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By Alyssa Goodnight
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2013 Alyssa Goodnight
All right reserved.
Chapter One"What does it say about me that I'm jealous of the lives of fictional characters?"
I posed the question nonchalantly as I nudged my Scrabble tiles around on the stand.
"Given that you're a high school English teacher, referring to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British lit, it says you're glamorizing an era before indoor plumbing and takeout," Ethan said in his calm, rational manner. He glanced up at me over the top of his tortoiseshell frames, gauging my reaction, before refocusing his concentration on his own tiles.
I smiled ruefully and supposed in some ways he had a point.
"Besides," he continued, "what do you have to complain about?"
"Not complain, exactly. More lament."
Prefacing his turn with an eye roll and playing off the "T" from my wildly impressive "TRAMP," he neatly laid down all his letters to play "INTRIGUE" on a double-word score, earning him a whopping sixty-eight points to my nine. It was doubtful I could come back from this, particularly given the slew of vowels I'd just drawn, but I tried not to let it bother me. I never won against Ethan. Besides, I didn't need the distraction, being as I was in the middle of my own pity party.
Ethan tallied his score and slid his hand into the bag of remaining tiles. "I'll bite ... what are you lamenting?"
"The reality that I may as well be wearing a tracking anklet, for all the excitement going on in my life. Then again," I said, looking out into the yard at the Bradford pear tree that had stripped down to bare branches, "the FBI would never bother to issue me an anklet because I've ceased to be a 'person of interest.' Literally."
"You either deserve the anklet or you don't, Cate. Pick a side."
I wasn't particularly interested in continuing our Scrabble game, both because I was losing badly and because I was trying to make a point, so I ignored the board—and the fact that it was my turn—and focused on the pita chips I'd "borrowed" from my mom's pantry.
"Fine. I'm lamenting the fact that my life would never make the cut in publishing. I don't have any big moments—no cliffhangers, no happily-ever-after, no thrilling action sequence—just filler."
I crunched a chip loudly, feeling violently frustrated. Yep, that was me: violently frustrated and taking it out on a pita chip. My shoulders slumped.
"This isn't about Pride and Prejudice again, is it? Because that book is a menace."
"We've already determined that you, Mr. Chavez, are jealous of Mr. Darcy, so your opinion is moot. Besides, you're well aware that P and P isn't on the district reading list this year—this year's graduates are going to go off to college without ever experiencing the wit of Lizzy Bennet and the serious sex appeal of Mr. Darcy." I gazed off into the distance, hamming it up for Ethan's benefit before getting back to business. "They did substitute Emma, so at least we know they're not completely uncultured." Willing myself back from the tangent, I grabbed another chip and swiped it through the hummus I'd found in my own refrigerator.
"Are you planning to play your turn?"
I looked up at Ethan, exasperated at his inability to focus.
"Are you here for the Scrabble or the company? Because if you're just here for the Scrabble, then maybe we should stick with the iPhone app and save ourselves the face-to-face." I knew I was starting to sound snippy, maybe even a little hurt, so I abruptly stopped talking.
Ethan reached for the Corona beer, sweating and forgotten, in front of him and sat back in his chair. He lifted one eyebrow in invitation for me to continue, to talk my heart out.
I stared at him, with his tousled dark hair and weekend stubble, his deep brown eyes worldly wise behind his glasses, and I instantly regretted my snappish words. Scrabble notwithstanding, I would hate it if I missed my Sunday evenings with Ethan. He was the yin to my yang—or more accurately, the squelch to my whine, and I needed that more often than I cared to admit.
I sipped my own beer with its tang of lime, puckered my lips, and prepared to make my point.
"Much as you'd probably hate to admit it, you're living the male version of my life. We both work in a high school—I teach English, you teach French and German. You live alone; I live alone, although admittedly in my mom's backyard. You haven't had a girlfriend for as long as I've known you, and you never talk about the women you're dating. I can't get further with a man than the first Saturday night date because you pick him apart over Scrabble on Sunday. Why I continue to confide in you is beyond me." I stopped, letting that all sink in.
"That's what friends do," he said, taking another pull on his beer and keeping his tone matter-of-fact. "They warn you off unsuitable men. Men have a way of impairing your judgment—I call it the Darcy Effect. Bad manners and mediocre good looks and you think he's a worthy specimen. Turns out he's more like a bug. So I dissect him."
"I'm so glad we're friends."
"If you're looking to change things up a little, friends with benefits would be acceptable to me." He grinned, a boyish, mischievous grin that convinced me he was definitely kidding. Which was a relief. Because that would be weird. So weird.
I needed to meet someone before ...
I blinked and shook my head slightly, hoping to dislodge that train of thought.
"I need to do something," I finally said, glossing right over his provocative suggestion.
"Dare I suggest finishing the game?" He lifted an eyebrow and tilted his head, indicating my little row of vowels.
"I wouldn't if I were you," I said, sour-sweet.
"Okay, does that mean you'll pay the forfeit? I'm thinking pepperoni pizza."
