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I like these stories very much.
I love this
I love this
18 September 2020 (11:44)
I read this book countless times#must read
24 March 2021 (02:46)
Just finished reading and learned and felt lots of emotions love it
15 April 2021 (17:34)
This is such a beautiful well told story
I would also read the story about the Circus family
I would also read the story about the Circus family
02 May 2021 (21:56)
When I started to read this book, I assumed I was in for a rom-com type, or perhaps a light read. But this book really surprised me. Especially the last few chapters, they caught me off guard.
This book had me bawling and sobbing at 3am. Completely unexpected, especially Gus's past. Loved the plot overall.
This is one of those books that you buy and re-read several times whenever you're in the mood to cry. Definitely recommend.
This book had me bawling and sobbing at 3am. Completely unexpected, especially Gus's past. Loved the plot overall.
This is one of those books that you buy and re-read several times whenever you're in the mood to cry. Definitely recommend.
03 May 2021 (12:02)
Read this book twice. Absolutely love it. I will read it again next summer.
08 May 2021 (03:54)
i literally love this book with all my heart. i have a soft spot for january and augustus
13 May 2021 (11:09)
everyone should read this book. i really love everything in this book
10 June 2021 (22:49)
okay i am going to read it now . Excited ??
20 June 2021 (18:17)
I need this book in Spanish ?
13 July 2021 (05:31)
Emily Henry * * * BEACH READ Contents 1: The House 2: The Funeral 3: The Pete-Cute 4: The Mouth 5: The Labradors 6: The Book Club 7: The Ride 8: The Bet 9: The Manuscript 10: The Interview 11: The Not Date 12: The Olive Garden 13: The Dream 14: The Rule 15: The Past 16: The Porch Furniture 17: The Dance 18: The Ex 19: The Beach 20: The Basement 21: The Cookout 22: The Trip 23: The Lake 24: The Book 25: The Letters 26: The Best Friend 27: The Rain 28: Nine Months Later Acknowledgments About the Author Emily Henry studied creative writing at Hope College and the New York Center for Art & Media Studies, and now spends most of her time in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the part of Kentucky just beneath it. Beach Read is her debut adult novel. What readers are saying about Beach Read ‘When I say I want to read romance, this is what I mean. This book. This exact book’ Netgalley reviewer ★★★★★ ‘The best book I’ve read this year so far, and easily a top 10 on my all-time favourites list. Emily Henry’s writing is masterful in Beach Read … Witty, interesting and utterly enjoyable’ Patricia, Netgalley ★★★★★ ‘A delightful, romantic, amusing and well written tale … will have you smiling to the end. A wholly satisfying read’ Netgalley reviewer ★★★★★ ‘I loved this book so damn much that I don’t even know where to begin. This book made me laugh, cry, and laugh-cry … I cannot recommend it enough’ Brooks, Netgalley ★★★★★ ‘Exceptionally well written, incredibly authentic characters, deeply moving and entertaining’ Emer, Netgalley ★★★★★ ‘Loved this book!’ Rachel, Netgalley ★★★★★ ‘Romance at its very best. I was so invested in January and Gus and their literary journey to love. I can’t tell you how happy this book made me! Highly, HIGHLY recommend’ Kate, Netgalley ★★★★★ ‘An absolutely brilliant, fresh and exciting book. With family drama, an excellent love interest and a great concept, it’s a clear winner’ Andrea, Netgalley ★★★★★ For Joey: You are s; o perfectly my favorite person. 1 The House I HAVE A FATAL flaw. I like to think we all do. Or at least that makes it easier for me when I’m writing—building my heroines and heroes up around this one self-sabotaging trait, hinging everything that happens to them on a specific characteristic: the thing they learned to do to protect themselves and can’t let go of, even when it stops serving them. Maybe, for example, you didn’t have much control over your life as a kid. So, to avoid disappointment, you learned never to ask yourself what you truly wanted. And it worked for a long time. Only now, upon realizing you didn’t get what you didn’t know you wanted, you’re barreling down the highway in a midlife-crisis-mobile with a suitcase full of cash and a man named Stan in your trunk. Maybe your fatal flaw is that you don’t use turn signals. Or maybe, like me, you’re a hopeless romantic. You just can’t stop telling yourself the story. The one about your own life, complete with melodramatic soundtrack and golden light lancing through car windows. It started when I was twelve. My parents sat me down to tell me the news. Mom had gotten her first diagnosis—suspicious cells in her left breast—and she told me not to worry so many times I suspected I’d be grounded if she caught me at it. My mom was a do-er, a laugher, an optimist, not a worrier, but I could tell she was terrified, and so I was too, frozen on the couch, unsure how to say anything without making things worse. But then my bookish homebody of a father did something unexpected. He stood and grabbed our hands—one of Mom’s, one of mine—and said, You know what we need to get these bad feelings out? We need to dance! Our suburb had no clubs, just a mediocre steak house with a Friday night cover band, but Mom lit up like he’d just suggested taking a private jet to the Copacabana. She wore her buttery yellow dress and some hammered metal earrings that twinkled when she moved. Dad ordered twenty-year-old Scotch for them and a Shirley Temple for me, and the three of us twirled and bobbed until we were dizzy, laughing, tripping all over. We laughed until we could barely stand, and my famously reserved father sang along to “Brown Eyed Girl” like the whole room wasn’t watching us. And then, exhausted, we piled into the car and drove home through the quiet, Mom and Dad holding tight to each other’s hands between the seats, and I tipped my head against the car window and, watching the streetlights flicker across the glass, thought, It’s going to be okay. We will always be okay. And that was the moment I realized: when the world felt dark and scary, love could whisk you off to go dancing; laughter could take some of the pain away; beauty could punch holes in your fear. I decided then that my life would be full of all three. Not just for my own benefit, but for Mom’s, and for everyone else around me. There would be purpose. There would be beauty. There would be candlelight and Fleetwood Mac playing softly in the background. The point is, I started telling myself a beautiful story about my life, about fate and the way things work out, and by twenty-eight years old, my story was perfect. Perfect (cancer-free) parents who called several times a week, tipsy on wine or each other’s company. Perfect (spontaneous, multilingual, six foot three) boyfriend who worked in the ER and knew how to make coq au vin. Perfect shabby chic apartment in Queens. Perfect job writing romantic novels—inspired by perfect parents and perfect boyfriend—for Sandy Lowe Books. Perfect life. But it was just a story, and when one gaping plot hole appeared, the whole thing unraveled. That’s how stories work. Now, at twenty-nine, I was miserable, broke, semi-homeless, very single, and pulling up to a gorgeous lake house whose very existence nauseated me. Grandly romanticizing my life had stopped serving me, but my fatal flaw was still riding shotgun in my dinged-up Kia Soul, narrating things as they happened: January Andrews stared out the car window at the angry lake beating up on the dusky shore. She tried to convince herself that coming here hadn’t been a mistake. It was definitely a mistake, but I had no better option. You didn’t turn down free lodging when you were broke. I parked on the street and stared up at the oversized cottage’s facade, its gleaming windows and fairy tale of a porch, the shaggy beach grass dancing in the warm breeze. I checked the address in my GPS against the handwritten one hanging from the house key. This was it, all right. For a minute, I stalled, like maybe a world-ending asteroid would take me out before I was forced to go inside. Then I took a deep breath and got out, wrestling my overstuffed suitcase from the back seat along with the cardboard box full of gin handles. I pushed a fistful of dark hair out of my eyes to study the cornflower blue shingles and snow-white trim. Just pretend you’re at an Airbnb. Immediately, an imaginary Airbnb listing ran through my head: Three-bedroom, three-bath lakeside cottage brimming with charm and proof your father was an asshole and your life has been a lie. I started up the steps cut into the grassy hillside, blood rushing through my ears like fire hoses and legs wobbling, anticipating the moment the hellmouth would open and the world would drop out from under me. That already happened. Last year. And it didn’t kill you, so neither will this. On the porch, every sensation in my body heightened. The tingling in my face, the twist in my stomach, the sweat prickling along my neck. I balanced the box of gin against my hip and slipped the key into the lock, a part of me hoping it would jam. That all this would turn out to be an elaborate practical joke Dad had set up for us before he died. Or, better yet, he wasn’t actually dead. He’d jump out from behind the bushes and scream, “Gotcha! You didn’t really think I had a secret second life, did you? You couldn’t possibly think I had a second house with some woman other than your mother?” The key turned effortlessly. The door swung inward. The house was silent. An ache went through me. The same one I’d felt at least once a day since I got Mom’s call about the stroke and heard her sob those words. He’s gone, Janie. No Dad. Not here. Not anywhere. And then the second pain, the knife twisting: The father you knew never existed anyway. I’d never really had him. Just like I’d never really had my ex Jacques or his coq au vin. It was just a story I’d been telling myself. From now on, it was the ugly truth or nothing. I steeled myself and stepped inside. My first thought was that the ugly truth wasn’t super ugly. My dad’s love nest had an open floor plan: a living room that spilled into a funky, blue-tiled kitchen and homey breakfast nook, the wall of windows just beyond overlooking a dark-stained deck. If Mom had owned this place, everything would’ve been a mix of creamy, calming neutrals. The bohemian room I’d stepped into would’ve been more at home in Jacques’s and my old place than my parents’. I felt a little queasy imagining Dad here, among these things Mom never would’ve picked out: the folksy hand-painted breakfast table, the dark wooden bookshelves, the sunken couch covered in mismatched pillows. There was no sign of the version of him that I’d known. My phone rang in my pocket and I set the box on the granite countertop to answer the call. “Hello?” It came out weak and raspy. “How is it?” the voice on the other end said immediately. “Is there a sex dungeon?” “Shadi?” I guessed. I tucked the phone between my ear and shoulder as I unscrewed the cap from one of my gin bottles, taking a swig to fortify myself. “It honestly worries me that I’m the only person who might call you to ask that,” Shadi answered. “You’re the only person who even knows about the Love Shack,” I pointed out. “I am not the only one who knows about it,” Shadi argued. Technically true. While I’d found out about my father’s secret lake house at his funeral last year, Mom had been aware much longer. “Fine,” I said. “You’re the only person I told about it. Anyway, give me a second. I just got here.” “Literally?” Shadi was breathing hard, which meant she was walking to a shift at the restaurant. Since we kept such different hours, most of our calls happened when she was on her way into work. “Metaphorically,” I said. “Literally, I’ve been here for ten minutes, but I only just feel that I have arrived.” “So wise,” Shadi said. “So deep.” “Shh,” I said. “I’m taking it all in.” “Check for the sex dungeon!” Shadi hurried to say, as if I were hanging up on her. I was not. I was simply holding the phone to my ear, holding my breath, holding my racing heart in my chest, as I scanned my father’s second life. And there, just when I could convince myself Dad couldn’t possibly have spent time here, I spotted something framed on the wall. A clipping of a New York Times Best Sellers list from three years ago, the same one he’d positioned over the fireplace at home. There I was, at number fifteen, the bottom slot. And there, three slots above me—in a sick twist of fate—was my college rival, Gus (though now he went by Augustus, because Serious Man) and his highbrow debut novel The Revelatories. It had stayed on the list for five weeks (not that I was counting (I was absolutely counting)). “Well?” Shadi prompted. “What do you think?” I turned