Long Gone Cat | Free Preview

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Secrets, lies, devastating loss, and old wounds … insurmountable odds? Or, can love conquer all? Long Gone Cat is Katherine L. Evans’ new contemporary romance, a thrilling tale that will keep you on the edge of your seat and turning the pages as you discover what fate has in store for star-crossed lovers, Cat and Alec.

Find it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, Kobo, and everywhere eBooks are sold.

***

An Introduction

This is a love story.

 

This love story begins, as many do, with a girl and a boy.

Separated by distance and starkly different lives, there was no reason they should have ever met. But stories such as these have a tendency to unfold in a way the characters least expect. Fate has a curious desire to step in and orchestrate something larger, and it does so unbeknownst to the people whose lives are ultimately affected by it.

For this particular girl and boy, fate had something sinister in mind. Fate opted for a series of harrowing events to unite these two, only to rip them apart.

And while fate seemed to have a sick sense of humor, it also had its reasons.

Because by torturing this girl and this boy, fate ensured that nothing short of death would ever separate them again.

* * * *

Seattle

On April 30, 1986, a pretty little girl was born to Camilla and Antonio Bellafiore.

The arrangement between Camilla and Antonio was that she would name the girl children and he would name the boys. Their first child, a son, was born five years prior. Antonio named the boy Anthony, as an unabashed tribute to himself.

And when they learned the second baby was a girl, Camilla had already chosen the name.

Catarina.

It was the name of Camilla’s ailing mother. She knew Catarina the first would not live long enough to create any lasting memories with Catarina the second, so the tribute was a way to connect the two souls which would soon be separated by life and death.

Catarina was born with a mass of black hair and the bluest eyes her parents had ever seen. Anthony was also born with blue eyes and his had slowly changed to a dark brown hue by his first birthday, so they figured hers would change as well. Nobody in their entire family had eyes that color.

That afternoon in April was an uncharacteristically sunny day. The weather was surprisingly warm, so Antonio pulled open the curtains of the hospital room and cracked the window.

He lifted Anthony onto his lap and they both sat on the foot of the bed with Camilla, as she cradled baby Catarina—or “Cat”, Anthony’s immediate nickname for his sister—and sang softly.

“Happy birthday to you…”

* * * *

Brooklyn

Six years prior, on a freezing day in early December, Miriam Branneth cradled her newborn baby boy as she wept silently.

The nurses had assured her it was just hormones, but Miriam knew better.

If only it was something that simple and temporary.

Miriam had followed a guy from Chicago to Brooklyn on a whim. He was kind of a bully, but he was unbelievably charming and she had fallen head over heels in love. Unfortunately, however, fifteen months and a broken condom later, Miriam was on her own.

But Miriam was also strong, and Miriam knew she could get through this, too.

She would allow herself this one day to feel the full weight of her sadness over the situation, and then she would handle things. She had to.

Because of him.

Alec.

She named him after her favorite professor. An elderly man who was a gentleman in every sense of the word, and who reminded Miriam of the grandfather she only met once. A man who had tired, yet striking blue eyes hidden below a pair of bushy white brows.

When they plopped the squirming baby boy onto her chest, he looked up at her through a pair of similar blue eyes and Miriam decided it was a fitting name. Who else would she name him after anyway? The boy’s father was long gone and didn’t care about either of them.

Her former professor seemed to be the type of man she hoped her son would grow up to be, one who was nothing like the man who knocked her up and left, and the name would serve as a reminder to herself to raise him that way.

Eventually, her weeping subsided and she curled up on her side to watch him as he slept.

“I guess it’s just you and me now, Alec,” she whispered. “We’re going to be okay. We’ll have to be.”

1991

 Seattle

Cat had pretty much come out of the womb singing.

Her mother was a natural singer as well, so Cat came by it honestly.

The first five years of her life were spent with Cat and Camilla making up songs, as Camilla cooked and Cat watched while simultaneously choreographing a dance number to go along with their new songs. Anthony lingered around as well, not to sing, but to sneak whatever bit of food he could grab while his mother’s back was turned.

When Antonio arrived home in the evenings, he always poked his head into the kitchen to find lots of singing, laughing, and snacking going on. He would then wag a reprimanding finger and teasingly scold the group that the snacking and carrying on indoors would just make them all fat.

Camilla would flip a flirtatious wrist at her husband and scold him for saying such things, before shoving him into a chair to watch his little girl’s latest song and dance number.

But Antonio was right, at least as far as Cat was concerned.

By the time kindergarten rolled around, she was pleasantly plump and quite adorable, according to her parents at least.

Cat was very excited to start school. Her entire life, the only friends she had were her mother and older brother, so she was looking forward to finding girls her own age to play with. She knew everyone in her class would be thoroughly impressed by her amazing singing and dancing abilities, so she spent several days preparing a little number to show her new friends when she got the chance.

Much to her confusion, when Cat turned to smile at the three little blonde girls at her table, they gave her a look like she had two heads.

“Why is your hair so black?” one little girl sneered.

“She must be a witch!” another little girl exclaimed.

Cat’s little mouth fell open at their spiteful words.

“I am not!” she insisted.

“Your hair is ugly,” the first little girl declared.

“No it’s not!” Cat cried. “My mama says I’m beautiful.”

“Well, she’s wrong,” the third little girl finally piped up. “You can’t be beautiful if you’re fat. And you are fat.”

Cat defiantly stuck her tongue out at the mean girls. She didn’t want to be their friend anyway.

Eventually, the teacher called everyone over to sit in a circle to introduce themselves. The class was instructed to say their name, age, and something special about them. Cat decided this was a perfect opportunity to make friends with other little girls by impressing them with her singing.

When the introductions made their way to Cat, she stood up and smoothed her skirt.

“My name is Cat,” she began. “I’m five years old, and I’m a singer.

She was just about to open her mouth to belt out something spectacular, when she heard blonde girl number one snicker.

“Fat Cat.”

Cat’s cheeks flamed.

“Would you like to sing something?” her teacher asked in a sweet voice.

Cat smiled politely and sat back down as she swallowed heavily to diffuse her tears before they had a chance to escape her eyes.

“No.”

Definitely not.

Not now, not ever.

* * * *

Brooklyn

Alec was only eleven when his mind made itself up.

His mother, Miriam, was a teacher. In an effort to make ends meet, she waited tables in the late afternoons and evenings, so Alec had to join a neighborhood after-school program. A few of his friends attended it with him, so he didn’t mind. There wasn’t really much else to do anyway.

Like any good mother, Miriam wanted her son to grow up to be kind and polite, but she also wanted him to be well-rounded. So in addition to loading his young arms up with books to read on the weekends, she found an after-school program that would provide him the opportunity to do interesting things.

So Alec went to museums, where he learned about both modern art and art history, as well as natural sciences and space. He went to the New York Philharmonic for special viewings of rehearsals, and usually took advantage of the darkness and soothing music to nap.

One particular afternoon, his group went to the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre to watch a dress rehearsal, and Alec was instantly hooked.

He couldn’t quite put his finger on what exactly was so intriguing about a stage production. Perhaps, it was the way the voices carried effortlessly through the massive theatre, or how something as simple as a gesture combined with an inflection could either leave the small audience in stitches or on the verge of tears.

Whatever it was, Alec wanted to do it too.

So when he finally saw his mother that evening, he spilled his guts. Sort of.

“So, Ma,” he began cautiously, as he poked at his dinner with a fork. “We went to see a play today—“

“Don’t play with your food,” Miriam interjected.

He set his fork down and folded his hands in his lap. “Sorry, Ma.”

Miriam took a sip of water and then gestured for him to continue.

“What was the play?” she asked.

“It was about the Depression,” Alec explained. “And this guy who has a bad relationship with his dad. I can’t remember the name.”

“It sounds depressing,” she said as she smiled at him.

“Well it was,” he confirmed. “But the whole thing was so cool. We could hear these guys from all the way in the back of this huge room and they weren’t even shouting or using microphones.”

“Probably the acoustics of the theater,” Miriam offered.

“Yeah. Yeah, that’s what the guide said,” Alec replied. “Anyway, the guide also said they’ve got this summer program where kids can try out acting. Like, do improv and write short plays and they do a big production toward the end.”

