A-Fiction

I do not expect to see him, but there he is. He looks older, of course. I do too. He also seems taller. I do not go out of my way to say hi, but he’s in my path to exit the wedding festivities and I have no reason or desire to avoid him. So I wave.
“Hey.”

Recognition comes after a beat and he smiles. “Hey! I haven’t seen you in forever.”

“I know, it’s been a while. Like, something like–”

“Like six or seven years or something,” he finishes for me.

“Something like that, yeah.”

He tries to conceal the smirk on his face. “Since that-”

“Yeah,” I cut in. I knew he would mention it. “That party. And that weekend.”

He suddenly appears guilty, so I smile. But it seems he feels the need to explain himself anyway.

“I didn’t mean to, like… I mean if that was…” he stammers, still smiling, but also rubbing the back of his neck. “I didn’t want to be… I don’t know. It probably wasn’t the best idea, but you were really cool about it. I expected you to go a little psycho afterward.”

I laugh lightly. “Why?”

He shrugs. “Because that’s what women do when guys do what I… you know… did.”

“Well,” I say, also shrugging. “I don’t really give that incident much thought.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“Why not?”

“Because when I think of you, I don’t think of that weekend.” The words roll off my tongue before I can assess their true meaning.

“Really?” He appears marginally insulted, but he’s still smiling. “So what do you think of instead?”

I look past him to the dusky sky for a second as I think of everything. Then I look back at his green eyes, noticing the crow’s feet that haven’t always been there.

“I think of… seventh grade. First day of school. When you wouldn’t stop poking me in the back with your eraser, and I turned around to tell you to quit and you said, ‘if I quit, will you give me a kiss?’ and then I turned back around with my cheeks burning and wondering if some boy would actually want to kiss me.

I think of high school, when my best friend had such a huge crush on your brother and I had to go with her to a party you threw just so she could talk to him.

I think of my first night after moving back here and going to a bar with people from my new job that I barely knew, seeing you bartending and spending the whole evening talking to you instead of them.

I think of a year later at that same bar when I got into a scary fight with my boyfriend, which you defused by stepping in and casually engaging him in conversation about some video game.

I think of the first time I saw you after you came back from Iraq and noticing you finally looked like a man and not a boy.

I think of the day my best friend married your brother and us walking up the aisle.

I think of the day we stood in front of the glass at the hospital, looking at their newborn baby, talking about how crazy it was. How a baby could be such a perfect combination of two people.”

I stop talking and he’s wearing a wide grin.

“Oh yeah,” is all he says. But his eyes say more.

“Yeah,” I agree, taking a step back. “Anyway. It was nice seeing you.”

I start to leave again when I hear him speak.

“Katie.”

I glance back and see him holding out his hand toward me.

“What?”

He flips his fingertips slightly, gesturing toward the dancefloor. “Come on.”

“What, you want to go dance?”

“Yeah.” He’s still grinning. “Come on.”

“Why?”

He shrugs. “So you can have another thing to think of.”

I smile.

Sometimes it is not, nor should it be, love.
Sometimes it’s just a thread. One you don’t notice unless you go searching for it, skimming over the tapestry of your life. Maybe you can find the beginning, maybe you can’t. Maybe you can find the ending, maybe you can’t. But the thread is there, adding color and intricacies.

And even though you rarely think of this singular thread, it is part you, and you know that without it the whole thing would look a bit different. Like it was missing something.

Hello, Sunshine

Today is July 13, 2016 and it is 102 degrees in Austin, Texas. Yes, summer is in full swing. And what better way to beat the heat than to write a blog from the comfort of my 72 degree house? Appropriately and ironically, I was nominated for the Sunshine Blogger Award. Appropriate, meaning it’s really sunny outside. Like, burn-your-face-off sunny. Ironic, because I am not much of a ray of sunshine. I’m more like Meredith Grey.

Yep. That’s me.

McDreamy

Awww… Thanks, McDreamy.

Anyway, I thought this would be a fun change of pace, especially since I’m long overdue for a blog entry. I was nominated by my brotha-from-anotha-motha (BFAM), Sci-Fi novelist, Eric Warren. Eric is one of my DFWCon peeps and a valuable member of my tribe of fellow novelists. If you are a writer, having tribe is invaluable and my #writerslife has vastly improved by knowing these people.

So what is the Sunshine Blogger Award?

The Sunshine Blogger Award is given to those who are inspiring and bring sunshine into the lives of their readers and fellow bloggers through their blogspace and/or their social media.”

Yeah! I like the sound of that. So here we go. The rules are as follows:

  • Name drop and link to the blog of the person who nominated you.
  • Answer the eleven questions from the blogger who nominated you.
  • Nominate up to eleven wonderful bloggers and write (or borrow/steal) eleven questions for them to answer.

Here are the questions I was given (this could get pretty wordy):

What is your most embarrassing secret? Haha, no, kidding. If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing with your life?

My most embarrassing secret? Everything embarrassing that’s ever happened to me is so funny that I’ve told everyone about it already. Like that time I got caught by the MP’s with a former boyfriend in a restricted area of Fort Hood. That was hysterical.

Anyway. So, the thing about being a writer is you just are one or you aren’t. It’s one of those things you sort of realize about yourself as you grow up and you just do it. And so it was with my professional life. In my early twenties, I worked as a freelance writer, mostly in the tech sector, doing collateral development. I also spent time writing web copy for every type of industry, from powerboats to Persian rugs. In college part one (read: I dropped out before I could finish and have recently returned), I studied journalism, which is basically functioning as a reporter and getting paid in grades instead of money. So I’ve never not been a writer. But I guess if I wasn’t actively pursuing a career as a novelist, I’d be involved in journalism. Journalism has evolved so much that it’s not just churning out articles anymore. Does that answer the question? I have no idea.

Do you use any special tricks in your writing? Anything you’ve figured out over the years that helps in some way?

I have my own process for starting a novel. Draft an overview of the plot, draw up character profiles–which helps me start to understand the characters and get a feel for what their personalities are like, then outline the plot in greater detail. Pretty typical for any writer. Music is vital to my creative process, so for each book I have a specific Spotify playlist or Pandora station. Each of my books have been inspired by a single song and that’s where everything begins.

I’m also a big fan of Google docs because you can edit and add to them on a web browser or a phone app. Fun fact: my first five novels were all originally written on my phone using the Google docs app, and the majority of them were written in bed, in the dark, in the middle of the night.

What does your ideal writer’s space look like?

My couch. I am a couch writer. I take the word “laptop” quite literally. I can’t sit in a standard chair for too long because my derrière is quite maigre and I have mild scoliosis. It becomes painful, especially if I’m writing all day long, so I need my big, squishy couch. Additionally, I need music, coffee, a clean environment, and scented candles.

Do you enjoy killing off your characters if the mood or circumstance requires? Why or why not?

My sixth novel is the first time I’ve killed main characters (sort of) and it was an experience in itself. Every novelist worth his salt knows the strength of the bond with characters and having to kill the ones you especially love is palpably heartbreaking. I spent three days putting off a major death scene and had to pace around my house when I was writing it. I had shaky hands, cold sweats, nausea, I couldn’t eat. It was awful. And a long time after it was done, one of my beta readers mentioned one of the dead characters and I had a bout with writer’s guilt. To the average person, I sound like a drama queen, but I suspect any writer knows the feeling all too well. Should I quote Frost? No? Well, suffice to say, he was right.

Do you have a routine or something you do when you get writer’s block or get stuck somewhere?

Apparently, I write blogs that my friends nominate me for. Seriously though, if I can’t get anything out I go to the gym. Or I clean my house. I’m a stress-cleaner. It’s less like a chore and more like therapy.

What is your favorite type of book to read? Doesn’t necessarily have to be genre, just something about a book that will always draw you in, no matter what.

I need something character-driven and relationship-driven. Not necessarily romantic relationships, just people dynamics. I love people. People are my favorite topic.

If someone were to ask you: “Should I become a writer?” what do you tell them? Why?

I would say, if you are a writer, nothing will stop you from becoming one. You’ll just do it. Now, if they asked, “Should I write books with the intent to publish them?” Then I would say, “Well, how do you feel about standing naked in front of a crowd and giving them free rein to pick apart every last one of your most vulnerable flaws? Because that’s exactly what it’s like.”

How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

A wildlife biologist once measured the inside volume of a typical woodchuck burrow and estimated that — if wood filled the hole instead of dirt — the industrious animal would have chucked about 700 pounds’ worth. Source.

What is your favorite “non-writing” activity?

Gym, pool, rinse and repeat. I’m also a news junkie, particularly national politics and international affairs. I watch a lot of Frontline documentaries. And I read books, but that feels too connected to writing to be a “non-writing” activity. Yes, I’m boring. But I’m an introvert, so it’s acceptable. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

It is 10,000 years in the future. Humanity is a burning husk. Somehow your work has survived and aliens have translated it so they can read it, but they only have enough power to translate one story. Which story would you choose to survive humanity for another civilization to read?

It would definitely be Rise because of the historical aspect of the Syrian Civil War (at least, in 10,000 years all of that will be ancient history–or one can hope.). I don’t think aliens 10,000 years from now would care to read much about cute little love stories.

Hollywood wants to turn your book into a movie, BUT in the process they want the right to rewrite it as they see fit for the screen without your input. What do you do?

It probably depends on the book. Some of them, I think Hollywood could probably improve vastly. Others, not so much.

All right! That was fun! Here’s my list of questions for my chosen ones.

  1. Where can you always find inspiration as a writer?
  2. You’re only allowed to read one book again for the rest of your life; which is it and why?”
  3. If you could live anywhere in the world for a year, where would it be and why?
  4. Who is your favorite entertainer (singer, actor, etc.) and why?
  5. Best childhood memory?
  6. Who do you most admire and why?
  7. What is something that is popular now and annoys you?
  8. What would be the perfect weekend for you and why?
  9. If you had intro music what would it be?
  10. What do you feel is the most controversial opinion you have?
  11. Tell us about your current writing project(s).

The rules are to choose eleven people. I don’t even know eleven people and my BFAM already picked a bunch of my peeps. So I am instead nominating three of my favorite writer peeps.

Diana Minot is a dear friend of about 16 years. She holds a legal degree from Northwestern University and is the author of Personal Jurisdiction and Breaking Free. She currently works as a success coach for female entrepreneurs and is not only full of great advice, but also great ideas. Visit Diana.

Sally Hall is a longtime friend and has been an invaluable writing mentor to me. She is a freelance writer and blogger, and has contributed to several published works. I can honestly say I wouldn’t be near the writer I am today without her encouragement and guidance. Visit Sally.

Jessica Shook is a novelist and editor. She is the author of Jade Can’t Be Blue, a powerful book that gives me chills just thinking about it. If I could recommend any book to young women in the dating scene, it would be that one. Visit Jessica.

Well, that was fun! I hope everyone’s having a great summer so far.

 

With Great Power…

I’ve always been a believer in the saying, “With great power comes great responsibility.” And I feel, as a writer, this is applicable no matter what you’re writing. Not that I think I have some kind of great, magical power or huge influence as a writer, because I don’t. I do, however, write things that people read, and I feel it’s important to say something useful whenever possible. So when I was plotting my Unbreakable Love series, I decided it was a good opportunity to talk about an issue near but not particularly dear to me.

Today, June 2nd, is World Eating Disorders Action Day. In the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or OSFED (Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder, formerly known as EDNOS, or Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified). Four out of ten people have either personally experienced an eating disorder or know someone who has. If you’re reading this blog, you’re one of those four people because I’m someone who has.

Back in the nineties, there was a so-called “classic sufferer”, which consisted of middle class white females in their teens and twenties, who is not “objectively fat”. Since then, researchers have determined that eating disorders are prevalent across racial and gender boundaries. However, at the time all of this started for me, I was the “classic sufferer”. It started when I was sixteen and it stuck around in various forms until I was twenty-six.

There were only a few periods during that time that I actually “looked like” I had an eating disorder. One of those periods was when I was twenty-three. My entire life was a mess at that point—which is another blog for another day—and my sickly thin state was just the bitter icing on the utterly twisted cake. My grandmother recounted a story to me recently.

2006
Me at 23.

“We were at someone’s wedding,” she told me, “and you were wearing this long, strappy dress. I could see every last one of your ribs and when we got in the car I cried the whole way home.”

The wedding was that of my cousin and I remember the strappy dress. I had borrowed it from one of my friends and was so excited because I’d never been thin enough to borrow this particular friend’s clothes before.

