All right, my friends. I’ve decided to go ahead and give you a little sneak peek inside my newest book. And by sneak peek, I mean THE ENTIRE FIRST CHAPTER.
Also, this is my very own, very professional (coughnotatallcough) “illustrated” version. (Visual aids! Hooray!)
I hope you enjoy!
(I also hope you pre-order because it REALLY helps me out).
I pulled into the driveway and put my car into park.
Home for Thanksgiving. I could do this.
Grabbing my bags from the trunk, I climbed the porch steps, avoiding casting even a glance at the neighbors’ house, and knocked before letting myself in.
“I’m here!” I called out.
“Julie? Is that you?” Mom called from the kitchen.
I smiled, wondering who else she thought it could be. “It’s me.”
“Well, get back here and give me a hug.”
Dropping my bags on the couch, I hung my coat in the closet, the familiar scents of home soaking my senses along with the muted sound caused by low ceilings and lots of carpet. So different from my apartment, swathed in linoleum.
I found my mom in the kitchen, cutting up chicken, a cute retro-style apron tied around her waist.
“Hey, sweetie.” She reached out and gave me a tight squeeze, pressing the back of her wrist into my upper back so that her dirty hands wouldn’t touch my sweater.
“Are you making a pre-Thanksgiving feast?”
She scoffed a bit. “This is hardly a feast, and we have five full days before Thanksgiving. Now, why don’t you peel potatoes for me?”
“I will in a minute. I’m going to find Hannah first.”
“I’m sure she’s in her room, as usual.”
I strode down the hall and opened Hannah’s door without knocking. She looked up, annoyed, but when she saw it was me, her face brightened and she scrambled off the bed, throwing her arms around me.
“Uh-oh,” I said, knowing that such an enthusiastic response was an indication of something wrong. “What happened?”
She pulled back after an extended hug. “Just”—she tugged at her hair and pulled the bottoms of her sleeves into her fists—“stupid drama.”
We both moved to sit on her bed. “With who?”
“She’s the new friend, right?”
“Yeah, we met in trig and we’ve been hanging out.”
“So, what’s the drama?”
“We were talking about our schedules for next semester, and she really wanted me to drop one of my electives and take an art class with her.”
“Ah.” Mrs. Martin ran the art department. Neither Hannah nor I could take art in high school after what happened with the Martins.
“Yeah. I tried to explain to her why I can’t, but she just doesn’t get it. She thinks it’s stupid.”
“Which it is.”
“Of course,” she conceded with a wave of her hand. “But that doesn’t mean I can give Mom and Dad the finger by taking a class from Mrs. Martin.”
“I know.” It was all I could say to commiserate.
“I just hate trying to explain it to people.”
I remembered that struggle all too well. My high school friends hadn’t been able to wrap their heads around the idea that one week we’d been great friends with our neighbors, and the next, the Martins had become persona non grata in my parents’ book. Their confusion was justified. It was tough for me to reconcile my memories of before with my memories of after. Before, we had been all about barbecues and weekends at the lake together. My brother had run amuck with the three Martin boys while Hannah and I played with their sister. Eddie Martin and my dad had been business partners for years, managing a real estate investment trust. While they were running that business, Eddie Martin started up a different company, and after a couple years, one of his investors had accused him of fraud.
And that was the sad ending to our happy tale. I still couldn’t get the full story out of my parents, but I knew that an investigation had been opened to look into Eddie Martin’s businesses. Not just the one that he’d started on his own, but anything that he had touched, including the one he’d run with my father. Suddenly my dad’s business, his livelihood, was being torn apart. His assets were frozen. Any business that Eddie Martin had a hand in was shut down. The company my father had spent years building was gone in a day, tied up in legal proceedings, red tape, and federal nonsense. As a result, my parents had narrowly avoided bankruptcy and could barely keep their heads above water for several years.
Needless to say, the friendship was non-existent now, and there was a lot of bad blood coursing through the fence line that separated our house from the Martins’. My parents would have loved to move away, but something about a home equity loan and the housing market turning had put us upside down in the house.
