If you would rather read on your e-reader, you can follow this link and download a .mobi or epub file after signing up for my newsletter. Thanks! Enjoy!
Stephanie shuffled into her dorm room, dropped her backpack on the floor, walked out of her flip-flops and sunk into her tattered old couch.
Spring break could not come soon enough. Not to mention the end of the term.
Graphs and diagrams floated through the air around her head—over every person’s head she’d seen holding a phone for months. What were they looking at? Was it an advertisement? Was it effective?
She blew out an over-exaggerated breath.
Only three more weeks.
“Knock, knock.” Stephanie’s RA, Katie poked her head around the door. “Mind if I come in?”
“You will anyway,” Stephanie mumbled then gritted her teeth. She already knew why Katie came over. What the hell business was it of hers or anyone’s if she preferred the quiet of her dorm room over… anywhere else?
“I didn’t see you at the floor party,” Katie said and sat on the couch beside her.
“Yeah. It’s because I wasn’t there.”
Katie’s shoulders sunk. She tilted her head. Her long, loose blond curls fell over her shoulder, her blue eyes filling with pity.
It wasn’t that Stephanie didn’t like her. She was easy enough to get along with and she probably genuinely cared. If it weren’t for how hard she tried to “help” they might have been friends.
“That’s six semesters in a row. Have you even said hello to anyone else on our floor?”
“Of course. I’m a hermit, not an asshole.”
Katie tossed a thumb over her shoulder, toward the door and the hallway beyond. “I’m not sure that’s how they see it.”
“I couldn’t give two shits how they see it.”
“You’re not making the best case for yourself.”
“I’m sorry. I’m exhausted.” Stephanie dragged her palms down her cheeks. “Listen, I’m happy to have this conversation with you but not now.” She turned pleading eyes to Katie. “Please?”
Katie stood. “Of course.”
Stephanie followed her to the door. Opened it for her.
“It’s just…” Katie began standing firmly on the threshold so Stephanie couldn’t shut the door. “You’re missing so much of the college experience.”
“I came here for a degree. That’s all the experience I need.”
“But the bonds you form here will last a lifetime. The connections you make—”
“I know. I went to orientation like everyone else.” Stephanie gently nudged Katie’s elbow pushing her over the threshold into the hall. “Thanks for caring, Katie. Good night.”
Stephanie closed the door leaving words unheard on Katie’s lips.
She breathed in—filling herself with silence—puffed it out again.
“I deserve pizza.”
Crouching, Stephanie fished her phone from the front pocket of her backpack. She scrolled through her contacts until she found “Pizza,” then paused with her finger over the call button.
Her go-to comfort food. Pizza never failed to bring her out of a funk. This wasn’t a funk though. It was exhaustion from the monotony.
She needed to break it.
Since she didn’t have control over any of the other monotonous things in her life, she backed out of her contact list and went to her desk.
The last time her parent’s visited, her mom slipped a few menus from local restaurants into the drawer. Her way of suggesting Stephanie try new things. She’d have loved Katie for trying to push her out of her room and into the world.
Stephanie spread the stack of menus across her desk. Chinese. Thai. Italian. Subs. Burgers.
As much as she wanted to break the monotony, she was in no state of mind to make a decision. Instead, she closed her eyes, slapped her hand down on the desk and pulled up the first menu her fingers found.
“Thai it is.”
After picking out what she wanted to order, Stephanie flipped the menu over. Then she punched the number into her phone and hit send.
It rang three times before someone picked up.
Stephanie sat forward on the couch ready to make her order. Instead of being greeted by a friendly employee, hollow, vulgar sighs and grunts filled her ears.
She should have hung up. Arguing with someone like this made no sense but sense had apparently abandoned her. “Excuse me for dialing the wrong number. No need to be a dick about it,” she said.
The room tone on the line attenuated.
Had she been on speakerphone?
A single voice replied, “Sorry. That was… I didn’t… Sorry.”
The unease of being confronted by an orgy when she expected to be asked for her take-out order faded with the smooth baritone singing—albeit poorly—his apology in her ear.
The warmth of his tone spread across her chest. Changed her tone. “Yeah. Well… Just be glad I’m not one to hold a grudge.”
“Very glad. And seriously, so sorry. I’ve been getting cold calls all day. My friends—”
“Don’t worry about it.” Why did she cut him off? Why didn’t she let him ramble on? Let his voice pour into her ear. Smooth. Warm.