Ironically enough, I went to the lake with that same friend a few weeks later and she pointed out that I was way too thin. We sat on the back of a boat on Lake Travis and she said, “You look sick. You need to do something.” And that was when I cried.

I’d like to say it’s also when I decided to fix the problem, but eating disorders are never that simple. I’d “fixed the problem” umpteen times at that point. The mindset of an eating disorder is very similar to an addiction, in that you become cunning and conniving in order to keep getting your “fix”. The “fix” in an eating disorder is maintaining all the behaviors you’ve developed.

Ultimately, I did fix it—which is also another blog for another day—but, just like an addict, fighting the mental battle never ends. And as with a lot of things in my life, I found catharsis in writing about it. Granted, I wrote about it several years after it was no longer an issue, but somehow the process of working through it via writing made me feel even better.

Which brings me back to the responsibility I feel as a writer to write something useful. Thousands of people have written books about eating disorders, but I wanted to write my story. And that’s what Until You is.

Yes, Until You is just another one of my sweet little romance novels, but if you read it, you’ll see my personal experience with the disease woven through the story. I recalled some of my former behavior and realized how nasty it could be and how that affected the people I loved, and I guess you could call this me trying to explain myself. There was a reason I did so many of the ugly things I did and it was because my mind didn’t belong to me. And that’s what I wanted to show in Until You. Something else takes up residence in your mind, and fortunately for me, I managed to evict it.

That said, however, not everyone is so fortunate. Eating disorders are the single most deadly mental illness and the reason is two-fold. People with eating disorders have a high risk of suicide, but in addition the chronic malnutrition they suffer extracts a physical toll on the body. The combined mental and physical assault boosts the mortality rate from death by sudden heart attack, multiple organ failure, and other deadly consequences of prolonged malnutrition. Overall people with anorexia nervosa have a six fold increase in mortality compared to the general population. Reasons for death include starvation, substance abuse, and suicide. Also notable is an increase rate of death from ‘natural’ causes, such as cancer.

The facts and figures are more than a little depressing. Fortunately, there are things we can do about it. For World Eating Disorders Action Day 2016, the following nine goals have been proposed as a global manifesto to be presented to and acted upon by policymakers and governments to take action on the growing epidemic of eating disorders across the globe.

  1. We call for all front line providers (including pediatricians, primary care doctors, dentists, emergency room and school health providers) to be educated in the identification, diagnosis and referral to appropriate services of eating disorders.
  2. We call for accessible and affordable evidence-based treatment, with early diagnosis and intervention a priority.
  3. We call for public education about eating disorders to be accurate, research based, readily available and geared to end stigma about eating disorders.
  4. We call for an end to mandatory weighing and BMI screening in schools, and development of evidence-based health programs.
  5. We call for increased awareness of diversity in eating disorders, as eating disorders affect a wide cross section of the world’s population, including people of all ages, sizes, weights, genders, sexual orientations, ethnicities, nationalities, and documentation status.
  6. We call for community and family eating disorders treatment support programmes to be available for all.
  7. We call for research-based interventions to be delivered in schools and universities on the facts about eating disorders, and how peers and staff can best support patients and families during treatment.
  8. We call for government agencies to include eating disorders services as part of health systems, public education campaigns, and regulatory bodies.
  9. We call for the World Health Assembly and the World Health Organization to formally recognize June 2 as World Eating Disorders Action Day.

In a more practical sense, if you or someone you know is or may be suffering from this mental illness, please have the courage to reach out to one of the following resources:

A list of international resources is available here.

With great power does indeed come great responsibility, and a mental illness such as this one can make a person feel utterly powerless. Despite what it feels like, you are not powerless. As someone who has lived it and made it to the other side, I can say with utmost certainty that you do have the power to make it to the other side, too. And because you have that power, you also have the responsibility. To yourself. To your family. To your future.

Take the leap.

youvealwayshadthepower

May 27, 1997 | A Short (True) Story

We were just kids.

Our parents weren’t home. I was fourteen. My sister was twelve. And we were alone.

Our brother was fifteen, but he wasn’t there either. Not that he could or would have helped the situation. But still. He wasn’t there.

My sister, Asher, and I weren’t the only ones in this terrifying predicament. We lived in Cedar Park, a small town just north of Austin, Texas that was a family oriented community and there were lots of kids our age.

May 27, 1997 was a Tuesday. School had let out for summer the previous Friday, so all of our parents were at work. When you’re fourteen, being home alone is awesome. You have free reign of your time and can raid the refrigerator and watch as much TV as you want. And since it was only a few days into summer vacation, the novelty of being out of school hadn’t worn off yet. By the end of summer, I’d usually grow a bit bored, having nothing to do. Of course, there were chores required of my siblings and me, but those just had to be completed by the time our parents arrived home in the evening. We usually waited until the very last possible minute before we started on them.

So with my free time between waking up and when my parents got home, I got to do whatever I wanted.

On May 27, 1997, I slept in, as teenagers have a tendency to do. I drank a Coke for breakfast and I watched TV. When I was fourteen, I was obsessed with celebrity life and fashion, so I watched a Fashion Emergency marathon on E! Asher and I got into a stupid fight over something that didn’t matter and that I can’t remember, and she left the living room to go take a nap.

And shortly thereafter, it started.

Joan Rivers was running her mouth and out of nowhere, her Brooklyn accent was replaced by a loud, obnoxious series of blaring beeps.

A crawler appeared at the bottom of the screen.

The National Weather Service has issued a Tornado Watch for the following counties: Bell, Frio, Hays, Hill, Kendall, McLennan, Navarro, Travis, Uvalde, Williamson…

Cedar Park is located in Williamson County, so I glanced out the large windows of the living room. The sky was blue and clear and it looked as hot as was typical for that time of year. It wouldn’t last. I knew that. But there probably wouldn’t be tornadoes. I knew that, too. At least, that’s what I believed at the time.

Growing up in Texas, you become accustomed to the warning, “conditions are favorable for tornadoes,” but for some reason, the worst case scenario always evaded us. A Tornado Watch just meant it was going to storm, and growing up in Texas, you live for those delicious spring and summer storms that give you a brief respite from the oppressive heat.

Nevertheless, because Texas is technically part of Tornado Alley, you also grow up knowing what to do in the event that a tornado actually shows up. My dad, being not quite a helicopter parent, but one who insisted that we were always prepared for the worst, drilled into us the safety precautions from a young age.

“Stay away from windows.”

“Go to a location in the center of the house.”

“Bring blankets and pillows.”

“Bring a battery-operated radio.”

“Bring a flashlight.”

But even at fourteen, I’d never experienced having to take cover in such a manner. Instead, severe thunderstorms were merely an exciting novelty. So I turned off Joan Rivers and switched to the weather radar, and there it was.

1997_Central_Texas_tornado_outbreak_radar_2048z
Radar from the KEWX WSR-88D radar station in New Braunfels, Texas.

A big blob of green, yellow, orange, and red slowly floating its way across the map of Texas, taking a diagonal, southwestern path and heading straight for us. I immediately ran to the kitchen to grab another Coke, jumped back on the couch, and patted the cushion, inviting our black labrador mix, Abby, to join me for the exciting show.

She and I sat on the couch for a while, anticipating when the glorious rain would arrive, looking forward to it squelching the stifling the heat and providing a nice, dark canopy to shield the neighborhood from the searing rays of the sun.

I should have been tipped off by the fact that the rain never arrived. This storm would be different.

Sometime later, the blaring series of beeps sounded again and the robotic warning came over the speakers.

“The National Weather Service has issued a Tornado Warning for areas in Central Texas, including Bell County, Frio County, Hays County, Hill County, Kendall County, McLennan County, Navarro County, Travis County, Uvalde County, Williamson County. A tornado has been spotted in McLennan County west of Box Ranch Road and moving west-southwest to west of Mackey Ranch Road. Seek shelter…”

I glanced out the window. Still bright and sunny and McLennan County was a decent distance away from us. So I grew bored with the radar and lack of interesting weather and switched back to the E! channel.

I spent the next couple of hours using Abby as a pillow, only getting off the couch for a snack or another Coke, haphazardly checking the time to make sure I didn’t miss my window to start my chores. The warnings continued to randomly punctuate my shows, but I’d stopped paying attention to them for the most part.

It was not quite three p.m. when the sky finally turned ominously dark. There was still no rain, and I was still not tipped off by that.

And then, right around three p.m., maybe a bit after, the phone began to ring.

I wish I could say that one of my parents was the first to call, but they didn’t. The first person to call was my brother, Tim.

“I saw a tornado.”

Tim was perpetually full of shit.

I scoffed into the phone. “Yeah, right.”

“I did. It was in Buttercup.” Buttercup Creek was a nearby neighborhood where the vast majority of kids from our school lived, including Tim’s friend, Jay. They had spent the afternoon rollerblading. “You guys need to take cover.”

“Oka-ay…”

“I’m serious,” he insisted. “A bunch of people’s houses were blown away. Jay’s crying. His mom is freaking out.”

You had to take Tim’s words with a grain of salt. But sometimes there was a larger element of truth than others, and somehow the idea of Jay crying freaked me out. Jay was a year younger than me, but always seemed mature for his age. And when you’re fourteen, you think you’re basically a grown-up, so anyone your age also seems like a grown-up. Grown-ups and mature teens don’t usually cry or get scared.

I don’t remember what I said to Tim, or if I said anything.

“Just take cover,” he said. “Jay’s mom is going to bring me home when it’s safe to drive.”

I got off the phone and went to the formal living room where Asher was asleep on the sofa, trying to remain calm in spite of my steadily growing apprehensiveness.

“Wake up,” I told her. “There’s a tornado and we need to go in the bathroom.”

She stretched and yawned and was still annoyed at me over our earlier fight. “What are you talking about? The sun is shining.” She pointed at the windows and went quiet.

The sky was black—and still no rain.

We immediately began going through the motions of everything the we’d been told to do in this situation. I moved at a normal pace, not wanting to panic and upset my sister. I was the oldest right then and I couldn’t let her know I was scared.

Since we lived in a large, two-story house, gathering the necessities we’d need for such a situation took a few minutes. Our cat, Sophie, was usually hiding under one of the beds and Asher went looking for her. I went upstairs to my room to grab blankets and pillows. While I was up there, curiosity got the best of me and I needed to look out the windows.

The sky had changed. It wasn’t black anymore. At that moment, it had transformed into thick masses of light grey clouds, but there was that distinctive horizontal break. The clouds abruptly ended in a harsh, straight line and there was clear sky below it. I noticed the movement of the clouds. Slow. Strangely directionless.

There was otherwise no movement anywhere outside. No people. No birds. And the trees were eerily still.

house
Our childhood home. My window top right. My brother’s window top left.

My room faced the street in front of the house and my window was the largest. It was floor-to-ceiling, at least five feet wide, and topped with an elegant arch. Everything I needed to see was right out that window, but for some reason I was compelled to go look out Tim’s window, which also faced the street.

I dropped the blankets in the hall between our bedrooms, stood in front of his window, and I saw it.

The first thing I noticed was the trees were finally moving. But I quickly forgot the trees because I saw the debris in the air. Black pieces of unidentifiable debris. It looked like roof shingles and roof shingles shouldn’t be able to swirl around in the air like that.

I saw it in the top left quadrant of the window and it was right above our next door neighbor’s house. It appeared faint against the rest of the clouds, but it was distinguishable. Thin, narrow, wispy, but unmistakable. A funnel cloud drilling and spiraling in its descent from the sky.

And that was when I finally panicked.

“Touchdown!” I screamed, as if we were watching football. “Touchdown! Touchdown! Get in the bathroom!”

With blankets and pillows, Abby, Sophie, food and water for both of them, and a radio, we piled into the downstairs bathroom.

We climbed into the bathtub, covered ourselves with a blanket, and waited.

We didn’t turn on the radio. Not yet. We had to listen.

They say that a tornado sounds like a freight train, but we heard nothing like that. In fact, we heard nothing at all.

At some point Asher spoke up. “I’m sorry. I love you.”

We’d had a fight that afternoon and right then we were sitting in a bathtub waiting for our house to be blown away; possibly waiting to die, too.

We were just kids. I was fourteen. My sister was twelve. And we were alone.

“I love you, too.”

It was the single most anticlimactic moment of my life, because we continued to sit in total silence for a long time and nothing happened.

