “maxi-pad.”

“I only dyed it this morning. It does this for the first few days afterwards…you know, staining stranger’s hotel towels and stuff.”

He laughs as he slides on his sunglasses, covering those strange, mesmerizing eyes that I’m not even sure are real. Contacts, I think. Gotta be contacts. This is just fine with me, because now I can focus on lips so pouty and pillowy and perfect that I want to touch them, just to see if they’re as soft as they look.

“I love it, that bright red,” he says. “I’d love to see what it looks like dry.”

And spread out over a pillow, I add for him in my head. That’s when I notice his freckles. They’re barely there at all, just a smattering sprinkled across his tanned nose and cheeks, but I feel the last bit of my conversational brilliance (and decorum) slip away. “Freckle juice,” I blurt out.

He looks confused. “‘Freckle juice?’”

Ho boy. “The, uh…the book?” I clear my throat. “The children’s book, Freckle Juice? I thought it was about how to get freckles.” I shrug. “Then I read it. It doesn’t tell you.” There’s an uncomfortable silence, which I fill with: “How to get freckles, I mean. It’s not what the book’s about at all.”

He looks perplexed. “No, I guess it’s not.”

My smile is weak. Hell, I’m feeling pretty weak, my vision going from cloudy to bright and back again. It’s getting hard to think too. Oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound.  “I like your freckles,” I say. “I’d love to see what they look like when they’re dry. And spread out over a pillow.” Oh, my God, I didn’t just say that, did I? My head is swimming, but I make a last-ditch effort to salvage the situation anyway. “And, uh, thanks for trying to save me. Sorry I wasn’t, you know, bitten by a shark.”

His smile gets wider. “I think you’re perfectly capable of saving yourself. That was quite an exit from the ocean there, by the way; although there’s still a small child out there if you want to circle back and take a shot at almost drowning him too.”

I don’t even have the energy to laugh. I take a deep breath, trying to summon the strength to respond in a way that doesn’t make me sound even more ridiculous. “I never should’ve been in the water in the first place,” I say with a glance at the helicopter passing overhead. “They’ve been flying all day. They only do that when they spot sharks.”

“C’mon,” he says, “not you too. Sharks? Are you serious?”  He turns away to look at the people making their way out of the water at the sulkiest, slowest speed possible. “They don’t exactly look like they’re trying to avoid a shark attack.”

Talking takes real effort now, and I can only pant out a few words at a time. “Locals. They’ll eventually get out. They’re annoyed. Like when Americans go to the lake. And it’s closed. ‘Cause some kid pooped in the water.” Oh, my God…‘poop?’ I think, horrified. You can’t say ‘poop’ to a guy you just met!

“What’s going on, Rabbit?”

We both look up, squinting against the sunlight. A tall, overly made-up, bottle-bleach blond comes to a stop in front of my mystery man, her huge fake boobs attempting a jailbreak from her microscopic royal blue bikini top.

Rabbit? I think. Please don’t say his name is Rabbit. I already feel sick enough.

“Nothing, honey,” he says, sounding annoyed. “Just trying to help someone out.” He nods at me. “Turns out she didn’t need my help.”

I feel really strange, like I’m floating. “Hey…you don’t look like a rabbit.” Then I do something completely out of character: I giggle.

The Man Called Rabbit laughs while Jailbreak Bikini looks me over in a way that conveys her message loud and clear: “You’re no threat to me.” When she reaches down to touch his shoulder—a gesture only a few species and a million or so years removed from lifting a leg and marking him as her territory with a stream of urine—enough bracelets and bangles to lay track across the Australian Outback slide down her arm and come to a jangling stop at her wrist. “I’m Honey. Who are you?”

Honey? Rabbit? You’ve got to be kidding me. I pull the reigns back—hard—on my urge to ask her if this is her real first name, or if she saves it strictly for special occasions. Like pole dancing gigs.

“I’m Alice Faye Dahl,” I say, the words coming out like the wheeze of an unplugged vacuum cleaner. I giggle again. “I never call myself Alice.” My eyes widen. “Uh-oh…sounds like someone’s in trouble, doesn’t it?” Another giggle.

“I like Alice,” he says. “My mother’s name is Alice.” He smiles. “And it all depends on what you mean by ‘trouble,’ Alice.” He caps this suggestive statement with an even more suggestive wink.

I shake my head, wanting to correct this glaring misunderstanding as soon as possible. “My name is Faye.”

Honey squeals like…well, like a grown woman named “Honey.” “Ooh, like Faye Dunaway! I just love her, don’t you? She’s so glamorous. Well, she was before she, you know, got old and wrinkly and everything.” Then she proves that she has the attention span of a trilobite by shifting her focus back to the man between us, and acting like I’m not there.

