#FridayReads: “Knit One, Girl Two,” by Shira Glassman

Shira Glassman is one of those cool people I’ve been following on Twitter for a while but hadn’t read any of their work because I’m a bad colleague. So when she released “Knit One, Girl Two” this week, I one-clicked that bad girl because I can always use more f/f romance in my life and I really want to support my fellow indies.

“Knit One, Girl Two” is a short story. It’s 68 pages long according to Amazon’s Kindle page count thing, so you can definitely read it in one sitting. Me? I savored it over a couple days.

The best word to describe Glassman’s writing is “real.” Her dialogue, especially, is delicious. Each and every exchange felt familiar, like I was hanging out with good friends. The banter between characters often had me laughing out loud, but aside from being funny, it flowed well. This is a story you’ll want to curl up with, a hot cup of tea at your side. Just settle in because it’s warm and inviting—just two queer girls being together and living their lives.

Both of them are artists, too, which makes my heart sing. Clara is a small-batch yarn dyer, and Danielle is a painter. When they cross paths to collaborate on a project, their worlds become so much more vivid. And speaking of worlds, this is set in south Florida, which is one of my favorite places. (Shout out to my real one true love, Deerfield Beach!)

I’m dying for more of Clara and Danielle, and hope to see them in more adventures or even in cameos in other Glassman stories.

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If she lets him into her band, she’ll have to let him into her heart.

Koty Jackson wanted to be a rock star, not a singer in the boy band ESX. When he finds out that Jett Costa is looking for a new guitarist and vocalist for her band, Perpetual Smile, Koty is determined to get his demo to her label. But his agent thinks he’s crazy, and when he runs into Jett for a late-night television interview, she tells him that she’ll never allow him in her band.

Jett Costa wasn’t looking for love. After losing the love of her life and the man who helped her build Perpetual Smile from the ground up, all she wants to do is get through their tour in one piece. She never thought she would let a boy band singer in her band—and she also didn’t think she would fall in love with him.

But if things stay the way they are, neither of them will ever get ahead in their careers. Somehow, they’ve got to come to an agreement—or they’ll both fall into obscurity.

Twisted Broken Strings is the PREQUEL to the South of Forever series.

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Jett might be sober, but she can’t kick her addiction to Koty.​

Sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll—that was Jett Costa’s old life. After her wildly popular band falls apart, she’s determined to remain sober and rebuild her career. There’s just one problem. The only person who still has any faith in her is her ex-boyfriend Koty, and Jett isn’t sure that she can keep her hands off him.

Maybe living together wasn’t such a great idea after all.

She may have been sober when she made that decision, but she definitely wasn’t when she agreed to play a show on behalf of a band that no longer exists at one of the biggest bars in Boston. Now she has less than three weeks to get her new band together. Can she ignore the sizzling sparks that fly between her and Koty every time they play?

Diving Into Him is the first book in the South of Forever series, a steamy contemporary romance that follows a fledgling rock band on its way to the top.

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Any Other Love: Chapter 1

Packing was the hardest stage of any trip. It signified the last chance to turn back. It also served as a depressing reminder of just how many pills, salves, and electronic devices Amarie relied on.

She rolled her hand over the steroid pills that her primary care doctor had reluctantly prescribed rattled in their bottle. They were tiny. How such a small, foul-tasting white pill could make her feel better so quickly mystified her. It stumped her doctor, too. Even worse, it would stop working just as quickly when she finished the prescription.

Amarie closed her eyes, pushing the negative thoughts away. She should be excited. After all, it wasn’t often that her entire group of friends got together anymore. Not since they’d graduated high school and all gone their separate ways, to colleges scattered across the country.

She was almost done with her own degree. After that, she had no idea what was next. For all she knew, the last-minute camping trip could be the last time she’d see her friends for a while.

Glancing over at her neatly written checklist, she ran through it again, eyeing the items on her bed. Pillbox, check. TENS machine, check. Thank goodness it was the size of a TV remote—unlike the giant units in physical therapy that they had to roll around on carts. Prescriptions in their bottles, in case anyone questioned her—check.

Bathing suit.

She moved aside hoodies and tiny travel bottles of shampoo. She’d forgotten that—and sunscreen. Even though she’d been blessed with a rich, tawny complexion that could tan to a deep bronze in the summer, her mami had never let her forget that even the darkest of Dominicans could burn, too.

As if summoned, Paloma knocked on the open door and stuck her head in. “Did you pack your sunscreen?”

“Ay, Mami.” Though Amarie rolled her eyes, a smile touched her lips. If ever the day came that her mother stopped, well, mothering her, Amarie would be struck dead with disbelief. Not to mention a smidge of concern.

Paloma held out a plastic grocery bag. “Your bathing suit was hanging in the shower.”

Taking the proffered bag, Amarie peered inside. Nestled among the strings of her bikini was a neatly folded giant beach towel—and two different bottles of sun lotion.

“One’s for tanning, the other for protection. So you can alternate,” her mother explained. “Use the 30 SPF on your face, mi amor. You don’t want that leathery look.”

“You mean wrinkles,” Amarie corrected.

“No.” Paloma shook her head. “I mean leather skin.” She made a face. “Like your bad cousin Jaime. All those tattoos, now ruined by wrinkles and rough skin. Speaking of, make sure you use the 30 on your tattoo.”

Amarie stifled a laugh. “Mami, we’ve been through this. I don’t have any tattoos.”

“That’s right. You don’t. My good girl doesn’t even dye her hair.” Paloma beamed.

