Five Years Ago
I knew I was in love with her the second I heard her voice.
It was meant to be. Fate that Jax left his book at our apartment and I felt like not being a jerk-off and brought it to him, fate that I arrived early to his class and stepped in the lecture hall out of boredom, and fate that I came in at the exact right time to hear her words. Words I’d replay in my mind well after today.
“You can’t know someone’s story without reading the pages of their book.”
They were so simple, but they imprinted on my thoughts. Her voice replayed in my mind even when I wanted to shake her from it.
It was a moment.
The moment, the slice of time in life, when you know, its existence will change the course of every moment after.
I stay the rest of the class. I want her to speak again. I’m anxious as others ask questions and the professor drones on, because everything that comes after is unimportant, and each person that speaks does so with words that aren’t as eloquent as hers; their voices aren’t as beautiful. I’m about to risk looking like a crazy stalker and walking right down to where she is when the professor ends class. When Jax comes out I corner him and ask him about her. He looks at me as if I’m crazy, so I run toward the crowd of students leaving his classroom. He grabs my arm to stop me.
“I heard her say it in your class and you don’t know who she is, so I have to find her!” I tell him manically.
He lets out a frustrated groan because he knows I’ve gone from zero to a hundred. That doesn’t happen often, but when it does, that’s it. I’ll run through a wall. We’ve been best friends since our sophomore year of high school, so he knows when there’s no stopping me and he might as well jump on board.
I hurry down the hallway, trying to catch her even though I have no clue what she looks like. The hall is flooded with students leaving their classes. I rush out the main door and stand by it, hoping she’ll be talking and I’ll recognize her voice. I search each girl’s face as they pile outside. Some smile at me and I make sure to give each one my best charming smile in case it’s her.
“You’ve lost it.” Jax chuckles, and when I don’t answer, he looks at me as if I’ve lost my mind.
Maybe I have lost my mind, because you’re crazy to come to a dead stop on one of the busiest streets in Chicago—not to mention on a Monday, where even a slight stroll can get you trampled or knocked over.
“I’ve got to find whoever said that,” I tell him again.
He covers his face as I search through the crowd. “I told you I could just ask at my next class.” He sounds annoyed but slightly amused.
“No, you’ll only half-ass it.” I wave him off, and he nods in defeat.
“You didn’t even get a glimpse of what she looked like. She could be dog-faced, man.”
I give him the middle finger and weave through the crowd of people. But the voice is gone, disappeared into a sea of conversations and street noises.
“Ugh!” I yell in frustration, gripping my head and avoiding people rushing to their next destination.
It’s a cold day here in Chicago, and being close to the lake has made the cold wind bone-chilling. That makes it worse for me, since people are not only in a hurry to get where they’re going, but to get off the street to somewhere warm. Panic creeps up my chest. What if I never find her? It’ll drive me crazy.
“I’ve got to find her,” I tell Jax again, anxiousness coursing through me. I look around and spot a mailbox and newspaper box. I slither through the crowd and climb on top of it. “Attention, everyone, attention, please! In…”
I turn to Jax and ask his professor’s name. He tells me, begrudgingly.
“In Professor Garrison’s class, who said, ‘You can’t know someone’s story without reading the pages of their book’?”
Of course no one says anything.
“You can’t know someone’s story without reading the pages of their book!” I yell again.
I get a couple of glances and giggles from the crowd, but most people keep walking. People in downtown Chicago are accustomed to outrageous, outlandish behavior, and most don’t pay me any attention. I shout it again, and soon Jax is shouting it with me. Even if he is shaking his head in disdain, he’s used to my ridiculousness, and what’s a friendship if you can’t be ridiculous together?
“If you said that, I have to talk to you,” I shout, and I sound desperate even to myself but I don’t care, I have to know her.
We shout together, this time garnering more attention. After about five minutes, I look at Jax, whose face is red from the cold. I begrudgingly get down off the mailbox.
“We’re done, Jax,” I tell him.
He looks completely relieved. “What were we just acting like two maniacs for?”
“You know me. I’m an idiot sometimes.” I sigh in defeat.
“Uhm, I think you guys were looking for me maybe?”
It’s the voice! My blood warms up, but I hesitate, because I’m almost afraid to see who said it, whose voice grabbed my heart and didn’t let go. Am I really ready to hand it over to someone? I haven’t even let a girl borrow it, but this girl stole it and has it in her keeping before I’ve even seen her face. Jax is facing her already and his eyebrows are raised, his smile big and goofy as it always is when he sees a cute girl, and I know she’s not a ‘dog-face’.
“This guy here, actually,” he says begrudgingly, patting my shoulder.
I take a deep breath and turn around. My heart slams against my rib cage. She’s beautiful, totally and completely. Her cheeks and nose are red, but the rest of her skin is flawless, not one blemish. Long blond hair pours from underneath her hood. Her eyes are big and bright and the color of honey, and her lips are exactly how I imagined them, perfect, plumped and curved into a grin. Next to her is an older woman who has to be her mother. They have the exact same eyes, and her mother’s hair is just a tad darker. She looks annoyed and skeptical, her gaze darting between Jax and me.
“Say something, Romeo,” Jax whisper shouts in my ear before giving me a hard elbow to the ribs.
“You, you said that, what I was yelling earlier?” I ask even though I know it was her.
She nods nervously. Her pink lips have a gloss over them and they’re pursed, lips I imagine kissing a thousand times. There’s a hint of a smile on them, and I’m praying she doesn’t smile fully because it might stop my heart.
“What do you gentlemen want?” her mom chimes in. She sounds completely irritated and that should scare me out of what I’m about to say next, but it doesn’t.
“I-I had to know whose voice said those words because, I fell in love with it.” I feel her mother scowling at me, but it doesn’t matter. She smiles, and I have to remind myself to breathe. Our eyes lock, and she stares into mine, studying me. I want to be her open book.
“Do you guys want money? Is that what this is about? Because there are much easier ways,” her mother interjects angrily.
“We don’t want any money, ma’am. If we were paid to do this, I’d have made sure he came up with a much better line.” Jax is trying to lighten the mood using his easygoing charm, but I don’t even know if it’s working because all I see is her.
She glances at Jax briefly before her eyes return to mine.
She stretches her hand out and I take it, gripping it in both of mine. I feel it, what my dad said I’d feel when I met the one. It’s a culmination of excitement, euphoria, and fear all wrapped up in one, traveling to every part of my body, making me light and dizzy.
“You have to let me take you out,” I plead to her.
“What if she’s married, young man?” her mom asks bitterly.
My heart drops. Why wouldn’t she be married? She’s beautiful and smart. She looks about twenty, but still, I know it’s possible.
“Then my heart would be broken.”
She rolls her eyes, but Chassidy squeezes my hand.
“I’m not married.”
With her words, my face breaks into one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever experienced. She blushes, her skin turning the color her nose and cheeks are from the cold. I want to make her blush like that every day.
“Let me take you out,” I say.
She’s smiling, but I can tell she’s still skeptical.
“Anywhere you want, whenever you want. You can even bring your mom,” I say, gripping her hand tighter, and she laughs.
“You bet I’d be there if she considered going anywhere with some man she met off the street, even if he does look like you.”
I see her mom has a special sort of talent to make a compliment sound like an insult.
“Mom,” Chassidy says tightly, her smile disappearing into a hard frown.
“I can vouch that he’s not crazy… even though he has a tendency to do crazy things,” Jax adds.
“What’s your name, Prince Charming?” Chassidy asks. The rough tone she used with her mother is gone, back to the voice that caused all of this calamity.
“Bryce, but you can call me whatever you want,” I tell her, finally letting her hand go.
“Bryce what?” her mom asks pointedly.
“Daniels, ma’am,” I tell her mother, whose eyes look as if they’re going to set me on fire.
“Just exchange numbers so we can get out of this Godforsaken weather,” her mom demands.
I frantically search for my phone, and Jackson hands me his. She tells me her number, and I put it in his phone and call it, and hers lights up. As soon as it does, her mother takes her arm and starts to pull her away.
“It was nice meeting you Bryce,” she says over her shoulder, throwing me a smile I’ll never forget.
“You better have been worth this,” her mom snaps at me before they join the herd of people disappearing down the block.
“What the hell was that?” Jackson asks.
I just smile, staring at her number in his phone. “That was my future wife.”
I shouldn’t be here.
This isn’t helping. It’s not going to. It sort of helped the first time, but is it going to help now… I need something to help me. I feel so lost, empty. I need to feel something other than this despair that’s been wrapped around me for so long. I’m afraid to let it go. If I let one emotion out, the rest will unravel.
I look around at the women here, all different races and ages, and instead of feeling comforted, a form of comradery, I feel misery creeping around the room. I bite the Styrofoam cup in my hand so hard, a piece tears off in my mouth. My heart is beating faster than normal and my throat is dry even though I’ve downed an entire cup of punch.
I glance at the owner of the light voice. It’s a girl of course. She looks young, really young, maybe sixteen. She can’t be here for this group. Maybe I’m in the wrong room.
“I’m Mallory,” she says, stretching out her hand.
I take it reluctantly, trying to pull off a warm smile that feels cold on my lips.
“Nervous? I still get nervous sometimes.” She laughs but it’s mirthless, and when her amber eyes meet mine, I know that she’s here for the same reason I am. I recognize her feelings—loss, pain, and sorrow. My heart breaks for her instantly, for everyone here, but their pain and mine intermingling is suffocating, not liberating as it once was.
“Here.” She hands me another cup filled with lemonade, and I down it quickly. “What’s your name?”
“Chassidy. I’m sorry…” My thoughts are floating to a different time, a different place.
“It’s okay. They’re running behind.” She sighs, breaking a piece off a cookie someone brought and popping it into her mouth.
More people are trickling into the brightly painted room with over thirty chairs arranged in a circle. The fluorescent lights feel hot on my skin, but I know it’s paranoia. I haven’t gone crazy just yet. I watch as some greet each other with half smiles and hugs. No one I recognize is here from the last time. Most people seem to be loners, like me. They seem confused and in a daze, observing, probably thinking the same thing I am.
“It’s hot in here, isn’t it?” she asks.