Miriam lifted an eyebrow at her son. “You want to get involved in acting?”

Alec’s blue eyes darted slightly from side to side as he tapped his teeth together for a moment. He shrugged.

“Maybe,” he finally said.

Miriam peered at him for several moments, but said nothing. He took a sip of water and stared at his plate. Maybe this wasn’t the best suggestion.

But Alec had a bit of a one-track mind. When he decided he wanted something, he usually wasn’t deterred very easily.

He looked back up and offered his mother a beguiling half-smile.

“They spend a whole month on Shakespeare,” he offered, knowing his mother would approve of that.

Miriam chewed silently as she stared at him through her own blue eyes. She appeared to be mulling over the idea, so he continued to stare back intently.

After what felt like an eternity, she wiped her mouth demurely with her napkin and folded it next to her plate.

“We’ll see,” she finally said. “It’ll depend on the cost and—“

Thank you!” he shouted as he flew from his seat and threw his arms around her neck.

Miriam couldn’t help laughing as she hugged him back, and then motioned for him to sit back down.

“I didn’t say yes, I said maybe,” she clarified. “Also, if this is something you really want to do, I want you to read that book of plays. The Greek ones. And if I can scrape together the money for you to go to this thing, I want you to pay extra attention to the section on Shakespeare. Every hobby you have needs to contribute to your education in some way. College may be seven years away, but you need to prepare as much as you can.”

“I bet if I got really good, I could get a theater scholarship,” he suggested.

“That’s possible, but it’s still pretty farfetched,” Miriam replied. “Your focus needs to be on your grades, and the Shakespeare aspect will help you when you get to your high school English classes.”

“I know, I know,” he concurred, as he smiled absently to himself. He verbally agreed with his mother, but in his mind, he knew better.

There would be no college. There would also be no concern for grades once high school ended.

Because Alec decided right then and there, he was going to be the next great theater star.

1999

Seattle

Cat hated school.

She hated it. Because everyone seemed to either hate her or ignore her completely.

There were a few nice kids who were polite to her, and ones whom she sat with at lunch sometimes, but she didn’t really have any friends.

At thirteen, she was still kind of the fat kid, an already awkward girl made even more awkward by puberty.

Her black hair was long and stringy, and puberty seemed to give it an endless supply of oil. She’d wash it every morning, only to have it become disgusting again by noon. So, naturally, the pretty girls accused her of never showering.

Cat also never got the hang of dressing like one of those pretty girls. She usually just wore clothes conducive to the hikes she went on with Anthony as soon as they got home from school.

Some people just aren’t very good at fitting in, and Cat was one of those people.

But Cat was okay.

She had her brother and she had her mother and even her father, to an extent, and she knew she just had to stick it out for another five years.

In the meantime, however, she just became the little brother Anthony had always wanted, and she was perfectly fine with that. All of the nasty kids at school were a temporary annoyance in her life and her brother would be there forever. And her brother adored her, so his opinion superseded every stinging one that came from the seven hours spent at the junior high school every day.

“So how’d your science presentation go?” Anthony asked one afternoon as they made their way back from the hiking trail.

Cat huffed quietly.

“What happened? Did you forget your note cards again?” He gave her a playful shove.

“No,” she grunted. “I did everything I was supposed to, but nobody listened to anything I said. And of course Jackie and her clones were making faces and comments I couldn’t hear the whole time.”

“How do you know they were making comments about you?”

Cat rolled her eyes. “Because that’s what they do. What they’ve always done.”

Anthony shrugged. “Well, Jackie’s stupid. Just ignore her.”

“I try to, but—”

“Stop saying but,” he cut her off. “People who make other people’s life hell for no reason have something wrong with them.”

“I don’t know, Anthony,” Cat wavered. “Doesn’t seem like anything’s wrong with people like her. She’s beautiful, and skinny, and has tons of friends. I’m the one who’s a total reject, and fat, and ugly–”

“Will you knock it off with that crap already?” he barked as he thumped the side of her arm. “You’re not fat and you’re not ugly, Cat. You’re beautiful. You’re just in a phase where everything is awkward. Everyone goes through that, and it’ll pass.”

Cat smiled to herself.

That’s why you’re my favorite.

But she still wanted to be bratty about it.

“You have to say stuff like that because I’m your baby sister,” she retorted, thumping him back.

He shrugged. “I guess. It doesn’t make it any less true though.”

Cat became silent as they continued to trudge down a hill.

“When I was your age,” Anthony started to say, when Cat cut him off with her laughing.

When I was your age!” she mimicked. “You mean five years ago.”

“Well, yeah,” he said. “I was your age five years ago. That’s kind of how it works when you’re five years older than a person.”

Cat continued to laugh.

“Can I finish please?” he demanded.

She stifled her laughter and waved at him to go on.

“What I was going to say is, I went through the same phase. Remember?” he offered. “And look at me now. I’m a stud.”

She snickered wildly and flipped his hat off. “You’re full of yourself.”

“It’s called confidence,” he clarified as he leaned down to retrieve the hat. “And you should get some.”

Cat scoffed. “I’d rather just get skinny.”

Anthony huffed. “It’s just baby fat. It’ll go away on its own. So quit harping on it.”

Cat let out a long, exasperated sigh as she became fed up with the topic of herself, and opted to shift everything over to him.

“So do you think dad’s going to be pissed that you’re not going to that school?”

Anthony shrugged. “I don’t really care. It’s my life and I’d rather just chill for a year or two while I figure out what I want to do.”

She nodded in agreement as he went on.

“Whose dumb idea was it to force eighteen year olds to make a single decision about what they want to do with their whole lives, before they’ve even had a chance to live at all?”

Cat shrugged. He was right. It didn’t make any sense. And she was sure as hell not looking forward to dealing with it either.

“We should both just figure out jobs that’ll let us hike all the time,” she suggested.

Anthony cackled. “Like park rangers or something, right?”

“Hey,” she said, lifting her palms slightly. “Sounds good to me.”

She was being totally serious.

Cat would have been a park ranger, or a tour guide, or even some kind of primitive nomad if it meant she could spend the rest of her life wandering aimlessly with her brother.

She knew their father would be pretty pissed when he found out Anthony was putting off college, but Cat was thrilled. That way he wouldn’t leave. He’d be there forever, or at least long enough for her to escape the nightmare of her daily life.

* * * *

Brooklyn

Eight years after Alec had attended his first acting workshop, he was still hooked and more convinced than ever that he was destined for a life of greatness on the stage and screen.

Much to Miriam’s chagrin, however, it had become obvious over the years that college was no longer even a consideration for him. As he approached graduation, she made a few last ditch efforts to put the idea in his head, but he made it clear the whole thing was a fruitless fight. In Alec’s mind, college wouldn’t do anything for him that he’d already done for himself.

Alec was already a star in his own little world, and he was chomping at the bit to extend his stardom to the world beyond the walls of his high school.

As he grew up, he morphed from a lanky kid who sometimes tripped over his own oversized feet, to a handsome, suave, charismatic young man who earned adoring gazes from every girl as he swaggered down the hall. He was tall, but not too tall; fit, but not too bulky; charming, but not in a disingenuous way.

He was heavily involved in the school’s theater group. He starred in every play and production, and he was informed by his teachers and classmates that they would all be able to say they knew him when.

As much as he enjoyed being the center of the universe in high school, Alec needed to get out of there. He needed to start acting in real plays out in the real world so he could start earning a real paycheck.

Because there was only one thing Alec loved more than acting at this point, and Alec was ready to marry her.

Her name was Cynthia and Alec had started dating her during their freshman year.

Cynthia was not a fan of theater and was one of the few people who was not impressed by Alec’s talent in the least, so naturally, he considered her unique.

Cynthia was also beautiful; almost as tall as he was, graceful and thin, with blonde hair and eyes the color of mocha. She was also smart and had every aspect of her life planned out. Alec was most certainly part of those plans because she loved him, too, but she had even less patience for his lofty ambitions than Miriam. She also made it clear she was hell bent on convincing him to pursue a more stable career.