“You know, dying my hair or getting a tattoo wouldn’t make me bad,” she said, thinking of all the times she’d snuck out to get drunk with Lucas and their friends.

“No, but it would set a bad example for your students.”

“My future students, Mami.” Amarie arranged her face into what she hoped was a pleasant expression. Behind that face, swirls of doubt shadowed her mind. The fall semester was going to be her last, and then she’d be a teacher—just like her mother, and Paloma’s mother before her. Except Amarie wouldn’t be an elementary school teacher.

Paloma’s face softened. “You’re going to be a wonderful pre-school teacher,” she said.

Amarie nodded. She didn’t say that she hoped so, that it’d be a miracle if she got through her last semester and found a position that didn’t mind her missing time for doctor’s appointments.

“How long are you staying, again?” Paloma asked.

“Just the one night.” Amarie surveyed her bed again. To anyone else, it might look like an awful lot of things to pack for just one night of camping.

“And you’ll be okay sleeping on the ground?” Paloma pressed the pads of her fingers to her face, fretting. “Do you want your Papi’s old air mattress? It still holds air. You just have to refill it now and then.”

Amarie smiled. “No, Mami. I’ll be okay.” She hoped. More than likely, she’d be too busy making out with Lucas to notice. Besides, the guys were bringing plenty of booze, and her best friend Neve always had a blunt tucked away, ready to go. She’d be fine.

“I’ll leave you to it, then.” Her mom smiled, then turned, her footsteps down the hall as light as a fairy floating through the woods.

Taking a deep breath, Amarie removed the bottles of shampoo and conditioner from her bed. It was only one night. She didn’t need them. Everything else, though, she’d have to fit into one bag. Lucas would kill her if she made him schlep all of their gear and three bags of her own.

She put aside the heating pad, too. It’d be too hot, and besides, there wouldn’t be anywhere she could plug it in. She’d have to hope that her joints behaved for the one night. If all else failed, she could just go home. It wasn’t as if they were even going out of town. Black Rock State Park was less than five miles away from her parents’ house.

She was going to try to enjoy herself, though. She rarely got to see Neve anymore, and Lucas wouldn’t be happy with her if she took off early.

Subtracting her extra pillows, instant ice packs, and a few other things from her bed, Amarie shoved the remaining items into her tote.

“Thank goodness for obnoxiously large Victoria’s Secret totes,” she murmured.

She was going to have fun, she told herself. Everything would be just like normal: the guys cracking open cheap cans of beer and shotgunning them; Neve braiding her hair while they tanned on the small lake beach; the group sharing silly ghost stories around the fire as they passed the blunt back and forth.

Still, even as she added one more pillow to her tote—just in case—Amarie wished that, for once, things could be a little different.

* * *

Because their campsite was so small, the group decided to bring as few vehicles as possible. Amarie hated the idea of leaving behind her little blue Hyundai Accent. If she needed to leave, she’d have to talk someone sober into bringing her home. Or, she surmised with a grimace, she’d have to call her parents like a stranded teenager. She propped an elbow on her big ass tote and rested her head on her hand.

Lucas was late—as usual. She’d been sitting outside for fifteen minutes, not that she minded. The sun was warm on her skin and, despite the humidity, there was a regular breeze that made the air bearable. What was bugging her was her empty iMessages.

He hadn’t even texted to give her a heads up.

A pristine white SUV pulled into her driveway. Her best friend leaned out of the open driver’s side window. “Need a ride, little girl?”

“Aren’t creepers supposed to drive white vans?” Amarie grinned and stood, hefting her ginormous tote with both arms. Her elbows ached in protest.

Neve pressed a button and the door to the trunk lifted open, its air compression mechanism hissing softly. “True,” she agreed, “but beggars can’t be choosers.” She patted the dashboard.

Amarie fit her tote into a nook between a packed tent and several folded camping chairs. Then she joined Neve inside, the cold air conditioning a relief. “I can’t believe your parents let you drive this thing.”

“Me either.” Neve flipped on the rear camera and began backing out of the driveway.

“Then again,” Amarie said, “I guess it’s harder to total a vehicle when you have cameras helping you.”

“In my defense, someone T-boned me while I was parked.” Neve eased the SUV—which reminded Amarie more of a spaceship than a car—onto the road.

“Excuses, excuses,” she teased. “So, while I’m super happy to see your face in person, I’m a little confused. I thought Lucas was picking me up.”

“I know you were looking forward to making out with your boyfriend,” Neve said, slipping on sunglasses against the glare, “but you’re stuck with me.” She puckered her lips, and Amarie laughed.

“You’re too straight for me,” she said. “Seriously, though. Where’s Lucas?”

“The guys couldn’t fit all of their gear in one car, so they asked me to be the transporter. Matt is coming later in his truck with the rest of it.” Neve jerked her head toward the back seat, her delicate but tightly coiled curls bouncing with the motion. Though her skin was a few shades lighter than Amarie’s, she had her beat in the hair department.

“Oh.” Amarie eyed Neve’s hair, mentally comparing it to her own spirals for probably the millionth time. While her curls would weigh heavily against her neck during the hottest part of the day, Neve’s floated in a cloud around her face.

“I know what you’re doing,” Neve said. “Not all of us can be this blessed. Thank goodness for my beautiful African genes.” She patted her hair.

“Rub it right in,” Amarie said with a smile. She scrolled through her texts again. “I just . . . I’m sorry for obsessing, but he didn’t even text me.”

“You’re like a conversational ping pong ball.” Neve glanced at her over her sunglasses. “Boys, hair envy, and then boys again. If I promise to braid your hair and feed you wine coolers, will you relax?”

