It shocked her how cold the water could get. Cold to make your teeth clench. Cold to make your bones hurt. Cold that made you cry out in pain.
It was the cold she came for. The knife of it, slicing through her lungs. When the endless ache of winter had long left her faded and numb, the searing cold sent a reminder—her heart still pumped. That first gasp as she hit the water let her know that she was alive.
It had been only two weeks since she woke up to find that the last ice chips clinging to the shores of the lake had finally disappeared. Casey had been biding her time, telling herself she wouldn’t go in until Geller opened up the campsite to full capacity for the spring. That meant it was officially swimming season—even if no one in his or her right mind would put in more than a toe for at least another month. When summer finally sank in, the hot sun on the mountain peaks would send people to the water in droves. But for now, the whole sky-blue lake was hers alone.
Sucking in the damp morning air, Casey threw open the cabin door and ran down the path. When she reached the lake, she stripped off her clothes and raced in, stark naked, before she could change her mind. The freezing water cut up her legs but she made herself dive under, eyes pinched shut and lungs filled to bursting as a million icy pinpricks stabbed her skin.
But the cold couldn’t stop her for long. She swam out toward the middle of the lake, corkscrew curls spiraling over her shoulders. She cut a swift seam through the water, still as glass. The lake this morning was a smooth, bright mirror reflecting pink puffy clouds overhead. Treading water, she admired the rounded top of Mt. Bonnet across the way, sunlight dripping down its sides. Sometimes it was so beautiful here it hurt.
Or maybe that was the cold sawing at her bones. She wanted to stay in the water forever, but she was shivering now and had to get out. Forcing her head under once more, she swam back and found her footing in the sand and leaves of the shore. She staggered out, teeth chattering so hard she was afraid something might break. It was stupid, of course, to go skinny-dipping at dawn in the Adirondacks when spring had barely come to the mountains. It was only the Friday morning kicking off Memorial Day weekend, the first day that Paper Lake Campground re-opened after the quiet winter months. But it thrilled her, as it would every morning until the fall. She stretched out the short swimming season as long as she possibly could.
Besides, it was her secret to keep. Her side of the lake was completely secluded, and at dawn the whole Adirondacks felt like her private backyard. Quickly she grabbed the towel she’d left on a rock and wrapped her hair up. Then she threw on warm sweatpants and a thick flannel robe, a present from her mother when she’d learned—horrified—that Casey wasn’t returning to New York City at the end of her first season working at the campsite.
“Running away” her mother had called it. As in, “You can’t keep running away.” Casey’s parents lived in southern California. They knew that cold existed—they just didn’t understand why anyone would willingly choose to live through it.
Nor did they understand why Casey had “sequestered” herself in the woods for a year now, with no sign of leaving. It had been okay for her to get away for a few months after the breakup, but when was she going to get it together and leave “that dump”, as her mother so graciously referred to Bonnet?
Casey was never sure whether she meant Bonnet the mountain or Bonnet the town, but included in the derision was certainly Paper Lake the campground and maybe all of upstate New York. The finer details of geography didn’t matter—the point was that Casey was wasting her life, wasting her degree, and definitely not getting any younger freezing to death alone in the mountains, not letting any man other than Mr. Geller say more than hello to her.
Mr. Geller was eighty years old and he and his wife kept Casey stocked year-round with homemade pickles and jams. For a boss and a friend he was certainly a catch. But Casey’s mother was firm. Moving on was going to require leaving the woods and getting a friend set that didn’t have gray hairs, hip replacements and a few false teeth. That her closest friend in Bonnet, Lee, was younger than the Gellers by far hadn’t earned Casey any bonus points. She was still older than Casey’s parents by a good several years.
The breakup. Casey scowled as she hugged herself tight in her flannel cocoon. It had been a year now. Why did it still pop into her head at the most unexpected times?
Like now, when the light was beautiful and the mountain rich with new green. What her family and friends didn’t understand was that she was happy here. Happier than she’d been in a long time. Happier than she’d been in New York.