“Right,” he said. “Have a good night then?”
“Sure. You too.”
The call ended.
Stephanie stared at the wrong number still spelled across her screen, scolding herself, “and that’s what you get for trying something new.”
Roland hung up on the traumatized girl and tossed his phone on the coffee table. His four friends, two on either side of him, rolled with laughter.
“I hate all of you,” Roland grumbled sinking further into the leather sofa.
The girl on the other line had sounded sweet. Even when she’d chewed him out. If he had answered that call any other way he might have ended up making a connection. With someone outside his circle for once.
After what he’d just done? He’d never hear from her again.
“Oh, come on,” Peter said, his dark brown eyes thrilled and shining. “That was amazing. Even better it ended up being a real person.”
The other three nodded their agreement.
Wow… What great friends.
If he’d ever had a choice, they probably never would have been friends. Except maybe Terrence, Peter’s older brother. At least he looked a little guilty, rubbing his hand over his near stubble short hair barely darker than his skin. Though not much, he had protested for a second before going along with the idea in the first place.
The only things that really kept the five of them together were their parents and the business connections formed with them through Roland’s father. “Happy kids, happy clients,” his dad always said. And it didn’t hurt, that once they’d all had a few drinks, they tended to spill their guts about their parents. Useful, especially if their parents had expressed any dissatisfaction with his father’s business.
He hated the job but it was the only one his father had confidence in him doing.
The man would be retiring in a couple of years. Had the intentions of handing the business to Roland but wouldn’t actually let him take over. For whatever reason, his father had gotten it in his head, that the only thing Roland was good for was being seen with the right people; maintaining connections.
He was sick of it.
Roland had everything he could ever need or want; a luxury downtown apartment, a collection of Porches on rotation, and the money to go on any vacation he chose, even though he never had time to go. Like having the time would have mattered. Even if he had the time, he’d never be allowed to go alone.
When his friends weren’t dragging him off to one social event or another, they insisted on crashing at his place. Taking away any chance of escape. They’d never let him go without them.
“Hey,” Yvonne said, sitting forward, “only a few weeks until spring break. You guys ready?”
Terrence huffed. “Break from what? Shopping? To do more shopping?”
Yvonne stuck her tongue out at him.
“I can’t wait,” Cece said. “My mother has been nagging me for weeks about meeting some son of a friend of hers that’s moving here this summer… I mean… I’m probably not going to get out of it but I need a break from her constantly talking about him.”
“What does he look like?” Yvonne asked.
Cece rolled her eyes. “Mom won’t show me pictures. She hasn’t even given me a name. Says she doesn’t want me to judge him before I meet him. Can you believe that old-world bullshit?”
Yvonne cringed sucking air through her teeth. “Probably because he’s not much to look at. Good luck with that.”
“This is all fascinating,” Roland said. “But it’s getting late and—”
“Late?” Peter scoffed. “It’s not even dark. We should go to The Triple Threat. I hear they’ve got a new DJ. She’s supposed to be amazing.”
The others were already on their feet when Roland said, “You guys go ahead. I’m not up for it.” At the rate he was going, embarrassment would be the only thing he’d find at the club.
“Come on, ya poop,” Cece said and pulled on his arm. “You’ll forget all about that silly call as soon as your ears start bleeding from that awful house music Peter loves so much.”
“Hey! I heard that,” Peter protested.
A breathy laugh eased from Roland’s nose.
“Come with us,” Terrence said.
Outnumbered and too tired to argue, Roland gave in and followed them out. Putting an end, again to him ever finding some time to himself.
Stephanie sat hunched over her desk mulling over facts and figures about online traffic driven by ads featuring cats for an upcoming test, when someone knocked on her door. She rolled her head back hoping it wasn’t Katie coming over to finish last night’s conversation about her needing to socialize.
They knocked again. With more force.
Not Katie then.
She opened the door expecting to see one of her floormates come to ask her if they could borrow something. If popularity or social status had been measured by the number of times you were called on when a floormate needed a laundry pod or dryer sheet, Stephanie would have won every time. Maybe she would bring it up next time Katie pestered her.
But when she opened the door, she found no floormates. Instead, she faced an entirely different kind of mooch.
“Go away, Gabe,” she said pushing the door shut again.
He stuck his foot in the crack and pushed back. “Steph.”
“I’m not kidding.” She struggled against the door. “Go away.”
Gabe gave a firm shove. Stephanie stumbled back pulling the door open.