She sighed. “I’ll try. It’s just, I thought he was coming.”

“You’ll see your man soon enough,” Neve said. “God, you guys are so gross. You’re like the power couple of the group. He looks like a model, and you ain’t so bad yourself.”

Amarie pictured Lucas’s full, sensuous lips and sensitive brown eyes. He was gorgeous, and she did like him, but being Lucas’s girlfriend felt more like the right thing to do rather than the thing her heart desperately needed. He was her best friend’s boyfriend’s friend—not to mention studying to be a special needs teacher—and it’d just made sense. When they both started working at the same Dunkin Donuts together, it sealed the deal.

“All right, girl, quit spacing out and pouting, and help me sing this embarrassingly catchy ESX song.” Neve turned the volume to the XM radio station up. She definitely had the comfortable lifestyle of a doctor down. By the time she graduated Stanford, finished her residency, and started practicing, Amarie mused, Neve’s life wouldn’t be much different.

She wondered, in ten years’ time, where she and all of her friends would be. Despite how easily the group had fallen into place, they were all going in completely different directions. Even she and Lucas couldn’t possibly withstand the test of time. Especially not with her deteriorating mystery illness.

She was going to be lucky if she made it long enough to gain tenure as a teacher.

“Okay, you asked for it.” Neve turned the volume higher and practically screeched the annoying but catchy boy band song.

Rolling her eyes, Amarie obliged her friend. She was supposed to be having fun on this trip, after all.

* * *

Amarie snuggled into her cozy sweats, enjoying the way the combed cotton caressed her body. The sun had dipped below the tree line a while ago, and even though it wouldn’t set until around 8:30 p.m., the pines overhead made their campsite chilly.

“We’re almost out of wine coolers,” Neve lamented. She closed the cooler and joined Amarie, settling into her camping chair. She handed Amarie a bottle.

“You two are a pair of lushes,” Jason said from his position by the fire pit. He squatted next to it, stacking kindling around balled up pages of newspaper and a few candle stubs. For a guy with such a cherubic face, he was far handier than Lucas.

Amarie supposed that, out of the trio, Matt and Jason were more the outdoorsmen than her guy.

Jason swore in Portuguese. Amarie looked over just in time to catch him sucking on a finger.

“Maybe we should wait for Matt,” she said.

He shot her a dirty look. “I can build a fire.”

“Clearly,” Neve said, arching an eyebrow at him.

Despite the ribbing, Jason looked at her tenderly. He returned to his task, striking another match and holding it to the newspaper.

Amarie wished that she and Lucas had the same connection that Neve and Jason seemed to have. Even as Lucas scooped her out of her chair, settling her into his lap, she didn’t feel the butterflies in her tummy that she should have—though things much lower heated and clenched.

With Lucas, things were purely sexual. Her heart just wasn’t in it, no matter how hard she tried. She snuggled into his arms, willing herself to feel it. His arms wound around her, holding her close, but the only warmth she sensed was body heat and lust.

She wanted that great love, the kind that would knock her off her feet, sending her life careening off track. Even Matt had found it—the only one of them that rarely dated, dedicating most of his time to his mother and little brother. If he could, surely so could she. So far, though, the longer she waited to fall in love with Lucas, the more she realized that their relationship was seriously lacking.

The sound of tires rolling over the dirt road snagged her attention. Matt’s truck backed into the campsite. The party would really be starting soon.

She craned her neck, trying to get a glimpse of Matt’s new girl. Her name was something uncommon, something that started with an R. Rosalie or Rhiannon or something like that. Her eyebrows scrunched together as she fought through the brain fog to remember.

The girl who hopped out of the truck first wasn’t anything like she’d expected, though. Her heart hitched, catching mid-beat. Wild, teal hair framed her face, contrasting lush red lips. Bright, round blue eyes surveyed the campsite.

She looked nothing like Amarie had pictured. She certainly didn’t look like Matt’s type. When her gaze lighted on Amarie and she smiled, Amarie’s heart actually fluttered.

“Guys,” Matt said, drawing her attention. “This is Rowan.” He gestured to another girl standing shyly next to him. A pretty girl, but Amarie’s gaze immediately flickered back to the other woman. “And her friend Charlotte.”

Charlotte, she mouthed, tasting the name on her lips.

From across the site, Charlotte’s eyes met hers. She held her gaze. Fireflies drifted through the purple-streaked twilight, their lights flashing gently as they called to each other: Be mine, be mine, be mine. Amarie’s hands trembled on the arms of her chair. The soft breeze that had caressed her skin all day stroked Charlotte’s hair, moving it away from her face.

Those cherry lips parted, and the campsite around them disappeared.

“Hi,” Charlotte said, wiggling her fingers. “Nice to meet you.” Those eyes never wavered, trained solely on Amarie.

“You too,” Amarie whispered. She drank in those eyes, mind flipping through all of the colors she knew, trying to remember the name of the exact shade of Charlotte’s eyes. They were somewhere between cyan and gray, a blue bright and pale, like the spot where the sky met the ocean on the horizon.

“Call me Char,” Charlotte said, and it was as if she was speaking directly to Amarie. Every time her lips moved, Amarie strained to memorize them. They were so red and plump, as if they were made especially for kissing. She had to restrain herself from imagining exactly how swollen she could make them if she ever had the chance to kiss Char.

“Welcome to our humble gathering,” Lucas rumbled from underneath Amarie. The vibration of his voice through her body snapped her out of the trance that Char had put her under.

She yanked her eyes toward the flames licking the newspaper, igniting the sticks. Jason stacked skinny logs in an upside down V around the flames.