And besides, she didn’t need to move back to the city to meet a man. Because the other secret she carried around, in addition to her morning escapades in the cold, was that she wasn’t going to fall in love. Not ever.
She wasn’t hardwired for it, just as she couldn’t run for miles or bake a cake that didn’t fall or make her hair do anything other than frizz. She was five-foot-eight, had curly red hair that grew out rather than down and was utterly incapable of love.
It was a simple fact and she’d resigned herself to it with a surprising sense of relief, somewhere around the sixth hour of driving north exactly a year ago. It was around the same the time that she had realized she’d probably never actually been in love, not for real, and that she was soon going to run out of gas. The arrow on E had been a sign—she’d been running on empty for too long.
The highway had led to an off-ramp, and after she’d loaded up on gas and gummy bears at the last Exxon for miles, she’d figured why not, things couldn’t get any worse, and had followed the signs for a scenic byway that cut through the mountains stretching north and west.
An intersection between two valleys had boasted a blue sign with a white knife and fork, followed by a yellow sign warning about bears. The turnoff had led toward a block of glittering lights and that was how she’d found herself in Bonnet, eating pie at Pam’s diner and wondering why anyone who came up here and looked—really looked—at the mountains that seemed to rise straight out of the road would ever want to leave.
As soon as she had pulled into the campsite and knocked on Geller’s office door asking if there was space for the night, she had known. It wasn’t the breakup that had driven her away—it was Bonnet calling her home.
Now it was her second year managing Geller’s campsite on the shores of Paper Lake, named for the paper birch trees that clustered like slender, gossiping teenagers along the shore. It may not have sounded like a real job to everyone from her old life still badgering her about when she was coming back to New York and picking up her doctorate in Art History where she’d left off. But at least it didn’t come with rent and required only one pair of fancy footwear, the Gore-Tex hiking boots she’d loved for over a decade. Geller’s stipend kept her well supplied with gas and groceries. He wouldn’t even let her pay for her own wireless.
Tramping into the cabin she called home, she kicked her hiking boots by the door and firmly resolved to push all thoughts of New York from her mind. It was a beautiful morning and she was looking forward to the weekend, when the first campers of the season would come in and fill the site with smells of burnt marshmallows and wood smoke, swapping stories about the deer they spotted in the brush or a new hike they wanted to try. There was no reason to worry about the past when she had so much to look forward to here.
She angled another log into the small wood stove for a burst of warmth and set about pulling together breakfast. Mr. Geller’s old hunting cabin, made weatherproof and livable year-round, had everything Casey needed—a twin bed in the corner piled high with pillows, a bookshelf she made, a mahogany dresser from a second-hand store, a closet for winter clothes. To the right, by the entrance, was a wooden table with three chairs and behind it a basic kitchenette with a few centimeters of counter space. In the middle of the cabin was the wood stove that took up most of the floor, with a copper chute that went right through the slanted wood roof. Out behind the cabin stood a small shed with her cross-country skis, snowshoes, a beach chair for sitting by the lake and paddles for the rowboat lying face down on the shore. Plus a collection of various spiders that Casey studiously chose to ignore.
Water boiled in the kettle and soon the one-room cabin was humming with its song. Casey turned off the heat and flipped open the front of the wood stove to bring the flame down as the sun rose. She scooped a generous spoonful of coffee beans into the grinder, and for a minute the high-pitched whirr rang in her ears, the rich, earthy aroma of freshly ground coffee exploding across the room.
She tapped the coffee into her prized possession, a stainless-steel French press she’d splurged on her first year of graduate school. An indulgence from back when she realized that her wallet couldn’t afford to go out for coffee all the time but her brain couldn’t afford to be without it. It was one of the few things from her old life that she carried with her to Bonnet. She treasured its sleek handle and the gentle pressure as the plunger yielded in her hands.
