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Excerpt for The Choice by , available in its entirety at Smashwords









THE CHOICE









a romance novella









by Crystal Crawford













©2017 Crystal Crawford. All rights reserved.

Please do not copy, reprint, or otherwise reuse any portion of this work without express permission from the author.



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Crystal Crawford

(CCrawfordWriting)


Chapter 1



Becca



Becca dumped the contents of her backpack out on her bed. How did I get so much trash in here? she wondered. Little scraps of paper and empty gum wrappers mixed with her books and notebooks and pens. Becca sighed. She wasn't in the mood for cleaning. If she hadn't needed her backpack to carry clothes, she would have just left the trash in there. She considered leaving the mess on her bed for later, but she knew she’d regret that when she got back from her trip. The last thing she’d want to do after a girls ' weekend with her best friend was go through a pile of trash so she could have a bed to sleep in. She stared at the mess for a moment, then sighed again and began gathering up the bits of trash.

Oh well, she thought. At least I’ve grown past losing field trip permission forms. Becca had a habit of letting her backpack get messy. She had stayed behind from a field trip more than once because the permission slip was still crumpled in the bottom of her bag, unsigned, usually with slivers of broken crayons mashed into it. She had gotten a lot more responsible since then, but not much neater. She liked to think it was because she had a free-spirited, artistic mind, which was great for being fun and creative but not the best at staying organized. At least there’s no food in here this time, she thought. Once she’d lost a turkey sandwich in her backpack until it oozed rotten liquid all over her school supplies, and her mom had made her clean everything herself. It was not one of her fondest memories.

Becca looked at the mess on her bed and groaned. This was going too slowly. She walked across her room to retrieve a small trash can, then moved back to the bed and began shoving fistfuls of trash and unnecessary papers into the bin. Then she gathered up the books and notebooks from her classes and stacked them on the edge of her desk. She would not need them this weekend. This weekend was for fun. She glanced across her bed, picking up the few stray ink pens still left there and setting them on her desk. She brushed off her bed and smoothed the comforter out. There, she thought. Now for the important things. She walked to her closet and slid open the doors. It was time to choose her outfits.

Picking out clothes was Becca’s favorite part of getting ready for a trip, usually. But this time she wasn’t sure what to pack. Becca had been away at college for a few weeks in a big city about 100 miles from her home town. She had only been home once since college began – she had driven up a week before her classes started to get settled in, but immediately missed home and ended up driving back on her first free day to see her mom and surprise her best friend with a visit. But once classes really got going, Becca got busier. Time flew past, she made new friends and began spending time with classmates, and her texts to her family and friends became less frequent as she juggled everything. Now she felt disconnected from her hometown and sorely in need of a reset. Plus, Becca’s best friend had been asking for a girls' night for weeks. So when Becca’s only Monday class got cancelled, Becca jumped at the chance to take a go home for a long weekend. It was Thursday afternoon, and she had just finished her last class for the day, which meant she had the whole glorious weekend ahead of her. She would stop at home tonight to see her mom, and then spend Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in her best friend’s dorm at the local university before driving back on Monday to do her homework for the following week. Becca knew her friend probably had lots of things planned for their weekend, but she had no clue what they were. And that was the problem. How can you pick out outfits when you don’t know what you’ll be doing? She would have to text her friend and ask.

“Hey, Niss! I’m so excited about our girls’ weekend. What are the plans? I need to know whether to pack sweatpants or high heels. Love ya!”

Anissa generally responded to Becca’s messages quickly, but she might be in class or something, so Becca wasn’t sure how long she might have to wait.

Almost immediately, the phone dinged with a message. Becca picked it up. But it wasn’t Anissa. It was Doug. “Hey Becca. I miss you. Why aren’t you returning my calls?”

Becca sighed and closed the message. She felt bad for ignoring Doug, but she was in a bit of a bind with their situation. She and Doug had been casually dating for several weeks now, just hanging out, but a couple days ago, Doug had tried to take things to the next level. He had leaned over their cups of coffee on the table, told her he was falling for her, and kissed her.

It had been a nice kiss. Becca hadn’t pulled away. But she hadn’t leaned in, either. She just sat there, paralyzed, unsure how she felt about what was happening. After the kiss, she made small talk for a few minutes before murmuring something about homework and rushing away, leaving a confused Doug sitting alone at the table. Since that night, Doug had continued to try to reach out to Becca, sending her sweet messages and even flowers. But Becca wasn’t sure what she wanted. She liked Doug, but she wasn’t sure she could see a future with him, and she had never been the type to date just for fun. If it wasn’t going anywhere, then what was the point? Why waste the time and risk both people getting hurt? But that was part of the problem – Doug was already in too deep. If she broke it off with him, he would already get hurt, so she couldn’t do that unless she was sure, either. She had to be sure, 100% sure, that she either wanted a future with him or she didn’t. Then she could make her choice.

Becca tossed her phone on the bed. What is wrong with me? she thought. Doug was a great guy. An amazing, sweet, hot, smart guy. So why didn’t she feel as much for him as he felt for her? Maybe she could, in time. She just wasn’t sure, and making him wait was only making her feel guilty. Becca sighed again. This weekend was supposed to be stress-free, a weekend just for fun. She pushed thoughts of Doug's message from her mind; she could figure that situation out later. She walked to her small bathroom to gather her toiletries while she waited for a reply from Anissa.

