Iris Kelly was desperate.
She paused on her parents' front porch steps, the June sun feathering evening light over the blue-painted wood, and took her phone out of her pocket.
Tegan McKee was desperate.
She typed the words into her Notes app, staring at the blinking cursor.
"Desperate for what, you little minx?" she asked out loud, waiting for something-anything that didn't feel overdone and trite-to spill into her brain, but nothing did. Her mind was a terrifying blank slate, nothing but white noise. She deleted everything except the name.
Because that was all she had for her book. A name. A name she loved. A name that felt right. A name that Tegan's best friends shortened to Tea, because of course they did, but a solitary name nonetheless. Which meant, in terms of her second full-length romance novel-the very one her literary agent was already up her ass about, that her publisher had already bought and paid for, that her editor was expecting to land into her inbox in two months' time-Iris had nothing.
Which meant Iris Kelly was the one who was desperate.
She glanced up at her parents' front door, dread clouding into her belly and replacing the creative panic. Inside that house, she knew what awaited her, and it wasn't pretty. Her mother's dentist, perhaps? No, no, her gynecologist more likely. Or, maybe, if Iris was really lucky, some poor sap who wanted to be there even less than Iris-because Maeve Kelly was nearly impossible to resist once she set her mind on something-and Iris and the aforementioned sap could commiserate over the absurdity of their situation.
Hell, maybe Iris could get some content out of it.
Tegan McKee was on a date. She hadn't planned the date, nor did she recall being asked out.
Iris froze with one foot on the step and opened up her Notes app again. That actually wasn't too bad . . .
Iris dragged her eyes from that infernal blinking cursor-Why the hell don't you want to go on a date, Tegan?-and smiled at her mother and father, now standing in the open doorway, arms around each other, marital bliss causing their faces to glow in the summer light.
"Hey," she said, tucking her phone away. "Happy birthday, Mom."
"Thanks, sweetheart," Maeve said, red and gray-streaked curls bouncing into her face. She was a round woman, with soft arms and hips, and a hefty bosom Iris herself had inherited.
"More gorgeous every year, she is," Iris's dad said, kissing his wife on the cheek. Liam was tall and lithe, pale red hair ringing the shiny bald spot on top of his head.
Maeve giggled, and then Iris watched as her parents started full-on making out, which included a flash of Liam's tongue and the definite, not-so-surreptitious slide of his hand down Maeve's ass.
"Jesus, you two," Iris said, stomping up the stairs and averting her eyes. "Can you give it a rest at least until I get in the house?"
They pulled away from each other but kept the obnoxious grins.
"What can I say, love?" Liam said, his Irish accent still fully in place even after forty years in the States. "I can't keep my hands off the woman!"
More kissing noises commenced, but Iris was already past them and heading into the house. Her younger sister, Emma, appeared with her four-month-old, Christopher, hidden under a nursing wrap, which Iris assumed meant the baby was attached to one of Emma's boobs.
"God, are they at it again?" Emma asked, chin-nodding toward the front door, where Maeve and Liam whispered sweet nothings in each other's ears.
"Are they ever not?" Iris said, hanging her bag on the hook in the foyer. "But at least it's distracting Mom from-"
"Oh, Iris!" Maeve called, pulling her husband into the house by the hand. "I have someone I want you to meet."
"Fuck my life," Iris said, and Emma grinned.
"Language," Maeve said, then hooked her arm through Iris's.
"Isn't there a dirty diaper in need of changing?" Iris asked as her mother dragged her toward the back door. "A filthy toilet I could scour? Oh, wait, I just remembered I'm late for a pap smear-"
"Stop that," Maeve said, still tugging. "Zach is perfectly nice."
"Well, if he's nice," Iris said.
"He's my spin class instructor."
"Oh, fuckity fuck."
Maeve shoved her onto the back deck, which was how she found herself sitting next to Zach, who, thirty minutes later, was busy extolling the virtues of CrossFit training.
"You never really know how far your body can go, what it can do, until you push it to the edge," he was saying.
"Mm," was all Iris had to say back. She sipped a Diet Coke, cursing her mother's habit of saving the wine for the meal, and looked around for a savior.