She hadn’t brought much when she moved—the French press, comfy shirts, her hiking boots. Those got a lot more use up here than they ever had tucked away forgotten under the bed. There was never any storage space in the cramped New York City apartments she’d shared with Nick for the seven years they were together.
Ugh, the breakup again. Why was it on her mind so much this morning? She shook her head to rid herself of Nick’s sandy hair tumbling into his eyes and instead focused on pouring water from the kettle over the grounds, savoring the hiss of steam as it cascaded into the press. She never had to set a timer to know when the coffee was perfectly steeped. She could see it, smell it, sense it, and when the tingling in her fingertips told her she couldn’t wait another second, it was done. She liked it strong, rich and nutty but not at all burnt. The perfect coffee taste was less of a flavor than a shape. Round. Whole. Complete.
The final step was a gentle splash of cream, just enough to turn the steaming liquid a single shade lighter from the deep, rich brown that filled her favorite mug, a large evergreen bowl with a thick handle on the side. She knew the cream was but another reminder of all that permanently barred her from the ranks of those infuriating women in New York sipping skinny lattes and white wine spritzers as they tottered about in high heels, but she would never give it up. Anyone who wanted her to be otherwise—well, they would have to get a ticket and stand in line. And it was going to be a long wait, because this was how she liked things. Now that she had settled into Bonnet, she was never going to change.
The thing about the cream was that it couldn’t be so much that it cooled down the coffee. Because coffee had to be hot. Burn-your-mouth-off hot so that she could only watch the steam rise from the mug as she blew tiny ripples across the surface, waiting for it to cool enough to take a few furtive sips from the rim.
It was perfect, as near painful in its heat as the lake was in its iciness, and she let out a contented sigh knowing that this was exactly where she wanted to be. Up in the woods there was no harried Nick telling her to get moving, she was going to be late, how much of her dissertation was she going to get done today, and there were bills to pay—didn’t she understand about bills? Up in the woods there were just the rich sounds of the birds hopping from branch to branch, the breeze lapping at the water and the wide lake whispering back.
She poured a bowl of cereal and flipped through her latest sketchbook, looking back at her drawings from before the snow finally melted to expose the rich black earth. It would be a good time to take out her watercolors, now that spring was finally underway. She loved the landscape when it was in transition and each day brought another surprise.
Thinking about everything in bloom reminded her of all the work she still had to do. Quickly she finished eating and changed into jeans and a gray T-shirt, soft from washing. She grabbed a faded Berkeley sweatshirt as she left, knowing as she laced up her hiking boots that she would be sweating in no time. She had promised Geller she’d load up the woodpile before the campers trickled in. No matter how much she chopped and carried, it was always depleted fast.
But Casey didn’t mind the work. It was finally something she didn’t feel too tall for. Geller never worried about her swinging the axe or asked if it was too much for her to stack the logs behind the office shed. Instead, that first summer, when he saw her reach for the axe he’d left out, he’d simply handed her a pair of work gloves and told her that if she wanted, they were hers.
They worked well together. When Geller fell on the ice and fractured his hip, Casey picked up his part of the work seamlessly. Now she just had to find opportunities for him to do the registration work in the office while she took care of the manual labor behind his back so he wouldn’t realize what was going on and protest that he was well enough to do his share.
It was a full day of piling wood and removing brush from the campsites when Geller finally limped partway down the path on his bad hip and called for her to stop clearing the trails. She wiped the sweat from her forehead and stretched her back. Smiling broadly, she finished rolling rocks off the path and trotted up the gentle hill to meet him.
Geller was a small, kind man, stooped from all his years of working in the woods, especially now that hip surgery had left him dragging his right leg. But even though he always looked to Casey like a fraying strip of leather, he was deceptively strong and used to life in the mountains. From him she’d learned about the different kinds of trees and berries, how to make a salve for poison oak, where the glaciers had deposited rocks and carved the lakes of the region, and how to love the land as if it were hers, no matter where she was originally from.