I nod, watching her pull out a hair tie from her Tory Burch backpack and gathering her long dark hair into a bun.
“Looks like we’re the youngest people here.” Her voice gives away a hint of her nerves.
I nod, rubbing my fingers across the back of my neck. Things like this aren’t supposed to happen when you’re young. Your body is supposed to be optimal, ready-made for it—so what happened to ours? I want to ask her this, but my tone won’t be right, it won’t come out as a joke. It would come out wrong, like most things I’ve been saying lately.
“How old are you?” I ask, my eyes sweeping across her.
“Nineteen,” she says with a half smile. “How about you?”
“Twenty-six.” I try to relax, but the cool liquid or conversation isn’t helping at all. I feel beads of sweat forming on my forehead. I wipe them but don’t feel anything. “It’s not my first time here,” I croak, my voice sounding older and hollower.
“Really? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you here before,” she says with a quizzical look, then she smiles brightly. “I would have noticed your hair. You have great hair.”
I smile, touching it, then I remember putting my fingers through Logan’s tiny blond curls and my stomach clenches.
“I come every week. Well, at least for the past four months I have.”
“It was a year ago,” I squeak.
She looks confused, probably wondering why I’m back after a year.
“I-it happened again.” When I utter the words, they come out strangled and my throat begins to close in on itself. My vision becomes blurry with fresh tears.
“Okay, everyone, we’re about to get started.”
I recognize her voice. That’s Jane, the group leader from the last time I came. I think about the progress I made and how now I’m back to square one.
“Are you okay to join the group?” Mallory asks me, her voice full of sympathy.
But it doesn’t make me feel better. This doesn’t make me feel better. I’m weighed down by the past, depressed by the future, sucking up all the despair in the room and infecting it with my own. “I’m sorry, I-I can’t do this. I shouldn’t have come.”
Before she can respond, I shoot to the door and hurry out. She seems to be functioning okay, but I’m not and I don’t want to bring anyone down into my hole of misery. When I reach my car, I take in as much air as my lungs will allow. I can’t help but think about how crazy I looked to them, to Mallory. But maybe they understand. If anyone could understand, it’d be them.
I rest my head on the steering wheel. I’ve sat in front of this building for three weeks, getting up the courage to go in, and when I did, I ran out like a lunatic.
“Life coach pfft.” Nicole rolls her eyes before she sips her second tequila and lemonade. If she could be a coach for anything, it’s knocking back booze in the classiest way. “What the hell does one do with a life coach? Why does a fully grown person need someone to be their cheerleader? Adulting is hard. Get over it!”
Kelsey, the most conservative of the three of us, gives her a warning look, but Nicole ignores it completely, as she’s done since our high school years.
“I don’t understand what you need to see a life coach for. You’re doing fine. Your closet is dripping with labels, you’re gorgeous, and you’re skinny. You’re doing just fine to me and every other person in the world,” Nicole continues dismissively.
I can’t help but feel guilty that an argument’s about to start over my fake life coach session. I told them I was seeing a life coach so I wouldn’t have to tell them that I went to a support group and failed epically. They’re my best friends. I should be able to talk to them about this—I know they’d want me to, especially Kelsey—but I’m so tired of being the one everyone feels sorry for. I’m sick of their pitying glances, trying to make sure they don’t say the wrong thing and make me uncomfortable. We’ve just started to move beyond that, and I don’t want it to start again. Besides, emotional stuff makes Nic uncomfortable, and the last thing I want is for her to feel uncomfortable while alcohol is around. She’ll drink away a car payment.
“I think it’s a great idea. There’s nothing wrong with a little help. Maybe I’ll schedule a session with him.” Kelsey’s tone is full of encouragement as she picks up her glass of lemonade, which Nicole sneers at. Nicole teased her when she ordered, regardless of the fact that for as long as we’ve known Kelsey she’s hardly ever had anything more than a glass of wine at dinner.
“Oh please, what would you need help with in your life?” Nic asks almost accusingly.
Kelsey blushes, but her hazel eyes narrow on Nic’s emerald-green ones. Even though we’ve known each other since our freshman year of high school, Nicole still says things that can go from annoying to downright offensive, especially if you don’t know her. That’s why we stopped trying to introduce new people into the group. She’s a special cupcake that isn’t for everyone, but a flavor we’ve just never lost our taste for. When we got partnered together for an English project freshman year, I thought they were going to rip each other’s heads off, but we survived and forged a lifelong bond.
“Are you saying that staying home with my children is mindless and not nearly as difficult as getting to fly across the country and throw parties?” Kelsey asks tightly.
Nic rolls her eyes and throws her hands up in defense. “I’m saying that you have two gorgeous children you get to spend all the time you want with, in a gorgeous house, married to a gorgeous man. You would be wasting your money, just like Chassidy is wasting hers.”
“You’re being condescending!” Kelsey fumes, and suddenly it’s like we’re back at the burger joint we used to frequent in high school.
“Are you serious?” Nic asks indignantly.
I’m used to their debates. They look as different as their world views. Kelsey has skin the color of toffee and thick curly brown hair. She’s slender, conservative but fiercely opinionated. Nic’s a liberal through and through. She blames her brashness on being Irish and claims she’s meant to be hot-tempered since her hair’s the color of fire. This, at least, is a tamer discussion. When it’s election season, I can’t be in the same room with both of them at the same time.
“I’m complimenting you guys. We’re all doing well. You married one of the best pediatricians in the country, Chas is living her dream as a writer, married to the love of her life, and I get to rotate between the country’s most eligible bachelors and get paid for it,” she says with a wink.
Kelsey lets out a condescending chuckle.
“I mean I get paid for doing their events not doing them!”
Several people at nearby tables look over, and Nic glows at the attention. Kelsey shakes her head in disdain, and I cover up a laugh. It feels good to laugh.
“I just think that we’re all doing pretty well, well enough not to need an adult babysitter, it’s just such a waste of money,” Nicole proclaims loudly.
Kelsey shifts her body toward me to give Nic the cold shoulder.
“What does Bryce think?” Nicole asks, throwing a haughty look in Kelsey’s direction.
I tuck a strand of my hair behind my ear. “Bryce is happy as long as I’m happy.” I try to sound cheerful, but the truth of the statement slaps me in the face. I’m not happy, so Bryce isn’t either, even if he doesn’t know why.
“Is he still out of town?” Nicole asks.
I grab my Long Island iced tea and take long sips, feeling uncomfortable with their gazes on me. Can they see behind the mask I’m wearing? Are there cracks?
“Yup, he’ll be back tomorrow,” I say with as much cheer as I can muster.
“You must be ecstatic,” Kelsey says.
I smile, but it’s tight. “Yeah, it’s been a week.” I try to hide any disdain in my voice, and I glance at both of them to make sure I’ve succeeded.
A look of concern flashes across Kelsey’s expression, but it’s gone quickly as it came.
I remember when I didn’t have to hide my feelings from my best friends, when I could be completely honest, when my life seemed so perfect. Those were the days when I would count down the minutes to when Bryce came home, when him being around made me believe everything would be okay…
“I don’t know how you do it, being at the house all by yourself while he’s jet-setting across the country,” Nicole says airily.
“So how is the new book coming along?” Kelsey asks, effectively changing the subject.
“It’s coming…” I sigh.
“Now we’re talking! That’s the type of book I’ll read,” Nicole says, her eyes lighting up.
“Of course you would,” Kelsey says condescendingly.
Nic blows her a kiss, and just like that, all is well with them… for now.
I grin. “I didn’t mean literally.”
“How hard could it be? Girl meets boy with emotional issues and dark secrets and her love cures him. Bam, you’re done!” Nicole claps.
“I’m glad you think it’s so easy,” I tease.
Kelsey winks at me.
“I’ve just been sort of lacking inspiration, I guess,” I say while playing with the last piece of asparagus on my plate.
“You’re married to one of the most beautiful specimens on the planet. How can you lack inspiration? Are you a lesbian?” she asks loudly.
That makes me laugh. It’s true though. Bryce is a beautiful creature, even more handsome than he was when we met five years ago. Our attraction to each other isn’t the problem though.
“My lack of inspiration isn’t his fault. It’s me. Obviously,” I say.
“Ugh, this alcohol runs through me quicker than money out my bank at Nordstrom’s.” Nicole squeals, standing. We watch her scurry to the bathroom, her limited addition Celine bag swinging behind her.
“Chas,” Kelsey asks, her voice only above a whisper, and my stomach turns over. She’s seen through the crack. Her big hazel eyes are like a puppy’s. They see into your soul. “Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, everything’s fine,” I lie, plastering on a fake smile.
She frowns at me. “Are you sure?”
I know she won’t let this go. This is the first time I’ve seen her since it happened, and her radar has always been especially effective at reading people. It’s what makes her a great mother. The nurturing gene is intertwined around each cell in her body and makes it extremely difficult to hide when something’s wrong. She was the only person I told about wanting to live with my dad instead of my mom, and I told her that only a few weeks after I met her at fourteen.
My eyes tear up, and she reaches across the table and squeezes my hand. “Hon, what’s going on?”
“Things are just not right.” I bite my bottom lip, then finish off my Long Island.
“Is it the writing…?”
I bite my lip, smile, and shake my head. Aside from the girl I met earlier, I haven’t told anyone. Technically I was at the meeting to say it out loud, to admit that it had happened again… My eyes fall on my wedding band, a symbol of love that’s supposed to be forever, unbreakable.
I take my hand from Kelsey and twist the band around my finger. “I was pregnant again.”
Her eyes widen as shock colors her face. “What?” Her expression fades from shock to sadness. “Chassidy, oh my God!”
She covers her mouth with her hands and tears up, so I tear up. She starts to rise out of her seat, but my eyes beg her not to. I don’t want to make a scene. I hate that I’ve ruined our lunch.
She nods and instead scoots closer to me, holding my hands. “How many weeks were you?”
Her voice is full of sympathy and understanding that make me feel even more emotional, but I won’t allow myself to start really crying. Nicole will be back soon, and we’re celebrating her landing a big account at work. The last thing I want is to make such a great occasion a solemn one.
