June

Summer strategy, romance, heists

Hi, y’all! We are more than three weeks into summer break at our house, and so far my strategy of taking it easy and having VERY LOW expectations is working. We are taking full advantage of slow mornings, our neighborhood pool, and the now-open public library. We have started piano lessons for the first time, had a visit from grandparents, and gone to Vacation Bible School. While I have set boundaries on screen time, I am doing my best not to compare our boundaries to those of others, instead trying to focus on doing what works for our family and tweaking as needed. Do some days seem to stretch on into an infinite hot, humid haze where we are all grumpy and tired? Yes, absolutely. Have I been as productive as I would like to be? No, definitely not. But so far I haven’t lost my mind completely, so I consider that a win. Best of all, I’ve been reading books, of course! 

What I’m reading…

Garden Spells, by Sarah Addison Allen

I finally introduced myself to Sarah Addison Allen’s books last year, and a few weeks ago convinced my book club to read her debut novel Garden Spells for our upcoming first-in-over-a-year meeting (it didn’t take too much convincing!).I thoroughly enjoyed this story about sisters, family, belonging, and destiny. I loved the nuanced characters, and, of course the way Allen weaves magic into the story. I think Allen does a good job of creating a story that feels almost fairytale-like, while still telling a compelling, page-turning story

Bridal Train: Further Adventures of Chloe Crandall, Dudette of the West

This book was a bit of a surprise. I read it as part of my very part time paid review gig, and often those books are fine, but not to my taste. This young adult novel was extremely charming, and managed to weave historical fiction into a contemporary story, as the main character, Chloe, joins a reality TV show reenacting a wagon train journey from Missouri to Colorado. Although some of the secondary characters were a bit off-key for me, the main character was a delight. I definitely think this book would appeal more to the teen reader (rather than an adult reader), but it’s one I’d feel comfortable passing on to a teen reader of any age who enjoys light-hearted novels.

The Cul-De-Sac War, by Melissa Fergusson was cute and funny, albeit a little over-the-top. It was the perfect chaser to the more intense detective novel I read last month.

Always the Last to Know, by Kristan Higgins

This was not my favorite Kristan Higgins novel, mostly because I found the majority of the characters to be really annoying. That said, I did enjoy the complicated family dynamics and multiple points of view. I appreciated reading about people in various points of their life--the family matriarch dealing with the end of a marriage, the oldest daughter at the height of her career and fearful of her “comfortable” home life, and the younger daughter who everyone still doesn’t see as settled down. Despite my irritation with the characters, I was rooting for them, and that kept me turning the pages, as well as the fact that Higgins writing style is easy and familiar, and one I enjoy. 

The Good, the Bad, and the Dumped, by Jenny Colgan was a fun British rom-com with a fairly absurd premise that the author managed to turn into a believable and enjoyable novel. Although the novel is clever and funny, it’s also tender and heartfelt, with a compelling main character. I’ll definitely be reading more by this author.

What I’m watching…

Lupin season 2 released this month, and Jeremy and I both enjoyed the second installment of this clever series about a con man who fashions himself after a fictional “gentleman thief” from a series of novels. It’s a really well done, fast paced series with a bit of an Oceans 11 flavor. (reminder: this is a French show, so be prepared for subtitles if you want to give it a try).

Something I’m grateful for…

As I said above, we have been trying to regularly go to the neighborhood pool (my goal is a couple of times a week), and I am just so grateful that we have easy access to a swimming pool. The kids love it, and it’s a nice way to get some sunshine and exercise when it’s so miserably hot.

I’m also newly grateful for a candle that I bought for summer and forgot about until just a few days ago. It smells so good, and was just the right amount of mental lift this week! 

This spring I realized I needed some new running shorts, and found a new brand and style that look promising, and I’m a little giddy since it’s been quite a while since I’ve bought new running shorts. 

The kids’ piano teacher is FANTASTIC. We tried a studio near our house that we were unfamiliar with, but it’s proved to be a great choice so far.

Oh! And a little footnote: the Local Author Fair I attended at the end of May was really fun! I met some people, made some potential contacts, saw a few friends, and sold a few books (to strangers, even!). It was a motivating experience, and good to dust off my book selling skills. 

Here’s to cold drinks and good books! Later, friends!

May list...

The month of big books and big news

Hello! May started out slow, and then all of a sudden it’s almost June. I think that’s the nature of May in our house though. We have a birthday, Mother’s Day, anniversary, and now that there’s kiddos in school, there’s end of the year school activities (not too much for us, since our kids aren’t making any major transitions)

This month I have a couple of newsy-type updates: 

I’m participating in a local author fair in Northwest Houston on Saturday, May 29! I know that affects very few of you reading this, but I’m excited about the opportunity to introduce You Again to more readers, and it felt like something fun to share.

In honor of summer break and the author fair, the You Again e-book will be on sale for $1.99 the whole month of June! I know I’m biased, but I think it would make a great easy-breezy summer read if you haven’t read it yet. And if you have (thank you!) it’s the perfect time to recommend it to a friend.

Last, but not least, I finished the first draft of Novel Number 2 this week! I’m not exactly sure what this book’s path to publication looks like, but this is the first major step. 