“Barb sent this,” he called, handing her a red plastic container.
“I told her no more of this!” Casey exclaimed, pretending to stagger under the weight.
Geller held his palms up as if to say, Don’t look at me. “It’s going to take more than that to stop her once she’s set her mind to something.”
“I don’t want to be a bother,” Casey said, but her protests couldn’t conceal her delight that the package was still warm. Whatever Mrs. Geller had made, it was bound to be delicious.
“It’s no bother at all, you know she always makes too much. I guess she got used to cooking for three hungry boys and even after they moved out, well, old habits are hard to break. I’m just glad there’s someone to send the leftovers to. We don’t need to be feeding the raccoons any more than they already take.”
Casey smiled, having heard Mr. Geller lie countless times about how his wife happened to make too much or had a few things they no longer needed, so it would be doing them a favor if Casey would take the extra off their hands. But she didn’t mind the ritual song and dance around accepting their gifts. It usually came with a few strings attached, and she was always more than happy to oblige.
As expected, when they turned to walk back up the trail toward the main part of the camp, Mr. Geller cleared his throat.
“I do wonder, if it’s not too much trouble,” he began, and he didn’t have to finish asking Casey if she would cover the evening registration before she was cheerfully agreeing to help. If staying in the cozy office reading a paperback while a few people wandered in to look at maps or ask about the nearest gas station was the equivalent of the boss asking her to stay late—accompanied, judging by the smell of it, by a steaming double serving of vegetable lasagna—then she could hardly complain.
Grateful for the help, Geller limped over to his truck.
“Appreciate it, Case,” he said. “Tom’s got our grandson on Skype for the kiddo’s birthday tonight and we sure are glad not to miss it.”
“You got it,” Casey smiled, balancing the warm container with one hand as she pulled out the office key with the other. “Give everyone my best and wish Mikey a happy birthday for me. He’s four now?”
Geller beamed that she remembered.
“Oh and one more thing. I almost forgot. Got a last-minute booking this afternoon—a group of eight coming up tonight. The boy on the phone said they’re having a mini-reunion from their college days. He sounded pretty young, so maybe stick ‘em in spots fourteen and fifteen, away from the others. The name’s Ben Mailer and they should be in around nine.”
Casey nodded to show she was on it, then waved Geller off and pushed open the office door. She sat at the desk and dived into Mrs. Geller’s lasagna, not too proud to admit that she’d rather be enjoying her meal in the office than be left to her own devices in her cabin down the path. She hadn’t changed and her clothes were dirty from the day, but it didn’t bother her. This was a campsite. Nobody cared what she looked like, and anyone passing through wasn’t someone she was likely to run into again.
Like this Ben Mailer and his friends. With a white-bread name like that, she pictured some beefy ex-football player come up with his entourage to pretend they still had it. They got all kinds up in Bonnet. But no matter who the campers were, they all came to play with fire and ogle the stars, returning home a little tired and creaky from the soggy ground but somehow more content than when they’d arrived.
It was even better, Casey thought, to make a life up here and never have to leave. As she ate her dinner, she marveled at how far she’d come in the year she’d lived here, and how happy she was now that Bonnet was her home. Sure, sometimes it was lonely. But any time she longed to feel someone’s strong arms wrapped around her, she reminded herself of how much better off she was alone.
One of Casey’s additions to the office had been to put up a bookshelf to house the collection of used paperbacks Geller had accumulated as campers came in to take a book or leave one behind. It wasn’t the greatest library ever amassed, but it kept Casey’s book collection rotating more than if she’d been stuck driving forty minutes to the nearest bookstore any time she wanted something new.
Trash was probably the precise term Nick would have used to describe the murder mystery she was engrossed in with her muddy boots hanging over the edge of the desk. Lucky for both of them, Nick wasn’t up there to share his opinions on taste.
When she heard tires crunching over the dirt, Casey looked up with a start. The office clock said just past nine. She’d had no idea of the time. She’d have to check this group in quickly and then get home.
