Today I’m heading up to Massachusetts for the Phat Lip Volume 1, Issue 3 release party. It’s a quarterly arts magazine here in Connecticut put together by some of our friends and Mike. It’s doing really well so far, so I’m super excited for tonight!
Since I’ll be away, I thought I’d share the first chapter of Any Other Love with you. This is a raw, unedited version; the final, polished version will be available in a sampler exclusively for my email list on July 5th. Click here to sign up so you don’t miss out!
Charlotte stood in the driveway watching smoke curl from the chimney into the pale lavender sky. Though it was March and the weather should have been warming up, Mother Nature had just dumped two feet of snow on them. She had to admit, the house looked picturesque, like a photograph straight out of a New England magazine.
Her best friend, Rowan, slung an arm around her shoulders. “Sorry to have to put you to work on your first night home.”
“We’re totally getting a snowblower,” Charlotte replied.
Rowan pretended to pout. “But if we do that, then Matt won’t come in and rescue us with his plow.”
“He could’ve rescued us a lot earlier,” Charlotte grumbled. Her muscles ached from shoveling so much. At least it was done, though. With the sun setting, the temperature was dropping quickly, making for miserable snow cleaning.
Rowan turned and trotted over to where the truck idled. She climbed onto the stepped, leaned into the window, and kissed her boyfriend Matt. “Thank you,” she murmured.
Charlotte tucked her shovel into a snowdrift and headed inside to give them privacy. If it wasn’t her first night, she mused, Rowan would be inviting Matt to stay over. Though she’d been looking forward to a night in with her new roommate, some wine, and Netflix, she felt a little guilty for unintentionally cockblocking her friend. Snowstorms always put Rowan in a romantic mood, and she usually spent them snowed in with Matt.
Making a mental note to make it up to her somehow, Charlotte peeled off her boots, coat, and thick gloves, leaving them to dry on a hook over a vent in the front hall. She climbed the stairs and headed into her bedroom, where dry clothing was calling to her with its siren song. She could add “snow” to her list of things that she hated about living in New England. Then again, she’d lived in Connecticut her entire life. Maybe she only hated it because she didn’t know any better. Maybe she wouldn’t be any better off anywhere else.
She shucked her damp clothing and traded it for her softest pair of sweats and a thermal long-sleeved shirt that hugged her curves. Just as she slid her feet into slippers, Rowan knocked gently at her bedroom door.
“Yes?” Charlotte practically sang the word. She grinned at Rowan, excited for their first night together as roommates. She’d never lived on her own before. When Rowan asked her to move into the spare bedroom, she hadn’t even hesitated.
Rowan held up two matching pairs of fuzzy socks. “We can’t have a night in without these!” She handed one to Charlotte, then tugged her own onto her feet.
Charlotte eyed the bottoms of the socks. “Can’t even,” she read. She lifted an eyebrow at Rowan. “Seriously?”
“We’re going to binge dramas tonight,” Rowan said with a shrug. “We need socks to speak for us.”
Giggling, Charlotte put her pair on. “Of course we do.” She padded downstairs after Rowan, following her into the kitchen.
“Thank goodness I just went shopping.” Rowan opened the freezer. “Does pizza and a bunch of appetizers sound good?”
“Sure, and maybe a salad to make it look like we tried.”
“This whole roommate thing is going to work out beautifully,” Rowan said.
While Rowan arranged the frozen food in the oven, Charlotte got to work putting together the salad and dressing. There was just something so soothing about chopping and stirring and tasting. She didn’t get to do it often, considering most of her job at The 545 entailed frying onion rings and boneless wings. Not that she didn’t like her job. She was doing what she loved, and she got to meet all kinds of interesting people. Drunk people, but still. It was fun and it put her four years in the culinary program at Kaynor to good use. Still, she didn’t love it.
As she poured the dressing over the salad, Rowan joined her at the counter.
“So,” her best friend said.
“So.” Charlotte gave the salad one last toss, then snapped the lid on the bowl and slid it into the refrigerator.
