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Part 1: Robin

Chapter 1

I wanted to jump but I didn’t have the guts.

It was one of those moments that I knew would never leave me. I was clinging to the trunk of a solid elm, praying that the rickety old tree house underneath my feet wouldn’t collapse. “You whore!” Clara screamed, her face as red as her hair. I looked to Robert, fruitlessly hoping he might help, but all I saw was his backside, just a pair of khaki shorts and a blue Polo jersey retreating through the freshly mowed back yard. I was paralyzed in equal parts by fear and guilt, wishing I could take it all back, wishing I could be someone else, wishing I could jump.

It started innocently enough. I met Clara in a fashion design class at a community college, which was like a strip mall with classrooms. The arts building was big and stretched out, with lots of lounges and study areas, and there was a coffee shop at the north end that had a fireplace against a picture window.

On the first day I was early, so I stopped to buy a latte, and I noticed a guy noticing me. You know the type: tall, dark hair, sparkling eyes, well-built. I couldn’t even a find a slight, personality-defining imperfection, like a crooked nose or a chipped tooth, to give his face an endearing dose of uniqueness.

I gave him a half-smile, secured a cardboard sleeve around my coffee cup, and went on my way to class.

Before the second class, I stopped for coffee again, and Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome sat in the same spot as before. This time he had an architecture textbook and a sketch pad, and every few seconds he would absently draw something. Then he looked up, met my eyes, and grinned like he knew me.

I smiled back. With a flick of his head he gestured me over and I responded.

“What’s your name?” He asked.

“Robin.”

“Really? That's so funny. My name is Robert. It's like we're the same.”

That was the beginning. Before every class I would get coffee, and Robert would always be there, studying architecture, and we would always say hello. One night he asked me out and I said yes. There was no ring on his finger, after all. He seemed put-together, driven, and interesting. I’d thought I hit the jackpot.

And for a while, it was like I had.

He didn’t ask much of me. His schedule was busy and mine was too. He had roommates, he said, so he always came to my place, but he never stayed the night. I enjoyed the reprieve from loneliness, but I wasn’t in love, so I didn’t question it.

And then there was Clara. She was the star pupil in our little fashion design class but she should have been the teacher. I didn’t even know people with her sense of style existed in Des Moines. And with her lovely hair and slim frame, her clothes look fabulous on her. At first I was intimidated, jealous even. She’d come up with these incredible, couture-worthy designs, and I wanted to pick her brain. Perhaps, just by osmosis, I could absorb some of her brilliance.

Yet she always left before class got out. “Sorry,” she said to the instructor the first time this happened. “My husband is waiting.” They took class at the same time but his got out sooner than hers did, so to accommodate him, she always left early.

I talked to her every chance I got. “I really like what you did with the last assignment,” I said one time. “The collar is amazing. How you’d learn to create lines like that?”

She blushed in pleasure, and told me how she’d learned from her grandmother, who used to work with Diane Von Furstenberg and who also owned a whole closet-full of wrap dresses.

“God, I’d love to see them.”

“You should!” She cried. “My husband is out of town this weekend. We should have a girl’s night. Come over and see my gramma’s dresses. It’s not just stuff by Diane Von Furstenberg. She was quite the fashion plate.”

I brought two bottles of wine and a box of chocolates, and Clara’s gramma told us stories about living and designing in 1970’s NYC. Meanwhile we tried on dresses by Tomas Maier, Kenzo, and Halston. By the end of the evening we were giddy and tipsy. Clara's gramma had gone to bed, Clara was lying on the floor and I was on the couch.

The room was spinning so I spoke to the ceiling. “When I grow up, I want to be your gramma.” If I could sit up and focus, I’d have looked again at all her photos: women with large sunglasses, holding cigarettes and emanating chic. Nothing in her apartment seemed post-1980, except for me and Clara.

“She’s had quite the life,” Clara responded. “Lots of lovers, lots of adventure, and she was always well dressed.”

“How did she end up in Des Moines?”

“She met my grandfather. He convinced her to marry him and he brought her out here for work. Then he screwed everything in sight while she grew bored and depressed.”