“Ten,” I say quietly.
She leans in and hugs me tightly. I hug her back but pull away quickly to make sure that Nicole doesn’t see and ask questions.
“I’m so sorry for your loss.” Her voice is warm but wobbly.
I flash back to the day she came and saw me after I lost Logan, and I grab Nicole’s drink and down it. Kelsey looks at me sympathetically, worry littering her pretty face. I flash her a pageant girl smile with tears in my eyes.
“I’m going to be okay,” I assure her as confidently as I can.
She smiles, but it’s weak.
“Right?” I nudge her, trying to be okay even though my insides feel as if they’re being stretched in several directions.
“Of course you are,” she says, trying to shake off her own emotions. “Is Bryce okay?”
“I haven’t told him. I’m not going to.”
Her eyes widen. Of course I know she won’t agree with me not telling Bryce. Kelsey won’t pee without telling David. Their marriage is almost ridiculously perfect, and I hate myself for being jealous. I miss when people used to be jealous of Bryce and me.
“I can’t tell him. I can’t have him look at me how you are.” I take a deep breath. “We were supposed to be over this after Logan.” My voice breaks, and I grab a napkin and dab my eyes.
“You have to tell him. You can’t hide something like this from him. It’ll drive you mad. Bryce loves you. He can help you,” she says, but I’ve already made up my mind.
“He can’t help me. I’m obviously just broken,” I say quietly.
She looks crestfallen, but what can she say? She’s not broken. She has two beautiful children.
“What’s happened to you happens to so many women who go on to have beautiful, healthy children, and even if you aren’t able to, that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you,” she says indignantly. “I don’t know what you’re going through, so I can’t say that I know how you feel.” For a moment, she looks guilty and I hate myself for making her feel that way. “But I do know that you’re a great person and Bryce loves you to death. Don’t let this get you down. You cannot shut him out. Talk to him about it.”
I nod, but I know I won’t.
“I’m serious,” she says.
“What if we’re not meant to be?” My voice sounds cold, and she looks shocked.
“What are you talking about?”
“What if we’re just not meant to be? He’s a great man. He’s so loving and kind, and he deserves a child… his child. I can’t give him that.” I pinch the bridge of my nose.
Kelsey lets out a long breath. “Don’t do this. Don’t blame yourself. Don’t make this more than what it is. If he had to choose, and you don’t know if he does, but if he had to choose, he’d choose you. You know that.”
“But he shouldn’t have to,” I say, desperately trying to get her to understand.
She only glares at me stubbornly. “How much does Bryce like flying?”
A small smile finds its way to my face. Flying is one of his favorite things in the world, and the day he received his pilot’s license was one of the happiest days of his life.
“I bet he’d give it up for you,” she says pointedly, and I frown.
“And how selfish would that be of me?” I try to ignore the disheartened look on her face.
Silence passes between us before she folds her hands and peers up at me through her thick dark lashes. “You may not like what I’m going to say.”
I suspect I know what’s coming, so I try to prepare myself.
“You should pray about this,” she says.
I cross my arms and clench my jaw, trying to keep myself from telling her what I think of that suggestion. I’m grateful when I see Nicole bounding back to our table with an extra pep in her step. The conversation is quickly changed, and I’m grateful.
But I can’t shake her words. I should pray? That’s so like Kelsey, believing prayers are magical letters and there’s a big genie in the sky. If there is one, obviously the prayers I said, though there weren’t many, were routed to someone else.
Kelsey can be so empathetic, which makes me wonder how she can be so oblivious to how much it stings when she brings up religion. I know she means well. All she’s ever known is her faith, and if I didn’t think she meant well, I would have told her where she could go shove her prayers. And why shouldn’t she have faith? She came from a normal close-to-perfect two-parent home in the cushy suburbs with a cute little cocker spaniel. If there is a God, he’s been pretty good to her.
My parents were never married and were barely friends, more like strangers who liked each other a whole lot during a drunken tryst that had unexpected lifelong consequences. Even though they were awesome separately, the few times they had to share spaces—like birthdays, holidays when we tried to blend our families—were terrible. My mother runs cool, is always serious, can be admittedly condescending, and clashed against my dad’s free-thinking, optimistic, sort of goofballish personality. I always wondered how many drinks had to be consumed to get them in bed together.
We had a nuclear family for all of four years before they called it quits and my dad moved to California. My mom said California fit him, but hoped he didn’t give himself a concussion with his head being so high in the sky he wouldn’t look in front of him. By the time I was six, right as I started to forget what he looked like, he came back, saying he had started a successful landscaping business and married my stepmother, Annette. That’s when the real fights started. He filed for custody and was awarded joint custody since I had started school and my mom was taking care of me just fine. I stayed with her during the year, and he got me for the summers and every other holiday.
I can’t say it was a terrible childhood, except whenever I was with my dad, I felt guilty about leaving my mom behind in cold Chicago. My dad had his new wife and new house, which was five times the size of ours in Illinois, right near the ocean. I always promised myself that I’d only have a child with someone I’d love forever, so my child never had to be in a situation like I was, having to choose between two people, two foundations that were drastically different…
I push those thoughts out of my head and finish lunch with the girls, ignoring Kelsey’s concerned glances. I make sure to down two more Long Islands so she won’t press me on the car ride back home. Nicole is so excited about me being her drinking partner that she orders us shots, and the rest of the lunch is sort of a blur.
I wave to Kelsey and Nicole as I make it to my front door. Nicole’s sort of slumped over with a big smile from her drinks. Kelsey is sober as a nun, and she calls out that she’s going to call me later. Do nuns drink? I’ll have to research that later…
I walk up to my building, which Bryce and I have called home for three years. It’s one of the older luxury buildings in the area. They’ve been putting up so many new ones, but the price we pay for almost fourteen hundred square feet is unbeatable. Our plan was to buy a house in the suburbs when we started our family.
That thought makes me sort of nauseated. I head to the elevator but decide to take the stairs instead. I haven’t been to the gym in weeks though, so by the third flight, I regret my decision. My mouth is dry, and my thighs are stinging.
“This was a dumb idea,” I mutter and plant my butt on a stair, making up my mind to head to the elevator as soon as I catch my breath.
“You’re not giving up that easily, are you?”
The voice makes the hairs on my neck stand up. It’s smooth and warm, like hot chocolate going down on a cold day. I can’t see his face because a box—two to be exact—hides it, but I can tell from his toned abs peeking through his shirt and his arms, which have muscle swirling around them, that even if the face is a two, this man could be a ten. I feel my cheeks flush from the thought.
“Um, do you need a hand?” I ask, finding my voice doesn’t sound as wavy as I thought it would.
“That would make my day actually,” he says, shifting the boxes in his grip.
I stand and wipe my palms on my legs, making my way over to him.
“They’re not heavy. This one’s just blocking my vision,” he explains, sort of squatting so I don’t have much of an issue reaching the top box.
I’m used to standing on tiptoe to get things done though. Life as a short girl has made me resourceful. Still, his gesture makes it easier for me to grab the box.
“You’re a godsend,” he tells me with a chuckle.
I start to tell him that maybe it was divine intervention since I’m one of the laziest people ever, or maybe it was a nudge from down under since I don’t know what the hell I was thinking taking the stairs, but I’m greeted by a spectacular pair of blue eyes hidden behind long dark lashes. They’re magnetic, perfect, as is everything else on his face. A perfect nose sits above two plump lips curved into a smile with the most adorable dimples I’ve ever seen. He looks young, his face holds that youthful glow we all have before life stomps it out of you. Is he 25…maybe? Probably not even 23, but he has the body of a man…
I grip the box to my chest, almost feeling lightheaded. No more drinking with Nic.
“I’m Carter,” he says, with a smile that wraps around my heart and squeezes.
It’s the sort of feeling I got in high school when the boy I had a crush on smiled my way. I feel the same grin on my face from then and scold myself. Goofy drunk lonely girl.
“Chassidy,” I tell him, my voice lopsided and high. I wonder what brand of toothpaste has the wattage to make his smile so blindingly white. I follow him, telling myself not to stare at his butt. “So which floor are we heading to, Carter?”
“Only three more levels,” he says, sounding nowhere near as out of breath as I am. I definitely need to visit the gym again soon.
“You’re on seven?” I ask, surprised.
“That’s the one.”
Geez, he looks almost as good from behind. I roll my eyes at myself at how childish I’m acting, but it’s a good distraction. I climb the steps that seemed impossible earlier, but now they go fairly quickly. When we reach the seventh level, he shifts the box into one hand, pulls the door open, and waits for me to go past him.
“Thank you,” I say as I step through and he follows.
“We’re making a left. 704,” he says.
“You’re kidding,” I say with a laugh.
“Well, I was tempted to say I was on twenty, but I thought that’d be rude,” he jokes as we reach his door.
“That would have been really mean,” I retort, watching him pull the keys out of his back pocket.
“I really appreciate you saving me,” he says, opening the door.
I shrug. “You saved me. I’d probably still be on the steps if you hadn’t come along.”
When he walks through the door to his apartment, I peek in, standing at the threshold with his box in my hands still.
“You can set that on the counter,” he says, holding the door open with his foot.
I press my lips together and glance behind me.
“Or I can just grab it from you,” he says as he sets his box down.
“Oh no, it’s fine, sorry, brain freeze.” I giggle like an idiot before making my way in, ignoring the queasy feeling I get when I do.
“I promise I’m not a serial killer,” he says.
“Good to know,” I laugh.
I set the box on the island and quickly scan the apartment. It’s eerily identical to mine, down to the large island I fell in love with three years ago. It has the same dark wood floors and high ceilings I fell in love with, the same shiny stainless steel appliances. It’s empty aside from the boxes scattered about, but the feel is different here. There’s no clutter, and the light shining in from the floor-to-ceiling windows makes it feel much bigger.
“You want a water?” he asks.
He’s even more stunning in natural light. The blue eyes that I thought were gorgeous before are more magnificent when the sun graces them, his smile even more electric, and I find myself holding my breath to make sure I’m awake and not dreaming.
“I would, thank you,” I say, gripping the strap of my purse.