Now, on to the lists…

What I’m reading…

Behind the Lens by Jeannee Sacken was a fast-paced, engaging story about a photojournalist who returns to Afghanistan year after a devastating experience with the Taliban. Annie is a compelling character dealing with guilt over her career choice and its impact on her daughter, and PTSD from her experience as a sole survivor of a Taliban attack. Her return to Afghanistan is at the request of one of her oldest friends who has started a school for girls in a relatively safe corner of the country. Of course, not everything goes quite according to plan. The book is intense, but there are threads of hope and humanity. The author’s love for Afghanistan and the Afghan people also came through very clearly through the story, and it added a depth that I really enjoyed.

Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith

This is the fifth of the Cormoran Strike detective novels by Robert Galbrait (aka, J.K. Rowling), and it has all the things I love about the Strike novels: a layered mystery, immersive setting, and lots of character development. The only caveat: if you’re not familiar with this series, these novels tend toward the graphic and gruesome, so if that is something you avoid, they won’t be for you. (I did a bit of skimming, myself).

Rhythm of War, by Brandon Sanderson

This fourth book in Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series started out a little slow for me, but that may have been more of a reflection of what I had been reading. That said, it’s a fantastic installment in this epic series, and the ending was big, bold, and left me quite anxious about finding out what happens next! There’s not much to say really when talking about the fourth book in a series; but if you like to read sweeping, intricate epic fantasy with fantastic world building, and you’ve never picked up the Stormlight Archive, it’s a great series. Also worth noting: I mostly listened to this one on audio, partly because the narrators Michael Kramer and Kate Reading do an amazing job.

What I’m listening to…

Faithful: Go and Speak is a new album that I have been absolutely loving. A group of female musicians and writers collaborated on the album, including some of my favorites (Ellie Holcomb, Sandra McCracken, Sally Lloyd-Jones, and many others). It’s a really hopeful, lovely album and I think it will be on repeat for a while.

Something I’m grateful for…

The first thing I’m grateful for is getting to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary this month! Not only is it really special to just recognize what feels a bit like a milestone of being with my favorite person, we were also able to celebrate with a delightful weekend away (thank you grandparents for staying with the kids!).

I’m also grateful that this is the last week of school. It’s weird to say that for a couple of reasons: first off, summer is tough because I don’t necessarily thrive in the heat and humidity. Second, I really do like the structure and rhythms of the school year. However, I am looking forward to being able to move at a more relaxed pace, to revisiting our local farm stand for fresh summer fruits and vegetables, and I’m grateful on behalf of my kiddos who are definitely ready for a school break. So I’m going to remind myself to hold on to the gratitude for the season change as long as possible.

What’s on your list these days?

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Books to read during a move

In honor of our recent move, I thought I’d make a themed book list to mark the occasion. I am the first to admit that in the middle of a move, reading is probably one of the first activities to fall by the wayside. And let me be clear: THAT IS OK. This is not a list made to guilt trip you if all you can do at the end of a busy day of logistics and stress and packing and lists, is to fall into your bed for a too-short night of sleep. 

However. 

If you, like me, find reading to be stress relieving and relaxing, here is a list of books that I think might help ease you through a move, whether it be across the country or (as in our case) right next door.

Anne of the Island and Anne’s House of Dreams, by L.M. Montgomery

These are really a stand-in for any kind of comfort re-read. When I am stressed or out of sorts, or just need a book to read that is comfortable and doesn’t require my brain to work too hard, I often reach for Anne. Anne of the Island and Anne’s House of Dreams are particularly suited, in my opinion, for big life changes like a move or relocation. If you’ve never read the Anne series (or don’t like it...these things happen), a move is the perfect time to reach for your own personal well-worn novel sitting on your shelf.

Keeping the Castle, Patrice Kindl

Keeping the Castle is light, funny, heartfelt, and--as the title hints at--is all about a family trying to find a way to stay in their home despite being unable to keep it up anymore. It’s a classic Regency romance, but also a very self-aware Regency romance, unafraid of giving the genre a bit of a wink-wink side eye. This book would be perfect if you need something distracting and entertaining at the end of a long day.

Small Cures, by Della Hicks-Wilson, I’m All Over the Place, by Tanner Olson, The Peace of Wild Things, by Wendell Berry

While poetry collections might not provide the immersive kind of distraction that a good story does, they are perfect if you want to read but don’t want to be able to dip in and out of something without committing large chunks of time. If you’re too tired or busy to focus on an entire chapter of a book, a poem or two can refresh your soul before your eyelids droop closed. I think all three of these collections are particularly suited in their own unique ways to reading during a time of change and transition.

At Home in the World, by Tsh Oxenreider

Okay, this travel memoir might be a bit on the nose, but it’s also a really fantastic book! It’s part travel diary, part exploration of what “home” really means. 

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride, by Cary Elwes 

This book is charming, fun, and PERFECT on audio. Cary Elwes narrates with special appearances from some of the other actors and creators of The Princess Bride. Slip in your earbuds and press play on As You Wish, and packing or cleaning or organizing will be loads more enjoyable.

How about you? What kind of books do you reach for during a stressful and busy time?

April lists...