Instead, we stayed in the same house, in the same town, and my parents poured a lot of energy into hating the Martins.
So, yes. It sucked trying to explain that to people. “So,” I prompted Hannah, “did you and Lacey end up having a fight? What happened?”
“She just got mad and we haven’t talked for like a week.”
I frowned, hating the fact that Hannah had to deal with this crap. “Have they gotten any better?” It was a silly, ridiculous hope that prompted me to ask.
“Nope,” she said as she picked at her quilt.
“Wanna make a bet on how far we’ll get into dinner before one of them bashes the Martins?”
“Ten minutes,” she responded automatically.
I laughed. “I’ll be a little more optimistic. I’ll say twenty-five.”
“Time starts when we sit down at the table?”
“Yup.” I reached out a hand and we shook on it. “Come on. Mom wants me to help with dinner.”
Making light of my parents’ grudge had become a necessity. I had to turn it into a game, because if I didn’t then it would only drive me crazy. I understood my parents’ anger, and a big part of me still held on to that same bitterness. After all, my life hadn’t been rosy the past six years. I’d had big plans to attend Yale, maybe Stanford. Instead, I was returning from the state university because I had to pay my own way instead of using my college fund. That money had been lost when the business assets had been sold off for pennies on the dollar and the money had to be used to pay off disgruntled clients whose investments had gone up in smoke along with all our money.
No, I wasn’t over it, but I was tired of it all. And I desperately wished that family get-togethers didn’t always devolve into Martin bashing.
They made it longer than Hannah or I had expected. So…victory?
Dinner had been delicious and wonderfully devoid of talk of our neighbors.
Unfortunately, I had just put the last dishes into the dishwasher when my mom pointed out the window. “Did you see the hedge, Julie?”
Oh good, I thought sarcastically. She’s bringing up the hedge.
“It’s finally big enough to block their house from view.” She finished wiping the counters and rinsed out her dishcloth. “I hardly need the visual reminder every day of my life.”
I looked over at Hannah, who deliberately held up her phone and touched the screen, stopping the timer that she had started when dinner began.
I bit my tongue as my dad grumbled something about “those worthless human beings.”
“It’s great, mom,” I said, purely out of obligation. I hated that hedge with a fiery passion. It was a spite hedge. A hate hedge. A we-hold-grudges hedge. Even at fifteen, it hadn’t escaped my notice that while my parents raged about all our money being gone, my mother had gone out and spent several hundred dollars on a slew of evergreen trees to plant along our fence line.
I tossed around for a topic, anything that might turn the conversation before we got stuck in this mire. “Hannah, are you going to prom this year?”
“Um…” She looked a little befuddled but went with it. “I don’t know. I’m not dating anyone right now, but I’d like to go.” She shrugged. “Maybe I’ll go with friends if no one asks me.”
I jumped into the topic change at full speed and we chattered about the pros and cons of going with a date, limo or no limo, and any other detail I could think of to continue the topic.
But of course that didn’t last. Once Hannah excused herself to finish her homework and my mom went to start her Thanksgiving shopping list, I was left with my dad.
“So,” he started, settling into his chair. “One semester left, huh?”
“I’m pretty proud of you, getting your degree in three years. You’ve worked hard.”
The compliment was surprising and did me good. “Thanks, Dad,” I said with real feeling. “That means a lot.”
“You staying out of trouble?” he asked.
I laughed. “Of course.” A rebel I was not.
“Probably easier to stay out of trouble at a smaller university than it would be at one of those Ivy Leagues…”
“I’m pretty sure college trouble is equal opportunity,” I said, sensing where this was headed.
“Still.” He got that frustrated look on his face, the one that spoke of regret and bitterness. “Maybe you having to change your plans was some sort of blessing in disguise.”
I knew he didn’t believe that for a minute, and I didn’t want to go down this road. I sat forward, pinning him with a serious look. “Dad. You know there’s a good chance I never would have gotten into a school like that, right?”