But Alec didn’t pay any mind to that.

Cynthia loved him, and he loved her, and love is all you need.

Besides, Cynthia just didn’t realize Alec was going to be the next great star of the stage and screen. And when it finally happened, he’d be able to lovingly tease her and say, “I told you so.”

Unfortunately, however, one year after graduation, Alec began to realize the world of professional acting was far more difficult than he’d anticipated.

The New York theater circuit didn’t care that he was handsome and talented. Everyone in that industry was handsome and talented, and they were all vying for the same jobs.

And Alec had yet to get a single role. Desperate for cash, he’d reluctantly accepted a few modeling gigs, the nature of which were so scandalous that he never told his girlfriend or his mother about them. He figured getting photographed would open the door for acting jobs, but nothing ever panned out.

It was discouraging to say the least, and it didn’t help that his girlfriend was not the least bit supportive of his continued pursuit of his childhood aspiration. She’d constantly insist that he could still go to college, graduate, and get a real job. Yes, he was talented, she’d tell him, but he was also very smart and he should put that to good use. Especially if he still wanted to have a future with her.

Alec could tell that Cynthia was losing her already limited patience, but he figured it wasn’t a permanent problem. He just needed another year or so. Then he’d have paid his dues enough to finally have a legitimate career that could contribute to their life.

But he never got the chance.

Because one week before his twentieth birthday, Cynthia sat him down and dropped a bomb on him.

The conversation lasted all of fifteen minutes and by the end of it, Alec sat stunned, brokenhearted, and definitively single.

And that was the last time he ever heard from Cynthia.

He was completely despondent for an entire week, but then his despondency morphed into indignation.

Cynthia never believed in him, so why should he even care?

She’d see that she was wrong, and she’d see it all over the newspapers, and television, and movie screens.

Because now that he didn’t have some girl distracting him, he’d have nothing holding him back.

It was a stinging blow to be dumped in such a manner, but it was good motivation.

Nothing would get in the way of his path to stardom a second time, because he would never let himself get distracted by a girl ever again.

2004

 Seattle

Sometime between her sophomore and junior year, Cat realized Anthony had been right.

The baby fat and awkwardness of her pubescent state melted away, and Cat had become quite pretty.

It was a classic ugly duckling scenario and when she set foot inside her high school at seventeen years old, nobody could deny that she was now a swan.

Although, she’d been largely invisible prior to that, so most people didn’t remember her and just thought she was a new student.

But Cat remembered. She remembered everything.

And when the girls who’d been snotty to her since childhood offered her a seat at their lunch table, Cat smugly flipped her eyelashes and went to eat in the courtyard where she always had before.

The people who’d always been nice to her were still nice to her, so she mingled about with them in her brief moments of spare time during school hours, but once the bell rang, it was back home and back on the trails with her brother.

Boys also started to take an interest in her, which Cat found amusing and Anthony found annoying. He’d never had to worry about guys going after his little sister, so he naturally assumed they were all sleazeballs with only one thing on their minds.

Cat was asked out on quite a few dates, but the prerequisite was that the boys sit and speak to both Anthony and Antonio at length before she was allowed to go anywhere with them. They were required to return not one minute later than nine p.m. and the plans also required approval from Cat’s overprotective father and brother.

Since Cat’s only prior interaction with boys had been sitting next to them in class and her relationship with her brother, she had no idea how to respond to the behavior of the boys who took her out.

Sometimes, they’d reach over to hold her hand and she couldn’t help feeling incredibly weird.

Other times, they’d be gutsy enough to try to kiss her, which was more than a bit startling and caused her to whip her head around and giggle wildly. If they tried again, she’d shove them playfully and tell them to knock it off.

Cat figured if she was ever supposed to get married and have babies one day, she’d have to get over her awkwardness about the whole thing. She just didn’t really like any of these boys, at least not like that, and would have much preferred for them to stop being so weird and just act normal with her.

Nevertheless, it was all hysterical and she relished quite a bit in the sudden surge of attention she’d started getting.

But halfway through her junior year, the hilarity ceased and the dates came to an abrupt end.

Because Cat and Anthony suddenly had two parents who were gravely ill.

She vaguely remembered the conversation during which she sat across from her parents while her brother sat next to her. Apparently, they’d been sick for a while, but hope and optimism compelled Camilla and Antonio to shield their children from everything that was happening.

Cat understood the diagnoses.

Breast cancer.

Pancreatic cancer.

They mentioned a stage, but it slipped from her young brain as soon as it slipped from her mother’s quivering lips. Cat didn’t know what it meant; she just knew it was bad.

She remembered the look on everyone’s faces.

Her mother’s tear stained cheeks.

Her father’s unflinching appearance.

Her brother’s brown eyes, red-rimmed, and mouth set in a firm, flat line. Cat knew he was trying to be brave; trying to man up in the face of a situation he knew would result in him being the new head of their family. But it was obvious he was just a sad, scared little boy, hiding in a twenty-two year old’s body.

Cat knew because she was just as sad and scared.

Their parents were using words of finality, so apparently, there were a lot of things that needed to be done. Cat didn’t know what those things were, but Anthony seemed to, so she just let him handle everything.

There was a long series of hospitals and special doctors. There were procedures and treatments. And her parents now looked far older than they actually were.

They were sick, but they’d started acting even sicker.

They became thin.

Her mother’s hair, which had always been thick and long just like Cat’s, became thin as well.

Cat was now eighteen and a high school graduate. Anthony was twenty-three and had thankfully made the right choice about delaying college. Because it was becoming quite clear that their little family was about to become much more little, and he needed to be there for it instead of making arbitrary preparations for the future.

What was the future anyway?

Who wanted a future without the loving arms of their mother or the firm, yet comforting voice of their father?

But Mama made them both promise her that they’d be strong. Stick together like they always had. They would get through this because they had each other.

And they’d always have each other.

The weather turned cold and the sickness turned for the even worse.

And then, it happened.

It was November.

Dad went early in the morning, just before sunrise, and Cat held Mama’s hand while Anthony gently relayed the news.

And Mama’s heart broke.

And it became immediately apparent that she was ready to go too.

Cat had never seen anything like the love her parents had for each other, and she knew on that day it must have been something far more extraordinary than she ever realized.

Because when one half of her mother’s heart was gone, it seemed that the remaining half just up and quit.

Twelve hours later.

And Cat and Anthony were orphans.

* * * *

Brooklyn

Five years later, Alec’s big break had yet to happen. It was discouraging to say the least, but he was still as set on making his dream come true as ever.

It took another four months after his catastrophic breakup for him to land his first paying gig. Just a small play that ran for about two weeks, but he got a paycheck for the first time and now he could officially call himself a “professional actor”. Sort of.

The little role ended up being a bit of a foot in the door because people were able to see his talent and work ethic, and that seemed to carry some weight for other casting directors.

So he got a few more small roles, and he saved his money, and after another year, he’d saved up enough to finally move into his own place.

Alec wasn’t sure how long the income would continue, so his mother assured him it would be okay to swallow his pride and move back home if he needed to. After all, she was paying rent for an apartment she wasn’t inhabiting anyway.

Miriam had since retired from teaching and in the thoroughly gut-wrenching aftermath of nine-eleven, she signed up as a volunteer for the Red Cross to do anything and everything she could to help. After about nine months or so of serving her fellow New Yorkers, she was given an invitation to travel to Africa with a relief organization, where she would assist in orphanages.

So Miriam’s empty apartment was a backup plan, but it was one Alec refused to resort to.

Because he was going to make this work. He had to. His pride and dreams depended on it.

Roles trickled in slowly, and he barely made ends meet. He never told his mother, but he’d opted to just go without electricity for a while. Electricity seemed less than important.

A month before his twenty-fourth birthday, however, things got pretty desperate, and Alec was more than a bit overwhelmed. At a loss with what to do at that moment, he meandered into a nearby bar to take advantage of twenty-five cent beer night as a means to temporarily take his mind off his situation and growling stomach.

Seventy-five cents later, he stared into his pint glass, gripped with no small amount of anxiety, and felt a distantly familiar smack on the back of his head.

“Whaddup, ya fuckin’ douchebag? Long time no see.”