Okaaaay, time to go. I struggle to my feet, and lurch sideways as a new wave of dizziness hits me. God, what is wrong with me?

I expect at least a “Nice to meet you, Faye” from one or the other of them, but what comes next isn’t even in the catalog of What To Expect When You’re Leaving: Honey looks at where I was sitting and shouts, “Is that blood?” followed by an “Oh, my God, it is blood!” and lots of ear-splitting screaming.

I want to care, I really do, but my heart is beating so fast I can’t tell one pulse from the next. Then he reaches out and touches my waist with one hand, and tugs at my beach wrap with the other one until it falls away. He looks so frightened that I want to ask him if he’s okay, and I want to tell her not to burst her implants over a little bit of hair dye staining the white sand.

But I can’t do any of those things, because I have that white sand on my face—lots of it. In fact, it’s in my eyes, but when I try to brush it off, I realize that I’ve face-planted on the beach.  He’s there, telling me it’s going to be fine, and his voice is so amazing to listen to, and his face is so close to mine, I could swoon.

“Alice?” he says. “Help’s coming, okay?”

Then I swear I see my beach wrap between his teeth. I hear a long ripping noise, and then it feels like a boa constrictor’s found my leg and is trying to strangle my thigh. I try to protest, but I’m shrinking and shrinking, and everything around me—including him—is contracting and pushing into a long tunnel. Then the whole tunnel turns ninety degrees, and I feel myself slipping sideways.

Rabbit’s voice gets farther away, farther down the dark tunnel, as if he’s falling too. His voice is anxious as he calls up to me: “Stay with me, Alice, okay? Stay with me.”

So I do, falling effortlessly straight down the rabbit hole.

Chapter Two

I’m nursing one of those hospital orange juices with the aluminum foil, peel-back lid, and my sister, Dee, has just answered the phone, when he walks in, carrying a bouquet of flowers.

The guy likes black and white and every shade in between; this time he’s sporting a black leather jacket over an unbuttoned white and pale gray plaid shirt. Underneath that is a plain white t-shirt. Black biker boots—the same ones he wore when he came to see me yesterday—peek from the bottom of a pair of worn and torn, chemically bleached jeans.

Well, maybe “came to see me” is a bit of an exaggeration. I mean, I was too drugged up to do more than stare at him like a bee in a smoked-out hive, but I remember opening my eyes and seeing him there. When I blinked again, he was gone. Just in case it was all real, I made sure to brush my teeth as soon as I was able. I even asked for a hair tie to pull my long, blood-red hair into a twist at the nape of my neck so I wouldn’t have that “freshly hospitalized” look.

I’m a little flustered. I smile up at him, glad to have Dee’s call for an excuse to put off any actual conversation. I point at the receiver glued to my ear, and he smiles and nods before pulling up a chair. That’s when I notice his glasses. Not sunglasses, of course, but those indoor ones with the tinted lenses. His have thin silver frames with gray lenses, but they’re just opaque enough to camouflage those curious, white bands in his bright blue irises.

That’s probably why he wears them, I think. He probably has people asking about his eyes all the time.

Now that his blonde hair is dry, I’m pleased to see that it falls from an effortless side-part across his forehead to just below his ears. One side is tucked behind his ear, leaving a tuft of hair turned up in a charming curl that I’m certain he’s not aware of. For a guy with such pale hair, blue eyes, and freckles (not to mention one who dresses all in white), you’d think he’d have albino-like skin too, but he somehow manages to tan up just right.

Makes his freckles even more adorable, I think.

By this time, I’ve forgotten all about my conversation with Dee.

And the hospital.

And the beach.

And the shark bite.

I wince at the thought. Okay, well maybe I haven’t forgotten about that.

I knew something was wrong,” says Dee. “I tried to tell Harlow as soon as the call dropped, but she wouldn’t listen. Why didn’t you call us? We had to find out on the internet!

I glance askance at my visitor, knowing I’ll need to be evasive and end the conversation as soon as possible. I know this is going to piss Dee off, especially because after being nibbled by a bull shark, and dropping my call with Harlow (literally—right into the Pacific Ocean),  I was ocupado for the next twenty-four hours, getting stitched up and receiving a blood transfusion in a trauma center. But what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.

“I didn’t say something because she didn’t ask!” I wrinkle my nose, bracing myself.

Well, Faye, dear,says Dee, laying the sarcasm on like cake frosting, I’m sure Harlow’s sorry she didn’t think to ask if you’d been eaten by a shark. That’s totally on her.

I smile. “I’m fine. The doctor says it was just an exploratory bite.”