Becca wasn’t planning on taking much with her. She and Anissa were comfortable enough with each other that Becca didn’t feel the need to worry about her hair or makeup. And who else would there be to impress? Becca wasn’t going on a trip to pick up boys, she was going to spend time with her best friend. She would take just the basics – a tinted moisturizer, some lip gloss and mascara. She grabbed a small makeup bag from her counter and shoved the items in, then grabbed her shampoo and toothbrush. When Becca returned to her bed with the items, her phone was blinking with a message notification.

“Hi, Becs! Change of plans – Brian insisted that we spend at least one night of our girls’ weekend with him (the jerk!). When he heard you were coming, he said it was his big-bro duty to check in on my best friend and see how she’s been doing in the big city. Do you mind if we crash at my parents’ house this weekend instead of in my dorm?”

Becca felt her skin flush. Brian wanted to see her? Brian was Anissa’s hot older brother, and Becca had always had a bit of a secret crush on him. Not that it mattered. He was her best friend’s brother, which made him off-limits. Plus she had known him nearly all her life – she and Anissa had been friends since the 3rd grade. She had always thought Brian was nice, but somewhere between middle school and high school, he had turned from nice to smokin’ hot. Becca had done her best not to notice, but it hadn’t been easy. Still, things had never been awkward between her and Brian. He had always treated her like a second sister. Becca had long-since forced down her own attraction to Brian, knowing “kid sister’s friend” was never going to be on his potential dating list. Even if there had been a chance Brian would ever be interested in Becca – which was next to impossible – there was still Anissa’s feelings to consider. Anissa probably wouldn't approve, and they both loved Anissa far too much to ever do anything to hurt her.

No, a relationship with Brian was never a true possibility. Becca had come to terms with that. But Brian specifically requesting to see her? That was new. She and Brian didn’t really talk, other than when they were both hanging out with Anissa. Why would he care so much how she was doing? Don’t read too much into it, Becca chided herself. Brian probably just wanted some family time with Anissa and was including Becca to be nice, since he knew she’d be in town. Yes, that was likely it. But Becca still couldn’t help but feel a small thrill of excitement creep into her chest, betraying a feeling she’d thought herself long past. She forced it down. Brian was off-limits, and besides, Becca still had the Doug situation to worry about. The strange feelings she was having over Brian were probably just a reaction to her stress over what to do about Doug.

Becca texted Anissa back. “Sure, no problem! Any plans? What should I pack?”

“Not a clue,” Anissa replied. “Left the plans open for whatever you want. But the parents just installed a pool, so bring a swimsuit!”

Becca felt a tremor of nervousness as she dug her bathing suit out of her dresser. She and Anissa swam with Brian plenty of times at the rec center as kids, but now the thought of him seeing her in a swimsuit felt… weird. Get a grip, Becca, she told herself. She grabbed her swimsuit and a dark t-shirt and some exercise shorts to wear over it, and stuffed them in her backpack. Then she turned back to her closet. A nebulous weekend with Anissa and Brian… Would they be hanging at the house watching movies? Going to the mall? Hiking in the woods? With Brian involved, there was no way of knowing. He was carefree and unpredictable. Becca grabbed jeans and sneakers, and shoved them in her bag. She added some pajama pants and a shirt and, of course, underwear and socks. She picked out a couple comfy shirts, and added them to the bag. She turned back to the closet, surveying her wardrobe, then grabbed a dress that flattered her figure and some heels. Just in case, she thought, a nervous feeling churning in her stomach. She headed to the bathroom to pack her makeup after all. Not for Brian, of course, but in case they ended up going somewhere fancy and she needed to look presentable. After all, it was best to be prepared.

An hour later, Becca was on the road. It took her about an hour-and-a-half to drive the distance back to her home town, and she spent it singing at the top of her voice to the radio turned up loud. But when she turned onto the familiar street into the entrance of her old neighborhood, she turned the radio down. There was something about home that made her want to come in softly, rather than crashing in among a cloud of chaotic noise.

Becca pulled into the driveway and parked, then just sat for a moment and looked at the house. It was an ordinary house, three bedrooms with a small, somewhat-unkempt yard. The white paint was peeling slightly around the brick-red door frame, and dust coated the window-ledges that spanned the front of the house. Small patches of brown splotched the grassy lawn and an old oak tree spread across one side, littering the yard with unraked leaves. A tan sedan sat under the covering of the carport in front of where Becca had parked, and decorative pots filled with long-dead plants lined the front porch . Becca stepped out of the car and stared, a strange weight settling into her chest. The house hadn’t changed a bit since she’d left, but somehow it still felt different, as though she were looking at it with new eyes. Would that mean her time with her mom would feel different, too? She would soon know – the front door was opening.

Becca’s mom stepped out, waving, with a huge smile on her face. A bandana held her hair back from her face, and she wore sweatpants and an old T-shirt. Her clothes and face were covered in splotches of red and purple. Is that paint? What was her mom up to now? Becca’s mom wasn’t a painter – usually – but she was always doing some kind of crazy project. Becca wondered what the newest was. Was she faux-painting the living room again? Painting a mural in the bathroom? There was no telling what today’s project was, and Becca would probably get roped into it. Becca felt a small frustration rise in her chest. She hadn’t come here to work on some crazy project; she’d wanted to relax and maybe even get some special treatment as the college girl returned home for a night. She hadn’t come here to be forced alongside one of her mom’s crazy schemes like she’d always been made to do in childhood. Yet somehow the frustration she felt gave Becca a little sense of comfort. At least some things still felt the same about being home. Becca waved and smiled back, then reached into the car to grab her backpack. She was home, but only for one night. And she was determined to make the most of it.