I’m nervous. I haven’t been nervous around a man in a long time. He doesn’t seem to be though, striding with ease to his fridge. I peek around him and see water bottles, Gatorades, and a box of takeout food. He walks across the apartment and tosses the water bottle to me.
“You don’t need one?” I ask. I’m sure his box was heavier than mine, and at one point, he was carrying both.
“Nah, I’m good.” With an easy smile, he hops on the island, his eyes landing on the bottle in my hand.
Right, he’s waiting on me to drink. I smile tightly, trying to loosen up. I take a small swig, then a longer one, resisting the urge to gulp it all down.
“What floor do you live on?” he asks once I’m done.
“It’s actually a coincidence… I’m right next door.” Unable to resist, I gulp down the water.
“No such thing as coincidences.” His tone is serious, but his smile… oh gosh, his smile is contagious and makes me, a twenty-six-year-old woman, smile like an idiot at a stranger.
Well he’s not a stranger technically. He’s Carter, my next-door neighbor. My extremely attractive next-door neighbor.
“So what do you call this, fate?” I tease.
His eyes narrow on mine as if he’s studying me, and I look away.
“I don’t believe in that either,” he says with a casual smirk.
I resist the urge to ask him what he does believe in. That seems like a mildly flirtatious question, and I don’t flirt anymore, especially with someone as handsome as he is. Especially someone as handsome as he is who lives next door to me. I would be furious if I caught Bryce doing it and I’m a Libra, so I’m sort of born to be fair.
“Well, it was nice meeting you, Carter. Thanks for the water,” I tell him, heading to the door.
“Thanks for the help,” he says, following me.
I ignore the heat that creeps up my spine as he nears me. No more Long Islands for me.
“Maybe I can get you a coffee sometime… as a thanks for helping me,” he says casually, as if he’s being friendly. But with a smile, face, and body like his, it’d hurt a girl’s pride, even a married girl like me, if he was just being friendly.
I scan his hand and notice he isn’t wearing a ring, but what does that mean? Plenty of married men go without a ring. Crap, why am I worried about whether or not he’s married when I’m for sure married?
“Married.” It comes out like word vomit, not cool and casual as I would have liked.
Both his eyebrows lift, and he laughs. It’s a great laugh, but how could he not have a great laugh when he has perfect lips and teeth.
“Okay, you’re free to bring your husband along.” He shrugs with a small grin.
My whole face begins to burn up. So he’s not flirting with me, and I’m not sure if I feel relieved or disappointed. A little bit of both.
“He’s not much of a coffee drinker,” I say, stepping across the threshold. It seems darker on this side, and it’s cooler. The air conditioner is always blasting in the hallway.
“Well, until we meet again,” he says, leaning in his doorway with a casual smile that seems familiar and warm. That should feel unsettling, but it doesn’t.
I turn to open my door and realize I haven’t unlocked it. I laugh at myself and glance back to see that he’s still watching me with an amused grin.
“Keys would help,” I joke, and his smile becomes even better. How is that possible?
“Or that,” I snort. Did I really just snort?
When my door opens, I’m almost sad.
“See you around,” I say once I’m inside.
I wait for him to close his door first, but I secretly hope he doesn’t. I realize I’m being an idiot, so I give him a small wave and ignore that it’s the first time in days that I’ve genuinely smiled at a man including my husband.
I stare at the blinking cursor on a blank page that screams that I’m a failure, that the books I wrote before were flukes, that eventually all my readers will know I’m a fraud, a one-hit wonder who writes about things I haven’t felt in a long time that seem so far out of reach.
I push my chair away from the desk and flip on my television. I should just start with the first sentence, but instead I grab a carton of butter pecan ice cream and park myself in front of the latest season of Real Housewives.
“Maybe I do need a life coach,” I mutter.
I watch my favorite character get yelled at by the group of equally rich women and turn it off before the episode is over. I’ll wait until it’s on demand and I can fast forward through the parts I don’t like. I lie back, pulling the throw over me. It’s only seven and I usually don’t sleep until ten, but it’s where I find relief. I close my eyes and try to think of good things, happy things.
At first my dreams are happy and make me smile, but when I wake, my heart is pounding and I’m sweating.
I saw her.
Anna and Bryce together. He was holding her and looking at me with the most fantastic smile, the smile of the happiest man in the world. Then she disappeared and the pink blanket she was swaddled in became stained with blood. The despair in his eyes, the wail in his throat haunts me. I shoot off the couch toward the kitchen sink and splash my face with water.
I haven’t seen him since I lost her.
It was too early to know if it was a boy or a girl, but I felt in my heart she was a girl.
She sneaked in on me. We weren’t trying. Logan took so much out of us, seeing his face and holding his tiny body, his hand curled around my finger as if he were alive… I thought I’d never recover from losing him. It took months until I felt like me again, until we felt like us.
It was so long before we didn’t feel guilty when we smiled or laughed.
I don’t want to say that we moved on because it makes it seem like we dropped him off and left him behind, but we managed to live again. Bryce was there for me, but I almost pulled him into my darkness instead of him pulling me out. I saw the man I loved with bright eyes, a kind spirit, and unbreakable resilience slipping beneath the current with me. But he managed to keep me from going under and pulled us both out.
I lost her while he was gone. For ten weeks she was mine, a little secret I couldn’t wait to share with him, but I was cautious. Or was I selfish? Did I have some sort of sixth sense that she wouldn’t be alive for long? I knew her for five weeks. Five weeks of joy and hope died within me, and the only evidence of her was left on sheets that I had to strip and throw out so he wouldn’t see.
I go for the bottle of vodka Bryce usually partakes in. At least if I have another bad dream, I’ll be too drunk to remember it when I wake up. I begin to open the bottle as someone knocks at the door. I grab my cell phone to see if anyone called or texted me about coming over. When I don’t see any missed messages, I hesitantly make my way to the door. For a moment, my heart leaps, thinking it’s Bryce home early and wanting to surprise me, before the feeling of dread returns. Don’t get too excited in case you’re disappointed. It’s always been my mantra.
“Who is it?” I ignore the creeping anticipation climbing up my chest.
“Carter. From next door.”
My heart skips a beat, and I open the door. This time his brown curls are partially covered with a beanie, and I wonder how it’s possible that he’s cuter than he was yesterday.
“Hey, neighbor,” he says with an enthusiasm you’d think he was too cool for.
“Hi,” I say, my surprise not hidden in my face or tone.
“I’m not bothering you, am I?” he asks almost sheepishly.
I give a small shrug, commanding my eyes not to lock on his chest. It’s broad and sculpted enough that I can see each line through his shirt. He’s got to be a personal trainer or something… but he seems too laid-back for that. I worked with a trainer for a few weeks after I lost Logan, and he was like a legit drill sergeant.
“Um not really. Well I was sort of working, then I got side tracked by reality TV crack,” I joke, running my hand through my hair nervously. I start to tell him I had a nightmare, but I keep that to myself. I wonder why it would have come out so easily.
He looks amused. “You work from home?”
“Yeah, something like that.” My thoughts focus on why he’s knocked on my door.
He reads my expression and gestures to his door. “I locked my key in there. The maintenance guy said it’d be about twenty minutes or something…” He gives me a smile that I’m sure has convinced many women to make bad decisions.
“Oh, you want to come in?” It comes out more like a confused accusation than an invitation.
“Or… I could go sit in the café downstairs,” he says with a lopsided smile.
“No, don’t be silly. Come in.” I stand back and motion for him to come in.
His blue eyes sparkle at me. “You sure?”
“Yes, completely. If you turn out to be a psycho though, I have a black belt, so just be forewarned,” I kid, feeling a little more at ease.
He turns around, his eyebrows raised in surprise. “Really?”
“Let’s pretend, okay?” I whisper as if telling him a secret.
He nods and gives me an adorable wink. I fight the smile spreading across my face, but it’s useless.
“Can I sit down?” he asks, gesturing to the barstools lined up against my island.
He takes a seat and rests his upper body on his elbows on the island. I watch him look around the apartment, and my face flushes scarlet as his gaze lands on the bottle of vodka. I swipe it from the counter and tuck it neatly onto its shelf under the sink.
“Is it like de ja vu?” I ask, heading to the refrigerator.
“Yeah,” he says with a chuckle.
I grab a water bottle and hold it out to him. “My debt repaid.”
His lips turn up into a grin. “I’m glad you were home. The maintenance guy makes me nervous.”
Magnew, our maintenance man, is a 4’11” Polish man with a mouth like a sailor and a stern look and harsh tone for any guy in the building. He’s always a jerk to Bryce and a little puppy with me, so Bryce always has me call when something goes wrong in the apartment. It’s funny how two big strong guys like Bryce and Carter can be intimidated by little Magnew.
“He’s as sweet his pie. His bark’s worse than his bite,” I tell him, and he shrugs.
His eyes continue to inspect the apartment, and for a moment, I wonder if he’s a thief. He could be scouting the place, but it’d be pretty ridiculous to rob your next-door neighbor when you’re new to the building.
“How long have you lived here?” he asks.
“Going on three years,” I say, taking a seat on the stool farthest from him. “Me and Bryce.”
My eyes fall on the picture of us, a picture of when we were happy—truly, disgustingly happy. The kind of happy that would make you swear the couple had just met or were doing it all for show, but we weren’t. We had the kind of love I write about—or used to at least.
Carter’s eyes follow my gaze. I guess I’ve been staring at the picture longer than I realized.
“Is that you guys?” he asks, and I nod. He points at the frame. “May I?”
He walks over and picks it up. “You guys look like one of the couples on those magazines.”
I feel myself blush. I wonder if that’s a guy’s way of saying Bryce is attractive? Bryce is—there’s never been any denying that. He was one of the most beautiful human beings I’d ever met, with thick ash-blond hair swirled with natural golden-blond highlights. He has naturally moist, kissable lips and forest-green eyes with speckles of amber around the iris. He had me at first look.
“Thanks,” I say as he puts it down.
“What type of guy is he?” he asks, striding back to his seat.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean is he the type of guy who’d kick the chair out from under me if he saw me sitting here with you?”
“Or would he offer me a beer and we could all watch the game together?”