My buzz started to dissipate. “Why didn’t she leave him?”

Clara let out a loud sigh. “It’s harder than you think, to leave your husband when he’s cheating on you.”

I turned my head towards her. Her neck was arched, her hair was fanned out, and she looked like Sleeping Beauty. What prince wouldn’t value her? “What are you saying?” I asked.

“Nothing. Just a feeling, I suppose.”

And we left it at that. Eventually, she got up and slept in the bed with her gramma while I slept on the couch, blissfully drunk and unable to think too hard.

Because I could have put two and two together. Instead, I remained willfully oblivious while my friendship with Clara grew strong and my fling with Robert grew stale. Then, Easter came and Clara invited me to eat with her family. The day was lovely and warm. Clara’s gramma was napping, her mother didn’t need help in the kitchen, and Clara’s husband was yet to arrive to the celebration.

“Come outside," said Clara. We went out onto the porch. I thought we would sit on the patio chairs and absorb the sun's rays, but Clara was too squirrely to be still. "Look!" she pointed to her tree house. "My dad built that for me when I was seven. When Bobby and I have kids, I want him to build one. Tree houses are, like, a requirement for childhood, don't you think?"

“Sure,” I replied, though I’d never had a tree house and I’d never actually wanted one.

“Let’s climb it right now!” Clara, who seemed to operate at extremes, ran towards the trunk with its rickety steps. “Come on,” she cried, and I followed even though I could already taste fear on my tongue.

I wouldn’t say that I’m afraid of heights. Sure, I feel nauseous and dizzy whenever I’m up high without a barrier to prevent me from falling to my death, but who doesn’t get that way sometimes? So I climbed the half-rotted wooden steps of Clara’s tree house that was built in the early nineties, and I silently repeated the mantra, “You’re safe, you’re safe, you’re safe,” while we sat up among the branches.

Then we heard him call. “Clara? Babe, are you up there?”

And Clara answered, “Hey Bobby! Here we are!”

I didn’t want to look down but I had to. There he was, freshly showered after his tennis match, looking up while his face fell. Robert was Clara’s husband, and the horrible knowledge of our situation pulsed like a living thing between us.

“Robert?” I uttered, before I could censor myself, before I thought better of admitting to knowing him.

Robert was mute. He stood below, his mouth gaping wide and his cheeks flaming red. Clara looked back and forth between us. “What’s going on?” She demanded. “Do you two know each other?”

Neither of us answered, but Clara was not okay with silence. “Bobby! Is she the reason you’ve been so busy lately?”

I should have put Clara’s feelings first. I should have stayed silent. But the betrayal was too fresh.

“You lied to me the entire time?” I said to Robert. “How could you do that?”

Robert muttered something about not wanting to hurt anyone.

“No!” Clara cried. “Bobby! Tell me you didn’t fuck her.”

Instead of answering he just walked off, and Clara turned to me with tears in her eyes.

“It didn’t mean anything,” I said. “He doesn’t have real feelings for me. Maybe you can talk this through…”

“You whore!” she cried, her face changing from wounded doe to angry wolf. She grabbed the planks of the tree house and started shaking them.

“Clara, please stop.” I pictured falling, landing in a heap of broken wood, my head hitting the ground, my body as fractured as the tree house would be.

“You bitch! You man-stealing slut! You pretend to be my friend while you’re screwing my husband!”

She continued to shake the tree house and I wrapped my arms around the trunk, certain that I’d tumble down, lose my breath and die. Nobody would think I didn’t deserve it.

“I’m sorry Clara, I didn’t know. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” I could barely get the words out; they were little more than whispered pleas. Clara kept on shaking the tree house and calling me names, yelling accusations, and instead of jumping to safety, I screamed so loud that her father came out and told her to stop.

“And I’d never felt worse about myself,” I tell Nick now. He’s on the couch with his feet in my lap, listening to my awful tale.

“You didn’t even know he was married,” Nick answers. His voice is low and gravelly, and he barely flinches as I recount all the details.