"Fine. I'll trade you the pizza for an honest answer."
"That's gonna depend on the question."
I speared him with a quizzical stare. "What have you got going on in your life that has you looking so self-satisfied all the time?"
Ethan's mouth hitched up at the corner, putting the smug out on display. "That's pretty personal."
"Interesting comment coming from the man who just suggested we upgrade our Scrabble matches to include benefits."
"I meant pizza," he deadpanned.
"Evidently you're not so much a man of mystery as a man of mystery meats." I shook my head, biting back a smile, and looked away from him out over the darkened yard. Obviously Ethan was keeping his secrets close—assuming he had any that didn't involve hot cheese.
Sitting here under the brightly decorated Japanese lanterns I'd convinced my mom we should string up under the oaks, the possibilities seemed endless, the world glowing—I just needed to hold on to this feeling and find a way to have a little adventure. It couldn't be anything too risqué—one amateur videographer with a camera phone was all it took for things to get very hairy indeed. A good friend of mine had learned that the hard way. I needed a buffer, a way to keep my real, respectable, everyday life separate from a little after-hours adventure.
An alter ego would be perfect ... sort of a secret identity. I could be the kind of girl who would wear red lipstick and a secret smile and agree to a "friends with benefits" arrangement without batting an eye. Or maybe batting them madly ...
"Want me to order the pizza?"
My gaze whipped back to Ethan, his face fringed in shadow as he searched his phone for the number of the pizza place. I blinked rapidly, trying to get my thought processes back on track, hoping the darkened twilight hid the flush in my cheeks and the nervous whites of my eyes.
"Knock yourself out," I finally agreed.
As we waited for the pizza and I considered, and discarded, a number of "alternative" options, opportunity e-mailed an invitation.
Derring-Do and Savoir Faire ... presented by Pop-up Culture Join us for an evening inspired by the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Suspense, my dears, is key, and so the evening's menu must remain a mystery.... The cast of characters: charismatic men, intriguing women, and glamorous, grown-up drinks. When? Sunday, All Hallow's Eve, 9:00 P.M.–midnight Where? Location to be revealed on confirmed reservation Entrée? $40, suggested donation RSVP to this e-mail address by Tuesday, October 26
Chills edged up my arms as I scrolled through each consecutive line. This was it! A perfect departure from my bookish, Darcy-obsessed self.
Pop-up Culture was the current business venture of my good friend/bad influence Syd Carmelo and fellow food junkies Olivia Westin and Willow Burke. It was a sort of culinary underground, hosting über-cool, invitation-only "pop-up" events all over the city. Austin was cooler than ever. I'd been on the mailing list from Day One, but had yet to make it to an event—I had either a parent conference, a family commitment ... or a long-standing Scrabble match. I ended up getting the details with the rest of the city in the paper's Lifestyle section. Halloween was only a week away. And this time, I was going.
Not as myself, though. I was in the mood for a little "mysterious."
Maybe I'd be a Hitchcock blonde ... with a long, slow smile and a whiff of suggestion. The blond aspect, I had covered. The rest might require a little practice. I hurried to RSVP before I could lose my nerve. Next Sunday ... I glanced at Ethan, who was randomly arranging tiles on the Scrabble board. Sundays were currently reserved for my "friend sans benefits." I could either ask him to go with me or I could strike out on my own. Chances were we'd be done with Scrabble in plenty of time for me to transform myself into a blond bombshell.
I'd started to type in my RSVP, single lady attending, when car doors slammed in the front yard, signaling that the pizza had arrived. Pocketing my phone, I grinned to myself, smirked in Ethan's direction, and nearly skipped through the gate at the side of the house. Only to stumble across my mother, holding a large white pizza box up over her head.
"Mom!" I glanced at the pizza dude, collapsing back into his tiny car, counting the bills in his hands.
"Hi," she said, dodging carefully around me. "I took a chance—thought maybe if I sprung for the pizza you'd let me share."
"Sure," I agreed, trailing along behind her. "Where have you been?" Somewhere casual, I assumed, judging by the charcoal gray track pants and raspberry polar fleece pullover she was wearing.
"Just out," she answered, vaguely waving her free hand, seeming to encompass all the options the city had to offer for an active fiftysomething.
"Hello, Ms. Kendall," Ethan said, politely rising to his feet while surreptitiously eyeing the pizza box currently being held out of reach. He'd been a quick study, cluing in early on to the whole "recently divorced, taking my life back" attitude my mom was projecting. As far as he was concerned, "anything goes" was a bit of a watchword when it came to my mom.
My mother smiled at him. "Final score?"
Ethan glanced over at me, leaving me to answer.
"He's waiting for you to relinquish the price of my forfeit," I confessed, not even the slightest bit embarrassed. "Mom paid, so you're going to have to share," I informed him.
"Okay if we rough it and eat straight from the box?" he said, hurriedly gathering up the Scrabble board to make room for the pizza box in the center of the table. "I'm starving."
"A picnic under the stars—lovely," said my mother, smiling approvingly at Ethan before turning to me to flash the twinkle in her eye. "I'm not interrupting anything, am I?"