A dark-brown head poked into the office, accompanied by the sounds of car doors opening and closing and staccato bursts of laughter punctuating the night.
“Come in,” Casey called, cracking the spine to rest the book across the desk. “Quickly, you’re letting the moths in.”
The screen door slammed shut.
Casey was so busy scanning the lines of the ledger Geller kept by hand to check in arrived that she didn’t look up until the man had crossed the office and was standing directly in front of the desk.
“I’m Ben,” he said. “I spoke to a gentleman on the phone?”
Casey looked up.
And tried not to fall back in her chair. He was boyish, with straight dark hair long enough to stray into his eyes and a dimpled grin that carved two apostrophes into his cheeks and another in the center of his chin when he smiled. He was tall and even under his black North Face fleece she could tell how lean and muscular he was. He had soft brown eyes and thin lips with a look like a puppy dog that had cultivated its sweet expression just to make you want to hug it.
“Sure,” Casey said, rooting unnecessarily around the papers on the desk to give herself something to do besides stare. She was flustered by how good-looking Ben was, and even more flustered that she’d been so disarmed. “That was Mr. Geller. He said you’d be coming in. You’re eight?”
Ben Mailer, who definitely wasn’t a beefy ex-football player, confirmed.
“I hope it wasn’t too last minute, but he said there was plenty of space.”
Casey nodded, still distracted. He may not have been back in college but he sure looked as if he could be. She felt like a cradle-robber just looking at him. But it was impossible to pull her eyes away.
She heard his friends outside, laughing about some joke they’d shared in the car. A guy with dark hair buzzed close to his temples and matching thick stubble across his face came in and Casey’s first, totally unprofessional thought was that at least he looked older than Ben—late twenties, maybe, with lines under his eyes that said he was no stranger to late nights. Maybe they were actually the same age and Ben only looked younger. The idea made her feel slightly better about the way his eyes were sending something icy and hot shooting through her veins.
But no matter how old he was, it was still unnerving to realize that she couldn’t stop wondering what he must look like without that trim fleece jacket.
“Hey man,” the guy with the stubble sauntered over to the desk. “Know where we’re going to be?”
Ben turned to Casey. “We have four tents,” he explained, “but we can arrange them however you want.”
Ah. Well, that answered that. Four couples, Casey reasoned, marking down the numbers. It looked like lucky Ben had one very lucky girlfriend. That at least ought to make her stop thinking things that definitely shouldn’t have been running through her mind.
“How many vehicles?” She tried to keep her voice steady, even though she couldn’t make herself look up and meet his dark, luminous eyes. Especially not with his friend there, who was probably wondering what was wrong with the lady behind the desk.
“Two. I’m so sorry we’re so late. We got a little lost in the turnoff from 87 in the dark. I hope you’re not staying open longer just to check us in.”
Casey assured him it was fine, a little unnerved by how polite he was. Somehow it wasn’t what she expected from kids up for a reunion, even though, she reminded herself, she obviously had no idea what Ben was like.
And had no intention of finding out, a stern voice in her head warned.
Casey blinked furiously and tried to stay on track. She wrote down the license plates to their two SUVs, went through the rules of the campsite and showed on a map where to walk to their sites. Counting out the change to Ben’s deposit—while eyeing his long, slender fingers resting on the desk—she couldn’t help wondering who his girlfriend was waiting outside.
“So where’d you guys come in from?” She made her voice casual as Ben passed the maps to his friend.
“All over. Boston, New York.” He gestured vaguely. “We all went to Vassar and stayed here once, right before we graduated. So, you know, we thought it’d be fun to get together again.”
The man with the stubble clapped Ben on the shoulder. “This guy is way too modest. He’s studying at the Culinary Institute of America and we’re here to give him a well-deserved weekend off. He’s been working like a dog.”
“Have not,” Ben said good-naturedly, but somehow his smile didn’t quite reach his dark eyes.