Becca heaved her over-stuffed backpack onto her shoulder and steadied herself for her mom’s traditional nearly-knock-you-over hug. But it didn’t come. Her mom simply walked up and stopped in front of Becca, her face split into a wide smile. “Come inside,” she said. “I have something to show you.” She turned and walked up the driveway and in the front door.

Becca hurried to follow, entering the house a few steps behind her mom. She closed the door behind her and turned to face her mom. “Now what was so –"

She stopped. Standing beside her mom was a tall man in his early forties, his dark brown hair gelled up in an all-too familiar way. Becca’s insides churned as she recognized the man standing before her.

Frank.

Chapter 2

Becca

“Sweetie, are you ready?”

“Just a minute, Mom!” Becca called back. She dug through her old dresser drawers, pulling out sweatpants and a baggy t-shirt that she’d forgotten she even had. Her hair, still wet from the shower, dripped water spots onto the clothes as she set them on the bed. Becca sighed. When she saw her mom covered in paint and realized there must be something happening in the house, she had not been prepared for this.

Really, she wasn’t sure how she felt about it at all. She felt angry, she knew that, but she wasn’t even sure at what. This whole thing had just come as quite the shock, and she was still trying to process it. She slipped on the sweatpants and shirt and walked to the bathroom to do something about her hair.

“Are you okay, honey?” Becca’s mom asked, her voice laced with concern. “You’ve been up there a long time, and we’ve got the movie all ready for you!”

We’ve got the movie ready. We. The word hit Becca hard. She grabbed her damp towel from the shower and began rubbing her wet hair between it to soak up the excess water.

There would be no more babying of Becca, no more Mom-and-Becca-only weekends… not now. Not ever again. Becca was okay with that part of it, really. She was growing up, after all, and she had always planned to move on to do her own thing after college. But – she wasn’t even through college yet. And coming home to find that her whole home-life had changed thrown her for a loop. She wasn’t even really angry that her mom hadn’t told her over the phone – this was the sort of thing that was probably better to tell in person, after all. Her mom wasn’t the one she was upset with. But still, it would have been nice to have had some warning.

“Becca?” This time her mom’s voice carried a twinge of impatience.

Becca sighed. “Coming,” she called out. She hung up the towel and looked in the mirror. Her hair dangled in limp, tangled strands, leaving wet marks across the shoulders of her shirt. She sighed again. It didn’t really matter. She wasn’t trying to impress anyone. She turned away from the mirror and headed out of the bathroom, back through her old bedroom, and out into the hallway. She started her way down the stairs.

As Becca made her way downstairs, she attempted to ready herself to face the situation. She knew that plenty of kids went away for college only to come home and find that their parents had remodeled and that their old bedroom was now a workout room or something. But Becca’s old bedroom was pristine, just as she left it. That wasn’t what had changed. The change in her home had been way bigger.

Becca stepped off the bottom stair and into the living room.

“There you are,” said Becca’s mom with a smile. She seemed relieved, as though the waiting had been uncomfortable. And there, next to her, was Frank.

Frank. Or, you know, Dad, if she were still on good enough terms to call him that.

“Becca-boo,” he said, stretching out his arms and stepping forward. “It’s so good to see you.”

Becca stood stiff, staring at him, but inside her brain and heart were tumbling. When she had found out he was here and that he and her mom were “back together,” she had stormed straight up to her room and slammed the door. After a few minutes, her mom had knocked on the door and said that they were going to watch a movie, and that she expected Becca to at least come out and say hi. Becca paced angrily for a while, and then decided to take a hot shower to calm down. So now, Becca was here, but she wasn’t happy about it.

Becca was angry, but the intensity of her anger confused her. Wasn’t this what she had wanted, for so many years? Hadn’t she cried and cried whenever her parents split up, and prayed every night for them to get back together? And hadn’t she been devastated when her dad had moved away for business and quickly became too busy to fly her out or even come to see her? Hadn’t she longed to have him back home? Becca wanted to be happy that he was here. But it felt like such a fragile thing, that happiness, like a paper-thin plane of glass, sure to be shattered by the slightest impact. This was the truth – Becca wanted her Dad back, but she didn’t trust him.

Frank had been standing with his arms outreached, waiting for Becca to walk into his embrace, but now he realized she wasn’t coming. He dropped his arms slowly. “It’s okay, Becs,” he said. “I understand.” He smiled, but Becca could see in his eyes that she had hurt him. Now she had regret and guilt added to the mix of what she was feeling, as if she weren’t already confused enough.

Becca’s mom looked back and forth between the two of them. “Maybe we should talk instead of watching a movie,” she said.

“No!” Becca shouted. She saw her dad jump. She hadn’t really meant to say it so loudly, but the thought of sitting down with her two parents for some kind of deep talk just seemed terrifying. She cleared her throat and forced a little smile. “Things are fine,” she said. “Let’s just watch the movie.” She walked past her dad and flopped down on the couch.

Halfway through the movie, Becca glanced over from her corner of the couch and saw her parents snuggled comfortably, her dad’s arm around her mom’s shoulders. She felt a pang of guilt. Maybe her dad really was trying, and her mom seemed happy. But to Becca, it was all too much too soon.

Becca stood up, and when her dad saw her, he paused the movie. “Is something wrong, Becs?” he asked.