It was Richie.

The lovable jackass Alec had grown up with and one of the few people he regarded as a semi-close friend.

Richie was three years older than Alec and enlisted in the Marine Corps right out of high school. He’d been discharged three years prior to nine-eleven and, due to a troubling bout with PTSD, he hadn’t been called back. Alec wasn’t sure exactly what happened to Richie, but he’d heard through the neighborhood grapevine it was pretty bad. He also heard Richie eventually sorted things out, but Alec still felt the need to offer something for his friend’s difficult experience and opted to use his own meager pocket change to foot the beer bill that particular night for the both of them.

“How ya been, man?” Alec squeezed Richie’s shoulder and pushed him onto a neighboring stool.

“Ah, fine,” Richie grunted as he sat down. “Same old shit. Just showing some kid how to manage Pop’s store.”

“How’s that workin’ out for ya?”

“Eh… he’s doing alright.” Richie paused to chuckle and take a gulp from his glass. “Some people just need a little extra ass kicking to get them in gear. He’ll be running the place just fine soon.”

Alec nodded as polished off the last of his drink and motioned to the bartender for another round.

“Speaking of ass-kickings,” Richie went on. “What happened with Cynthia?”

Alec rolled his eyes and huffed, causing Richie to smack him on the back.

“I’m sorry, brother,” he said. “I know that had to suck.”

Alec thumped a wadded up napkin across the bar and huffed again.

“I don’t give a shit,” he sputtered. “She was the most unsupportive person I’ve ever met. All of that was just one big distraction. I’m better off now. I’m sure she is too.”

Richie laughed to himself. “I guess she never warmed up to the whole acting thing, huh?”

“Nope.”

“That’s okay, brother,” Richie said. “I’m sure you’ll find another gal soon.”

“I don’t want another gal,” Alec retorted. “Women are just a needy distraction. I’ve got better things to do.”

Richie cackled. “Yeah right. We’ll see about that.”

“I’m serious,” Alec insisted. “I don’t care if I die single, so long as I get my career off the ground. That’s what matters.”

“So how’s that going for ya?”

Alec exhaled a frustrated sigh, but didn’t answer.

“That bad, huh?”

“I just need a little more time,” Alec explained. “It’s going to happen, I just… I gotta keep at it.”

“So what kinda strategy are you workin’ with?” Richie inquired.

Alec shrugged. “I’m just going to every audition I hear about.”

“That ain’t no strategy, brother,” Richie said, wagging a finger in his friend’s face.

Alec chuckled. “So what, did the Marines teach you about the NYC theater circuit, too?”

“No,” Richie grunted indignantly. “But I know strategy. And strategy works in every area of life.”

Alec eyeballed Richie for a moment. He had a pretty good point. Alec hadn’t really given much thought to a plan other than going to auditions and hopefully nailing them. Richie most certainly didn’t know anything about theater, but he’d managed to turn his father’s business around and that wasn’t exactly something they taught in the military either. So maybe Richie could offer some insight into a better course of action in Alec’s career.

“So,” Alec ventured. “If you were me, what would you do?”

“Well,” Richie began, pausing to clear his throat and swallow some beer. “I’d look at my background and find out where I had the most experience, then I’d focus on trying to get that kinda work.”

“Okay…” Alec prompted.

“So,” Richie continued. “Out of all the plays you’ve ever done, what’s the most common type you’ve been in?”

Alec tapped his teeth together as he thought.

“I did a lot of Shakespeare in school,” he finally offered.

“So don’t people still put on ol’ Billy’s plays anymore?”

“Yeah. Sometimes.”

“So go for those.”

Alec laughed. “That’s kinda easier said than done.”

“Yeah, but what else are ya gonna do? It sounds like it’s already hit or miss right now, so you might as well try hitting something that’s going to create some semblance of a brand.”

Alec raised his eyebrows. “A brand?”

“Yeah, a brand,” Richie repeated. “It’s like a reputation that you build a business or career around. Your brand could be the hot young guy from Brooklyn who’s a fuckin’ master at Shakespeare.”

Richie paused to cackle again and popped the back of Alec’s head.

“In fact, I think that’s exactly what you should do,” Richie declared. “I’m a goddamn genius and I’m gonna help you out, brother.”

Alec narrowed his eyes skeptically. “Are you now?”

“Yep.”

Alec turned his head to stare at their reflection in the mirror behind the liquor shelves.

It couldn’t possibly be worse than it already is.

He pursed his lips together, and then nodded slowly.

He turned back to Richie and clinked their glasses together.

“Alright, Richie,” Alec stated. “You’re the boss.”

2006

 Seattle

 

Everything that ever mattered was gone.

 

So Cat was gone, too.

 

* * * *

 Brooklyn

Alec was late. Again.

It wasn’t entirely his fault. For the past year and half, Richie had been doing a great job at keeping Alec’s career going, but he had an irritating tendency to inform Alec of auditions on the same day they were held.

But Alec tried not to complain. Richie was managing things far better than Alec himself had managed them for the five or six years he’d been trying to make it in the industry.

Or was it seven years?

How long it had been didn’t really matter now. Because now things were steady. Not steady enough for Alec to be happy with his career, but steady enough that he’d managed to turn his lights on and eat on a regular basis. And that was something. But he needed more.

Alec played up the “hot young guy from Brooklyn who’s a master at Shakespeare” brand for the most part, but in his desperation, he also accepted whatever Richie could find him. He wasn’t really happy about that either, but Richie constantly reminded him that he had to pay his dues.

Dues, dues, dues…

Just pay your dues, and it’ll happen.

So Alec paid his dues and kept his fingers crossed.

On this particular afternoon in late April, Alec was sprinting to an audition while on the phone with Richie, who’d stumbled upon a second audition for the following morning.

Richie was rattling off addresses and times and instructions quicker than Alec could follow. In his desperation to not be late and to remember the location of both auditions, Alec became a bit blind to his surroundings and didn’t notice a giant crack in the sidewalk until it was almost too late.

He managed to take a flying leap over it just in time and darted a glance over his shoulder to assess the obstacle.

Holy shit, that coulda broken my—

SMACK

Alec’s chest was suddenly flush against a stack of boxes and his hands instinctively flew downward to grab them before they hit the ground.

He lifted his eyes to peek over the box and apologize, only to become more than a bit transfixed by an ebony-haired girl on the other side of them.

Hel-loo…

Maybe not every girl was just a distraction.

Although, he immediately realized he was, in fact, quite distracted right then.

He was also in far too much of a rush to stop and chat up the pretty girl, seeing as he was cutting it pretty close to getting shut out of the audition. But he had nearly knocked her on her ass, so he figured the least he could do was take two extra minutes to apologize and offer to carry the boxes inside.

So he raised his chin and smiled at her.

He had no way of knowing it at the time, but the smile he offered was the first of a million to come.

But there was something else he had no way of knowing.

The accidental collision on the sidewalk with a blue-eyed, black-haired girl would ultimately lead to Alec Branneth’s complete undoing.

Chapter 1

“I can’t believe you’re leaving, you jerk,” Cat sputtered as she huffed and continued to sort through her parents’ clothes.

Her brother’s shoulders sank as he let his head fall below them. “I know you’re having a hard time. I am too. I just need a few hours, and I’ll be back. Cut me some slack, Cat. This is the only way I know how to deal. Surely you get that.”

Cat rolled her eyes. “Whatever, Anthony.”

She picked up a crimson garment and pressed it to her face. A full year had passed, and her mother’s scent still lingered on the fabric. Her brother crossed their parents’ long-vacated bedroom and gave her shoulders a squeeze.

“It’ll get easier,” he offered.

“I know.” Cat blinked back her tears and punched him playfully in an effort to diffuse her emotions. Even in front of her own brother, she hated letting her deeply rooted pain show itself. She had promised her mother she’d be brave and strong, no matter what, and in Cat’s mind, that meant not letting the crippling sadness that permeated her entire being get the best of her.

Anthony chuckled as he dodged her wimpy swats.

“Now, give me your keys.”

She grunted as she flipped the keychain at his chest. “When are you going to get your own car, loser?”