I grimace, thinking someone should come up with a new phrase for “I left the ocean without a kiwi-sized chunk of my lower-left butt cheek” to replace the rather nebulous term “exploratory bite.”

An explor—wait, is this the girl who spent her whole life too scared to go in the deep end of the pool?” Without waiting for an answer she mutters, “God, I’m never going sky diving or bungee jumping…I always told everyone there was a reason I was scared of heights!

“Yeah, I’m not going to be taking my chances on either of those anytime soon either. No need to push my luck.”

Well, I’m glad they were able to stitch you up and release you. And I’m not even going to ask if you want us to come out for the final tournament.”

There’s no way Rabbit can hear her, but I glance at him anyway to be sure. “You know, you say you’re not going to ask, but what you just said is another way of asking.”

She sighs. “Well, do you?

“No. You know that’ll just make me nervous.”

She snorts. “‘Nervous.’ Please. You’re never nervous. You just like saying that so everyone thinks you’re just like the rest of us.

I take a deep breath. “How is she?”

The seconds of silence that elapse before she answers tells me more than any words she could say. “Yesterday was better,” Dee says finally.

I stop breathing. I’ve got to get out of this hospital. Right now, before I lose my spot. “Okay, Dee, let me go, alright? Give my love to everyone, will you? Give Munny a kiss for me, tell her—” I press my lips into a tight line, willing myself not to get upset in front of a stranger, especially one named Rabbit. “Tell her I’ll see her soon.” My throat gets tight, and I wait for the spasm to pass before clearing it. “I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?”

Wait! You haven’t told me where you’re staying! Are you still at the Surfside Hotel? And what are going to do for the next two weeks while you wait for the tournament anyway?

“Uh…I switched hotels.”

Well, what’s the name of it? In case we can’t reach you on your cell? You know…the one you fed to the shark.

I smile. “Turns out ‘water resistant’ isn’t the same thing as ‘shark proof.’” I look down at my heavily bandaged thigh and decide a whole lot of bluffing is in order here. “Dee, I know you’re my big sister and all, but I’m thirty years old. I think I’m capable of amusing myself without giving you a formal itinerary to review.”

Fine, be that way. Just give me the name of the hotel or Mom will have a cow.

“It’s the Gold Coast—hey, let me call you right back, okay?” I hang up before she can answer. Then I take a deep breath, exhale, and look over at him. “Hey, Rabbit.”

Now that I’ve said his name aloud, it isn’t so bad. I mean, once you see him sporting the leather jacket and biker boots, a name like Butch or Dawg would’ve been a little over the top. Somehow Rabbit has a moderating effect.

“Back to save me from some more sharks?”

He smirks. “What was the name of that hotel you’re staying in? ‘The Gold Coast Hospital’ was it?”

I frown.

“I mean, it’s none of my business, but why don’t you want to let your family know that you’re, I don’t know, recuperating from a major shark attack?”

I shift on the bed. “They know.”

He exhales and sputters dismissively at the same time. “C’mon, Alice, they don’t know, otherwise they’d be here.”

“How—how do you know my name?”

“You told me your name.” I must look confused because he adds, “The other day on the beach.”

A bubbly, petite nurse with short brown hair ducks into the room. “G’day!” Her shoes make no noise, and she appears to glide across the floor like a phantom. “Oh, my goodness, look at that hair! How are you feeling, Alice?”

“You can call her Faye,” says Rabbit with an authority in his voice that’s hard to argue with.

The nurse looks at the chart. “Your Christian name is Faye?”

Rabbit glances at me. “Your ‘Christian name?’ Is your family religious or something?”

I shrug. I have no idea what she’s talking about.

The nurse laughs. “Sorry,” she says, sounding like a female Crocodile Dundee. I’ve been itching all day to ask her to say “a dingo ate my baby” or “throw a shrimp on the barbie,” but just can’t work up the courage.  “I forgot you were from America! Your first name…is it Faye or Alice? Your records say Alice.”

“It’s Alice Faye, but my family calls me Faye.”

“What’s your date of birth?” She smiles and holds up a fresh IV bag. “Just so I know I have the right person before I switch this out.”

“Four, four.”

Her brow furrows in confusion. “Forty-four?”

“April fourth,” says Rabbit.

Her face brightens. “Right! You two here on holiday then?”

This rather innocuous question makes us both shrink away from her, our discomfort at her assumption that we’re “together” obvious and mutual.

“Uh, something like that, yeah,” says Rabbit, choosing the easy way out.

She nods and makes quick work of setting up the new bag, flushing the IV port, and, after a few appraising looks in Rabbit’s direction, she soundlessly shuffles out.

He stands up and holds out the flowers to me. “You shouldn’t have,” I say, taking the huge bouquet from him. “I mean, you’ve done so much already. This…” I hold them up. “This is too much. Thank you, really.”

