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The Love Fixers excerpt, Chapters 1-3

Chapter One



“It’s not a big deal, right?” I say to Lainey. We’re sitting on the couch with a couple of sweating beers. It’s barely three o’clock on a Thursday, but I’ve decided it’s happy hour in my apartment. “People get fired all the time. I mean, it wasn’t even a good job.”

       “No,” my best friend agrees, “it was a terrible job. That woman abused you.” She waves around my one-bedroom apartment, which looks particularly sad in the bright light flooding through the cracked single-pane windows of the sagging brownstone. It’s as if every speck of dust has been magnified, every brown cardboard box made to look larger. “But this palace of yours isn’t going to pay for itself.”

       The woman has a point.

       “I’m not one to talk, though,” she adds morosely, tugging on her short black hair. “I’m hardly contributing.”

       Lainey’s allowed to be down in the dumps. Her very rich, big-dicked fiancé left her a month ago, which meant she got the boot from his penthouse apartment in the Upper East Side. I told her to come sleep on my couch, which was a great idea in theory—best friends and college roommates, together again—but I didn’t account for the boxes of crap that have flooded my tiny living room. There are so many that I feel like I’m making my way through a maze every time I try to go to the kitchen or bathroom, and I nearly injured myself last night in the dark. I need to have a calm, reasonable discussion with her about the boxes and what to do about them, but every time I try, I chicken out. Because I know it has to feel like a pretty bad comedown for her, going from that to this. She has a job at a fashion boutique, but she’s making less than I was at my job for the lifestyle guru Agnes Lewis.

       I heave a sigh, thinking of all the pointless hours I spent in that dark, miserable cubicle. “It wasn’t even my fault,” I mutter. “It only said it was alcoholic in the fine print, and you know what Agnes says about my reading glasses.”

       “She was right,” Lainey says sadly. “They do make you look like a bug. But a cute bug. Like your dad’s nickname for you.”

       “Thanks.” I give her shoulder a shove, and she gives me the sad smile of someone else who feels like they’re on the gallows, waiting for their turn. Sighing again, I add, “She actually forbade me to wear them at the office. So I didn’t.”

       “She basically did it to herself.”

       I smile at the encouragement. You know, if it had been a normal day, it would have been okay. She would have slept it off in her office. Maybe she would have even been nice to everyone for a change.”

       “It’s okay, Claire. Everyone will forget what happened before too long. You know how it goes, another day, another crisis.”

       But she’s wrong. It’s not every day a lifestyle guru—the woman known as the next Martha Stewart—stumbles onto a morning show drunk at nine a.m. because her assistant mistakenly gave her an alcoholic fizzy juice drink someone had sent over as a sample. A drink she’d enjoyed so much, she’d downed three of the cans before lurching onto the set, calling the host a mealy-mouthed fuck-tart on camera, and then vomiting on her own shoes.

       “Doug convinced her I did it on purpose,” I add spitefully, wanting to grind Doug into the ground with one of Lainey’s high heels.

       “Of course he did,” she says with a groan. “Doug is a spiteful prick.”

       He’s my ex…situationship. When you work twelve to fifteen hour days, you don’t have time to mess around with anyone who doesn’t work with you. Which is my only explanation for why I started sleeping with the head of PR, a man who’s fifteen years older than me and, yes, named Doug.

       At first it was fun in a forbidden, will-they-or-won’t-they way, but it didn’t take me long to realize I really shouldn’t have.

       He wasn’t very good in bed, or in supply closets, and he always talked down to me, like I was a little girl even though I’m twenty-eight, thank you very much.

       He didn’t take it well when I told him I was ready to call it quits. He started closing elevator doors on me and going out of his way to make me look stupid in meetings. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if he sent those juice drinks, knowing it was exactly the sort of thing Agnes would suck down.

       Lainey rubs my  back. “We both have bad taste in men. Go us. Hey, why don’t we consult the Tarot about what you should do next?”

       I try to hold back another groan. A client of the boutique gave them to her a few days ago, and she acted like she’d been gifted a winning lottery ticket. She’s been trying to figure out a business idea that’ll make us bank but can’t seem to stick to one. Last week, after scrubbing Todd off her social media, she speculated that “love erasing” should be a service someone offers, and maybe we should be the ones who offer it. But I pointed out it wouldn’t be very healthy for her psyche right now. Then she moved on to the idea of becoming “really good” with the tarot cards, even though I haven’t seen her practice once since she brought them home.

I have zero interest in a reading, in all honesty, but right now nothing’s going to make me happy, so she might as well enjoy herself. I take another swig of my beer and nod. “Go for it.”

       She gives a squeal and reaches into one of the fifty boxes stacked up around the living room. Really, something’s got to give.

       She gets the cards out and starts shuffling them as if we’re about to play Go Fish.

“Do you know what you’re doing?” I ask with some interest.

       “No,” she says with a snort, then says, “but I Googled it, and I’ve heard you can do a reading with just one card.” Shoving a spread toward me, she adds, “Pick one with intention.”