Honestly, I think my mom would be thrilled if I answered Ethan's teasing booty call.
The next ten minutes were blissfully quiet as we devoured gigantic greasy triangles of pizza with single-minded determination. I noticed a few bats winging gracefully overhead, but otherwise I was distracted by the opportunity burning a hole in my pocket. Suddenly I worried that a flood of people would jump at the chance to attend a Hitchcock-inspired party and edge me out with their quick-fingered RSVPs.
"Anyone need anything from the kitchen?" I yelped, standing suddenly, my legs pushing my chair away from the table. "Napkins have become necessary."
The pair of them eyed me quizzically, but declined my offer. But as I neared the French doors leading into my mom's kitchen, she called out, "Cate, I've changed my mind. Will you pour me a glass of the Cabernet on the counter?"
"Got it," I said, stepping into the dim kitchen. The desk light in the corner was on, pooling a warm glow, and preferring to keep my little secret from the pair outside, I decided to make do without additional lighting. It seemed irrational, but I couldn't help it; I wanted this one little secret for myself. My life wasn't just an open book with these two, it was an interactive free-for-all. Mom had been running interference in my life long before Dad and Gemma had left two years ago, within three weeks of each other, leaving us only to breathe an anticlimactic sigh of relief.
Gemma was sixteen months older than me and had long, wavy auburn hair—twins we were not, but we'd had a whole Parent Trap dynamic going since early childhood. Photos scattered around the house told the story and hinted at the inevitable ending. Gemma always posed beside my father, in his lap, or on his shoulders. I, on the other hand, was my mom's shadow. Gemma and Dad were outgoing, outdoorsy, take-a-chance, make-it-happen types, while Mom and I were crafty, bookish rule followers, taking it on faith that magic would happen precisely when it was meant to, a personality type crafted initially by fairy tales and honed by Jane Austen.
Starting her third year of grad school in North Carolina, Gemma came home as school holidays allowed. Dad was happily entrenched in his new life as owner of a Texas Hill Country zip-line outfit, and despite being only a quick day-trip away, we rarely saw him. As for Ethan, the pair of us had hit it off around the same two-year mark, glommed onto each other, and hung like sticker burrs ... impossible to shake. And I didn't want to shake him ... him or my mom. I just wanted something of my own. I wanted a secret. A little desperately.
I quickly gathered up the napkins and pulled a favored wineglass down from the kitchen's open shelving. Then, with my back to the door, I made a slow effort of pouring the wine and cleaning up an imaginary spill—just in case anyone was watching. With my free hand, I texted my RSVP and credit card number and felt the thrill of derring-do ricochet through my veins.
I returned to the table, barely able to suppress a scary sort of smile—the sort where it's obvious you're hiding something particularly juicy. This subtle sneaking around felt good—liberating—but I couldn't very well flaunt it unless I wanted to risk Ethan anteing up his two cents. I was über-conscious of their mildly curious gazes, but I stayed focused on my pizza and beer until a text came in, instantly disrupting my carefully arranged calm. I hurried to pull the phone from my pocket, my blood pounding crazily through my veins, as I urgently wondered if I'd been too late.
I hadn't. Syd was simply as psyched as I was.
So thrilled you rsvp'd! Finally! Going to be awesome! Expect a call....
I smiled down at the screen, my pulse slowly returning to normal, and casually sipped my beer.
Judging by the banked look in Ethan's eyes, he could tell something was up. He no doubt assumed that it was my mother's presence that kept me from blurting my secrets.
"Do you two have any plans for the evening?" my mom quizzed, staring intently at Ethan.
Mom had been gunning for Ethan ever since I'd brought him home for our first Scrabble game a year and a half ago. She assumed that eventually one of us would realize that this thing between us could be so much more than a little word game with beer. As a romance reader, she couldn't help it—he was perfect hero material. Charismatic, clever ... debatably sexy—it had, in fact, been debated, with Mom talking up his finer points and me la-la-la'ing my way through.
Ethan and I caught each other's eye, simultaneously shook our heads in one quick negative, and let our gazes swivel away again.
"I've actually got a few errands to run before tomorrow. Not to mention a little work to catch up on." He stood, eyed the pizza box splayed open on the table, and looked to me with a question in his eyes.
"I got it," I told him. "Seeing as I didn't buy the pizza, I'll pay the forfeit in cleanup. Sorry to rob you of another Scrabble trouncing."
"It had its benefits," he said, winking.
I glanced at my mom, hoping she wasn't picking up on any of this.
"Thank you for dinner, Ms. Kendall. See you at school, Cate." And then he disappeared into the shadows at the edge of the house. Minutes later, all car sounds had faded and Mom and I were alone in the dark.
"Does he have a girlfriend?"
"No, and neither do I."
Mom's laser stare bored into me. I may as well have been splayed out on the table like James Bond.
Excerpted from Austensibly Ordinary by Alyssa Goodnight Copyright © 2013 by Alyssa Goodnight. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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