Book fairs, new books, old books, super heroes, and good music

Hello, friends! Today, I am writing to you from the screened porch of our new house. That’s right...I was radio silent last month because somehow buying a house and packing and reading and writing do not all go together. After renting for the past...15 years, maybe?...it feels a little strange to think about the fact that we actually bought this house, but it’s also pretty exciting. My prayer as we moved was that this home will be a haven, a place where all feel welcome, and a tool for being generous and hospitable. So far, the top three things I like the most about the house are: 1. The outdoor space (a screened porch and covered patio, 2. The two bay windows (one in the front, one in the kitchen), and 3. The roses planted by the previous owner (does anyone have really great tips on taking care of roses? I’m open to all the advice). 

Some book related news: If you are local to the Houston area, I’m going to be participating in a local author fair May 29 in the Spring/Klein area at Copperfield’s Books. It’s an outdoor event, and would be a great chance to support local creators and a local business. I’ll send out a reminder with more details next month.

What I’m reading...

Convenience Store Woman, by Sayata Murata, Ginny Tapley Takemori (translator).

I think I first heard of this book ages ago on the What Should I Read Next podcast. It’s a short novel about a Japanese woman who is trying to find her place in the world around her, navigating her own needs and unique perspective in the midst of her society’s pressures and expectations (it’s never explicitly stated, but the main character does seem to be on the autism spectrum). What first attracted me to the book was the glimpse into modern day Japanese culture. Because it’s a translated book, the experience is like visiting this particular city and community in Japan, rather than having someone explicitly say “and this is what Japan is like.” I found the main character to be compelling, charming, and very sympathetic; and the story to be really thoughtful. 

The Wife Upstairs, by Rachel Hawkins

Apparently, my most common genre lately is fast-paced reads with twisty plots and a mysterious element. This is a somewhat surprising realization, but I won’t complain because it has led me to books like The Wife Upstairs which was SO GOOD. It’s a contemporary story loosely inspired by Jane Eyre, and it definitely kept me on my toes. It had all the moody, gothic atmosphere I want out of a Jane Eyre retelling, plus complicated characters and a fast-moving plot. 

Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man, Emmanuel Acho

Emmanuel Acho began recording conversations and interviews at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, and this book is an extension--or maybe more accurately an evolution--of those conversations. Emmanuel has a wonderfully conversational and friendly style of writing, but doesn’t sugar coat anything. The book is mostly centered on his own unique experiences--son of Nigerian immigrants, grew up in a primarily white community, went to college at University of Texas, played professional football. While he doesn’t go as deep into anti-racism issues as some other books or documentaries, he wisely and helpfully includes a ton of further resources for those who are interested in reading more about the Black experience and racism in America. 

The Last Story of Mina Lee, by Nancy Jooyoun Kim

This was SUCH a good book. It centers on Margot and her mother, Mina, who have a fraught and complicated relationship. When Margot discovers that her mother has died unexpectedly, she begins to realize that she didn’t really know who her mother was. The story alternates between Mina and Margot, and tells a really lovely, and sometimes heartbreaking story with themes of grief, loss, family, connection, resilience, and hope. 

Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri 

For a long time I used to say that I preferred writing short stories, when in reality, I just started novels, got to the hard part of plotting and working on it, then rushed an ending and called it a “short story.” And for a long time after that, I used to say that I didn’t like reading short story collections, when in reality, I think I just wasn’t reading the right collections. Interpreter of Maladies, on the other hand, was amazing. (I mean...it did win a Pulitzer Prize, so...that’s not a spicy take or anything). Each story was more full of depth and nuance than some novels five times their length. The writing was beautiful and vivid, and I soaked in every word. Again, this is an award-winning book that’s been around for a long time, but it’s also a great example of the value in picking up stories that you may have missed the first time around. It lived up to every bit of the hype. 

What I’m Watching…

Jeremy and I have been enjoying Falcon and The Winter Soldier on Disney+, and while it’s not as unique as WandaVision, I think it’s a solid addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Plus, Bucky and Sam (AKA, Falcon) are really great characters that deserved a little extra attention. 

Moxie, on Netflix, is a movie about a teenage girl who finds her voice to speak out against sexism and misogyny at her high school. It has a great storyline about female friendship, a little bit of romance, a fist-pumping soundtrack, and one of the worst school administrators since Professor Umbridge. There is a little bit of strong language and some mature themes, but I think it would be a fun one to watch with older teens in your life (Or call up some girlfriends and have an online watch party! No actual teens required).

What I’m Listening To…

If you listen to music through a streaming service (Amazon, Spotify, Pandora, etc), you’ve probably noticed the “you might also like” suggestions. I don’t always pay attention to what the algorithm recommends, but sometimes the algorithm knows what it’s doing. Recently, it led me to discover the musician Jake Isaac, a London-based singer-songwriter. I am really digging his music. I’ve particularly been enjoying his latest album Honesty, because the album walks the listener through a relationship—it’s a story, and you don’t always see that in recent years. His music is soulful, sometimes mellow, sometimes  a little more upbeat. You can tell that he’s a really talented musician, and his voice is like sitting on a lounge chair by the pool.

My beloved Needtobreathe just released a new live album (Live From the Woods) and it was the next best thing to actually being at a concert. I ordered it on vinyl (three cheers for a record player!), and I feel really good about that decision.

Something I’m Grateful For…

While the past month has been exhausting and overwhelming at times, I’m just so, so grateful that we were able to buy a house, and that we have had amazing support and assistance through the process. Our friends and family are truly the best.

Wherever you are this week, I hope that you are able to find peace and hope, whether it be in the midst of joy or hardship. And may all your books be five star reads.

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Storytime...

