. One .
My life has come to this: all my worldly possessions shoved into one trusty, albeit three-wheeled and wobbly, suitcase; seven dollars and fifty-nine cents in my bank account; and zero idea of what comes next.
This is what I get for heeding my monthly horoscope.
As the stars align, your path shifts. Change creates new chances. Old wounds offer wisdom. Your future awaits. The question is: Are you brave enough to embrace it?
That damn horoscope.
Starfished on my sister Juliet's bed, I stare at my reflection in the nearby standing mirror and ask it, "What were you thinking?"
My reflection arches an eyebrow as if to say, You're asking me?
Groaning, I paw around the mattress until I find my dinged-up but still operational phone, then swipe it open to turn on music. It's too quiet in here and my thoughts are too loud.
Moments later, a song from my aptly named playlist, GET UR SHIT 2GETHER, fills the room. But it doesn't help-not even the most high-octane feminist anthem can change the fact that I am so prone to act first, think later, so easily goaded by a challenge, that one minor family crisis coinciding with a taunting horoscope, and look where I've landed myself.
Home, where I haven't been in nearly two years, or stayed for longer than a week at a time since I graduated from college. Specifically, in my older sister Juliet's room while she flies over the Atlantic, headed for a stay in the quaint Highlands cottage I'd been renting. A cottage, I quickly realized after breaking my shoulder and having to pass on my usual photojournalism gigs, that I couldn't afford (neither budgeting nor saving has ever been my forte).
Since I had a rental cottage I couldn't pay for, and my sister Juliet needed a change of scenery, swapping places was a no-brainer at the time. Now, lying in my sisters' apartment, left alone to contemplate my choices, I'm not so sure.
As if she knows my thoughts are spiraling, my phone lights up with a text from Beatrice, my other older sister and Juliet's twin. I can feel her happiness in a few simple sentences, and a wave of calm crests through me, a reassuring reminder-I made the right decision in coming home. Not only did it enable Jules's much-needed escape, but it freed Bea to reunite with her boyfriend.
BeeBee: Hey, KitKat. I'm really sry for dashing off so soon after you got here. I know you get why I needed to talk to Jamie right away, but I'll come back tonight & we can spend time together, OK?
I bite my lip, thinking through how to respond. Neither Bea nor Jules knows how much I know about the predicament they were in or the solution made possible by my return. That's because my sisters don't know Mom spilled the tea on our monthly phone check-in and told me everything I'd missed:
Juliet and her fiancé had matchmade Bea and Jamie, the fiancé's childhood friend. The fiancé turned out to be a toxic piece of trash, and Jules ended their relationship. Even though Jamie also cut out the piece of trash, Bea brought their relationship to a halt because she knew Jamie would be a painful reminder for Jules of the man who'd hurt her. Until Jules was in a better emotional place, Bea felt that, even though it crushed her, they had to stay apart.
As I listened to my mother explain what a pickle my siblings had gotten themselves into, her voice's speed and pitch escalating in tandem with her worry, I realized for once I wanted to come home. The people I loved were hurting, and for once, I actually felt like I could help them, even if only in this small way.
Sure, my method required a few . . . untruths. But they were worth it. Small lies of omission. Harmless, really.
Harmless, huh? Just like that horoscope? My reflection gives me a skeptical glance.
I flip it off, then refocus on my phone, typing a response to Bea.
KitKat: If you dare show your face tonight here, BeeBee, I will spin you right around & send you back where you came from.
BeeBee: I just don't want you to be alone your first night home.
A sigh leaves me, even as a twinge of affection pinches my chest. Older sisters.
KitKat: Newsflash, I like being alone. I get to eat all the food Mom stuck in the fridge & dance around naked to Joan Jett.
BeeBee: Newsflash, you'd do that with me around, anyway.
I snort a laugh and roll off the bed, wandering out of Juliet's room into the hallway.
KitKat: I'll be fine. Seriously.
BeeBee: You're sure?
KitKat: Yes! I promise.
BeeBee: You could always go to Mom & Dad's for some company?
I scowl at my phone, picturing the man who lives next door to my childhood home, who's been a source of misery for as long as I can remember.