“Why would I get one when I can just use yours?” His cackling drifted down the hallway toward the front door.

“Anthony!” she called.

“What?”

She sighed. “Just be careful on the trails. I heard the mountain got snow last night, and I can’t handle you dying on the same day Mom and Dad did.”

“You’re so morbid, baby sister.”

The door clicked shut as he let himself out.

“Well, after all this, can you blame me?”

* * * *

Bang-bang-bang-bang!

Cat was shaken out of her dream and jumped off the couch, wondering why Anthony didn’t just unlock the door and let himself in.

“If you lost my keys again, you’re dead, big brother,” she called through the door as she flung it open.

She found herself face to face with a somber-looking police officer, who clutched his hat at his waist.

“Catarina Bellafiore?” he asked, butchering the Italian of her name.

She hesitated in the midst of steadily growing trepidation. “Yes?”

“Are you the owner of a green nineteen ninety-eight Honda Civic, license plate 721-GHZ?”

“Y-yes?”

“I’m afraid I have some bad news.”

* * * *

Cat leaned into the back of the moving truck and gripped the sides of a box, struggling to slide it toward her sweaty chest. Her tank top clung damply to her skin. Late April in New York was surprisingly warm, but she didn’t mind. The sunshine and clear skies were a nice change from gray, dreary Seattle where she’d left the pieces of her shattered life.

She grabbed a smaller box, balanced it on top of the heavier one, and hoisted both out of the truck as she stepped backward onto the curb. The weight of the two boxes combined pushed the limits of Cat’s strength, and a frustrated lump started to rise in her throat as she silently cursed her stronger big brother for being dead, instead of there to help her move.

Cat started to turn around when she slammed into something hard. The impact caused the larger box to slip from her hands, but it stopped in mid-air just before hitting the sidewalk. Four distinctly masculine fingers appeared from out of nowhere, wrapped around the bottom corner of the box.

Cat peered up to find a pair of blue eyes peeking over the top of the brown cardboard at her. She had seen that shade of cornflower blue a million times before. Every time she saw her own reflection, to be specific.

The stranger held a phone to his ear with his shoulder and lifted his chin above the box to flash a grin reminiscent of a toothpaste advertisement. He opened his mouth to speak, but no sound accompanied the word.

Sorry.

Cat shook her head a little. “My fault.”

She started to lift the box away from him, but it wouldn’t give. She glanced back at him quizzically. He flipped his dark eyebrows in the direction of the apartment building and offered another silent phrase.

Which unit?

Cat was hesitant to tell the man where she would be living, but he seemed to be in a hurry. He effortlessly held the heavy box, so she figured it wouldn’t hurt anything and was silently grateful for the help.

She pulled the door open and waved him in. As the two made their way up the rickety staircase, she couldn’t avoid overhearing his phone call.

“I don’t know, Richie. It sounds like a horribly tacky interpretation,” the man grumbled. “Billy Shakespeare is gonna be rolling in his grave.”

His voice paused for a moment as he listened to the response.

“I guess that’s true,” he replied listlessly.

Cat swung open the door to her unit and stepped aside as the man set the box down and stood upright, allowing her a full view of him for the first time.

The stranger appeared to be in his mid-twenties, with dark hair and perfect skin. He towered a few inches above Cat’s head, with broad shoulders and biceps that slightly stretched the sleeves of his white T-shirt. He had a strikingly handsome, all-American-guy look to him.

He was probably the most attractive man Cat had ever seen in real life and seemed as if he could’ve been a model. She found herself to be somewhat hard-pressed not to stare.

Apparently, he was too, and they stood motionless for a while with blue eyes locked on blue eyes.

Say something, you dolt! Cat’s inner monologue screeched at her.

After what felt like a couple of very awkward seconds, she finally managed to throw together a few words.

“Um… thank you.”

He gave her a friendly smile and a polite nod. He lingered for a second longer as if he thought about speaking to her, and then made a face at whatever had been said by the person on the other end of the phone. Whatever he’d heard seemed to be of some kind of importance, so he offered a small wave, and then disappeared down the hall.

Cat found herself in a subtle trance as she watched him leave.

WowI guess the weather isn’t the only pretty thing in New York.

Chapter 2

On a blustery night in May, Alec trudged his way down a packed street as he silently brooded over the travesty of a play he’d just appeared in for the past three weeks. He trailed a few feet behind his friend, Richie, a Marine Corps vet who’d somehow turned into Alec’s talent agent over the course of the years since Richie’s discharge. The two men ducked into a noisy bar, the go-to neighborhood watering hole. It bustled with drunken activity, as was typical for a Friday night.

“Grab a table, Al,” Richie shouted behind him. “I’ll buy you a celebratory drink.”

Alec dropped himself into a chair and leaned into his elbows as his sleeves became instantly soaked with beer left by the table’s former occupants. He stood back up and passed Richie to grab some napkins from the bar. After searching for a moment, he hollered over the crowd at the ebony-haired bartender.

“Miss? Do you have any napkins?”

What?

Alec raised his voice. “Do you have any napkins?”

“Speak up!”

“Napkins!”

She continued to sling drinks to the mass of people waving cash at her.

Napa?” she shouted, becoming exasperated. “There’s a wine list by the register!”

Equally exasperated, he briefly turned his eyes toward the ceiling and gave up.

“Where’d you go?” Richie inquired, pushing a beer across the table into Alec’s hand. “Need a shot, too?”

Alec snorted.

“You’d think.” He laughed. “Anything to wipe that play from my memory. If only I could wipe it from my resume.”

“Come on,” Richie wheezed. “It wasn’t that bad. At least you had steady work for a whole month. You realize how many struggling actors would kill to be able to say that?”

Alec huffed in irritation as he gulped some of his beer.

“Beggars can’t be choosers.” Richie wagged a condescending finger in Alec’s face.

“Obviously not,” Alec grunted.

Richie threw his hands into the air. “Ya gotta’ pay your dues, my friend! Nobody bursts onto the scene out of nowhere.”

“You’re preachin’ to the choir.”

“So, stop bitching about it.”

Alec let out a deep sigh as his eyes drifted back to the commotion at the bar. The girl behind it frantically filled orders and grabbed money, pausing every so often to catch her breath and push a stray hair behind her ear. There was something vaguely familiar about those shiny black locks.

“She’s cute, huh?” Richie mentioned, as if reading Alec’s mind.

Cute was one way of putting it. Another way would be something like—the prettiest girl he’d ever seen.

Alec casually turned back to his friend. “I feel like I’ve seen her somewhere before.”

“Ten thousand Italian broads in this city, brother,” Richie quipped. “I’m sure you’ve seen her everywhere.”

“So, what’s next on my to-do list?” Alec asked as he the striking girl slipped from his mind.

“Don’t kill me.”

“Christ, what have you signed me up for now?” Alec dropped his face into his hand, already knowing he wasn’t going to like his next gig.

“A series of commercials—Crazy Louie’s Discount Electronics.”

Alec groaned and pressed his palm harder into his forehead.

“Dues, Al! You’ve got to—”

“Pay my dues, I know, I know.” Alec swallowed the rest of his beer. Richie guffawed as he gave his friend a firm pat on the back and stood up from the table to fetch the second round.

* * * *

Hours passed, and the activity in the watering hole had slowed to a crawl. Richie had left the table some time ago to chat up a woman next to the jukebox, but Alec hadn’t noticed. He was preoccupied by his own ponderings about his fledgling career, and he flicked haphazard glances at the bar, still wondering where he’d seen that girl before.

She restocked bottles of liquor and hoisted a box onto the counter when it dawned on him, and he couldn’t believe his good luck.

Having nothing better to do with himself, and refusing to let the opportunity to talk to her slip through his fingers a second time, he sidled up to the bar and sat down on a stool.

“Another round?” She flipped a square napkin in front of him with one hand while wiping down the bar with the other.

“Sure.” He smiled at her, but she was too busy to notice.

“What was it?”

“Two fingers of scotch, neat.”

She spun around to grab a bottle and poured the liquor into a small glass.

“I’m Alec.” Him still smiling at her; her still not noticing.