“Hey, you’re welcome. And you look a lot better today.” He shrugs out of his jacket, and the delicious smell of the leather mixed with his cologne drifts over me. “Less, I don’t know…pasty.” He drapes the jacket over the back of the chair and sits down again.

“Yeah, well, it turns out that it’s a little hard to hold your color when you’ve lost thirty percent of the blood in your body.”

He looks impressed. “You’re pretty scrappy, Alice Faye. Not even a shark attack slows you down, does it?”

I blush and try to change the subject. “Hey, any idea why Australians speak something that sounds deceptively like English but isn’t? I mean, I’m trying to figure out why I can’t seem to converse with another human being who speaks the same language as I do.”

He laughs. “Get used to it. I’ve only been here for three days, and I feel like all I do is say ‘wha’?’ and ‘huh?’ over and over.”

“I have a theory…”

“Let’s hear it.”

“Australians are descended from a boatload of English convicts, right? So two hundred years in isolation at the bottom of the planet is plenty of time for the language to evolve into some sort of double-speak prison slang.” I throw up my hands in exasperation. “I mean, they call appetizers entrées, and entrées mains. I can’t even figure out how to order a meal!”

“Don’t feel bad,” he says, grinning. “I’m not having any better luck. I tried to pay for something with my card the other day, and the guy holds out a pen with the receipt and says, ‘Pen or sign?’ I said, ‘Well, buddy, I’m probably going to need one to do the other, right?’”

I laugh until my eyes tear up. “That threw me at first, too, until someone finally told me that they mean ‘debit or credit.’ I said, ‘Well, why don’t they just ask me to put in my PIN?’  My friend looked at me and said, ‘Uh…he did.’”

I pluck a tissue out of the box next to my bed to wipe away my tears. “Speaking of luck, you’ll love this: When I woke up, they kept trying to tell me how lucky I was, and I was trying to agree with them—”

“Wait, you didn’t tell them you ‘lucked out,’ did you? Did they pat your hand and say things like, ‘Hang in there, it’s not so bad, things will get better’?”

I start cracking up again. “Exactly! So I said, ‘No, no, no, you misunderstood me; I know I’m lucky to be alive…I really lucked out.’”

“Did you try saying it louder? Because I’ve noticed that sometimes works.”

By now I’m laughing so hard I’m about to pee myself—understandable given the amount of IV fluid they’ve pumped me with. “How was I supposed to know ‘lucked out’ means ‘I got screwed over’ in Australian?”

He stands up and takes the flowers from me. That’s when I notice that what I thought was a rather hickish key chain attached to his waistband is actually a stunning, silver pocket watch.

“Did you hear what they call ‘pharmacists’?” he says. He grabs a nearby water pitcher and disappears into the bathroom before leaning back into the room to answer his own question. “‘Chemists.’” He vanishes again and I hear the roar of running water. “Makes it sound like every drugstore is staffed with crystal meth cooks, doesn’t it? By the way, don’t thank me for saving you, thank the lifeguards. If it was up to me, I would’ve just carried you off to the building by the boardwalk that said SURGERY.” He reappears, the flowers nicely arranged in the pitcher. “I’m sorry, but there’s a big difference between a family doctor treating you for the sniffles, and a guy who actually owns and knows how to use an operating table.”

He deposits the flowers back on the stand and sits down while I try not to die laughing. I wave my hand in a gesture I hope conveys my need for him to stop being funny immediately. “I fold! I fold!” I choke out between bursts of laughter. “No more!”

He slides his fingers together and drops them into his lap. “So, what brings you all the way to Australia, Alice Faye Dahl?”

I end my laugh track with a long sigh. “Oh, well…”

“What—you can’t tell me? You’re CIA, aren’t you? Do you need me to help ‘bring you in?’ Who’s your handler? I’ll call him right now.”

I smile. “I’m here to, uh, play poker.”

“‘Poker?’ As in ‘International Poker Tour?’”

I nod.

He crosses his arms. “Huh. So how’s that working out for you?”

“It’s working out okay.”

“Define ‘okay.’”

I clear my throat. “Well, I made it into the final round.”

“Really? Out of seven thousand people, you made the Final Nine? I’m not going to lie—I’m impressed.”

Now I’m thrown. “How do you know what the Final Nine is? Are you a player?”

“Not exactly.”

“What are you doing here then? Don’t tell me: You’re ‘on holiday,’ right?”

He smiles. “No, I’m a sports journalist. I cover a lot of poker tournaments. I’m not sure how I missed seeing you; a little hard to miss a beautiful woman with hair like yours.”

