Meena thinks that she has it made when she wins the lotto with her five closest friends. They have big plans and she’s thrilled with the chance to spend more time with her three-year-old son, Deven and create her one-of-a-kind jewelry pieces. But then the emails start coming.
Her new pen pal is totally devoted, and totally freaking her out. She already gets recognized for winning the lotto, and this makes her even more paranoid about going out in public.
Army Paratrooper Kaleb Muller is thrilled when he runs into Meena while he’s off his Army base running errands in Leavenworth. He tells himself he just wants to make sure his best friend’s widow is okay, but when he spends time with her and Deven, he realizes the feelings for her that he had been trying to ignore are still there. When he learns about the stalker, he’s determined to help. If he can get to her see him as more than a friend along the way, all the better.
Meena didn’t ever want to stand up again.
She had just gotten off a double-shift at the plastics plant across town and returned home to the tiny apartment she shared with her roommate, Bennett, and their two kids. She stretched out on the lumpy sofa to rest for a few minutes—her evening routine would still be there when her feet stopped throbbing.
If she was lucky, her almost three-year-old son, Deven would sleep for a few hours before he woke needing a bathroom break. Meena didn’t know what she would do if it weren’t for Bennett. When the two of them had decided to pool their resources at the women’s shelter so they could get out and afford an apartment, she hadn’t expected them to still be rooming together over two years later, but the arrangement had worked and she hadn’t been able to secure a better paying job in the jewelry industry again. Hopefully her side job of making and selling items on Etsy would eventually take off.
She could always dream.
When she had broken ties with her disapproving Indian parents to marry a nice, white Catholic Army paratrooper nearly five years ago, she hadn’t imagined she would end up in this position: a widowed single mom, broke, and working scut to make ends meet. Barely.
Seven hours until she headed back in for the early shift. She should be in bed. But first she needed just a few more minutes of peace and quiet.
A fist pounded on the thin door to the hallway. “Meena, Bennett, open up.”
It was Sheila, a third graduate from the shelter, who lived down the hall.
“Just a minute.” Meena pitched her voice to hopefully reach the hall without waking up the kids. But maybe that was wishful thinking. She dragged herself off the lumpy sofa and opened the door two steps away.
“Neither of you are checking your phones, are you?” Sheila asked as she brought in a waft of the hallway’s hot, stale air tinged with cigarette smoke into the apartment with her. She closed the door behind her, flipping the lock closed again. Despite the late hour, she still wore khaki shorts and a green t-shirt, and her light auburn hair was up in its usual ponytail.
“I think Bennett’s asleep already. I just got off work and haven’t turned my phone back on.”
“Now you’re going to wish you had.” Sheila opened the door to the bedroom Bennett shared with her nine-year-old daughter, Grace. “Bennett,” she said in a loud stage whisper.
“What?” Bennett muttered grumpily, her eyes still closed.
“Get in here.” Sheila’s voice brooked no denials.
Bennett sighed deeply and dragged herself off the bed, half stumbling into the living room and closing the door behind her. She ran a hand through her blond curls and glared. “I just got to sleep. This better be good.”
“It’s better than good. It’s amazing. Seriously,” Sheila grabbed the baby monitor and Meena’s apartment key that were both sitting on the kitchen counter and pulled them down the hall to her apartment, barely pausing to lock the door behind them.
“What is it? I need to go to bed,” Meena complained, though she was curious—Sheila wasn’t usually so insistent.
“You won’t be tired when you hear this.”
Meena could hear excited female voices before they even opened the door. Andrea—Sheila’s roommate—as well as Vanna, and Dierdre, who had apartments on the floor above—all of them friends and former residents from the shelter—were seated in the living room.
“Can you believe it?” Vanna asked, jumping to her feet. She must have met with a client that day because she still wore one of the skirt and blouse combos she favored for business.
“Believe what? Sheila didn’t tell us anything,” Bennett grumbled.
“We won,” Andrea said, pumping a fist toward the ceiling, and tossing back her tight African American curls in jubilation.
“What?” It took Meena a moment to spot the lotto ticket lying on the refurbished coffee table in front of them. Wait. It was Saturday night. She turned to Sheila. “Hold on, the ticket was actually worth something? What was it? A thousand dollars?” Oh, the jewelry supplies she could buy with even a sixth of that. Or she could be responsible and use it to get a tune up for her car…
Andrea was the one who answered. “No, honey, we won the jackpot. Seventeen. Million. Dollars.”
Meena just stared at Andrea, trying to make her brain compute.
Bennett on the other hand, screamed in excitement and jumped around the room, suddenly as alert as Sheila had promised before. “No way, really? No way! That’s insane. Are you sure?”
“Sure as we can be. Of course, we have to turn in the ticket and hope someone else didn’t have the same numbers to split the winnings—it’s already being split six ways,” Sheila said.
“Right, because how could we possibly survive on only eight and a half million,” Vanna teased.