“Hi, Alec,” she replied, not missing a beat and not looking at him, as she continued to busy herself with her work.

“I carried a box for you.”

She finally glanced sideways at him and raised an eyebrow. “That’s one I haven’t heard.”

“About a month ago,” he explained. “I was on the phone, and you were moving into an apartment.”

This time when he smiled, she did notice.

Her jaw fell open as she stared at him for a few seconds.

“No kidding!” She laughed, tossing the rag into a sink. “That was you!”

Her gaping mouth morphed into a wide smile.

“Wow, New York is smaller than I thought. Thank you for that. I was having a shitty day.”

“Well, it was my pleasure.” Alec offered a chivalrous nod as he sipped from the glass.

She grinned. “I’m Cat.”

“Meow,” Alec teased, giving her a flirtatious half smile.

Cat rolled her eyes and shoved a hand toward him.

Catarina Bellafiore,” she stated with perfect Italian pronunciation, rolling her R’s and flipping her L’s.

“That’s a mouthful,” he teased again, shaking her hand.

She chuckled. “Well, my family was Italian, so…”

Was?” Alec repeated, furrowing his brow with concern.

Cat sighed and shrugged. “Shit happens.”

“I’m so sorry.” It was the only consolation he could think to offer to a mere acquaintance.

She shrugged again and gave him a quick smile before turning to a TV attached to the wall.

“Are you from New York?” Cat asked casually.

“I sure am.”

“What do you think about the Rangers?”

“Oh, man,” Alec groaned. “I may need another scotch.”

“It was pretty bad, huh?” she empathized.

“Heartbreak. Total. Heartbreak.”

“I feel you, man.”

“Yeah. So, you like hockey?” Alec inquired, instantly becoming more interested in her than he already was.

“Oh yeah, I love it.”

“Really? But you’re a girl.”

“Wow!” Cat scoffed. “Captain Obvious, in the flesh.”

“Sorry.” Alec became sheepish. “I’ve just never met a girl who was into hockey.”

“Well, I had a big brother who was in total denial that I was a girl, so I had no choice but to become a complete tomboy.”

Had. Was. That’s a lot of past tense for just a few short sentences,” Alec prompted, hoping she would open up a bit.

“Just more shit,” Cat muttered, going back to wiping down the bar.

She had become visibly uncomfortable. He decided to back off a bit and change the subject. But to what?

“You know, you live like three blocks from me,” Alec offered, saying the first thing that popped into his head. He grimaced slightly, wondering if he had just come off as a drunken creep. Much to his relief, she appeared to be quite pleased with the information.

“Really?” Cat chirped. “So, we’re pretty much neighbors then.”

“Pretty much.”

“Well, shoot.” She grinned. “We should hang out. I don’t know anyone here yet.”

Alec nodded approvingly. “Now you know me.”

“Now I know you,” Cat repeated, nodding slightly as well.

After a moment, he noticed they were silent. Their eyes were locked in a gaze reminiscent of the one that had transfixed him in her empty apartment weeks prior. Alec knew staring at her was probably less than suave. However, he was the slightest bit buzzed, and she was quite pretty, so he went ahead and let himself stare. His gaze held hers for a while, when Richie’s voice rang out from across the room, shaking him back to reality.

“Al! Ready to go?”

“I guess that’s my cue.” Alec offered his hand one more time. “Nice to officially meet you, neighbor.”

Cat smiled. “Likewise. I guess I’ll see you around.”

“Yep.”

Alec left some cash on the bar and turned to leave, grinning to himself as he headed for the door. He had been on a hiatus from girlfriends for a while, but as he walked away, he couldn’t help thinking it might be time to give it a shot again. A pretty girl who liked hockey and lived nearby seemed like a good place to start. He left the bar fully expecting to see Cat again, and he silently hoped their third encounter would be a charm.

Chapter 3

Cat was at a loss with what to do with herself in New York. In her first couple of weeks, she took the initiative to be an unabashed tourist in the city that was her new home and visited every major landmark that she could think of. She was quite dismayed to find out such sightseeing was not very fun when you had no brother, parents, or even any friends to share it with.

Here she was, in a city of more than eight million people, and she’d never felt more alone in her life.

It made her look forward to going to work, where she could be busy for hours, causing the time to fly by. But on her days off, she became bored. Boredom always led to sadness, sadness inclined her to sing, and singing took her back to a painful place she was not ready to face just yet.

The loneliness was way worse. It was almost suffocating, the idea—no—the reality of having absolutely nobody left in the entire world.

Uncharacteristic of Italian families, Cat’s parents had both been only children; as a result there were no loud, boisterous aunts and uncles, no hordes of cousins running around screaming and laughing at family gatherings. There were no family gatherings, period. Her grandparents had all passed long before Cat could even remember, so up until about a year and a half prior, it was just Dad, Mama, Anthony, and Cat.

Then there were the lost battles with pancreatic and breast cancer, and in a twelve-hour stretch of time, Anthony and Cat had become orphans at the ages of twenty-three and eighteen, respectively.

It was a harrowing blow; not something two people who were essentially still kids should have to deal with. Not something anyone should have to deal with, but Cat promised herself they would get through it. They would be okay, because they still had each other.

Twelve months later, however, one small patch of black ice on a winding mountain road had taken away the only person Cat had left in the world.

How does one even begin to move forward in the face of something like that? Cat had no idea, and she spent weeks in her cold, dark, empty house, doing nothing but soaking in the numbness that enveloped her. Maybe it wasn’t weeks. Maybe it was months. Cat had stopped counting. Her life had become an unrecognizable haze of groggy mornings, silent afternoons that felt endless, and creepy nights in a creaky old house that dragged on until three a.m., four a.m., sometimes five, when she would eventually cry herself to sleep.

However long it lasted, she drifted through time until one morning she was staring into a cup of coffee and New York City popped into her mind out of nowhere.

New York seemed like the farthest and most interesting place she could get to, so she decided to be spontaneous for the first time in her life, and she left Seattle and the only home she’d ever known.

Cat figured as soon as she arrived in the city, everything would become instantly so exciting she’d be able to forget all about her soul-crushing losses and start a new life where nothing devastating would happen to her again. Much to her dismay, when she stepped out of the moving truck in Brooklyn, nothing happened. She was still sad and lonely; only now she was sad and lonely in an unfamiliar place.

She was running out of ideas. And while she’d never have the gumption or stupidity to actually take her own life—wherever her family was, she knew they’d be pissed if she took that route—she was starting to think accidentally getting struck by a speeding taxi might not be such a bad thing.

However, on this particular day off, she was in the mood to try to feel better. On a whim, she decided to get out of her apartment and into the sun. The sun always cheered her up. She hopped out of her building and began wandering aimlessly through the city.

Cat passed by a newsstand and noticed a local paper. In the hopes that it might offer some insight into what people did around here, she picked it up and started thumbing through it.

“Two-fifty,” barked a gruff voice.

Cat turned sharply, fumbling in her pocket to pay the man.

Sheesh.

New Yorkers seemed a bit rough around the edges. None of them talked to you unless it was to tell you to get out of the way or something else equally harsh. In fact, the only nice New Yorker she had encountered thus far was the handsome guy who had her eyes and carried the box into her apartment.

Alec, Cat thought, smiling softly at the memory of him sitting across the bar from her a few weeks ago. She hadn’t expected to see him again, although it would have been nice. She was still getting used to having nobody to talk to, and the brief conversation she’d shared with the friendly guy was one of the few she’d had since arriving in the city. Alec mentioned he lived near her. Every time Cat left her apartment, she silently hoped to bump into him, since she was desperate for pleasant interaction with somebody.

She sat down on a nearby bench and blindly flipped the paper open to its center, as she skimmed over a few play reviews. She gasped when she saw a familiar face smiling at her through a black and white photo on the page.

He’s an actor, she mused. Fitting. He was very attractive and charming. She was sure that correlated to a fantastic stage presence. She perused the article and his bio, absently smiling to herself, not noticing she spoke out loud when she read his full name.

“Alec Branneth.”

“Catarina Bellafiore.”

Cat’s head shot up at the familiar voice’s mention of her name.

As if the universe had granted her unspoken pleas, there he was, smiling at her in real life.