"Study Partners"

Author’s note: “Study Partners” stars one of the minor characters in You Again—Rosalee’s granddaughter Jessica. In fact, Rosalee and George even make an appearance! I thought readers might enjoy a little visit to Riverton as much as I did.

The fingers snapping inches from my face made me jump so hard it rattled the two empty coffee mugs perched on the table top.

“Hey. J. You still here? Did you hear my question?”

No, Braden, I did not. I was too busy trying to decide the exact color of your eyes and wondering if your hair is really as soft as it looks.

“Sorry,” I said, stuffing my thoughts into a hidden corner of my brain. “I need more coffee. Quick break? Do you need a refill?” I stood up.

“No coffee, thanks. I think I’m vibrating.” Braden replied. “I don’t see how you can function on that much caffeine.”

I shrugged. “Helps me focus. Want anything else then?”

“Could you get me a bottle of water?” He reached into his pocket, pulling out some crumpled bills, but I waved his outstretched hand away.

“I got it.”

I walked toward the cafe door before he could protest. A string of sleigh bells on the door chimed as I entered the brightly colored shop. I inhaled deeply, the comforting scent of coffee, steamed milk, and yeasty bread filling my nose and grounding me back in the present. As much as I enjoyed studying with Braden--particularly the resulting higher grades--I was beginning to think maybe I was just torturing myself. I stepped up to the counter and greeted the smiling barista.

“Refill, please,” I said, handing her the black and white mug. “The Thai this time. Oh, and a bottle of water.”

“You got it.”

I watched Emma, one of my favorite baristas at U-Bean, fill my mug to exactly the right fullness. She slid it across the counter and rang up the bottle of water I’d pulled out of the cooler.

“Tell Handsome out there that we have a last-minute spot available for Open Mic Night on Friday if he wants it,” Emma said, handing me my change. “But he needs to let me know today.”

“I will. Thanks.”

I headed back out into the early spring sunshine and caught Braden staring into space, his chin resting in his hand.

“One water, per request.”

Braden blinked rapidly, his awareness returning to the present with a smile. 

“Thanks.”

I sat down and took a sip of the scalding coffee. Almost too hot, but not quite. Just how I liked it.

“Where were you just now?” I asked.

Braden sighed. “Thinking about a lyric I’m stuck on. And a little bit over at the dog park wishing I was there with Ranger instead of studying.”

Ouch. 

“Of course, it’s not your company,” Braden quickly added. “It’s the studying. You’re always good company.”

“Hmmm...I’ll let it slide this time. Especially because I need you to keep studying with me so I’ll get an A in this class. Oh! Before I forget, Emma said there’s an open mic spot available for Friday, but you need to let her know today.”

His eyes--what color WERE they? Gray? Hazel? Amber?--lit up. “Awesome, thanks! Oh, and for the record, you have this whole study arrangement backward. I would for sure be failing this class if it weren’t for you.”

I felt my face flush and took a drink to cover it up. “Let’s call it mutually beneficial. And speaking of beneficial, what do you say we give this 20 more minutes and then put ourselves out of our misery?”

“Best idea you’ve had all afternoon.”

The promise of an end helped us focus on weeding through our sources and we actually managed to finish the annotated bibliography we were working on. To be fair, Braden rarely had trouble focusing. It was one of the main reasons that our study sessions were so important to my grade. I don’t know if it was positive peer pressure or the expected reward or the coffee, but whatever it was, I managed to get a lot of work done in those twenty minutes. However, once we started packing up, the door I’d closed on my feelings swung open like a screen door during a thunderstorm.

“So, are you definitely going to play Friday?” I asked

“Yep. I think I’m going to bring my mandolin. I’ve been playing around a lot on it lately. It’ll be fun to try it out on an audience.”

“Originals?”

“Some. But one of the things I’ve been working on are some mandolin arrangements of songs that aren’t usually played acoustically.”

“Sounds really cool!” I slung my backpack over my shoulder and began walking with him to the cafe door, returning my now empty mug.

“You know, I don’t think I’ve heard you play since that day we had class outside and you pulled out your guitar after. I think that was the day we decided to start studying together.”

“I’d completely forgotten about that,” Braden had reached the door and pulled it open, stepping to the side to let me through first. “And that’s when we discovered we both knew Shannon and Emma.”

“Oh yeah!” I said, as though every detail of that morning wasn’t permanently etched in my memory. It had also been the day I’d gone home and called Shannon, begging her to engineer some excuses for me to run into Braden outside of class.

“You know,” I said as Braden followed me through the door. “I’ve never been to an open mic night here. I’m always working on Fridays.”

“You should definitely come some time,” Braden said. “There are some others around town, but the U-Bean always has the best lineup. Well,” he blushed. “I mean, not that I’m calling myself the best. Just in general.”

I laughed. “Own it, B.”

I set my mug in the dirty dishes bin, and waited for Braden to finish arranging things with Emma. We walked out together, and headed down the sidewalk toward the university parking lot a few blocks over. 

“Maybe I’ll try to come this weekend,” I said as we walked. “I mean, since I know someone playing and all.”

“I think you’ll like it. And Emma just told me some of the lineup, and it’s going to be really great. Do you know Misty Miller?”