Matt laughed. “Dude, are you drunk? You’re supposed to set up the teepee shape before you light the kindling.” He shook his head. “Let me get our tents pitched, and then I’ll take over fire duty.”

Amarie straightened, wondering where Char was going to sleep. Since Matt and Rowan were together, that made Char the seventh wheel. Surely Rowan wouldn’t leave her friend to sleep alone in the woods. She opened her mouth, ready to make rearrangements so that she, Neve, and Char shared a tent, leaving Lucas and Jason in the third tent.

Rowan pulled a tent of her own out of the bed of Matt’s pickup, though. To Matt’s dismay, she and Char began pitching it.

Amarie pressed her lips together, feeling a bit sorry for Matt—and herself. She had a boyfriend, though. She snuggled into Lucas, closing her eyes. Besides, even if she was single, it wasn’t as if Char would actually be into her. Their “connection” had simply been a product of all of the booze floating through her veins. Nothing more.

Still, all throughout the night and the rest of their camping trip, she couldn’t get Char out of her head. If she took a leap and broke up with Lucas, she might find herself in the kind of love that swept her away. Or maybe she would be living yet another fantasy.

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#TeaserTuesday: From Every Angle

From every angle, they were a mismatch. Warning signs screamed that they shouldn’t be together. She’d known from the beginning that it was a long shot, yet there she was, sharing a hotel room with the girl she couldn’t imagine living without.

Any Other Love will be available this summer! Join my email list to get updated as soon as I have a release date for you. Click here.

I’ve got just over 32K words down for the WIP. They’re on their first real date now and it’s basically the cutest thing ever. I created a spoonie comedian just for the occasion.

I’ve got some freelance work this week, as well as lots of words to write for Any Other Love, so I’m going to be pretty quiet online. See you on the other side!

#TeaserTuesday: Kissing Char

Kissing Char was like being enveloped in the clouds during sunset. Her lips were soft, commanding explosions of pastel orange and red behind Amarie’s eyes as they moved against hers. She melted into her, her hands finding Char’s hips, tugging her closer. She needed more, all of her, all at once.

Here’s another teaser for you from my work in progress, Any Other Love. I wrote this first kiss scene, believe it or not, after dreaming it. I hadn’t yet reached that part in my draft, but I created a separate doc and got it all down before it faded completely.

I’m over 21K into it now, so we’re way past the first kiss. I still don’t have a release date, but if you sign up for my email list you’ll be the first to know (and I’ll be sending an exclusive excerpt soon). Click here to join.

Side note: I’m having a lot of trouble finding stock photos of two women kissing, never mind a white woman with teal hair kissing a Latina with curly hair. If you can recommend any stock photo sites, please let me know in the comments!

Behind the Scenes of ANY OTHER LOVE: The Distancer and the Pursuer

via Unsplash

These two have been giving me a run for my money. When I first started all my pre-writing for Any Other Love—character profiles, plot structure, etc—I thought I had the whole who’s chasing who part down. It seemed pretty cut and dry: my shy little Amarie would be the distancer, and my animated Char would totally be the pursuer. Apparently these two had other plans, because Am was the one to make the first move and now Char is the one who’s hesitating.

Which is why Rihanna’s “Love on the Brain” is so perfect for these two.

And I run for miles just to get a taste
Must be love on the brain

According to some psychologists, in every relationship there is a distancer and a pursuer. You can even flip roles from time to time, depending on the circumstances. I’m trying to find a balance between the two, because I don’t want Char and Am flip-flopping throughout the book, driving you crazy. I think I’ve found a rhythm, though, with Am the full-time pursuer and Char very uncertain but also very into her.

On Friday I crossed 20K for this book, which is a huge deal! My wrists haven’t exactly been cooperating—I’m seeing a neurologist soon to be evaluated for carpal tunnel—and I’ve also had a lot on my plate lately. But I managed to check off all of my To Do list for this month, so all of this week will be dedicated to writing.

That first 20K was fueled by A.G. Ferrari coffee, Stash Breakfast in Paris tea, and Celestial Seasonings Bengal Spice chai. I typically have one cup of coffee in the morning, then Breakfast in Paris after lunch and my chai in the evening. So far I’ve been mostly listening to SZA, The Pretty Reckless, and Phildel while writing.

Originally I’d hoped to finish the first draft by the end of this month, but I’m only about a third of the way done. It is what it is; all that matters is I’m putting the words down, one day at a time.

Are you on my email list? Join now—I’ll be sending out an exclusive excerpt from Any Other Love in another week or so! Click here.

#FridayReads: Bad Boy, by Elliot Wake

This past week I devoured Elliot Wake’s latest, Bad Boy. As usual, I stayed up late just so I could finish and man was it worth it.

I’ve been on a queer #OwnVoices fic kick lately. Not really on purpose—aside from the lesfic—but reading books featuring queer characters by queer authors feels like coming home, to me. There’s a big part of me that worries about losing my queerness because I married a dude. And I know, I need to shake that shit—especially because I’m the one always telling my lady bi friends that being with a guy doesn’t make them any less queer. Plus… I’m kind of a little rainbow-lonely in IRL. I live in a small town. Most of my LGBTQIA+ friends live in the city or have long moved on to bigger and better places. Not that you need queer friends in your immediate area to be queer. It’s just that I feel the hole in my life where my high school rainbow gang used to be when conversations like “What is pan?” and “You’re married; you can’t be queer!” come up with my straight cis friends and family.

Sometimes I just wanna be around people who get it. Who get me.


Bad Boy.