and my eyes caught on the mandala tapestry hanging over the couch. “I’m led to wonder if Dad smoked weed.” I spun toward the windows at the side of the house, which aligned almost perfectly with the neighbor’s, a design flaw Mom would never have overlooked when house shopping. But this wasn’t her house, and I could clearly see the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that lined the neighbor’s study. “Oh, God—maybe it’s a grow house, not a love shack!” Shadi sounded delighted. “You should’ve read the letter, January. It’s all been a misunderstanding. Your dad’s leaving you the family business. That Woman was his business partner, not his mistress.” How bad was it that I wished she were right? Either way, I’d fully intended to read the letter. I’d just been waiting for the right time, hoping the worst of my anger would settle and those last words from Dad would be comforting. Instead, a full year had passed and the dread I felt at the thought of opening the envelope grew every day. It was so unfair, that he should get the last word and I’d have no way to reply. To scream or cry or demand more answers. Once I’d opened it, there’d be no going back. That would be it. The final goodbye. So until further notice, the letter was living a happy, if solitary, life in the bottom of the gin box I’d brought with me from Queens. “It’s not a grow house,” I told Shadi and slid open the back door to step onto the deck. “Unless the weed’s in the basement.” “No way,” Shadi argued. “That’s where the sex dungeon is.” “Let’s stop talking about my depressing life,” I said. “What’s new with you?” “You mean the Haunted Hat,” Shadi said. If only she had fewer than four roommates in her shoebox apartment in Chicago, then maybe I’d be staying with her now. Not that I was capable of getting anything done when I was with Shadi. And my financial situation was too dire not to get something done. I had to finish my next book in this rent-free hell. Then maybe I could afford my own Jacques-free place. “If the Haunted Hat is what you want to talk about,” I said, “then yes. Spill.” “Still hasn’t spoken to me.” Shadi sighed wistfully. “But I can, like, sense him looking at me when we’re both in the kitchen. Because we have a connection.” “Are you at all worried that your connection isn’t with the guy who’s wearing the antique porkpie hat, but perhaps with the ghost of the hat’s original owner? What will you do if you realize you’ve fallen in love with a ghost?” “Um.” Shadi thought for a minute. “I guess I’d have to update my Tinder bio.” A breeze rippled off the water at the bottom of the hill, ruffling my brown waves across my shoulders, and the setting sun shot golden spears of light over everything, so bright and hot I had to squint to see the wash of oranges and reds it cast across the beach. If this were just some house I’d rented, it would be the perfect place to write the adorable love story I’d been promising Sandy Lowe Books for months. Shadi, I realized, had been talking. More about the Haunted Hat. His name was Ricky, but we never called him that. We always spoke of Shadi’s love life in code. There was the older man who ran the amazing seafood restaurant (the Fish Lord), and then there was some guy we’d called Mark because he looked like some other, famous Mark, and now there was this new coworker, a bartender who wore a hat every day that Shadi loathed and yet could not resist. I snapped back into the conversation as Shadi was saying, “Fourth of July weekend? Can I visit then?” “That’s more than a month away.” I wanted to argue that I wouldn’t even be here by then, but I knew it wasn’t true. It would take me at least all summer to write a book, empty the house, and sell both, so I could (hopefully) be catapulted back into relative comfort. Not in New York, but somewhere less expensive. I imagined Duluth was affordable. Mom would never visit me there, but we hadn’t done much visiting this past year anyway, apart from my three-day trip home for Christmas. She’d dragged me to four yoga classes, three crowded juice bars, and a Nutcracker performance starring some kid I didn’t know, like if we were alone for even a second, the topic of Dad would arise and we’d burst into flames. All my life, my friends had been jealous of my relationship with her. How often and freely (or so I thought) we talked, how much fun we had together. Now our relationship was the world’s least competitive game of phone tag. I’d gone from having two loving parents and a live-in boyfriend to basically just having Shadi, my much-too-long-distance best friend. The one blessing of moving from New York to North Bear Shores, Michigan, was that I was closer to her place in Chicago. “Fourth of July’s too far off,” I complained. “You’re only three hours away.” “Yeah, and I don’t know how to drive.” “Then you should probably give that license back,” I said. “Believe me, I’m waiting for it to expire. I’m going to feel so free. I hate when people think I’m able to drive just because, legally, I am.” Shadi was a terrible driver. She screamed whenever she turned left. “Besides, you know how scheduling off is in the industry. I’m lucky my boss said I could have Fourth of July. For all I know, he’s expecting a blow job now.” “No way. Blow jobs are for major holidays. What you’ve got on your hands is a good old-fashioned foot job quid pro quo.” I took another sip of gin, then turned from the end of the deck and nearly yelped. On the deck ten feet to the right of mine, the back of a head of curly brown hair peeked over a lawn chair. I silently prayed the man was asleep—that I wouldn’t have to spend an entire summer next door to someone who’d heard me shout good old-fashioned foot job. As if he’d read my mind, he sat forward and grabbed the bottle of beer from his patio table, took a swig, and sat back. “So true. I won’t even have to take my Crocs off,” Shadi was saying. “Anyway, I just got to work. But let me know if it’s drugs or leather in the basement.” I turned my back to the neighbor’s deck. “I’m not going to check until you visit.” “Rude,” Shadi said. “Leverage,” I said. “Love you.” “Love you more,” she insisted and hung up. I turned to face the curly head, half waiting for him to acknowledge me, half debating whether I was obligated to introduce myself. I hadn’t known any of my neighbors in New York well, but this was Michigan, and from Dad’s stories about growing up in North Bear Shores, I fully expected to have to lend this man sugar at some point (note: must buy sugar). I cleared my throat and pasted on my attempt at a neighborly smile. The man sat forward for another swig of beer, and I called across the gap, “Sorry for disturbing you!” He waved one hand vaguely, then turned the page of whatever book was in his lap. “What’s disturbing about foot jobs as a form of currency?” he drawled in a husky, bored voice. I grimaced as I searched for a reply—any reply. Old January would have known what to say, but my mind was as blank as it was every time I opened Microsoft Word. Okay, so maybe I’d become a bit of a hermit this past year. Maybe I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d spent the last year doing, since it wasn’t visiting Mom and it wasn’t writing, and it wasn’t charming the socks off my neighbors. “Anyway,” I called, “I’m living here now.” As if he’d read my thoughts, he gave a disinterested wave and grumbled, “Let me know if you need any sugar.” But he managed to make it sound more like, Never speak to me again unless you notice my house is on fire, and even then, listen for sirens first. So much for Midwestern hospitality. At least in New York, our neighbors had brought us cookies when we moved in. (They’d been gluten-free and laced with LSD, but it was the thought that counted.) “Or if you need directions to the nearest Sexual Fetish Depot,” the Grump added. Heat flared through my cheeks, a flush of embarrassment and anger. The words were out before I could reconsider: “I’ll just wait for your car to pull out and follow.” He laughed, a surprised, rough sound, but still didn’t deign to face me. “Lovely to meet you,” I added sharply, and turned to hurry back through the sliding glass doors to the safety of the house, where I would quite possibly have to hide all summer. “Liar,” I heard him grumble before I snapped the door shut. 2 The Funeral I WASN’T READY TO look through the rest of the house, so I settled down at the table to write. As usual, the blank document stared accusingly at me, refusing to fill itself with words or characters, no matter how long I stared back. Here’s the thing about writing Happily Ever Afters: it helps if you believe in them. Here’s the thing about me: I did until the day of my father’s funeral. My parents, my family, had been through so much already, and somehow we always came through it stronger, with more love and laughter than before. There was the brief separation when I was a kid and Mom started feeling like she’d lost her identity, started staring out windows like she might see herself out there living life and figure out what she needed to do next. There was the kitchen-dancing, hand-holding, and forehead-kissing that followed when Dad moved back in. There was Mom’s first cancer diagnosis and the wildly expensive celebratory dinner when she kicked its ass, eating like we were millionaires, laughing until their overpriced wine and my Italian soda sprayed from our respective noses, like we could afford to waste it, like the medical debt didn’t exist. And then the second bout of cancer and the new lease on life after the mastectomy: the pottery classes, ballroom dancing classes, yoga classes, Moroccan cooking classes that my parents filled their schedules with, like they were determined to pack as much life into as little time as possible. Long weekend trips to see me and Jacques in New York, rides on the subway during which Mom begged me to stop regaling her with stories of our pothead neighbors Sharyn and Karyn (not related; regularly slid informational “Flat Earth” pamphlets under our door) because she was afraid she was going to pee herself, all while Dad debunked the flat Earth theory under his breath for Jacques. Trial. Happy ending. Tribulation. Happy ending. Chemo. Happy ending. And then, right in the middle of the happiest ending yet, he was just gone. I was just standing there, in the foyer of his and Mom’s Episcopalian church, in a sea of black-clad people whispering useless words, feeling like I’d sleepwalked there, barely able to recall the flight, the ride to the airport, packing. Remembering, for the millionth time in the last three days, that he was gone. Mom had slipped into the bathroom, and I was alone when I saw her: the only woman I didn’t recognize. Dressed in a gray dress and leather sandals, a crocheted shawl tied around her shoulders and her white hair wind-tossed. She was staring right at me. After a beat, she swept toward me, and for some reason, my stomach bottomed out. As if my body knew first that things were about to change. This stranger’s presence at Dad’s funeral was going to wrench my life off track as much as his death had. She smiled hesitantly as she stopped in front of me. She smelled like vanilla and citrus. “Hello, January.” Her voice was breathy, and her fingers twirled anxiously through the fringe on her shawl. “I’ve heard so much about you.” Behind her, the bathroom door swung open and Mom walked out. She stopped short, frozen with an unfamiliar expression. Recognition? Horror? She didn’t want the two of us to talk. What did that mean? “I’m an old friend of your father’s,” the woman said. “He means … meant a lot to me. I’ve known him all my life, just about. For quite some time, we were thick as thieves, and—he never shut up about you.” Her laugh tried for easy, missed it by a light-year. “I’m sorry,” she said, hoarse. “I promised I wouldn’t cry, but …” I felt like I’d been shoved off a building, like the dropping would never end. Old friend. That was what she said. Not lover or mistress. But I knew, from the way she was crying—some funhouse mirror version of Mom’s tears during the funeral. I recognized the look on her face as the same one I’d seen on mine this morning while I tapped concealer under my eyes. Dad’s death had irreparably broken her. She fished something out of her pocket. An envelope with my name scrawled across it, a key resting atop it. A tab hung from the key with an address scribbled in the same unmistakable handwriting as the chicken scratch on the envelope. Dad’s. “He wanted you to have this,” she said. “It’s yours.” She pushed it into my palm, holding on for a second. “It’s a beautiful house, right on Lake Michigan,” she blurted. “You’ll love it. He always said that you would. And the letter is for your birthday. You can open it then, or … whenever.” My birthday. My birthday wasn’t for another seven months. My