The conversation naturally shifted into talk about music, books, and classes. It wasn’t a long walk, but by the time we arrived at our cars I’d convinced myself that Braden had specifically asked me to come watch him play in a way that seemed more than just friendly. I waved as Braden drove away, then pulled out my phone and scrolled through my contacts. 

“Chloe, are you working Friday or Saturday? Can you switch with me? I’ll owe you big time...thank you! You’re the best. See you.”

***

I was debating between “Russian Red'' and “Ruby Woo” when it occurred to me that my expectations for the evening were a touch too high. I had constructed a future love story that seemed so plausible to me that I was basically sure it would happen. I would go to Open Mic Night at the University Bean and snag a table near the stage. It would be off to the side so as not to seem too obvious, but close enough for some solid eye contact. Braden would get on stage to sing, we would lock eyes, and he would realize that his muse was sitting right in front of him. He would finish his set and come ask if I wanted to sit outside so we could talk. Our conversation would be accompanied by the best indie rock-folk-spoken-world-poetry soundtrack in town, until the U-Bean closed and we had to give up our chairs. He would walk me to my car and, bathed in moonlight, he would kiss me, and it would be wonderful. The start of something beautiful.

I was pretty good at spinning fantasies. 

The problem was that my memory was too short, and I always seemed to forget when those fantasies came crashing down around me. 

The day started out with promise. An overnight thunderstorm giving way to clear blue skies, cool breezes, and a world saturated in rain-soaked color. I went for my usual morning run in a world scrubbed clean, and rode that endorphin high through a morning full of research, school work, and even a phone call with my mom.

“I really wish I was going with you,” Chloe said later that evening as she struggled with her hot pink bow tie.

“Me too. But you’re still the best roommate in the whole world for switching shifts with me.”

“Darn right, I am.” She finally managed to wrestle the tie into submission. “One day,” she mused, “I will work somewhere that doesn’t require me to wear neon satin.”

She dug her purse out from under a pile of shirts on the bedroom floor and pulled out her keys.

“I’ll clean up tomorrow,” she called as she walked out the door. 

I hummed as I applied my makeup, having finally settled on “Russian Red,” and pulled on some clothes, wishing I’d thought to ask Chloe to double check my outfit. I glanced at the clock-- fifteen minutes before I needed to leave. I reached for my phone, snapped a quick selfie in the full length mirror, and texted the photo to Chloe, hoping that she’d check her phone before clocking in.

Ping.

“Sneakers not boots. Earrings. Distressed jeans. Love the lip.”

Chloe always knows, I thought, kicking off my shoes and exchanging black jeans for my favorite distressed denim. It took longer than I’d have liked to find my shoes, but eventually I was lacing up an old pair of navy Chucks and grabbing my crossbody bag. Lipstick, wallet keys, phone. 

The table I wanted was occupied when I arrived at U-Bean, my first hint that the night was not going to go according to plan. I went up to the counter to order and made myself take a few deep breaths. Didn’t matter. I got my cappuccino and made a slow circuit of the main room, eventually discovering that one of the leather couches was miraculously empty, not even a coat or bag or stray Moleskin notebook to save someone’s spot. A sign perhaps? As I settled onto the couch, I decided having a comfy spot was better anyway. Better for enjoying the music, better for lingering conversation later. 

I might not have been as early as I’d planned, but within 10 minutes I realized I’d arrived at U-Bean just in time. By the time a small woman with a bright blue pixie cut stepped up to the microphone, it was standing room only, and I was sharing my couch with a couple of high schoolers I didn’t know. 

“Hey, everybody.” Pixie Cut’s voice was surprisingly deep and had the raspy quality of a long-time smoker. “Welcome to Open Mic Night at The University Bean.” A few people in the crowd whistled and cheered. “We’ve got a great line-up tonight as always, so I’ll just get right to our first performer. She’s no stranger to our regular crowd, and really needs no introduction. Please welcome our beloved Misty Miller.” A tall, middle-aged woman with long, curly hair and a huge grin stepped onto the stage, a banjo in her hand. She began playing -- mournful, heartachingly beautiful, melancholy songs. For a few minutes, I forgot my primary purpose for being there, but eventually, I began glancing around for Braden again. 

He was sitting with a group clustered around a four-top just to the left of the stage area. His mandolin was in his lap, and from across the room, he seemed relaxed, just enjoying the music. His fingers drummed a beat along the side of the mandolin while his body swayed slightly to the music. I stared at him, willing him to look my way, but he never did. Not a huge surprise, really. Braden never seemed to suffer from even half of my distractibility. 

Poet, musician, and then finally Braden. I slid to the edge of my seat. The light caught on the highlights in Braden’s dark hair and gave the honey-brown mandolin a soft glow. Braden strummed a chord and grinned. 

“What an honor to share the stage tonight with such talent,” he said. A few people in the crowd whistled in agreement. “Here are a few songs I’ve been working on.”

Braden’s nimble fingers and rich baritone wove a spell throughout the room. Tears sprung to my eyes, and as I glanced around the hushed cafe, I could tell that everyone there was a little bit in love with him now too. His haunting, soulful interpretation of two bright and bubbly pop songs was genius, and his originals were a revelation. I wondered how he could stand to be so vulnerable with strangers. When the final notes of his last song faded, the lingering silence shattered into applause and whistles. Braden bowed his head with a huge grin. 

“Thank you.”