       I suck in a breath and slowly let it out, thinking about my shitty situation. When I got a job working for the Agnes, I felt invincible. Everyone else in my graduating class was jealous. I figured I’d pay my dues, and then she’d help me launch my own business, the same way she’d done for past assistants. But it never happened. I just kept right on paying my dues as one year went by, two, three, seven. Now, here I am at almost thirty, unemployed, broke, single, and living in a maze of boxes.

       I want something exciting to happen, I think as I pull the card.

       I turn it over on the coffee table, which presides over two short boxes. The card has a picture of a skeleton riding a horse, and the word DEATH is emblazoned beneath it.

       “Yeah, I really wish I hadn’t done that,” I say, but Lainey scrunches her mouth to the side and picks up her phone.        A second later, she lifts a finger. “This says the Death card is usually about big changes, not death per se.”

       “That’s super helpful.” My phone buzzes in my pocket. I tug it out and frown at the UNKNOWN NUMBER readout on the screen. “Another phishing call. Great.”

       “Why don’t you answer and tell the person off?” she suggests. “I did that after Todd broke up with me. It made me feel fantastic for at least three minutes.” She gives me a long look. “You’re too much of a people pleaser, Claire. It would be good for you.”

       Well, when she’s right, she’s right. Besides, three minutes of fantastic is better than none. I shrug and answer the call.

       “Is this Claire Rainey?” the woman on the other end asks. Her voice is confident and throaty.

       “Yes, who’s this?” I say, lifting my eyebrows at Lainey, who mimes for me to put the phone on speaker.

       I do, smiling at her.

       “Nicole,” the woman says.

       “And what are you trying to sell me today, Nicole?” I ask, my tone haughty, the way Agnes talks to everyone.        Lainey stifles a laugh and gulps her beer. “Because I can assure you I’m not interested in buying tinctures or Tupperware, and I don’t have a car, so I’m pretty damn sure the extended warranty hasn’t expired for the five hundredth time.”

       The woman on the other line laughs, which I wasn’t expecting. “Good, you have a sense of humor, that’ll make this much easier. But I’m not calling to sell you something. I’m calling to give you something.”

       “Jesus?” I ask, raising my eyebrows at Lainey. “Because I think he’d object to cold calls on principle.”

       My friend snorts and covers her face, her eyes wide.

       “No, but it’s cute that you enjoy guessing games. I’m actually calling about your inheritance.”

       I nearly drop the phone but manage to keep hold of it. “What are you talking about?”

       “Your inheritance.” There’s a pause, then she says, “I’m bad at sharing shitty news in a soft way, so I’m just going to level with you. Your father died.”

       Now, I do drop the phone. My dad? He called me this morning to commiserate about my job loss and then gave me a five-minute lecture about eating bran. My dad is the only person who cares enough about me to give me stupid lectures. He can’t be dead.  

       My whole body trembling, I glance at Lainey—or at least I try to. That damn DEATH card is still lying out on the table, making me shake harder.

       “What happened?” I say, my voice quavering, hot emotion pressing into me. No, no, no, this isn’t happening. This can’t be happening. “I talked to him just this morning. I—”

       “Oh, sorry. Not that guy,” says the woman on the phone, her voice muffled slightly by the rug. “Yeah, he’s fine. I mean, probably. I’m talking about Richard Ricci. He’s definitely not okay. He died last weekend.”

       I pick up the phone, confused, panicky, and on edge. “I don’t know any Richard Ricci. You must have the wrong number.”

       “I don’t,” Nicole says, sounding not the slightest bit fazed. “You’re Claire Rainey. Five foot six or seven, blond with hazel eyes. Your mother is Lana Williams. You have an overly enthusiastic Instagram account, and you used to be the assistant to that orange woman who was on TV yesterday morning.” Her laughter is like nails raking across my skin. “But I’m guessing you’re not anymore. Seems to me you’re pretty lucky I’m calling, actually.”

       “Who are you?” I ask in shock.

       Lainey is practically thrumming with energy next to me, pointing at the Tarot card as if a piece of cardboard could have brought on whatever this is.

       “I’m the executor of Richard’s will, and he left you his house and a little chunk of change. You’ll have to come to Marshall, North Carolina to check it out. There are some een-teresting terms that we can discuss when you get here.”

       “But why?”

       “Weren’t you listening?” she asks. “Dick was your father. I’m guessing your mother had a little fun on the side. It happens. From what I can tell, he had a lot of fun on the side.”

       “This is some kind of scam,” I snap, pissed that I’ve so totally lost control of the conversation. “You want to lure me to this Marshall place so you can kidnap me or put a gun to my head and make me enter all of my passwords.”

       “Do you have any money for me to steal?” Nicole asks, her tone a bit derisive.


       “I’m not going to tell you that.”

       She sighs. “I’ll email you the information. Talk to your adopti-dad. The closest city’s Asheville. If you need helping buying a plane ticket there, it can be covered by the inheritance.” She snorts. “What am I talking about, of course you need the money.”

       I have about five hundred questions for her, maybe a thousand. Especially about this man she claims was my father, which obviously must be impossible. I have a father. A father I adore. But I’m so baffled by her that I find myself asking again, “Who are you?”