“Amarie’s birthday is coming up and Matt wants to throw a party for her.”
Glancing up, Charlotte noted the careful expression on her friend’s face. As Matt’s girlfriend and co-owner of Elli’s, the little bakery they’d both inherited, Rowan had inherited all of his friends. She almost always invited Charlotte to their gatherings, which Charlotte appreciated, but sometimes she felt totally out of place.
“I know you’re almost always the seventh wheel,” Rowan said, “and I know it’s weird for you, being around Amarie . . .”
“Weird” didn’t even begin to cover it. Charlotte bit back a sigh.
“But I wanted to extend the invitation. Amarie’s had a rough time lately, so we wanted to do something nice for her.”
The sigh escaped Charlotte’s lips, and she immediately regretted it. She did not want to make Rowan feel bad for being part of a “we.” Still, being the sole single person in a group of neatly coupled up people took its toll sometimes. She wasn’t about to be that desperate girl, hitting up clubs in New Haven just to find a girl to take home with her, but she had zero opportunities for dating otherwise.
The 545 mostly attracted singles—straight singles. Watertown wasn’t the most diverse place. Not that she had much time for scoping out the dance floor between orders. Drunk people wanted their food right away, and there were always plenty of them queued up at the bar, desperately trying to soak up the alcohol in their stomachs before closing time.
“You don’t have to come,” Rowan said gently.
She didn’t. That was true. If she sat Amarie’s party out, though, she’d just be the lonely girl binge-watching something she’d seen a thousand times on Netflix. Possibly drowning her sorrows in wine and leftover beer-battered onion rings from work. On the other hand, if she went to the party, she’d be the lonely girl giving Amarie’s boyfriend the green eye of doom.
It wasn’t that Lucas was a bad guy. At least, she didn’t think he was. But he was Amarie’s boyfriend. In the almost year since she’d met Rowan, she’d hung out with Matt’s friends several times. At first, she’d thought she was just imagining the little glances between her and Amarie—or maybe just projecting. But a couple weeks earlier, during a housewarming party at Matt and Lucas’s apartment, a tipsy Amarie had squeezed her hand and given her a look.
A real look, not a “Maybe I’m imagining this” look.
Amarie had leaned in close, those bright brown eyes of hers smoldering into Charlotte’s so intensely, Charlotte had been convinced she was about to kiss her. And, before she could stop herself, her own hand had lifted up and brushed Amarie’s fringe of curls out of those eyes. She was convinced they would have kissed, had Lucas not walked into the room at that particular moment.
She was convinced Amarie was into girls. Convinced. Maybe she didn’t know it yet herself, but Charlotte was totally getting the bi vibe off her. And she knew—dammit, knew—that Amarie was attracted to her too. She was no girlfriend thief, though. No matter how pretty the picture of her and Amarie together looked in her head, she was not a homewrecker.
So she was just going to have to deal with the “we” that was Amarie and Lucas. Or at least, she could if they weren’t always a “we.” He would definitely be at his girlfriend’s birthday party—and maybe it was for the best.
Rowan smoothed a hand in soothing circles across Charlotte’s back. “You can totally sit this one out.”
“It’s her birthday, though,” she whispered. If she was a true friend, she’d be there. Especially if Amarie was having a hard time. She swallowed hard. “What’s going on with her, by the way?”
Rowan crossed the kitchen and peeked into the oven. “Just one more minute,” she said, eyeing the pepperoni on their pizza. She took out the mozzarella sticks and garlic bread, though, setting them on top of the oven.
“Ro?” Charlotte took several steps toward her, then hesitated. “What’s going on with Amarie?”
“I didn’t purposely keep this from you,” Rowan said, “but she’s been really sick. Like . . . bedridden, Matt said. I guess Lucas is having a really hard time getting her to leave the house.”
Charlotte frowned. “You mean depressed?”