I look away and become preoccupied with picking at the sheets with my fingers.

“Oh, I see…the hair color is a new thing,” he says. He studies me for a few seconds before saying, “Huh…interesting.” Then he slaps his thighs and stands up. “Well, I don’t want to get in the way of you, uh, checking out of your hotel room here. Should only be a few more hours, right?”

I look up. “How’d you know they were discharging me?”

He acts like I didn’t say anything. “So, how ’bout we do this…” He flips back one of the tails of his plaid shirt and grabs the silver pocket watch. With a touch of a button on the side, the cover flips open. “Where did you say you lived? Back in the States, I mean?”

“I didn’t, but Colorado.”

“Your family too?” He smiles.

“Bay Area, but most of them are at our family’s cabin in Colorado right now too. Why?”

“It’s four o’clock in the afternoon here.” He snaps the watch closed and lets it fall to the end of its short, silver chain. “Which means it’s ten o’clock at night in Colorado. Which means your family will be going to bed soon.”

I have no idea what he’s talking about. “Okay…so?”

He smiles. “Which means you have about eight hours to turn your lie into the truth.”

“What lie?” I watch as he slides an orange, plastic card from his wallet and plunks it on the stand next to the flowers.

“The lie about the supposed ‘hotel’ you’re staying in.” He looks around my room. “Since you’re in a hospital you don’t know, in a town you don’t know, in a country where you don’t know anyone, I’m guessing you don’t have alternate accommodations lined up.” He pulls the leather jacket off the chair and shrugs into it.

I frown. “My reservation at the tournament hotel was only through yesterday morning.” I shrug. “I didn’t—”

“You didn’t expect to win, right?”

I’m dumbfounded. “Yeah…I didn’t expect to win.”

“Of course you didn’t. Because that would be crazy.” He nods towards the orange plastic card. “IPT comps a suite for me for the duration of the tournament. Luckily for you, it comes with several bedrooms.” He heads for the door like we’re done talking or something.

“But—but I can’t just—”

He turns around and leans against the door-frame. “You can’t just—what?”

“I can’t stay with you…I don’t even know you!”

He looks at me over the tops of the smoky gray of his lenses. Even from where I am, I can see the surreal blue glow of his eyes. “I’m the guy who saved you from dying of a Type Three Hemorrhage on a beach 6,000 miles away from home.” He smiles and lifts his head before taking another gander at the pocket watch. “Gotta go, I’m late.” He snaps it closed and points to the key on the table. “Twenty-first floor. Be a good little Alice and just follow the White Rabbit, okay?”

With that, he turns on his heel and disappears into the hallway, leaving me staring, mouth agape, at the white rabbit “skull” and carrot stick “crossbones” stitched onto the back of his black leather jacket. Much, much too late, one important fact occurs to me—so important that I say it aloud to the empty room: “But I don’t even know what room you’re in…”

Chapter Three

“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” I mutter. My voice comes right back at me in the long, empty hotel hallway. The doors are few and they’re very far between—the result, no doubt, of some serious living space behind the walls. “Or some criminally underutilized dead space,” I say under my breath.

I lean on the white cane that magically arrived twenty minutes before I was discharged from the hospital, courtesy of “W. Rabbit.” I look over my shoulder before taking the plastic card out of my pocket and waving it in front of the scanner on the first door. The light above it turns red.

“Damn it!” I shift my weight onto my injured leg and take a step. The burn of the incision makes me hiss in pain. I take another step. And another. And dozens of others, like the little boy in The Shining, until I’m in front of the next door. I wave the key; the light turns red. I look behind me to see if anyone’s watching what looks like a crippled burglary attempt of the luxury suites.

“Not like I can ask the desk which room Mr. White Rabbit’s in,” I mutter before moving on. Not that I didn’t consider this, mind you. If he was going to ask me to stay with him, why couldn’t he just help me get a cab here? And where the hell is my luggage anyway?

All of these questions have to wait, though, because I’m breaking out in a sweat from the effort of walking on my injured leg (your injured butt cheek, I correct myself), which is throbbing in time to the beat of my heart, which at least is plugging away at an acceptable rate. I’m starting to shake from the effort of it all. One more, I think, stopping in front of yet another door. I lift the key to the scanner. One more door and I’m done. I’ll find somewhere else to stay.

No sooner have I thought the words than I hear a click! and the door pops opens. The scent of flowers rolls over me as I push inside, grimacing when my hip strikes the foyer wall. The grimace quickly turns into a “Holy hell…”

I stare, stupefied, at the hardwood floors, the vaulted ceilings, the peach-colored walls and pristine white trim and crown molding of a living room and dining room separated by a gorgeous, see-through divider made up of thin strips of black metal. Smack in the middle of a row of four enormous windows framed by pale peach curtains, a glass panel door the width of two end-to-end compact cars has been pushed aside, providing a stunning view of the turquoise Pacific Ocean far below.