       She said she’s the executor of this Richard’s estate, but she’s obviously no lawyer. Or at least I’m pretty sure a lawyer wouldn’t talk like this.

       “You’ll find out soon enough,” she says. Dead air hangs over the line for a moment before she adds, “I look forward to meeting you, Claire.”

       “But wait—”

       When I look down, I see only my phone’s wallpaper. She hung up.

       “What the fuck?” I ask no one in particular. “She never even gave me her number.”

Not to mention, I never gave her my email address. I hadn’t given her my phone number either, though, and she still had that. Not to mention everything else she knew. Hell, she probably already knows my passwords.

       “Look the guy up,” Lainey says, her eyes wide. “Now.”

       So, I type his name into a search with shaking fingers, adding Marshall to the end. An obituary pops up from The News Record.

       It says Richard Ricci died in some kind of accident at age sixty-one, but it’s not the article that commands my attention—it’s the man’s photo.

       Despite both of us being blond, my dad and I have never looked alike. My mom used to joke about that when I was little, particularly because she and I didn’t look a lot alike either. But the joke isn’t funny anymore, because this guy, this guy who’s already gone, does look like me. Our eyes are the exact same color, our brow lines are the same, and—

       “Holy shit,” Lainey says, giving me an appraising look. “Holy shit. He looks just like you did when you used the ‘guy’ filter on Instagram."      

       She’s right.

       “What just happened?” I ask, my voice shaking as much as my fingers still are.

       Lainey takes my hands and stares into my eyes. “This, my friend, is what they call a game changer.”



Chapter Two



“Bran muffin?” my father asks, giving me a brave smile. He doesn’t know why I’ve come to his apartment for breakfast, other than that I no longer have a job that requires me to show up at 7 a.m. no matter how late I went home the night before.

       “Yes,” I say. The last thing I want to do right now is eat, let alone eat something that tastes like sawdust, but Lainey’s right—I can’t seem to say no to anyone, even when I’d really like to. That’s why it took me six months to break things off with Doug. Maybe it’s my father’s fault, because he’s a people pleaser just like I am.

       Or maybe this Richard Ricci was a people pleaser, and I got the disease from him. An unpleasant shiver goes down my spine, because I’m having trouble wrapping my head around the possibility that this man I never knew, and never will know, provided half my genetic material. That I’m probably half some crazy stranger.

I take a deep breath and slowly let it out as I lower into a chair at my dad’s round, lemon yellow kitchen table and watch him serve us muffins that smell like mulch.

       My dad had a reality check at his last physical, and his baking has taken a turn for the healthy. I want him around forever, so I’m glad he’s taking his doctor’s warnings seriously. Still, it’s been a hard adjustment. Butter and sugar are the love language of my soul—one he taught me. In fact, I stayed up until four in the morning making cookies last night, like some kind of manic house elf. Lainey stayed up with me, Googling Marshall—small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains, fifteen miles from Asheville, population of less than eight hundred—and my maybe father. I think she meant for it to be comforting, but each thing she said made my nerves prickle more.

       The obituary doesn’t say what he used to do for work. It’s actually weirdly vague about that.

       And it doesn’t say anything about who he left behind. Don’t they usually say stuff like that?

       When I got up this morning after a few hours of sleep, I checked my emails and found a message from Nicole that lacked any kind of greeting or signoff—

I booked you a flight on Sunday from JFK. The info’s below. I figured that would be enough time for you to get over your existential crisis. They say to arrive an hour early, but that’s mostly bullshit. Bring a big bag.

       My mouth fell open at the audacity. I was tempted to send back a scathing reply—who was she to order me around? I even pulled up a message box, but I kept looking at the blinking cursor and not writing. It took me a minute to realize why:

       I knew I was probably going to get on that flight, and I didn’t want to find myself face-to-face with this intimidating woman after telling her off online. Because even if I had no personal connection to Richard Ricci, I wanted to know more about him.

       And, frankly, I needed money—another reason why I couldn’t chew her out for buying a ticket I probably couldn’t have afforded. If I’d inherited this guy’s house, I could sell it. Maybe it wouldn’t give me enough startup funds to open my bakery, but at least I could afford to live in my shitty apartment for a while without worry about where I’d get the rent.

       I wanted to show Lainey the message and ask her to do—there’s nothing like passing the buck when you’re overwhelmed and emotionally drained—but she was still asleep after the all-night-baking session. So instead I texted my dad and asked him if I could come over to talk.

       And here I am now.

       Dad sits down across from me and pats his belly, glancing at the framed photo of my mother on the wall, the same way he does about five hundred times a day.

       Mom left a couple of years ago to visit an ashram in California. She was supposed to come back in six weeks, but six weeks turned to six months, and then two years. The last time we heard from her was at Christmas about six months ago, when she called to tell us the guru had ordered everyone to give up their phones. She’d miss talking to us, but we were celestially fucked anyway, since we’d neglected to give up all of our worldly possessions and join the ashram.

       Dad had tried to get her to come home. He’d contacted the cops, who’d told him they could do nothing, and a private investigator, who’d joined the ashram undercover and then decided he liked what they were selling—or smoking—and chose to stay. So, ultimately, he’d had to accept what I already had—she’s not coming back this time.