Rowan shook her head. “Remember that time we saw her walking with a cane? I guess she has some kind of autoimmune disease. Matt said it’s undiagnosed but it’s basically ruining her life. It’s like arthritis but her doctors can’t figure it out because her blood work doesn’t match up or something.”
Biting her lip, Charlotte looked down at the floor. “I can’t believe I didn’t know this.”
“You wouldn’t have,” Rowan said gently. “Matt said she keeps it really quiet. She usually plays it off when she’s out and about. But it’s been really bad lately. I don’t know much about autoimmune diseases but Matt said she’s talked to him a bit about it. I guess hers gives her awful joint pain. That’s why she needs the cane. She has it really bad in her hip.”
“So my girl is sick.” Heat flushed Charlotte’s face. She pressed her lips together, as if it wasn’t already too late to stop herself.
Rowan gave her an understanding smile. “Yeah. And from what Matt says, Lucas isn’t the most supportive.”
Charlotte frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Shit, I forgot to keep an eye on the pizza.” Rowan opened the oven and inspected the pizza. “Hope you don’t mind your crust a little crispy.” She pulled it out and set it beside the other goodies.
“Aw, that’s perfect.” Charlotte nodded toward it. “The pepperoni is nice and crispy, and I never eat the crust, anyway.”
Rowan stumbled backward, a hand pressed to her chest in mock agony. “You’re an alien! How can you not eat your crust?”
Charlotte shrugged. “It always cuts up the roof of my mouth, no matter how ‘soft’ it is.” She waved a hand in dismissal. “Anyway. What’s Lucas doing?” Her eyes narrowed as she brought the conversation back on track.
“This is coming from Matt, so it’s past secondhand at this point, okay?”
“Yeah, yeah. Spill it.” She needed to do something to keep her hands busy, or she was going to brave the storm and show up at Matt and Lucas’s place and punch him in the face. She carried the pizza over to the counter and grabbed a pizza cutter from the drawer.
“It’s really sweet how protective you are of her. It’s not even me and I’m swooning a little,” Rowan said. “Anyway . . . I guess Lucas was bitching that she never wants to go anywhere anymore. The four of us were going to go skating at Taft, but Amarie canceled at the last minute. That was the night you and I went out for karaoke.”
“Yeah, I remember.” Charlotte grinned. It’d been a good night. She’d nailed a song that had once been out of her range. Practicing in the shower had paid off. She finished slicing the pizza and set the cutter down.
“The guys stayed in, and Matt got some beer. He said Lucas got pretty drunk and was going on and on about all of the things he and Amarie don’t do anymore.”
Scowling, Charlotte took out her ponytail. Fading teal locks fell onto her shoulders. She needed to touch up her hair. “If she’s not feeling good, of course she isn’t gonna want to go ice skating and shit. That’s super physical. It takes a lot out of you even if your body is up to the challenge.”
“Yup.” Rowan grabbed paper plates and handed one to Charlotte. “Come on, let’s go start the movie before this gets cold.”
Taking the plate, Charlotte started loading it with food, but her appetite was long gone.
* * *
Streaks of light from the occasional passing car drifted across Charlotte’s bedroom ceiling. She’d been lying awake long enough to know that Rowan’s street—or her new street—was a ghost town after about 8 p.m. It was a major change from where Charlotte had grown up. French Street saw steady traffic throughout the night, the susurrus of passing cars as soothing as the sound of waves. Though she’d lived on a side street, she’d been close enough to hear them, always drifting off to sleep to the sound.
It was too quiet at Rowan’s. How had she not noticed that before? She’d slept over plenty of times. Apparently girls’ night and actually moving in were two very different things.
She sighed and rolled onto her stomach, hoping that the change of position would remind her brain that it was bedtime. Her mind churned, though. At first she’d been busy thinking about the movie they’d just watched, a disaster movie based on a true story. Eventually, though, her thoughts had turned to Amarie.
She had to stop thinking about her. Amarie was none of her business. Their connection was gossamer, acquaintances connected by mutual friends. Nothing more. She shouldn’t worry about how Lucas might be treating her. She had enough of her own problems, anyway.