dad would not be there for my birthday. My dad was gone. Behind the woman, Mom unfroze, moving toward us with a murderous expression. “Sonya,” she hissed. And then I knew the rest. That while I’d been in the dark, Mom had not. I closed the Word document, like clicking that little X in the corner would shut out the memories too. Looking for a distraction, I scrolled through my inbox to the latest email from my agent, Anya. It had arrived two days ago, before I left New York, and I’d found increasingly ridiculous reasons for putting off opening it. Packing. Moving things into storage. Driving. Trying to drink as much water as I could while peeing. “Writing,” heavy on the scare quotes. Drunk. Hungry. Breathing. Anya had a reputation for being tough, a bulldog, on the publishers’ end of things, but on the writers’ end, she was something like Miss Honey, the sweet teacher from Matilda, mashed together with a sexy witch. You always desperately wanted to please her, both because you had the sense that no one had loved and admired you so purely before and because you suspected she could sic a herd of pythons on you, if she so chose. I drained my third gin and tonic of the night, opened the email, and read: Helloooo, you beautiful and miraculous jellyfish, angelic artist, money-maker mine, I know things have been SO crazy on your end, but Sandy’s writing again—really wants to know how the manuscript’s coming slash whether it will still be ready by the end of the summer. As ever, I’m more than happy to hop on the phone (or instant message, or a Pegasus’s back as need be) to help you brainstorm/hash out plot details/WHATEVER it takes to help bring more of your beautiful words and unparalleled swoon into the world! Five books in five years was a tall order for anyone (even someone with your spectacular talent), but I do believe we’ve reached a breaking point with SLB, and it’s time to grin and birth it, if at all possible. xox, Anya Grin and birth it. I suspected it’d be easier to deliver a fully formed human baby out of my uterus at the end of this summer than to write and sell a new book. I decided that if I went to sleep now, I could pop out of bed early and crank out a few thousand words. I hesitated outside the downstairs bedroom. There was no way to be sure which beds Dad and That Woman had partaken of. I was in a funhouse of geriatric adultery. It might’ve been funny, if I hadn’t lost the ability to find anything funny in the last year spent penning rom-coms that ended with a bus driver falling asleep and the whole cast going off a cliff. It’s SUPER interesting, I always imagined Anya saying, if I were to actually send in one of these drafts. I mean, I would read your GROCERY list and laugh-cry doing it. But it’s not a Sandy Lowe book. For now, more swoon and less doom, babycakes. I was going to need help sleeping here. I poured myself another G&T and closed my computer. The house had gotten hot and stuffy, so I stripped to my underwear, then circled the first floor opening windows before draining my glass and flopping onto the couch. It was even more comfortable than it looked. Damn That Woman with her beautifully eclectic tastes. It was also, I decided, too low to the ground for a man with a bad back to be climbing on and off of, which meant it was probably not used for S-E-X. Though Dad hadn’t always had a bad back. When I was a kid, he’d take me out on the boat most weekends that he was home, and from what I’d seen, boating was 90 percent bending over to tie and untie knots and 10 percent staring into the sun, your arms thrown wide to let the wind race through your swishy jacket and— The ache rose with a vengeance in my chest. Those early mornings, on the man-made lake thirty minutes from our house, had always been just for the two of us, usually the morning after he got back from a trip. Sometimes I didn’t even know he was home yet. I’d just awake to my still-dark room, Dad tickling my nose, whisper-singing the Dean Martin song he’d named me for: It’s June in January, because I’m in love … I’d jolt awake, heart trilling, knowing it meant a day on the boat, the two of us. Now I wondered if all those precious chilly mornings had been literal guilt trips, time for him to readjust to life with Mom, after a weekend with That Woman. I should save the storytelling for my manuscript. I pushed it all out of my mind and pulled a throw pillow over my face, sleep swallowing me like a biblical whale. When I jerked awake, the room was dark, and there was music blasting through it. I stood and ambled, dazed and gin-fogged, toward the knife block in the kitchen. I hadn’t heard of a serial killer who began each murder by rousing the victim with R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” but I really couldn’t rule out the possibility. As I moved toward the kitchen, the music dimmed, and I realized it was coming from the other side of the house. From the Grump’s house. I looked toward the glowing numbers on the stove. Twelve thirty at night, and my neighbor was blasting a song most often heard in dated dramedies wherein the protagonist walks home alone, hunched against the rain. I stormed toward the window and thrust my upper body through it. The Grump’s windows were open too, and I could see a swath of bodies lit up in the kitchen, holding glasses and mugs and bottles, leaning lazy heads on shoulders, looping arms around necks as the whole group sang along with fervor. It was a raging party. So apparently the Grump didn’t hate all people, just me. I cupped my mouth around my hands and yelled out the window, “EXCUSE ME!” I tried twice more with no response, then slammed the window closed and circled the first floor, snapping the others shut. When I was finished, it still sounded pretty much like R.E.M. was playing a concert on my coffee table. And then, for a beautiful moment, the song stopped and the sounds of the party, laughter and chatter and bottles clinking, dipped to a static murmur. And then it started again. The same song. Even louder. Oh, God. As I pulled my sweatpants back on, I contemplated the advantages of calling the police with a noise complaint. On the one hand, I might maintain plausible deniability with my neighbor. (Oh, ’twas not I who called the constable! I am but a young woman of nine and twenty, not a crotchety old spinster who loathes laughter, fun, song, and dance!) On the other, ever since I’d lost my dad, I’d had a harder and harder time forgiving small offenses. I threw on my pizza-print sweatshirt and stormed out the front door, marching up the neighbor’s steps. Before I could second-guess myself, I’d reached for the doorbell. It rang out in the same powerful baritone as a grandfather clock, cutting through the music, but the singing didn’t stop. I counted to ten, then rang it again. Inside, the voices didn’t even waver. If the partygoers heard the doorbell, they were ignoring it. I pounded on the door for a few more seconds before accepting no one was coming, then turned to stomp home. One o’ clock, I decided. I’d give them until one before I called the cops. The music was even louder in the house than I remembered, and in the few minutes since I’d shut the windows, the temperature had risen to a sticky swelter. With nothing better to do, I grabbed a paperback from my bag and headed for the deck, fumbling for the light switches beside the sliding door. My fingers hit them but nothing happened. The bulbs outside were dead. Reading by phone light, at one in the morning, on the deck of my father’s second home it was! I stepped out, skin tingling from the refreshing chill of the breeze coming off the water. The Grump’s deck was dark too, except for a lone fluorescent bulb surrounded by clumsy moths, which was why I nearly screamed when something moved in the shadows. And by nearly screamed, I of course mean definitely screamed. “Jesus!” The shadowy thing gasped and shot up from the chair where it had been sitting. And by shadowy thing, I of course mean man who’d been chilling in the dark until I scared the shit out of him. “What, what?” he demanded, like he expected me to announce that he was covered in scorpions. If he had been, this would be less awkward. “Nothing!” I said, still breathing hard from the surprise. “I didn’t see you there!” “You didn’t see me here?” he repeated. He gave a scratchy, disbelieving laugh. “Really? You didn’t see me, on my own deck?” Technically, I didn’t see him now either. The porch light was a few feet behind and above him, transforming him into nothing but a tallish, person-shaped silhouette with a halo ringing his dark, messy hair. At this point, it would probably be better if I managed to go the whole summer without having to make eye contact with him anyway. “Do you also scream when cars drive past on the highway or you spot people through restaurant windows? Would you mind blacking out all our perfectly aligned windows so you don’t accidentally see me when I’m holding a knife or a razor?” I crossed my arms viciously over my chest. Or tried to. The gin was still making me a little fuzzy and clumsy. What I meant to say—what the old January would’ve said—was Could you possibly turn your music down a little bit? Actually, she probably would’ve just slathered herself in glitter, put on her favorite velvet loafers, and shown up at the front door with a bottle of champagne, determined to win the Grump over. But so far, this was the third-worst day of my life, and that January was probably buried wherever they put the old Taylor Swift, so what I actually said was “Could you turn off your sad-boy-angsting soundtrack?” The silhouette laughed and leaned against his deck railing, his beer bottle dangling from one hand. “Does it look like I’m the one running the playlist?” “No, it looks like you’re the one sitting in the dark alone at his own party,” I said, “but when I rang the doorbell to ask your frat brothers to turn down the volume, they couldn’t hear me over the Jell-O wrestling, so I’m asking you.” He studied me through the dark for a minute—or at least, I assumed that was what he was doing, since neither of us could actually see the other. Finally, he said, “Look, no one will be more thrilled than me when this night ends and everyone gets out of my house, but it is a Saturday night. In summer, on a street full of vacation homes. Unless this neighborhood got airlifted to the little town from Footloose, it doesn’t seem crazy to play music this late. And maybe—just maybe—the brand-new neighbor who stood on her deck screaming foot job so loud birds scattered could afford to be lenient if one miserable party goes later than she’d like.” Now it was my turn to stare at the dark blob. God, he was right. He was a grump, but so was I. Karyn and Sharyn’s vitamin-powder-pyramid-scheme parties went later than this, and those were on weeknights, usually when Jacques had a shift at the ER the next morning. Sometimes I’d even attended those parties, and now I couldn’t even handle Saturday-night group karaoke? And worst of all, before I could figure out what to say, the Grump’s house went miraculously silent. Through his illuminated back doors, I could see the crowd breaking up, hugging, saying goodbyes, setting down cups, and putting on jackets. I’d argued with this guy for nothing, and now I’d have to live next to him for months. If I needed sugar, I was going to be shit out of luck. I wanted to apologize for the sad-boy angst comment, or at least for these goddamn pants. These days, my reactions always felt outsized, and there was no easy way to explain them when strangers had the bad fortune of witnessing them. Sorry, I imagined myself saying, I didn’t mean to transform into a crotchety grandmother. It’s just my dad died and then I found out he had a mistress and a second house and that my mom knew but never told me and she still won’t talk to me about any of it, and when I finally came apart, my boyfriend decided he didn’t love me anymore, and my career has stalled, and my best friend lives too far away, and PS this is the aforementioned Sex House, and I used to like parties but lately I don’t like anything, so please forgive my behavior and have a lovely evening. Thank you and good night. Instead, that knife-twisting pain hit my gut, and tears stung the back of my nose, and my voice squeaked pathetically as I said to no one in particular, “I’m so tired.” Even silhouetted as he was, I could tell he went rigid. I’d learned it wasn’t uncommon for people to do that when they intuited a woman was on the verge of emotional collapse. In the last few weeks of our relationship, Jacques was like one of those snakes that can sense an earthquake, going taut whenever my emotions rose, then deciding we needed something from the bodega and rushing out the door. My neighbor didn’t say anything, but he didn’t rush away either. He just stood there awkwardly, staring at me through the pitch-dark. We faced off for easily five seconds, waiting to see what would happen first: me bursting into tears or him running away. And then the music started blaring again, a Carly Rae Jepsen banger that, under different circumstances, I loved, and the Grump startled. He glanced back through the sliding doors, then to me again. He cleared his throat. “I’ll kick them out,” he said stiffly, then turned and went inside, a unanimous cheer of “EVERETT!” rising from the crowd in the kitchen at the sight of him. They sounded ready to hoist him up into a keg stand, but I could see him leaning over to shout to a blonde girl, and a moment later, the music fell silent for good. Well. Next time I needed to make an impression, I might be better off with a plate of LSD cookies. 