“Yes,” Becca said. “Of course something is wrong.” She spun toward her mom, her voice climbing into panic. “You two are divorced! Divorced! Why are you acting like everything is fine? As if it wasn’t painful enough the first time, now you’re going to go and pretend nothing is wrong, until it all blows up again? Are you crazy? And you!” She jabbed a finger toward her dad, her words gaining momentum as they poured out. “You left! You haven’t been a part of our lives for anything except birthdays and an occasional phone call for years! And now you’re back, acting like we’re one big, happy family? For all we know, you could have a whole other family on the other side of the country. What will happen when it’s time for you to go back home, huh? What will happen to mom then? Do you know what leaving her again will do to her? To us?” She threw her arms up in the air, her face red with anger. “What is wrong with both of you? No.” She stopped, pointing one shaky finger back toward her father. “Not both of you. Just you. You are the problem here.”

“Becca!” Becca’s mom gasped. “Watch your tone, young lady. This is your father you’re talking to!”

“No,” Becca’s dad said. “It’s okay. I deserve her anger.” He stood up. “Becca,” he said gently. “You’re right to be angry with me. I hurt you – both of you. I wasn’t the father or the husband I should have been. I – ” His voice cracked slightly. “I am so sorry.”

Becca gaped at him, the fury draining out of her. She had said her piece, and now she just felt empty. She looked at her dad. His eyes seemed sincere.

He continued. “I don’t expect you to forgive me. I could spend the rest of my life trying to make up for what I did to you, and it still wouldn’t be enough. But, Becca, I want to try. I’m not the man I was. I’ve spent the last ten years hating myself for leaving but too scared to come back, but now – I’m home, and I’m here for good. I want to be the father you deserve, Becca, the one I never was. And I know you may never trust me again, but that’s okay. I just want the chance to be in your life again, in whatever way you’ll let me. I want the chance to show you how much I love you.”

Becca felt her eyes filling with tears and blinked them back. “Mom?” she asked weakly, turning to look at her mother.

“It’s true, Becca,” her mom said. “Your dad and I have actually been talking for over a year now, first occasionally and then more and more often. When I went out of town last spring for that business trip, he flew to meet me and we talked. We realized we still love each other, Becca, and we want to make things work. We’ve been long-distance dating for several months now, and your dad has been flying in on weekends the past couple of months to visit me.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Becca asked, feeling one of the tears slip through her defenses and down her cheek.

“I’m so sorry, Becca,” her mom said. “I wanted to. But at first I wasn’t sure it would work out, and I didn’t want you to get hurt again. We decided to wait until things were more stable between us before telling you. But the more time passed, the more it felt like this big secret that was too much to tell you over the phone. I’ve been waiting for you to come back home to visit so I could tell you. If you hadn’t planned the trip this weekend, I was planning to ask you to come home next weekend to see me, and I would have told you then.”

“And Frank? He flew in to be here for this?”

“Well, he didn’t really need to,” her mom said. “He lives here now.”

“What?” Becca asked. She blinked once, slowly.

“I moved back here over a month ago, Becs,” her dad said softly. “I wanted to tell you, but your Mom insisted we do it in person. She made me promise not to tell you before then.”

“So those last couple phone calls checking up on me long-distance… you were here, with mom, the whole time?” Becca turned to him, her heart racing.

“Yes,” her dad said, his eyes sad. “I’m so sorry. Your mom and I never meant for this to hurt you. We wanted it to be a good thing, a happy thing.”

Becca’s mom stood, and Frank put his arm around her shoulder. “We love each other,” he said, “and we love you. More than anything. We’ve both grown up a lot over the years, and we’ve learned what’s really important in life. This is permanent, Becca.”

Her mom nodded. “Sweetie, this is for real. We’re together again, and that’s the way it’s going to stay.”

Becca stared at them. They were serious. Her parents together again – it was a lot to process. And them keeping it a secret! It was all so weird, and definitely a shock. Yet, something deep inside her stirred, a yearning long-dead that was suddenly awakening. Her family, together again. For good. She felt a tear spill over and run down her cheek again, and then another.

“Becca,” her dad said, his eyes concerned. He reached an arm out toward her.

Becca put her hands over her face and began to cry.

She felt strong, warm arms fold around her, and the smell of her dad’s cologne enveloped her, the same he had worn when she was a child. “It’s okay, Becs. I’m here. I’m never leaving again.”

“Dad,” Becca whispered. She leaned into his chest and sobbed like she was eight-years-old again.



When Becca calmed down, her parents asked if she wanted to talk some more. Becca said no. A strange calm had settled over her, and she didn’t want anything to break it. She still had a lot of feelings to process, but her anger was morphing into acceptance. She didn’t know for sure if she could trust Frank, but she did know she was glad he was here. She was happy. “I’m okay,” Becca said, wiping the tears from her face. “I’d like to just hang out with you both and watch the movie.”

Her dad smiled. “Okay,” he said. “I’d like that. But…”

Becca’s parents exchanged an uncomfortable glance.

“There’s something else we need to tell you,” Becca’s mom said.

Becca took a deep breath, feeling anxiety knot in her stomach. “What?” she asked.

Her dad cleared his throat. “We don’t want there to be anymore secrets in our family,” he said. “So we need to tell you… when your mom was explaining how we got back together a couple months ago, she left something out.”

Becca swallowed. “And?” she asked, steeling herself for whatever the answer might be.

“We got married!” Becca’s mom exclaimed, thrusting out her hand. “I mean, again,” she said.

Becca gaped at the large, diamond wedding ring shining on her mom’s hand. The hand that had worn the tan-line where the ring used to be, so many years ago, when she had finally found the courage to take off the old one after the divorce. The old ring had been pawned to help them pay bills when life as a single parent got tough. Her mom had cried on the drive to the pawn shop, and Becca had felt so helpless, so small and lost. Becca looked at her mom’s face, where now only happiness showed. “Mom?” she asked. “You’re – you got married?”