I will not be going to my parents' and risk bumping into Christopher Petruchio-long-standing nemesis, bane of my existence, asshole of epic magnitude-because the universe is a jerk and, whenever possible, I always have the misfortune of bumping into Christopher.
KitKat: I'm good. Now get off the phone & go bang your boyfriend's lights out.
BeeBee: Done & doner.
BeeBee: OH! I forgot. Cornelius needs his dinner. Would you mind feeding him? His meal is in a container in the minifridge, labeled for today.
I peer into Bea's bedroom and spy her pet hedgehog waddling around his elaborate screened-in living structure. A smile tugs at my mouth as he perks up and his little nose wiggles, sniffing the air. I'm an animal lover, and while I've never looked after a hedgehog, I'm not worried about being able to handle it.
KitKat: No problem.
BeeBee: Thank you so much!!
KitKat: You're welcome. Now STOP TEXTING & GET BANGING.
BeeBee: FINE! IF I MUST!
I shove my phone into my back pocket and slump against the hallway, scrubbing my face. I'm jet-lagged, my system heavy with exhaustion yet humming with energy. I can't stand when I'm tired yet hyped, but such is life. Just because my body's wiped doesn't mean my brain gets the memo.
Moaning pathetically, I traipse through the living room, then flop onto the sofa just as my phone buzzes again. I reach inside my pocket and yank it out.
BeeBee: Wait, just one more thing!
BeeBee: In case you change your mind, a reminder that the Friendsgiving party I told you about is 4-8. There'll be PUMPKIN PIE.
I roll my eyes as I swipe open the screen, then type my response. Yes, my weakness is pumpkin pie. But my hatred of Christopher, who will be there, is much stronger.
KitKat: Not a chance in hell, BeeBee. But nice try.
Okay, so maybe my dependence on pumpkin pie is a smidge stronger than I care to admit.
Not so strong that I've decided to swing by the Friendsgiving party and risk seeing Christopher. Instead, there's Nanette's, a kick-ass bakery that I'm headed to, located a handful of blocks from the apartment. After some slight (read: thirty minutes of) social media scrolling, I discovered Nanette's was having a flash sale this evening on pumpkin pies, buy one, get one half off.
I might have seven dollars and fifty-nine cents in my bank account, but I do have a credit card for extenuating circumstances that I am prepared to use. Thankfully, I don't have to-I found an envelope on the kitchen counter with my name on it in Mom's loopy cursive and five twenty-dollar bills. Not even the prick to my pride, that my mother had both inferred and fussed over my rocky financial status, could stop me from snatching up two twenties and powering out the door.
Clearly, the universe intends me to have some pumpkin pie, after all.
Strolling down the sidewalk toward my destination, I bask in a bracing November wind that whisks dried autumn leaves along the concrete in tumbling, percussive swirls. My WALK IT OFF playlist blasts in my headphones and I feel a swell of joy. Fresh air. Two whole pumpkin pies, all to myself. No Friendsgiving required. No having to face-
I collide with someone just as I round the corner of the block, my forehead knocking into what feels like a concrete ledge but is more likely the other person's jaw, followed by their hard sternum jamming my sore shoulder. I hiss in pain as I stumble back.
A hand wraps around my other arm to steady me, and its warmth seeps through my jacket. I glance up, assessing if I'm under threat, but we're caught in a shadowy patch of the sidewalk, late-evening darkness swallowing up our features.
Before I can panic, the strength of their grip eases as if they've sensed I stopped wobbling. As if whoever this is understands something about me that I don't feel anyone ever has: that while I am fiercely independent, sometimes I want nothing more than a caring hand to catch me when I falter and just as freely let me go when I'm steady again.
The rumble of a voice dances across my skin, making every hair on my body stand on end. I yank off my headphones so I can hear them clearly.
". . . so sorry," is what I catch.
Two words. That's all it takes. Even if they're two words I've never heard him say before, they're all I need to recognize a voice that I know as well as my own.