I smile and let out a short sigh. “Umm, a little bit in between, I guess.”
“So he’ll knock me out of the chair and offer me a water bottle?” he jokes, and I laugh.
“He’s not really jealous. I never give him a reason to be though.”
“You’re frowning,” he says with a half smile.
“No, I’m not.”
He nods adamantly. “Yeah, you are.”
Then I notice the muscles in my face are scrunched up. “Sorry, I wasn’t frowning at you.”
“Were you frowning about what you said?”
“Why would I frown about that?”
“I don’t know. Do you think you should give him a reason to be jealous?”
I search his face for some hint of flirtation. His words sounded like a pick-up line, but I see no trace of innuendo. “No, why would I want to make my husband jealous?”
He shrugs. “I don’t know. Women are weird sometimes. No offense.” He puts his hands up in defense.
“No, I don’t want to make my husband jealous.” As I say it, I ignore the slight tingle inside me at the thought of Bryce walking in, seeing Carter here, and being jealous. I like the idea of making sure he knows I’m still desirable, that he still wants me and would fight for me.
But I already know that.
“So what women are driving you crazy?”
“None, thank God,” he says, and my eyes widen.
“Really hate women, huh?”
“No, it’s just that you’re a complicated species,” he says with a casual shrug.
Suddenly it hits me. Carter hasn’t flirted with me, and he’s completely harmless. He’s definitely gay. I feel a wave of anxiety leave my body. Of course he’s gay, because I live in the real world and not a romance novel. No woman is allowed to have a straight, single guy neighbor who looks as impressive as he does.
“No meddling mother?” I ask.
He chuckles, displaying a teasing grin. “More like a really involved father.”
I smile tightly, thinking of my own dad and how laid-back he is. He called me two days ago and I forgot to call him back. I make a mental note to do that.
“So what were you working on?”
I look at him, confused.
“When I got here, you said you were working on something before being sucked into crap TV.”
“Oh right,” I mutter.
As I think, I take the hair tie off my wrist and put my hair up, flicking away some stray blond strands. I bite the corner of my lip. Telling people what I do, especially people I just met, is always weird. Some people are genuinely interested and impressed, but others are dismissive or ask a million questions, including personal questions that people of other occupations never get asked. Questions like am I any good, how much money do I make, or is my book like insert any that’s been made into a movie over the past five years.
“A story,” I say quickly. “What do you do?”
When he looks at me with curiosity littering his handsome face, I know I’m not going to dissuade him so easily. “Like what type of story? Like an anecdote, a journal entry?”
I sigh. “No, more like a book. Nothing really significant like War and Peace or anything.”
“But a book, like a real book with a cover and chapters?” he asks, sounding even more enthused.
I feel better answering this one, since he seems to be in the camp of nicer people, but now I feel like his opinion of me is higher than I deserve. I stand and walk over to the refrigerator to distract myself. “Trying. I’ve been a little stuck.”
“That’s so cool! You’re writing a book!”
I feel my face heat up as I take out a carton of blackberries. I never know what to say when people compliment me like that. Thanks seems sort of pretentious or snobby, so I stuff my mouth instead.
“What made you decide to do it? How far are you into it? Are you into it? How do you have the time?” His questions come rapidly, and I feel anxiety creeping up from my neck to my head.
“Well, I always loved to read, I just started this one, and I write full time, so technically all the time in the world.” I offer him the carton, and he takes a handful of berries.
“Wait, you said, ‘this one,’ which means you’ve written books before?”
Now I feel embarrassed from how he’s looking at me—like I’m an interesting creature.
“Yeah,” I tell him, wishing he’d pick up on how much I’d rather talk about something else.
“Three,” I mutter, tucking my loose hair behind my ear as I lean against the refrigerator.
“That’s amazing! So you’re not, like, just a writer.” He pops the remaining blackberries in his mouth and swallows them in almost a gulp. “You’re an ‘author.’”
I giggle uncomfortably and shrug. “I think they’re the same thing.”
“So is that what you do, like, write all day?” he asks, still enthusiastic.
“It’s what I should be doing… but most of the time, I end up watching reality TV and eating junk food.”
“And the occasional blackberry,” he adds, his eyes gleaming.
I’m so glad he’s gay, because if he wasn’t, I’d feel really guilty for looking at him how I am. But when you’re a writer, you get to look at really attractive people in a non-pervy way because you need descriptions for characters, and what a book boyfriend he’d make.
“That you’re right about.” I sense he’s about to drop the subject, but just in case, I’ll head him off. “So what do you do?”
He glances at the ceiling as if he’s uncomfortable talking about his job as I am. “It’s sort of complicated.”
I scoff. After he interrogated me, he’s not getting off that easily. “Oh no, please explain.”
“You could say I work for a not-for-profit.”
I feel my eyes widen. Handsome and charitable? If he wasn’t gay he’d be perfect for Kelsey if she weren’t already married to a handsome charitable man. Maybe Nicole, if she didn’t eat him alive first… he seems a little too laid-back for her.
“What sort of not-for-profit?”
I raise my brow at him, and he gives me an innocent smile that makes me smile back. “Do you really work for a not-for-profit, or are you secretly a billionaire who’s moved into the building to track down a long-lost love?”
He tilts his head as if he’s confused, and I chuckle at my own joke.
“Sorry, I’ve been reading a little too much.”
“You write suspense?”
I laugh. “Maybe one day. Right now, it’s more like love stories.” I would say romance, but then I’d get the inevitable Fifty Shades question, and even if he is gay, it’d be sort of awkward explaining to him the difference between romance and erotica.
“Is it true to life?” he asks, and that surprises me. “You and Bryce?”
I’m surprised he remembered my husband’s name, and the question makes me feel tense and sad all at once. “No, I haven’t gotten to our story yet. Romance readers like drama, and we’ve never really had much.”
“So you write those books that used to be in the grocery store with the Fabio guy on it?” he jokes.
“Not exactly.” I laugh as I notice his phone vibrate. He looks at it and frowns before getting to his feet. “From the exasperated look on your face, I assume it’s Magnew?”
“Why couldn’t the maintenance guy look like Megan Fox or Beyoncé?” he asks as he grudgingly heads to the door.
Wait, is he gay?
“Well, thanks for letting me squat here for a while,” he says, his hand on the knob.
“Any time, it’s an excuse for me to not write.”
His smile fades a bit and his expression becomes more serious. “You should write a story where, you know, you get your happy ending.”
I start to feel uncomfortable, but his smile stretches, erasing any trace of awkwardness.
“Don’t eat too much fruit. Mix it up with some doughnuts or something,” he jokes before leaving.
I close the door and sigh, then I think about how out of touch you have to be to mention Fabio before Fifty Shades.
I can’t sleep tonight. Everything is keeping me awake. First the temperature in the room is too hot, then it’s too cold. It’s too quiet, then not quiet enough. I’m so restless for the first time in a long time. I hop out of bed and head to my office, which is just a desk with a MacBook in our living room. Bryce has asked me a million times if I want to turn our extra bedroom into an office, but each time he asks, I become silent, angry, bitter. It makes me feel as though he’s given up on us ever being able to use that room as a nursery.
I let out a frustrated breath and push that thought out of my head. I pull up the document I was working on before my “writer’s block” hit me. This story was supposed to be light and filled with humor, a feel-good tale, sort of like a Hallmark movie with a hint of Lifetime. I had a good chunk of it done. I knew my characters and connected with them and writing it was fun. Then I lost Anna and all of the humor and hope in the story left me. Every time I try to write a scene in this story, it ends in death, something my readers would balk at. I take my readers through hell, but there’s always a happy ending, a thread of hope wrapped around each obstacle and tied into a bow. Now I’m out of that thread.
Bryce loved this story. He said it was his favorite one yet. Well, he always tells me the newest is his favorite, and I always believe him because he always tells me he fell in love with my words. He sees my books before anyone else, the good, the bad, the vulnerable parts of me. I’ve shared so many things with him, and he’s always made me feel safe.
I’ve never been able to do that for him, and lately, it seems I’ve only brought him pain. After we lost Logan, I was hurting so badly, but I couldn’t bring myself out of it to help him with his pain. He was always so strong and never let me see how losing our son affected him. But on the nights we made love—and it took months before I was ready again—when he thought I was asleep, he’d reveal his pain, his devastation, his mourning. Those moments hurt more than Logan’s loss itself, because he knew I couldn’t handle carrying his grief when I was so weighed down by my own.
I can’t see him hurt again. Anna is the first secret I’ve ever kept from him, and I hate myself for it. The tears I tried to blink away earlier are falling full force now, and I can’t stop them. I feel weak and angry that I haven’t gotten over this yet.
I ignore the tears, open a new document on my computer, and try to focus when I hear the key turn in the lock. I jump from the keyboard and bolt to the couch, where I pull the throw over me. I hear Bryce come in and drop his bag at the door after he closes it. My heart pounds as I try to pull myself together. I can’t let him see me like this.
I hear his footsteps. I know he’s headed to the kitchen—it’s always his first stop. If he didn’t work out so much, I swear he’d be shaped like Peter Griffin from the way he eats. The water comes on first—he’s washing his hands—then I notice the smell of takeout. He’s not cooking, which means he’ll be heading my way any second to park in front of the TV and destroy one of his favorite meals.
Just as I predicted, I hear his footsteps approaching. He stops beside me. I know I’ve surprised him—I never used to sleep on the couch. It’s leather and he never wanted us to get it, but I fell in love with the way it looked, and as he usually does, he let me win.
I close my eyes tighter. I hear him put the food on the coffee table, and a few moments later, he’s lifting my legs and he rests them on his lap.
“Chas, you fell asleep on the couch. You never fall asleep on the couch,” he tells me quietly.
I keep my eyes closed. If I open them, I’ll start crying. I hear him let out a sigh, and I wonder if he knows I’m awake. In a second, he lifts me from the couch, puts me in our bed, and sweeps the covers over me. I want to tell him that I’m so glad he’s home and how much I’ve missed him, but instead I keep pretending I’m asleep, not entirely sure if he buys it or not. After a while, I hear the television come on, so I slip out of bed and crack open the door to sneak a peek at him. He’s only in the next room, but he seems so far away, and I know it’s my fault.