I highlighted a lot in this book. I nodded so many times while reading. I also learned much about how men process emotions, thanks to Ren. Even without the plot, Bad Boy is a good read. It explores what it means to be a feminist man, and what it means to be a man in general. It’s not about which “bits”—as my favorite robot Mr. Pendulum would say—you’ve got.

I also loved the line about how every touch from a woman is a communication, a question. As usual, Elliot Wake knocks it out of the park with his prose. Each sentence is a true delicacy.

The plot is fast-paced, though, so I took lots of breaks to just let things sink in. Especially because the main character Ren is a survivor of rape, and he must confront the “man” who raped him. I don’t think there are any triggering scenes, per se, but every time the subject comes up I’m going to be automatically thinking about my own experiences. Bad Boy truly highlights how completely it can shatter a person.

Bad Boy also carries a common thread through Black Iris and Cam Girl.

Vlog star Renard Grant has nothing to prove: he’s got a pretty face, chiseled body, and two million adoring video subscribers. Plus the scars on his chest and a prescription for testosterone. Because Ren is transgender: assigned female at birth, living now as male. He films his transition and shares it bravely with the world; his fans love his honesty and positivity.

But Ren has been living a double life.

Off-camera, he’s Cane, the muscle-bound enforcer for social justice vigilante group Black Iris. As Cane, he lets his dark side loose. Hurts those who prey on the disempowered. Indulges in the ugly side of masculinity. And his new partner, Tamsin Baylor, is a girl as rough and relentless as him. Together, they terrorize the trolls into silence.

But when a routine Black Iris job goes south, Ren is put in the crosshairs. Someone is out to ruin his life. He’s a bad boy, they say, guilty of what he punishes others for.

Just like every other guy: at heart, he’s a monster, too.

Now Ren’s got everything to prove. He has to clear his name, and show the world he’s a good man. But that requires facing demons he’s locked away for years. And it might mean discovering he’s not such a good guy after all.

This is one of those books that will stay with me, that I’ll keep thinking about long after I’ve finished.

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#TeaserTuesday: Maybe She Needed to Let Go

It wasn’t like she really could ever have her own restaurant.

Maybe that was what she was supposed to do, though.

Maybe she needed to let go of the familiar and jump into the unknown.

In more ways than one.

This week I’m hoping to cross the 15-20K line for Any Other Love. I’ve had a lot going on lately: the passing of my Aunt Gayle, several family get togethers, my godson’s surgery… I’ve been exhausted, and laying it all out like this, it’s no wonder why. So maybe I won’t finish this book by the end of April like I’d hoped, but I’m still plugging away.

Also, I’ve decided I need to work a steamy shower scene into this book. I haven’t seen a single one in all of the f/f romance I’ve been reading. It’s a tragedy, truly.

In the meantime, join my email list for updates. You’ll be the first to know when I have a release date.

Crazy Comes in Threes: Chapter 4

The sound of her roommates arguing jerked Quinn out of a light slumber. She sat up in the bunk bed, blinking and looking around.

“I did not drink your stupid water,” Juleyka screeched.

“It smells like your perfume,” Zoleen said calmly.

Tuning out her roommates’ argument, Quinn looked around for Tara. Her heart thudded in her chest. “Tara,” she said, scrambling out of the sheets. “Tara?” She descended the ladder. “Have you seen Tara?” she asked the girls.

“Can you tell this freak I didn’t touch her water?”

Quinn stared. Juleyka wore a tee shirt, a pair of shorts, sneakers, and a sweat band. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail. Not a single drop of sweat gleamed on her forehead, and her hair looked as though she had just left the salon. “Are you—? What are you—?” Quinn sputtered.

Juleyka looked down at her outfit. “Oh. I went for a run this morning.”

She looked more like she were filming a commercial about running, Quinn surmised.

Juleyka waved a hand impatiently. “Tell her,” she insisted. She said something in Spanish that sounded like a swear.

“I need to find my sister,” Quinn said. Her heart thudded in her chest. Fear coursed through her veins. If Tara got lost, or hurt, it was all her fault.

Zoleen held an empty bottle of water up in the air. “It smells,” she said, “like Victoria’s Secret.”

The door to their room opened, and Tara tiptoed through. She wore flip flops and carried Quinn’s shower caddy. Her hair dripped water onto her tank top. She grinned when she saw Quinn.

“There you are,” Quinn said. She ruffled her sister’s wet hair. “Want me to braid it?”

“Oh my God, whatever,” Juleyka said. She snatched up her own shower caddy and marched out of their room.

Quinn glanced at Zoleen, but the other girl busily rearranged the action figures on her desk.

As she started braiding Tara’s hair, her phone went off. She stretched to reach it from her own desk, one hand holding Tara’s hair, the other pressing her phone to her ear. “Hello?”

“Quinn? This is Christopher Ramsey, with DCF. How are you?” the bubbly male voice asked.

Quinn’s mouth dropped open. She let go of the half braid and stood slowly. She walked to the other side of the room. “Yes?” she squeaked.

“Good morning!” he said. “I wanted to call to check in on you. How are you and Tara doing?”

“Um, good.” She paced the small open area.

“I know there’s a lot going on, and it’s confusing and crazy, so I’m going to try to make this as easy as possible on you. I have to stop by your mom’s apartment at some point, and make sure everything is five by five.”

“You what?” she blurted. Clapping a hand over her mouth, she squeezed her eyes shut. She couldn’t be in two places at once. If Christopher stopped by in the next hour, he would know they hadn’t been home. Her chest tightened, and she struggled for a steady breath.