“But I should have known.” I tug on his big toe, which is safely ensconced in a hole-free sock. “So yeah, that’s the worst thing I’ve ever done.”

“Seriously?” His voice squeaks in question. “That’s all you’ve got?”

I scan my brain over a litany of parking tickets, overdue library books, and botched Secret-Santa gift exchanges. None of it compares to the shemozzle I just described. “I’m afraid so.”

Nick sits up and kisses my cheek. “I can totally live with that.” His smile is big and I feel myself smiling back. “Okay,” he says, “my turn. I was fourteen, at summer camp for the first time…”

Happily, I settle in and listen to his tale of lies, deceit, and stolen arts & crafts. Now he knows the worst of me. This intimacy thing isn’t so bad, after all.

Chapter 2

“So are you sorry you ordered the trout?”

Nick’s eyes, which had been darting around the candle-lit dining room, restlessly settle on me. “Huh?”

“You barely touched your meal,” I say. “Didn’t you like it? Maybe you should have gone with the steak.”

Nick tugs absently on his dark brown necktie, which happens to match his hair and eyes perfectly. But underneath his normally tan complexion he’s sort of pale. “The trout was fine.” His answer sounds forced. “I just wasn’t that hungry.”

“Then why did we come here tonight? It’s not like it’s a special occasion.”

We’re at one of those low-lit steak houses, where people sip G&Ts while carving into huge hunks of meat. The only thing that makes this place unusual is that on weekends, Nick plays swanky lounge music to complete the posh atmosphere. “Besides,” I continue, “I would think you’d get enough of this place.”

As he reaches to scratch his temple I notice that his hand is shaking. “I have to get up for a minute.” His voice cracks like he’s in puberty.

“Are you okay?”

Nick suddenly becomes serious, solemn almost: the calm before a storm. He blinks, widens his eyes and stares into me. “I’m fine. But forgive me, Rocky, for what I’m about to do.”

“Huh?”

He nods to someone; I turn and there’s a sound guy by the piano. Nick jumps up, strolls over in broad steps, and the sound guy hands Nick a microphone. Then the restaurant lights dim to practically black, except for one light, that’s turned up directly over Nick’s head. “Excuse me, please!” Nick’s voice is still raspy but he’s determined to command the room. “Excuse me! I need everyone’s attention.”

The low murmur of dinner conversations diminishes and heads swivel towards Nick. “Thank you,” he says. “I hope you all don’t mind if I play just one song tonight. I’m not much of a singer, but you see….” He gestures towards me and my jaw drops as a light comes on over my head. “…This beautiful woman here is my love, Robin. I like to call her Rocky.” He pauses and looks at me like we’re the only two people in the world. “Rocky, you once told me that you’re a sucker for a guy who can carry a tune, so this one’s for you.”

Then he sits down and tickles the keys with a combination of joy, competence, and frenzy, and all the while his eyes are glued to me. In his lilting voice, he croons the classic Beatles song In My Life.

I have heard this song many times but tonight Nick is reinventing it for me; heck, tonight he’s reinventing music in general. When Nick reaches the song’s bridge he has to look down at the keys for a moment, and his dark head is bowed while his fingers both glide and pound out this beautiful, haunting melody that lodges itself in my heart. When he looks up I feel an electric jolt. His cheeks are flushed and his voice cracks on the high note as he declares his undying love. Then Nick abandons the piano, comes straight over, crouches down on one knee and takes out a ring.

My heart’s in my throat.

Time stands still. I want to memorize every single one of his laugh lines, the curve of his mouth, the way his hair slopes over his ears, the strength of his jaw and the warmth of his eyes. “So,” he mumbles, breaking the silence. “Will you marry me?”

“Yes.” My cheeks are wet and I didn’t even know I’d been crying. Nick slips the ring over my finger, and we stand, wrapping our arms around each other, indulging in the sweetest of kisses. When the room erupts in spontaneous applause, I’m convinced: Cinderella has nothing on me, with her glass slipper and pumpkins at the stroke of midnight.

I found my prince, and even if he’s sweaty from nerves, his body heat could keep me warm until the day I die.