As he stood up, he scanned the crowd, and he glanced toward my corner, eyes locking with mine. My breath caught. The connection of our gaze felt sudden and unexpected, even though I’d been longing for it all night. He raised the hand, not clutching his instrument in a small wave, and I waved back, thankful now for the distance and dim lights. Braden began walking toward her as Pixie Cut announced the next performer. Jessica listened half-heartedly to the spoken word poet on stage and watched Braden’s circuit around the room. A stop to talk quietly with a table, a pause at the counter to place an order, a quick detour by the cream and sugar, and then finally, finally, finally.

“That, my friend, was...well...I am speechless. I hope you remember us normals when you’re famous.”

Braden grinned and shook his head. “I don’t know about famous, but it did feel good. You can tell, you know? When it’s all going right and hitting the marks. Thank you.”

He set his instrument case gently on the floor, put his coffee on the low table, and sat at the other end of the couch, shifting his body slightly, so we were angled toward each other. He glanced around.

“Did you come by yourself?”

“Don’t sound so surprised,” I said. “Last I checked, it was pretty normal to visit a coffee shop alone.”

“Well, yeah. But I’ve never seen you go anywhere alone.”

I took a sip of my coffee to hide my blush.

“I can be alone.”

Braden raised one eyebrow.

“Look, tonight is not about me,” I said, waving my hand in the air. “Whether or not I happen to be a social creature is not the point.”

“I stand corrected. And thanks, by the way. For coming. It means a lot.”

“Wouldn’t have missed it.”

We both turned our gaze toward the stage, and the silence stretched, more awkward than I’d have liked, less awkward than it could have been because at least we could pretend we were listening to the performer on stage. To be fair, I think Braden was genuinely listening to the performer on stage, and I was the only one with sweaty hands and a pounding heart. 

“Braden.”

He turned his head, expression expectant. 

The words stuck in my throat. Why was I being so dramatic?

“Would you…like to go out sometime?” 

Braden looked a little confused. “We’re out now, aren’t we?”

“No, I mean...like...on a...on a date. Do you want to go on a date with me?”

I’d done it. And I hadn’t died. But I felt close.

Braden’s face lost all expression, and he just stared at me. Every part of me wanted to jump up and run away, but I sat through an entire verse and chorus from the Dolly Parton wannabe on stage. I started sweating. Why didn’t he just say no? I opened my mouth to tell him just to forget it when a couple of classmates appeared. Braden invited them to pull up a couple of chairs and sit down -- he even got up and found a chair himself. Pain blossomed in my chest. Braden may not have shot me down in so many words, but how else was I supposed to interpret his actions? I stuffed my pain down into the special deep cave of my soul reserved for emotions I never wanted to revisit and managed to talk and laugh and act as if nothing had ever happened. Like there wasn’t a huge, gaping hole where my heart should be. 

A careful observer might have thought that Braden seemed more subdued and distracted than normal, but it was also easy enough to write that off as his natural reservedness. I stayed long enough to discuss a recent movie, an upcoming exam, and a new restaurant by the main campus before I made my excuses and left. I knew my bright smile probably did not reach my eyes, but the lighting was dim, so maybe no one noticed. I stayed as long as I could, but I could feel my facade beginning to crack. As I stood up to leave, my eyes connected briefly with Braden’s. I wanted his eyes to ask me to stay, to soothe my heart, but all I saw was uncertainty and confusion. I would have run out the door if it hadn’t looked weird. All I wanted was my bed, a dark room, and some Office reruns, but when I got in my car, I was almost too jittery to drive. I connected my phone to the Bluetooth and called the person most likely to calm me down. Also, the one person who knew about my feelings for Braden.

“Hello”

“Hey, Gran. Did I wake you?”

“No, honey, not at all.”

Already my grandmother’s voice was working. My hands were no longer trying to crush my steering wheel, and my shoulders eased from their position by my ears. 

“What are you guys up to?” I asked, pulling out onto the road.

“We actually just finished watching the last episode of Broadchurch, so you called at just the right time.”

“Never heard of that one.”

“It’s a British detective series.”

I laughed. “So does George get to pick the next show you binge together.”

I hadn’t known Gran’s husband too long, but I would have bet good money that British mysteries were not his first choice of entertainment.

“I’ll have you know that Geroge very much enjoyed this series,” Gran said, her voice attempting indignant but sliding into laughter. “But yes, he does get to pick next.”

I asked Gran about the show, then about her dog Billy, and George’s upcoming vacation to California and the Pacific Northwest. Basically, I asked her as many questions as possible to keep her talking as long as I could. Gran was talking about shoe shopping when I walked into the still empty apartment and kicked my own shoes off by the door. I went straight back to my room, shed my jacket, and flopped down on the bed, the soft, downy embrace knocking the wind out of me, absorbing my frantic energy and leaving me with my feelings sitting right on the surface, refusing to stay buried or contained. Tears sprung to my eyes, and I struggled to focus on Gran’s words.

“...at this point, I’m just trying to decide if I should spring for a new pair of shoes. I have a cute pair of walking shoes, but I’ve had them forever. They might not be up for several miles a day.”

Jessica cleared her throat, working to make her voice sound normal.

“Always go for the new shoes, gran,” I said. “You taught me that.”

Gran was silent for a few beats. I heard a rustling and murmured voices, then Gran’s clear voice again.

“Sweetheart,” she said. “Is everything ok?”