Her mom nodded. “I know you’ve been through a lot, sweetheart. We both have. But this isn’t some whim. This is for real. When we first married, all those years ago, we promised to stay together for all our lives, for better or for worse. We broke those promises a long time ago, but now we’re determined to make good on them. To us, it wasn’t so much a marriage as a renewal of our vows. We already made the promises the first time. This time, we’re going to keep them. And in a few weeks, we want to have a public ceremony to announce the renewal, and we’d like you to be our maid of honor.”

“Wow,” Becca said. She looked at her mom’s face. All traces of the pain and hurt were gone. Her mom was glowing. Becca swallowed, feeling the small tendrils of happiness begin to spread open inside her chest. This was for real. She felt her mouth spread unbidden into a smile. “Okay,” she said. “Okay.”

Becca’s dad reached forward and placed a hand on her face. “You have grown into an incredibly brave and kind woman, Becca. I am so proud of you.”

Becca swallowed back the beginnings of more tears. “Thanks, Dad,” she said. She looked back and forth between her parents. “Just please, no more secrets, okay?”

Becca’s parents exchanged another awkward glance. Becca narrowed her eyes. “What is it?” she asked.

“Well, you know how I was covered in paint when you got here?” her mom asked.

Becca wasn’t sure she wanted to know where this was going. “Yeah?” she asked.

“So, here’s the thing. I… we… are doing a little bit of remodeling.”

Becca sighed. “Are you changing my room into an office or workout room or something? Because that would be good to know.”

“Oh no, nothing like that,” Becca’s mom said. She laughed nervously. “Actually, we’ve closed in part of the den into an extra room, and we’re in the middle of painting it.”

“Oh!” Becca said. That didn’t seem so bad. “So what is the new room going to be for?”

Becca’s mom glanced over at Becca’s dad.

“Sweetheart,” Becca’s dad said, “we’re uh… we’re…”

“We’re having a baby!” Becca’s mom blurted out.

Becca stared at them. “A baby?” she exclaimed. “But you’re… I’m… and you’re…”

Becca’s mom smiled. “Yes, sweetheart. You’re all grown and we’re old! Or at least I know we seem that way to you. But we married young the first time, baby, and we had you right away. I was barely twenty, and I’m only in my late thirties now. Still plenty young enough to have a baby.”

“But, mom, a baby?” Becca asked. “You’ll be starting all over!”

“I know,” her mom said. “But this is going to be the luckiest baby in the world, because I can’t imagine anyone who would make a better big sister than you.”

Becca’s mind jumped to a sudden vision of herself holding a small baby, a little brother or sister. Of reading books to them as they grew, of helping them learn to ride a bike, of taking them on special sibling dates and having a lifelong friend, someone who shared her family in a way that as an only child she’d never before experienced. “A baby,” she said again. She looked up at her parents. They were staring at her with a mixture of happiness and concern. “When?” Becca asked.

“I’m six weeks along now,” her mom said. “So… in about 7 months, give or take a few weeks.”

7 months. In 7 months, Becca would be a big sister. A smile spread across her face. “Forget the movie,” she said. “Let’s go finish painting that room!”

Chapter 3


Becca




Becca hugged her mom and dad goodbye in the driveway, the three of them smushed together in a group hug like they’d done when she was little, before everything went wrong. Now, things were starting to feel right again.

“I’ll come back to visit again soon,” Becca said as she broke from the hug. “I wish I could stay longer, but I promised Nissa I’d spend time with her. It’s been a while since we’ve gotten to hang out.”

“I understand, baby,” her mom said. “Friendships are important. And you know we love Nissa! Tell her hello from me.”

“And from me,” Becca’s dad added. “I haven’t seen her in years, but I always did appreciate what a great friend she was to you.”

“Thanks, Dad,” Becca said. “I’ll tell her. She’s going to be so surprised. About you… the baby… all of it!”

Becca walked toward her car and then turned and gave her parents one last, long look. Her dad’s arm was over her mom’s shoulder as they waved. She waved back. “You know what?”she said suddenly. “I’m going to spend just the one night at Anissa’s, and then I want to come spend the rest of the weekend here, with you guys, before I have to head back.”

“Are you sure?” her mom asked, furrowing her brows. “I don’t want you to miss out on girl time. You don’t have to come back just for us.”

“I want to,” Becca said. She waved again. “See you in a day,” she called out. “I love you both!”

“Love you too!” her parents called back in unison.

Becca opened her car door and slid inside, tossing her backpack in the seat next to her. Her visit home had been far different than she had expected, but in the best of ways. After she and her parents had talked, they had spent the rest of the night painting the new nursery, laughing and catching up and discussing their family’s future. Becca had slept in her old bed and woken up in the morning with a sense of hope she hadn't felt in years. Her family was whole again, and now with a little brother or sister on the way. It felt surreal, like a dream. The hole that had lived in Becca’s chest for so long she’d forgotten it was there was finally healed over, and it felt wonderful.

Becca started the car and backed out of the driveway, waving to her parents one last time before driving away. Now that she was on the road again, Becca’s thoughts turned from the happiness of her family to something new: what would happen at Anissa’s. Becca had always felt completely comfortable with Anissa, and usually the thought of a visit to her best friend’s house brought only excitement. But this time, Becca felt nervous, and it didn’t take her long to figure out why. Brian.