3 The Pete-Cute I AWOKE, HEAD THROBBING, to a text from Anya: Hey, babycakes! Wanted to make sure you got my email re: your glorious mind and the summer deadline we chatted about. That period reverberated through my skull like a death knell. I’d gotten my first true hangover when I was twenty-four, the morning after Anya sold my first book, Kiss Kiss, Wish Wish, to Sandy Lowe. (Jacques had bought his favorite French champagne to celebrate, and we drank it from the bottle as we walked the Brooklyn Bridge, waiting for the sun to rise, because we thought it seemed hugely romantic.) Later, lying on the bathroom floor, I’d sworn I’d fall on a sharp knife before I let my brain feel like an egg frying on a rock in the Cancún sun again. And yet! Here I was, face pressed into a beaded throw pillow, brain sizzling in the saucepan of my skull. I ran to the downstairs bathroom. I didn’t need to throw up, but I was hoping that if I pretended I did, my body would fall for it and evacuate the poison in my gut. I threw myself onto my knees in front of the toilet and lifted my eyes to the framed picture that hung from a ribbon on the wall behind it. Dad and That Woman were on a beach, dressed in windbreakers, his arms wrapped around her shoulders, the wind pulling at her pre-white blonde hair and pushing his only-just-graying curls flat against his forehead as they grinned. And then, in a more understated but equally hilarious joke from the universe, I spotted the magazine rack beside the toilet, which contained exactly three offerings. A two-year-old Oprah Magazine. A copy of my third book, Northern Light. And that damn The Revelatories—a hardcover with one of those shiny AUTOGRAPHED stickers, no less. I opened my mouth and retched heartily into the toilet bowl. Then I stood, rinsed out my mouth, and turned the picture frame around so it faced the wall. “Never again,” I said aloud. Step one to a hangover-free life? Probably not moving into a house that drives you to drink. I would have to find other coping mechanisms. Like … nature. I went back to the living room, fished my toothbrush from my bag, and brushed at the kitchen sink. The next essential step for me to go on existing was a coffee IV. Whenever I drafted a book, I pretty much lived in my illustrious give-up pants, so aside from a collection of equally terrible sweatpants, I’d packed pretty lightly for this trip. I’d even watched a handful of lifestyle vloggers’ videos about “capsule wardrobes” in an attempt to maximize the amount of “looks” I could “build” from a pair of Daisy Dukes I mostly wore when I was stress-cleaning and a collection of ratty T-shirts with celebrities’ faces on them—remnants from a phase in my early twenties. I pulled on a somber black-and-white Joni Mitchell, stuffed my booze-bloated body into the denim cutoffs, and put on my floral-embroidered ankle boots. I had a thing about shoes, from the very cheap and tacky to the very expensive and dramatic. As it turned out, this “thing” of mine was fairly incompatible with the whole capsule wardrobe concept. I’d only packed four pairs, and I doubted anyone would consider my sparkly Target tennis shoes or the over-the-knee Stuart Weitzman boots I’d splurged on to be “classic.” I grabbed my car keys and was heading out into the blinding summer sun when I heard my phone buzzing from within the couch cushions. A message from Shadi: Made out with the Haunted Hat, followed by a bunch of skulls. As I stumbled outside again, I typed back: SEE A PRIEST IMMEDIATELY. I tried not to think about last night’s humiliating face-off with the neighbor as I jogged down the steps to the Kia, but that just freed up my mind to wander to my least favorite subject. Dad. The last time we’d gone boating together, he’d driven us to the man-made lake in the Kia and told me he was giving it to me. It was also the day he told me I should go for it: move to New York. Jacques was already there for medical school, and we were doing the long-distance thing so I could be with Mom. Dad had to travel a lot for “work,” and even if I ultimately believed my own story—that our lives would always, ultimately, work out—a big part of me was still too scared to leave Mom alone. As if my absence would somehow make room for the cancer to creep back in a third time. “She’s fine,” Dad had promised as we sat in the frigid, dark parking lot. “It could come back,” I’d argued. I didn’t want to miss a second with her. “Anything could happen, January.” That was what he’d said. “Anything could happen to Mom, or me, or even you, at any point. But right now, nothing is. Do something for yourself for once, kiddo.” Maybe he thought my moving to New York to live with my boyfriend was, at its core, the same as him buying a second house to hide away with his mistress. I’d given up grad school to help take care of Mom during that second round of chemo, put every cent I could toward helping with medical bills, and where had he been then? Wearing a windbreaker and drinking pinot noir on the beach with That Woman? I pushed the thought away as I slid into the car, the leather hot against my thighs, and pulled away from the curb, cranking down the window as I went. At the end of the street, I turned left, away from the water, and headed into town. The inlet that reached down along the right side of the road threw slivers of sparkling light against my window, and the hot wind roared in my ears. For a minute, it was like my life had ceased to exist around me. I was just floating past hordes of scantily clad teenagers milling around the hot dog stand on my left, parents and kids lined up out the door of the ice cream shop on my right, packs of cyclists riding back toward the beach. As I cruised down the main drag, the buildings clumped closer until they were pressed shoulder to shoulder: a tiny Italian restaurant with vine-covered terraces flush with a skate shop, pressing it into the Irish pub next door, followed by an old-fashioned candy shop, and finally a café called Pete’s Coffee—not to be confused with Peet’s, though the sign looked, actually, like it was specifically trying to be confused with Peet’s. I pulled into a parking spot and ducked into the sweet chill of Pete Not Peet’s air-conditioning. The floorboards were painted white and the walls were a deep blue, speckled with silver stars that swirled between tables, interrupted by the occasional framed platitude attributed to “Anonymous.” The room opened directly into a well-lit bookstore, the words PETE’S BOOKS painted in that same auspicious silver over the doorway. An elderly couple in fleece vests sat in the half-collapsed armchairs in the back corner. Aside from the late-middle-aged woman at the register and me, they were the only people here. “Much too nice of a day to be inside, I s’pose,” the barista said, as if reading my thoughts. She had a gruff voice to match her blonde crew cut, and her tiny gold hoop earrings winked in the soft lighting as she waved me forward with a set of pale pink fingernails. “Don’t be shy. We’re all family at Pete’s.” I smiled. “God, I hope not.” She slapped the counter as she laughed. “Oh, family’s tricky,” she agreed. “Anyway, what can I get you?” “Jet fuel.” She nodded sagely. “Oh, you’re one of those. Where are you from, honey?” “New York most recently. Ohio before that.” “Oh, I’ve got family in New York. The state, not the city. You’re talking about the city though, aren’t you?” “Queens,” I confirmed. “Never been,” she said. “You want any milk? Any syrup?” “I’d do some milk,” I said. “Whole? Half? One-sixteenth?” “Surprise me. I’m not picky when it comes to fractions.” She threw her head back and laughed again as she moved lackadaisically between machines. “Who has time to be? I swear, even North Bear Shores moves too fast for me most days. Maybe if I took up drinking this ‘jet fuel’ of yours it’d be a different story.” Having a barista who did not drink espresso wasn’t ideal, but I liked the woman with the tiny gold earrings. Honestly, I liked her so much that it sent a little pang of longing through me. For the old January. The one who loved throwing themed parties and coordinating group costumes, who couldn’t go to the gas station or stand in line at the post office without winding up making plans to grab coffee or hit up a gallery opening with someone I just met. My phone was riddled with contacts like Sarah, the anchor bar, cute dog and Mike, runs that new vintage store. I’d even met Shadi in a pizza shop bathroom when she came out of the stall wearing the best Frye boots I’d ever seen. I missed feeling that deep curiosity about people, that spark of excitement when you realized you had something in common or admiration when you uncovered a hidden talent or quality. Sometimes, I just missed liking people. But this barista, she was thoroughly likable. Even if the coffee sucked, I knew I’d be back. She tucked the plastic lid on the cup and plopped it down in front of me. “No charge for first-timers,” she said. “I just ask that you return.” I smiled, promised I would, and stuffed my last dollar bill into the tip jar as she went back to mopping up the counters. On my way back to the door, I froze, Anya’s voice running through my head: Heeeeeeey, sugar cube! SERIOUSLY not trying to overstep, but you know, book clubs are your DREAM market. If you’re literally IN a small-town bookstore, you should pop over and say hey! I knew Imaginary Anya was right. Right now, every sale mattered to me. Plastering a smile on my face, I passed through the doorway into the bookstore. If only I could travel back in time and choose to put on any outfit besides the 2002 Jessica Simpson music video extra costume I was sporting. The store was small oak shelves along the outside walls and a hodgepodge labyrinth of shorter bookshelves tunneling back and forth between them. The register was unattended, and as I waited, I glanced toward the trio of braces-wearing preteens in the romance section to make sure it wasn’t one of my books they were giggling over. All four of us would be irrevocably traumatized if the bookseller led me over to sign stock only to discover a copy of Southern Comfort in the redhead’s hands. The girls gasped and tittered as the redhead clutched the book to her chest, revealing the cover: a topless man and woman embracing as flames leapt around them. Definitely not one of mine. I took a sip of the latte and promptly spit it back into the cup. It tasted like mud. “Sorry about the wait, hon.” The scratchy voice came from over my shoulder, and I spun to face the woman zigzagging toward me through the crooked rows of shelves. “These knees don’t move like they used to.” At first, I thought she must be the barista’s identical twin, sisters who’d opened the business together, but then I realized the woman was untying her gray PETE’s apron from her waist as she made her way to the register. “Do you believe I used to be a roller derby champion?” she said as she dropped the wadded apron on the counter. “Well, believe it or not, I did.” “At this point I’d hardly be surprised to find out you’re the mayor of North Bear Shores.” She gave a rattling laugh. “Oh, no, can’t say that I am! Though maybe I could get some shit done around here, if they’d have me! This town is a nice little pocket of progressivism here in the Mitten, but the people with the purse strings are still a bunch of pearl-clutching golf bags.” I fought a smile. It sounded so much like something Dad would’ve said. The ache seared through me, fire-poker sharp and hot. “Anyway, don’t mind me and my O-PIN-YUNS,” she enunciated, lifting her thick ash-blonde brows. “I’m just a lowly entrepreneur. What can I do you for, sugar?” “I just wanted to introduce myself,” I admitted. “I’m a writer, actually, with Sandy Lowe Books, and I’m here for the summer, so I figured I’d say hi, sign stock if you have any.” “Ohhh, another writer in town!” she cried. “How exciting! You know, North Bear brings in a lot of artist types. It’s our way of life, I think. And the college. All sorts of freethinkers over there. A