The silence lasted until the phone began ringing. The phone, which was not cordless and all the way across the house in the kitchen. The path from the bathroom to the kitchen was replete with large windows. There were so many windows in our house that we didn’t even have to turn the lights on during the day. I loved the windows and the natural light they provided, but right then all I could think of was the second I left the safety of the bathroom, I was vulnerable to a potential explosion of shattering glass.

But the phone was still ringing, so I had to go.

I left the bathroom first and Asher came with me.

In the windows, the sky was no longer black, but the same light grey it had been right before I saw the funnel cloud. There was still no rain.

I made it to the phone and my mom was on the other end.

“Are you girls okay?” Mom was a nurse, so she wasn’t the type to panic. She was always solid and calm, and right then was no different.

“We’re fine.” I was the type to stifle my feelings in situations that were too intense. “Nothing’s happening here.”

“I’m leaving the hospital. I’ll be there soon.”

Nineteen years later I would ask Mom about this particular phone call.

“It’s a wonder you all were not killed,” she told me. “This was before the time of cell phones, so I had to call before I left work. The hospital would not let the staff leave, but I managed to get out before they made that announcement. The traffic was crazy and I couldn’t get home fast enough.”

In my mind, all I could think of were my schoolmates and friends who lived in little Cedar Park; all of their parents, like mine, at work in Austin; all of those parents in their cars, clogging up the northbound lane of Highway 183 that lead from Austin into Cedar Park. Over the course of nineteen years, 183 was renovated into a big, wide highway with toll lanes. But in 1997 it was essentially just a three-lane suburban street, given to awful traffic jams during peak times. And late afternoon on May 27, 1997 was definitely a peak time.

After I hung up, Asher and I went outside expecting to see some kind of damage in our neighborhood. But there was nothing. Everything looked totally normal other than the gusts of wind.

The Tornado Warning wouldn’t expire until well into the evening, so we went back inside and moved the blankets to a large closet under the staircase. Abby and Sophie were growing agitated by being confined to a small space—especially being confined to a small space together—so we let them out.

The phone calls continued.

From Jay’s mom. “Are you girls okay? Make sure you stay inside. I’ll be there soon with Tim.”

From my best friend, Natasha. “Did you see a tornado? We didn’t see anything over here.”

Natasha lived in Leander, which was the next small town slightly north up 183 from Cedar Park.

“Oh yeah,” I said, feigning excitement over the whole thing; the only way to quell my fear and anxiety. “We’re having a party!”

“What? A party? Like a real party?”

“We built a clubhouse under the stairs. We’re having fun!”

She laughed. “Can I come over?”

For some crazy reason, her mom agreed to it.

From Tim. “I’m on my way. You won’t believe what Buttercup looks like right now.”

I felt a strange combination of horror and intrigue, and I decided I wanted to see it.

The rest of the evening is hazy in my memory. The weather morphed into something less strange and more normal. Natasha arrived at some point and so did Tim and my parents. We watched movies in the living room and managed to overhear Mom and Dad speaking in semi-hushed tones in the kitchen.

“The Albertson’s has a gaping hole right through the center of it,” Mom said. Albertson’s was our go-to grocery store. Like many things in Cedar Park—being the up-and-coming community that it was—it was brand new. The store managers had saved the lives of customers by pulling everyone into walk-in freezers. “Someone said it looks like a bomb went off.”

albertsons
Aftermath of tornado damage to Albertson’s grocery store in Cedar Park, Texas. Source: TEI Controls.

Nineteen years later, I look at the photos of the grocery store and am reminded of photos of the Pentagon on 9/11.

“The entire city of Jarrell was wiped away,” Dad said. “It was an F5.”

The movie Twister had come out almost exactly one year prior to this chaotic day, and we had all become well-versed in the Fujita scale as a result. An F5 tornado was classified as having wind speeds between 261 and 318 miles per hour. In the movie Twister, the F5 tornado is the one at the end that nearly kills Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt.

jarrell-tor-horizontal-vortex-tubes
F5 Jarrell Tornado. Source: Shawn.

In real life, the Jarrell F5 tornado killed 27 people and 300 cattle and horses. The city itself hadn’t been wiped away as my dad said, rather a subdivision had. The tornado was three-quarters of a mile wide and tracked across the ground for more than seven miles. The subdivision, Double Creek Estates, consisted of 38 homes and several mobile homes, and it was obliterated.

 

“It was literally wiped off the face of the earth,” the reporters would later tell us. “Nothing is left.”

 

jarrellfoundation
Foundation of a former home in Double Creek Estates in Jarrell, Texas. Source: Shawn.

Aerial damage from the Jarrell tornado was reviewed by researchers and it was considered to be the most violent tornado they’d ever seen. The homes in Double Creek were well-constructed and bolted to their foundations, but the storm left only the concrete slabs. The houses were pummeled into finely granulated fragments and scattered for sweeping distances across the Central Texas countryside. Entire families were killed, including the Igo family, who were beloved by and active in the Jarrell Baptist Church. Those who weren’t killed were sandblasted by the loose soil of the region, resulting in dozens of traumatic injuries. Rescuers said they had difficulty distinguishing the human remains from that of the animals.

igo-familyx-large
The Igo family. From left to right: John, 15; Joan, 45; Paul, 15; Larry, 46; and Audrey, 17. Source: Shawn.

The night of the storm, none of us knew the extent of the damage and loss of life. We only knew that, in our little subdivision in Cedar Park, we’d dodged one hell of a bullet.

Tragically, many of my school friends who lived in Buttercup Creek couldn’t say the same thing.

 

****

 

The next day was hot. The temperature was in the mid-nineties with high humidity, as was typical for late May in Central Texas. In spite of this, Asher, Natasha, and I decided to walk the five miles to Buttercup Creek.

Buttercup Creek was an older, established neighborhood, full of large, nice, well-built homes. Meticulously manicured lawns and expensive cars. Cedar Park, at the time, was yuppie-central and nice homes and cars were seemingly important status symbols. But after May 27, 1997, every resident of Cedar Park got a harrowing reality check.

Sticky and sweating, Asher, Natasha, and I made our way into the parameters of the neighborhood and everything seemed totally normal. Then we rounded a corner.

 

It was like walking into a movie. There was a slight bend in the street, so we watched a slow reveal of the carnage.

Tornadoes are Mother Nature’s version of Russian Roulette, and this street in Buttercup Creek was a terrifying example of that.

Untouched house; untouched house; house with broken windows; untouched house; a car in a driveway flattened by a tree; largely untouched house, the lawn littered with branches and leaves; untouched house; house missing half of its second story.

I stared at that one.

I was a couple hundred yards away and I could see inside someone’s bedroom. I didn’t know whose house it was, but it looked like a typical teenager’s bedroom, so I knew it was someone from my school. It wasn’t even particularly mangled. It looked like someone had carefully and meticulously sliced it in half with a jig saw. Posters still hung on the wall and the bed sat neatly in one corner.

Untouched house; tree branches in a yard; a stripped roof; a large tree on its side between two houses; a concrete slab with groupings of pipes sticking up out of the ground.

We all stopped.

I don’t remember any of us saying anything. We were probably all thinking the same thing.

A house used to be right there. That was where someone lived, and now it’s gone. How is that possible?

We were just kids. A lot of the people who lived on this street were just kids. And right then, staring at a street replete with varying degrees of destruction spliced with total normalcy, it seemed none of us could process what we were looking at.

Construction crews and electricians and other workers were milling about. I don’t remember seeing any of the families. I guessed that many of them had gone to relatives’ houses in the wake of damaged or destroyed homes.

And since we were just kids who couldn’t process the gravity of the sights, and since it was so hot, the three of us merely left in search of a nearby neighborhood swimming pool.

The Cedar Park tornado varied in intensity between F1 and F3, had traveled a total of nine miles and reached a maximum width of two-hundred fifty yards. One-hundred thirty-six homes in the neighborhood were damaged and there was one indirect fatality. The man had died of a heart attack while trying to wait out the storm in his truck. He was a family friend of my friend, Kelly. About a year after all of this, I spent the night at Kelly’s house and she showed me a scrapbook of newspaper clippings, crying quietly over the man she’d known since toddlerhood. The first person she’d ever known to die.

We were just kids, most of us without our parents that day.  And on that day, we stared into the face of our own mortality. We saw firsthand how flippantly destructive Mother Nature can be. We came to grips with the idea that, sometimes, nobody can protect you. Because sometimes, it’s just you and your little sister sitting in a bathtub, in the dark, saying I love you and believing it’s the last thing you’ll ever say to anyone.

We were just kids, but on May 27, 1997, it seemed that we were forced to grow up.

 

The Arrangement | Advanced Preview

thearrangement

The Arrangement: Unbreakable Love Series Book 1 – 

Shannon Callaghan survived something unimaginable. Now she’s hell-bent on making up lost time and achieving success beyond her wildest dreams.

Jack MacCarrick is Hollywood’s most eligible and elusive bachelor. He has zero trouble getting any woman he wants—and after a chance encounter at a film festival in Austin, Texas, he wants Shannon.

He makes her an offer that no woman could refuse, but Jack and Shannon are about to realize that “no strings attached” may be an impossible proposition.

The Arrangement is the first of three installments in the Unbreakable Love Series and is set to release March 14, 2016 through Liquid Silver Books.

~

Chapter 1

Saturday, March 17

Shannon glanced at her phone for the hundredth time since she’d been standing in line. She’d now been here for two hours and thirty-eight minutes.

“Okay, ‘bout two minutes and you’re up, missy,” the event manager called out into the hallway.

She twisted the tip of one of her long, red ringlets as she rolled her eyes. She already couldn’t stand the fact that she had to be here at all, and she certainly didn’t appreciate being talked down to by the short guy with an obviously big ego who was in charge of this whole sideshow.

This was not what she had in mind when she’d pictured her time in college. The entire reason she’d chosen to study journalism was so she could get a degree that would open the door to a career as a writer or editor. Her hope had been that, in the meantime, she could use the required yearly internships at the major newspaper in Austin to do something serious and important, such as cover state and local politics, rub elbows with lawmakers in the state capitol, all the while writing some Watergate-esque exposé about whatever scandal she knew they had to be hiding.

She’d figured when she signed up for the spring internship during her junior year that she’d get the opportunity to cover something interesting. Maybe something like the current special legislative session that would decide what would be done with the education funding that had just been allocated to Texas by the federal government.

But alas. No.

No, because when March rolled around in Austin, the only thing that anyone cared about was the film and music festival.

So, much to her disappointment, Shannon had been assigned to the entertainment beat and had spent every evening of the past week interviewing musicians and movie stars, both obscure and well known. She found that these celebrity types were either down to earth and cool or totally, utterly full of themselves.

Shannon had spent a few years in Austin, so meeting celebrities wasn’t a new thing for her. Famous people seemed to be drawn to this unique city as much as anyone else, coming here for both business and pleasure, and Shannon had bumped into quite a few of them. Each time it happened, it was pretty cool because the celebrities she encountered had been the down-to-earth, cool types. But after a week of too many annoying celebrities, Shannon would be happy if she never encountered another one as long as she lived.

It was St. Patrick’s Day, and she was supposed to have the day off, but one of her fellow staffers had come down with some kind of virus, and Shannon, being such a low man on the totem pole, had to fill in. This, naturally, had put her in a foul mood. Her brother was visiting from out of town, and she was supposed to be meeting him to celebrate their Irish American heritage, but that would have to wait. Instead, at the behest of her supervisor, who acted as if he was doing her the biggest damn favor in the world, here she stood. Out in a mildew-scented hallway of the convention center for the sixth time that week, waiting to interview yet another big shot from Hollywood about his latest film.

Jack MacCarrick: movie hunk extraordinaire.

Yes, Shannon had seen some of his movies. Yes, he was tall, dark, and handsome. Yes, he had hypnotizing blue eyes and a strong, square jaw, and was the utter embodiment of a perfect male specimen. Yes, she’d overheard the other young interns leaving just now as they gushed about his innate charm and rippling arm muscles.

But he wasn’t exactly Laurence Olivier. He was just a big-budget film star with a nice face and a nice body.

And Shannon had to play the role of a celebrity gossip columnist.

She couldn’t help feeling like this whole situation was beneath her.

But then again, she was just a girl with aspirations who had started college a few years too late, and Jack MacCarrick was actually a somebody. Somebody significant and important enough that she’d been forced to wait in yet another line for hours to ask him ten questions.

