Online gaming brought them together. Small town Kansas girl Zoe Kearny never meant to befriend anyone in an online video game. But after a year of talking to Ben over the headset, he’s traveled five hundred miles to meet her. Now she needs to prove to herself, and her two cynical friends, that a long distance relationship could work out, even if her violent ex-boyfriend works to ruin everything she’s worked for.
Time can change a person, for better or worse. He was proof of that.
Guilt-laden Benjamin Solmer hit the bottle hard after his brother died in a motorcycle accident two years ago. If he hadn’t met Zoe online when he did, alcohol would’ve driven him to the grave. Now he knows there’s more to life than video games and playing guitar in a rock band. He’s ready to pursue love. But with Zoe’s fear that long distance relationships don’t work, and deeply guarded secrets she won’t reveal, he worries maybe Zoe’s not the one.
Of all days to invade this sector of the world, they chose her birthday.
Darned aliens messed up Sonya’s plans to sit atop her brand-new lighthouse and flirt with Soljer. It took weeks to work up the courage to ask him to couple. Now with them descending from the sky, she wouldn’t get the chance.
Zoe Kearny tightened her grip on the Xbox controller. She breathed in deep through her nose, puckered her lips, and then exhaled slowly. No need to get angry. Couldn’t stop an inevitable war to celebrate a day they had no use for. Preventing aliens from taking over the world was, after all, part of the video game.
“Why now?” she whispered into her headset.
Ben chuckled. “Of all days to attack, huh?”
No doubt about it, great minds think alike. Or at least, similar minds wishing they weren’t spending their days five hundred miles apart.
Zoe glanced at the blurry picture on the bottom right corner of her TV screen. Yummy Benjamin Jeremiah Solmer. Soljer in games and the band he played guitar in on weekends. Everyone called him Ben.
Ben was her rock—a cool rock with deep green eyes and bangs sticking up in tufts. Enviable lashes matched short midnight hair perfectly groomed around the sexiest ears she’d ever seen.
The man was hot—melt-to-the-floor kind of hot. So hot she often wondered why he spent his spare time playing video games with her, a woman he’d never met before, when he could be with anyone he wanted.
“Want me to make quick work of this?” he asked.
“No, I got this.”
As tempting as it was to let him take over the fight, this was her moment to show off. She was so much better at this game than when they’d met outside the training grounds.
He’d invited her to his chat session two Christmases ago to scold her for carelessly, albeit accidentally, setting his virtual house on fire. She’d cried. He apologized for being a jerk and then invited her to be his acolyte.
“Just don’t burn down your lighthouse with a rogue fireball.”
She scoffed. “You’ll never let me forget that. Will you?”
“Never. It wasn’t just my house you burned down. The entire village went up in flames. I had to deal with a lot of pissed-off gamers that day.”
“Ah. Poor homeless gamers. You really are a hero.”
“Was that sarcasm?” He snickered. “It took two days to reconstruct twenty-five houses and move them to another town. Including my own house.”
“Five more levels, then I can move there too. I think I’ll buy the house next door to yours.”
He cleared his throat. “The community’s already banned you from the town.”
“Are you serious?” She rolled her eyes. “I haven’t set anything on fire in months. It’ll probably be another year until I’m ready to move anyways. By then, I should be a high level priestess. If I live through this.”
Fireballs she could handle. Her problem was taking on too many aliens at a time. Too often she found herself staring up into a pixilated blue sky that turned gray as she died. That made for slow character leveling.
“I won’t let you die,” he said. “But it should be easy for you to take them out wearing the new robe I gave you.”
With +50 willpower, +35 endurance, and +15 fire magic, it was the best robe in the game at this level. The dark green garment went well with Sonya’s long blonde hair and huge green eyes. Golden streaks woven into the skirt and along the low-cut neckline sparkled in the sun.
If Sonya wore a tiara, she’d look like a queen instead of a fire sorceress. If the dress was pink and this was a fantasy game with dragons and castles and a handsome prince to kiss, then maybe she’d be a princess instead. Defeating aliens, battling to save the world with a big-boobed cartoony character—this was sci-fi meets fantasy at its best.
“I hope you’re right,” she muttered.
“You’ll be fine. I’m right here if you need me.”
Zoe screamed inside. Stupid aliens! Birthday confessions ruined, Soljer’s creator would remain oblivious to how she really felt. Today anyway. No cuddling or coupling would commence. The only fun she’d have was stopping the bad guys from taking over their virtual world.
Clear bubble-shaped spaceships landed on white sands along the endless coastline. Some hovered over the azure sea. Others slowly descended to the car-lined parking lots. Fifteen ships and counting. Twenty by the time they stopped appearing in the blue sky. Red skulls with blinking eyes rotated around each ship, adding a nice touch to the battle theme.
Purple blobs with long, gangling limbs and sharp, pointy teeth emerged from the crafts. Zoe puckered her nose. Disgusting creatures. Oddly cute. She’d keep one as a virtual pet if they were nice, but they were evil, destructive monsters that left trails of purple goo in their wake.