Because it wasn’t the first time my mom had left home to find herself. There’d been yoga retreats, girls’ weekends that extended weeks longer than they were supposed to, and a couple of years before she let for the cult, an affair with her “twin flame”—a fast food “chef”—her word—who was only two years older than me. Given what I’d learned yesterday afternoon, I was guessing she’d tried to find herself in North Carolina twenty-eight years ago.

       My mom’s so obsessed with finding herself that she forgets other people are on their own thankless journeys.

       “Your mom’s like a cat,” my dad used to say to me when I was a kid and she’d missed some major life event. “She loves us, but she doesn’t love the same way we do.”

       Because, it went without saying, both of us are dogs.

       My dad was the one who took care of me most of the time growing up. Mom brought me to the occasional yoga or art class, but she wasn’t reliable. Dad was the one who’d bought me my first box of tampons, hugged me while I cried about stupid boys being stupid, taught me how to bake, and wrote my resume before I sent it to Agnes Lewis, adding ten bullet points about all of the supposed marketing work I’d done for his event planning business.

My father was everything to me, and he’d never really been mine.

       Or at least that’s what it felt like right now, with the injustice of the whole thing pounding through my veins. My mother let him raise me even though she knew I wasn’t his kid.

       “You sounded upset on the phone, bug,” Dad says, his brow furrowing. “I’m sorry about your job, but maybe it was for the best. Agnes was always so demanding. I didn’t want to say so while you worked for her, but she might not be a very nice sort of person.”

       I almost laugh. For my dad, this is the same as saying she’s a secret devil worshipper who spends her night dancing in backward circles around a bonfire. Instead, I sigh and say, “Yeah, you might be right about that.”

       “She sure didn’t seem inclined to help you out. Maybe you could work with me for a little while, honey. I can always use help at—”

       “Dad, I’m not here because of Agnes,” I blurt, because I can’t let him offer to help me, again, without saying what I came here to say. I suck in a breath and hold it, worry pounding through my body. Will he still think of me as his daughter if he didn’t know?

       I’m hoping he did, that my mother was honest with him in this, at least, but that would also mean he’s been lying to me for my whole life. It would also mean that it’s true.

       I take a quick bite of the muffin, buying myself half a second, because suddenly I’m terrified. I regret the bite, but I chew and swallow it, sucking in more air.

       Not enough.

       Suddenly, I feel like I’m choking. I left out the breath and suck in more air, but it doesn’t feel enough. It doesn’t feel like anything could be enough.

       The last time I had a panic attack was at the office, so I know what’s happening and lean forward, putting my head between my legs and trying to slow my breathing.

       “Bug,” my dad says in alarm. “Is it the bran? I knew I put in too much. They were dry, weren’t they?”

       He pushes a glass of water toward me so aggressively it falls off the lip of the table and nearly hits me in the head, instead dousing my feet—and as soon as I catch my breath again, I find myself laughing. Laughing in the hysterical way people do when they’re in serious trouble.

       “Claire, what’s going on?” Dad asks, standing in front of me.

       That won’t do. The laughter dries up, and I get up to grab some paper towels and mop up the mess. “Dad, take a seat,” I tell him as he hovers. “There’s something serious I need to talk to you about.”

       “You’re making me nervous,” he says, but he does as I ask.

       I sit down too, and I force myself to just come out and say it. “Dad, someone got in touch with me about this guy named Richard Ricci. Do you who know who that is?”

       The look of horror on his face tells me he does, and also makes me worry about his heart health. Can any amount of bran counter the effect of being gob-smacked with something like this?

       “He got in touch with you?” he says, looking down and pushing his muffin around like it might magically become edible.

       “No, dad, he’s dead.”

       He looks up, eyes wide. “Really?”

       “I saw his obituary. Dad…you obviously know who this guy is. Did mom tell you…” My voice starts quavering, but I force myself to continue. “Is he my father?”

       “I’m your father,” he says firmly, his brown eyes holding mine. And even though I’m upset and on edge and really fucked up, I feel my eyes heat.

       “Of course you are. But he’s my, he’s… The other half of my DNA comes from him, doesn’t it?”

       His jaw tightens, and he gives a slight nod. “Your mother told me as soon as she found out she was pregnant.”

       So at least she’s only a partial piece of shit, I guess.

       “But Dad.” I don’t realize I’m crying until I feel the tears coursing down my cheeks. “Why didn’t you tell me? Why did you pick up so much slack for her when you knew I wasn’t even—”

       He grabs my hand and holds it tightly. “Didn’t you hear me, bug? I wanted to be a dad, your dad, and I am. I was there from the moment you were born, and I haven’t missed a minute. I’m not going to miss a minute. That’s what being a parent is.”

       “But Dad…” I’m full-on crying now, and he sighs and gets up, surprising me when he comes back with two snifter glasses with an inch of bourbon each.

       “It’s eight thirty,” I say through my tears.

       “So long as neither of us go on a morning talk show, I think we’ll be just fine.”