This was called paying your dues, and Shannon was semi-content to play the game that would earn her that long-sought-after degree, and then she could be the serious writer or editor that she’d dreamed of being since childhood.

“C’mon in, missy.”

Shannon huffed discreetly and rolled her eyes once more as she flipped to her list of questions and stepped into the small room.

“Remember, no pictures or video, got it?” the short guy said, wagging a finger in her face.

She pursed her lips in annoyance and nodded flippantly, then turned around to sit in the director-style chair and reached across to shake Jack’s hand.

“Shannon Callaghan, Austin American Statesman.” She introduced herself confidently, as she was not-so-subtly hit over the head by how the silver screen did absolutely no justice to his striking good looks.

“Jack MacCarrick.” He flashed a grin at her, eyes hidden behind a pair of aviator sunglasses, as he shook her hand gently. “Pleasure to meet you, beautiful.”

She managed not to groan.

She should have seen that coming. In addition to his movies, Jack MacCarrick had a reputation with women that preceded him in a big way. And Shannon wasn’t about to tolerate being treated like just another one of his sluts.

She lifted her eyebrows incredulously and clenched her jaw. “My name is Shannon.

“I know. I heard you,” Jack replied, still grinning. “It’s a beautiful name.”

Shannon fluttered her eyelashes in total disgust and irritation as her jaw shifted slightly from side to side.

Douchebag.

She cleared her throat harshly and opened her mouth to ask her first question, only to be abruptly halted by him asking one first.

“You live in Austin?”

Her eyes shot up from the notebook, and she gave him an exasperated look. “Well, seeing as I’m interning at the local paper, I think one could deduce that I live here, yes.”

The grin that had been glued to his face the whole time was now peeking around one of his fingers as he leaned into his palm and tilted his head to one side.

“Interning, huh? So you’re still in college?”

Shannon briefly pressed a finger into her temple as she mentally talked herself down from biting his head off and forced a polite smile. “Yes. I’m still in college. I’m also the person who’s supposed to be asking the que—”

“So what are you studying?”

She flipped a palm toward the ceiling and let out a quiet huff. “Journalism. Which is why I’m here to ask you questions. Now, may I?”

Jack smiled and gestured in a go ahead motion. “By all means. Ask away, sweetheart.”

“My name is Shannon,” she growled through gritted teeth, then aggressively pointed a finger at him. “But you can call me Miss Callaghan.”

Miss Callaghan,” he repeated, still flashing that cocky grin at her in what Shannon perceived to be an utterly condescending manner. “So you’re not married. Are you single?”

Shannon’s jaw gaped open briefly as she glared at him. Then she snapped shut both her mouth and her notebook as she prepared herself to give him a serious tongue lashing before walking out on her own interview. “Who in the hell do you think you are?”

Jack smirked and lifted his shoulders in a small shrug. “I think I’m just a guy talking to a girl, hoping to get to know her better.”

Shannon lifted her eyes to the ceiling in utter disbelief before unabashedly glaring at him. “This is not a round of speed dating. It’s an interview,” she hissed then stood up and headed for the door. “Or at least it was. Thank you for your time, Mr. MacCarrick. I’ll see myself out.”

* * * *

Jack chuckled to himself as he jumped out of the chair and stepped over to the door with the intention of apologizing and asking Shannon to come back.

He instantly realized he’d been a bit too forward, even by his own standards. His inability to keep from flirting with the pretty girl had probably inadvertently ruined her work assignment, and that was definitely not his intention. He had just wanted to make her smile and giggle, as young women had a tendency to do when he’d grin at them and call them cute.

Women loved Jack. He had a rabid, worldwide fan base, and after ten years in the spotlight, he was used to girls and ladies turning into putty in his hands whenever he’d interact with them. He loved the attention. It was the perfect distraction from plenty of things about his life that he didn’t love and didn’t care to think about.

Given his busy lifestyle—and all the stuff he didn’t love and refused to think about—he didn’t really have the time or desire to accommodate an actual girlfriend, and that was perfectly acceptable to him. Jack had no trouble getting all the perks that came along with a relationship, without any of the commitment or emotional intimacy. And in spite of his behavior, he really didn’t consider himself a womanizer or even a sleazeball.

Jack might have made a name for himself as a film star, but he was famous because of his arrangements.

During his frequent stops in cities around the world, he’d usually pick up a lady he found to be intriguing or sexy, chat her up, and then level with her about his intentions. Then, if she was on board with it, over the course of the two or three days wherever he was, he’d wine her and dine her, seal the deal a few times, then bid her a fond farewell. No strings attached. Nobody gets hurt. He always had a great time; so did they.

And when the lovely Miss Callaghan was immediately and obviously disgusted with him, he was intrigued, to say the least.

He’d never seen anything like her. Wild red hair, flawless fair skin, bright green eyes that pierced him relentlessly as she became more and more pissed off while taking on a ferocious appearance that made her seem far more intimidating than her diminutive stature and slight frame suggested she actually was. She was like a fiery Irish warrior princess wielding an imaginary sword, and Jack immediately wanted to get slayed, as well as… well, something else that rhymed with slayed. So much that he couldn’t help shamelessly toying with her when he knew he should have been behaving himself.

But he’d apparently come on too strong, and he’d offended her. He wasn’t used to being rebuffed, and he definitely wasn’t used to upsetting people, which he had obviously done, so he felt the need to apologize.

Unfortunately, when Jack whipped the door open to go after her, instead of finding that mass of red curls, all he found was himself face to face with his best friend, stunt double and martial arts guru, Dylan Jacobs.

“Are you done yet, douchebag?” Dylan cackled as he flipped the sunglasses off Jack’s face. “It’s beer o’clock!”

Jack laughed to himself as he briefly skimmed his eyes over the length of the hallway. She was nowhere to be seen, and he felt just the tiniest twinge of guilt over his behavior, knowing he’d never get the chance to say he was sorry.

Oh well. Not your problem.

He let the pretty girl slip from his mind, never to return again, and slapped Dylan firmly on the back.

“Yep. All done,” Jack said, sliding the shades back over his eyes. “It’s definitely time for a drink.”

Chapter 2

“So I finished a lot earlier than expected,” Shannon said into her phone as she pushed out the doors of the convention center. “Where are y’all?”

“Already?” her brother Niall asked. “That was fast.”

“Well, he’s a douchebag,” Shannon sputtered. “He hit on me immediately, and I left.”

Niall laughed. “So, what, you didn’t want a date with your favorite movie star?”

“He is not my favorite movie star!” Shannon protested. “Especially not now. Where are you?”

“We’re at the pub,” Niall said then paused. “Uhh… just so you know, Shannon…”

Shannon rolled her eyes, already knowing what he was about to say. “Ugh. What?”

“Damien ended up coming after all. If you don’t feel like joining us, I totally understand.”

Shannon huffed.

Of course he came.

In her mind, she really had no business being mad. The entire situation was her fault.

You couldn’t expect to date your brother’s best friend and then think he’d just disappear forever after you broke up. Besides, Shannon had made sure Niall never knew the depths of exactly how badly Damien had hurt her. The only person who knew exactly what happened was her mother, and that wasn’t until after it had ended. All everyone else knew was that he had cheated on Shannon a few times over the course of their two-year relationship, and that caused them to break up.

Nobody else knew about the backhanded slaps, the rage-fueled kicks and punches, the belittling words and behavior intended to make her feel worthless and pathetic and like he was the only person who’d ever love her. Nobody else knew about the emotional manipulation and psychological pressure that resulted in him forcing himself on her sexually over and over and over again throughout their entire relationship.

There was an immeasurable amount of shame to have stayed in such a situation for such a length of time. Even Shannon in her abuse-warped mind knew that. So Shannon hadn’t told anyone, and nobody seemed to notice any of the physical signs of what was happening to her.

After all, it was hard for people to notice the subtle bruising of your face when you’re starving yourself into a living, breathing skeleton.

The self-starvation wasn’t a direct result of the abuse, but the abuse certainly didn’t help the situation. It took a year of therapy for her to figure out that her disordered relationship with food was a result of the first abusive man in her life—her own father. The man who was supposed to have loved and protected her, treated her—and her mother and brother—as punching bags. And, subsequently, he’d taught Shannon that such behavior was just what men do, which was why she didn’t immediately break up with Damien after the first time he slapped her eighteen-year-old face.

Her whole life had been a chaotic nightmare. She had been weak minded and weak bodied, and it had defined her for far longer than it should have.

But none of it mattered because it was a long time ago, and she didn’t want her life to revolve around such things anymore.

And when she occasionally found herself in these awkward scenarios with Damien, Shannon was polite and cordial. She refused to harp on what he’d done to her, and her making a big deal about having to be around him would only give weight to that long-gone situation. In her eyes, it was all insignificant because he was insignificant. At least to her.

Shannon sighed quietly. “Don’t be silly,” she said. “I’ll be there in fifteen.”

* * * *

The pub had sort of become Shannon’s home away from home for the past couple of years. It was a total hole-in-the-wall, old, dark, smelly. It could be loud sometimes, but somehow it made for a great atmosphere to study, write, read, and fantasize about all the amazing things Shannon knew she was going to accomplish in her life. Such as moving to New York to work as a serious editor or to just get a job where she could earn enough money to buy a house in the country, where she could keep her horse, Samson, and write novels for the rest of her life.

But all of that depended on her getting the degree that had been put off for far too long, so, for this period in her life, Shannon’s drive was focused with laser-like accuracy on finishing school. For now, she had to just settle on brief, intermittent daydreams at the pub.

After picking up a beer and kissing the cheek of Liam, the kindly old Irishman who ran the bar and treated her like the daughter fate had never given him, Shannon spotted Niall and his small group at the back of the bar, behind a couple of pool tables.

“Happy St. Paddy’s Day, brother,” Shannon said, giving Niall a quick hug. “How long are y’all in town for?”

“Just the weekend,” Niall replied as they took their seats. “Ma got us a huge discount on two-day passes to the festival.”

“Nice,” Shannon said. She waved to Niall’s friend, Tommy, then gave a cordial nod to Damien. Awkward doesn’t even begin to describe being stuck in social situations with your abusive ex. But Shannon loved her brother and knew this was just a package deal when it came to hanging out with him sometimes.

“So…” Tommy interjected mischievously. “I heard you had a pretty exciting interview this afternoon.”

Exciting is not the word I would use,” Shannon corrected. “Obnoxious seems to be more fitting. And I didn’t even get to interview him.”

“Really?” Tommy asked. “Why not?”

“Apparently,” Niall cut in, “he hit on her.” He paused to laugh. “And Shannon is so committed to her life as a nun that she got pissed off and walked out.”

“I am not a nun,” Shannon insisted. “I’m just not interested in guys right now. They’re just an annoying distraction. I have to focus on school.”

“C’mon, Shannon.” Tommy chuckled. “Jack MacCarrick could be the long-lost love of your life! He might have wanted to sweep you off your feet and put a big diamond on your finger.”

“Nope,” Damien butted in, not even hiding the snide tone in his voice. “People like that don’t go for people like Shannon. At least not in a serious way. She’ll probably be single for the rest of her life.”

Shannon pursed her lips and clenched her teeth, maintaining her commitment to take the higher ground. “And I would be fine with that,” she retorted, waving a hand casually and turning back to her brother. “Besides, I couldn’t care less about Jack MacCarrick. The only thing I’m worried about is the fact that I now have nothing for my assignment. My boss pulled serious strings to get one of those slots. I may lose my internship over this.”

Shannon let out a frustrated sigh.

“I’m so screwed,” she muttered under her breath, feeling a bit sick to her stomach all of a sudden. “I’m gonna go to the ladies room.”

“And I’m gonna get us some whiskey,” Niall declared, pushing back from the table. “You definitely need a real drink, sister.”

Shannon chuckled as she stood up. “I think you’re definitely right about that.”

* * * *

“Here we go,” Dylan said, pulling the pub door open. “I asked around. This place is pretty dark. Shouldn’t be a problem.”

The men made their way to the bar to order some drinks as Jack scanned the room and sniffed the air.

This place was the oldest, most rickety, most hole-in-the-wall bar he’d ever been in, and Jack found it to be oddly charming in a way. The old bartender’s Irish brogue and firm handshake reminded him of his long-deceased uncle.

Jack brought the whiskey to his lips and sighed wistfully, recalling one particularly heartbreaking summer during the time he’d spent in Ireland with his older sister as a teen. He stared absently at a framed map of County Limerick for a few moments when his little daydream was shaken from his head by the voice of an exuberant fan.