The aliens demolished the lifeguard station on the beach, the kiddie pool near the bathrooms, and the bathrooms too. They’d leveled the ice-cream stand to the ground, which meant no more cotton-candy cones during the summer. When the little monsters headed for the lighthouse, the beloved place she’d bought last week with all her in-game money, Zoe moved Sonya in position.
“Here they come,” she sang.
She held down the B button. A giant orange fireball appeared between Sonya’s palms. Zoe released the button, sending the ball hurling across the sand. The first wave of aliens charred like purple marshmallows over a bonfire.
“Burn, baby, burn!” She released smaller but faster flaming balls. Wicked laughter spilled from Zoe’s open mouth as the plum bodies blazed.
They were no match for her kick-ass sorceress. Two more big attacks and she’d rule the beach. Birthday saved. Maybe there was time for coupling after all.
Zoe shoved her thumb down on the B button again. Nothing happened. She tapped the button faster. The flames wouldn’t come. Her gaze slunk to the empty magic meter on the side of the screen.
“Use a potion,” Ben suggested calmly.
“I don’t have any more potions.”
“What happened to the vials I gave you last weekend?”
She cringed. Drinking a magic-renewal potion created a pretty blue aura around the user. She hadn’t the nerve to tell him she’d used them just to watch Sonya glow.
Soljer’s tall, muscular frame stepped forward, long black hair waving in the breeze. An arsenal of weapons hung on his back and at his side beneath a dark brown gunslinger’s jacket. He was so badass, all decked out in the highest-level legendary gear. Way overpowered for this battle.
“I’ll take care of them.”
Zoe moved Sonya between Soljer and the approaching aliens. “There’s only a few more, babe. I can still do this.”
“You don’t have any magic left.”
“Maybe I can beat them to death with my glowy-stick.”
Ben laughed. “You’re the only one I know who can make glowy-stick sound cute.”
If he were sitting beside her now, she was sure he’d see her cheeks turn the same color as her pink pajamas. “Just be quiet. I’m concentrating.”
Lips pursed, frazzled, Zoe backed Sonya up the sandy beach toward the lighthouse. Scary aliens followed, laughing, taunting, knowing she’d run out of the good stuff. Her tall, crooked wooden stick with a glowing green ball near the top wouldn’t be strong enough to beat them down. But dang it, she’d give it a try.
“Wait a sec,” Ben said, raising his voice. “Did you call me babe?”
Zoe brought her hand to her mouth and gasped. With her finger off the trigger, she couldn’t block the hopping purple globs. One leaped onto the hem of Sonya’s new robe. Another jumped on her arm. If she didn’t do something now, her character would lose her clothes and dignity at best. She’d die a horrific, blood-draining death, and then have to run a million miles back to her naked body.
“Okay, help me.” She swallowed hard as Sonya’s life meter inched downward. “I’m dying here.” In more ways than one.
Lump in her throat, she watched her rock coolly unsheathe his gun and sword. Boom! Boom! The blobs on Sonya’s body fell dead to the ground. Slash! Purple blood splattered over the sand at her feet. Ten of them gone in seconds, and he hadn’t even suffered a scratch.
He was good—too good to be hanging with an epic failure such as her. Even with the pretty new half-eaten robe, she wasn’t worthy.
“Thanks, Ben,” Zoe sighed.
“Say it, Zoe.”
“Thanks, Ben…Soljer. Okay, I’ll say it. I suck at this game.”
“You called me babe.”
She slapped her forehead. Great. He’d always remember her setting his house on fire. Now he’d never let her live this one down. Not that she minded. It’d been a long time since she was comfortable enough to use a pet name on a guy she liked.
Her stomach growled. She glanced at the clock. 8:30 p.m. Way past dinner time. Time always slipped by so fast when she was hanging with Ben. Voicing with him was the highlight of her day, even when he gave her a hard time—especially when he gave her a hard time.
She rose from the couch and headed for the kitchen, controller in hand. “Well, you must have heard me wrong.”
“Oh, I didn’t hear you wrong.”
She stuck a frozen dinner in the microwave. “Heat of the moment?”
She punched in two minutes on the timer then pressed start. “Okay, I said it. Did I offend you?”
“You can call me babe anytime you like…honey.”
Twenty-seven years old today and she laughed like a schoolgirl with a crush. Maybe her birthday wasn’t ruined after all.
“Honey is a bit old-fashioned, isn’t it?”
His deep hmm sent a wonderful chill through her body. “I’ll call you pumpkin, then.”
“I’m flattered.” Her face warmed. This talk was way better than playing the game. “Pumpkins are edible in anything,” her voice wavered as she continued. “Muffins, breads, soups. Pumpkin pie is tasty.”
“Do you taste like pumpkin pie?”
Not knowing how to respond, she swallowed hard. Elbows on the counter, chin against her fists, she watched the numbers count down on the microwave.
“Zoe, did I lose you?”
“Sorry, did you say something? The microwave’s blaring loud tonight.” She pursed her lips. Such a golden opportunity to flirt with him, and she’d chickened out. Chicken!
“What meal are you making for dinner tonight?”
Thunder growled in the distance. Rain pelted the side of the apartment. These were the woes of living on the end unit. Goosebumps crawled over her skin at the thought of a tornado passing through, or worse, the electricity going out. She hated being alone in the dark.