“Sure you could have.”
“You don’t know that. My grades were good, but that’s the case with everyone who applies. It’s the Ivy League, Dad. I could have been rejected for all kinds of reasons.”
“Even if you hadn’t gone Ivy League, at least you could have chosen the major you really wanted without having to worry about the extra years of schooling.”
“There’s no guarantee that psychology would have worked out, or even that I would have loved it. It was my dream, yeah, but it might not have happened no matter what.”
“Well, we’ll never really know about that, will we?” He got up, his agitation preventing him from relaxing.
I tipped my head back, tired of this never-ending conversation. “Dad…”
“You’ll never know how much I regret what this did to your ambitions, Julie. To Hannah’s and Michael’s too. I could have taken it if it had only affected me, but the three of you…” He shook his head, all sad and dejected.
“We’re fine!” I said, bursting to my feet. “We’re not homeless or sick or alone. It was a setback, sure, but talking about it all the time isn’t going to fix anything.”
I crossed to the front closet to pull out my coat.
“Where are you going?” he asked, surprised.
“For a walk. I’ll be back soon.”
Leaving the house, I zipped my coat and wrapped my scarf around my neck as I crossed the front lawn.
Less than ninety minutes at home and I was already fleeing. And I’d yelled at my dad. I sighed and stared at the sidewalk as my feet ate up the ground in front of me.
I circled the block once…twice. I really should have gone back to the house, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it, because I didn’t want to wallow in the bitterness, even if I was feeling it acutely now that my dad had reminded me of what I’d given up. So when I passed by the neighborhood playground for the third time, I found a bench and planted myself on it.
My anger simmered as I sat there, resenting my parents and hating the Martins—and feeling guilty for all of it, because apparently I liked being a martyr. I thought I had left a lot of this behind. In high school, right after it happened, I’d been just as angry and bitter as my parents. I’d been full of teen angst and indignation. But once I left for college and no longer had my mom and dad constantly whispering bitter nothings in my ear, I realized how exhausting it had been. I’d spent so much emotional energy on our family feud and received nothing but grief in return.
I loved my family. We had a lot of fun together, but there was always that undercurrent of resentment in the house, and once I’d gotten out and seen things from the outside, I realized that what I really hated wasn’t the Martins, but the feud itself. So it was pretty annoying to come back home and be sucked back into it.
The cold of the metal bench slats seeped through my jeans as I bounced my knees and hunched my shoulders to keep the chill away.
The pounding of footsteps tugged me out of my well-deserved annoyance. I looked up to see a jogger making his way down the path that crossed in front of the playground, and then I unhappily went back to glaring at the ground, this time wondering what possessed a human being to go jogging when it was this cold outside. Maybe he was trying to escape his impossible parents as well.
He passed by, but then strangely slowed down. I looked after him as he came to a stop, shifting from one foot to another before turning to face me, uncertainty written all over his expression. Then he walked back toward me, his breathing heavy from exercise.
I watched him, more curious than anything as he crossed the distance back to my bench.
“You okay?” he asked between labored breaths.
“Me?” Wow. Asinine questions much, Julie? It’s not like there’s anyone else around. “I mean, yes, of course. I’m fine.” Fine in the way that a person being smothered with a pillow is fine.
“You just, you looked cold and kind of…lost.”
I huffed an unamused laugh. “I am cold. But I’m not lost.”
“Okay.” He turned a little like he was going to leave but then changed his mind. “But then why are you sitting alone on a bench, being cold?”
“Because my parents make me crazy.” Hey, he asked. It wasn’t my fault if I was an over-sharer.
Okay, so maybe it was completely my fault, but he had asked, so…
He laughed. It was a nice laugh. And underneath the sweat and the stalkery hoodie, he was actually a pretty good-looking guy. “Okay. I get that. But you’re going to freeze if you don’t move a little.”
“I promise not to turn into an icicle.”
“You should at least walk.”