“Hey, neighbor!” She chortled, grinning back and masking the fact that she’d never been happier to see anyone in her entire life. She shook the paper at him. “I happened to stumble across a review of your play.”

Alec blushed and rolled his eyes as he sat down next to her. “Yeah, that play was awful.”

“The writer seems to agree. But he said you were great. That’s something, right?”

“It’s something,” he sighed.

“You didn’t mention you were an actor.” Cat pointed an almost accusing finger at him.

“Well, we only spoke for about two minutes,” Alec reminded her. “It didn’t seem worth mentioning. Especially since I’ve yet to act in anything worth mentioning.”

“The paper thought it was worth mentioning,” Cat offered.

“I guess,” he shrugged, leaning his elbow on the back of the bench and resting his cheek on his hand.

“Wow, you’re completely underwhelmed by yourself.” Cat giggled. “What’s your deal? It sounds like an exciting job to have.”

“It could be an exciting job to have, if I ever got to do anything besides crappy local plays and embarrassing low-budget commercials,” he explained.

“Yeah, but everyone has to start somewhere, right? How long have you been acting?”

“About five or six years. I skipped out on college hoping to break into the biz and make it big, but that has yet to happen.” Alec made dramatic gestures with his hands as he spoke and flipped his eyebrows in humorous facial expressions that plastered a smile on Cat’s face. It was really nice to talk to him, and she found herself feeling much better than she did when she woke up that morning. In fact, she felt a lot better than she had in a few weeks.

“Could be worse. You could be a bartender.” Cat smirked. “At least in your field there’s an opportunity for it to go somewhere. All I’ll ever get to do is assist with people’s legal addictive habits.”

“So you’re not in college or something?” he ventured curiously.

Cat crinkled her nose and sniffed at the idea.

“Why not? I mean, I guess I’m not really one to talk since I didn’t go either.”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. I just don’t see the point. I don’t have a future, so funneling a bunch of money and time into something like that seems stupid.”

“You don’t have a future?” He lifted his eyebrows incredulously. “That’s a pretty presumptuous thing to say about yourself.”

Cat flipped her palms upward and shrugged again. “Well, it’s the truth.”

A funny expression crossed his face, and then his gaze drifted briefly behind her head. She figured he was about to tell her he had to get going, and she couldn’t help feeling a bit disappointed. Much to her delight, however, she realized her assumption was wrong, when he turned those beautiful eyes back to her face and smiled.

“You wanna go grab a coffee, Cat?”

* * * *

Hot coffee on a warm afternoon was an admittedly ludicrous idea, but it was the only excuse Alec could come up with that would give him an opportunity to talk to Cat for longer than five minutes.

He sat across from her in a corner café while chatting amicably about whatever came to mind, and he couldn’t help noticing Cat was a natural beauty. The table was next to a window and the sunlight pouring in caused her black hair to give off a hint of rich brunette undertones. He also noticed her eyes were as blue as his, which was a rare trait he found terribly intriguing.

In his insistence upon being the gentleman his mother had raised him to be, he tried not to pay attention to her figure, but being the red-blooded heterosexual male he was, it was a difficult thing not to at least notice. Cat was diminutive and slender, but had dangerous curves in all the right places. Not that he was paying attention to that. Really. He had definitely not accidentally caught a glimpse of her perky behind and shapely legs when he’d followed her up the apartment steps the day he’d carried the box for her. No, he was absolutely not thinking about anything but casual conversation with his new acquaintance. At least, he was trying.

“Have you always lived in Brooklyn?” Cat asked, as she brought the cup to her lips.

“Yep.” Alec absently folded an empty sugar packet into a tiny, triangular paper football, and then started thumping it back and forth between his hands.

“This must’ve been an awesome place to grow up,” Cat replied, catching the small triangle just before it flew into her lap. She poised it under her left index finger and flipped it back across the table at him. “I’ve always loved the idea of city life, but I have to admit it’s been a totally different experience than I had envisioned.”

“So you’re not from around here,” Alec declared, as if it was some kind of grand discovery. “I had a feeling. How long have you been here?”

He flipped the football back at her.

“Since the day I bumped into you with that stack of boxes,” Cat replied, stifling laughter.

She tilted the football backward and thumped at a slightly upward angle, sending it flying over his head and out of reach.

“Touchdown.” She giggled.

“Nice one,” he smiled. Damn. She sure was cute. “So where are you from?”

“Seattle. The suburbs of it, anyway.”

“Wow,” he said, somewhat impressed by her answer. “You’re a long way from home.”

“New York is my home now,” she corrected in a simple tone.

“How’d you end up here?”

Cat let out a deep sigh. “It’s a long, sad story. I don’t think you want to hear it.”

“Or maybe you don’t want to tell it,” Alec challenged, squinting his eyes playfully.

The pleasant look on her face immediately melted into a distinctly dejected one, and Alec immediately felt a bit remorseful for being too pushy.

“It’s okay,” he began. “You don’t have to ta—”

“My brother was killed in a car accident six months ago,” she blurted out. “It was on the one-year anniversary of the death of our parents, and I had to get as far away from everything as possible. I had always wanted to live in New York, and got a bunch of money from each of their deaths, so I just picked up and moved here.”

Cat took another sip of coffee, and Alec sat there staring at her, totally at a loss for how to respond to something so tragic.

“And that’s what I meant by having no future. I’m only twenty years old, but I have no family, no friends, no plans of any kind, and nobody left in my life to care about what I do or don’t do. So, I’m just going to do whatever the hell I feel like. And as of right now, what I feel like is exactly nothing at all.”

She snapped her mouth shut and gazed at him in a way that made him feel as if he needed to say something comforting.

“Wow, Cat. I’m so sorry. I uh… I don’t know what to say that would even approach being helpful. I’m ju—”

“You don’t have to say anything,” she cut him off. “You let me win at paper football.”

Alec chuckled. “That wasn’t really intentional. You beat me fair and square.”

“What I mean is,” Cat went on, “the only thing I need right now is a friend. And even though this is only the third time I’ve ever seen you, you’ve been the closest thing to a friend that I’ve had in a very long time. So, that’s… everything.”

Alec wasn’t sure how appropriate it would be for him to touch her in any way, but the sad-looking girl sitting across from him seemed to be in desperate need of a hug. He decided it was worth a shot to potentially offer some semblance of comfort. He reached across the table and placed his hand on top of hers. He was pleased to find that, not only did she not recoil at his touch, but she lifted her thumb to rest atop his.

After such an admission from her, Alec immediately and effortlessly let go of his previous intentions to pursue Cat romantically, at least not right now. Nothing about her words or behavior indicated she was interested in such a thing. If he was honest with himself, he’d admit he was grossly underprepared to accommodate a girlfriend at this stage in his life. Especially one dealing with such heavy and recent grief. He decided it would probably be better for the both of them to just be friends for now.

An inkling of something tugged in the back of his mind, and he couldn’t fully let go of the idea. Never say never, as they say. Maybe, after they knew each other for a while. Maybe, when her wounds had healed up. Maybe, when his life and career were a little more stable. Maybe, maybe, maybe. But for right now, the only absolute was being the friend she needed.

“Well, Cat.” He smiled. “We are definitely friends. That’s one thing I’m very capable of being.”

Chapter 4

“What am I doing here?

I’m in this world, I’m all alone

Thought I’d find myself, in this new place

Now the purpose is unclear.

What am I do—”

Knock. Knock. Knock. Knock.

The banging on her front door startled Cat, causing her fingers to fumble and strike a cacophony of awkward notes on her keyboard. She was initially annoyed to have a rare moment of brave musical creativity interrupted, but then she remembered the visitor was her one and only friend.

She turned the lock and flung the door wide.

“Hey, Alec!” Cat gave his forearm a friendly squeeze as he strode inside.

“Whad’dup Cat? Sorry I took so long. Richie insisted that I swing by and pick up a script.”

“Oh boy! New play? Is it any good? Can I read it?”

Alec tossed the rolled-up stack of paper into her hands and flopped down on the sofa. “I haven’t read it yet. Richie says it’s brilliant, but he has horrible taste, so I’m sure it sucks. But, by all means, take a peek.”