Between the peach walls, the golden hardwoods, the orange lampshades on the individual bulbs of the dining room chandelier, and the vases of burnt orange hibiscuses covering every horizontal surface that isn’t a floor, the place is a warm and welcoming contrast to the cool colors of the blue ocean and sky beyond.

“Rabbit must be a helluva reporter,” I mumble. I clear my throat and in a louder voice call out, “Hello? Anyone here?”

When no one answers, I take another look at the dining room before shuffling off to my right into the living room. Two white leather loveseats, each sporting oversized black and orange pillows, face each other in a silent standoff over a white leather ottoman. I slowly make my way across the black area rug covered with a white and orange pattern that mimics the twisted shapes in the room divider. I stop at the closer of two bronze leather armchairs to consider the dark brown leopard-patterned cushion before deciding that I’m going to need something a lot bigger.

He promised a bed, so I’m going to find a bed.

I have to push myself, I’m so exhausted, but I make it to the wide, absurdly long hallway beyond the living room. A pair of wide open doors are closest, and I inch towards the bright light spilling into the hallway, holding onto the doorframe for balance as I turn into the room.

If my mouth hangs open any farther, my jaw’s going to permanently dislocate. I expect to find a bed in a spare bedroom; instead, the door opens into another living room, the walls and furniture in varying shades of gray. Splashes of chartreuse accent the place in the form of pillows, vases, and framed artwork. The wall opposite the couch is painted a darker gray and boasts a flat-screen TV that may just be larger than the last hotel room I stayed in.

“‘Luckily for you, it comes with several bedrooms,’” I mumble, my tone mocking as I repeat what Rabbit told me this morning. “More like a whole other apartment.”

Normally, I’d caution myself against rolling into someone else’s hotel suite and making myself at home. But the exhaustion brought on by the journey from my hospital bed to where I’m standing, combined with the fact that I don’t feel like I’ve properly bathed in two days, has made me feel like I’m on a death march to Mordor.

I focus on my feet so I don’t catch them on the edge of the area carpet. Shuffling inch by painful inch, I reach the open doors of the bedroom. Just as I’m about to cross the threshold, a tall, attractive blonde—another Honey clone, although more professionally attired in a black pantsuit—comes out of the bathroom.

I take a surprised step backwards. “Oh! I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize—”

“Ms. Dahl? You’re early. I’m Zoe,” she says in a lilting Australian accent. She motions towards the bathroom. “Everything’s ready. May I help you into the toilet?”

“Uh…” An image of me nonchalantly standing upright, soaking my feet in a toilet bowl flashes through my mind, just like it has every time someone in this country refers to the bathroom. My eyelids flutter with the effort of forming a response. “Sorry, what’s this about?”

She smiles and holds out her arm, so I lean on it and hobble into the bathroom with her. When we reach the edge of a whirlpool tub overflowing with bubbles, she drops her arm and grabs for some sort of cylindrical bubble wrap with a soft rubber diaphragm capping each end. “The bandage on my leg is already waterproof,” I tell her.

“Waterproof yes, but not heat proof.” Before I can protest, she’s kneeling down and stuffing my leg into the contraption, cinching it tight with Velcro straps.

“There,” she says, smacking her hands together as she gets to her feet. “That will make the water more comfortable. I’ll be outside the door. Just call for me when you’re in the bath, and I’ll be happy to assist you.”

She’s so businesslike that I don’t have the courage to tell her that I’m not four years old, and I don’t need help taking a bath. Apparently, Zoe cannot be stopped, however, because sixty seconds after I slide into the best-smelling bubble bath I’ve ever submerged my body in, she raps on the door and walks back in, settling herself on a stool by the edge of the tub.

After a few questions about what I use to dye my hair—“What a lovely color! And so flattering for your skin tone! Very few women could make that work!”—she holds up a bottle.  “This will help seal the hair cuticle so the color doesn’t seep out when you wash your hair.”

Or, presumably, when you submerge your hair in the ocean during a shark attack.

She turns the whirlpool jets on before getting down to business, wetting, washing and rinsing my hair with a succession of liquids, interspersed with a detangling pass or two with a paddle brush. After a final rinse, she clips it in a twist on top of my head. At that point, any hopes I had of simply relaxing in the tub are dashed when she turns on the spray in the adjoining shower. “You can rinse here when you’re done washing yourself,” she says. “You’ll find fresh clothing in the dressing room there.”