“Ummm…” my voice wobbled, and tears slid down my face and into my ears. I really hated crying. 

“Remember that guy I told you about? The one who wasn’t taking my hints?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Well...I...asked him out tonight.”

“I’m guessing it didn’t go like you hoped?”

“No,” my voice wobbled. “Very much no.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

It was one of the things I loved most about my grandmother. While my mom would have immediately begun trying to offer advice and fix the problem, Gran always gave me space. She was there when I needed anything and offered advice if I asked, but she never pushed.” Not really. I mostly called because I was trying to distract myself on the drive home. But I”m home now, so I won’t keep you.”

“Of course. Well, you know where to find me if you need me.”

“Thanks, Gran.”

“I’m really sorry, sweetie. I know how hard it is to put yourself out there.”

“Yeah,” my voice cracked. 

“Call anytime. And come over if you want. We have a guest bed, and Geroge makes really great breakfasts.”

I smiled. “Thanks.”

They said goodbye and hung up. I rested my phone and hands-on my breastbone, eyes fixed on the ceiling, unable to move. It was a tempting offer -- running off to be fussed over, eat comfort food, avoid the world for a couple of days. But I knew that delaying the inevitable wouldn’t help in the long run. I lay there listening to the faint sounds coming through the thin apartment walls, the evening replaying in my mind in a loop of regret and torture.

Forget mature.

I got out of bed and grabbed the backpack off the floor, dumped the books inside onto the bed, and started refilling it with pajamas, a clean shirt, and clean undies. I walked into the bathroom and grabbed my toothbrush and toothpaste, hesitating over the jars and tubes lining the bathroom counter before deciding that Gran had all that stuff, and I didn’t have enough energy for real packing. I clicked off the bathroom light and grabbed my jacket off the floor.

In the living room, I slipped my sneakers back on and paused long enough to text Emma:

“Going to Grans tonight. See U tomorrow.”

Emma must have been on break or rolling silverware because the answering ping was almost instantaneous.

“Coffee not go well?”

“No”

“r u running from feelings again?”

“Yes.”

I shoved the phone in my pocket, grabbed my keys, slung my backpack over my shoulder, and left. 

In the car, my phone pinged again. Emma had sent me a GIF of a small child rolling his eyes. I laughed, then realized that I should probably tell Gran I’d changed my mind.

“On second thought, I’m coming over. Thx.”

Gran and George were both still up when I arrived, and after a long hug and few silent tears, I asked Gran if she was up for a few episodes of our favorite sit-com before bed. I desperately needed to distract myself if I had any chance of sleeping.

“You ladies want some popcorn?” George asked from the kitchen.

“Do you even need to ask?” Gran replied. She turned to me “Tea or cocoa?”

“Cocoa.”

I went back to the spare room and traded my jeans for sweats, washed my face, and grabbed my favorite fuzzy blanket from the closet. When I returned to the living room, George was setting a tray on the coffee table that held steaming mugs of cocoa and a giant bowl of buttered popcorn. 

“George, you’re the best. If it doesn’t work out with Gran, feel free to move into my apartment.”

He smiled what I called his Hollywood smile.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” he said with a wink. “In the meantime, I think I’ll call it a night.”

Gran rolled her eyes at him but then stood up to give him a goodnight kiss that frankly made me a little jealous.

“All right, you two,” I said. “Show a little sensitivity for the girl with a broken heart.”

They broke apart, smiling, and George headed down the hall while Gran settled next to me on the couch. 

“So,” she said, reaching forward to grab the TV remote in one hand and her mug in the other. “Want to talk yet?”

“Nope.”

“Fair enough. Laugh track it is.”

The perfectly buttered, fluffy popcorn, Gran’s stovetop hot cocoa, and a dose of funny were the perfect emotional numbing agent and proved better than a sedative. I slid into sleep and didn’t wake up until after the sun was up. 

While I burrowed under the fuzzy blanket and wondered how long I could hide in bed, I heard muffled laughter and a faint whirring sound. The aroma of freshly ground coffee wafted under my door, and I was out of bed, following my nose. 

I shuffled into the kitchen to see Gran pulling three mugs out of her cabinet while George whisked batter in a big ceramic bowl. I slid onto a bar stool.

“‘Morning.”

“Good morning, sunshine.”

As I waited for the coffee to finish brewing, I watched George line up three smaller bowls along the counter. Into one, he put a handful of blueberries, the next raisins, and pecans, and in the final bowl went crumbled bacon and shredded cheddar cheese. Into each bowl went a few ladles full of batter, and after a final stir, he made a sweeping gesture along the display.

“The Bowen kitchen offers a variety of waffles,” he said. “Take your pick.”

“Well, the correct answer is obviously one of each,” I replied. 

“Obviously. Same for you, Rose?”

Gran turned from where she was pouring steaming coffee into three mugs. “Yes, please.”

She pulled a carton of cream from the refrigerator, setting it in front of me along with a bowl of sugar and my favorite coffee mug that declared “Coffee. Because you can sleep when you’re dead.” I thanked her, doctored my brew, and took a sip, releasing a sigh that originated from the tips of my toes. 

George began making waffles, and Gran turned on some music before settling onto her own stool with a book and her mug. I watched George’s efficient yet unhurried movements and breathed in the scents of butter and caramelizing fruit and bacon, humming along to the song playing in the background. I turned to Gran.