       I laugh as he hands me the bourbon and then a napkin for my waterworks, pausing to squeeze my shoulder. Comfort courses through me, because thank God. I didn’t think he was going to throw me out the on the streets and cross my photo out of all of his albums, but it would have been painful if he’d looked at me, for even half a second, as if I were a stranger.

       He sits across from me and lifts his glass, and I hoist mine to clink it against his.

       It only occurs to me after we drink that he may be toasting Richard Ricci’s death. I’m guessing they weren’t on friendly terms.

       “Dad,” I say haltingly. “Did you ever meet him?”

       “No,” he says, and his tone is about as salty as it gets. “I didn’t have that pleasure. But your mother told me he didn’t want to be a father, honey. I’m sorry if that’s hard to hear.”

       It wasn’t. When I thought of Richard Ricci, I felt nothing but the confusion attached to his existence…and maybe regret that I’d never get to ask him any questions, especially since my mom was also out of reach.

       “Not really,” I say. “I have you.” I clear my throat, then tell him about the strange communications I’ve received from Nicole.

       By the time I finish, we’ve both downed our bourbon, and I feel a bit tipsy, because the only thing in my stomach is a bite of bran with a chaser of bourbon. “What do I do, Dad?” I ask.

       He smiles at me. “You go. Can Lainey go with you?”

       For some reason I hadn’t even thought of this possibility, but now it seems obvious.

       “Shit, I don’t know.” I lift my hand to my mouth. “Sorry. I blame the bourbon.”

       “You’re twenty-eight,” he says with a grin. “You can swear around me.”

       “She probably wouldn’t be able to come right away,” I say, considering, “but maybe she could borrow her parents’ car.” Why they had one was anyone’s guess—my father didn’t. It was cheaper to pay for deliveries and taxis, and easier on a person’s sanity than juggling a car in the city. But Lainey’s parents aren’t the kind of people who’d let something like that stop them from having a luxury they can’t really afford. “I’ll check out what’s going on, meet with the executor, and if I have to stay for more than a few days, I’ll ask her.”

       “I think you should.” He pauses, studying me. “Unless you’d like me to go with you?”    

       I consider, then shake my head slowly. “No, Dad. I don’t think that would be right. I don’t want you to have to go through this guy’s things or whatever.”

       I mean, for all I knew, he’d kept photo albums or videos of all of his conquests. While I’m not exactly excited by the prospect of finding a stash of nudes of my mother, it would be worse if my dad found them.

       “I respect that,” he says. “But I’m here if you need me.”

       He obviously means it, and again, I let myself soak in the comfort. I had a feeling I’d need it.

       He hugs me for a solid minute, and then I go home and pack. And drink some more bourbon.

       Lainey sleeps like the dead, so I don’t worry much about waking her, and by the time she finally stirs, I’m on my third drink of the day. It’s ten o’clock. 

       “Did I sleep until evening?” she asks, rubbing her eyes and yawning.

       “No, I get drunk during the day now. It’s a thing.”

       Understanding dawns in her eyes. “You talked to your dad.”

       I nod slowly. “Yes.”

       “And Dick’s your bio dad.”

       “Unfortunately, yes. I have somethingto show you.” It takes me a few seconds to pull up the email on my phone, but then I shove it at her face. “That Nicole woman got me a plane ticket for Sunday.”

       Lainey studies the screen, then scrolls down, her brow furrowing. Her gaze darts up to meet mine. “Claire, this is for today. For twelve o’clock.”

       “Twelve p.m.?” I ask stupidly.


       I heave a breath of relief. “Okay. I wasn’t banking on a middle of the night flight, but at least I have time.”

       She shoves my arm. “Twelve p.m. is in two hours, you day drunk.”

       Well, shit.


Chapter 3



Here’s a life motto that makes sense: if you’re going to do something dangerous, make sure you get something out of it. This trip was one of the stupidest fucking things I’ve ever done, and I feel worse than I did when I left home. So there’s that. All I want to do is pick up my dog, go home, and get drunk on the porch while I watch the sun go down. I want it bad enough that I feel it pounding through me—dog, home, drunk—while I wait in a torture-chamber plane seat at a gate at JFK airport. Doesn’t help that the weather took a turn, and it’s almost as black as night even though it’s midday in June. Rain is pelting the winds and windows, and the anxiety I was already feeling is pulsing outward, infecting all of me. At least no one’s sitting next to me, and the old woman next to the aisle took one look at my face and resorted to reading the in-flight magazine so she didn’t have to look back. She looks vaguely familiar, but not in a way that sets off any alarm bells.

       “You’ve got skills, Dec,” I can hear my brother Seamus saying. “You can offend people without trying."

       He wanted me to stay with them but knew I couldn't, same as I do. My little sister Rosie doesn’t agree, but she knows she won’t change our minds—we’re two mules, she always says. We can be guided, but when we set our heels in, neither hell nor heaven can sway us.

       Truth is, it hurt to see them—to see them and then say goodbye again. There are so many memories attached to Seamus and Rosie, and the good ones hurt even worse than the bad.

       The trip was a mistake—no two ways about that. They’re safer if I stay away.