Of course, that just got her thinking about said problems.
She was outgrowing The 545, maybe even Watertown in general. She didn’t want to admit it, since she’d just moved in with Rowan, and her best friend was super excited. Of course, she was happy, too, but she wanted more. She always had. During the long days at Kaynor when she was a teenager, she’d daydreamed of someday being the boss while she scrubbed stainless steel counters with Comet. When that day came, she’d be the one watching grunts scrub away while she worked on the next day’s menu. She was going to own a five-star restaurant in New York someday.
That particular dream had shrunk, just a little bit.
After high school, reality had stuck its face in her plans and put her in her place. The distance between graduation and award-winning restaurant seemed more like a chasm the longer she was out of high school. It was far more likely that she’d eventually become head chef at some place like TGI Friday’s or something.
Great. She’d gone from reliving the tsunami scene of a drama to mentally beating the crap out of herself. Apparently she would not be sleeping.
* * *
Charlotte woke to sunshine and a silent house, as if the storm had never happened. When she glanced outside, she saw that Matt had come back at some point and plowed the driveway again—probably early that morning, before he and Rowan left for work. She was glad that she never had to get up that early. Not getting up before the birds was one perk of not living her dream, at least.
Nope, she was perfectly content with rolling out of bed on the later side of morning and relaxing until she had to go in and get started with prep. There was only so much to do, though. Most of the bar’s menu came in frozen bags and required deep frying. She did make the onion rings from scratch, though—and the sauce that went on the wings. Still, realistically she could go in later than scheduled and still get everything ready before her boss walked in the door.
She could do it all in her sleep, really.
Yawning, she made her way to the carafe on the counter. Next to it was a Post-it. “Good morning, roomie,” Rowan had written in black Sharpie. “Have a great day!” The smiley face she’d drawn was slightly lopsided, as if Rowan hadn’t quite been awake yet herself.
Still, Rowan had made enough coffee for her to have some. Grinning, Charlotte poured herself a cup and saluted the empty kitchen. It was weird to wake up in an empty house, but it was nice to have coffee ready and waiting for her.
She brought the mug along with her as she got ready for the day. By the time she finished showering and had French-braided her hair, her mug was empty. Rinsing it, she left it in the sink, then grabbed a blueberry muffin.
She was the first one to the lounge, as usual. Her bartender, Brandon, was never on time, but he’d be in soon. She could count on him, for the most part. The rest of the people she worked with, though, were as flaky as they came. With a sigh, she tossed her bag underneath the bar counter, then grabbed her chef’s jacket from a hook on the wall.
Brandon came in just as she finished mixing the sauce. “How’s my favorite girl?” As he slid past her behind the bar, she caught a whiff of his cologne. With his piercing green eyes, olive skin, and short afro, anyone with a pulse couldn’t help but appreciate his good genes.
“I’m only your favorite because I don’t blow up your phone, begging you to call me back,” she replied as she set the sauce on ice.
“Touché,” he said. He grabbed a tray of clean beer glasses and began putting them away.
“Nor do I show up at your work before they’re even opened.”
“Aw, come on. That’s never even happened.” He gave her his trademark shy grin—just enough of a flash of teeth but short-lived.
She nodded to the young woman standing in the lounge’s entryway. “It is now,” she murmured.
Turning, Brandon nearly dropped the glass he was holding. “Sweetie,” he said—probably because he couldn’t even remember the poor woman’s name. Over his shoulder, he muttered something to Charlotte about taking care of it, then strode toward his latest.
She sighed. While she could never be a serial one-night stand girl, at least Brandon wasn’t alone, pining after a straight girl who would never return his feelings.
Glass shattered, making Charlotte jump. She turned back toward the entryway. The woman made to grab the other glass that Brandon was still holding.
It was going to be a long night.
Don’t forget to join my email list! I’ll be sending out the five-chapter sampler of Any Other Love on July 5th—along with the official release date. Click here to sign up.