“John Mayer?”

She glanced up from her book. “Don’t you like it?” she asked, a twinkle in her eye. She knew that’s not what I meant.

“Well, yes, Gran, but I didn’t know you liked him. It seems...a little out of your wheelhouse.”

Before Gran could respond, there was a knock on the door.

Without thinking, I stood up, walked to the front door, and opened it. When my favorite mug hit the floor, my first thought was, thank goodness it landed on the doormat and didn’t shatter. My second thought was relief that it had been empty. My third thought got stuck somewhere between horror and anger and an overwhelming desire to run back to bed and never come out.

“Chloe said you’d be here. Don’t be mad at her. I’ve been sitting outside your apartment door all night. I told Chloe I wouldn’t leave until she gave me the address.”

Braden’s unkempt hair and bloodshot eyes certainly looked like that of someone who had spent a restless and possibly tortured night. The shoulders in his very rumpled shirt were slumped, and even the dark stubble on his face looked exhausted. 

“Please,” his voice was quiet. “Can we talk?”

“I don’t think so.”

I started to close the door, but Braden’s hand reached out to block it.

“Please, Jessica.”

The crack in his voice softened my resolve, and a piece of my bruised heart still fluttered. A part of me desperately wanted to throw myself in his arms, but another piece of me wanted to slam the door on his hand repeatedly. Instead, I bent over to pick up my mug, turned, and walked back to the kitchen, leaving the door open but extending no invitation.

I walked to the coffee pot, refilled my mug, my hands surprisingly steady, and went back to my stool. “Is that mine?” I asked George, gesturing to the plate stacked with one of each kind of waffle.

“Um, yeah,” George glanced behind my shoulder, at Gran, and then back at me. I silently slid the plate toward me and poured syrup over the top. I could see Gran and George exchange another glance, George shrugging his shoulders before saying, “I need to check on the waffles.”

With one last glance at me, Gran turned around and called toward the door. “Come on in.”

The door closed softly.

“Rosalee Bowen,” Gran introduced herself with a smile as Braden walked into the kitchen. “And that’s George.”

“Braden Jones.”

“Are you hungry?” George asked, gesturing at the spread in front of him.

“He’s fine,” I said around a mouth full of food.

“I’m fine,” Braden repeated softly.

“Hmm…” Gran walked over to the coffee pot and poured a fresh cup, glanced at Braden then added a spoonful of sugar before handing it to him. 

“Thanks.” he took a sip, and his eyebrows shot up. “Just right.”

“It’s her gift,” George said with a grin. “My favorite party trick.”

I glared at both Gran and George but continued to ignore Braden and focusing on shoveling waffles into my mouth. Mostly to avoid speaking, but they really were delicious. I almost felt bad not letting Braden have any.

“Jessica, why don’t you and Braden go out to the patio.”

It was a good idea. As much as I wanted to make Braden feel as uncomfortable as possible, it wasn’t fair to Gran and George. Silently, I stood up, grabbed my half-empty plate and coffee mug, and walked toward the French doors. It occurred to me too late that my full hands forced me to wait on Braden to open the door, which he did a moment later. Still silent, I sat at the table and continued to ignore my pounding heart and the man now sitting across from me.

“Jessica,” Braden’s voice was quiet, tinged with a note of pleading. “Jessica, I am so sorry. You have to understand that you took me completely by surprise. I didn’t...I didn’t know what to say.”

“A simple yes or no would have sufficed.” I was proud of how icy cold my voice was.

“No, see, that’s it.” He shifted, leaning toward me, hands pressed into the top of the table. “When I say you took me by surprise, I mean my brain was still processing what you’d just said when Megan and Jaxon walked up. I...admit, I got distracted and couldn’t think. And then you just left.”

I stabbed my waffle, a little ashamed at the pleasure I got at seeing Braden jump at the aggressive movement.

“It didn’t occur to you that maybe I’d take your silence as rejection? And not even a nice rejection! A brush off, for crying out loud!” Stab, stab. “I pour out my heart, and you don’t even acknowledge it!” 

“Pour your heart out? I mean, you asked me out, but…” he trailed off at what I assume was the literal steam coming out of my ears. “You’re right, you’re right. Asking someone out is a big deal. It’s hard…”

“Well, thank you for your validation,” my voice dripped with sarcasm.

Braden sighed. “This is not...I didn’t come here to fight with you. Hold on.”

He got up and walked inside, returning in a moment with a guitar case.

I froze. This was unexpected. He pulled out his guitar and briefly adjusted the tuning pegs before beginning to strum. I pressed a shaky hand to my stomach, immediately regretting the amount of waffles and syrup I’d consumed. 

“Your smile, like the summer sun

Your laugh, I can’t get enough of

Your eyes, like a mystery

Why would they see me?

Full of joy, full of life

Everything’s a wonder

Why would you see me?

Just like the stars at night

You shine and sparkle

So full of light

Your beauty makes me catch my breath.

Why would you see me?

Have I thought of holding your hand?

Have I dreamed of holding you close?

Have I ached to kiss your smile?

Have I longed to be the one you choose?

But I never thought you’d see me.

Why would you ever see me?”

Well. I mean.

The final note still hung in the air between us when I reached across the table and grabbed his face, pulling it close to mine.

“You apologize really well,” I whispered before kissing him.

He wrote a song about that too.

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