beautiful little community. You’re going to love it here …” The way her words dropped off suggested she was waiting for me to insert my own name at the end of her sentence. “January,” I chimed in. “Andrews.” “Pete,” she said, shaking my hand with the vigor of a green beret who’s just said, Put ’er there, son! “Pete?” I said. “Of Pete’s Coffee fame?” “The very same. Legal name’s Posy. What kind of a name is that?” She pantomimed gagging. “Seriously, do I look like a Posy to you? Does anyone look like a Posy?” I shook my head. “Maybe, like, a baby wearing a polyester flower costume?” “Soon as I could talk, I set that one straight. Anyway, January Andrews.” Pete stepped up to the computer and plugged my name into the keyboard. “Let’s see if we’ve got your book.” I never corrected people when they said singular “book” rather than plural “books,” but sometimes the assumption dug under my skin. It made me feel like people thought my career was a fluke. Like I’d sneezed and a romance novel came out. And then there were the people who acted like we were in on some secret joke together when, after a conversation about Art or Politics, they found out I wrote upbeat women’s fiction: Whatever pays the bills, right? they’d say, practically begging me to confirm I didn’t want to write books about women or love. “Looks like we don’t have any in stock,” Pete said, looking up from the screen. “But I tell ya what, you’d better believe I’m ordering them in.” “That’d be great!” I said. “Maybe we could host a workshop later this summer.” Pete gasped and clutched my arm. “Idea, January Andrews! You should come to our book club. We’d love to have ya. Great way to get involved in the community. It’s Mondays. Can you do Monday? Tomorrow?” In my head, Anya said, You know what made The Girl on the Train happen? Book clubs. That was a stretch. But I liked Pete. “Mondays work.” “Fantastic. I’ll send you my address. Seven PM, lots of booze, always a hoot.” She pulled a business card from the desk and passed it across the counter. “You do email, don’t you?” “Almost constantly.” Pete’s smile widened. “Well, you just shoot me a message and we’ll make sure you’re all set for tomorrow.” I promised her I would and turned to go, nearly colliding with the display table. I watched the pyramid of books tremble, and as I stood there, waiting to see if they’d fall, I realized the entire thing was made out of the same book, each marked with an AUTOGRAPHED sticker. An uncanny tingle climbed my spine. There, on the abstract black-and-white cover, in square red letters, beneath The Revelatories, was his name. It was all coming together in my mind, a domino trail of realizations. I didn’t mean to say it aloud, but I might have. Because the bells over the bookshop door tinkled, and when I looked up, there he was. Olive skin. Cheekbones that could cut you. Crooked mouth and a husky voice I’d never forget. Messy, dark hair I could immediately picture haloed in fluorescent light. Augustus Everett. Gus, as I’d known him back in college. “Everett!” as Pete was calling affectionately from behind the desk. My neighbor, the Grump. I did what any reasonable adult woman would do when confronted with her college rival turned next-door neighbor. I dove behind the nearest bookshelf. 4 The Mouth THE WORST PART of being college rivals with Gus Everett? Probably the fact that I wasn’t sure he knew we were. He was three years older, a high school dropout who’d gotten his GED after spending a few years working as a literal gravedigger. I knew all of this because every story he turned in our first semester was part of a collection centering on the cemetery where he’d worked. The rest of us in the creative writing program were pulling fodder from our asses (and childhoods: soccer games won in the last instant, fights with parents, road trips with friends), and Gus Everett was writing about the eight kinds of mourning widows, analyzing the most common epitaphs, the funniest, the ones that subtly betrayed a strained relationship between the deceased and the person footing the headstone’s bill. Like me, Gus was at U of M on a slew of scholarships, but it was unclear how he’d gotten them, since he played no sports and hadn’t technically graduated from high school. The only explanation was that he was atrociously good at what he did. To top things off, Gus Everett was stupidly, infuriatingly attractive. And not the universal kind of handsome that almost dulls itself with objectivity. It was more of a magnetism he emanated. Sure, he was just barely on the tall side of average, with the lean muscle of someone who never stopped moving around but also never intentionally exercised—a lazy kind of fit that came from genetics and restlessness rather than good habits—but it was more than that. It was the way he talked and moved, how he looked at things. Not, like, how he saw the world. Literally how he looked at things, his eyes seeming to darken and grow whenever he focused, his eyebrows furrowing over his dented nose. Not to mention his crooked mouth, which should’ve been outlawed. Before she dropped out of U and M to become an au pair (a pursuit soon abandoned), Shadi would ask me nightly at dinner for updates on Sexy, Evil Gus, sometimes abbreviated as SEG. I was minorly besotted with him and his prose. Until we finally spoke for the first time in class. I was passing out my latest short story for critique, and when I handed it to him, he looked me dead in the eyes—his head tilted curiously—and said, “Let me guess: Everyone lives happily ever after. Again.” I wasn’t writing romance yet—I didn’t even realize how much I loved reading romance until Mom’s second diagnosis two years later, when I needed a good distraction—but I was definitely writing romantically, about a good world, where things happened for a reason, where love and human connection were all that really mattered. And Gus Everett had looked at me with those eyes, deepening and darkening like they were sucking every bit of information about me into his skull, and he’d determined that I was a balloon in need of popping. Let me guess: Everyone lives happily ever after. Again. We spent the next four years taking turns winning our school’s writing prizes and contests but managed to barely speak again, unless you counted workshops, during which he rarely critiqued anyone’s stories except mine and nearly always showed up late without half his stuff and asked to borrow my pens. And there was one wild night at a frat party where we’d … not quite talked, but definitely interacted. Frankly, we crossed paths constantly, partly because he dated two separate roommates of mine and plenty of other girls on my floor—though I use the term dated loosely. Gus was notorious for having a two-to-four-week dating shelf life, and while the first roommate had started things up with him hoping to be the exception, the second (and plenty of the others) went in fully aware Gus Everett was just someone you could have fun with, for up to thirty-one days. Unless you wrote short stories with happy endings, in which case you were apparently far more likely to spend four years as rivals, pass another six occasionally Googling him to compare your careers, and then run into him here while dressed like a teen cheerleader at a car wash fundraiser. As in, here. Now. Walking into Pete’s Books. I was already planning what I would text Shadi as I power walked down the side of the store, chin tucked and face angled into the shelves like I was casually browsing (whilst practically jogging, as one does). “January?” Pete was calling. “January, where’d you go? I want you to meet someone.” I’m not proud to admit that when I froze, I was looking at the door, judging whether I could make it out of there without responding. It’s important to note that I knew for a fact there were bells over the door, and I still couldn’t make an immediate decision. Finally, I took a deep breath, forced a smile, and stepped out from between the shelves, clutching my god-awful latte like it was a handgun. “Hiiiiiiiiii,” I said, then waved in a distinctly animatronic way. I had to force myself to look directly at him. He looked just like he did in his author photo: all sharp cheekbones, furiously dark eyes, and the leanly muscled arms of a gravedigger turned novelist. He was wearing a rumpled blue (or faded black) T-shirt and rumpled dark blue (or faded black) jeans, and his hair had started streaking through with gray, along with the just-past-five-o’clock shadow around his crooked mouth. “This is January Andrews,” Pete announced. “She’s a writer. Just moved here.” I could practically see the same realization dawning on his face that had just crashed down on mine, his eyes homing in as he pieced together whatever bits of me he’d caught in the dark last night. “We’ve met, actually,” he said. The fire of a thousand suns rushed to my face, and probably my neck and chest and legs and every other exposed inch of my body. “Oh?” Pete said, delighted. “How’s that?” My mouth fell open silently, the word college somehow evading grasp, as my eyes shifted back to Gus’s. “We’re neighbors,” he said. “I believe?” Oh, God. Was it possible he didn’t remember me at all? My name was January, for shit’s sake. It wasn’t like I was a Rebecca or a Christy/Christina/Christine. I tried not to think too hard about how Gus could have forgotten me, because doing so would only take my complexion from overcooked lobster to eggplant. “Right,” I think I said. The phone beside the register began to ring, and Pete held up a finger excusing herself as she turned to answer it, leaving us alone. “So,” Gus said finally. “So,” I parroted. “What sort of thing do you write, January Andrews?” I did my best not to glance sideways at the stadium of Revelatories curling around the table behind me. “Romance, mostly.” Gus’s eyebrow arched. “Ah.” “Ah, what?” I said, already on the defensive. He shrugged. “Just ‘ah.’” I folded my arms. “That was an awfully knowing ‘just ah.’” He leaned against the desk and folded his arms too, his brow furrowing. “Well, that was fast,” he said. “What was?” “Offending you. One syllable. Ah. Pretty impressive.” “Offended? This isn’t my offended face. I look like this because I’m tired. My weird-ass neighbor was blasting his crying soundtrack all night.” He nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah, must’ve been the ‘music’ that was making it so hard for you to walk last night too. Hey, if you think you might have a ‘music’ problem, there’s no shame in getting help.” “Anyway,” I said, still fighting a blush. “You never told me what you write, Everett. I’m sure it’s something really groundbreaking and important. Totally new and fresh. Like a story about a disillusioned white guy, wandering the world, misunderstood and coldly horny.” A laugh barked out of him. “‘Coldly horny’? As opposed to the very artfully handled sexual proclivities of your genre? Tell me, which do you find more fascinating to write: love-struck pirates or love-struck werewolves?” And now I was seething again. “Well, it’s not really about me so much as what my readers want. What’s it like writing Hemingway circle-jerk fan fiction? Do you know all your readers by name?” There was something sort of freeing about new January. Gus’s head tilted in that familiar way and his brow knit as his dark eyes studied me, the intensity of them making my skin prickle. His full lips parted as if he was about to speak, but just then Pete hung up the phone and slipped into our circle, cutting him off. “What are the odds, eh?” Pete asked, clapping her hands together. “Two published writers on the same little street in North Bear Shores! I bet you two will be shooting the shit all summer. I told you this town was full of artists, didn’t I, January? How do you like that?” She laughed heartily. “No sooner had I said it than Everett marches right in! The universe is on my side today, looks like.” The ringing of my phone in my pocket saved me from having to answer. For once, I scrambled to answer the call, eager to escape this conversation. I was hoping for Shadi, but the screen read ANYA, and my stomach sank. I looked up to find Gus’s dark eyes burning into me. The effect was intimidating. I glanced toward Pete. “Sorry—I’ve got to take this, but it was lovely meeting you.” “Back atcha!” Pete assured me as I retreated through the maze of shelves. “Don’t forget to mail me an email!” “See you at home,” Gus called after me. I answered Anya’s call and slipped outside. 