Fiery anger blazes through me. Not because my shoulder's throbbing, though it is. Not because my head feels like a bell that's been rung, though it does. But because the person I've been trying to outrun is the very person I just ran into:
"What the hell, Christopher?" I wrench my arm out of his grip, stepping back and stumbling into the reach of the streetlamp's glow.
"Kate?" His eyes widen, wind whipping his dark hair, sending his scent my way, a scent I'd give anything to forget. Some criminally expensive cologne evoking the woodsy warmth of a fireside nap, the spiced smoke of just-blown-out candles. Resentment twists my stomach.
Every time I see him, it's a fresh, terrible kick to the gut. All the details that have blurred, carved once again into vivid reality. The striking planes of his face-strong nose, chiseled jaw, sharp cheekbones, that mouth that's genetically designed to make knees weak.
Not mine, of course. And strictly objectively speaking, merely from a professional standpoint. As a photographer, I spend a lot of time analyzing photogenic faces, and Christopher's is unfortunately the epitome. Slightly asymmetrical, the roughness of his severe features smoothed by thick-lashed amber eyes, the lazy sensuality of that dark hair always falling into his face.
God, just looking at him makes my blood boil. "What are you doing here?" I snap.
He rubs a hand along the side of his face, eyes narrowed. "Thank you for asking, Katerina. My jaw is fine, despite your hard head-"
"What a relief," I say with false cheer, cutting him off. I'm too tired and sore to spar with him. "Though if you'd simply been where you're supposed to be, we wouldn't have had this collision in the first place."
He arches an eyebrow. "Where I'm 'supposed to be'?"
A flush creeps up my cheeks. I hate my telltale flush. "The Friendsgiving thing."
Christopher's mouth tips with a smirk that makes my flush darken. "Been keeping tabs on me, have you?"
"Solely to avoid the displeasure of your foul company."
"And there she is." He checks his watch. "Took all of twenty seconds for the Kat to find her claws."
A growl rolls out of me. Hugging my sore arm to my side, I start to walk past him, because he has this infuriating ability to get under my skin with a few well-placed words and that aggravating tilt of his damn eyebrow. If I stay here, I might actually turn as feral as he's always accused me of being.
But then his hand wraps around my good arm at the elbow, stopping me. I glare at him, hating that I have to look up in order to meet his eyes. I'm tall, but Christopher's towering, his body broad and powerful, his arms thicker than I can get two hands around.
Not that I've thought about that. No, if I've thought about wrapping my hands around anything, it's been that neck of his, giving it a good hard squeeze-
"What happened to you?" he says.
I blink, yanked out of my thoughts by the sharp tone in his question. Feeling defiant, I lift my chin and dare him to look away first.
My breathing turns unsteady as I realize how close our faces have become. Christopher stares down at me. His breathing sounds a little unsteady, too. "Lots happened while I was gone," I finally manage between clenched teeth. "Sort of unavoidable when you step outside your tiny world. Explore new places. Encounter obstacles."
Such as a bit of rocky Scottish landscape that led to a now-mostly-healed broken shoulder two months ago.
Not that I admit that to him.
Still, his jaw twitches. My dig's landed where I wanted.
For all his sophistication and success, a corporate capitalist's wet dream, Christopher has never left the city. Without stepping so much as a toe outside his kingdom, he's simply crooked his finger and success has come to him. His world is contained and controlled, and he knows I judge him for it. Just as he judges me for how carefree-and in his eyes, reckless-I am, for how quickly I walked away from my hometown and family the moment I graduated.
After losing his parents as a teen, he doesn't have a family of his own, besides his grandmother, who acted as guardian until he was eighteen and has since passed. My family is his, and he's protective of them, which is fine, but he doesn't see my perspective. He doesn't understand that I feel like an outsider in my own family, that I know I'm loved, but I don't often feel loved the way I need to. He doesn't get how much easier it is for me to feel close to those I love from a distance.
Finally he glances down, once again frowning at the arm I hold against my side. My shoulder's healed-despite what I told my family-but it's still tender enough that ramming into the brick wall of Christopher's chest has it throbbing.
A notch forms in his brow as he examines how I'm clutching it.
Copyright © 2023 by Chloe Liese. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.