‘The dressing room?’ Come on, this is getting ridiculous. Since I know she’s going to stand guard outside the bathroom door waiting for me, I can’t really refuse.

By the time I’ve washed, shaved, and rinsed, I’ve approached the outer limits of exhaustion, panting with the effort of just trying to dry myself. I remove the waterproof plastic and limp into the dressing room, hoping to find my suitcase. Instead, dozens of sundresses in different lengths, styles, and colors hang from a rack. I’m about to gripe to Zoe when I remember that all I brought to Australia were jeans—not really ideal garb when recovering from a shark bite to your buttocks.

I yank a silver-gray dress from its hanger and pull it over my head, happy to see it that slides over my figure perfectly—not too tight, not too loose. It slithers down to just above my ankles, covering every trace of my ugly bandage. Another gentle rap on the door and Zoe’s back, this time urging me into a sleek, hydraulic stylist chair.

“This really isn’t necessary, you know,” I say.

She must know I’m spent, because she just smiles patiently until I climb into the chair and resign myself to her ministrations. When she turns on the massage function and reclines the back, the combination of the vibrations of the chair, the white noise of the hair dryer, and her gentle fingers on my hair lull me straight to sleep.

***

“Ms. Dahl?”

I startle awake. “Yes?”

Zoe’s smiling face is above mine. “I’m finished. Would you like to see?”

The chair is suddenly upright, and she spins me around to face the floor-to-ceiling mirror.

“Oh, wow.” My hair, normally straight as a poker, cascades over my shoulders in gentle waves. And I must’ve been out like a light, too, because Zoe’s somehow managed to apply blush, lipstick, eye shadow, and eyeliner while I snoozed.

Looking almost apologetic, she holds out a tube of mascara. “Your eyes were closed,” she explains.

Before I can tell her how fantastic everything is or thank her for her trouble, she’s gone, leaving me holding the mascara and gaping at myself in the mirror. I finish up the mascara and decide that, my barber chair nap notwithstanding, my need for another horizontal, full-length, body-sized piece of furniture is still at a critical level. You’ve never looked so good just to go to bed, I think.

I’m too desensitized now by the beautiful surroundings for exclamations, interjections, or expletives. With a brief glance at the wide-open bay windows and the postcard view of Surfer’s Paradise, I let a half-hearted “wow” slip from my lips before I move as quickly as exhaustion and injury will allow, toss the cane against the wall, grab a turquoise sofa pillow, and collapse onto the length of the taupe leather window seat.

That’s when I see them.

On the top of a turquoise-inlaid end table is a poisonous-looking, emerald green liquid, two squat goblets, a pitcher of ice water, and a white box. The bottle’s label has been covered by a piece of white paper with block letters in black marker spelling out DRINK ME. On the top of the white box are two words: EAT ME.

I roll my eyes. “Yeah, how ’bout you can eat me, Rabbit,” I mumble as I struggle to sit up. “I’m sorry, but this whole thing is just too weird…”

“Alice!”

Wearing nothing but a white towel loosely tied around his waist, his wet, white-blond hair slicked back with a comb, his blue eyes visible even from thirty feet away, Rabbit looks remarkably composed, like he always goes directly from the shower to half-naked small talk in the guest bedroom.

I stare at the door frame so I don’t become irretrievably mesmerized by his blazing blue eyes (or his David-esque physique) as I swing my legs onto the floor. “Look, Rabbit,” I say, reaching for the cane, “I really appreciate your offer, but—”

“Don’t get up! I just got back from an appointment. Zoe told me you two were done, and I’d just gotten out of the shower…I didn’t know you were even in here! Hang on, let me get some clothes on, and I’ll help you.” He starts to turn, and then freezes. “Wait—where’s Mouse?” He cranes his neck to look around the corner into the adjoining bathroom, like I accidentally left someone on the counter in there or something.

“Who? You mean Zoe?”

He looks angry. “No, I mean my personal assistant, Mouse. Where is she?”

“Uh…I’m not sure what you’re talking about. I came here alone. Other than Zoe, I haven’t seen anyone.”

“No.” There’s such a tone of furious denial in this one word, I don’t know how to respond to it. He shakes his head. “No. You didn’t come all the way up here on your own. You didn’t walk all the way down that hallway.”

“I—I—”

His slipping white towel seems to have slipped his mind; he steps out of the two foot-shaped watermarks on the hardwood floors and crosses the bedroom in three steps before punching a button on a touchscreen on the gray wall.

A woman’s face appears. “Good afternoon, Mister—”

He cuts her off. “Rebecca, I’m trying very hard to understand why my friend—who was just released from the hospital after nearly dying from blood loss less than two days ago—just limped into my suite. Alone.”