“There, now. Was that so hard?” Gabe asked waltzing in as though she’d welcomed him.
“Get the fuck out, Gabe.”
Gabe clicked his tongue. “Tsk, tsk. Is that any way to treat your beloved boyfriend?”
“You’re not my boyfriend anymore. Now, go. Or I’m calling campus security.” She eyed her phone on the table. Too far away to reach while holding the door open.
He picked up her phone and shoved it in the back pocket of his jeans. “You want it? Come get it.”
What kind of idiot had she been to ever think this guy was worth her time? And for years?
She had hoped, once the classes for their respective majors split, him going for business administration and her for marketing, and they no longer had classes together, he’d have forgotten about her and moved on.
No such luck.
At least once a month he found his way to her door. Acting like nothing had changed. Or trying to anyway, which was the problem. Maybe if he’d changed… If he wasn’t the controlling, manipulative prick he’d been…
No. She never wanted him back. They were done.
“Give me my phone,” she said as sternly as she could.
Gabe smirked. “Why? Not like you have anyone to talk to.”
He took the phone out of his pocket and held it against his forehead. “Let me guess.” He closed his dull gray eyes for a second. Opened them. “Yep. Just as I thought. No new contacts. Parents. Pizza, of course. Various services and…” He gasped overdramatically. “Would you look at that? Me.”
“You’re wrong,” she lied.
“Let’s find out shall we?” He paced to the window. Turned back laughing. “You haven’t even changed your passcode.”
She should have. But with so many other things she had to remember, and her thumbprint doing the work her brain couldn’t, it never occurred to her.
Stephanie’s heart sank with the everlasting silence in the hallway. If someone—anyone—had walked by she could have grabbed them to be her buffer. Being late afternoon, the floor was deserted. Why did she have to be the only person who saw the value in getting all of her classes out of the way first thing in the morning?
She needed her phone back. But was it worth abandoning her hold on the open door to attempt it?
He flicked his finger over the screen. Smug satisfaction curled his lips.
She opted for the illusion of safety and held tightly to the doorknob.
Not that she thought he’d hurt her, necessarily. The problem would be if he was still under some delusion they were still together, the word “no” might not have sunk in when it should have.
Gabe wandered toward her holding the phone in front of him. She reached for it. He pulled it away again.
“Gabe,” she growled.
“Three months and not one new contact?” He finally let her have the phone back.
“Actually, there is. I just haven’t programmed it in yet,” she said thinking about the hot vocals from the wrong number the night before. Technically, not a lie. He was a new contact. Someone she newly contacted.
“Who is he?” His voice dropped along with the corners of his mouth.
“None of your business.”
“Liar,” he said, his tone lighter on his upturned lips. “Prove it. Call him.”
She should have seen it coming.
“Why the hesitation? Surely he’ll be glad you called. That is… if he’s even real.”
Stephanie slowly scrolled through her recent contacts trying to find a way out of making the call.
She could have left. Just walked out the door. Maybe called campus security from the student union. But what would she have reported? A guy talked to her? He’d have been gone by the time they got there anyway and she’d probably have ended up in trouble for wasting their time with a false report or something.
Fire burned in her chest and head watching Gabe grow more confident with every second she didn’t hit the call button.
If it got Gabe off her back…
What’s the worst that could happen?
His father flipped the slide show back to the expense report for the third time when Roland’s pocket buzzed. After waving the phone at his dad, he ducked out the back door of the conference room.
Whomever it was, he’d have liked to have kissed them for getting him out of that meeting, sick to death of being nothing but a butt in a seat. Forced to be there but not allowed to participate. For the sake of learning, his dad claimed. At some point, his dad would have to let him in. To do real business. Until then, he’d be glad for the excuse to get out.
Roland glanced at the screen. Chuckled when he realized he didn’t recognize the number.
Wouldn’t it be funny if she got the wrong number again?
“This is Roland,” he finally answered in a level tone in case it ended up being a business contact.
His father liked to give out his number when he was only half interested in working with someone. A way of getting Roland involved without the risk of losing a contact he genuinely cared about.
After a moment, a half-familiar voice said, “Hi, Roland. Sweetheart. How’s it going?”
Heart pounding, Roland sifted through his hazy memory of the previous night. He’d danced with a few women but gone home alone.
Did I hand out my number?
“I’m sorry,” Roland said. “I think you have the wrong number.”