His friend, though, hardly noticed Ben’s sudden unease. “We’re hoping he remembers us so that when he opens up the best restaurant in New York City, we’ll be comped free meals since we won’t be able to afford a single slice of bread.”
Ben winced, but as soon as Casey told him, she hoped he’d enjoy his time off, a lopsided grin spread across his face. This time, it lit up his eyes.
“Make sure you have flashlights,” she said quickly to cover up the way her pulse escalated when he caught her eye and brushed back a rogue strand of hair. “Be careful of roots and rocks, that sort of thing.”
Ben nodded, but as his friend went out to find the campsite, he hung back, looking around. Casey told herself it had nothing to do with her, but even so, some small spark fluttered inside as his eyes lingered.
“What’re you reading?” Ben asked as he looked over the bookshelf.
“High-quality material.” Casey lifted up the cover and explained the system she’d set up.
“Pretty ingenious—maybe I’ll bring you something.”
“Sure,” she said, trying to keep her mouth in a straight line. For some reason, the edges kept wanting to pop up.
Someone called from outside, asking Ben for the keys, and at last he turned to go. On his way out, he wished Casey a good night and then reached up to tap the back of the doorframe before swinging the door shut behind him.
She really, really wished he hadn’t.
Because lifting his arms to the doorframe made his jacket rise up enough to expose the top of his low-slung jeans. As well as the thin green line of his boxers hugging his hips underneath. It didn’t take X-ray vision to know that just above that patch of skin, hidden by his white undershirt and whatever else he had on under his black North Face fleece, were two long dimples carved into his lower back, matching the dimples on his face.
Officially the sexiest part of any man’s body and the one thing Casey dreamed about on those rare nights when she did, in fact, allow herself to dream.
But this was not going to be one of those images she replayed in her mind’s eye. She was already berating herself for noticing. Not only had she turned to putty simply because he slid the hair out of his eyes as if he didn’t know the gesture would make every girl within a ten-mile radius want to extend her hand to his cheek. But she, Cassandra Webb, competent, capable, got dumped on her ass but still got back up again, thirty-four-year-old independent woman, had checked out his twenty-something-year-old butt.
She made herself swear she wouldn’t give him a second thought. She wasn’t interested. Period. She’d come to the woods to be alone and she fully planned to stay that way. She was going to read a little more until she was sufficiently distracted and then head back to her cabin, warm some cookies in the microwave, and go to sleep. Geller would take over registration in the morning and she would never see this group again.
Casey reached for her book, but she couldn’t stop her hand from hovering over the ledger. Before she knew what she was doing, she allowed herself a quick peek at the records and groaned.
Geller’s handwriting was unmistakable. They were staying for four days, three nights. There was no way she wouldn’t find herself looking at those dimples again.
Casey was putting away the book and sighing that she’d stayed up so late reading when she heard footsteps crunching over the leaves leading up to the office door.
“Knock knock?” There was a familiar voice from outside, and then a familiar swatch of dark hair came in.
“I was just leaving,” Casey said quickly, addled to be facing him again—and so soon.
“I was heading this direction and saw your light was still on. I thought I’d drop off another book for your collection before I forgot.”
Now that Casey knew he’d be here for four days it seemed like a flimsy excuse, but she extended her hand to take the book anyway.
“What have you got?”
But she needn’t have asked. The shock of orange on the dust jacket had been all over the news for weeks. Even someone living in a cabin in a town of two hundred and forty-six—not counting dogs, coyotes and bears—knew about this one.
“Are you sure you want to leave a hardcover here?” she stammered, not wanting to take it from him.
“Trust me.” Ben brushed his hair from his face and rolled his eyes in a gesture that made him look as if he were still a college student, although an impossibly hot one. “I don’t want to look at this guy’s mug ever again.”
Casey couldn’t hide her shock. “I thought everyone loved it.”