“Never mind,” the social worker said, mistaking her concern for confusion at the phrase he used. She could hear the smile in his voice. Nothing fazed him, she mused. “Anywho, I’m here to take care of you and your sister. I have a few other appointments this week, but I’ll be stopping in sometime.”

“Stopping in?” she repeated, her voice squeaking.

“It’s routine. No big deal. Don’t worry about it. I’ll see you soon.” He hung up.

Quinn sunk into a chair.

“What’s wrong?” Tara asked.

Even Zoleen glanced her way.

She rubbed her temples. With a shake of her head, she forced herself to smile for Tara. “Nothing, Monkey.” She had no idea what she was going to do, though.

* * *

As they walked to Connecticut Hall for breakfast, Quinn tried to formulate a plan.

“You’re walking really fast,” Tara whined.

“Sorry,” she said, and slowed down. She and Tara could stay at the apartment and she could commute until Christopher made his visit, but she only had a half tank of gas and no money of her own. She hated to use her mother’s credit card, even though she was pretty sure she was officially in an emergency. She wished she hadn’t spent all of her babysitting money on clothes.

If she didn’t commute and missed classes, she would only be missing beginning of the year stuff, like going through the syllabus and all of that. It would be just like the first day of high school, only in air conditioning. She could always email her professors to see what she missed—or at least, she hoped so. She had to admit to herself that she really didn’t know. For all she knew, they would be diving into the material on the first day. Maybe it depended on the professor. Either way, she didn’t want to be that girl who showed up two weeks into the semester, expecting to catch up. She would also miss out on the first time introductions, and end up behind in her social life.

Not that she had much of a social life, she surmised as they neared the hall. She still needed to figure out how to trick her roommates into letting Tara stay another night.

She groaned in frustration.

Tara gave her a look, but said nothing.

They entered the hall. There were several buffet tables set up. Tara went straight to the fried dough line. Quinn wondered if she should make her eat fruit or something else healthy, but by the time she thought of it, Tara was already pumping melted butter and sprinkling powdered sugar onto her piece.

Quinn grabbed a whole wheat bagel and orange juice for herself. There was French toast and other delicious breakfast options, but she wasn’t entirely sure she would even be able to eat her bagel.

They sat down at a table, Tara munching on her fried dough before she even fully sat. A guy walked by carrying a tray piled high with brown scrambled eggs, and Quinn wrinkled her nose, glad she had gone with her bagel. She was sure the people cooking were certified, but she didn’t want to take any chances. The thought of having some kind of stomach flu or food poisoning gave her goosebumps.

Her eyes widened.

“That’s it,” she said, the plastic butter knife she held in midair. “Food poisoning.”

Tara cocked her head. “Do what now?”

Quinn leaned forward. She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Listen, Monkey, today we’re going to pretend to be actresses.” She told her little sister what she needed her to do. When she finished, she spread a layer of cream cheese on her bagel and took a big bite.

Then she got into line for the mystery dish.

* * *

An hour later, she trudged into her room. “Oh,” she moaned, holding her stomach. “Oh, God.”

Juleyka looked up from where she sat drying her hair. She raised an eyebrow. “What’s wrong with you?”

Zoleen glanced at her, then looked away. She kept her nose close to the screen of her laptop, and typed furiously.

Quinn wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. “I just shit my brains out.”

“Ew,” Juleyka said. “What the hell is wrong with you? TMI!”

“I think I ate something bad,” she moaned.

Tara rubbed her back. “Do you want a ginger ale?”

“Ugh,” she said, and slowly began climbing the ladder into her bed. “Conn has some scary food.”

“If by ‘scary,’ you mean ‘potentially hazardous,’ I agree,” Zoleen said. “Their meat loaf last night was slightly gray.”

Quinn’s stomach turned. For a moment, she thought she might actually be sick. Maybe she would have to watch which foods she ate in Conn hall. She lay down and pulled the covers up to her chin. Turning on her side, she wiggled until she could see the TV. A reality show played across the screen. She forced a moan, hoping she wasn’t overdoing it.

“What did you eat?” Juleyka demanded, turning to Tara.

“Fried dough,” the girl said. She retrieved Quinn’s student ID and flashed it. “I’ll go get you a ginger ale.”

“Be careful,” Quinn moaned. She hated to let Tara go off by herself, but it was a necessary part of their plan.

The minutes dripped by. Quinn tried to concentrate on the reality show. Two sisters with fake hair and breasts argued about which dress would go into their new fashion line. She closed her eyes and groaned. If she had to watch the show for the rest of the afternoon, she might actually need to go to the infirmary.

“Have you been to the infirmary?” Zoleen asked, as though she read Quinn’s mind.

“I think it’s food poisoning,” she said, “and I’m on my mom’s insurance, anyway.” She swallowed hard. That wasn’t even true. Her mother made her buy a plan with the school. Quinn suspected that, in reality, their health care plan had lapsed.

“They would just send you back to your room,” Juleyka said. “I hope you’re not contagious.”

“Food poisoning,” Zoleen said, “is not contagious.”

“But apparently water theft is,” Juleyka said. She pointed up at Quinn. “You stole one of her waters.”

Quinn blinked slowly at her. She bit her tongue to keep her snarky response to herself. Instead, she looked at Zoleen. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep.”

Zoleen only gazed back at her. It was almost as if she knew every one of her secrets.

“Bullshit,” Juleyka said. “You berate me, but she gets nothing?”

“She,” Zoleen said, “is sick.”

At that moment, Tara burst through the door. She held a bottle of ginger ale, a soda, and some chips. She handed the ginger ale up to Quinn.