Becca didn’t know what to make of the fact that he had requested to spend time with her. It was very unusual, and Becca couldn’t help but feel a small flutter of anticipation whenever she thought about it. She forced it down. Brian had never shown anything other than platonic affection for Becca, and she had no reason to expect anything different now. They hadn’t even talked in months, not since the last time she had been over to Anissa’s before she headed off to college. And things had been normal then. Brian had given her a huge hug, which was a little unusual for him, but there hadn’t been anything out-of-the-ordinary for two friends saying goodbye. And that’s pretty much what Becca and Brian were – friends, by default. You can’t spend hours upon hours at your best friend’s house without at least sort of getting to know their siblings, too. Luckily, Becca and Brian had always gotten along fine, so even though they’d never really spent time together without Anissa there, Becca considered Brian a friend. A hot friend, but still just a friend. After all, he was Anissa’s brother. Looking at him in any other way almost felt like a betrayal of their friendship.

Yet over the course of the fifteen-minute drive to Anissa’s, Becca found her mind wandering in that direction more than once, bringing up feelings she hadn’t allowed herself to think about since she’d been twelve and first noticed that Brian was hot. Stop it, she told herself. He’s Anissa’s brother. He’d been off-limits then and he was off-limits now. And besides, Becca had Doug. Not that they were exclusive or anything, but she owed it to Doug to at least give him some kind of response before going off and fantasizing ridiculously about some other guy, right? What is wrong with me? Becca sighed and turned on the radio, belting out any lyrics she knew to occupy her mind while she drove.

By the time Becca arrived at Anissa’s, her throat was a little sore from singing, but she had calmed herself down. She wasn’t sure what had gotten into her before. Brian was just Brian. He was Anissa’s brother, and seeing him today was no different than any other time. There was no reason to be nervous, because nothing was going to happen. Becca felt a tiny pang of disappointment at telling herself this, but she buried it deep. Brian was not interested in her romantically, and he never would be. He thought of her as just another sister. And besides, there was Doug, who did like her and whom she would probably be a fool not to date more seriously. So that was that.

Becca parked in Anissa’s driveway and made the short walk up to the front door with her heavy backpack in tow. She felt a little sheepish about all the clothes and makeup she had packed. She wasn’t sure what had gotten into her while packing. She was certain now that her comfy clothes and swimsuit were all she would need. After all, there was no one to impress here. Anissa and her family were like Becca’s family, too. Becca was looking forward to a comfortable weekend of just hanging out with them and catching up.

Becca knocked on the door, then adjusted her backpack on her shoulder. She waited a moment, and was just about to knock again when the door swung open.

Brian’s hazel eyes looked down at Becca, and his face spread into a huge grin. “Becca!” he shouted, throwing his arms around her.

Becca froze, taken aback by his hug. After a moment, she wrapped her arms around him, too, feeling the warmth of his firm chest against the side of her face as she leaned into him. His arms held her tightly, and he smelled amazing, like forest trees and spice. She could hear his heart thumping beneath the ear she had pressed to his chest. Suddenly he let go and stepped back. She looked up at him, feeling slightly dazed.

“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I was just… really happy to see you.”

Is he blushing? Becca stared up at him, her thoughts all jumbling together.

A squeal broke through the silence. “Becca! You’re here!”

Anissa burst through the doorway, playfully knocking Brian to the side, and threw her arms around Becca. “You’re here; you’re here; you’re here!” she shouted. She pulled back, and grabbed Becca by the hand. “What are you waiting for? Come inside!” she said. She looked up at Brian. “Why were you standing here blocking up the doorway? Come on, let her in!”

Brian stepped aside, making room for Anissa and Becca to come inside the house.

Anissa went through first, and Becca followed behind her.

Brian reached out, placing a hand on Becca’s shoulder. “Here,” he said. “Let me take that.”

Becca glanced down at his hand, which was resting on her shoulder atop the strap of her backpack. “Oh,” she said. “Sure. Thanks.” She slipped her arms out of the backpack straps, leaving it in Brian’s grasp.

“No problem,” Brian said. “It seemed heavy.”

Brian’s gaze locked into Becca’s, and for a moment they just stood, looking at each other. Becca’s heart raced uncontrollably, and she swallowed, not sure what was happening or what to say.

“Guys, stop being weird,” Anissa said. She walked up and grabbed the backpack from Brian. “I know you haven’t seen each other in a while, but I swear you’re acting like you just met! Come on, Becca. Let’s go up to my room and get you settled in so that we can start movie night.” She headed for the stairs.

Friday movie night. It was a Marlin family tradition. Becca had almost forgotten. She pulled her gaze from Brian as through breaking from a trance. “Coming,” she called out. She turned to follow Anissa.

A warm, firm hand on her forearm stopped her. “Wait,” Brian said.

Becca turned back to face him. His hazel eyes looked troubled. “What is it?” Becca asked. She was actually a little concerned. She wasn’t sure exactly what was happening, but this wasn’t like the Brian she knew. He seemed bothered by something. “Are you okay?” she asked.

Brian shook his head firmly, just once, then smiled. The fog over his eyes disappeared, as though his smile had seared it away. “I’m fine,” he said. “It was nothing. Go catch up to Anissa; I’m sure she’ll want to talk and get your full life’s story before we start the movie.” He smiled. “I’ll wait down here for the two of you.”

Becca took a breath. “Okay,” she said. She turned toward the stairs again. “We won’t be long,” she called back as an afterthought.

“Take your time!” Brian’s voice called out. Becca turned back, but he was gone; he had already headed to the living room.