It was starting to sink in. “Wait, seriously? We won? The jackpot?” Praise be to Ganesh.
“We sure did.” Dierdre slung an arm around her shoulder.
Meena realized she would be able to quit her job at the plastics factory. Now that was something to celebrate.
Thankfully, Meena decided to wait until the money arrived before giving her notice at work, because the lotto commission did not move quickly and the women soon realized it would take months before they received any kind of payment. It only took a few weeks of being the new poster children for the American Lotto for them to decide they wanted to live near each other so their kids would grow up close and they could still help one another as needed.
Sheila had started collecting information about housing possibilities and they gathered together one evening in early August to discuss their options.
“I really liked that neighborhood,” Andrea said, pointing to one Sheila had flagged on the map.
“But they don’t have enough houses for sale,” Dierdre said. “Besides, security would be a nightmare.”
‘What about that one?” Bennett suggested, pointing to a gated community on the west side of town.
“The homes are ridiculously expensive and the Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions the HOA wrote are insane,” Meena reminded.
“Besides, they’re total snobs,” Sheila said. “When I told them who we were and gave them my address to this building they literally wrinkled their noses in disgust.”
“What if we just bought a piece of property and built six houses on it, made our own gated community?” Vanna suggested.
“That would mean either staying in this dump for at least a year—seriously, at least—or moving somewhere else and then moving again, and securing two separate locations,” Dierdre objected. Of the six of them, she was the most concerned about security—and she knew more about it than the rest of them combined. The red-head was also the only one of them with a concealed-carry permit.
They had been sitting around Vanna’s living room while the kids played in the other room for nearly an hour. The interruptions from kids were getting more frequent and it seemed like they weren’t getting any closer to a solution. Meena rubbed the back of her neck and thought longingly of a long soak in a hot bath—which she couldn’t take since they only had a shower stall. A tub was on her definite must-have list when they finally figured this out.
“There was one other option I looked into,” Sheila said.
“What is it?” Meena asked.
Sheila tossed a black and white printout of the old six-story apartment building next to the community garden. “It has plenty of space for all of us, it would be considerably easier to monitor and secure. It’s been on the market for a few years with no takers, so the owner would probably come down a bit into a reasonable range. It’s across the street from the elementary school. And there would be options of either first, each of us taking a floor—which would be an insane amount of space—or two, splitting the top three floors in half and renovating and renting or selling the lower floors as condos or offices.” She pulled some images from a folder, setting them out to show the current floor plan. “I had Charlee look it over and at a first glance she thought it was rehab-able, though she recommended a full demo down to the brick walls. It’s way too big of a project for her new company, but she said she could hook us up with some larger, reputable companies to do the work.”
“That’s got to take a year or more as well,” Bennett said with a sigh.
“Not if we do some quick basic upgrades, then moved into the second floor while the upper floors were being renovated. I know it’s not ideal, but it’s workable. And if we sold out the second and third floors as condos once we were settled upstairs, that would put money back in the coffers to manage upkeep and utilities for our floors.”
“I did want storefront space. We could do that if we bought the building,” Dierdre said. “But how do we secure a building if random people move into the other two floors?”
“Separate entrances?” Bennett suggested. “Maybe theirs only goes to their floors and ours only goes to our floors?”
“That would be doable,” Dierdre nodded.
“We would need an inspection and estimates for the work, but it sounds interesting,” Meena said.
“All in favor of looking into this more?” Vanna asked.
A loud chorus of ayes filled the room.
“I’ll contact the Realtor for more information tomorrow then,” Sheila said.
Meena was glad they had an option they were all interested in at least. Maybe they could be settled there by Halloween. She could always dream.
Who knew becoming a millionaire would be such a pain? Meena slid on her sunglasses and ball cap, feeling like one of those TV stars that had to disguise themselves to get a little privacy when they went out to get a burger. She had known when she stood for photographs with the other winners that her life was about to change. She hadn’t realized that along with the freedom to pursue her passions instead of working a drudge job, she would also feel like she was living in a fish bowl.
It had been five months and she still got questions from people at the store, phone calls and letters from people asking for donations, and the occasional reporter trying to reach her for an interview. Also, she had to look over her shoulder every time she went outside, wondering if someone was going to pop out from around a corner, thanks to the strange emails she had been getting for the past month.
Five emails in total, unsigned and from a strange email address. All professing love and written in haiku.
It was creepy.
She knew the other women who had shared her ticket had similar problems regarding the media—it was an extra reason she was grateful they had decided to stick together, and even more reason that they were all anxious to finally be moving into their new apartments that week.
The frigid January wind seemed to find every possible opening in her coat as she exited the children’s clothing store in the strip mall. One of the female customers had whispered to her companion while they both darted looks in Meena’s direction. Her lack of privacy had been worsened by the posters with their picture on them that had been posted around town at all the lottery tickets sale locations the previous summer. Thankfully they had started disappearing from windows before Christmas, so she wasn’t getting recognized as often. These ladies must have really good memories.