5 The Labradors “SWEAR YOU CAN do this, January,” Anya was saying as I zoomed out of town. “If I promise Sandy a book by September first, we have got to have a book by September first.” “I’ve written books in half that time,” I shouted over the wind. “Oh, I know you have. But we’re talking about this manuscript. We’re talking specifically about the one that’s now taken fifteen months and counting. How far are you?” My heart was racing. She was going to know I was lying to her. “It’s not written,” I said. “But it’s planned. I just need some time to hammer it out, no distractions.” “I can do no distractions. I can be the Queen of Not Distracting You, but please. Please, please, please, don’t lie to me about this. If you want a break—” “I don’t want a break,” I said. And I couldn’t afford one. I had to do whatever it took. Empty the beach house so I could sell it. Write a romance despite having recently lost close to all faith in love and humanity. “It’s coming along great, actually.” Anya pretended to be satisfied, and I pretended to believe she was satisfied. It was June second and I had just under three months to write a book-like thing. So of course, rather than heading straight home to work, I was driving to the grocery store. I’d had two sips of Pete’s latte, and it was three sips too many. I dumped it in the trash can on my way into Meijer and replaced it with a giant iced Americano from the Starbucks kiosk inside before stocking up on enough drafting food (macaroni, cereal, anything that didn’t require much prep) to last me a couple of weeks. By the time I got home, the sun was high, the heat thick and sticky, but at least the iced espresso had softened the pounding in my skull. When I’d finished unloading the groceries, I carried my computer onto the deck, only to realize I’d let the battery die last night. I went back inside to plug it in and caught my phone buzzing on the table. A text from Shadi: No WAY. Sexy, Evil GUS? Did he ask about me? Tell him I miss him. I typed back, Still sexy. Still EVIL. I will NOT tell him as I will NOT be speaking to him again, for as long as we both shall live. He didn’t remember me. Shadi answered immediately. Hmmmm, there is LITERALLY no way that’s true. You are his fairy princess. His shadow self. Or he’s yours or whatever. She was referring to another humiliating Gus moment I’d tried to forget. He’d ended up in a general math class with Shadi and mentioned that he’d noticed we were friends. When she confirmed, he asked her what my “deal” was. When she asked him to elaborate on what the hell that meant, he’d shrugged and mumbled something about how I acted like a fairy princess who’d been raised by woodland creatures. Shadi told him I was actually an empress who’d been raised by two very sexy spies. Seeing him in the wild after all this time was horrifying, I told her. I’m traumatized. Please come nurse me back to health. Soon, habibi, she wrote back. I was aiming to write fifteen hundred words that day. I only made it to four hundred, but on the bright side, I also won twenty-eight consecutive games of spider solitaire before I stopped to stir-fry some veggies for dinner. After I’d eaten, I sat in the dark, folded up at the kitchen table, with a glass of red wine caught in the glow of my laptop. All I needed was a bad first draft. I’d written dozens of those, spat out faster than I could type and then painstakingly rewritten in the months following. So why couldn’t I just make myself write this bad book? God, I missed the days when the words poured out. When writing those happy endings, those kisses in the rain and music-swelling, knee-on-the-ground proposal scenes had been the best part of my day. Back then, true love had seemed like the grand prize, the one thing that could weather any storm, save you from both drudgery and fear, and writing about it had felt like the single most meaningful gift I could give. And even if that part of my worldview was taking a brief sabbatical, it had to be true that sometimes, heartbroken women found their happy endings, their rain-falling, music-swelling moments of pure happiness. My computer pinged with an email. My stomach started flipping and didn’t stop until I’d confirmed it was just a reply from Pete, with the address for her book club and a one-sentence message: Feel free to bring your favorite drink or just yourself :))) I smiled. Maybe some version of Pete would make it into the book. “One day at a time,” I said aloud, then swiped up my wine and wandered to the back door. I cupped my hand around my eyes to block the glare on the glass and peered toward Gus’s deck. Smoke had been pluming out of the firepit earlier, but it was gone now, the deck abandoned. So I slid the door open and stepped out. The world was cast in shades of blue and silver, the gentle rush of the tide breaking on sand made louder by the silence of the rest of the world. A gust of wind blew off the treetops, making me shiver, and I tightened the robe around me, draining my wineglass, then turned back to the house. At first, I thought the blue glow that caught my eye was coming from my own laptop, but the light wasn’t coming from my house. It shone from the otherwise dark windows of Gus’s place, bright enough that I could see him pacing in front of his table. He stopped suddenly and bent to type for a moment, then picked a beer bottle up off the table and began to pace again, his hand running through his hair. I recognized that choreography well. He could love-struck pirates and werewolves me all he wanted, but when it came down to it, Augustus Everett was still pacing in the dark, making shit up like the rest of us. PETE LIVED IN a pink Victorian on the edge of the college campus. Even in the thunderstorm that had whipped off the lake that Monday evening, her home looked sweet as a dollhouse. I parked along the curb and stared up at its ivy-encroached windows and charming turrets. The sun hadn’t totally set yet, but the soft gray clouds that filled the sky diffused any light to a dim greenish glow, and the garden that sprawled from Pete’s porch to her white picket fence looked lush and magical beneath its shroud of mist. This was the perfect escape from the writing cave I’d been hiding in all day. I grabbed the tote bag full of signed bookmarks and Southern Comfort quote-pins from the passenger seat and jumped out of the car, pulling my hood up as I bolted through the rain and eased the gate open to slip in along the cobbled path. Pete’s garden was, quite possibly, the most picturesque place I’d ever been, but the best part might’ve been that, over the rumble of thunder, “Another Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd was playing so loudly that the porch was shivering as I stepped onto it. Before I could knock, the door swung open and Pete, very full plastic blue wineglass in hand, sang out, “Jaaaaaaaaaaaaanuary Andrews!” Somewhere behind her, a chorus of voices sang back, “January Annnnnndrews!” “Peeeeete,” I sang in response, holding out the bottle of chardonnay I’d grabbed from the store on the way over. “Thanks so much for having me.” “Ohhhh.” She accepted the bottle of wine and scrunched up her eyes as she examined the label, then chuckled. It was called POCKETFUL OF POSIES, but I’d scratched POSIES out and written PETES in its place. “Sounds French!” she joked. “Which is the Dutch word for fancy!” She waved for me to follow her down the hall, toward the music. “Come on in and meet the girls.” There was a pile of shoes, mostly sandals and hiking boots, arranged neatly on a rug by the door, so I kicked off my heeled green rain boots and followed the barefoot trail Pete cut down the hall. Her toenails were painted lavender to match her fresh manicure, and in her faded jeans and white linen button-up, she struck a softer image than she had at the store. We swept past a kitchen whose granite countertops were crowded with liquor bottles and stepped into the living room at the back of the house. “Normally, we use the garden, but normally God isn’t bowling a perfect game overhead, so inside will have to do tonight. We’re just waiting on one more.” The room was small enough to feel crowded with the five people total inside it. Of course, the three black Labradors snoozing on the couch (two of them) and armchair (the third) didn’t help. Bright green wooden chairs had been dragged in, ostensibly for the humans to sit in, and arranged to form a small semicircle. One of the dogs jumped up and wandered, tail wagging, through the sea of legs to greet me. “Girls,” Pete said, touching my back, “this is January. January brought wine!” “Wine, how lovely!” a woman with long blonde hair said, sweeping forward to give me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. When the blonde pulled back, Pete passed her the bottle of wine, then edged around the room toward the sound system. “I’m Maggie,” the blonde said. Her tall, willowy stature was made more striking by the sea of drapey white things she’d dressed herself in. She smiled down at me, equal parts Galadriel Lady of the Golden Wood and aging Stevie Nicks, and the wrinkled corners of her brown eyes crinkled sweetly. “So lovely to meet you, January.” Pete’s voice came a bit too loudly as the music dropped out from under it: “She’s Mrs. Pete.” Maggie’s serene smile seemed to be a version of an affectionate eye roll. “Just Maggie will do. And this is Lauren.” She opened an arm to make room for me to shake hands with the dreadlocked woman in the orange sundress. “And back there, on the couch, is Sonya.” Sonya. The name hit my stomach like a hammer. Before I’d even seen her, my mouth went dry. My vision fuzzed at the corners. “Hi, January,” That Woman said meekly from under the snoring Labradors. She forced a smile. “Nice to see you.” 6 The Book Club WAS THERE A dignified way to happen upon your dead father’s lover? If so, I imagined it wasn’t blurting I have to pee, jerking free the bottle of wine you’d handed your host, and running back down the hall in search of a bathroom. But that was the best I could come up with. I twisted the top off the wine and poured it down my throat, right there in the nautical-themed bathroom. I considered leaving, but for some reason, that seemed like the most embarrassing option. Still, it occurred to me that I could walk out the door, get into the car, and drive to Ohio without stopping. I’d never have to see any of these people again. I could get a job at Ponderosa Steakhouse. Life could be grand! Or I could just stay in this bathroom, forever. I had wine; I had a toilet; what else did one need? Admittedly, it was not my good attitude and strength of spirit that got me out of the bathroom. It was the shuffle of steps and conversation moving down the hallway, the sound of Pete saying, “Oh, you’re sure you can’t stay?” in a voice that made it sound much more like What the hell, Sonya? Why is that weird little girl afraid of you? and of Sonya saying, “No, I wish I could, but I totally forgot this work call—my boss won’t stop emailing until I’m in the car and on my Bluetooth.” “Bluetooth shmootooth,” Pete was saying. “Indeed,” I said into my wine bottle. The chardonnay was hitting me fast. I thought my way backward through my day, recounting my meals in an attempt to understand my immediate tipsiness. The only thing I could be sure I’d eaten was the fistful of mini marshmallows I’d grabbed on my way to a much-needed pee break. Whoops. The front door was opening. Goodbyes were being said over the pitter-patter of rain against the roof, and I was still locked in a bathroom. I set the bottle on the sink, looked at myself in the mirror, and pointed fiercely at my small brown eyes. “This will be the hardest night you have all summer,” I whispered. It was a lie, but I totally bought it. I smoothed my hair, shrugged out of my jacket, hid the wine bottle in my tote bag, and stepped back into the hallway. “Sonya had to dip out,” Pete said, but it sounded more like What the hell, January? “Oh?” I said. “That’s too bad.” But it sounded more like Praise be to the Bluetooth Shmootooth! “Indeed,” Pete said. I followed her back to the living room, where the Labradors had rearranged themselves, along with the ladies. One of the dogs had moved over to the far side of the couch, Maggie having taken the vacant spot left behind, while the second one had relocated to the armchair, mostly on top of the third. Lauren was sitting in one of the high-backed green chairs, and Pete gestured for me to take the one next to her as she slid into a third. Pete checked the time on her leather watch. “Should be here any minute. Must’ve gotten caught in the storm! I’m sure we’ll be able to get started soon.” “Great,” I said. The room was still spinning a bit. I could barely look toward where Sonya had been curled on the couch, willowy and relaxed with her white curls piled on her head, the opposite of my tiny, straight-banged mother. I took the opportunity to dig through my bag (careful not to upend the wine) for the bookmarks. Someone knocked on the door, and Pete leapt up. My heart stuttered at the thought that Sonya might’ve changed her mind and doubled back. But then a low voice was scratching down the hall, and