Becca sighed and moved toward the stairs. What was that about? Brian was acting strange. Becca had been pleasantly surprised by how happy he was to see her, but then… what had that been about with the backpack? Becca reasoned with herself as she climbed the stairs. Her mind was surely playing tricks on her. Brian probably wasn’t the one acting strangely; she was. After all, she couldn’t deny how her heart had raced when he hugged her, or how the feel of being in his arms had awakened something in her. Brian had probably just seen her strange reaction and felt uncomfortable about it. Get a grip, Becca told herself. It seemed the small crush on Brian that Becca had denied all those years before had returned with a vengeance. But Becca was determined not to let it take control of her. Brian was her best friend’s brother, and that’s all he would ever be. If Anissa even knew what Becca was thinking, she’d probably be horrified. And if Brian managed to figure out why Becca had acted so strange, it would make everything weird. No, Becca had to get ahold of herself, and now. She did not want her stupid feelings ruining this weekend with her best friend.

She reached the top of the steps and paused outside Anissa’s doorway. She took a deep breath, then another. You do not like Brian, she told herself. Brian is just a friend. He’s basically your brother. She closed her eyes and imagined herself pushing the feelings down inside her, so far down that they disappeared among the remains of last night’s dinner. There, she thought. All better. She took another shaky breath and stepped through into Anissa’s room.

Anissa was sitting in the middle of her bed. “There you are!” she called out, looking up at Becca. “Your backpack’s over there. Now come, sit, and tell me all about everything!”

Anissa beamed at Becca and patted the comforter. Becca couldn’t help but smile back as she walked toward the bed. She was anxious to catch up with Anissa and tell her all about school and the huge news with her mom and dad. She now knew she couldn’t quite tell Anissa everything – her internal debate over Brian was a secret and had to stay that way – but she could tell her about everything else. She really wanted to. She’d missed being with her best friend. And she couldn’t wait to hear all about what had been going on with Anissa, as well.

Becca flopped down on the bed next to Anissa. “You first,” Becca said, smiling. “After all, the last you texted about your life, there was some hot guy you were thinking about texting, right?”





“I told you texting him was the right choice!” Becca said, laughing. Time had flown by as she listened to Anissa explain her semester so far. It was as crazy as a sitcom. She had then related her own shocking news to Anissa, and Anissa asked a million questions. When Becca had answered everything she could, the two then began rehashing both their stories, relishing in the craziness of it all. “I’m so sorry Megs and the others are still doing those stupid class emails,” Becca said, her voice falling to a more serious note. “Even for Megs, that’s low.”

Anissa groaned. “I know.”

“And I still cannot believe that Declan showed up on campus!” Becca continued. “Is he really trying to win you back?”

“It seems so,” said Anissa. “I just can’t imagine things getting any more complicated. But you!” She gestured to Becca. “Your mom and dad… and a baby! That’s such huge news!”

“I know,” Becca said. “I thought I’d be more upset, but really, I just feel kind of excited about everything. Is that normal?”

Anissa tilted her head and gave Becca a half-smile. “Aw, Becs,” she said, “Who cares if it’s normal. Be happy! You deserve it.”

“Thanks,” Becca said. “And you get to be Aunt Anissa. How about that?”

“Oooh!” Anissa said, clapping her hands together and bouncing slightly. “I hadn’t thought about that! This is going to be so exciting!”

Becca smiled. It was good to be back with her best friend again. Being with Anissa felt as much like being home as actually being home did. And now, Becca’s family was growing, and there would be even more people in her world to look forward to seeing. She suddenly felt very fortunate, to have so much family, whether by blood or not. “Thanks, Nissa,” she said.

Anissa settled down, no longer bouncing, and gave Becca a very serious look. “You’re welcome. I really am excited. But now – I have something I need to ask you.”

Anissa rarely got this solemn unless it was something very serious. Becca felt a little nervous whirlpool starting up in her stomach. “What is it?” she asked.

Anissa lowered her eyebrows, squinting at Becca through narrowed eyes. “What is up with you and Brian?”

“What?” Becca asked. The feelings she’d fought down in the hallway rushed back up for a moment, and she took a breath, forcing them all back down. They settled into a churning mess in inside her, one she was just barely containing.

“The two of you were acting so weird,” Anissa said. “I mean, I know it’s been a while since you’ve seen each other, and you were never super close or anything, but you used to get along. And now you’re acting all formal and strange, like you can barely talk to each other. What gives?” Anissa’s phone buzzed and she reached for it.

Becca stalled for time. “Oh, it’s nothing. I guess I’m just a little not-myself in general tonight. I sort of have some personal stuff happening. I mean, other than my parents and becoming a sister.”

Anissa leaned forward, intrigued, setting her phone back down on the bed. “What do you mean?”

“Well, there’s this guy,” Becca began.

“Ooh,” Anissa cooed. "Go on."

Becca smiled. Anissa never failed to show complete, genuine interest in Becca’s love life. “We’ve been hanging out some and texting back and forth for a few weeks,” Becca continued. “And right before I left to come here, he told me he's falling for me. He wants to date me. Like, officially.”

Anissa’s face spread into a smile. “And?” she asked.

“And I told him I’d have to think about it.”

“You what?” Anissa’s mouth hung open in shock. “Wait,” she said. Her mouth snapped closed for a moment, then opened again just big enough to speak. “Is he ugly?” Anissa asked, squeezing the words out through pursed lips.

Becca let out a surprised laugh. “No, actually he’s hot.”

“Then why?” Anissa persisted. “Is he weird? Dumb? Creepy? Ooh! Does he have a mustache? I know how you feel about guys with mustaches.”