She thought, not for the first time, that what she really wanted was to go back on the cruise ship and the balmy Caribbean weather they had enjoyed a few weeks ago. Maybe it would have been more practical to upgrade her car first and take the cruise second, but they had all needed to get away. No one there had known who she or her shelter sisters were, and the only attention she received from guys was because they liked the way she looked, not the size of her wallet. Sadly, she couldn’t be sure that was the case with any of the men who hit on her in Crystal Creek, Kansas.
She didn’t need to buy Deven new clothes desperately enough to deal with pointing and whispers today. Maybe Dierdre had the right idea with shopping online. They were moving tomorrow to their new building and new clothes would just be more to pack, anyway. Right? So much for taking a couple of hours away to run errands and unwind.
Getting into her beat-up, but still functional car—she would look at upgrading when she knew how much their building renovations was going to eat up from her winnings—Meena headed to the U-Haul office to pick up more boxes, and then back home to finish preparing for the move. Might as well get it out of the way.
She wrinkled her nose as she walked down the musty hallway, but smiled when Andrea opened her door. Until she spoke.
“Apparently there’s a new commercial starring us that just came out. Dierdre saw it earlier today. Do you have more boxes you need brought up?”
“This is all I bought this time—nearly done. I picked up a few extra in case anyone else needs some.” She shifted the boxes to get a better grip. “I guess the new commercial explains why I was recognized at the kid’s store. I’ve always loved people who point and stare, it makes me feel so special.”
Andrea smiled, knowing exactly how annoying it was. “Could be they just don’t see an Indian beauty often enough here in the land of the whites.”
Meena just chuckled. “Do you guys need any boxes?”
“One more should do me. Sheila could probably use a couple too.” Andrea adjusted the vibrant cloth she had used to tie back her tight black curls so they wouldn’t get coated with dirt in the packing. A smudge of dust ran across her rich brown skin. “I just heard from the cleaning crew—our apartments are ready. They’re finishing up your new office and we’ll be good to go. They’ll be here by eleven tomorrow to clean out the ones here once our stuff is out.”
“Okay, so I was just thinking that being recognized everywhere is a major pain, but seriously, being able to hire someone else to do that deep cleaning is a nice perk.”
“You’re telling me.” Andrea took the three boxes Meena had peeled away from the rest. “Let me know if you need more help with the last of your things.”
A man walked past them, eying them both with the strange distrust that several of their neighbors had shown since they won the American Lotto.
“Will do. I’m seriously ready to get out of here.” Meena hoisted up the stack of boxes again and headed down three more doors to her apartment.
“Oh, good. I just used the last one. Deven’s still sleeping.” Bennett had her blond curls pulled back in a ponytail that made her look more like eighteen than twenty-four and wore an older gray tee that read “If You Believe In Telekinesis Please Raise My Hand.”
“I guess playing the packing game before I left wore him out,” Meena said.
“Andrea said we could bring him over later if we need to. Also, did you get Dierdre’s text? She’s hosting dinner tonight.” They had taken turns making dinner the past few days so everyone could pack, and so they had an excuse to get together to talk logistics and get construction updates on their new building.
“What do you want done with your meditation corner?” Bennett pointed to the praying hands, lotus blossoms, and small statue of Krishna that Meena sat in front of to meditate every morning and night—one of the Indian traditions she had taken with her when her parents disowned her.
“I’ll pack them in the morning after meditation. I saved a smaller box under my pillow for that.”
“Ah, I wondered why you were hoarding that.”
The two of them couldn’t look any different—Bennett was compact and curvy with shoulder-length blond curls, peaches and cream skin, and green eyes. Meena was tall and thin with almost no curves—well, a few more since having Deven—and the dark hair, eyes and complexion of her Indian ancestors. They even had different belief systems, but they couldn’t be closer if they were sisters by blood.
“Andrea said we’re starring in a new lotto commercial, which explains the renewed pointing and staring I experienced today.” Meena opened an upper cupboard and packed the end of their food, except for some breakfast bars for the next morning.
“Face it, you’re gorgeous and you stand out. People would point and stare anyway.”
An alarm went off on Bennett’s phone. “School’s out soon. My turn to pick up the kids. Be back. Think of me as you dig through the summer clothes closet next.”
“Right.” Somehow their off-season items always managed to get mixed together, which wasn’t a major problem when they lived in the same apartment, but they would be getting their own the next day, so sorting was a must. Of course, since they would be next door to each other, it wouldn’t exactly be difficult to return items if they were packed in the wrong box.
“Mommy, I’m hungry.” Deven called from their shared room. She smiled as she realized she wouldn’t have to share a bed or even a bedroom with her son anymore after that night. Luxury.
Okay, maybe being a millionaire wasn’t so bad.