Liam was silent at the grill, a stalwart of That's none of my business, so he'd be absolutely no help. She loved her father, but the man was complete trash for his wife, bending heaven and earth for the woman whenever possible. Which meant Maeve sprung these "dates" on Iris nearly every time the family got together, and Liam would simply smile, kiss Maeve on the cheek-or make out for ten minutes as the case may be-and ask what she wanted him to grill for said blissful occasion.
Emma was currently sitting across from Iris at the redwood patio table, her red hair cut into a sensible, advertising executive bob, smirking at the whole situation. Emma thought her mother's setups were hilarious, and she also knew Iris would never, in a million years, go for someone Maeve dragged home.
Mostly because Iris hadn't gone for anyone at all in over a year.
"Have you ever done HIIT?" Zach asked now. "Feels like you're going to die while you're in the throes, but whew, what a rush!"
Emma snorted a laugh, then covered it by patting her newborn on the back.
Iris scratched her cheek with her middle finger.
Meanwhile, Aiden, Iris's brother and the eldest of the three Kelly siblings, was running around in the backyard growling like a bear, chasing his twin seven-year-old daughters, Ava and Ainsley, through the dusky golden light. Iris seriously considered joining them-a good game of tag seemed like a better way to spend an evening than this tenth circle of hell.
Of course, Iris had expected this. Just last month, at a gathering to celebrate Aiden's move from San Francisco to Portland, Iris had found herself seated next to her mother's hairstylist at dinner, a lovely lavender-haired woman named Hilda who led off the conversation by asking if Iris was a fan of guinea pigs. Iris then spent the next week wasting at least five thousand words on her novel as Tegan wandered around looking for a meet-cute in a PetSmart. She'd ended up scrapping the whole thing, then promptly blamed her mother for the horrible inspiration.
"You know that stuff will kill you," Zach said, nodding toward her soda and smiling wryly, showing all of his perfect teeth. He was a white guy-blond hair, blue eyes-but he was also vaguely . . . orange. Iris had to bite back a reply about tanning beds and skin cancer.
"Oh, see if you can get her to drink more water, Zach," Maeve said as she came outside with a tray of homemade veggie burgers for the grill.
"Water is really the only thing I drink," he said, leaning his elbows on his knees, admittedly impressive biceps flexing. "That and the occasional cup of green tea."
"Jesus Christ," Iris said, chugging back some more soda.
"What was that?" Zach said, leaning closer to her. His salty-piney cologne washed over her-a tsunami rather than a gentle wave-and she coughed a little.
"I said cheese and crackers," she said, slapping the table and standing up. She tugged at her cropped green sweater, which just barely covered her midriff. "I think we need some."
"Cheese and crackers, cheese and crackers!" Ava and Ainsley both chanted in between giggles and squeals from the yard, where Aiden had them both hoisted over his broad shoulders. Their long auburn hair nearly brushed the grass.
Aiden deposited the girls on the top porch step, and Iris immediately pounced, grabbing their tiny hands with her own. She moved so fast, she imagined she looked like a vulture descending from the sky, but honestly, she didn't care. She would one hundred percent use her adorable nieces to get her out of this situation.
"I can get it, honey," her mother said, depositing the platter of burgers into her husband's hands and moving back toward the door.
"No!" Iris yelled. She slapped on a smile and softened her voice. "I can do it, Mom, you take a load off."
And with that, she pulled Ava and Ainsley into the house, walking so fast their gangly legs nearly tangled with hers. She managed to get all three of them inside without ending up in a heap on the floor and bustled the two little girls into the kitchen through some carefully curated tickles.
Aromas of baking bread and sugar greeted them. Emma's husband, Charlie, was mashing potatoes in a giant blue ceramic bowl, forearms flexing, while Aiden's wife, Addison-resplendent in a belted shirt dress and ruffly apron-laid strips of pastry over what looked like a rhubarb and strawberry pie. It was like a fucking Norman Rockwell painting in here.
Iris waved at her siblings-in-law, then quickly located the charcuterie platter on the butcher block island her mother had already prepared. She immediately stuffed a rectangle of cheddar in her mouth, then spread a smear of brie onto a sesame seed cracker before dipping the whole thing into a tiny stainless steel cup full of locally sourced honey.
"Easy," Addison said as the twins reached for their own snacks. "Don't ruin your appetites."