“None of the above,” said Becca. She smiled at Anissa, who was still leaning forward eagerly. Anissa, her best friend, always there for her. Becca felt a twinge of guilt about Brian and pushed it down. “I like him, I just – don’t know if I feel that way about him,” she said.

“Oh,” said Anissa, sitting upright. “Well, if that’s all, then I totally get it. You need to be sure.”

“Yeah,” Becca answered. “I don’t want to rush into anything.”

“You always were way more sensible than me in that way,” Anissa said. She reached for her phone again. “But that still doesn’t explain why you and Brian were acting so weird. Something seemed off between you two.” She looked down, checking her messages.

“Oh,” Becca said. She swallowed. Anissa seemed a bit distracted for the moment, but it was sure not to last long. Becca would need some kind of explanation about Brian. “I – “

Becca was interrupted by Anissa’s gasp. Anissa thrust her phone out at Becca. “Look,” she said.

Becca took the phone from Anissa and looked down at it. There was an email displayed on the screen.


9/22/2016 5:01 PM

To: Anissa Marlin

From: s3cr3t4dm1r3r31@gmail.com

Subject: Hi, Anissa.

Anissa,

I tried to write you a poem, but everything I tried writing only came out sounding creepy, so… plain writing it is.

For some time now, I’ve wanted to get to know you better, but it never seemed to be the right time. I first noticed you several weeks ago, and our paths have crossed a few times since then. I know that you are smart, and funny, and beautiful. There’s something about that combination that has both drawn me to you and kept me from being brave enough to just walk right up and talk to you. Bluntness has never been my style.

Besides, I thought you might appreciate something a little more interesting.

So here goes:

I would like to get to know you better, and – in the spirit of having a little fun and also breaking the ice – I propose a game. Actually, let’s call it a challenge.

For the next 31 days, I will email you once per day with both a Guess and a Clue. The Guess each day will be some fact I have discovered about you – my attempt to get to know a little more about you. The Clue will be something about me, to help you get to know me and – hopefully – figure out who I am.

Here’s the catch: Each time I make a Guess about you, you must tell me if I’m correct. If I am, then I earn one more day of emailing you (up to the total of 31). If ever I am wrong, I will stop emailing you immediately, and you will never have to hear from me again.

You may ask me questions as we email, just not about who I am. I will always answer your questions honestly. I will never lie to you. But if you ask a question that reveals too much about who I am, I may choose not to answer it. Seeing as I’m providing you clues about myself already, I think that’s only fair. It’s up to you to put all the clues together.

At the end of the 31 days, you can choose to meet me, or you can choose not to, in which case I will disappear from your life and never bother you again. I only ask that you give me 31 days to intrigue you, to get to know you better, and to let you know some things about me – before you make your decision.

If you ever tire of this challenge, you only need to say the word, and I will stop emailing. But if you do that, you may never know who I am.

To start things off, here’s a freebie (it doesn’t count as part of the 31 days):

Guess: You like games, especially ones that require solving puzzles.

Clue: So do I.

So, Anissa, it’s up to you… do you want to have some fun?

Day 1 begins as soon as you say yes. Otherwise, I will disappear as if this never happened.

It’s your choice.

-- Your Secret Admirer

PS – I’m not a stalker, I swear! You are in no danger. If you ever want me to leave you alone, just say the word and I will. But if I’m right about things, then you just might be intrigued enough to accept my challenge…


“Wow,” Becca said. She handed the phone back to Anissa. “What are you going to say?”

Anissa stared at Becca, her eyes wide. “I know it’s crazy, but I think I’m going to say yes.”

Becca smiled. Of course Anissa was going to say yes; she hadn’t doubted it for a second. “Do you think you know who it is?”

“Not a clue,” said Anissa. “But I plan to figure it out.”

Becca laughed. “You know, this is actually the perfect way for a guy to approach you.”

Anissa raised one eyebrow. “Really?”

“Sure,” Becca said. “I mean, I’m the cautious one out of the two of us. You’re the adventurous one. You always have been. A secret-admirer mystery seems right up your alley. And you’ve never been able to turn down a puzzle. Remember when you spent a whole month in fifth grade trying to figure out who that kid Danny had a crush on? You didn’t even care, it just bothered you not to know.” She laughed.

“I guess you’re right,” said Anissa. “This secret admirer thing seems a little out there, even to me, but I’m gonna do it. But – I’m not going to email him back just yet. I want to think for a little bit about what to say. I need to make the right first impression. Set the tone, you know?”

Becca smiled again. That was typical Anissa, impulsive in some ways and cautious in others.

Another voice broke into their conversation, calling up from downstairs. “Are you almost done with the girl talk? I’m about to fall asleep down here!”

At the sound of Brian’s voice, the anxious whirlpool in Becca’s stomach swirled to life again. She looked at Anissa.

Anissa shrugged. “I guess we should go down,” she said. “We have kept him waiting for a long time.”

Becca forced a smile. “Sure, yeah, of course,” she said.

“Hey, don’t tell Brian about the admirer, okay?” Anissa asked, scooting to the edge of the bed to stand up. “He gets overprotective when it comes to my love life, and I don’t want him freaking out about this. I need to get some more information about this guy first, before I tell him.” She stood and turned, offering Becca her hand to help her up.

Secrets. Becca hated secrets. But she was already keeping her own, so why not add one of Anissa’s to the mix? Besides, Anissa was her best friend. If she wanted Becca to keep a secret, Becca would take it to her grave. Becca threw her legs over the edge of the bed and took Anissa’s hand, then stood. “Sure, if that’s what you want,” she said.


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