I wake up to the phone vibrating on my bed. I also see that I have three missed calls. They’re all from my mother of course.
I take a deep breath and answer. “Hey, Mom,” I say, trying to remove the grogginess from my voice.
“Where have you been? I’ve called you a million times,” she squeals.
“Mom, you called me four times in a row this morning. I was sleeping,” I tell her, sitting up in the bed. I look around the room and see no trace of Bryce. Him coming home so early was a surprise. He wasn’t due back until tomorrow.
“Are you listening to me?”
I’m so glad she doesn’t have an iPhone and can’t Facetime me. “I am, Mom, I’m just looking for Bryce.”
“What do you mean? You’ve lost him?” she asks sarcastically.
I know I must be sleepy because why would I ever tell my mother the truth? I’m now in the living room and there’s no sign of him.
“No, it’s complicated,” I say tightly.
“Everything is always so complicated with you. Why is that?”
“Mom, please, not this morning,” I beg, searching for a sign of his things.
It’s nine thirty, so his usual routine would mean he’d just come back from his run an hour ago and now he’d be in the shower, but there’s no sign of him anywhere. I head to the kitchen and check for the takeout bag in the garbage. If it wasn’t there, I’d think I imagined the entire thing.
“Are you guys okay?”
I note the smugness of her tone and I can’t keep the edge out of my voice. “Yes, we’re perfect.”
I love my mom, but she’s never been the biggest supporter of our relationship. Since my dad left, she’s had a strong disbelief in having a relationship with anyone. Boyfriends yes, flings yes, but marriage? She thinks they’re all doomed to fail and she didn’t hesitate to tell me that the day I told her Bryce had proposed.
“You don’t sound perfect,” she says accusingly.
“Let me call you back.” I hang up and text Bryce.
Are you home? is the weirdest text a woman should have to send to her husband. I’m startled when I hear keys in the door and, a few moments later, it opens.
“Hey,” he says, his voice uneven. He looks almost as surprised as I am to see him.
I smile at him—it’s genuine and not forced. He’s always had the ability to make me smile, even in my saddest moments. His eyes smile at me, but it doesn’t reach his lips. His eyes lock on mine, trying to read me, read who I am today. Am I someone he can talk to, touch, make love to, or someone who will freeze up and want her distance?
I hate myself for not knowing. Awkwardness has grown between us like weeds. When did they start? The day I found out I was pregnant with Anna and I didn’t tell him. Ever since then, there’s been a secret between us that I couldn’t share yet, and now… well, it doesn’t even matter.
He pulls his sweatshirt over his head, and in doing so, his white wife beater pulls up, showing his etched stomach and strong arms. My skin heats up from the sight. Our distance has never been due to my body not desiring him, and it’s screaming at me now. It’s been a little over two months since we made love. I’ve missed him so much.
He folds up the sweatshirt and sets it on a barstool, then he sits down, stretching his long legs out in front of him. His eyes trail up my body, and my stomach flips. Then his eyes lock on mine. They’re big warm pools that I used to swim in every night.
“You slept on the couch last night.” His tone is cautious, hesitant, and he stuffs his hands in the pockets of his sweats.
“I just fell asleep,” I say meekly.
He squints at me in disbelief, then he sighs, looking at me as if he’s searching for the woman he used to love, as if I’m a ghost of myself. “You never fall asleep on the couch.”
There was a time when he came back from trips and would wake me up so we could make love for hours. Now we’re almost uncomfortable to be in the same room with each other.
“There’s a first time for everything.”
He nods, but he’s skeptical. He knows it’s nearly impossible to get a good night’s sleep on the Couch of Death.
“Do you want me to make breakfast?” I ask, walking toward the fridge.
“I grabbed something after my run,” he says before I get a chance to open it.
“But I can sit down and eat with you,” he says quickly, but I don’t want his pity breakfast time.
“No, I’ll probably just eat a bagel or something,” I say, trying to hide my annoyance with him and myself. I bite my lip and grab a pack of bagels. I hate this feeling. I hate how we feel like we’re roommates rather than husband and wife, two people who love each other.
“I missed you.”
His words stop me in my tracks. I close my eyes and wrap his words around me. I missed him too—so much. I look back at him. All the feelings I’ve ever felt for him stir up in me, but I swallow them.
“Why didn’t you call me?” I ask, fighting with the stubborn bagel that doesn’t want to leave the pack.
“I didn’t know if you wanted to talk to me,” he says quietly.
My face heats up, and I pull the bagel out of the bag.
“Did you… want me to call?” His voice sounds tired and cracked, exhausted.
He’s exhausted with me. I’ve drained him. I did want to hear his voice, but at the same time, hearing it makes me feel so guilty.
“It doesn’t matter,” I say with a half shrug and a fake grin, and I see a brick wall being built on top of those weeds between us.
“That’s not what I asked you,” he says sternly.
My eyes dart to his. They’re hard. I focus on putting the bagel in the toaster. The silence between us is like a person, and I hear him let out a frustrated sigh.
“I wish you would tell me what I did,” he says, his voice strained. It makes me want to hug him, but I don’t know what it is I want or if what I want is what’s best for him.
“You didn’t do anything.”
I hope he sees that the problem is me and not him, but he lets out a frustrated groan and rakes his fingers roughly through his hair. His head lowers, and he waits a moment before he looks back up at me.
“Is this going to be it for us?”
His question makes anxiety course through me. When I look at him, my heart wrenches. His face is blank, but his eyes are full of confusion and sadness, and my heart beats wildly. Is this going to be it for us? Is it too much? Can I ever get over this pain, this fear of not being good enough for him, that he deserves more than what I can give him? Looking at him, I see the love in his eyes and I can’t imagine giving him up, but I’m not ready to give in, to break, to have him fix me at the expense of himself.
“What do you mean?” I ask, my voice revealing a tremble I didn’t intend.
I start to feel angry too. Yes, we’ve been distant with each other because I’ve kept to myself more than normal, but how can we heal when we barely see one another? He’s gone so much, and if he wasn’t, then I wouldn’t have had a chance to make distance my friend. Is he ready to give up on us just because things aren’t perfect anymore, because we’re going through a rough patch? This man promised me forever.
“Why would you say that?” I ask, feeling tears come to my eyes.
“Why wouldn’t I say that? You’ve completely shut me out!”
I flinch. He hardly ever yells. Well, when he’s watching football games with his friends and brothers, he does, but not at me. I guess I’ve never deserved it before.
“Don’t blame this all on me,” I say, my own voice raising.
“This isn’t about blame. I don’t care whose fault it is, mine or yours. I want to know if we can get past this! If you’ll let us.”
His nose is flared, his beautiful face contorted in anger, his voice passing decibels it never has with me. This is what I’ve made him become. My stomach sinks and I feel sick as I cry.
He approaches me and lifts my face to make me look at him. “Do I not make you happy anymore?”
My heart breaks that he thinks this is his fault. I love this man with everything in me, and I’d rather him be happy without me than unhappy with me. He doesn’t deserve this. He doesn’t deserve a woman who is so screwed up she can’t function, who’s so stuck on the past she can’t bring herself to get over it and love her husband and rest in his support. That’s not who he deserves. It’s not what I promised him when we married.
“Chassidy, tell me what’s wrong, please.”
He’s practically begging me, but my words are buried under fear, stubbornness, pain. I can’t force them up, so I just cry. But he holds me, and he kisses my head, my neck, my lips.
“Just let me in,” he begs.
His fingers reach my skin, climbing underneath my clothes, and they come off. His do as well, but I don’t feel passion or yearning. All I feel is a secret between us. When I look into his eyes, I see the eyes of our little girl, and it freezes the fire that used to ignite between us. I can’t concentrate on how good his lips feel on my neck, how warm and hard his body is, how he knows me inside out. I only notice how cold the floor is, how useless my body is, and how I don’t know if we can ever get past this. My body becomes tenser, my breath shortened.
But he needs this. If I can give him this, maybe it will ignite something, or at least give me time to let him know I haven’t checked out. I look at the ceiling and try to relax, but when he grips my chin, bringing my gaze to his, his eyes bore into mine and he stops. I panic because in his eyes, I see disappointment and frustration. He shakes his head, and he presses his lips so firmly together that they’re swollen when he parts them. He pulls himself from inside me and sits next to me, his knees pulled toward his chest.
I sit up and wipe the tear from my eye. “I’m sorry.” I feel terrible because he doesn’t look angry, but sad and confused. “Let’s try again.”
I grab his arm, but he pulls it from me. He looks at me with a sad smile. “You didn’t think I’d notice.” His voice is sharp but distant. “You weren’t even going to say anything. You didn’t think I’d notice that you weren’t here? You think I want to make love to just a body?”
He stands up, his body chiseled and defined, a gift to women, and I cover my face with my hands. I’m so embarrassed. He grabs his clothes off the floor, and I stand, grabbing my own clothes.
“I’m trying,” I say, but it comes out flat.
He laughs, but it’s full of annoyance and fury. “I don’t want you to have to try. You know me, I know you. Should we be trying at this point?”
He heads to the bedroom, but I don’t follow him. I put on my clothes and sit on the couch, wondering how we got here, how I let things get this far. I just wanted some time and distance to clear my head.
After about twenty minutes, he comes out dressed and freshly showered. I start to ask where he’s going, but I decide not to. I probably don’t deserve the answer right now. He clears his throat, and I look at him, giving him my full attention.
“I don’t know if you remember, but tonight we have dinner with Jax and Tiffany. If you can feel up to it, that’d be great.” His tone is even and void of any emotion.
I nod at him, and he heads to the door. I search for something to say to redeem myself.
“Bryce?” It comes out urgent and panicked.
He stops, his hand on the knob, and looks at me. The words I want to say are blurred and seem stupid.
“Do you want me to pick up some wine?”
His face falls, and he chuckles. “Sure, Chas, whatever you like.”
He leaves and slams the door, and I don’t even jump. I deserved that.
Should I pick up wine?
I’m an idiot.