Iris stuffed another delectable, meal-ruining square of bliss into her mouth. Addison was nice, and she and Iris had always gotten along okay, but the woman still dressed the twins in matching outfits, braided their hair in the same styles, and ran a mommy blog about how to balance style with efficiency in the home. She also had a tiny long-haired chihuahua named Apple, cementing their only A-names allowed household.
Not that there was anything wrong with any of that, but Iris, whose apartment was an amalgam of mismatched furniture and housed a drawerful of various sex toys in both of her nightstands, was never quite sure how to bond with her sister-in-law. Especially when Addison said shit like Don't ruin your appetites to kids eating tiny cubes of cheese.
Iris made a point to slather the honey extra thick onto her next cracker. Conveniently, this also meant her mouth was practically glued shut when her mother bustled into the kitchen, eyes aglow and fixed on Iris.
"So?" Maeve said. "What do you think?" Behind her, both Aiden and Emma, along with baby Christopher, spilled into the room.
"Yeah, Iris, what do you think?" Aiden said with a smirk, popping a square of pepper jack into his mouth.
Iris glared at him. Growing up, she and Aiden had been pretty close. He was only two years older than she was, and he worked as a designer at Google. He and Iris were both creative, both prone to dreaming, but ever since he married Addison and became a dad, they hardly ever talked except at family events like this one.
Not that Iris didn't understand-he was busy. He had a family, kids to feed and mold into responsible human beings, a spouse. He was needed, while Iris spent most of her time lately staring up at her dust-covered ceiling fan wondering why the hell she ever thought writing was the correct career choice after she closed her paper shop last summer.
"What do I think about what?" Iris said, playing ignorant.
"I think he's cute," Emma said, swaying while Christopher dozed in her arms. He squirmed a little, wrinkled eyes closed, mouth a tiny adorable rosebud.
"You would," Iris said to Emma. Emma was . . . well, she had her shit together. Always had. Three years younger than Iris, she'd married the perfect man at twenty-four, already worked her way to junior executive at a lucrative advertising agency in Portland by twenty-six, and popped out a kid at twenty-seven. Incidentally, this timetable had always been her plan, from age sixteen when she skipped her sophomore year and made a perfect 1600 on her SATs.
"There's nothing wrong with being health conscious," Emma said. "I think someone like that would be good for you."
"I can feed myself, Em," Iris said.
"Barely," she said. "What did you have for dinner last night? Potato chips? A Lean Cuisine?"
Needless to say, Emma and Addison were BFFs and co-chairs of the Perfect-Women-Who-Have-It-All club. Iris imagined it as an elite group that probably met in an opulent, password-guarded penthouse apartment, where all the members brushed each other's gleaming hair and called one another names like Bunny and Miffy and Bitsy.
"Actually," Iris said, popping a green olive into her mouth, "I fed on the repressed tears of uptight women who need to get laid, thanks very much." She eyed Charlie. "No offense."
He just laughed, cutting cubes of butter into the potatoes, while Emma's mouth puckered up in distaste. Iris felt a twinge of guilt. Unlike Aiden, she and Emma had never been close at all. As a kid, Iris had relished the idea of being a big sister, and there were myriad pictures of the precious Emma-the youngest, the surprise blessing, the completing jewel in the Kelly family crown-cuddled in Iris's arms. As the years passed, their roles shifted, the line between older and younger sister blurring, as Emma always seemed to know the answer, the right behavior, the correct choice, a split second before Iris did.
If Iris figured it out at all.
"Iris, really," her mother said, taking Christopher from Emma and patting his back. "Your father and I worry about you," Maeve went on. "All alone in your apartment, no roommate, no steady job, no boyfriend-"
Her mother winced. Maeve and Liam Kelly, both survivors of Irish Catholic upbringings, had always accepted Iris's bisexuality with open arms and hearts-even going so far as to set her up with Maeve's queer, guinea pig-loving hairstylist-but they still got trapped in heteronormative language sometimes, particularly when all of Iris's siblings were straight as fucking arrows.
"Sorry, honey," Maeve said. "Partner."
"And I have a job," Iris said.
"Writing those SEAs or whatever you call them that you don't even experience?" Maeve said.
Copyright © 2023 by Ashley Herring Blake. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.