Pete was back, bringing in tow a damp and disheveled Augustus Everett. He ran a hand through his peppered hair, shaking rain from it. He looked like he’d rolled out of bed and wandered here through the storm, drinking from a paper bag. Not that I was one to judge at this precise moment. “Girls,” Pete said, “I believe you all know the one and only Augustus Everett?” Gus nodded, waved. Smiled? That seemed too generous a word for what he was doing. His mouth acknowledged the room, I would say, and then his eyes caught on mine, and the higher of his mouth’s two corners twisted up. He nodded at me. “January.” My mind spun its feeble, wine-slick wheels trying to figure out what bothered me so much about the moment. Sure, there was smug Gus Everett. There was stumbling upon That Woman and the bathroom wine. And— The difference in Pete’s introductions. This is January was how a parent forced one kindergartner to befriend another. The one and only Augustus Everett was how a book club introduced its special guest. “Please, please. Sit here, by January,” Pete said. “Would you like a drink?” Oh, God. I’d misunderstood. I wasn’t here as a guest. I was here as a potential book club member. I’d come to a book club that was discussing The Revelatories. “Would you like something to drink?” Pete asked, looping back to the kitchen. Gus scanned the blue plastic glasses in Lauren and Maggie’s hands. “What are you having, Pete?” he asked over his shoulder. “Oh, first round at book club’s always White Russians, but January brought some wine, if that sounds better.” I balked both at the thought of starting a night with a White Russian and at the prospect of having to shamefully fish out my purse-wine for Gus. I could tell by the huge grin on her face that nothing would delight Pete more. Gus leaned forward, resting his elbows on his thighs. The left sleeve of his shirt rose with the motion, revealing a thin black tattoo on the back of his arm, a twisted but closed circle. A Möbius strip, I thought it was called. “A White Russian sounds great,” Gus answered. Of course it did. People liked to imagine their favorite male authors sitting down at a typewriter with a taste of the strongest whiskey and a hunger for knowledge. I wouldn’t be surprised if the rumpled man sitting beside me, the one who’d mocked my career, was wearing dirty day-of-the-week underwear inside out and living on Meijer-brand cheese puffs. He could show up looking like a college junior’s backup pot dealer (for when the first one was in Myrtle Beach) and still get taken more seriously than I would in my stuffy Michael Kors dress. I could get author photos taken by the senior photo editor of Bloomberg Businessweek and he could use his mom’s digital camera from 2002 to snap a shot of himself scowling on his deck and still garner more respect than me. He might as well have just sent in a dick pic. They would’ve printed it on the cover flap, right over that two-line bio they’d let him shit out. The shorter, the fancier, Anya would say. I sensed Gus’s eyes on me. I imagined he sensed my brain tearing him to pieces. I imagined Lauren and Maggie sensed this night had been a terrible mistake. Pete returned with another blue wineglass full of milky vodka, and Gus thanked her for it. I took a deep breath as Pete slid into a chair. Could this night get any worse? The Labrador nearest to me audibly farted. “Okay, then!” Pete said, clapping her hands together. What the hell. I slid my purse-wine out and took a gulp. Maggie giggled on the couch, and the Labrador rolled over and stuffed his face in between the cushions. “Red, White Russians, and Blue Book Club is now in session, and I’m dying to hear what everyone thought of the book.” Maggie and Lauren exchanged a look as they each took a slurp of their White Russians. Maggie set hers on the table and lightly slapped her thigh. “Heck, I loved it.” Pete’s laugh was gruff but warm. “You love everything, Mags.” “Do not. I didn’t like the man spy—not the main one, but the other one. He was snippy.” Spies? There were spies in The Revelatories? I looked over at Gus, who looked as puzzled as I felt. His mouth was ajar and his White Russian rested against his left thigh. “I didn’t care for him either,” Lauren agreed, “especially in the beginning, but he came around by the end. When we got the backstory about his mother’s ties to the USSR, I started to understand him.” “That was a nice touch,” Maggie agreed. “All right, I take it back. By the end, I sort of liked him too. I still didn’t care for the way he treated Agent Michelson though. I won’t make excuses for that.” “Well, no, of course not,” Pete chimed in. Maggie waved her hand lightly. “Total misogynist.” Lauren nodded. “How did you all feel about the twin reveal?” “Honestly, it bored me a bit, and I’ll tell ya why,” Pete said. And then she did tell us why, but I barely heard it because I was so absorbed in the subtle gymnastics Gus’s expression was performing. This could not possibly be his book they were talking about. He didn’t look horrified so much as bemused, like he thought someone was playing a prank on him but he wasn’t confident enough to call it out yet. He’d drained his White Russian already and was glancing back at the kitchen like he was hoping another might carry itself out here. “Did anyone else cry when Mark’s daughter sang ‘Amazing Grace’ at the funeral?” Lauren asked, clutching her heart. “That got to me. It really did. And you know my heart of stone! Doug G. Hanke is just a phenomenal writer.” I looked around the room, to the credenza, the bookshelves on the far side of the couch, the magazine rack under the coffee table. Names and titles jumped out at me from dozens, if not hundreds, of dark paperbacks. Operation Skyforce. The Moscow Game. Deep Cover. Red Flag. Oslo After Dark. Red, White Russians, and Blue Book Club. I, January Andrews, romance writer, and literary wunderkind Augustus Everett had stumbled into a book club trafficking primarily in spy novels. It took some effort to stifle my laughter, and even then I didn’t do an amazing job. “January?” Pete said. “Is everything all right?” “Spectacular,” I said. “Think I’ve just had too much purse-wine. Augustus, you’d better take it from here.” I held the bottle out to him. He lifted one stern, dark eyebrow. I imagined I wasn’t quite smiling but managed to look victorious nonetheless as I waited for him to accept the two-thirds-drunk chardonnay. “I’ve thought about it some more,” Maggie said airily. “And I think I did like the identical twin twist.” Somewhere, a Labrador farted. 7 The Ride “THANK YOU SOOOO much for having us, Pete,” I said as I pulled her into a hug in the foyer. She patted my back. “Any time. Any Monday, especially! Heck, every Monday. Red, White Russians, and Blue could use fresh blood. You see how things get stale in there. Maggie likes to humor me, but she’s not much of a fiction person, and I think Lauren comes for the socializing. She’s another faculty wife, like me.” “Faculty wife?” I said. Pete nodded. “Maggie works at the university with Lauren’s husband,” she answered quickly, then said, “How are you getting home, dear?” I wasn’t feeling the wine nearly as much as I would’ve liked to at that point, but I knew I shouldn’t risk driving anyway. “I’ll take her,” Gus said, stern and unamused. “I’ll Uber,” I said. “Uber?” Pete repeated. “Not in North Bear Shores, you won’t. We’ve got about one of those, and I doubt he’s out driving around after ten o’clock!” I pretended to look at my phone. “Actually, he’s here, so I should go. Thanks again, Pete. Really, it was … extremely interesting.” She patted my arm and I slipped out into the rain, opening the Uber app as I went. Beneath the rain, I heard Gus and Pete exchanging quiet goodbyes on the porch behind me, and then the door shut and I knew he and I were alone in the garden. So I walked very fast, through the gate and down the length of the fence, as I stared at the blank map on my Uber app. I closed the app and opened it again. “Let me guess,” Gus drawled. “It’s exactly as the person who actually lives here says: there aren’t any Ubers.” “Four minutes away,” I lied. He stared at me. I pulled my hood up and turned away. “What is it?” he said. “Are you worried it’s a slippery slope from getting into my car to going down the Slip ’N Slide on my roof and competing in my heavily publicized Jell-O wrestling matches?” I folded my arms. “I don’t know you.” “Unlike the North Bear Shores Uber driver, with whom you’re quite close.” I said nothing, and after a moment, Gus climbed into his car, its engine sputtering awake, but he didn’t pull away. I busied myself with my phone. Why wasn’t he leaving? I did my best not to look at his car, though it was looking more appealing every moment I stood there in the cold rain. I checked the app again. Still nothing. The passenger window rolled down, and Gus leaned across the seat, ducking his head to see me. “January.” He sighed. “Augustus.” “It’s been four minutes. No Uber’s coming. Would you please get in the car?” “I’ll walk.” “Why?” “Because I need the exercise,” I said. “Not to mention the pneumonia.” “It’s like sixty-five degrees out,” I said. “You’re literally shivering.” “Maybe I’m trembling with the anticipation of an exhilarating walk home.” “Maybe your body temperature is plummeting and your blood pressure and heart rate are dropping and your skin tissue is breaking up as it freezes.” “Are you kidding? My heart is positively racing. I just sat in on a three-hour-long book club meeting about spy novels. I need to run some of this adrenaline off.” I started down the sidewalk. “Wrong way,” Gus called. I spun on my heel and started in the other direction, back past Gus’s car. His mouth twisted in the dim light of the console. “You do realize we live seven miles from here. At your current pace that puts your arrival at about … never. You’re going to walk into a bush and quite possibly spend the rest of your life there.” “That’s actually the perfect amount of time I’ll need to sober up,” I said. Gus pulled slowly down the road alongside me. “Besides, I cannot risk waking up with another hangover tomorrow. I’d rather walk into traffic.” “Yeah, well, I’m worried you’re going to do both. Let me take you home.” “I’ll fall asleep tipsy. Not good.” “Fine, I won’t take you home until you’re sober, then. I know the best trick for that in all of North Bear Shores.” I stopped walking and faced his car. He stopped too, waiting. “Just to be clear,” I said, “you’re not talking about sex stuff, are you?” His smile twisted. “No, January, I’m not talking about sex stuff.” “You’d better not be.” I opened the passenger door and slid onto the seat, pressing my fingers to the warm vents. “Because I carry pepper spray in this tote. And a gun.” “What the fuck,” he cried, putting the car in park. “You’re drunk with a gun flopping around in your wine bag?” I buckled my seat belt. “It was a joke. The gun part, not the ‘killing you if you try something’ part. I meant that.” His laugh was more shocked than amused. Even in the dark of the car, I could see his eyes were wide and his crooked mouth was tensed. He shook his head, wiped the rain off his forehead with the back of his hand, and put the car back into drive. “THIS IS THE trick?” I said, when we pulled into the parking lot. The rain had slowed but the puddles in the cracking asphalt’s potholes glowed with the reflection of the neon sign over the low, rectangular building. “The trick for sobering up is … donuts.” That was all the sign said. For all intents and purposes, it was the diner’s name. “What did you expect?” Gus asked. “Was I supposed to almost drive off a cliff, or hire someone to fake-kidnap you? Or wait, was that sex-stuff comment sarcastic? Did you want me to seduce you?” “No, I’m just saying, next time you’re trying to convince me to get in your car, you’ll save a lot of time if you cut right to donuts.” “I’m hoping I won’t have to coax you into my car very often,” he said. “No, not very often,” I said. “Just on Mondays.” He cracked another smile, faint, like he’d rather not reveal it. It instantly made the car feel too small, him a little too close. I tore my gaze away and got out of the car, head clearing immediately. The building glowed like a bug zapper, its empty, seventies-orange booths visible through the windows along with a fish tank full of koi. “You know, you should consider driving for Uber,” I said. “Oh?” “Yeah, your heat works great. I bet your air-conditioning’s decent too. You don’t smell like Axe, and you didn’t say a word to me the whole way here. Five stars. Six stars. Better than any Uber driver I’ve had before.” “Hm.” Gus pulled the smudgy door open for me, bells jangling overhead. “Maybe next time you get into an Uber, you should try announcing that you have a loaded gun. You might get better service.” “Truly.” “Now