“Holy shit!” the guy squawked, pointing a finger at Jack’s face. “Jack MacCarrick!”

“Back off, bro. Let the man have his drink in peace,” Dylan grunted defensively, pushing Jack behind him.

Jack chuckled and waved his arm casually.

“It’s okay, Dylan,” he said, extending a hand to the guy. “Yep. That’s me. What’s your name, man?”

“Niall,” he replied, shaking Jack’s hand.

“Nice to meet y—”

“My sister interviewed you today,” Niall interjected urgently.

“Really?” Jack asked. “Who’s she with?”

“Her name’s Shannon, and she’s just an intern, but she said you—”

“Oh!” Jack exclaimed, genuinely surprised and quite pleased with the seemingly cosmic coincidence of the meeting. “Yeah, I remember her.”

Then he became just the slightest bit sheepish, recalling his behavior, and added, “I was kind of a dick to her… maybe you could pass along my apologies.”

“Well, she’s here,” Niall offered. “And she really needs that interview. I’ll buy y’all a round of top-shelf whiskey if you can give her a few minutes to ask you some stuff.”

Jack nodded enthusiastically. “Oh, yeah! Absolutely.”

Dylan cast a subtly mischievous smirk at his friend, obviously knowing what was actually going through Jack’s head, and turned to the bartender again.

“Let’s get a bottle of this,” he said, tapping two fingers on the glass and nudging at Jack to pull out his wallet.

Jack blindly tossed a credit card on the counter as he turned to follow Niall.

“Keep it open. We’ll be here awhile.”

* * * *

Shannon had rounded the corner to head back to the table when her brother gave her a totally amused look.

“Hey, Shannon!” Niall cackled. “I got a little surprise for you.”

Shannon let out a small laugh and made a face at her brother, then caught sight of that douchebag movie star and some shaggy-haired blond guy sitting at the table with the group as if they were all old friends.

She froze for the briefest of seconds, then let out a huff as she picked up a bag from the floor and turned sharply to her brother.

“Bye, Niall,” she grunted. “Call me tomorrow before you leave.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Jack jump out of his chair and dart around the table toward her.

“Don’t leave,” he said quickly, keeping his voice low and discreet as he put a hand on her shoulder and attempted to coax her away from the table. “Listen, I know I was—”

Shannon flipped his hand off of her and dropped her bag.

“Who in the hell do you think you are?” she demanded. “First of all, don’t you dare tell me what to do. Second, you’re a dick.”

Jack was way too close to her face, and she instinctively backed away from him, but he kept moving forward. So she kept moving backward until the both of them had moved around the corner and out of earshot of the bewildered and amused group.

But Shannon didn’t notice. She was on a roll.

“I was in there today to do my job, you self-absorbed piece of shit. And you sat there smugly hidden behind those stupid sunglasses,” she barked as she flipped them off his face. “And you talked down to me like I was some trollop that existed just for your own amusement. And I don’t know how in the hell you managed to find my brother, but let me tell you something, asshole. If you followed me here thinking I’m going to sleep with you or give you a blowjob or indulge in some other lasciviousness, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Are we clear?”

Shannon snapped her mouth shut and finally noticed that she was now sort of alone with him, which caused a startling amount of anxiety to rise in her chest. She also noticed his blue eyes were ablaze and his square jaw was set and he was looking utterly pissed off. She immediately recognized this to be a very dangerous situation, and tried to flee, but found her feet to be involuntarily glued to the floor by some invisible force.

Jack finally opened his mouth to speak, and the word came out in an icy breath. “Crystal.”

Their eyes were locked only briefly, and she’d finally managed to move her feet and started to walk away from him when he grabbed her wrist and pulled her back.

The anxiety hit a climax as Shannon was instantly catapulted into a state of quiet terror. She felt as if the situation was escalating into something ugly, like all the terrifying ones with Damien from years ago.

Shannon started to panic. Her heart hammered at the inside of her chest as her breath quickened. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw his hand raise up to the level of her face, and she squeezed her eyes shut and braced herself for the stinging impact of a palm to her cheek, a fist to her eye. She couldn’t believe this was happening. Again.

She held her breath. And then…

Nothing.

She opened one eye.

Jack had a look of utter disbelief on his face. He slowly moved his hand closer until he gently brushed her hair away from her face, then ran the back of his fingers gingerly down her arm until they met her hand.

He took her hands in his and looked down, rubbing her palms with his thumbs. He took a step toward closer, looked up, and their eyes met.

“Listen,” he began quietly. “Whatever you thought was about to happen just now is something I have never done, and would never do to anyone.”

Shannon blinked a few times and let out her breath. The rush of adrenaline started leaving her body, and she began to shiver or tremble. She couldn’t tell which. She felt wobbly, so she leaned against the wall behind her.

“I didn’t follow you here,” he continued. “But I did try to go after you earlier to apologize. I was disrespectful, and I made you uncomfortable, so I’m really sorry about that.”

Shannon knitted her eyebrows in the slightest bit of disbelief at how genuine Jack appeared to be about his apology. She briefly considered the possibility that he hadn’t meant any harm and he was just another jackass guy who acted without thinking when he opened his mouth again and confirmed that particular hypothesis.

“I can be a shameless flirt and a total jackass sometimes,” he admitted. “And when you stepped into the room, I was sort of blown away by how pretty you are, and I couldn’t help myself. It was the last thing I should have done right then, and I felt awful about ruining your assignment. So I’m just really sorry.”

Shannon was finally steady again and stood up straight, then nodded politely, as if to let him know it was okay. She also couldn’t help but notice the slight warm feeling of her cheeks at his use of the word “pretty” in regards to her.

“So if you’ll let me,” Jack continued, “I’d like to take the time to let you finish your interview.”

Shannon arched an eyebrow, surprisingly pleased with how the minor confrontation had ended. Maybe he wasn’t such a douchebag after all.

“I would appreciate that very much,” she finally said with her chin lifted somewhat defiantly.

“Excellent,” he said, squeezing her hands in a friendly manner, and then he paused as he noticed that she was trembling slightly and lowered his voice. “Are you okay? You’re shaking. I’m sorry if I scared you. I didn’t mean to—”

“It’s okay,” Shannon said quickly as she pulled her hands out of his. “You didn’t. That whole thing… that wasn’t you. That was other stuff. From a long time ago. It’s like a reflex. I get in that mode, and it just kind of takes over. Sort of like a nervous tick. I don’t think you’re the type that would hit a girl.” She paused to roll her eyes. “Those types don’t apologize,” she added in a huff.

Jack eyeballed her face in a funny manner, and Shannon could see the gears turning in his head. She knew he was about to ask her about it, so she quickly waved him back to the table.

“Let’s have a shot and a nice little talk.”

* * * *

A couple of hours had passed and Shannon had probably drunk a little too much. The earlier moment between her and Jack had been too revealing, too intimate, and too intense. Her nerves had been shot. Normally, when faced with such intense emotions, Shannon would just leave. But she needed the interview, and Jack had offered a genuine apology, so she had no other choice but to stay, and she’d eased her nerves in a most uncharacteristic fashion with what seemed like a bottomless glass of whiskey.

Niall, Tommy, and Dylan had ordered pub grub and were loudly snacking, laughing, and hollering as they thumped paper footballs made from napkins across the table. Damien was brooding, half talking to the other three, half shooting dirty looks at Jack and Shannon. He was getting slowly drunk, and his jealousy was starting to rear its ugly head. Since their breakup four years prior, he had yet to see Shannon even remotely involved with anyone, and he didn’t appear to care for it happening right in front of his face.

Shannon was hardly concerned with him, however. She was deeply engulfed in conversation with Jack a couple of tables over, out of earshot, asking him question after question. Far more questions than had been prepared in advance. She had more than enough information to write a stellar article about his new film and probably could have left if she wanted to, but she didn’t. The other interns had spoken of his charm, and Shannon was now just a bit under its spell. She was also noticing how much she liked the sound of his voice.

“Mac-Carrick,” Shannon slurred as she gave two tilts of her glass toward Jack’s face.

He chuckled. “That’s me.”

“And it’s not Mc. It’s M-A-C…C-A-R—”

Jack laughed out loud. “I know how to spell my own name.”

“That means,” she went on, pretty much ignoring him, “you are of Irish descent.”

He gave a nod. “I am indeed.”

She gaped in delight. “So am I.”

“That’s just the slightest bit obvious.” He paused to sip his drink. “Miss Shannon Callaghan, with hair of flames and eyes like the Emerald Isle.”

She snorted. “That was poetic.”

“Why, thank you.”

“And you are not at all a redhead,” she added. “You’re one of those black Irish.”

“Another astute observation.”

“Have you ever been to the old country?” she asked then tittered. “That’s what my ma calls it.” She continued to stifle laughter until she noticed an odd sort of sad look on his face, so she pressed her lips together to shut herself up. “What’s wrong?”

He hesitated a moment as the sad expression left his face, then jostled his head and took a sip. “I have. I lived there for a couple of years as a teenager. Have you ever been?”

“Nah. But Ma lived there almost her whole life. She emigrated right before Niall was born.”

“Ah,” he remarked. “So you’re a direct descendant. Where’s she from?”

Shannon lifted a shoulder in a dismissive shrug. “Somewhere in County Limerick.”

“No kidding!”

“Yup.”

“That’s where I stayed,” he mentioned. “My mother was from there too. She came over here when she was in her early twenties. So my sister and I stayed with her brother in a little town called Ballybricken after—”

He abruptly stopped, and his gaze shifted to the right.

She raised her eyebrows. “After what?”

He waved a hand. “Just after I turned sixteen.”

She opened her mouth to interrogate him further, only for him to speak first.

“You and I sure do have a lot in common.”

“Hmph,” she uttered. “I think our common heritage is where the similarities end.”

He simpered. “I think that similarity is enough.”

“Enough for what?”

“Enough for me to be totally enchanted by you. That along with your spitfire personality.”

She rolled her eyes as her cheeks flushed. “Pfft.”

He gave a tiny smile and a shrug as he refilled her glass.

She downed the shot, then tilted the glass toward him. “Just so you know, no matter how drunk you get me, I’m still not going to sleep with you.”

“Pretty sure you already made that clear, Miss Callaghan.”

“Well, your reputation necessitates that I continue to clarify,” she retorted, then paused before her unfiltered mouth spoke without permission. “Do you want to sleep with me?”

He chuckled. “Is that an invitation?”

“No,” she huffed. “I’m just… you know, wondering.”

He continued to chuckle but didn’t answer.

“I just mean that it’s not every day that a Hollywood hotshot hits on me and then gets me all liquored up.”

“If I was planning to sleep with you, I wouldn’t have gotten you all liquored up.”

“So why do you keep refilling my glass?”

He shrugged. “I want to keep talking to you. But I may or may not try to make out with you later.”

She glowered at him in spite of her stomach doing a flip. “Then I may or may not bite your lip.”

He grinned. “If that’s supposed to deter me, you may want to rethink your strategy.”

She laughed in spite of herself.

“So you’ve never been married,” she interjected, desperately needing to switch topics. “But do you have any kids?”

“No, but I have a nephew,” he replied. “My older sister’s son, Aiden. Sometimes I feel like he’s my own kid. She’s a single mom and travels a lot because she does work within the fashion industry, so they spend a lot of time with me back in New York.”

Shannon’s ears immediately perked up. “New York?”

“Yeah,” he said, then took a small sip of whiskey.

“Is that where you live?”

“Yeah,” he repeated.

Shannon gaped at him slightly in a bit of delight and a smattering of jealousy.

“You live in New York?” she asked a third time.

Jack chuckled. “Yes.”

“You don’t live in LA or something?”

“No.” He laughed. “I’ve always lived in New York other than the two years I spent in Ireland.”

Shannon was still gaping and let her chin rest on her palm as she gazed across the table at his eyes, which, in her now borderline intoxicated state, seemed to be holding her in a bit of a trance.

“I have always wanted to go to New York,” she said breathlessly.

Jack lifted one eyebrow and leaned into his elbows to get closer to Shannon’s face.

“You should come visit me there sometime,” he suggested casually while wearing a totally mischievous look on his face.

Shannon let out a laugh as she leaned backward into her chair. “Yeah, right.”

“I’m serious,” Jack insisted.

“Whatever,” she said, waving a hand flippantly. “Don’t you have a supermodel girlfriend with a tiny dog living with you or something?”