       I’m thinking about lifting the armrest between me and the empty seat so I feel less like I’m being squeezed to death when a blonde woman comes stumbling down the aisle toward me. Her hair, loose around her shoulders, is a bright, sunny blonde, and for a second my eyes are glued to it.

       “Please take your seat,” the flight attendant calls to her, as if it weren’t perfectly obvious that’s what she’s trying to.

       My luck’s the kind that guarantees her seat is the one between me and the lady who’s currently reading about some smiley fuck in a flight suit and his snack preferences.

       “I’m so sorry,” the blonde woman says as she reaches my companion.

       The woman gives a theatrical sigh, as if she were really enjoying that space-filler article, and heaves herself up and into the aisle. Blondie squeezes in and sits next to me, bringing the scent of bourbon with her.

       I give her a second look, surprised. She doesn’t seem like the kind of woman who’d be a few drinks in at noon. She may look a bit frazzled, but she’s what Seamus would call the wholesome type. Blonde and pretty, dressed in the sort of neutral clothes a person wears because they don’t want to be noticed. Beige shorts. A plain red T-shirt. Maybe it seems odd that I’d pick up on a thing like that, but if you need for people not to notice you, you get to learn what clothes will help you do the job. Especially if you’re a six-foot-tall bearded guy who can accidentally scare people into reading in-flight magazines.

       The blonde woman sighs as she buckles her belt, then murmurs something under her breath.

       “What?” In-Flight Magazine Lady says. “You’re going to have to speak up. I’m deaf in one ear.”

       “Oh,” Blondie says, turning toward her. “I wasn’t… I was just saying, ‘You made it.’ You know…to myself.”

       “Yes,” the older woman says slowly. “We all made it. Would you like a pat on the back?”

       I hold back a laugh. The last thing I want is to be drawn into conversation with either of them. You start talking to someone on a plane, they might keep you talking right up until you land, and I don’t have two hours of conversation in me right now.

       Laughter’s an invitation. I learned that with my neighbor. I laughed at one of his jokes, and I couldn’t quit him after that. He was always inviting himself over for a beer, telling stories with no beginning or end or perceivable point. Now that I’ve got a new neighbor, I’m more cautious. No point in getting attached to someone who’s not going to stick around.

       “No,” Blondie says. “I was talking to myself. I didn’t invite anyone else to join the conversation.”
      This time a half laugh does escape me, and the old lady at the aisle isn’t as humorless as she seems, because I catch her lips twitching.

       Blondie glances at me. Her eyes widen, and I’m tempted to ask if she’s also going to develop a sudden interest in the in-flight magazine. That’s been going around these parts.

       The flight attendant leads us through a presentation everyone ignores, and finally it’s time for this tin can to become airborne.

       I hold my jaw tight and grip the armrest as the plane taxies and then lifts into the air. I don’t like giving up control, never have. It requires the kind of trust a man would be stupid to give—especially toward a pilot he’s never seen, who might have been doing shots at the bar with Blondie for all I know.

       “Here,” Blondie says, surprising me by thrusting a pack of gum at my chest. “It helps if you have something to do with your mouth.” Her eyes widen, and then she shakes her head. “Wow, Claire, really?”

       “You talking to yourself again?” I ask, drawn in despite myself.

       “It’s a bad habit.” She reclaims the pack before I can take piece, which is just as well. It’s some fruit flavor, not mint, and chewing it would have made me feel worse than the little spastic bumps wracking the plane every twenty seconds or so, as if it’s caught the hiccups.

       “Do you want to know what a bad habit is?” asks the old woman that’s the hubcap on our little group. Somehow, without wanting to be drawn into conversation, I’m being engaged by both of them. It’s like being pulled into one of those group chats without being able to pull the plug.

       Without waiting for either of us to respond, the old lady sniffs and says, “Alcoholism.”

       Claire blushes and gives me a sidelong glance.

       “What? I’m not an alcoholic,” I say for some damn reason.

       “Neither am I,” she hurries to say. “I just…I got some upsetting news, and I didn’t realize I’d be getting on a plane this afternoon. It all happened so quickly. It’s not like I usually drink before noon, honest to God.”

       Whatever she’s saying has all the marks of a long, complicated story. I can’t afford to be interested in it. Long, complicated stories lead to long, complicated conversations, and I need to put this trip behind me and pretend it never happened.

       “You didn’t realize you were going to be on a plane?” the old lady asks scornfully. She’s apparently all about long, complicated conversations.  

       “Well, the woman who bought me the ticket told me the flight was for Sunday,” she says.

       The old lady’s scowl deepens. “There’s your problem. You let someone else do for you what you should have done for yourself. You young people are always letting other people do your dirty work, and then you’re surprised when it doesn’t turn out the way you wanted. Why, in my—”

       The plane gives a dramatic shake that sends a jolt of fear through me. I grip both armrests and feel a crack beneath my palm.

       Claire gasps. “You broke that.”

       But I don’t respond. I can’t. The plane’s still shaking as if it’s a toy being manhandled by a giant-ass toddler.