don’t be alarmed,” he said under his breath as I stepped past him. “What?” I turned back to ask. “Hello!” a voice called brightly over the Bee Gees song crackling through the place. I spun to face the man behind the illuminated display case. The radio sat there on the counter, producing at least as much static fuzz as crooning disco. “Hi,” I replied. “Howdy,” the man said with a deep nod. He was at least as old as my parents and wire-thin, his thick glasses held to his face with neon-yellow Croakies. “Hi,” I said again. My brain was caught in a hamster wheel, the same realization playing over and over: this elderly gentleman was in his underwear. “Welllll, hello there!” he chirped, apparently determined not to lose this game. He leaned his elbows on top of the case. His underwear, thankfully, included a white T-shirt, and he had mercifully opted for white boxers rather than briefs. “Hi,” I said one last time. Gus sidestepped between my open jaw and the counter. “Can we just do a dozen day-olds?” “Shore!” The underwear-baker grapevined down the length of the display and grabbed a to-go box from the stack on top of it. He carried it back to the old-school register and tapped out a couple of numbers. “Five dollars flat, my man.” “And coffee?” Gus said. “Can’t in good conscience charge you for that stuff.” The man jerked his head toward the carafe. “That shit’s been sitting in there sizzling for three good hours. Want me to make you the new stuff?” Gus looked to me pointedly. “What?” I asked. “It’s for you. What do you think? Free and bad? Or a dollar and …” He couldn’t bring himself to say good, which told me everything I needed to know. “That shit” was always sitting in there, sizzling. “Free,” I said. “Five flat, then, as discussed,” the man said. I reached for my wallet, but Gus headed me off, slapping five dollar bills down on the counter. He tipped his head, gesturing for me to accept the foam cup and box of donuts the man was holding. To fit twelve into this box, they’d been compacted into one box-shaped mash of fried dough. I grabbed them and plopped into a booth. Gus sat across from me, leaned across the table, and pried the box open. He stared down at the donut guts between us. “God, those look disgusting.” “Finally,” I said. “Something we agree on.” “I bet we agree on a lot.” He plucked a mangled maple-nut donut out and sat back, examining it in the fluorescent light. “Such as?” “All the important stuff,” Gus said. “The chemical composition of Earth’s atmosphere, whether the world needs six Pirates of the Caribbean movies, that White Russians should only be drunk when you’re already sure you’re going to vomit anyway.” He managed to fit the whole donut into his mouth. Then, without an ounce of irony, he made eye contact with me. I burst out laughing. “Fffwaht?” he said. I shook my head. “Can I ask you something?” He chewed and swallowed enough to answer. “No, January, I’m not going to tell this guy to turn his music down.” He reached over and snatched another donut clump from the box. “Now I have a question for you, Andrews. Why’d you move here?” I rolled my eyes and ignored his question. “If I were going to ask you to encourage this guy to make one small change to his business practices, it would definitely not be the radio volume.” Gus’s grin split wide, and even now, my stomach flipped traitorously. I wasn’t sure I’d seen him smile like that before, and there was something intoxicating about it. His dark eyes flitted toward the counter and I followed his gaze. The underwear-clad man was positively boogying back and forth between his ovens. Gus’s eyes came back to mine, hyperfocused. “Are you going to tell me why you moved here?” I stuffed a donut chunk into my mouth and shook my head. He half shrugged. “Then I can’t answer your question.” “That’s not how conversations work,” I told him. “They’re not just even trades.” “That’s exactly what they are,” he said. “At least, when you’re not into foot jobs.” I covered my face with my hands, embarrassed, even as I said, “You were extremely rude to me, by the way.” He was silent for a minute. I flinched as his rough fingers caught my wrists and tugged my hands away from my face. His teasing smile had faded, and his brow was creased, his gaze inky-dark and serious. “I know. I’m sorry. It was a bad day.” My stomach flipped right side up again. I hadn’t expected an apology. I’d certainly never gotten an apology for that happily ever after comment. “You were hosting a raging party,” I said, recovering. “I’d love to see what a good day looks like for you.” The corner of his mouth twitched uncertainly. “If you removed the party, you’d be a lot closer. Anyway, will you forgive me? I’ve been told I make a bad first impression.” I crossed my arms, and, emboldened by the wine or his apology, I said, “That wasn’t my first impression.” Something inscrutable passed across his face, vanishing before I could place it. “What was your question?” he said. “If I answer it, will you forgive me?” “Not how forgiveness works either,” I said. When he began to rub his forehead, I added, “But yes.” “Fine. One question,” he said. I leaned across the table. “You thought they were doing your book, didn’t you?” His brows knit together. “‘They’?” “Spies and Liquified Pies,” I said. He pretended to be aghast. “Do you perhaps mean Red, White Russians, and Blue Book Club? Because that nickname you just gave it is an affront to literature salons everywhere, not to mention Freedom and America.” I felt the smile break out across my face. I sat back, satisfied. “You totally did. You thought they were reading The Revelatories.” “First of all,” Gus said, “I’ve lived here five years and Pete’s never invited me to that book club, so yeah, it seemed like a fairly reasonable assumption at the time. Secondly”—he snatched a glazed cake donut from the box—“you might want to be careful, January Andrews. You just revealed you know the title of my book. Who knows what other secrets are on the verge of spilling out of you?” “How do you know I didn’t just Google it?” I countered. “Maybe I’d never heard of it before.” “How do you know that your Googling me wouldn’t be even more amusing to me?” Gus said. “How do you know I wasn’t Googling you out of suspicion you had a criminal background?” Gus replied, “How do you know I won’t keep answering your questions with other questions until we both die?” “How do you know I’ll care?” Gus shook his head, smiling, and took another bite. “Wow, this is terrible.” “The donuts or this conversation?” I asked. “This conversation, definitely. The donuts are good. I Googled you too, by the way. You should consider getting a rarer name.” “I’ll pass that suggestion along to the higher-ups, but I can’t make any promises,” I said. “There’s all kinds of red tape and bureaucratic bullshit to go through.” “Southern Comfort sounds pretty sexy,” he said. “You have a thing for Southern boys? No teeth and overalls really rev your engine?” I rolled my eyes. “I’m led to believe you’ve never been to the South and possibly couldn’t locate ‘south’ on a compass. Besides, why does everyone try to make women’s writing semiautobiographical? Do people generally assume your lonely, white, male—” “Coldly horny,” Gus inserted. “—coldly horny protagonists are you?” He nodded thoughtfully, his dark eyes intent on me. “Good question. Do you assume I’m coldly horny?” “Definitely.” This seemed to amuse him and his crooked mouth. I glanced out the window. “If Pete wasn’t planning on using either of our books, how did she just forget to tell us what the book club’s pick was? I mean, if she just wanted us to join, you’d think she’d give us a chance to actually read the book.” “This wasn’t an accident,” Gus said. “It was an intentional manipulation of the truth. She knows there’s no way I would’ve come tonight if I’d known what was really happening.” I snorted. “And what was the end goal of this nefarious plan? To become an eccentric side character in the next Augustus Everett novel?” “What exactly do you have against my books, which you have allegedly not read?” he asked. “What do you have against my books,” I said, “which you have certainly not read?” “What makes you so sure?” “The pirate reference.” I dug in to a strawberry frosted covered in sprinkles. “That’s not the kind of romance I write. In fact, my books aren’t even shelved as romance, technically. They’re shelved as women’s fiction.” Gus slumped against the booth and stretched his lean olive arms over his head, rolling his wrists to make them crack. “I don’t understand why there’d need to be a full genre that’s just books for women.” I scoffed. Here it was, that always-ready anger rising like it had been waiting for an excuse. “Yeah, well, you’re not the only one who doesn’t understand it,” I said. “I know how to tell a story, Gus, and I know how to string a sentence together. If you swapped out all my Jessicas for Johns, do you know what you’d get? Fiction. Just fiction. Ready and willing to be read by anyone, but somehow by being a woman who writes about women, I’ve eliminated half the Earth’s population from my potential readers, and you know what? I don’t feel ashamed of that. I feel pissed. That people like you will assume my books couldn’t possibly be worth your time, while meanwhile you could shart on live TV and the New York Times would praise your bold display of humanity.” Gus was staring at me seriously, head cocked, rigid line between his eyebrows. “Now can you take me home?” I said. “I’m feeling nice and sober.” 8 The Bet GUS SLID OUT of the booth, and I followed, gathering the donut box and my cup of sizzling shit. It had stopped raining, but now heavy fog hung in clumps. Without another word, we got into the car and drove away from DONUTS, the word glowing teal in the rearview mirror. “It’s the happy endings,” Gus said suddenly as he pulled onto the main drag. “What?” My stomach clenched. They all live happily ever after. Again. Gus cleared his throat. “It’s not that I don’t take romance seriously as a genre. And I like reading about women. But I have a hard time with happy endings.” His eyes cautiously flashed my way, then went back to the road. “A hard time?” I repeated, as if that would make the words make sense to me. “You have a hard time … reading happy endings?” He rubbed at the curve of his bicep, an anxious tic I didn’t remember. “I guess.” “Why?” I asked, more confused than offended now. “Life is pretty much a series of good and bad moments right up until the moment you die,” he said stiffly. “Which is arguably a bad one. Love doesn’t change that. I have a hard time suspending my disbelief. Besides, can you think of a single real-life romance that actually ended like Bridget fucking Jones?” There it was, the Gus Everett I knew. The one who’d thought I was hopelessly naive. And even if I had some evidence he’d been right, I wasn’t ready to let him trash the thing that had once meant more to me than anything else, the genre that had kept me afloat when Mom relapsed and our whole imagined future disappeared like smoke on a breeze. “First of all,” I said, “‘Bridget fucking Jones’ is an ongoing series. It is literally the worst example you could have chosen to prove that point. It’s the antithesis of the oversimplified and inaccurate stereotype of the genre. It does exactly what I aim to: it makes its readers feel known and understood, like their stories—women’s stories—matter. And secondly, are you honestly saying you don’t believe in love?” I felt a little desperate, like if I let him win this fight, it would be the final straw: there’d be no getting back to myself, to believing in love and seeing the world and the people in it as pure, beautiful things—to loving writing. Gus’s brow furrowed, his dark eyes flashing from me to the road with that intent, absorbing look Shadi and I had spent so much time trying to put into words. “Sure, love happens,” he said finally. “But it’s better to be realistic so shit’s not constantly blowing up in your face. And love is way more likely to blow up in your face than to bring eternal happiness. And if it doesn’t hurt you, then you’re the one hurting someone else. “Entering a relationship is borderline sadomasochistic. Especially when you can get everything you would from a romantic relationship from a friendship, without destroying anyone’s life when it inevitably ends.” “Everything?” I said. “Sex?” He arched an eyebrow. “You don’t even need friendship to get sex.” “And what, it never turns into more for you?” I said. “You can keep things that detached?” “If you’re realistic,” he said. “You need a policy. It doesn’t turn into more if it only happens once.” Wow. The shelf life had shortened. “See?” I said. “You are coldly horny, Gus.” He glanced sidelong at me, smiling. “What?” “That’s the second time you’ve called me Gus tonight.” My cheeks flushed. Right,