“Are you trying to make your love of exercise rub off on me?”
“Who says I love exercise?”
“It’s cold and you’re running.”
He smirked at me. “Does my desire to stay fit offend you?”
“No, but exercise cooties are dangerous, so you’d better stay back.” I scooted down the bench a little to punctuate my mocking.
He raised an eyebrow at me and then walked over and sat beside me.
I tried to glare. It didn’t work because he was really cute.
“Now what, pretty girl?”
I pulled back, a little shocked, and he ended up doing the same. He looked like a deer in the headlights as he said, “Wow, didn’t mean to say that out loud.”
I snort-laughed. It had been a long time since a guy had flirted with me. I sighed as though I were feeling very put out. “You active types just can’t help yourselves, can you?”
“I object to watching women slowly freeze to death.”
“No one said you had to watch.”
He jerked his head toward the sidewalk. “Come on. Or are you afraid I’ll convert you to a life of being active?”
“I’m not going to run with you.”
He shook his head. “I’d never manage to get back into a rhythm now that I stopped. Come on. We’ll walk. Blood flow is good if your objective is not to get hypothermia.”
“It’s not that cold.”
“It’s a nervous condition,” I snarked.
He stood with a smile and started walking backward away from me. “Come on. Just walk with me.”
I stood, pout-walking as I groaned. He laughed at me and I smothered a smile. I liked that I could make him laugh. When was the last time I had just joked around with a guy? I had dated Spencer for nearly six months, but then he’d decided he wanted to go to law school, so we amicably broke up, and I discovered that I hadn’t been nearly as attached to him as I should have been. He was exuberant, which made him a lot of fun to date, but after he left, I didn’t miss him. No pining. No crying.
“Do you have a name?” I asked.
“Drew.” He held a hand out and I stared at it for a moment before deciding that being polite was more important than keeping my hands warm, so I pulled mine from my pocket and placed it against his palm. “And your name is…?” he prompted.
He pumped my hand once, then let it go. “Nice to meet you.”
We started walking side by side and it was a lot less awkward than I might have expected. There was a familiarity about him that put me at ease, like he was one of the good guys.
“So, I’m guessing you’re on break from school,” he prompted.
“Yup. Home for the holidays. You?”
“Home for the holidays, yeah. But I finished school a while ago.”
“Yeah, I figured. You don’t really look like a college kid.”
I shrugged. It wasn’t a compliment or an insult, it was just…true. His facial hair was a little too trimmed and orderly, his face a little too wise to seem like a college kid. I liked it.
What a weird way to meet a guy.
“So is running just to keep in shape, or a hobby, or what?”
“Are you sure you want to hear about it? I thought you were afraid of the exercise cooties.”
He grinned. “You’re funny, you know that?”
“Don’t get used to it. My bad mood has upped my snark to unhealthy levels.”
“So if we go out for coffee tomorrow, you’re going to be all vanilla and boring?”
“That’s something I have to see. What time is good for you?”
My brain short-circuited. He was asking me out. And despite the fact that I’d met this guy about three seconds ago, I wanted to go. “Umm…” What was the question?
“Sorry. Too forward.”
“No, just…recovering from the unexpected.”
“So…” He cut his eyes over to me. “Coffee?”
I cleared my throat, feeling all nervous and fluttery. “Yeah.”
“Are you a morning person?”
I twisted my lips to the side. “How morning are we talking?”
I nodded. “Eight I can do.” I’d been worried he was going to say six or something nutty like that.
“And you promise to be boring and vanilla? It’s going to be a sarcasm-free morning?” He was poking fun at me.
We rounded the corner onto my street. “You don’t think I can do it, do you?”
His eyes were laughing. “I kind of hope you can’t.”
“See, now there’s all this pressure and expectation, and I’m going to be worried about fulfilling your vanilla expectations.”
“I’m sure it’s quite the burden to bear, having to be boring.”