Chapter 3

I suppose this sort of thing happens every day. People fall in love and decide to get married and it’s ordinary, expected even. So maybe it’s also ordinary and expected to believe that I am the only person who’s ever felt this way, to want to grab every stranger I pass on the street and dictate a list of Nick’s attributes. Said list would always end with, “and can you believe it? He’s in love with me.” But reciting the outward manifestations of Nick’s goodness still wouldn’t capture the contents of his heart, and this is how I know I am unique. I am the only person who has ever fallen in love with and gotten engaged to Nick Davies. Simply put, I’m the luckiest woman in the world.

Somebody was filming Nick’s proposal and it went viral, even making the local news. Nick’s song was brilliant and sweet and adorable and everything he does is newsworthy, but he insists that we got coverage because of my stint on the survival reality-TV show, The Holdout. I have my doubts because I’m less than yesterday’s news; I’m last week’s news, now used to line someone’s bunny rabbit cage.

“People have totally forgotten about me,” I tell Nick.

But he always says the same thing back: “That’s just what you want to believe.”

And I have to concede, that at least here in Des Moines, some people still pay attention to me. Nick believes that’s why there were photos in The Register, and why the footage was played on a local TV station. So for the last week, people at the grocery, the gas station, and the deli stand have been congratulating me. But today I haven’t been out much and there’s not a lot of traffic in my studio/store either. That suits me because I’m in a reclusive mood, happy to do some beading on the Downton Abbey-style cocktail dress I’m working on.

Eventually I get bored and take a break by checking my email. There is a message from an unknown source: FashionQueen_82@mail.com. The subject line says, “You need to read this.”

I click it open.

“Robin,

I’m giving you options. You never gave me any options before you stole everything I had, so consider yourself lucky!

You can…

Dump Nick. You’re not good enough for him and you know I am right.

Leave the country and never come back. (You can’t tell anyone where you’re going!)

Be honest about who you are. Let the world see you are a worthless whore and then you won’t have to dump Nick because he will dump you.

Do one of these things and I will give you back all your accounts and delete the pictures and videos. If you simply ignore this email then I will be forced to make the choice for you and I guarantee you won’t like it.

Stunned, I stare at the words, and after a while they blur together, forming into dark clumps of pixels that have no real meaning. I take a deep breath, hit “reply” and type out my response:

I’m going to the police the second you try anything. Don’t screw with me. You won’t like it.

I hit send before I can think too long about the wisdom behind it. It doesn’t matter, because a second later I get a response: Mailer-Daemon@Bricker_Robin.com

This message was created automatically by mail delivery software. A message you sent has not yet been delivered to one or more of its recipients…

I press delete and then it’s just my inbox that’s displayed on my computer screen, with Fashion Queen 82’s message at the top. I Google “Fashion Queen 82” but find nothing.

Looking off, out the window, I see that it’s begun to rain. Gray clouds hang low and heavy in the sky and I feel like there’s one directly over my head. That email could be from anyone. It could be some random person who has seen me on TV, someone who knows about Nick’s proposal, someone who knows how to send email from an anonymous address, and who has now arbitrarily decided that she hates me.

Or it could be from Clara.

Chapter 4

The rain never lets up, and it’s one of those afternoons when I’m wet and shivering just from darting from my car to the front door. I unlock it and enter, and a chill rolls through me right as there’s a loud clap of thunder and a flash of lightning.

“Hello?” Only the emptiness of the house answers back. That’s okay. I’m dreaming of a hot shower followed by some mac & cheese and bad television. Then my cell phone rings.

I’m still dripping in the entryway as I answer. “Hey, Saul” I say, recognizing Nick’s father from my caller ID. “How are you?”

“Irritated,” he replies. “I don’t know why stores don’t value their coupons. I was going to buy steak today but they lied about the price and there’s no way I’m paying twelve bucks for a piece of meat.”

Nick’s dad likes to gripe about things, but really, don’t we all? I know that Saul tests the limits of Nick’s patience, but personally I prefer a crusty temperament to an overly cheerful one. “So were you able to find anything to eat?” I ask.