Cat began thumbing through the pages as she sat down next to him, curling her legs underneath her. Alec glanced around the apartment curiously.

“Why’d you turn off the music?”

“Hm?” Having immediately become deeply engulfed in the script, Cat didn’t look up and barely noticed his question.

“I heard some music right before I knocked.”

“You did?”

“Yeah.”

She finally tore her eyes away from the script and came back to reality. “Oh. Oh, I was just messing around with my keyboard,” she replied dismissively and buried her face back in the stack of paper to hide the flushing of her cheeks.

“You’re a singer? Did you write that song?”

“No,” she blurted. “No, I’m not a singer.”

“Yes, you are. I heard you.”

She lifted the script higher in front of her face. “No, you didn’t.”

Alec chuckled at her blatant denial and used two fingers to push the papers down. “Cat. Yes I did. Don’t be embarrassed. It was beautiful. It went, ‘what am I doing he—’”

Mortified, Cat smacked him twice on the shoulder with the script as she shouted, “Oh my God! Shut up!”

Alec continued to chuckle as he blocked her strikes. “Ow! Stop it.”

“That didn’t hurt. You big baby.” She shoved him playfully and stepped off the couch and into the kitchen. “Want a soda?”

“Sure. Why didn’t you tell me you sing?”

She clenched her teeth, silently cursing herself for not having kept her bedroom door shut. Why did the external walls of her apartment have to be paper freaking thin? She ducked into her refrigerator and pretended not to hear his question.

“Hmmm, all I have is diet. That okay?”

“It’s fine. Why didn’t you tell me you sing?”

“I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. That sounds like a great play.” She pulled out the two cans and closed the door with her foot, thinking if she didn’t answer him, he’d stop pressing.

He didn’t.

“Stop ignoring my question.”

“Maybe you should take a hint.” She was blunt as she scowled at him for the first time since he’d brought up the touchy subject.

“And what would you be hinting at?” Alec grinned mischeviously. He could be shamefully charming sometimes, but not charming enough Cat would be swayed to clue him in on this one.

She sauntered back over to him and lowered herself to his eye level, eyebrows raised with a serious expression, mere inches separating their faces. “That I don’t want to talk about it,” she whispered as she pressed the cold soda can against his face.

“Okay,” he whispered back. “I’m sorry.”

She snapped away from his face. “It’s all good. Check out the premise really quick. I think you’re going to love this one.”

“If you say so.” Alec flipped to the first page.

Cat popped her can open and sipped while he read. She lowered herself to the opposite side of the sofa and pushed her bare feet against his legs as he absently placed a hand on her ankle.

“Wow,” he finally said.

“I know, right? It’s awesome.”

The harrowing tale of a man’s descent into Alzheimer’s Disease, as told through flashbacks to his life as a young man which starkly contrasts with his current depreciating state of mind,” Alec read aloud.

“So you would get to play an old guy and a young guy. And you’ll get to go through a full spectrum of emotions; like humor, and anger, and denial, and frustration, and love.” Cat threw her hands up in excitement. “This is going to be your breakout role!”

Alec chuckled at her enthusiasm and gave her ankle a squeeze. “Well, I don’t know about that. But it will be leaps and bounds above anything I’ve gotten to do yet. That’s if I actually get the part. I would venture to guess that a lot of people are clamoring to get this role.”

Cat scoffed and put on a hoity toity inflection. “Alec Edward Branneth. You need to have far more faith in your abilities as an actor. You’re brilliant, and people are going to see that.”

“How do you know all that?” He laughed. “You’ve never even seen me work.”

“Because I choose to believe in you.”

“Why?”

Cat rolled her eyes and kicked him gently. “Because you’re my friend, silly.”

They gazed at each other thoughtfully and settled into a heavy, yet comfortable silence, which was shattered after a few moments by his phone ringing. It rang about four times before Cat flipped a hand in the air expectantly.

“Aren’t you going to get that?”

“Oh. Yeah.” He pulled the phone out of his pocket and placed it up to his ear. “Hey, Ma. How’s it going?”

He has a mom. How nice, Cat thought. She smiled as her heart pinched slightly, recalling her own late mother. It was a funny feeling to be jealous of someone just because they still had parents.

“That’s exciting. How do they seem? Well, kids can be that way, I guess. I’m good. Not much, just hanging with a friend. Yes, Cat.”

Alec pulled the phone away from his mouth. “Ma says hi.”

Cat waved.

“She says hi back. Jeez, Ma, no,” he groaned. “Because! We’re just fr— Yes, she’s very pretty. Christ’s fuckin’ sake, Ma, stop it. You’re making this weird. Sorry… hail-Mary-full-of-grace,” Alec mumbled as he crossed himself, causing Cat to giggle at the sound of his mother scolding him.

“Anyway, I just got a new script. I think it’s gonna be a good one. Thanks, Ma. Love you, too. Be safe.”

“So, what was that all about?” Cat asked after he’d hung up.

Alec huffed. “Sorry. My mother, the matchmaker.”

“Ha ha, no. The part about the kids.”

“Well, she’s just desperate for grandkids, so she keeps trying to—”

“No, Alec, she mentioned kids over the phone.” Cat laughed.

“Oh!” he exclaimed, shaking his head a little. “Oh, that.”

“Dude, where is your brain?” She giggled at how random and far away his train of thought had a tendency to be.

“I don’t even know sometimes. Anyway. She’s a retired teacher, so she travels around with various relief groups to third world countries and teaches English to little kids.”

“Wow. That’s amazing!” Cat exclaimed.

“Yeah, she’s pretty awesome.”

“Does your dad go with her?”

“No,” Alec stated flatly as he bristled, and his blue eyes glazed over slightly.

Cat crinkled her eyebrows in confusion. “No? Are you going to expound on that, or is this your topic that we don’t bring up?”

He grunted and patted her ankle again. “No, it’s fine. He’s been out of the picture since before I was born. He was a worthless asshole and abandoned my mom when she told him she was pregnant with me. Said he never wanted kids and didn’t care that he was leaving the both of us to an unknown fate.”

Cat’s eyes grew wide. “Wow. I’m so sorry to hear that.”

“Well, it’s his loss,” Alec spit out, becoming uncharacteristically indignant. “He didn’t deserve my mom anyway. She’s an infinitely better person than him. I may be a nobody, but the little that I have managed to amount to, he doesn’t deserve that either.”

“Oh, Alec,” Cat crooned as she lifted up to her knees and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. “Don’t say things like that. You’re not a nobody. You’re amazing, too, and you’re right. A person like that doesn’t deserve either of you.”

Alec sighed as he leaned his head sideways a little to rest his cheek on her forehead and placed a hand on her arm.

“Thanks, Cat. That’s a sweet thing to say.”

“Just being honest.”

A forced grin tugged at his mouth and quickly disappeared. “You’re a good friend.”

He turned to her and their eyes locked together. He appeared blatantly discouraged for the first time in the few weeks she’d known him. He never explicitly mentioned anything, but Cat knew he struggled. His industry was mercilessly difficult, and it was obvious to her how self-conscious he was about being five or six years into his career and having relatively little to show for it. Everything seemed to remind him, in his mind, he was failing at life. Including, apparently, the mention of his absent father.

But Cat could plainly see Alec was special, and she knew his hard work would not go unrewarded. It would only be a matter of time, and until then she was happy to be a source of encouragement for him. Especially since his mere presence in her life had become the encouragement she needed in the midst of her own devastating circumstances.

“I’m an honest friend,” she insisted. “I know you’re frustrated with how your career is going, but it will get better. Maybe it won’t be this play or the next one, but sooner or later, you’re going to get your big break.”

Alec lifted his gaze to the ceiling and shook his head slightly. “How do you know that?”

Cat released his shoulders abruptly as she let out an amused huff, and then lifted her palms upward in a shrug. “I told you. I believe in you. And you should believe in you too.”

* * * *

Long Gone Cat is now available at all major eBook retailers including Liquid Silver Books and Amazon.

Want music to read by? Check out the Long Gone Cat Spotify playlist. Music that inspired the book by Katherine L. Evans.