“I’m not boring, I’m just not always this—” I made a spastic movement with my hands, going so far as to throw my body into it to demonstrate the chaos that was rolling around inside me. It wasn’t one of my more dignified moments.
He laughed out loud. “Yeah, now I’m totally convinced.”
I groaned and pulled my hand down my face. “It’s just been a weird day, okay?”
As we came in front of my parents’ place, I slowed and stopped, pointing my thumb over my shoulder at the house. “This is me,” I said.
Drew looked at the house and then at me before letting out a little guffaw. My brow furrowed, wondering what kind of reaction that was supposed to be. Then his face fell. “Wait, you’re serious?”
“Yeeeees…” Why was he acting so weird?
He closed his eyes and let out a deep-throat sigh, then pushed a hand through his hair. “I forgot your name was Julie.”
“In the last five minutes?”
“No. In the last six years,” he snapped.
“And you grew up.”
My face screwed up in confusion. “How dare I?” Why did he seem mad?
“And you don’t know who I am.” Again, the angry tone.
I pulled my chin back. “Should I?”
His face was hard as he used his whole arm to point at the Martins’ house. “That’s me.”
I fell back a step, my brain trying to make the pieces fit as I stared at his face and realized why he felt a little bit familiar. I shuffled through the names of the three Martin brothers, trying to remember a Drew. Then I clenched my jaw and crossed my arms. “You used to go by Andy.”
“Yeah. And you’re Julie Hanes.” It sounded like an accusation.
“Yeah.” I huffed out a breath through my nose and stared at my feet for a few seconds. “Well.” What was I supposed to say? “Thanks for the walk.” I turned away without looking at him again and walked up the sidewalk.
I stomped up the steps and slammed into the house, going straight to my room and shutting the door. I stripped out of my coat and paced the floor.
Of course. OF COURSE he was a Martin. Because the world hated me. Because I couldn’t possibly just meet a super nice, funny, cute guy and actually be able to date him. That would be crazy town. And where did he get off being irritated with me? Why did he act like he had a right to be mad at my family? We weren’t the ones who blew up the stupid business; they were.
I’d never seen a guy go from charmer to jerk so quickly. This sucked. This really, really sucked.
Drew was four years older than me. So when everything happened when I was fifteen, he’d been nineteen and already out of the house. In my tween years, he had been a lanky teen who loved soccer and was always off with his two older brothers and all their friends. Our age difference meant we never hung out, even if our families were vacationing together. I had been friends with his younger sister, Bridget, who was only a year older than me. We were friends in the sense that we got along and could chill together, but we never really hung out at school or anything. Clearly I’d never paid much attention to Drew—or Andy, as he’d been known then. If I had, then I would have recognized him, even with the awesome facial hair and the muscles. As it was, his admission that he was a Martin had totally blindsided me.
I had really been looking forward to that coffee date.
I woke up naturally at six forty-five. I actually was a morning person so long as it wasn’t crazy early. But I had lied about the exercising thing. I pulled up my jet-black hair and went into the living room, where there was enough room to move, and put on one of my Zumba playlists on YouTube. Dancing was way better than running. Runners were jerks.
After working up a sweat for half an hour, I cooled down and went to shower. I looked through the cupboards for something to eat, but nothing appealed to me. I wanted a muffin. One of the fresh blueberry ones from Dirty Joe’s Coffee Shack. But if I showed up at the one good coffee shop in town right around eight o’clock, Drew would think that—
Wait. Why did I give a crap what Drew would think? I wanted a muffin, so I was going to go get myself a stupid muffin. He probably wouldn’t be there anyway.
I grabbed my purse and coat and marched defiantly out to my car. Screw Drew Martin. It’s not like we’d actually agreed on a place to meet anyway.
It was snowing, making the roads slushy but not dangerous, and I couldn’t help but smile as I pulled into the parking lot. There was a lot that I loved about my home town. Light traffic, local shops. Half the town knew my name, and at least half of those cared about my well-being. The stores on Main Street were small-town chic, with snow dusting their Victorian eaves.
