“Oh?” I say, still stunned. Graham is standing in my living room.

“I fell asleep next to her. That’s all. I don’t know why she took that picture. I don’t know why she sent it to him. But it’s nothing. And I will not lose you over it.”

I take a huge, shuddering breath, as though I haven’t been able to breathe fully in two days. Maybe I haven’t. He’s getting blurry from my tears. I blink them away.

“I’m sorry,” he says, one hand sliding to the small of my back while the other moves to cradle my face. He kisses me, lightly. “I’m sorry.” The second kiss is deeper, longer. I lean into him, on my toes as he pulls me closer. “I’m sorry,” he whispers, and I shake my head, my arms knotting behind his neck, pulling him to me. His tongue sweeps through my mouth as I hum my surrender.

“Oh!” my stepmother exclaims from the kitchen door.

Chloe. Ruins. Everything.

“So sorry! Um. Coffee in the kitchen. If you want it.” She scurries away. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her scurry before. I laugh, muffling the sound by leaning into Graham’s chest. He’s laughing quietly, too.

“That must have been a pretty good kiss,” he says. I look up into his dark eyes. One eyebrow angled up, he’s every inch a very self-satisfied boy.

“You don’t know if it was?”

He leans closer, his breath in my ear. “Oh, I know it was, all right. Let me prove it to you.”

“Huh,” I say.


He chuckles, the tip of his tongue touching the skin behind my ear. When I shiver and melt into him, his arms surround me, pulling me in tight before he claims my mouth again.

Me: Change in plans…graham is here.

Em: Brooke—>bed—>photo—>not speaking to him???

Me: Misunderstanding

Em: What about joe? ARGH. Calling you when I get off.

With a sigh, I cram the phone into my front pocket and reach for Graham’s hand as we stroll the last half-block to the park.

“She’s not happy, huh? If you want to go without me tonight—”

“No, I’m not going without you.” I stop walking and pull my hand from his, crossing my arms over my chest and scowling at him.

He turns back, his eyes that rich caramel they become in the sunlight. God, he’s beautiful. But I wish he’d stop being so… complacent. Taking in my posture, he grins towards his feet and releases a pent-up breath. His expression is hypnotic when he raises his eyes to mine. “Emma.” He steps close, tracing his fingers from my shoulders to my elbows. “Are you upset that I’m not more… possessive?”

“What? No—that’s the last thing I’d want.” My arms loosen. The memory of Meredith and Robby last fall makes me shudder. When I talked to her a couple of weeks ago, things weren’t going well. The enraged phone calls and accusations had started up again, and her emotions were a mess. I can only hope that Robby’s angry verbal outbursts never become physical.


I roll my eyes a little—Graham’s notion of possessive would probably consist of a sharp glare and terse answers. “Well. Maybe not the last thing…”

He laughs. “Oh yeah? What would be last?”

I chew my lip, not meeting his eyes, until he tips my chin up. He’s wearing a cocky grin that I’m about to make cockier. “Disinterest. Goodbye.” I shrug. “Those would be last.”

Instead of a smug look, he shakes his head and slides his arms around me, resting his forehead against mine. My hands come to rest on his chest. “Never, Emma.”


“I forgot to ask—when did you get here, and how long can you stay, and are you staying with me?” Her questions are rapid-fire, shading her cheeks a little pink.

We’ve been sitting on a park bench, people-watching. Emma’s neighborhood park boasts a man-made pond with a fountain in the center. It’s about half the size of Turtle Pond in Central Park, and it contains a collection of fat, lazy ducks. When small children toss bits of bread on the water, the ducks only gobble it up if it’s within a close enough range. Anything thrown outside of a four-foot sphere surrounding any duck just gets soggy and sinks.

“I landed in Sacramento late last night. I leave tomorrow at noon—which gets me to JFK around eight New York time. And I’m staying in a hotel downtown.”

Her eyes follow an elderly couple who amble by on the paved sidewalk, holding hands. “Why didn’t you call when you got in town last night?” I give her a hooded look and wait for her to remember her powered-down phone. “Oh. Right. But you can’t stay later tomorrow, or another night?”

Chuckling at a small boy whose goal appears to be nailing the ducks in the head with hunks of bagel, I allow myself a private smile at the barely-discernible sulk in her tone.

“Cassie has to take Caleb for a checkup, and everyone else is working Monday, so I’ll have Cara. And I promised her a trip to the zoo since I’ve been gone or studying so much lately.”

“Oh, of course.” I watch her face as she pretends to watch the ducks and roller-bladers while she contemplates my responsibility to my daughter. I sense, too, the other question she isn’t asking.

“I’d love for you to stay with me tonight,” I say, and her eyes shift up to mine. “But I’d rather have your dad like me.”

“He does.”