“Yeah, everyone who can’t read. It’s smug, self-satisfied, full of endless drivel, needed an editor or several dozen…”
He blushed as Casey’s eyebrows rocketed up in surprise. “Okay, I guess you have some feelings about it.”
“I figured someone here might be happy to pick it up.”
“Your friends don’t want it?”
“Nah, they’ve already read it. They loved it. Figures.”
Casey reached over and took the book, half expecting there to be some kind of sign—a shock or explosion or prick inside her to mark the transfer.
But nothing happened. It was just paper and ink. It didn’t much care about her.
She ran her fingers over the cover, bright orange with a whirlwind of black silhouettes clustered toward the bottom as though falling off the book. Scratched across the top was the title, Four Quarks Madly, and under it, The New York Times proclaiming simply, A stunning debut. On the bottom of the page, in bright block letters, were three words. Nicholas St. Clair.
“He’s a lucky guy, that author,” Ben said, noticing her staring at the name. “I read a review that said he struggled for over a decade to write this one book, always thinking he wasn’t going to make it, and then he finally did and look at it. The thing practically exploded over night.”
Trembling slightly, Casey turned the book over in her hands, looking for the author’s picture on the back. She didn’t want to—she’d been intentionally keeping herself away from bookstores for months, closing down her web browser every time an advertisement for it came up, avoiding any and all mention of the author, the interviews and the latest sensation that was topping every list.
But now that the book—his book—was actually in her hands, she couldn’t stop herself. It was there on the back, just as they’d envisioned it countless times when they were together.
And yet different than she’d ever imagined. His blue eyes looked straight out at the reader, daring and brash. His sandy-brown hair was cropped short, as befit the crisp headshot of a famous author rather than the tousled strands of someone trying to get by.
She’d always liked it longer, though. She was a sucker for things a bit out of place.
She turned to the front. Dedicated to his parents. Cheryl and Jim, who always told me to try. No surprises there—he was an only child and everyone’s darling.
She flipped through the pages until she got to a heading toward the end. She skimmed the acknowledgments quickly. His agent, his editor, his mom and dad, his grandma, a few friends whose names Casey recognized, a few she didn’t. She turned the page.
There, at the bottom, was the thing she wouldn’t have said she was looking for, until she found it and knew that of course it was what she’d been torturing herself with all along. The last line of the acknowledgments. The closing words to the whole book.
Above all, thank you to Aubrey Peterson, for being my sounding board, my inspiration, my muse. You’re the one who told me to keep writing when it seemed impossible and believed in this book when no one else did—least of all me. I will always be in awe of you.
His muse? Casey slammed the book shut.
“Uh, are you okay?”
Casey looked up, startled. She’d completely forgotten Ben was there, peering at her with a mixture of humor and concern.
“Yeah,” she stammered. “Just, uh…” She shrugged awkwardly with the book still in her hands.
“It’s okay, St. Clair’s ego is enough to get to us all sometimes.”
“You have no idea,” was all Casey could muster, amazed that Ben, in describing the book, had described its author so well.
She noticed, though, that he still had a bookmark in about two-thirds of the way through.
“You haven’t finished it.”
Ben shrugged. “You can keep it.”
“No really, at least finish it,” Casey insisted. “I have a feeling there’s a twist at the end.”
Ben frowned. “I seriously don’t want it.”
“I seriously don’t either.” Casey handed the book over, wondering whether he really had no plans to finish it or had been looking for an excuse to drop by again.
Either way, there was no way she could stand looking at that garish cover every time she came into the office. “At least sell it. It’s a good copy, and it’s hot right now.”
Finally Ben relented and took the book back. “But I promise not to enjoy reading it.”
“Good, I’d hate for you to have a good time.”
He grinned at her sarcasm. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
Casey tried hard to compose her features. “I’m fine, just tired.”
He paused as if there was something else he wanted to add. But instead he wished her a good night and again walked out the door.
This time Casey didn’t check him out as he left. She sank into the office chair, stunned.