The line at the coffee shop took a while, but I didn’t mind. I liked being back at Dirty Joe’s. It was a stupid name for sure, but their menu was more than good. Once I had my coffee and muffin in hand, I found a little two-person booth and sat down. I swirled my coffee with a stir stick, looking out the window at the snow as I waited for my coffee to cool a little.
Whitehaven wasn’t a super small town, which I’d always been grateful for. But it definitely qualified as being in the middle of nowhere, which increased its small-town feel.
I tested my coffee, appreciating the warmth and the blend of flavors.
“I didn’t think you’d really show.”
I lowered my cup to the table and forced a swallow, proud of myself for not spitting my drink out at the sight of Drew staring down at me. “No, I’m not here for…that.”
He pointedly looked at his watch. “It’s eight o’clock.”
“So, I’m not allowed to get coffee?”
He looked at me like I was just a little bit stupid, and my hackles rose. “Did you think we were still going for coffee together? Even after the awkward—”
“Did you?” I demanded.
“Then why are you here at this time?” Two can play at this game, jerkface.
Brilliant response, Drew. “Because?”
He shoved his hands in his pockets, looking all teenage awkward. “I didn’t think you’d be here, but if you were here and you expected me to be here, I didn’t want it to be like I’d stood you up.”
That was kind of sweet, but at the same time— “So you decided to loom above me and berate my decision to come here?”
“I’m not berating.”
“You kind of are.”
He sat across from me. “There. I’m not looming.”
“Well, that makes everything all better.” My tone was bordering on nasty.
He leaned in. “We can’t hang out, Julie.” He said this in a weird conspiratorial whisper like our parents were listening at the walls.
“You sat down with me. I didn’t invite you.”
“Then why show up at the time we agreed on?”
“We never even agreed on a place. For all I knew, you had somewhere else in mind.”
“Of course it was going to be here. This is the only decent place that’s not across town. You were hoping I’d show up.”
“Wow.” I narrowed my eyes at him. “Cocky much? Or is that why you’re here? Because you were hoping that I’d be sitting here pining for you?”
He lifted his hands in surrender. “I just didn’t want you to be stood up.”
“Yeah, I’m sure you’re so concerned about me.” I glared at him but it had no effect. “Look. I like their muffins. And since we had talked about the coffee thing”—I would not call it a date—“I really wanted a muffin. So if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to enjoy my nostalgia in peace.” I picked up my muffin and started meticulously removing the wrapper, hoping he would leave before I had to shove the food in my mouth to prove a point. I didn’t want to shove. I wanted to savor. And he was ruining it by sitting there, looking all hot and put together.
As I was peeling the wrapper off of the bottom of the muffin, he finally spoke up.
“Why are we fighting?”
I lifted my eyes to laser him with my gaze. “You’re the one who came over here and verbally attacked me.”
“I know, and”—he scrubbed his face with his hands—“it was a reflex, and I just—why?” he asked again.
I narrowed my eyes at him. “You know why.”
“I know why our parents are fighting. But why are we fighting?”
I opened my mouth, hoping a good round of snark would come to my rescue, but I had nothing. Because I didn’t know why. The truth was that there was no good reason for us to be fighting. He hadn’t done anything wrong. I shook my head a little, my shoulders sinking and a tired sigh escaping my lips before I finally said, “Loyalty?”
He looked just plain sad. “Yeah,” he said on a sigh. “I guess that’s it, isn’t it?”
Then he got up and left.
I wasn’t happy to see him go. Yes, it was loyalty that made me fight with him, but why? Why was I doing it? Why was I letting myself be sucked back into this stupid situation when I resented it so much? It was like I just couldn’t help it. I had stepped through my parents’ door a sane, somewhat rational college student, but the minute Drew told me who he was, all my common sense went out the window and I was right back in the mire of my family’s anger, mindlessly getting sucked into it out of a really messed-up sense of loyalty.
There you have it! The first chapter of All That Stands Between Us, which will be released in only EIGHT DAYS!
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