Annika Rose is an English major at the University of Illinois. Anxious in social situations where she finds most people's behavior confusing, she'd rather be surrounded by the order and discipline of books or the quiet solitude of playing chess.
Jonathan Hoffman joined the chess club and lost his first game—and his heart—to the shy and awkward, yet brilliant and beautiful Annika. He admires her ability to be true to herself, quirks and all, and accepts the challenges involved in pursuing a relationship with her. Jonathan and Annika bring out the best in each other, finding the confidence and courage within themselves to plan a future together. What follows is a tumultuous yet tender love affair that withstands everything except the unforeseen tragedy that forces them apart, shattering their connection and leaving them to navigate their lives alone.
Now, a decade later, fate reunites Annika and Jonathan in Chicago. She's living the life she wanted as a librarian. He's a Wall Street whiz, recovering from a divorce and seeking a fresh start. The attraction and strong feelings they once shared are instantly rekindled, but until they confront the fears and anxieties that drove them apart, their second chance will end before it truly begins.
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|Publisher:||St. Martin's Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)|
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CHICAGO AUGUST 2001
I run into him at Dominick's, of all places. I'm poking around in the freezer case, searching for the strawberries I put in my morning smoothie, when a man's voice somewhere off to my right says, "Annika?" He sounds unsure.
From the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of his face. It's been ten years since we've seen each other and though I often struggle to recognize people out of context, there's no need for me to question whether or not it's him. I know it's him. My body vibrates like the low rumble of a faraway train and I'm grateful for the freezer's cold air as my core temperature shoots up. I want to bolt, to forget about the strawberries and find the nearest exit. But Tina's words echo in my head, and I repeat them like a mantra: Don't run, take responsibility, be yourself.
I draw an uneven breath that doesn't quite fill my lungs, and turn toward him. "Hi, Jonathan."
"It is you," he says.
I smile. "Yes."
My hair, which used to be waist length and usually in need of a good brushing, is now shiny and straight and stops a few inches below my shoulders. The tailored shirt and slim-fitting pants I'm wearing are a far cry from my college wardrobe of skirts and dresses two sizes too big. It's probably thrown him a bit.
At thirty-two, he still looks the same to me: dark hair, blue eyes, broad swimmer's shoulders. He's not smiling, but his brows aren't knitted together in a scowl, either. Though I've vastly improved my ability to read facial expressions and other nonverbal cues, I can't tell if he's harboring any angry or hurt feelings. He has every right to feel both.
We take a step forward and we hug, because even I know that after all this time — and all we've been through — we're supposed to hug. There is an immediate feeling of safety and comfort when Jonathan's arms are around me. That hasn't changed at all. The smell of chlorine that used to cling to his skin has been replaced by something woodsy and, thankfully, not too heavy or cloying.
I have no idea why he's in Chicago. A prestigious financial services firm in New York had whisked Jonathan out of Illinois almost before the ink finished drying on his diploma, when what had once been a planned move for two turned into a solo endeavor.
When we separate, I stumble over my words. "I thought you lived ... Are you here on business ...?"
"I transferred to the Chicago office about five years ago," he says. It astounds me that all this time, as I've walked around the city I now call home, I never knew bumping into him was a possibility. How many times have we been within a certain-mile radius of each other and not known it? How many times were we behind or in front of each other on a busy sidewalk, or dining in the same restaurant?
"My mom needed someone to oversee her care," he continues.
I'd met his mother once, and I liked her almost as much as I liked my own. It had been easy to see where Jonathan's kindness had come from. "Please tell her I said hello."
"She died a couple of years ago. Dementia. The doctor said she'd probably been suffering from it for years."
"She called me Katherine and couldn't find her keys," I say, because my recall is excellent and it all makes sense now.
He acknowledges my statement with a brief nod. "Do you work downtown?" he asks.
I close the freezer door, embarrassed that I've been holding it open the whole time. "Yes, at the Harold Washington Library."
My answer brings the first smile to his face. "Good for you."
The conversation sputters to an awkward halt. Jonathan has always done the heavy lifting where our communication is concerned, but this time he doesn't let me off the hook and the silence is deafening. "It was great to see you," I finally blurt. My voice sounds higher than it usually does. Heat rushes to my face, and I wish I'd left the freezer door open after all.
As he turns to go, a pang of longing hits me so hard my knees nearly buckle, and I gather my courage and say, "Jonathan?"
His eyebrows are raised slightly when he turns back around. "Yes?"
"Would you like to get together sometime?" I tense as the memories come flooding back. I tell myself it's not fair to do this to him, that I've done enough already.
He hesitates but then he says, "Sure, Annika." He removes a pen from the inside pocket of his suit coat and reaches for the grocery list in my hand, scrawling his phone number on the back.
"I'll call you. Soon," I promise.
He nods, his expression blank again. He probably thinks I won't go through with it. He'd be justified in that, too.
But I will call. I'll apologize. Ask him if we can start over. "Clean slate," I'll say.