“I’d rather him to continue to like me.”

Emma stares at the ducks again, which have all paddled just out of bagel-hurling range. “I talked to him about getting an apartment instead of a dorm.” The wind kicks up and sends a strand of hair across her face, and I automatically reach to tuck it back behind her ear. She turns to me, her forehead creased, her eyes searching mine. “I know you think living in a dorm would be more normal-girl or whatever, but I want an apartment. I’ve wanted a cat ever since Chloe made me give Hector up, and no dorm will allow that. And I want the plants Chloe said would suck up all the oxygen.”

I narrow my eyes, sure she’s making that up. “She did not.”

She nods, laughing. “She did. She also said they would ruin the floor, which might be true, but I don’t care. I want to try to grow things. I want to cook. And make non-flavored coffee. And leave my shoes in the living room, and bowls in the sink. And never, ever, ever use Pine Sol.”

I pull another strand of hair from her face. Her skin is soft, and she’s so beautiful. My fingers are restless, pushing into her hair, stroking behind her ear. “And Graham, I told him I wanted more privacy than I’d get in a dorm… because of you.”

My hand freezes. Her father hadn’t punched me in the face or tried to kill me this morning when I showed up at his door, unannounced. He hadn’t even been rude. My thumb strokes across her lower lip. “What I said before about moving into a dorm, I said because I don’t want to be one more person who hinders you living your life as it should be. I want you to be free to make the choices that are best for you, without regard to me.”

Her small hands close over my forearm, and she leans her face into my palm. “Then you have to trust me to make those decisions. Even if some of them have everything to do with you.” When she speaks, the vibrations of her voice travel through my hand. “Just because I consider you when I’m deciding doesn’t make it any less my choice.”

I close my eyes. I don’t deserve this, I don’t deserve her, and yet here she is.

She kisses me once—a swift, shy brush of her lips. “I’d like to come have breakfast with you tomorrow, before you fly home, if that’s okay.”


“And tonight, you’ll meet my best friend, and she will love you, or she will rue the day.”

I laugh softly and she does, too. “I guess I’d better make sure she loves me, then. I don’t want to be responsible for you losing your best friend.”

When Emily calls, Emma walks into the hall with her cell, leaving me sitting on her bed perusing old photo albums her mom put together before she died. Emma’s side of the hallway conversation is still perfectly audible, even if executed almost completely in coarsely hissed tones.

“No, you can’t bring Joe for comparison.”

“I know, and I’m sorry.”

“Emily, I turned my phone off. He had no other choice—”

“No, you don’t get a vote.”

“He’s nothing like him at all.”

“Okay. See you in an hour.”

She walks back into the room, her mouth screwed into a grimace. “You could probably hear all of that, huh?”

I subdue a grin and pat the space next to me. “Come here.”

Her eyes shadowed with worry, she tosses her phone on the bedside table and comes to stand next to me. I pull her onto the bed and kiss her until she relaxes into me. “Stop worrying. It will all work out.”

A slight pucker remains on her forehead. “How?”

“To be determined. But it will.” Picking up the photo album, I point to a series of photos she’d told me about—the ones taken in Griffith Park. “You look like your mom.”

“Except for her eyes.” She leans her head back against my shoulder. “Mom’s eyes were very dark brown, like yours. Mine are like my dad’s.”

I use this excuse to examine her eyes again. If I was painting them, I would use a base of stormy gray, with flecks of green layered on top, and miniscule slivers of gold. “I remember thinking that when we met in the café—how you look nothing like him, except for your eyes. I’ve never met anyone with eyes like yours, and they’re the exact likeness of his—the beautiful color, the slightly tilted shape. Based on eyes alone, anyone would know you’re his.”

“Cara has your eyes.”

I nod. “She does.”

“And her mother’s hair?” I nod again, watching her confusion build. “But she’s never met Cara, or called, or requested a picture, anything?”

I shake my head.

“Is Cara okay with that? Does she ask about her mother?”

“She’s fine. She’s great, in fact. Mom, Cassie and Brynn more than fill that vacancy.”

Emma stares at the photos of the mother she lost at six. “That’s good. I’m glad.” I watch her face from above, the way her cheeks raise a fraction with her smile. “My grandma and Emily’s mom did an okay job filling in, I think. Teaching me how to be a girl.”

My fingers trail down the side of her face. “They did an incredible job.” I tilt her chin up and bend my face to hers, silently praising every woman who’s had a hand in making her who she is. Even Chloe… though I’ll never tell Emma that. A truth learned from four years of literary study: nothing beats an antagonist for character-building.

Emily is so directly opposite of Emma in looks that I have to give myself a mental shake. Pink hair. Combat boots. Darkly-lined eyes. Emo girl with an anime bent. And a preppy boyfriend?

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