Quinn wrinkled her nose. Drinking the stuff would be the hardest part of her plan. Ginger ale tasted awful to her, and usually made her gag. She uncapped it and took a small sip, trying hard not to grimace. “So you made it back okay?”

Tara wiggled her student ID in the air. “This thing is handy,” she said, and winked.

Relieved, Quinn sank back into her pillows. Tara was officially checked in for the night. She suppressed a victory smile. All she had to do was convince her roommates that she couldn’t drive home.

“So are your parents home? When are you bringing Little Q back?” Juleyka asked.

Quinn pressed her lips together, glad the other girl couldn’t see her.

Tara spoke before she could. “I don’t think she can drive.”

“Food poisoning can be quite debilitating,” Zoleen said. “I once had an aunt who had to be hospitalized, because she was vomiting uncontrollably.”

“Ew,” Juleyka shrieked. “What is with you people and the TMI?”

Quinn pressed her lips together to keep from laughing. She made a mental note to over share more often.

The girls lapsed into silence. Quinn hoped Juleyka would just let it go. On the television, the celebrity sisters argued about a guy they had each known for about a week. She felt the bed shaking, and glanced over to see Tara climbing the ladder. She smiled and wiggled over so her little sister could sit.

Juleyka sighed loudly. “I guess it’s okay for Little Q to stay over, again.” She made a few more dramatic sighing sounds.

Quinn rolled her eyes, but said nothing. She winked at Tara. “Little Q?” she mouthed.

Tara shrugged. “Monkey,” she mouthed back, winking.

* * *

After driving Tara to school, then all the way back to campus, the gas gauge dropped down to a quarter of a tank. Quinn parked in a visitor’s space in the back of her dorm building, and scrambled out. She had ten minutes to get to class. She would have to figure out her gas situation later.

They could probably just sleep at the apartment, she decided as she speed-walked to Engleman Hall. With Christopher promising to stop by, it just made more sense. She peeled a soaked strap of her tank top from her skin, and wished she had bought a bottle of water or something. It would have to wait until class. She ran down the hall and slipped into her classroom. A quick glance at the clock told her she was lucky she walked fast.

The room was more like an auditorium. The seats were built into stairs and long tables. The room was full, so she had to climb the stairs to the only available seat. She shuffled through the thin space between the backs of people’s chairs and the table in the row above her. Finally she reached the chair, but it was attached to the table and only swiveled slightly left or slightly left, so she had to sidle into it while dropping her bag to the floor at the same time. The students to either side of her shifted uncomfortably. She squeezed in and sighed.

She would have to remember to arrive early next time. She hoped the rest of the class would go smoother, and faster.

* * *

She emerged from the classroom in a daze, the syllabus still clutched in her hand. None of her classes were even remotely related to her major yet, but she had hoped English would be fun. Fat chance. She already had a twenty-page essay to read, and a paper on its theme due the next Monday. Even worse, she only had five minutes to get to her Elementary Algebra class, and she had no idea where it was.

During orientation, she had slipped away to search for some of her classrooms, but never made it to her math class.

“I really didn’t want to be that idiot who gets lost on her first day,” she muttered under her breath.

A few passing students threw her curious glances, but she ignored them.

Her phone vibrated in her pocket.

She pulled it out, and frowned at the display. It was the DCF social worker. She brought it to her ear as though it were a live grenade, her arm stiff. “Hello?”

“Quinn!” Christopher nearly sang. “How are you?”

“I’m, uh, good,” she said. “You?”

“I’m on my way to your apartment now.”

Her blood thudded in her ears. “Now?” she repeated.

“I’ll be there in,” he paused for a moment, “about thirty minutes. This was my only available appointment.”

She curled her free hand into a fist. Pressing her lips together, she resisted the urge to yell at him. He could have given her a heads up, but she had heard that DCF social workers liked to surprise their cases. Her eyebrows furrowed, and she clenched her hand into a tighter fist. She wasn’t a bad person. Her mother wasn’t even a bad person. There was no real reason for DCF to investigate them.

“Quinn?” the social worker asked. “Are you there?”

“I’m here,” she said through gritted teeth. “Is this really necessary right now?”

“It’s okay, Quinn,” he said. “I just wanted to meet with you while Tara was in school. You’re not in any trouble. This is routine,” he added.

Her hand relaxed. Her shoulders dropped. “Okay.” She sighed. “I’m not home, though. You’ll have to wait.”

“No problem,” the social worker said.

Quinn ended the call and ran. As she raced through the hall, she groped in the pocket of her backpack for the car keys. She could not remember if there was milk in the fridge or even bread in the pantry. Groceries had been the last thing on her mind when she and Tara left for the weekend.

She burst out into the heat and pushed herself faster. A twinge of guilt twisted through her stomach for missing her class. She reminded herself that it was only the first day, and she wouldn’t be missing very much. At least, she hoped so. Math was not her strongest subject.

When she reached the car, she threw her backpack onto the passenger seat. She started the engine and pulled out of the parking space without waiting for the air conditioning to kick in. Sweat plastered her hair to her forehead, and she realized that by the time she got home, she would look like madwoman. She braked to a stop before pulling out into the street.

“Okay,” she told herself, glancing in the rearview mirror. She brushed her hair out of her face, and pulled it back into a ponytail. “Relax. You’ll be fine.”

She lurched out into traffic.

The speed limit on Route 69 was forty-five miles per hour. She pushed her mother’s car to sixty, grateful for the lack of traffic and the few lights between New Haven and Naugatuck, the next major city. Farm houses and trees already turning color whizzed by her. She barely noticed them. She did not turn on the radio. Instead, she drove to the wild beating of her heart.