“Nope,” he said quickly. “I’ve never had a girlfriend.”

“Oh, right. Lest I forget that reputation of yours.” She snickered, and he gave her a good-natured laugh. “But you’ve never had a girlfriend? Like ever?”

“Nope.”

“Why not?”

Jack scoffed. “I have zero interest in girlfriends. I don’t do relationships.”

Shannon chuckled. “I know what you mean. Relationships are pretty much the worst concept ever invented.”

“So you are single,” Jack declared, pointing an accusing finger at her.

“And happily so.”

“And why is that?”

Shannon groaned and pressed her face into her palms. “Because all men are assholes.”

Jack became silent for a while. So long that Shannon peeked between her fingertips to look at his face. He looked only marginally insulted.

“I mean… in my own personal experience,” she muttered apologetically.

“So you had a bad relationship,” Jack deduced.

Shannon shook her head in disgust. “Like you wouldn’t believe.”

“So what happened?”

She huffed as she downed another shot and flipped her eyebrows in the direction of the other table. “He happened.”

“Damien or Tommy?”

“Damien,” Shannon grunted. “And he’s like the devil himself. I mean… at least he was to me.”

Jack narrowed his eyes. “Really?”

“Yup,” Shannon said in a low voice and then leaned across the small table to whisper in his ear. “And he’s responsible for why I thought you were gonna slap the shit out of me earlier.”

She lingered next to his face for a moment, watching him cast a disgusted look toward Damien. She then wondered exactly what came over her that caused her to say such a thing. Nobody else besides Ma knew, and it was beyond Shannon what had possessed her to offer such an admission to someone who was essentially a glorified stranger.

Too late now.

Shannon flopped backward into her chair and groaned as she rested her head back in her hands.

“Sorry. TMI.”

Jack ignored her half-hearted apology and shot a piercing blue stare at her after she’d looked back up at him. “He used to beat up on you?”

“Ahhhh… yup.”

Jack leaned in close and looked her square in the eye. “Then why the hell are you still friends with him?” He had lowered his voice, but it was full of intensity.

“Well… I’m not friends with him. They all live in Houston. He’s been Niall’s best friend since long before we dated. We all sort of grew up together. That’s how I know him.” She wagged her index finger at Jack. “And that’s why you don’t get involved with family friends. They have a curious tendency to stick around after the breakup.”

Jack huffed, shook his head in obvious disgust, and downed the rest of his drink. Shannon grimaced just slightly as she suddenly felt overwhelmed with guilt from unintentionally introducing him to the slightly less horrifying aspects of her past drama.

“Why would your brother stay friends with him after he did that to you?” Jack asked, apparently unable to wrap his brain around the whole thing.

“Niall doesn’t know. Nobody actually knows about any of that stuff except for my ma. I never wanted to make all of that shit public. I don’t think I even meant to tell you that just now. I’d rather leave the past in the past where it belongs. And he’s a perfectly normal person as long as you’ve never been involved with him in an intimate nature.” Shannon nodded toward Damien’s table. “See? You never would’ve had any idea he was like that if I hadn’t said something, would you?”

Jack shook his head again and started to light a cigarette.

“You can’t smoke in here,” Shannon informed him.

He threw his hands up in annoyance.

“Where can I then?” he demanded, the cigarette flipping between his lips. He was really exasperated, so Shannon seamlessly transitioned out of her indifference and stood up to run her fingers through his dark hair, then patted his cheek.

“Over here,” she said then called over to the other tables, “We’re going outside. Do y’all want us to bring back anything else?”

Nobody even acknowledged her, as they were still deeply enthralled by their paper football game. Jack stood up, and Shannon guided him toward the back patio with a hand on the small of his back.

Jack took hold of Shannon’s hand as he followed her through the dark, narrow hallway that led to the patio. Just before they reached the door, he quickly glanced around the small space, pulled her close to him, and backed her up against one of the walls.

He moved in close to her face, his parted lips hovering right above hers, as his fingers stroked at her hair. He let his thumbs glide down the sides of her face, below her chin, as he planted his lips on the spot just below her earlobe and slowly made his way down the side of her neck.

Shannon’s eyelashes fluttered as her breath came in quiet hitches and stunted gasps. She instantly felt as if her knees were about to give out, so she grasped at his elbows to steady herself. Nobody had touched her like this in a very long time.

Actually, nobody had touched her like this ever. Everything before had been rushed and scary and not the least bit sensual.

And while it was incredibly enticing and desirable, it was also so unfamiliar that it was simultaneously terrifying to Shannon, and she felt an instant need to stop what was happening.

Jack moved back to her face and ran a thumb over her bottom lip, looking deep into her eyes. He tilted her chin up toward his mouth, and just before he made contact, she sharply turned her face.

“Jack, I can’t.”

He ceased all of his movements, and she turned her face back to see him piercing her eyes with his.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

He stepped back forcefully, paused for a second, and then shoved through the exit, letting the door slam behind him. Shannon stood there motionless for a moment, suddenly completely sober, wondering what the hell just happened, then gathered herself and went outside after him.

After scanning the patio, she spotted him in a corner, leaning against a wall and smoking.

“I’m really sorry—”

He waved the cigarette as he cut her off. “Save it.”

“What’s your problem?” she asked, suddenly pissed off. “I told you I wasn’t going to—”

“Yeah, I know. I got that, loud and clear.” He flicked the cigarette down and ground it out with his heel.

“Why are you so mad?”

He laughed, almost mockingly, and started pacing around the patio. “Why am I so mad? Why…? Huh.”

“Will you just talk to me, please?” she pleaded with him, causing him to march over and get right up in her face.

“I don’t understand you,” Jack said in a voice thick with exasperation. “I have been nothing but nice to you since the second we met and—”

“No,” Shannon rebutted harshly. “You hit on me. While I was trying to do my job.”

“I complimented you,” he growled. “And then I apologized. And then I did what I needed to in order to make it right.”

Jack continued to stare at her harshly before letting out an agitated grunt and whipping his head away from her gaze.

“I know you think all men are assholes, but I’m not. I thought we had a nice little connection going, and when I attempted to feel that out just now, you were reduced to some kind of borderline catatonic state. For the second time tonight. So apparently you’re just terrified of me, and I have no idea why. Since the one horrible thing I did to you was call you beautiful and sweetheart.”

Shannon instantly felt a little bit guilty for the fact that she had been kind of rude to him all day long and tried to make amends by reaching for his face. He waved his arm in front of her hand, making it clear that a simple touch of his cheek wasn’t going to make up for the fact that she’d apparently hurt his feelings.

“And yet,” he went on, taking a few steps back away from her, “you willingly put yourself in a situation with some asshole who inflicted physical harm on you, and you think it’s just no big deal.”

He shoved his hands into his pockets and exhaled loudly. “All I wanted was to see if something was here. Between you and me. And for a second, I thought there was, and I thought maybe you felt it too. But I guess I was stupid to believe such a thing.” Jack turned sharply and started to exit the patio. “Good luck with your article, Shannon.”

As he started to disappear into the darkness, Shannon was gripped with an urgency that he couldn’t leave. She didn’t want him to, and she wasn’t sure what she could do to stop him, so she just shouted the first thing that came to mind.

“You’re clueless!”

He stopped and turned slowly, giving her a look like she’d sucker-punched him.

Shannon winced. Maybe not the best choice of words.

“I’m clueless,” he repeated, raising his eyebrows.

Actually, he was clueless. There was a reason she did the things that she did, and something in her was screaming at her that it was imperative that he know why, even if he still insisted upon leaving.

Yes!” she hissed after marching over to him and getting a little too close to his face. “You’re clueless.”

“Care to explain that to me?” he asked almost sarcastically. “Actually, don’t. I think I’d rather just get the hell out of here.”

He’d started to turn away again when she gripped his arm, causing him to shoot her a look of incredulousness and raised eyebrows. But to her relief, he didn’t pull away from her.

She let out a sigh and lifted her shoulders in a defeated shrug.

“I’m kind of fucked up,” Shannon began. “At least I was. And sometimes it just comes out. Like I said earlier, it’s not you, or anything you did. I’ve just avoided stuff like this for a very long time, and I wasn’t prepared for that just now. I don’t think you’re an asshole. It was very kind of you to apologize and let me do that interview. I know you didn’t have to do that, and it probably saved my internship. And honestly, I should’ve been more mature than to walk out in the first place.” She paused briefly to let out a self-deprecating laugh. “I’m the one who was supposed to be the professional in that situation. I should have been able to brush off a few harmlessly flirtatious words.”

As she was speaking, Jack’s expression grew less harsh as he appeared to soften toward her just a bit. But as he softened, she bristled, when the other thing he mentioned came to mind.

“And as for Damien,” she went on, shaking her head in disgust, “I ultimately put him in his place a long time ago, and I’ve just learned to tolerate being in his vicinity for the sake of Niall. And maybe I’m stupid for that, but I refuse to give Damien any more consideration than he deserves. And he deserves absolutely none as far as I’m concerned.”

Jack gave her an understanding nod but still remained silent, as if sensing she might need to spill her guts some more.

“So.” Shannon sighed again, then spoke gently, but firmly. “If you want to leave, I understand. But that’s on you. I realize I’m probably a lot more than you care to deal with, but this is just who I am, and I survived because of it.”

He nodded a second time, looking expectant, as if he was waiting for her to continue.

But that was all Shannon needed to say. It was probably far more than she should have said to someone she barely knew. And maybe it was all that damned alcohol, but she’d somehow managed to tell this relative stranger far more than she’d ever told almost anyone else in her life.

So yes. Yes, that was quite enough.

She shrugged. “That’s all.”

Jack nodded once more, and the corners of his mouth turned up slightly before returning to their previous, neutral position. He took her hand, which had been firmly gripped on his bicep throughout her entire spiel, and lifted it to his lips to kiss it gently, then let his thumb run back and forth across the back of it a few times.

“I’m glad you told me that,” he said. “I get it. It’s okay—”

He cut himself off, pausing contemplatively for a second.

“I mean it’s not okay… what happened to you, that is. I’m sorry I flew off the handle. I just… I guess…” he stammered and then let out a deep sigh. “I’m just glad you told me.”

Shannon smiled. “You already said that.”

“I know,” he said, chuckling at himself.

He looked at her for a moment and then pulled her close to him. She was apprehensive for a second, thinking he was going to try to kiss her again, but he didn’t. He simply placed his arms around her shoulders and held her flush against his chest.

Shannon hesitated and then nervously placed her arms around his waist. Her head was nestled beneath his jaw, her cheek pressed firmly into his chest.

The patio was silent, other than the distant static of cars driving by and jukebox music pouring out the open doors of the pub. She could hear his heart thumping out a steady, hypnotic rhythm.

This was a weird feeling. She felt… safe. Not like Jack was some kind of protective force against anything. Nobody could protect Shannon but Shannon. That had been long established.

It was more like she could trust him beyond just not physically hurting her. Like she could trust him enough to let down her guard a bit. He seemed more and more like he was a genuinely nice guy. A good person. Someone she could open up to. Possibly even more so than she already had.

They held each other for a long time, and then the stinging realization hit.

No. She couldn’t.

Because of New York.

The place Shannon had so often dreamed of going was Jack’s actual home. And that was where he’d be going the next day.

And she knew that, after tonight, she’d never see him again.

Stay With Me | Advanced Preview

 

Stay-With-Me5

Hopeless romantic Samantha is unlucky in love. After an instant connection with a sexy restaurant owner, however, she believes her luck is on the uptick.

Shameless sleaze Nick uses his high-end restaurant as an endless source of women. He never has any trouble sealing the deal—that is until he meets Samantha.

She requires a minimum of ten dates before she’ll jump into bed with him so he plays the part of the perfect boyfriend and suggests a romantic getaway as a means to get around it. What was supposed to be a fun, sexy weekend quickly transforms into eighteen harrowing hours when a catastrophic accident thrusts them into survival mode.

Nick is faced with his deepest fears and ultimately questions everything he’s ever believed about life and love. And once Nick’s true character is revealed, Samantha questions whether she should be with him at all.

Stay With Me is set to release in February 8, 2016 through Liquid Silver Books, and all major eBook retailers worldwide.

~

Chapter 1

Samantha

 

“Erica,” Ramone breathes into my ear as he presses his hips against my bottom, pinning me in place against the kitchen counter. My breath becomes instantly shallow at the feeling of his rigid manhood against me, with only minimal layers of clothing separating me from the forbidden object of my affection. He combs his fingertips through the tendrils of my long, golden hair, plants his lips against the nape of my neck, and I allow my head to fall backward to rest on the hulking muscle of his shoulder.