Such is my desire to replace the memories of the girl he used to know with the woman I've become.CHAPTER 2
CHICAGO AUGUST 2001
At my initial therapy session with Tina it took my eyes almost five minutes to adjust to the dimly lit room. When I could finally see my surroundings clearly, I realized it was intentional, and that everything in the room had been placed there based on its ability to soothe. The floor lamp in the corner — the only source of light — had a cream-colored shade that threw muted shadows against the wall. The brown leather furniture felt buttery-soft under my fingertips, and the thick rug covering the floor made me want to kick off my shoes and wiggle my toes among its soft, fluffy fibers.
"I ran into Jonathan," I tell Tina before she's even shut the door when I show up for my weekly appointment. She sits down in the armchair and I sink into the overstuffed couch across from her, its cushions enveloping me in a way that has always eased my anxiety about being there.
"Last Tuesday. I stopped at Dominick's on my way home from work, and he was there."
We've spent many hours discussing Jonathan and she must certainly be curious, but knowing what Tina's thinking by the look on her face is a nut I'll never crack. "How did it go?"
"I remembered what you said I should do if I ever saw him again." I brightened, sitting up a bit taller despite the couch's continued attempt to swallow me. "We had a conversation. It was short, but it was nice."
"There was a time when you wouldn't have done that," Tina says.
"There was a time when I would have escaped out the back door and then taken to my bed for two days." I had felt drained when I'd finally made it home with my groceries. And then, when I was putting them away, the grief I'd felt about the death of Jonathan's mother finally caught up to me and I had myself a good long cry because now he doesn't have any parents at all. I'd also neglected to tell him how sorry I was even though I was thinking it in my head. Despite my fatigue, it had taken me a long time to fall asleep that night.
"I thought he was in New York?"
"He was. He transferred here to take care of his mom before she died. That's all I really know." Jonathan's appearance had been so unexpected, so random, that I hadn't been capable of articulating many questions. It had occurred to me belatedly that I had no idea if he was married. Glancing down at a man's ring finger is the kind of subterfuge that occurs to me later — and in the case of Jonathan, two full days after the fact.
"What do you suppose was going through Jonathan's mind when he saw you in that grocery store?"
Tina knows how difficult it is for me to understand what others are thinking, so her question does not surprise me. In the ten years since I've seen Jonathan, I've replayed the final weeks of our relationship, and the last message he left on my answering machine, over and over in my mind. Tina had helped me see these events through Jonathan's eyes, and what I'd realized made me feel ashamed. "He didn't seem hurt or angry," I say, which doesn't really answer her question. Tina knows everything there is to know about the situation, and she could probably tell me what Jonathan was thinking. She just wants to hear my take on it. One of the things I like most about our sessions is that I'm the one who determines what I'm comfortable discussing, so Tina won't push. Not too much, anyway.
"How did he seem?"
"Neutral, I guess? He smiled when I told him about the library. He started to walk away, but I asked him if he wanted to get together, and he gave me his number."
"You've made real progress, Annika. You should be proud."
"He probably thinks I won't call."
Though it fills me with anxiety to envision the road I'm about to travel, I answer firmly. "Yes."
I study Tina's face, and though I can't be certain, I think she might be pleased.CHAPTER 3
THE UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS AT URBANA-CHAMPAIGN 1991
In college, if you wanted to find me, you'd need only to look in three places: the Wildlife Medical Clinic, the library, or the student union, where my chess club meetings took place.
With the amount of time I spent volunteering in the clinic, one might think I aspired to a career in veterinary medicine. Animals were one of the few things that brought me extreme happiness, especially those in need of my attention. The other volunteers might have assumed the animals provided a respite from the loneliness and isolation that surrounded me during my college years, but few would understand that I simply preferred the company of animals over most humans. The soulful look in their eyes as they learned to trust me sustained me more than any social situation ever would.
If there was one thing I loved almost as much as animals, it was books. Reading transported me to exotic locales, fascinating periods in history, and worlds that were vastly different from my own. My mother, frantic with worry one afternoon when I was eight, found me outside in our tree house on a snowy December day engrossed in my favorite Laura Ingalls Wilder book, the one where Pa got caught in the blizzard and ate the Christmas candy he was bringing home for Laura and Mary. She'd been searching for me for half an hour and had called my name for so long she'd lost her voice. Though I explained it to her repeatedly, she couldn't seem to grasp that I was simply playing the part of Laura waiting in the cabin. Sitting in the cold tree house made perfect sense to me. When I'd discovered I could pursue a career that would allow me to spend my days in a library, surrounded by books, the joy I'd felt had been profound.
Until my dad taught me to play chess at age seven, there wasn't a single thing I was good at. I did not excel at sports, and I was all over the board academically, earning either the very highest or the very lowest marks, depending on the class and how much it interested me. Debilitating shyness prevented me from participating in school plays or other extracurricular activities. But much like books, chess filled a void in my life that nothing else had been able to satisfy. Though it took me a long time to figure it out, I know that my brain does not work like other people's. I think in black-and-white. Concrete, not abstract. The game of chess, with its strategies and rules, matched my worldview. Animals and books sustained me, but chess gave me the opportunity to be a part of something.
When I played the game, I almost fit in.