I try to drown my thoughts of today’s disaster by answering all the emails I’ve neglected. It’s been about three weeks since I checked my Facebook messages and cleaned out my author inbox, and I have about twenty messages from readers. I start with those, since they always find a way to make me smile. Responding to them distracts me for most of the morning and raises my spirit inch by inch.
When I’m halfway through, I check one of the writer forums I’m on and see success stories of those who have just released new books. I congratulate a couple I communicate with through cyperspace. Most people have been having good weeks—stellar releases, big promos from the most coveted marketing sites—so I add my congratulations to each. Toward the end of the page, I read a post titled “Sad and confused,” and my heart sinks. My hour has been good and I don’t want to give away that energy I’ve stolen for myself, but my mouser gravitates toward the post anyway. I don’t recognize the user’s profile name pinkwriter92. It seems they’ve only posted a few times. My eyes scan the text…
I hate to bring the party down when it seems like everything is going so great for everyone. I’m a long-term member but have mostly lurked. I just feel lost. I wish I could say, or that it would make more sense to those who read this, that I’ve been doing everything right but haven’t found success, but I have. I haven’t hit any best sellers’ lists or been recognized by major blogs or publications, but I have a strong reader base, my writing pays the bills, and I’m what many on this board would consider successful. I am blessed by so many standards… but I feel empty. I feel like what I write next won’t be good enough. The joy I thought I would feel when I reached this point is absent. Many of you may assume that maybe I’m not a real writer, one who writes for the love and passion of it, but you’d be wrong. I’ve been writing since I could hold a crayon, and the love for my craft is with me, but something is missing and it’s interfering with my work. I ask that you not tell me to set a higher goal, like hitting one of the coveted spots on Amazon or iBooks, or even the more elusive NYT or USA Today lists, because I’ve thought about that myself. Can you simply remind me why you love what you do, and why you keep going?
I feel my chest tighten as I read the last sentence. I read the first response and see that someone’s already begun the snark train. I exit out of the forum. I can imagine the type of responses pinkwriter92 will get. I go back to my happy place in my inbox and open the email I left off on.
My name is Davien Marx, and I’m with Gellar and Associates. I’ve been following your work and have to tell you, I was riveted. I was hoping to be able to discuss representation of your Blue Girl series. I know that you’ve done well with it on your own, but I would love to talk to you about some of the possibilities we envision for it. Please let me know when is a good time to speak.
My heart begins to pitter-patter. Way back when I wanted to traditionally publish and had been going through the grueling process of looking for an agent, their agency was at the top of my list. They represent some of my favorite writers. I stop before responding to the email and grab my phone to call Bryce. He’s the first person I always share my good news with. But he doesn’t pick up and the phone goes to voicemail. I refuse to let the disappointment grab hold of me. I quickly hit Reply.
I’m so flattered. Would love to talk. I’m free until six today. Mornings are always good if today doesn’t work. Looking forward to speaking with you soon.
I can’t help but giggle after I send it. I haven’t felt this sort of thrill from an email in such a long time—not since I received my very first email from a reader telling me how much they loved my book. I tell myself not to get too excited—after all, I’m not interested in selling English rights to any of my books and that could very well be what they’re interested in—but if they’re talking about international representation or subsidiary rights, that’s so exciting! I answer the rest of my emails, then hop in the shower. My phone dings and I see the email from Gellar and Associates.
Great, would 1:00 EST be good for you?
I jump out of the shower, dry my hands, and tell him it’s perfect. Before I can blow dry my hair, I get an email asking for the best number to call me on. I resist the urge to respond immediately and finish drying my hair before I send him the number.
I look through the closet, skimming through what to wear tonight. Bryce will usually tell me if they’re hosting other people, which happens quite a lot since they both have very successful careers. Jax an investment banker, and Tiffany a lawyer. Dinner parties and wine seem to be required. Bryce didn’t answer when I called and he’s not the happiest with me, so I settle on a little black sweater dress. I’ll take heels and flats just in case. I throw on a grey tank top and matching sweats and put my hair in a high messy bun. I’ll straighten it later.
I have about fifteen minutes before it’s one in New York, so I head to the kitchen, grab a banana, and turn on the television to kill some time. I’m halfway through my snack when my phone lights up. I almost choke when I see it’s a Facetime call instead of a normal call. I quickly swallow, drink some water, and wipe my face. He didn’t say it’d be a Facetime call, did he? I hop over to my desk, trying to appear somewhat professional, and realize as it connects that a messy bun and tank top with no bra doesn’t exactly scream serious author. Before I have time to grab a sweater, it connects, and I’m a little stunned by the face staring back at me.
He’s a man—of course, I knew that—but somewhere in my mind, I thought he’d be older and sort of overweight and in a suit. Instead he’s young, tanned, maybe a little older than me, and has a full head of dark hair, dark eyes, and a million kilowatt smile. He’s not what I expected at all.
“Chassidy Bell?” he asks with a hint of a flirtation in his voice.
I sit up straighter and fold my arms across my chest. “That’s me.” I wonder if I’m smiling too widely.
“I should have probably mentioned I’m a big Facetimer. When I texted you and saw you had iMessage, I just went for it. I have it on my computer so it’s just easier sometimes, and it’s good to place a face to a name.” He has beautiful teeth and his voice is low, almost rough around the edges
“No problem.” My eyes gravitate to the large windows behind him and a skyline that steals the show even from someone who looks like him.
“So I have to tell you. I’m a big fan of your work.” His voice is casual, but his eyes are wide with excitement.
“No, really, your series is so different from everything that’s out there right now, but it fits perfectly with the genre, if that makes sense.”
“Thank you again,” I tell him with a laugh, and I don’t know if I’m imagining it, but his eyes gravitate to my chest. “One minute please.”
I set down the phone, grab an actual T-shirt instead of a tank, and pull it on. When I’m back, he’s grinning and I feel myself blush.
“So let me just tell you about our agency and who I am.” He leans closer to the camera, but in less than a second, he goes from playful and casual to serious, listing off the credentials of his agency. I was already aware of most of them, but when he names some of the clients he’s represented and how the deals he’s made in the last year total over five million dollars, I’m really impressed. “So even with all of those facts and figures, I’m sure you’re wondering what I can do for you, right?”
“I’d love to hear it,” I say, trying not to sound too impressed.
I listen to him as he tells me where I stand market wise. He talks about the potential he sees in my series and what he can do with it, which in his exact words are that he thinks he could make me a lot of money. The firm takes fifteen percent of whatever compensation they secure me. After the spiel, I’m nervous and wring my hands together, but he looks at me expectantly, waiting on my response.
“That all sounds great, Mr. Marx—”
“Davien. My dad isn’t even Mr. Marx,” he says, interrupting me with a smile that I’m sure has charmed many out of their sanity, money, and clothes. That’s the smile of the man I want representing me.
“Davien, that sounds great, but I’m not interested in selling the English rights, ebook or audio.” I wait for his spectacular smile to change into a frown, but his smile stretches further.
“You wouldn’t have to do anything you’re uncomfortable with.”
The weight on my chest leaves.
“However,” he adds, and I brace myself. “I ask that you be open-minded.”
I laugh and rub the back of my neck.
“If I brought any deal to you, it would be worth your while. That I stake my reputation on.”
I let out a sigh, but it’s accompanied with a laugh. “As long as we’re clear that I’m not interested in those types of deals and if you pursued them and I decided not to take them there won’t be…”
“Any tension?” A grin plays on his lips as if he knows a secret.
I detect a hint of flirtation in his tone but ignore it. He probably uses it with everyone before they sign their life away. I know it’s wrong to think, but I wonder how many deals he’s made based on that smile and those eyes.
“Okay.” I nod, planning to ask him for a day to think things over, but from the Cheshire smile on his face, I think he already knows he’s got me.
“Can I send you over a contract?” he asks, probably purely out of tradition.
I nod, and he clasps his hands in triumph. I can’t help but laugh at his excitement over little ol’ me.
“I’ll send it to the email address I have.”
“That’d be great. Is it okay if I send it back to you tomorrow?” I ask. Tiffany is a lawyer, and since I’m seeing her tonight, it’s perfect timing to have her give it a once-over.
“Actually, I’ll be in Chicago on Tuesday. I’d love to meet the woman behind the computer.”
That catches me off guard. “Umm, of course. I’d love to meet you too.”
“Great! I’ll send you the details by Monday if that’s okay,” he says, leaning back in his chair.
I wonder how tall he is. He has broad shoulders. What does it matter? “Sounds good.”
“Great. Look out for an email from me with all of my contact info, as well as my assistant’s, and I’ll be seeing you soon,” he says.
“See you soon, and thank you again.”
Wow. I have an agent.
And not just any agent—a fantastic one from one of the most respected agencies in the country. I glance at my phone and see that Bryce hasn’t called me back yet. Still, I push my worries from this morning from my mind and perk up. Today is turning around. My phone buzzes with a text from my mother. She’s downstairs.
I throw my head back and groan. Well, it was getting better. I cross my fingers that she’s in a good mood, but since I didn’t call her back earlier, I know I’ll have to warm her up.
5 Years Earlier
“Her mother looked like she was going to rip our eyes out.”
Jax is making a big show of telling our friends about what happened this morning, and I can’t blame him. He was a good sport about it, and no one can tell a story like he can. He has a big audience today: Tiffany, our best friend; Jax’s girlfriend, Kira; and my little brothers, Duke and Max. We’re all at Geno’s for our traditional Friday night pizza. Jax, Tiffany, and I have been coming here since our freshman year of college. Whether for celebrations after landing jobs or pity parties after failing tests, we’ve always gathered around this table. “Nothing cures a broken heart or shattered pride like pizza and beer,” is my dad’s favorite saying, and it’s been my motto since I was seventeen and would sneak them from the fridge.
They all look at Jax in disbelief—he’s been known to exaggerate.
“But I’d do it again in a second,” I say with not a bit of shame. I grab a slice of pizza, ignoring their gawking.
“I can’t believe it! You going all Shakesperian for a girl you hadn’t even seen before?” Tiffany looks impressed with me. Since she’s been my best friend since middle school and is a hell of a lot smarter than I am, I don’t get that look from her often.
“I assumed you all were shallower than a kiddie pool,” Kira grumbles before drinking some of her beer.