It felt like forever before she pulled into their driveway. A black Jeep sat parked in the street. She hadn’t taken Christopher for a Jeep kind of guy. She hopped out of the car and waved to him.

He got out. “Hello,” he said.

“Sorry,” she breathed. “I was at school.”

He frowned. “Why didn’t you say so? We could have rescheduled.”

She bit down on her lip. “I guess I didn’t think of that. Well, come on in.”

She sucked in a deep breath and led him to the house, hoping nothing was too horribly amiss inside. For a moment, she wondered if it was okay to be alone with a man she barely knew. Hesitating, her key in the lock, she glanced over her shoulder at him.

He gave her a curt smile.

She sighed and unlocked the door, then pushed it open.

The scent of garbage slammed into her. Her eyes widened and she stepped slowly into the house. She had forgotten to take out the trash. Swallowing hard, she blinked back tears.

Christopher cleared his throat. “So, we’re going to do the investigation part of this first, and then we’ll talk a bit about you taking temporary custody of Tara, and what’s going to happen with your mom.”

She nodded. Her throat constricted as the smell permeated even further. She wondered if she could change the bag without him noticing. If he did the tour on his own, she could do it rather easily. If he expected her to show him around, though . . .

“Why don’t you show me where Tara sleeps?” he said, smiling.

She sucked in a deep breath. “Sure.” She led him up the stairs. At least they were away from the smell.

The tour of the bedrooms felt like it took forever. There were only three, and their mother had the smallest, but Quinn suspected where they slept mattered the most, where the state was concerned.

She showed her mother’s room to Christopher first. On the morning that Nancy had been taken away, she had started to strip her sheets to wash them. The bed remained in a permanent state of half undress. Biting her lip, Quinn assured Christopher that she hadn’t had time to change Nancy’s sheets, but Tara’s were fresh.

He merely nodded and scribbled something on the notepad he carried with him.

She took him to Tara’s bedroom next. Toys and half-finished art projects cluttered the floor and desk. An ESX poster took up most of the wall space over Tara’s bed. She had been obsessed with the boy band since their first single hit the radio waves. Quinn didn’t understand what she saw in them, but then again, Tara hated the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. They were the same in a lot of ways, but in others, Quinn surmised, the Parker sisters were completely different.

Laundry from the last time Tara had gotten dressed in her room littered the floor. Blushing, Quinn stooped to scoop up the dirty socks and jeans.

“I’m sorry,” she apologized. “She knows the hamper is right here.” She cleared her throat and deposited the clothing into the basket.

Christopher said nothing.

She brought him to her bedroom last.

Photographs from all of the concerts she had attended over the years covered the walls like wallpaper. Despite their gypsy lives, Nancy had always made sure to take Quinn to all of her favorite bands’ shows. A vintage Vivienne Westwood blazer hung from a coat rack Stan had made when Quinn was a baby. She smiled at both the rack and the blazer. She had worn the jacket to her first Perpetual Smile concert, and Jett Costa had complimented it. The rack had harbored all of her collected pieces over the years. In a way, Stan was still taking care of her.

Despite the tidy condition of her room and the years worth of mementos proving a happy life, the social worker remained silent. He made notes, and she wondered what he was writing.

He looked briefly at the upstairs bathroom, peeked into the hallway linen closet, and then they went back downstairs. She wished she had offered him a drink. It would be so much easier if he had to use the bathroom. She didn’t want to call attention to it, but she couldn’t stand the smell of it much longer.

“Excuse me,” she said, and crossed the kitchen. She removed the lid of the stainless steel can and tied up the bag. She brought it out to the back porch. When she returned, she sprayed the inside of the can with disinfectant and put in a fresh bag. “Sorry,” she said.

Christopher said nothing, but he scribbled something on the pad he had been taking notes.

“Well,” she said, “are we all set here? I have another class.”

“Is that the door to the basement?” Christopher pointed.

She sighed. “Do you want to see it?” She did not add again, though she wanted to. The last thing she wanted to do was go back down there. Perhaps, she admitted to herself, that was the real reason she hadn’t finished changing her mother’s sheets.

He nodded, and she led him down.

As they reached the landing, she saw that the dried droplets of blood where still there. Unconsciously, her hand went to the stitches on her arm. She jerked her arms to her side and stood taller. If she drew attention to what her mother had done, she might incriminate her more.

She glanced at Christopher out of the corner of her eye. He, too, noticed the blood. His pen became a blur as he wrote something she couldn’t see. It felt as though her heart had become permanently lodged in her throat.

The social worker poked around a bit, took some more notes, then nodded. They went back upstairs.

She sank into a kitchen chair. “Please, sit,” she said gesturing. “Do you want anything to drink?” Her voice was raspy, and her throat was dry, but she did not trust her legs. She hoped he said no.

He shook his head. The chair creaked as he leaned on it, but he did not sit. He opened a folder and began walking Quinn through her mother’s case and her custody of Tara. “Because you’re eighteen, we can make you temporary legal guardian of your sister.”

She nodded. She already knew that. What she wanted him to say was something like, “You passed. Everything is good.”

“I’ll file my report,” he continued, “and we’ll go from there.”

She swallowed hard, but the lump remained. “So . . . ?”

“I’ll be in touch,” he said. He gathered his things. “I can show myself out.”

The social worker strode out of the house without another word or even a smile. Quinn stared after him. Her heart hammered in her ears. Her hands shook. The house pressed around her, empty and yet too big.

Bad things always happen to Quinn in threes.

Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5

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