* * *
The Illini Chess Club met in the food court area of the student union on Sunday evenings from 6:00 to 8:00 P.M. The number of attendees varied widely. At the beginning of the semester, when members weren't yet bogged down by their course loads or busy studying for exams, there might be thirty students. By the time finals drew near, our numbers would plummet and we would be lucky to have ten. The Sunday chess club meetings were casual, consisting mostly of free play and socializing. The chess team meetings — for members who wanted to participate in competitive play — were held on Wednesday evenings and focused on competitive training games, the solving of chess puzzles, and analyzing famous chess matches. Though I possessed the necessary skills and would have preferred the more formal structure of the chess team meetings, I had no desire to compete.
Jonathan joined us on a Sunday evening early in my senior year. While the rest of the club mingled and talked, I fidgeted in my customary spot, board set up, ready for play. I'd kicked off my shoes as soon as I sat down, pressing the soles of my bare feet down on the cool smooth floor because it felt so good to me in a way I could never explain to anyone no matter how hard I tried. I watched as Jonathan approached Eric, our club president, who smiled and shook his hand. A few minutes later, Eric called the meeting to attention, raising his voice to be heard above the din.
"Welcome, everyone. New members, please introduce yourselves. Pizza at Uno afterward if anyone's interested." Eric turned back to Jonathan and then pointed toward me. The gesture filled me with dread, and I froze.
I almost always played with Eric, for two reasons: One, we'd joined the chess club on the same day our freshman year and as the two newest members, it made sense for us to partner up for our first game, and two, no one else ever wanted to play with me. If Eric and I finished our game quickly, he moved on to play with someone else and I went home. I liked playing with Eric. He was kind, but that never stopped him from playing his hardest. If I beat him, I knew I'd earned it, because he spared me no handicap. But now that Eric had been elected president and spent some of the meeting answering questions or handling other administrative functions, he wasn't always available to play with me.
My stomach churned as Jonathan walked toward me, and I calmed myself by flicking my fingers under the table as if I were trying to remove something unpleasant from the tips. When I was a child, I would rock and hum, but as I got older, I learned to keep my self-soothing methods hidden. I nodded my acknowledgment of his presence when he sat down across from me.
"Eric thought we could partner tonight. I'm Jonathan Hoffman."
His jaw was square and his eyes were bright blue. His short dark hair looked shiny, and I wondered if it would feel soft and silky under my fingertips. He smelled faintly of chlorine, and while I hated most smells, for some reason that one didn't bother me.
"Annika Rose," I said, my voice barely above a whisper.
I shook my head. "No M." The confusion surrounding my name had been a constant my whole life. In seventh grade, a particularly vile girl named Maria had shoved my head into a locker. "A weird name for a weird girl," she'd hissed, sending me fleeing in tears to the nurse's office.
"Annika," Jonathan said, as if he were trying it on. "Cool. Let's play."
Eric and I alternated who played white and therefore took turns enjoying the slight advantage that came with it, and if we'd played together that night it would have been his turn. But since I'd been paired unexpectedly with Jonathan, the pieces in front of him were white and he went first.
His opening sequence displayed his affinity for the moves of World Champion Anatoly Karpov. Once I identified his strategy, I chose my defense accordingly and immersed myself in the game, the sounds and smells of the food court fading away along with my nervousness. I no longer heard snippets of the students' conversations as they ate their burgers and fries, or the sizzle of the wok from a fresh batch of chicken fried rice. I didn't smell the pepperoni pizza hot out of the oven. Iplayed ruthlessly from the start, because every game I played was a game I played to win, but I also took my time and concentrated on my next move. Neither Jonathan nor I spoke.
The game of chess is largely silent, but to me there is great beauty in the lack of sound.
"Checkmate," I said.
There was a long pause and then he said, "Good game." He looked around, but only a few of our members remained. Everyone else had left for dinner while we were still playing.
"You too," I replied, because the victory had been as hard won as any I'd earned from Eric.
"You going out for pizza and beer?" I stood up, grabbed my backpack, and said, "No. I'm going home."
* * *
The lingering smell of sandalwood incense and Lysol greeted me when I opened the door of the campus apartment Janice and I had lived in for the past two years. The incense was to cover up the faint scent of pot that always clung to her boyfriend's clothes. Janice would never have allowed Joe to get stoned in our apartment, and she couldn't detect the smell on him herself. But I had a very sensitive nose and I knew what it was the moment she introduced us. Janice understood that the memories it triggered were something I simply couldn't handle.
The Lysol was to counteract the aftereffects of whatever Jan cooked for Joe. She loved to experiment with recipes and spent hours in the kitchen. Her palate ran toward the gourmet side of things, while mine aligned more closely with the dietary habits of a six-year-old. More than once, I'd seen Joe staring at the grilled cheese or chicken nuggets on my plate while Janice stirred something complicated on the stove. I appreciated her willingness to keep the smells in our apartment to a minimum, but didn't have the heart to tell her that the Lysol and incense only added two of them to the mix. And because I wasn't the easiest person to live with, I never would.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Girl He Used To Know"
Copyright © 2019 Tracey Garvis Graves.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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