The microwave beeped. The bamboo chimes hanging from the patio rafters out back chattered as if they’d blow away at any moment. Lightning flashed. Thunder shook the walls. The glassware in the kitchen cabinets rattled.
Zoe shuddered as she lifted her long golden strands off her shoulders. She tied them back with her favorite white tie. She pulled the plastic back from the tray of lasagna, then closed her eyes and breathed in. Sweet basil and tomato sauce.
She set her meal down on the coffee table in her tiny cream-colored living room. Her corduroy love seat wouldn’t win awards for the prettiest chair in the world, but it was comfy. Sinking down in the cushions was the best feeling in the world, besides eating a hot meal and talking to Ben.
The lights flickered. Another crack of thunder jangled knickknacks on the shelf beside the front window. She stuck a forkful of noodles in her mouth and watched Sonya stand beside Soljer on the TV screen. If the electricity went out, she was going to be livid.
Her skin tingled. The way he’d said her name, it sounded like he had something important to ask. She hoped this would be the big question, the one she’d waited over a year for, the one where they’d meet for real in a coffee shop, fall desperately in love, get married and live happily ever after.
Her heart beat a mile a second. “Yes, Ben?”
“I need to head out to the gig.”
Blah. Not what she wanted to hear.
It was Friday night. Bars hopped with hot women in skimpy dresses. Gorgeous guitar man Ben could have any woman he wanted. All he had to do was point, and they’d be on him like leeches in a Louisiana swamp. The image ruined the whole pumpkin-babe flirt.
Ben had a life in Denver, an exciting, busy life. He probably had a girlfriend or ten, ruining the happily-ever-after thought and making her feel like the dead alien lying in the sand at Sonya’s feet.
* * * *
Ben searched his room for his wallet. He’d be late if he didn’t wrap up the session. Not that he wanted to. As much as he loved being an active musician, he hated missing another game night with Zoe.
Never one for posting selfies, he’d given Zoe one at her request. She’d complained about the slight blur, and that the picture mostly showed the side of his head. The past six months she’d badgered him to send her a new photo. He’d finally caved in and turned his smartphone’s camera on himself.
“I sent you a new photo this morning,” he said, finding his wallet in the tan cargo pants he’d worn to work today. He stuffed it in the back pocket of his jeans, and then turned his attention to Zoe’s picture on the bottom right-hand corner of his TV screen.
Zoe was a breath of fresh air, an angel compared to the vampires at the bar. Long blonde hair curved around her face. Loose curls hung past her shoulders to her elbows. Bright blue eyes. Perfect smile. She was without a doubt the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.
Her profile pic was a kick in the pants. She’d posed with a plate of chocolate-chip cookies at a middle-school bake sale. The kids had pinned a ribbon to the collar of her pink button-up shirt for winning best-tasting cookie that day.
Meeting Zoe in person had moved to the top of his bucket list. Even if his roommate Sheron tried to “get it through his thick skull” that Zoe wasn’t the right one.
“Zoe’s an innocent bakery manager from a one-horse town,” she’d said. “You’re a tortured, guilt-laden city boy who rarely smiles.”
Maybe Sheron was right. His brother’s motorcycle accident was his fault. Guilt hung over him like a rain cloud. He shouldn’t pursue more than a passing fling, but he couldn’t get Zoe out of his head. She made life worth living again.
To think he could get seriously caught up in her scared the hell out of him. He didn’t want to admit it, but he kind of already had.
“Make sure your picture’s clear this time,” Zoe said in her soft, angelic voice.
He chuckled. “I promise, pumpkin.”
“Where will I find it?”
“It’s the birthday present at the top of the lighthouse. I’d planned on springing it on you late tonight after we talked about…something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about, but I don’t know when I’ll be home. We’ll have to chat about it later. I’ll shoot you a text if I catch a break tonight.”
Sheron stood in his bedroom doorway in a tight leather dress, impatiently waiting for him to finish the call. By the way she dug the sharp end of her heeled shoe into the short Berber carpet, she was eager to leave for the bar.
Relentless woman. She was like an evil possessive older sister with horns on her head and a tail to smite him down whenever he got out of line. If she hadn’t been married to his late brother, Chase, he would’ve already kicked her out of his house.
“End the session with doughnut girl,” Sheron said.
He covered the microphone with his hand. “Get out of my room, Hateful.”
Sheron flipped her long black hair over her petite tanned shoulders. “Jackass.”
She batted her long lashes once. “Baker’s man.” One side of her lilac-colored lips curved upward.
“Damn it, Sheron.” Ben pursed his lips. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
“Hope your gig goes well tonight.” The sulk worked back into Zoe’s voice.
He removed his hand from the microphone, and then sighed. “I’ll make it up to you later, okay?”
“Happy birthday, Zoe,” he said and then took off his headset.
He ran his fingers through his hair as Zoe’s picture disappeared from the TV screen. Would’ve been a perfect night to ask her if she wanted to meet and pursue some sort of…relationship-type thing if their meeting worked out. Not sure how it’d work since she lived five hundred miles away, but he was ambitious.