“Erica, I know you want me,” Ramone continues. “There is nothing wrong with your dishwasher. You’ve been calling me out here for weeks because you want me. Haven’t you?”

“Yes,” I manage to say. He moves his hands from my hair and slips them under the hem of my blouse, drawing them over my tummy in a sensual tease. His lips kiss their way down my neck, then pull away momentarily as he lifts the blouse over my head.

“You are a goddess,” he murmurs as he spins me around and then plunges his tongue deep into my mouth. With our lips entwined, I feel him tug away the straps of my bra and his palms finally descend over the puckering peaks of my

“Knock knock!”

Samantha dropped the book into her lap and kicked it out of sight under her desk before swigging a large gulp of scalding tea, which jolted her out of her fantasy. She spun her chair around to see Cammie, the perky temp receptionist, who waved a slip of paper at her.

“I’m heading out,” Cammie announced. “Mind signing my time card?”

“Of course.” Samantha gestured at the young woman to come into her office and scribbled her signature in two places, then handed the paper back. “See you Monday.”

Cammie waved as she flounced out of the office. “Have a great weekend!”

Samantha paused briefly as her gaze flicked side to side, reassuring her that the coast was clear and then reached down to retrieve the book.

 “Oh Ramone,” I gasp as he grazes his palms over the curve of

“Hey, Miss Holt,” AJ, the cute, young coffee supply guy, called as he approached the office door with a clipboard.

Samantha tossed the book behind her monitor.

“Hey there, AJ.” She flipped her hand in front of her face a couple of times to fan away the pinkening of her cheeks. “Were you able to get that French vanilla creamer?”

“You betcha.” He handed off the clipboard. “Got you two boxes. You should be good for the month.”

She grinned after scrawling a signature. Probably the hundredth signature of the day. “You’re the best. See you next time.”

AJ let himself out and Samantha sighed discreetly after he left.

Cute, cute.

Too bad he’s at least six years younger than her. Too bad he’s a vendor. AJ was a doll. And with his dark hair and deep olive skin, he could have perfectly played the part of Ramone to her Erica if it wasn’t wholly inappropriate. Being the HR manager, a person tends to preface every thought with, how appropriate is this?

AJ was definitely inappropriate.

She shook her head.

Never going to happen.

The two-year drought would continue. Probably indefinitely, as far as Samantha could see. It bothered her, but there wasn’t much she could do to remedy the situation. Besides, she had Ramone, the swoon-worthy Latin lover slash handyman.

She picked up the book a third time when her phone rang.

“Hey, Mom,” Samantha answered.

“How are you, honey?”

“Same old, same old. Did Jenna make it in town yet?”

“They got here about an hour ago. The kids are napping. She and Andrew are helping themselves to margaritas and the pool.”

Samantha laughed politely. “Sounds nice right about now. What time should I meet you guys?”

“Oh, I’d say around seven would be good. We’re going to Chapman’s. That fancy place overlooking the bridge on three-sixty. Do you know it?”

“I know where it is. I’ll see you then.”

“Okay, honey. Love you.”

“Love you too.”

Samantha hung up and checked the time. She had enough time to squeeze in a Pilates class and shower before dinner. Ramone would have to wait until later tonight.

She powered down her computer and filed away a few loose documents, shaking her head slightly at one of them.

Poor Cammie.

Anderson Brick Company was cutting the fat yet again and decided, against Samantha’s urgings, that the small sales branch and showroom didn’t need a receptionist after all. The inside reps apparently didn’t have enough on their plates already and would now be forced to field incoming calls from their desks in between servicing customers. But whatever. Not her business. It was only her business to handle the ugly process of letting the bubbly girl go gently. First thing on Monday’s to-do list was to write a sterling letter of recommendation for Cammie. Maybe take her to lunch, too.

This job sucked sometimes. It would probably suck less if Samantha could manage to avoid becoming emotionally invested in the employees, especially since the board wasn’t emotionally invested at all. At least not with anything beyond the bottom line.

After flipping off the lights and locking up, Samantha trudged across the parking lot and immediately broke into a sweat. Mid-August in Austin was a scorcher, as per usual. Rain was a pipe dream. This was now day seventy-one of triple-digit temperatures. Maybe she’d skip Pilates.

She let her car’s AC blast her face briefly as she remembered her dinner plans.

No, Pilates was a requirement today. She’d never been to Chapman’s, but she knew it had a reputation for decadent dishes and irresistible desserts. Samantha was a petite girl, but the only way to stay petite was to get her exercise in daily. Especially being three years away from the big 3-0. She’d be single forever if she accidentally let herself go. Although, after all of two relationships and one disastrous summer fling from a couple of years ago, Samantha was starting to wonder if she should let guys like Ramone be her lifelong lovers.

* * * *

After showering, blow-drying, curling, and makeup-ing, Samantha stood in her closet and scanned the clothes for something to wear. Her sister would probably insist on sitting outside at the restaurant. Something light and cool would probably be the best bet. She pulled a little red sundress off a hanger. Red was a good color on her. It made her mousy brown hair look more chestnut, and brought out the amber tones of her blah-blah brown eyes. She slipped on the dress and heard her phone vibrate from across the room.

Come to Mom and Dad’s first and have a cocktail, Jenna’s message read. We’ll carpool.

Cocktails. Of course.

Will do, she messaged back.

She slipped on a pair of wedge sandals, stuffed her phone and keys into a small clutch, and headed out the door, but not before casting a lingering glance at the steamy cover of the book waiting on her sofa.

“And I’ll see you later. Rrrrramone.”

 

Chapter 2

Nick

Hot. So hot. Stifling, suffocating heat that could only be cured by the warm breeze created by zipping through the shady trees of the greenbelt on a mountain bike.

Nick braced himself as he flew off a short cliff and landed deftly on the other side.

Small group ahead.

“On the left!”

The group glanced behind them and stepped to the right of the path.

“Thanks!”

Beepbeepbeep came the notification of a call interrupting his fast-paced electronic music.

“Answer,” he commanded the Bluetooth device. “Hello?”

“Hi, Nick. What are you doing?”

He whipped the bike around a tree. “Hey, Mom. Just biking.”

“Then I won’t keep you. Think about coming to dinner tonight.”

The bike careened across a shallow stream. “I’m on the schedule tonight.”

“Nick. You don’t need to wait tables in your own restaurant.”

“Someone needed the night off.”

“Don’t lie to your mother, Nicholas.”

“Mom—”

“Your father and I are not dense. You’re too old to behave this way. You should take one of those women on a real date and then bring her home to meet us.”

“Mom!” He squeezed the brakes and the bike skidded to a stop. “Can we not have this conversation right now? One of my guys caught some kind of virus. I have to work. I’ll come over tomorrow. “

“All right, dear. Be safe on the trail.”

“Will do. Love ya.”

“I love you, too.”

Nick growled to himself after pulling the ear buds out.

He was not too old. Thirty was when life began! Four years of college, two years of the MBA program, and five years of getting the restaurant established and successful. He’d put in more than a decade of tireless work and now it was time to coast. Cruise control. Why else would you work so hard for something if not to be able to enjoy yourself at some point? Life was good and easy and there was no way in hell he’d take on one more exhausting project, such as a serious relationship.

He knew his mother meant well. She wanted him to have the stability and partnership of a lifelong marriage like the one she and his father shared. And maybe he’d want that someday—or maybe not. But definitely not right now. Right now was all about him and what he wanted to do. And what he wanted was the challenge of crunching numbers, the creative control of conjuring up creative dishes that he couldn’t cook—that was the job of the chefs—implementing clever marketing schemes, and the thrill of the trails in his downtime.

All of that and the ladies.

Nick smirked to himself as he jumped back on the bike and pumped up a steep grade to exit the trail.

He wasn’t stupid or naive. He knew his habits were a bit sleazy. Hooking up with customers in his back office. But he was good at … well his job. And it seemed to result in stellar reviews for the restaurant so that made it a … pragmatic business approach. Pragmatic. Exactly.

As a result, he had a very comfortable life. What more could you ask for, especially in a dicey economic climate? Even though Austin seemed to be pretty immune to the financial woes the rest of the country was experiencing.

Regardless, he wished his parents would butt out of his personal business.

He wasn’t hurting anyone, and he was successful so why did it matter?

It didn’t. He was happy and that was the point.

* * * *

“Are you sure nobody’s going to come in here?” The blonde’s voice squeaked through hitched breaths as she clenched her thighs tighter around his hips.

“Yup,” Nick grunted as he gripped at the minimal flesh of her bony ass. Three deep thrusts and he was finished. Maybe she was too. He hadn’t noticed.

He set her down and assaulted her mouth with his one last time.

She tittered as he disposed of the rubber and adjusted everything.

“Now thats what I call dessert!” she exclaimed. “Nobody’s going to see me leave, right?”

“Right.”

After he was alone, Nick collapsed into the chair behind the desk to catch his breath before heading back out. He checked his watch. 7:00 p.m. Maybe he should take off the rest of the night. Now that he’d taken care of the most pressing item on his agenda. Although, since he was in his office anyway, he probably should take care of a few things before cutting himself for the night. Then maybe check to see if anyone interesting was seated in his section. Blondie had been all right. Not exactly his preferred type, but she was receptive and quite eager so why not?

Probably should look at his e-mail.

Hi Nick,

You can expect me Wednesday evening around 6:30. I prefer to have the meal selected for me so please put something together that you feel best represents the restaurant’s style of cuisine. Don’t be afraid to take a risk.

Regards,

Annabelle Driscoll

New York Times

He typed in a quick Internet image search to assess what he’d be dealing with and was pleasantly surprised. She was hot in a classy, no-nonsense, semi-stuck-up kind of way.

Nick lifted an eyebrow at her picture as he smirked. Then he shook his head as he closed the lid of his laptop.

No.

Annabelle was one of the most influential restaurant critics in the country. Probably not the best idea. The last thing he needed was for his little back office secret to get out.

He opened the laptop again and briefly skimmed over the menus for Restaurant Week, then pulled up the website for the Statesman and then the Chronicle, meticulously checking the pages to ensure the blurbs matched the info he’d sent over the week before.

Pecan crusted chicken with acai

“Aw, what the hell, man!” He groaned and then picked up the phone. It rang several times before reaching a voice-mail box.

“Misty, Nick Chapman. There’s an error in one of the blurbs. It says acai rice and it needs to be achiote. Achiote. That’s a-c-h-i- Never mind, I’ll shoot you an e-mail. Let me know you got it. Thanks.”

He huffed as he scrubbed his hands over his face and through his hair, then rested his chin in his palm as he stared at the screen.

Hmmm…

Acai rice. That sounded interesting. He made a note to himself to run it by Chase, the head chef.

He glanced at the time again. 7:05 p.m. Time to wash up and get back out on the floor.

* * * *

Nick glanced over the group at his table as he crossed the patio briskly.

Obviously married couple about his parents’ age; obviously married couple about his age; three young kids—groan; woman who appeared to be single and slightly younger than him.

He bit his bottom lip.

She was pretty, but she was obviously with her family so he immediately dropped the idea and put on his classy-friendly at your service smile.

“Good evening, folks,” Nick greeted the group. “Welcome to Chapman’s. My name is Nick and I’ll be taking care of you tonight. Did you have a chance to look over the drink menu?”

The older gentleman spoke first. “Maker’s on the rocks.”

“My favorite.”

Nick glanced at the man’s wife. “For you, ma’am?”

“I’ll have the pomegranate mimosa.”

“Excellent choice. It’s refreshing on a warm evening such as this.”

He turned to the younger married woman. “And for you, ma’am?”

“I’ll have a dirty martini,” she blurted out as she attempted to calm two of the kids, then shot him an exasperated smile. “Make it stiff.”

Nick chuckled politely. “Of course. For you, sir?”

“IPA,” the other man muttered from behind the menu.

Nick tipped his head toward the other young woman, mentally noting the lack of a ring on her left hand. “And you, miss?”

The young woman met his gaze and opened her mouth to answer, only to be cut off by the other woman.

“Do you have lemonade or something?”

“We do.”

“Can I get three of those in cups with lids?”

“Of course.”

“Thank you! Sorry, Samantha. Go ahead.”

Samantha.