“Yes. Last night. It was hilarious,” she said clearly in his ear but the response sounded like it was meant for someone else.
“Have you gotten any more of those cold calls today?” she asked.
“Holy shit,” Roland said. “It’s you again?”
“You remember me telling you about Gabe, my ex?” She didn’t give him time to answer. Not that he could have. “He’s here. Giving me shit about not having met anyone new since I broke up with him. I told him about you and me but he doesn’t believe you exist.” Her voice wavered slightly.
“Are you all right?” Roland asked. “Are you safe? If you need—”
“No. Just need to prove a point. And it never hurts to hear your voice.” If he hadn’t known any better, he’d have thought she was serious about that last part.
A flame sparked in the pit of his stomach. The heat lightened his heart.
He was glad she called but not at all pleased with the reason. Who did this asshole think he was that he would challenge her this way? Put her in such an uncomfortable position?
Guilt pulled his heart back into his stomach. To his feet. How much more uncomfortable had he made her with that prank call?
Maybe he could make it up to her. Pay for how he bothered her with his prank by getting rid of what bothered her now.
“Put me on speakerphone,” he said.
In danger or not, she obviously wanted to get rid of the guy—Gabe. The only way was to remove any doubt he had about whether or not she and Roland were dating.
“Hmm?” she said, probably scared he’d mess it up. He wouldn’t have blamed her for thinking it.
“You called for help, right?”
“Let me help.”
“I would but I can’t remember her name.”
Right. He didn’t know her name. Damn if that wasn’t a clever way to remind him.
Another flame flickered proudly next to the first. Then exploded. Furious. How often had she had to fend off this ex to be so good at it?
Roland didn’t have to know her any more than he did to know she deserved better. If he ever met this Gabe guy, he’d punch him in the fucking nuts.
For now, Roland took a deep breath and said, “Trust me.”
“Sure. Just a second,” she said.
A second later, room tone buzzed in his ear before she introduced him to Gabe.
“What the fuck kind of name is Roland?” Gabe spouted.
It took a hard fist at Roland’s side—so hard his near non-existent fingernails dug into his palm—not to tell Gabe to fuck off and leave them both alone.
She dated this guy. Chose to spend time with him at some point. Poor woman.
After another deep breath, Roland said, “Hey, sweetheart. I’m not supposed to tell you this but my dad, the one who lovingly gave me my name, wants to give you a gift the next time he sees you. I won’t say what. But he asked me if you’d rather have your name engraved or just your initials. I wasn’t sure what to tell him.”
“Stephanie would be fine.”
Silence. A much heavier one than they had shared after she’d scolded him for moaning obscenities in her ear.
“I’ll let him know. It was nice meeting you, Gabe,” Roland lied.
“Bye, Roland,” Stephanie said when Gabe didn’t return his kindness.
“I’ll call you later,” Roland said. His way of letting her know he’d check back to make sure she was all right.
People filed out of the conference room while he stood cemented to the floor staring again at the wrong number on the screen.
“Bad news, son?” his father said putting a hand on Roland’s shoulder.
“No… At least… I hope not.” His stomach clenched extinguishing the fire that had roared there seconds ago. Leaving him with the dark empty space that could only be filled with knowing Stephanie was okay. Hoping their performance had been enough and Gabe had left her alone.
“Anything I can do to help?”
“Thanks, Dad. But I can handle it.”
His father nodded. Clapped him on the shoulder once before leaving.
“Oh,” he said and turned back a few steps later. “I forgot to ask. How are things going with Melbourne’s daughter? Cece, was it? Has she let anything slip about whether or not he’s thinking about meeting with us?”
“Well, see if you can’t lead the conversation a bit more. Maybe put a bug in her ear to pass on to him, hmm?”
“You sure you’re all right?” he asked again.
“Fine, dad. Just a little tired.”
After another clap on the shoulder, his dad left.
He meant well when it came to personal business but his dad’s idea of solving problems usually ended with him throwing money at them until they went away.
Gabe probably could have been bought but Roland thought it would be better to hold off on dishing out bribes until he talked to Stephanie again.
Because he would. The promise to call her back had not been a lie. And he considered when to make that call as he entered her contact information into his phone under the name Stephanie Sweetheart.
Thank you for reading the preview of my debut novel Fake to Fate coming out April 30, 2019! Pre-order link coming soon!
If you wish to receive an ARC (advance reader copy) for review, please contact me. I will have them ready to send out next week.