       I can feel her watching me, and I hook onto her gaze, because I need to latch onto something other than the feeling of being shaken around by someone so much bigger. My first conscious thought other than—the gig is up and fuck, fuck, fuck—is that her eyes are beautiful. Golden, with little flecks of brown and green. The play of colors is almost hypnotizing. I’d much rather keep staring at them than thinking about dying next to her, both of us hooked into these cheap plastic chairs, positioned too closely together to be comfortable for anyone but a three-year-old child.

       She says something else, and it takes a moment for the words to register.

       “Do you want me to get you a drink?”

       A drink. Yes. I can’t have more than one, because I’ll need to drive home in a couple of hours, but I’m not going to make it through it without something to settle my nerves.

       I swallow. I nod. The old lady sighs.

       “Not alcoholics, huh? Why, in my day—”

       “It’s still your day, isn’t it?” Claire asks. “Do you want a drink too? My treat.”

       There’s static over the loudspeakers, then a voice announces. “Folks, this is your captain speaking.” He chuckles merrily. “You may have noticed a few little bumps, huh? It’s not pretty out there today. There’s no need for concern, but I’m sorry to report that we’re going to experience turbulence all the way to Charlotte airport today. So stay in your seats if you can, and keep those seatbelts fastened. Have a pleasant flight!”

       I grit my teeth. A pleasant flight, my ass. Flying is hard for me most of the time, but right now, with all my nerves raw and scraped, it’s worse.

       The old lady is still scowling at Claire, but then the plane gives another jolt that has my hand hugging the cracked plastic, and she gives a self-righteous nod. “You know, under the circumstances, I suppose I wouldn’t mind having a Pimm’s Cup.”

       Claire looks at her in disbelief. I’d smile if the plane didn’t give another damn jolt.

       “Ma’am, I don’t think they’d even have that in business class. My guess is that you’re stuck with red bad wine or white bad wine. Maybe a Budweiser.”

       “They might be willing to mix your bad white wine with sprite,” I suggest, momentarily forgetting my vow of silence. The look on the woman’s face is nearly worth it.

       “My word. You’re a heathen, aren’t you?” Again, though, there’s a glimmer of humor in the way she says it.

       “What’s your name?” Claire asks her.

       “Mrs. Rosings,” she says primly, then cuts off Claire before she can speak, “and we all know you’re Claire.”
      Both she and Claire turn toward me, their expressions expectant, and my gaze shoots to the aisle. A flight attendant is approaching us with her cart, just a few people before us, which is good, because the plane gives another jolt that has me digging my hand into the fractured plastic of my armrest.

       “Well, young man?” Mrs. Rosings says.

       “Name’s Declan,” I say. It feels like I should offer up something else—good to meet you, or something along those lines, but it’s not really true. There aren’t few places I wouldn’t rather be. Still, I like Claire, and I don’t mind Mrs. Rosings.

       The plane’s man-handled by the air again, and I must have flinched, because Claire surprises me by placing her hand on my arm. Maybe it’s my fear of dying here, in this metal tube, but the sensation feels amplified—as if every point of contact has been tattooed into my skin. I glance at her in surprise, my gaze again finding those nearly golden eyes. They beat into me, steadying me. “You don’t need to be scared.”

       “I’m not scared,” I say gruffly, the response so immediate it’s an obvious tell, the kind that could get a guy killed or lose a lot of money.

       Soft, that’s what the guys at home would call me. A few of them dared to say it to my face and learned the hard way that a man can dislike hurting people for money—and be okay with hurting them for other reasons.

       She shrugs uncaringly. “Call it what you will. You know, my dad always tells me turbulence is just like driving over a bumpy road. They’re just, like, air bumps.”

       “My husband died in a plane crash,” Mrs. Rosings comments with a sigh.

       Jesus Christ. “Really?” I ask, arcing my neck toward her so quickly I hear it crack.

       “Is that the kind of thing someone would joke about, young man?”

       No, probably not. But it certainly doesn’t make me feel better about our chances. I read once the odds of dying in a plane crash are one in a million, whereas the odds of dying in a car crash are one in five thousand. But here’s the thing about odds: someone’s at the bad end of them. Those are real people who died, and here’s the proof.

       “Oh, thank goodness, the drinks cart is almost here,” I hear Claire murmur. Her hand is still pressed against my arm. Maybe she’s forgotten it’s there, or maybe she realizes it’s my lifeline right now. Because it is: soft press of her fingers and thumb is the only thing helping me push back the panic as the plane bucks.

       There’s a static crackle, then the captain’s voice graces us again: “Sorry folks, we’re going to have to suspend the beverage service. That turbulence is going to get worse, and we don’t want anyone to get hurt.”

       My eyes probably look wild as they track the retreat of the drink cart.

       Claire swears under her breath, and Mrs. Rosings gives her a stern look. “I heard that, young woman.”

       But the words have barely passed her lips before the plane lists to the side and then shakes so hard the drinks cart goes flying down and collides with the back wall with a bang so loud it seems to shake the plane a second time.

       A couple of swears and exclamations of surprise fill the air, and it is not at all comforting when I note that one of them came from the flight attendant who lost her cart. She races forward to reclaim it, her face pale and drawn. Also not good. The flight attendants are on planes everyday—if she’s nervous, there’s a reason for me to be nervous.