“I’ll have a … um … I don’t know. Some kind of white wine,” she stammered as she skimmed the wine list, then looked back up at him through big brown eyes and long eyelashes. Her brows lifted as she appeared to get a good look at him, and he pretended to read her mind.

Yes, I am that hot, he thought. And so are you.

“Uh…” she stammered again as she quickly turned her gaze back to the list. “What’s a good white wine?”

“Sauvignon blanc is quite nice. Domaine Vacheron 2012 is one of my favorites,” he answered, managing to avoid a smirk.

“I’ll have that, thank you,” she sputtered and handed the list to him, flicking a glance at his face again and then sipping her water.

“You’ll enjoy it, I promise,” he assured her. “I’ll have these out for you right away.”

Nick stepped away from the table and eased up to the bar to put in the order. He leaned against it and looked back at the table to discover Samantha staring at him. He blatantly held her gaze for a moment and smiled before turning back to retrieve the tray of drinks.

The group was heavily engulfed in conversation when he returned so he silently placed the drinks on the table. When he set down the white wine, he darted a glance at Samantha’s face, who looked at him intensely with slightly narrowed eyes and an arched brow. He returned the gaze in a less discreet fashion than was probably appropriate and they sort of stared at each other for a moment.

“Thank you,” she said in a low voice.

“Enjoy.”

Damn. That was—by far—the most blatant eye-fuck he’d ever seen. Maybe he didn’t have to write off this opportunity completely.

The stare held for another second before he jolted himself back to reality and addressed the table.

“So, ladies and gentlemen, tonight’s special is Redfish with Maitake mushroom, Cipollini in Beurre Rouge—”

“I’ll have that,” Samantha piped up, still holding his gaze.

He offered a half smile. “Lovely choice. Sides include herb roasted zucchini, asparagus in lemon and brown butter, or spinach with hazelnut and Brazos Eden Brie.”

“Uh…” She paused to fan her face. “The zucchini.”

He gave a subtle lift of his eyebrow. “Beautiful.” He paused to check his peripheral vision then winked discreetly. Samantha handed the menu to him and he intentionally grazed his fingertips over hers. She sat back in her chair and appeared to gulp some wine.

“I’ll have the rib eye,” the older gentleman cut in, glancing at the menu. “Medium rare. I’ll have the asparagus.”

“Excellent,” Nick replied.

“I’d like the wedge salad with grilled chicken,” the man’s wife requested.

“Very nice.”

Just then, one of the kids shrieked, another one shouted, the third burst into tears, and a cup of lemonade was sent flying across the table, spilling next to Samantha.

“That’s enough,” the younger married man announced as he stood. “We’re going for a walk.” He turned to Nick apologetically as he ushered the kids away. “Sorry about that.”

Nick shook his head. “No worries. I’ll take care of it.”

The younger married woman interjected. “I’ll have the Gulf shrimp with the spinach thing. My husband wants a rib eye, too. Medium. Side salad. And three sides of the mac and cheese for the kids. Can you hold the bacon?”

“Of course.”

“Can you bring those out first? They’re getting restless from hunger.”

“Absolutely.”

“And another lemonade,” she added. “I’m so sorry. They don’t do well in restaurants.”

“No worries. It happens. I’ll run and grab a towel.”

After retrieving the towel, Nick wiped down the table and Samantha shifted slightly to give him more room as he kneeled down next to her. She leaned sideways to pick up a napkin that she’d placed over the spill, causing her face to linger mere inches from his.

“Sorry about this,” she apologized in a low voice, wearing the same heated expression from before.

“It’s okay,” he said, taking the napkin from her and brushing his hand over the back of hers.

“I think I’m a little wet,” she mentioned, causing his eyebrows to shoot upward.

Holy shit.

“From the spill,” she clarified with a smirk. “Where’s the restroom?”

He cleared his throat and pointed toward the inside of the restaurant as he stood. “Right that way. If you follow me, I’ll show you.”

“I’ll be right back,” she said to the group. “I need to clean off my shoe.”

Samantha followed him until he gestured down the hall that housed both the restrooms and his office, and she disappeared into one of the doors. Nick instantly decided this was an opportunity so he quickly dropped off the towels and put in the order, then made his way into the hall, pretending to make a phone call while he waited for her to emerge.

Chapter 3

Samantha

Oh. My. God.

Samantha stared into the mirror after cleaning the sticky mess off her foot and shoe. That waiter had totally been making eyes at her since he showed up. And he was quite a morsel. Tall and fit with great skin and a healthy tan. Gorgeous green eyes and light brown hair long enough that she could imagine herself running her fingernails through it and giving it a nice tug.

She should definitely come here for happy hour sometime. Maybe she should leave her phone number on a napkin. Maybe she should go ask the hostess if he was single.

She glared at her reflection.

“You are sex starved and crazy,” she said to herself. “Leave the poor guy alone.”

He probably wasn’t making eyes at her. He’s probably flirting for good tips. For good measure, she tousled her hair one more time and adjusted her bra in an attempt to make herself look at least half as hot as he was, then pulled the door open.

And there he was.

Right in the hall.

Giving her that same look.

She paused to throw an overtly flirtatious glance at him and intended to walk back to the table, only for him to touch her hand again.

She peeked over her shoulder and saw that the coast was clear. Then, throwing caution to the wind, she lifted her eyebrows and inched backward toward the ladies’ room door and gestured with her head inside. He hesitated and appeared to check the hall for bystanders, then motioned with his head toward a third door at the end of the hall and disappeared inside.

She followed him through the door, into some kind of office, and he spun the lock before taking both of her arms and pulling her close to him. He lifted her hands to place them on his shoulders and she took the opportunity to run her fingers through his hair.

“I’ve never done anything like this before,” she admitted.

He tilted his head to kiss a spot to the right of her lips and her tummy did a flip. “Neither have I.”

She managed to stifle a giggle at the fact that she’d read something identical to this in one of her smutty romance novels. The humor of the situation quickly melted away as she felt him clutch her waist and slowly push her backward against the wall.

Her HR manager bells began going off. All kinds of rules were definitely being broken right then, but something about the whole thing was a huge turn-on and she couldn’t help tugging his neck so their faces were close.

So inappropriate,” she uttered with a seductive smirk.

“Too inappropriate?” he asked, smirking back.

“No way.”

With that, his lips were on hers and, my word, he was even better at kissing than he looked like he would be. A shiver shot down her spine as he stroked her cheeks and the sides of her neck with his thumbs. He moved forward again, pressing himself against her, and she couldn’t tell if there was something in his pocket or if he was thoroughly enjoying this too.

The kissing grew more fervent and she realized it was definitely not something in his pocket, rather inside his well-fitting slacks, as he let his hands travel south again. They made their way to the hem of her dress and she instinctively lifted her knee to wrap around his hip while he slid his palm down the back of her thigh and his lips caressed her neck.

He slipped two fingers under her panties, giving her firm, but delicate strokes. Whether it was her alarms going off at how scandalous this was or the shock of being touched after so long, Samantha suddenly chickened out.

She jerked her leg down and pushed him back slightly.

“Too inappropriate!”

He immediately released her and stepped away as he took on a concerned appearance.

“Sorry. Are you all right?”

She caught her breath. “I’m fine. You know, that was … I mean, I don’t think I can have sex with you in your boss’s office.”

“Well, actually it’s—”

“I mean, not that I don’t want to,” she added quickly. “Because I do. Er … I mean, but not like this.” She paused to laugh. “I probably need to get back and so do you.”

He smiled at her and nodded. “Probably.”

She got a little lost as she stared at his lips and then abruptly shook her head to bring herself back.

“Here,” she offered as she pulled the pen from his pocket and pushed up one of his sleeves. She scrawled her name and phone number on the inside of his forearm and pulled the sleeve back down. “You can call me if you want. I’m Samantha.”

He dipped his chin politely. “Nick.”

“I know. You said that earlier.” She tapped the pen on his name tag before sliding it back in his pocket. “And it’s right there.”

He chuckled sheepishly. “Oh yeah. Right.”

“Anyway,” she went on as she clumsily bumped out of the room. “Thanks. Uh, I mean, you know … whatever.”

* * * *

Samantha avoided eye contact with Nick for the majority of the rest of the evening. Although when she glanced at him a couple of times, she noticed him giving her a bit of a knowing smile, which caused her to fan her face.

What the heck had she been thinking?

She was this close to having sex with a random waiter in the back of a restaurant.

Desperate. She was totally desperate.

And not to mention thoroughly amused by the whole thing. She couldn’t wait to gossip about it later with Jenna.

Eventually, Nick came by and began clearing the dessert dishes.

“How was everything?”

“Absolutely wonderful!” Mom exclaimed.

“Yes,” Dad agreed. “Definitely lived up to the expectations we had.”

“Excellent,” Nick said pleasantly. “Well, the owner would like you to know that your dinner is on him tonight, and he hopes that you’ll come back and join us again.”

“Why, how wonderful!” Mom exclaimed again. “That’s terribly kind.”

“Is he around?” Dad inquired. “I’d love to thank him personally.”

“He’s uh.” Nick paused to clear his throat. “He’s actually tied up in the back, but I’ll be sure to pass the message along.”

Samantha raised her eyebrows in concern, wondering if her little rendezvous with Nick had been seen by the owner and he was now in deep trouble.

“Well, at least let us leave you a little something for your service, Nick,” Dad went on, pulling out his wallet.”

“That’s not necessary,” Nick replied hastily. “I’ve been well taken care of tonight. And it was entirely my pleasure.”

He then turned to leave without saying anything else.

Now Samantha was positive something was up. He probably wasn’t allowed to accept a tip from a patron he’d canoodled with. She suddenly felt an urgent need to speak to the owner and clear up the situation. She’d been as much a guilty party as Nick had, and hoped to potentially save his job.

“I’ll meet you guys at the car,” Samantha called to her family. “I’m going to hit the restroom.”

She made her way to the hostess stand and waited for the young woman to get off the phone.

“Hi, ma’am, how can I help you?”

“I was wondering if I could speak to the owner or the manager, or whoever is in charge. Privately, if possible.”

The young woman took on a concerned appearance. “Of course. Is there a problem?”

“No, but I think there’s been a terrible misunderstanding with one of the waitstaff.”

“Certainly. Follow me, please.”

The hostess led Samantha down the hall and into the office where the canoodling had taken place earlier. Once alone, she dropped her face into one of her palms and groaned quietly at her indiscretion.

You ought to know better, you shameless hussy.

Just then, the door swung open and Nick waltzed in, and he immediately took on a surprised look.

“Uh, hi, Samantha,” he greeted her as he closed the door. “What can I do for you?”

She raised her eyebrows. “What are you doing here? I was trying to talk to your boss.”

He gave her a funny look. “I am my boss. Is everything okay? Are you upset? I mean, about earlier?”

I’m fine. I thought you got in trouble,” she replied. “What do you mean you’re your boss? Are you the manager or something?”

“Sort of. This is my place.”

“What is?”

“The restaurant.”

She stared at him blankly. “You own the restaurant?”

“Yeah.”

“You own the restaurant and you wait tables?”

“Sure do.”

“Why?”

He shrugged. “I had a guy call in sick. Also, I like to, I guess.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Oh. So you’re not in trouble about earlier?”

“Nope.”

“Then why did you comp our entire meal?”

He rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, I felt kind of weird. You know, making your family pay after I … well, you know.”

She grinned at him and crinkled her nose. “Really?”

“Really.”

“Well, that was nice of you.”

He smiled as she swayed slightly and eyeballed the closed door behind him.

“So,” she went on as she stepped closer to him. “Are you going to use my number or what?”

He stepped forward and closed the distance between them, then grasped her hips. “I am definitely going to use your number.”

She lifted up on her toes. “Are you going to kiss me good-night?”

He smirked and moved his hands to the sides of her face. “I am definitely going to kiss you good-night.”

* * * *

Samantha made her way out of the restaurant and into the backseat of the SUV and sat next to Jenna.

“What took you so long?” Jenna demanded.

“Long line for the ladies’ room.”

Samantha pulled out her phone and shot her a text.

I totally got that waiter’s number.

What! OMG. He was so cute, good job! LOL!

And I kissed him.

OMG! You hussy! LOL!

The two women exploded into a fit of school girlish giggles, which caused Andrew to wrench his neck around and give them a look.

“What’s so funny?”

They continued to chortle as they blurted out in unison, “Nothing!”

Long Gone Cat | Free Preview

LongGoneCat_smaller_for_website

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.