Who in the nine rings of hell was Aubrey Peterson? And what was she doing being Nick’s “above all”?
The door swung open, knocking Casey out of her daze.
“Look I know I don’t know you and all, but you don’t exactly seem okay.” Ben popped his head back in.
“You’re letting the moths in,” Casey said faintly, not sure what was going on.
But this only made Ben step all the way into the office, which wasn’t what she’d had in mind. What she really wanted was for him and his perfect hair and cute butt and puppy-dog smile to go away and leave her to wallow in peace.
“I’m fine,” she said, and then more firmly, “Really. I’m fine.”
“Do you want to come join us for a beer? Jared’s got the fire going and Kristi’s pretty sweet on the guitar.”
“That’s nice of you,” Casey said slowly, “but I’ve got to head home.”
“You’re sure you’re okay?”
She forced a smile.
This time, she heard him walk away. She pulled out a flashlight Geller kept in the office and made her way down the path away from the rest of the campsite. Her breathing relaxed as the dark outline of her cabin came into view. She was going to heat up those cookies, get into her sweatpants, curl up with the crossword and go to bed.
* * * * *
Only she didn’t. She tried the crossword but couldn’t focus. She tried to read but the words swam on the page. Finally she sighed, refilled her tea, added a touch of honey and turned on her laptop. She would give in, but just this once.
Aubrey Peterson. It took Google half a second to inform Casey that she was a partner at Sullivan and Cromwell, a billion-dollar law firm in New York, and utterly perfect in every way. The photo on her company page was of a tiny blonde with pale, unblemished skin and full lips glossed with baby pink. Casey was willing to bet money that she drank skinny lattes with a shot of nonfat sugar-free vanilla, extra foam, and told Nick he was wonderful every day.
When she and Nick first met, introduced by friends at a housewarming party in Brooklyn, he had published a few short stories and was supposedly on the cusp of revealing some really great novel that needed only to get out of his head and onto the page. At the time, Casey had yet to land a single art show and her café job was cutting back hours. It was the logical choice for Casey to go to graduate school while Nick stayed home to write.
And complain, and make a mess, and go for long tortured walks, and smoke cigarettes out the window as if he didn’t think Casey would notice the smell, and blame her for being too noisy, too in the way, too difficult to deal with so that it was impossible for him ever to think.
The problem, Casey realized in retrospect, was that she had been too there. Nick didn’t want a girlfriend, he wanted a mom. Someone to pick up after him and reassure him it would all be okay.
They’d lived together for six years, been together for seven, when in a pique of frustration about the dissertation she never had time for and the Columbia students she hated to teach, she asked why he couldn’t be the one to cover rent for next month.
There were other things, of course. She’d started to decline reading pages when she was exhausted and let chapter three languish untouched on her desk. Then she asked for one night a week—just one—where they didn’t talk about the book. Two months later, he sat her down.
The next day, she spent the rest of her grad school stipend on a used car and was gone, leaving him the furniture, the apartment, most of her clothes, and all the unfinished drafts of her dissertation that she never wanted to look at again.
She never did know how he managed the rent.
It wasn’t that he’d dumped her, and done so cruelly, abruptly, with no hint that it was coming or desire to salvage the seven years they’d spent together. It wasn’t even that he was now the name on the tip of everyone’s tongue, although of course that burned.
No, what stung the most were the acknowledgments. Above all.
Casey closed the computer on Aubrey’s pert little smile, taking deep breaths to calm her racing heart. She’d always figured Nick would find somebody else soon. At least she didn’t have to wonder anymore.
She didn’t want to be Nick’s above all, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that no matter how much she told herself that she was happy being alone, another cold, hard truth was whittling a persistent hole in her gut, making her wince every time she moved. She wasn’t Nick’s above all, but she wanted to be somebody’s. Their most important. Their everything and then some. The one who mattered most….
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[copyright Rebecca Brooks, 2014]