       My heart is pounding wildly in my chest now, and without thinking about it, or knowing why, I find myself looking into Claire’s eyes again.

       “It’s going to be okay,” she says, calmly, almost like she means it. I’d believe her if not for the fearful look in those eyes. She has eyes that tell a person how she’s feeling, and today hasn’t been a banner day for her either.

       “You don’t really believe that,” I say flatly. “You’re just saying that to make me feel better.” It blows my mind that she’d bother—that she’d pause in the middle of a crisis to worry about what other people might be feeling. 

       “I do,” she insists. “It’s like my dad told me. They’re bumps in a road.” Her lips lift slightly in the corners, and I register that they’re very nice lips. Rosy and soft, with a faint mole at one corner. “Focus on me,” she says, and I decide I’m going to do exactly that. If I’m going to die, I might as well do it looking in the face of a beautiful woman.

       Mrs. Rosings chuckles and pulls something out of her purse. I don’t look over at her, and neither does Claire, because we’re still locked onto each other. The plane shakes again, and Mrs. Rosings thrusts whatever she has toward me, reaching across Claire to do it.     

I finally break the stare, feeling a strange heat pulsing in my temples, and look down at what Mrs. Rosings has clutched in her hand.

       I frown at her. “It looks like a bracelet.” An ugly bracelet, I think but don’t add. It’s chunky and metallic and large and heavy for no perceivable reason.

       “Open it,” she says with a nod toward the bling on the front.

       “I’ve seen these before! You have a flask, Mrs. Rosings?” Claire announces. “I guess I should be pissed at you for being a hypocrite, but that’s honestly too delightful.”

       “Shhhh,” the woman says fiercely, glancing down the aisle as if the flight attendant, or anyone else, might currently give a fuck about whether she snuck alcohol onto the flight. The other customers are murmuring to each other or themselves, and a woman a few rows up is weeping. Weeping. Fuck.

       Claire’s hand flexes on my arm. “Open it,” she says.

       My gaze shifts to Mrs. Rosings. “What’s in it? Pimm’s Cup?”


       Not my favorite, but yes, I am at a drinking gin from an old lady’s bracelet level of desperation. The last thing I want to do is have a panic attack. I take a pull of the gin, then another, before handing the flask off to Claire. She takes it with the hand that’s been pressed to me, and my skin feels cold.

       When she wraps her mouth around the opening, I feel a pulse of awareness of her—of those pink lips wrapping around the place where mine just pressed. I shake it off as she holds the flask out to Mrs. Rosings, who primly recaps it and returns it to her bag.

       “I don’t know what kinds of germs you have,” she says unnecessarily. “My niece Jennifer caught herpes from sharing a drink with a stranger.”

       “I’m pretty sure that’s not the only thing Jennifer shared with the stranger,” Claire says, laughing—and then laughs harder when Mrs. Rosings only watches her with a flat expression.

       “Oh, come on, Mrs. Rosings,” Claire says. “I can tell you have a sense of humor. You can’t hide it from me.”

This time a small smile breaks through on the woman’s face. Claire has a way with people and probably doesn’t even realize it. But the plane seems to take offense, because it gives a bigger dip, then feels like it’s free-falling. Screams rip through the air, and I feel my heart trying to pound its way out of my chest. I feel the same way I do every time I hear the kind of bad news there’s no backing away from—they’re dead, dead, dead—except this time, I’m the one who’s about to be shoved into the unknown. This is it. This is it. This is—

       A warm hand presses to my chest, against my racing heart, searing my skin through the thin fabric. It’s her. It’s Claire. And then her face is in front of mine, those golden, color-flecked eyes beating into mine. Regret tugs at me, because she’ll be gone too, and the world needs more bright things, not fewer.

       She says my name, and I don’t really think, I just do what feels natural, what it feels like I need more than breathing, because the plane is bouncing again, and it’s going to fall, and this is going to be it, and I lean in toward her—

       She meets me halfway, and I reach behind her to get a hand wrapped up in her sunshine hair. I kiss her. It’s not a gentle kiss, it’s an I’m about to die, so fuck it kiss. I suck in her lips, her smell, her taste of gin and bourbon and something sweet, and I try to make sure this last moment is as good as any moment can be. It would be better if Mrs. Rosings weren’t muttering something beside us—but I guess we don’t get to choose how we go out, at least not in detail. And kissing this woman whose last name I don’t know seems like a pretty good deal to me. Her hair is soft and silky against my hand, and she makes a sweet little moan in my mouth, and for half a second I don’t even care that I’m going to die, and all of this sorry shit I’ve gone through will have been for nothing, because this feels so good. Better than it should, probably because my body knows it’s the last time it’s going to feel this, feel anything. My whole body is waking up, as if it’s been asleep for months, years, but it wants to be awake for this—the big finale.

       Then a pair of hands slaps in front of our faces, and I pull away, stunned as I hear Mrs. Rosings say, “Quit your fornicating, kids.”

       It takes me a second to realize the plane’s evened out—an everyone around us is staring.

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