Rebecca is clearly startled. “I arranged the car for Mouse myself, sir. The driver confirmed with me personally when she arrived at the hospital. I instructed him to call me once Mouse and Ms. Dahl were in the car. I assumed her discharge paperwork had been delayed.”

Rabbit slowly turns to me, like he’s trying to give the universe a sporting chance at serving up a different outcome. “Alice?”

I shift to my non-injured leg. “Yeah?”

“How did you get here?”

“I called a cab. Listen, don’t worry about—”

He closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose between his thumb and index finger. “You ‘called a cab.’ And how exactly did you get from the cab to this suite?”

I lift the cane a few inches off the ground. “You sent this. I thought—I mean, I didn’t know—”

He opens his eyes, a warm smile curling the corners of his mouth. “Of course you didn’t know. And that’s my fault.” The warmth vanishes as he swings his head back to poor Rebecca on the screen. “I assumed that Mouse would have the sense to actually get her ass out of the car and assist with Ms. Dahl’s release.”

“I do apologize, sir. If you’ll just give me a few minutes to find out what—”

“I’m not interested in who the weak link is down there in guest services, Rebecca. Find Mouse, get her back here. Thank you.” He stabs a finger at the screen and it goes dark. Holding the towel in place with his left hand, he runs his right over the tanned, naked skin of his upper arm before turning to me. “Why didn’t you call—” He stops. “Oh, wait a minute…you don’t have a phone anymore, do you?”

“It’s totally fine. I mean, I appreciate what you’ve done for me, and really, if you think about it, you saved my life, so the rest of this is totally—”

“No cell phone, no phone number, no room number, no car, no help…and you somehow still managed to make it here.” He shakes his head. “You’re one scrappy woman, Alice Faye Dahl.” When I blush, he takes pity on me. “Give me thirty seconds, okay?”

He disappears, and my backside has no sooner touched the taupe cushion then he’s back. No leather jacket this time, but a gray sports coat over a long-sleeve white button-up shirt. And the gray tinted glasses are back too.

“You have a thing for monochromatic or what?” I say.

Halfway across the bedroom, he stops short, looks down at his clothes, and laughs. “I never thought about it that way.” He’s a few feet from me when he says, “I prefer simple, how’s that?”

One of my eyebrows tugs upward. “Then what am I doing here?”

His smile falters ever so slightly. “That’s a very good question that I thought I knew the answer to.” He shoots me a playful wink that leaves me speechless. “Let’s sit outside. The sun’s on the other side of the hotel now, so it’s not so hot.”

Even with his eyes covered, he’s just so, I don’t know, perfect-looking—with those lips, and that chin with just a hint of an indentation, and a nose that’s within spitting distance of being flawless—that it’s hard to hold his gaze for very long. It’s like stopping to appreciate a marble statue of a Greek god in a museum—and having it open its eyes and look back at you.

Speaking of the gods, his prohibition on her ever laying eyes on him didn’t stop the mortal Psyche from agreeing to marry Cupid. I don’t have to look at him, I think. I’ll do like Psyche and just think about looking at him.

This comfortable thought comforts me for exactly two seconds before he touches a lock of my hair and says, “It looks just as beautiful dry as I thought it would.”

I blush until my face is almost as red as my hair, and I’m grateful for the cane and the steady support of his arm. Using both, I cover the distance from the window seat to the cushioned patio chair in no time at all.

“What do you think of the room?” he says, ducking inside and reappearing with a black serving tray with the EAT ME/DRINK ME daily specials on it. “Better than the hospital, right?” He sets it on the glass patio table and reaches for the bottle. “You can call your family in a few hours when they wake up to tell them where you’re staying. The suite number is 2121.”

I lay the white cane across my knees and narrow my eyes at him as he works the cork out of the bottle. “Who do you work for exactly? And why does a sports reporter need so much room?”

A smirk is dancing around his lips as he pours a bright green liquid into each goblet. “Alice…” He places what looks like a small, silver, perforated pie server on top of the first glass before balancing a sugar cube in the middle of it. “I love how new all of this is to you.” Then he takes the pitcher and dissolves the sugar by slowly pouring ice water over it—through the sieve-like pie server—and into the glass, transforming the jewel-colored liquid into an opalescent mint. He hands the goblet to me and repeats the process with the other one.

I’m offended by his condescending tone. “All of what? Sorry if my gambling budget doesn’t include a house inside of a house. And stop calling me Alice. Only my mother calls me that, and only when I’m in trouble.”

He takes his own goblet and raises it slightly, his grin laced with a touch of menace. The sparkle in his eyes, visible even behind those smoky gray lenses, is less mischievous and more devious than it seemed before. “To Alice. Who’s in plenty of trouble and doesn’t even know it.”