“Tuna,” he grumbles. “I suppose I’ll have tuna again.”

This is my cue. “Why don’t you come here for dinner tonight? We’d love to see you.”

He mutters his assent and promises to be over soon. I text Nick: Saul is eating dinner with us. You have to pick up steak.

Later, Nick and I are in the kitchen while Saul watches television in our living room, several feet away.

“I’m really not in the mood for my dad tonight.” Nick speaks low, grimacing while he seasons the steaks. Nick pretty much represses all of his oedipal anger and resentment in the name of sonly duty, but he wants freedom from his Dad’s harsh criticisms and neediness.

I take a paper towel and wipe the counter. “Sorry, but what was I supposed to do? I kind of had to invite him.”

“No you didn’t. But he knows you’re a soft touch, which is why he called you instead of me.”

I throw the paper towel away, and find a corkscrew so we can break out our most expensive bottle of wine, the one that cost twelve bucks on sale. “Don’t you think it’s important to have him over, Nick? We need to keep our family close…”

“…and our enemies closer?” Nick retorts. “With my dad it’s the same thing.” Impatient, Nick grabs both the bottle and the corkscrew from me.

“I was going to open that,” I protest.

“You were messing it up. It was going in crooked.”

“No it wasn’t.”

Nick sets his jaw as he opens the wine and he looks so miserable that I can’t even be annoyed. “Hey…” I step close and brush my lips against his. “I love you.”

“I love you too,” he concedes, but he doesn’t let go of his tension. Instead, he sets the uncorked bottle down and looks at his watch. “When is Andrea getting back?”

“I don’t know. Why don’t you call her?”

“I did already and she didn’t pick up.” When he exhales I can feel the pressure lingering in the air. “She’d better be home for dinner. I need her for reinforcements.”

“Why? We’ll be fine.”

“He’s just on better behavior when she’s around.” Nick sighs again, softer this time. “I swear, something’s up with her. She used to be so responsible, now half the time I can’t even reach her.”

Years ago, after Nick’s mother died of breast cancer, Nick became Andrea’s guardian and he’s basically raised her on his own. Saul sort of suffered a breakdown, so now he spends most of his time online, reading about conspiracies and running his own blog, Conspiracy News Today. Nick also has an older sister, but she was a groupie until she got married and became busy with her own family. Now Andrea’s a senior in high school and Nick is her hero. He adores her as much as she adores him, so that’s a lot of adoration to compete with.

Did I say compete? No, no... It’s not a competition. Actually, Andrea and I get along great, in that we don’t fight and she lets me be nice to her. There are absolutely no problems there.

Andrea doesn’t pick up when Nick calls her again, so he cooks those steaks and I make a salad and pour the wine, and soon we’re sitting in our dining room, just an ordinary dysfunctional family enjoying dinner on a rainy weeknight.

“Is there going to be more food?” Saul grunts, pushing the chopped zucchini around on his plate. “Not that this isn’t delicious, but a few vegetables and one small piece of meat aren’t enough.”

“The steak’s big, Dad.” Nick taps his fork against his plate. “And with the walnuts and the feta in the salad, you’ll be plenty full. Just give it a chance.”

“I’m not criticizing,” Saul answers. “I was just asking.”

“I could make you some toast,” I say. “Would you like some toast?”

Saul twists his mouth at the idea. “I’m not trying to be a bother, but usually with steak you serve potatoes.”

He says this looking only at me, his voice measured and overly patient.

“Sorry,” I tell him. “I didn’t think about potatoes.”

“Actually, I was in charge of dinner,” Nick interjects. “Robin volunteered to make a salad and I handled the main course.”

“You two need to work on your system.” Saul scratches his neck, his skin flaking off and sprinkling our dark blue tablecloth with tiny white specs.

Nick clears his throat. “Robin and I have news, Dad. We’re getting married.”