“Oh, you don’t believe he really had no clue what she looked like?” my little brother Max says, totally fine with insulting me.
He rolls his eyes and throws his head back dramatically.
“Yeah, right,” his twin, Duke—my slightly lesser pain in the butt brother—adds.
“It just goes to show that the Bell boys can tell a girl’s cup size from the sound of her voice,” Kira says wryly, and they all laugh.
Max slaps the table. “So what does she look like? I mean, you’ve dated some hot ones, though not as hot as mine!”
“She’s one of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen,” I say with a smug grin.
“So how are you going to follow up after that romantic spectacle you made of yourself?” Kira asks, bitterness underneath her laugh. She doesn’t speak out of fun the way everyone else does; her shots are always personal.
I take a swig of my beer before answering. The girl has a way of grating on my nerves—she’s the type of person who could develop film by speaking to it. She always has something negative to say. You could tell her she won the million-dollar lottery and she’d start complaining about taxes. I really don’t understand what Jax sees in her—besides that she was blessed with good genes. She’s cute enough. Sort of reminds me of that stuck-up girl from Pretty Little Liars, which Tiff makes me watch sometimes. I guess it’s ironic, since she considers my brothers and me shallow, that the only thing I think is good about Kira is her appearance. We may appreciate the beauty of a woman’s form, but we’d never deal with a girl whose attitude was beyond rotten.
“What do you mean?” I ask, trying to cover my annoyance.
“I mean you set the bar pretty high, Casanova, declaring your admiration for her in freezing weather in front of hundreds of people. How do you live up to that?”
The table quiets, and there it is, the famous downing of Kira Burns. She could bring down a cartoon.
“By being himself. If she likes him, great; if not, screw her,” Tiffany cuts in, even though there’s a bit of a slur in her voice.
It’s crazy how opposite the women in Jax’s life are. Kira’s a stuck-up redhead who can find a flaw in anyone or anything. She claims to be our generation’s Diane Sawyer, and if that turns out to be true, God help us. Tiffany has been like our little sister, but she’s always had a crush on Jax. I think she even stayed here to go to Roosevelt with us in hopes he’d wake up and notice her, but he met Kira and we’ve all been paying for it ever since.
“If it was me, it’d just seem that anything that comes after that would be a disappointment.” She shrugs.
Tiffany and I exchange knowing glances before ignoring Kira.
“So when do you get to meet Her Highness again?” Max asks.
“We’re meeting tomorrow for coffee at the Starbucks on…” I stop myself from giving them the address. They’ve been known to crash dates before. “Starbucks.”
“Total dud,” Kira mutters.
“She actually picked the place,” I say with a smug grin, and she rolls her eyes.
She raises both her hands with innocent eyes. “Hey, I’m just trying to help.”
Tiffany rolls her eyes, and we share a smile.
“Well, I for one hope I get to meet the girl who has Bryce Bell so infatuated. You haven’t even stared at the waitress’s ass one time, and that ass deserves some staring at,” Duke proclaims, raising his beer.
Tiffany, Jax, and Max all raise theirs and we clink our glasses.
“I’m kind of surprised too. I just might buy into this love at first sight… or word thing.” Tiffany giggles.
“But we’ll see how long it lasts,” Jax says.
Tiff winks at him, and I don’t miss Kira scowl at Jax.
“Come on, Tiff, you’re always on my side,” I say, giving her puppy-dog eyes.
She laughs and pinches my cheek. “I am on your side, Brycie.”
She always calls me that before she goes into lecture mode, which is pretty rare, but she’s had a few to drink tonight.
“It’s just… you’re not one with a long attention span. You’re always excited by new shiny things, but your attention has been known to wane… I just don’t want this, possibly amazing girl to be ruined by your magnetic charm and short span of interest.”
I gape at Jax, but he says, “She’s right. You have been known to jump into things full speed ahead and then a week passes and it’s like it never mattered.”
I sit up straighter in my chair, a little offended. “Are you guys saying I’m a flake?”
They all avert their eyes.
“Come on, I’m not a flake,” I say defensively.
“How many times have you changed your major?” Duke asks.
I scoff. “About half the times you have.”
“Yeah, but I’m a screw up and had to. I didn’t just get bored.”
“Changing majors doesn’t mean I’m a flake. Everyone changes their major once or twice,” I say… even though I’ve changed mine about six times.
“Remember when we were kids and you got me all psyched to try out for the football team and we practiced and practiced and we got picked, and two weeks later you didn’t want to do it anymore?” Jax sounds annoyed. We were twelve—he should be over that by now. “Or the time you decided you were going to be a chef and you spent almost a grand on cooking crap, and after a month, it ended up in a box in our storage locker?”
“Can’t forget the time he decided he was going to be a video editor and bought a two thousand dollar laptop,” Tiffany says.
“Hey, I’m still working on it,” I tell them.
“What are you working on?” Kira asks, glad to hop on the “let’s take a dig at Bryce” train.
“We know how excited you get about things in the beginning. You’re impulsive, passionate. You’ll never be dull to be around, but we’ve never seen you like this about a girl, especially one you’ve only seen once and barely talked to. With it being senior year and you taking that love poetry class…” Tiff says.
I stand up, tired of their jokes. They’ve basically called me a toddler who gets a new toy and throws it to the side after Christmas. “I’m offended.”
They all snicker.
“Come on, Brycie, don’t be that way,” Tiffany pleads.
“You all think I’m a flake, and that I never follow through on anything,” I tell them.
“Dude, no one called you a flake. You’re not a flake. I just wouldn’t sign any business deals with you.” Duke laughs. “Wait, is her mom going to be there?”
They all burst into laughter, and I wave as I leave the table.
“For your sake, I hope not,” Jax adds before I make it to the door.
Joke’s on them—I didn’t leave any money for my portion of the bill. Now that’s a flake.
After the roast I unknowingly sat through yesterday, I’m nervous to see her. I’m never nervous about dates, but here I am, my palms sweating on my second cup of water. I hate coffee.
I can’t get the things they said out of my head. Tiffany’s careful tone, Kira’s smug grin. Duke and Max were assholes per usual, but usually Jax will step in and defend me. This time he didn’t—he jumped on “the pile on Bryce” train.
What if I imagined it? What if Serendipity came on while I was asleep and sent subliminal messages to my brain? What if I created this ridiculous moment that seemed more life-changing than it was?
“Are you okay?” She asks, quietly.
I look up and she’s there, the sunlight shining on her, wearing the same bright smile with perfect lips that almost distract me from her warm brown eyes. They’re soft, welcoming, mesmerizing. She’s more beautiful than I remember. This time her light blond hair falls down both her shoulders, and I notice that she has a small dimple on her right cheek. She’s tiny but not in a creepy “she looks like she’s twelve” way. She can’t be over five two. I could pick her up in one arm. My heart thumps, and I feel high.
“I’m perfect,” I tell her, and she smiles bashfully.
“You looked like you were zoned out.” With a beautiful grin, she begins pulling out her chair.
I stand quickly and apologize and do it for her. She giggles.
“Thank you, Bryce.”
I love the way she says my name.
“Long night,” I tell her, embarrassed that she caught me in such deep thought.
She takes off her coat, which I take as a good sign. If she’d kept it on, that’d mean she wouldn’t be staying long. When she takes it off, she reveals an off-the-shoulder sweater. She has a long perfect neck, and on her shoulder is a tattoo that looks like a book with pages flying out of it.
“I got muffins,” she says with the best smile in history, setting them on the table.
“Thanks. I don’t know how I missed you coming in.”
“You seemed pretty deep in thought.” She pops a piece of the muffin in her mouth.
I chuckle. “Not really. Just going over my day yesterday.”
She nods. “Want to tell me about it?”
“I’d rather get to know you.”
Her grin spreads fantastically wide, showing all of her perfect teeth. “Actually I’d like to know about you first.” She tucks a piece of light-blond hair behind her ear and frowns. “How old are you?”
I can’t help but notice she’s eyeing me with fascination. “I turn twenty-two in three months.”
“Are you in school?” she asks, and I tell her I’m a senior at Roosevelt University.
“Do you shower or bathe daily?”
I laugh. “Umm, yeah.”
She bites her lips when our eyes meet. “Do you hurt small animals? Do you like to cross dress?”
I really laugh now. “I’m sorry, but what?”
She covers her face and giggles. “It’s just that—I wouldn’t normally tell a guy this, but since our meeting was sort of out of the ordinary, it only seems fitting—why would a guy w-who looks like you, who seems smart and fairly normal…” She smiles, but it’s small and a small line appears between her eyebrows. “Why would you have to chase down a girl you’ve never even seen before?”
“I really don’t know,” I tell her, and she looks disappointed. I lean in closer and my heart does a cartwheel when she does the same. “Actually, do you believe in fate?”
She’s quiet for a moment, taking time to contemplate the question. “I’m more of a fan of free will.”
I love that answer. “I’m a big believer in fate. In both actually—fate and free will—but I think there are moments when we make connections or have ideas because the universe gave us a nudge to act and those moments are life-changing if we listen.”
She looks at me a moment, her head tilted slightly to the side, as she pinches off another piece of the muffin. “So you’re saying that moment of us meeting or you hearing me was life-changing?”
“I heard your voice and out of the millions I’ve heard before, yours snatched my attention. I heard you, and your voice wouldn’t leave me alone,” I tell her, being more honest than I ever have in my life.
She gives me the warmest smile I’ve ever seen. “Well, who am I to argue with fate?”
We talk for hours.
It’s daytime when we meet, and evening creeps around before we leave.
Her full name is Chassidy Stevens. She’s twenty years old, and a sophomore at Columbia College. Her major is fiction and screenplay writing. She’s an only child. Her parents never married or were even a couple. She spent her childhood between here in Chicago and California. She loves to eat but hates Italian food—blasphemy in my book—but I forgive her because she loves action movies, even proving it by naming off her top twenty. It’s a pretty great list. She minored in dance for a while but realized there were so many more naturally talented people, so she stopped and devoted more time to her love for writing. She likes ice cream but prefers frozen yogurt, and I’m in love with her already.
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