Saul’s craggy face doesn’t even flinch. Maybe he already saw the proposal on TV? He blinks a couple of times, as if he’s thinking slightly harder than usual, and says, “Congratulations. That’s great. What are you going to do about money?” He directs his words only at Nick. “I have no idea how you managed to snag someone so pretty, but Son, be realistic. Robin could be a trophy wife if she wanted to, spending her days spending some rich guy’s money. You’d better have a plan.”

If Nick was capable of forcing steam out of his ears, he would do so right now. “That isn’t funny, Dad.”

“Of course it is,” Saul laughs. “It’s hilarious! Robin’s going to marry an aspiring high school music teacher with massive student loans.” He turns to me. “Have you looked in the mirror lately, sweetheart? Don’t you know you could do much better than becoming a Davies?” I know answering his hypothetical question will only incite him, besides, he redirects his attention back to Nick, jabbing his fork in his direction. “You need to be careful. It’s always the pretty ones who take you for everything you have. It’s the pretty ones who will steal your soul. I should know. Your mother stole my soul before she died.”

Nick’s mouth drops open, probably because he can’t decide who to defend first: me, or the memory of his mother.

I step in. “By ‘stealing your soul,’ don’t you mean that you just really loved her?”

Saul’s face is disarmed for a mere moment before I see his guard go back up. “Of course I loved her. Still do and always will. But if I had it to do over I’d be more practical.” He reaches over and pats me on the hand in a semi-fatherly gesture. “You’re a lovely girl and I’ll be lucky to have you as a daughter-in-law. But marriage is the most difficult thing in the world, so before you make the jump you both want…”he waves his hand in the air, grasping for labels, “to be successful at teaching, or at sewing, or whatever flaky things the two of you are calling your careers this week. Otherwise, I give you two years, tops.”

Nick becomes more and more like a coiled up spring with every word his father utters. He’s clenching both of his fists and his jaw, and I’m afraid that one more wrong word will send him bouncing around in a conniption.

Then, mercifully, the front door opens and Andrea calls out, “Hey, sorry I’m late. I had an AP study session.”

She comes in, her long braid swishing back and forth as she walks. “Is there any food left? I’m starving!” But she senses the tension in the room, and asks, “What’s going on?”

“We told Saul about our engagement,” I answer.

“I expressed a couple of concerns,” argues Saul, “and now I’m the bad guy.”

Andrea’s cheeks turn pink. “Well then let’s talk about something else, okay? Because I’m super-happy about Robin and Nick getting married, and I don’t want you to spoil it with negativity.”

If she’s “super happy” that we’re getting married, it’s the first I’ve heard of it. “Begrudgingly accepting” is a better term and Nick is right; ever since we told her, she’s been quiet and rarely home.

Saul slaps the table. “How am I negative? Negative and practical are two separate things! You’d be wise to learn that, young lady!”

“O.M.G!” Andrea cries. “I can’t take this tension!” But she sits down, shoves a bite of zucchini and walnuts into her mouth, and speaks while she chews. “Dad, tell us about the latest ploy by the government to bring down the working man. Please! Anything to change the subject.”

Saul wrinkles his forehead and purses his lips. “I don’t like your sarcasm. However, you should all know that Obama’s parents were both actually Communists and he plans to turn the U.S. into a Communist regime.”

“Dad, that’s ridiculous,” Andrea answers. “I just came from my AP US History study session, and we were talking about communism.” She explains, they argue, and Nick leans over and whispers in my ear. “If you can’t marry into this family, I totally understand.”

I lean away, look at him with wide eyes, and Nick shrugs. “I mean,” he mumbles. “I’ll be heartbroken, but I will understand.”

Chapter 5

As soon as Saul leaves Nick pulls me into the bedroom and pounces, smothering me with kisses and pressing himself against me. I don’t exactly push him away but I do hold back a little. “Andrea will hear us.”

“I don’t care.” He plants rough kisses along my neck and gropes me in a way that would feel inexpert if Nick didn’t hold an advanced degree in my body. The pleasure is distracting. “I have to make love to you, now,” he says, “or else I’ll explode.”

“Umm… isn’t exploding the goal?” I laugh.

But Nick doesn’t crack a smile. His lips are bright red and parted, and lust pools in his eyes as he tugs my clothes off. “God, I hope so,” he says. He undresses me completely and I comply, happy to be what he needs. As we come together on our squeaky-springed bed, I’m able to forget about that horrible dinner; I forget about everything except the glorious feel of him.

Afterwards we’re lying side by side and I’m breathing in the musky scent of his skin, when he murmurs something.

“What’d you say?” I raise myself up so I can see his face.

“I said I was sorry.”

“For what?”

He scratches at his thick eyebrow, squints and breaks my gaze. “Where do I begin? I’m sorry for my dad and everything he said, I’m sorry that all I have to give you are my student loans…”

“Oh come on, Nick. I thought we were past all this.”

“We’re not. We’ll never be past it.” I search his face for a sign that he’s joking but there’s neither a twitch of his lip nor a gleam in his eye. “I wish I had more to give you and I’m incredibly flawed. You should know what you’re signing up for.”

“Okay… I’m pretty sure I do. Do you know what you’re signing up for with me?”

He reaches over and turns on a reading lamp. The hard light does little to soften the growing darkness. “I think so. Unless there’s stuff you’re not telling me.”

I pause for a second. There was a time when I didn’t talk much about my past. Yes, early on Nick and I compared stories about losing our mothers and it was Nick’s warmth and resilience that made me fall in love. But I kept my tragic college romance locked away, and I certainly didn’t tell him about the string of guys that came later, ones I specifically chose because they didn’t value me. I still feel the urge to shower when I think about my low standards and poor judgment but I’m even more horrified that several months ago, my tight-lipped stubbornness almost made me lose Nick. Since then I have resolved to expose my heart to him, every chance I get.

“I might have heard from Clara today.”

Nick turns his body sideways, toward me, and props his head up on his elbow. “What do you mean?”

“I got this weird email.” Nick raises his eyebrows, urging me to continue, so I do. “It was anonymous and it seemed like it could be from her. But it could have been from someone else too, like some crazy person who hated me on The Holdout. Whatever; I don’t think it’s a big deal. I mean, I changed all my passwords and everything so I’m really not worried, but it’s a reminder of all the terrible choices I’ve made.”

He kisses my forehead. “You’re human, Rocky, and most of your choices have been good ones. After all, you’re with me, aren’t you?” He smiles so devilishly that I reward him with a grin and a kiss. Then he gently rubs my temple, like his love could alleviate all our fears and negative thoughts.

And maybe it can.

But that doesn’t stop me from wishing I’m a better person; that no gap of integrity stretches between Nick and me, that our thoughts, actions and temperaments hold less of a discrepancy. And as I drift off to sleep, I’m struck with a realization. Whether or not Clara is responsible for that email, I should find her and apologize. I may be years too late and volumes too lame, but it’s what a good person would do.

No. A good person wouldn’t have anything to apologize for. But apologizing is what a decent person would do, and I can at least try to be decent.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Laurel Osterkamp becomes very attached to her characters. The Standout, The Holdout, The Next Breath, November Surprise, Blue State, and American Angst all feature the Bricker family, but these books can be read in any order. Laurel teaches English and Creative Writing in Minneapolis, where she tries to stay warm, hang out with her two chatty children and husband, and find the time to write. Her other novels are the award-winning Following My Toes and Starring in the Movie of My Life.

Q. What draws you to this genre?
A.
Writing a psychological thriller was a new and interesting challenge. I wanted to try it because some of books I've really enjoyed reading lately are Girl on the Train, Gone Girl, and Into the Darkest Corner. I love a strong female protagonist mixed with suspense!
Q. Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?
A.
Some central themes of The Standout are self-forgiveness and finding the courage to embrace life's challenges. I try to make all my characters layered and realistic. I want them to be people you will root for, as they look for love and conquer their demons.
Q. Tell us about the cover and the inspiration for it.
A.
I just loved the image so much! Zelda, one of the three central characters, is a ballerina, and ballet, fashion, art, and beauty are motifs throughout the story. I thought the dark background was fitting for a thriller, and the "explosion" represents the turmoil the three main characters face.

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