Five years ago
A slender arm snaked around my waist, and my shoulders slumped.
I should have broken up with her a week ago when she showed up at my high-rise apartment unannounced. Well, not totally unannounced.
My doorman called up to let me know she was on her way up. I’d meant to take her name off list of people admitted without question and get my locks changed, but then, I’d gone to Paris for this fashion thing. My ex… it didn’t matter. Long story.
I was ninety percent done with Catie. Why couldn’t I pull the trigger on ending our raucous, three-week entanglement? The fling started with promisingly enough. I met her at an art show for a rising New York City sculptor. She worked at a friend of a friend’s gallery in Chelsea. We talked German expressionism and got drunk on Bohemian sekt.
God, how much of that low-booze bubbly did you have to drink to get as wasted as we’d been? It was fun and felt like kismet to wake up headachy and sexed up at my place. She made me scrambled eggs naked, and I thought…maybe…
My parental units wanted me to stop “carousing,” as Granddad put it, and move back to Dallas full time like an adult. As if living in New York was for children.
Catie talked about wanting a family. If I were going to settle down, wouldn’t be with someone like her? Sexual. Indulgent of my wild side. Not too serious. But smart, educated, and interesting.
But something hitched in me every time I thought of making this permanent.
No. Tonight was the end of me and Catie. Another relationship fading before the one-month mark. But it was for the best.
I’d break up with her tomorrow.
She spun me around and launched herself. Her arms clasped around my neck, and her taut form slammed into me. The heat such contact generated only a couple of weeks ago had faded. Damned disappointing.
Catie was great. Maybe the problem wasn’t her. Before I could ponder my own shortcomings, she shouted into my ear.
I pulled her arms from my neck and took a deep breath. The cool air blowing off the ocean kept the garden party thrown in my honor comfortable. This summer in the Hamptons had broken heat records left and right, but maybe the spell was breaking finally as September loomed.
“You have to meet my sister.”
Catie pushed forward a shorter, curvier woman with streams of curly black hair flowing down her back.
She grimaced, and her shining dark eyes—so deeply brown, they were almost black—stopped just short of rolling.
“Stepsister. For four years. She likes to exaggerate.”
The low, smoky voice rising out of someone so petite sparked curiosity. Maybe too much. I ripped my focus from her and smiled at my date for the weekend, who did roll her eyes.
“We’ve been sisters for longer than that, and Anthony doesn’t need the boring details. I’m giving him the highlights.”
I extended a hand. “Anthony Star-Hunter.”
“Sarah Pennington. Catie’s told me so much about you.”
Her mouth arched in smile-like fashion, but the flash of judgment on her face was unmissable. Sarah Pennington didn’t approve.
Of her sister. No, stepsister. She had to make that clear.
Of us together.
What had Catie told her?
Sarah looked from her stepsister to me and pulled her lips into her mouth, biting it shut.
“What brings you out tonight?” I asked.
Catie interjected. “Her birthday is in three days, and she had nothing planned. Nothing! So I told her to pack a bag and get out here for the weekend.”
She paused and winked.
“This is why I’m good for you.”
That proclamation finally elicited a genuine smile from Sarah, even though it came with a soft snort and dismissive chuckle.
Catie flipped her long, straight hair over her shoulder. “Totes. I’m going to grab a drink and say hi to Matt. I have to thank him for hosting.”
Matt was one of the friends in the chain that led me to Sarah’s gallery. They’d known each other since college. So Catie was off, leaving me with her judgy stepsister.
“Well, happy birthday, Sarah Pennington.”
“Happy birthday, Anthony Star-Hunter,” she said, pronouncing his name with drama as if he were an intergalactic warrior. “That’s quite the mouthful.”
Her nose crinkled adorably—if still judgementally.
“My mother couldn’t let her children forget that they were Stars.”
“Pun intended?” Sarah snorted again, louder this time.
I laughed. “Not so much. She’s not full of praise. Just family pride.”
“And your father?”
I flinched. “Also proud. We settle the dispute with a hyphen. But secretly, I think Dad finds it emasculating.”
Sarah’s eyes went wide at my familial confession. Sometimes I overshared without the expected level of shame—especially for someone as buttoned up as she appeared to be. She looked away in search of her ride. Several yards away, Catie flitted around the food table, chatting with more acquaintances.
“What’s your father like? Other than married four years ago to Catie’s mother.”
“You haven’t met him?” she dodged.
“I’ve only been seeing Catie for a couple of weeks.”
Sarah narrowed her eyes. “To hear her tell it, you’re already getting close. She has a key to your apartment.”
Which I regretted. God, I rushed carts before horses all the time, then wrecked, then wondered how I got myself in these messes. One day, I’d learn my lesson.
I forced my tone to a casual register. “Still seems early to meet her father.”
“Stepfather,” I corrected, noting how the tension creasing her eyes eased.
“He spoils you?”
“No,” she clipped.
Emotion swirled on her face. Catie gushed about Mr. Pennington. She adored him, and much like she didn’t call Sarah her stepsister. She referred to Mr. Pennington as “Dad” or, on occasion, “Dad 2.0.”
“Catie likes him. I gather she didn’t have a great relationship with her biological father.”
The hard light in Sarah’s eyes softened. “She didn’t.”
Sarah certainly wasn’t as chatty as her stepsister.
She sighed. “And Dad stepped in. She was ten when her mom started seeing my dad.”
Since they’d only married four years ago, that meant they’d dated for eleven years before making it down the aisle. “That’s a long wait to get hitched.”
Her mouth puckered. “Divorces can take time—especially the expensive ones.”
“Ah, those boring details Catie wanted to skip.”
No wonder Sarah was so restrained. Catie might wax on about how great it was to have Dad 2.0, but Sarah’s family had imploded.
I lowered my voice, not wanting to be as insensitive as Catie had been, but also needing the answer to one question.
“So why come? She obviously gets on your nerves. And whatever she told you about me didn’t impress you. Now that you’re here, you don’t appear to have changed your mind.”
Sarah didn’t answer right away. She chewed at the edge of her full bottom lip, then leveled her shoulders with fresh resolve.
“Catie’s a lot of things. Some of them annoy me, but she’s weirdly right a lot of the time. I need to get out more, and it’s my birthday.”
She spat the last word.
“You don’t like your birthday?” I asked.
“I’ve had some shitty ones.”
Her face shadowed so darkly, I winced and swallowed. Her brows shifted high and low as she weighed how to respond in the face of something deeply awful.
“Nevermind,” I said.
Her sadness wouldn’t do. It pierced my chest with indescribable sharpness. I tightened a fist to keep from smoothing her forehead with my fingertips and stroking her cheek until it lifted back into proper position with her probably rare, but gorgeous, smile. The compulsion to make her feel better unsettled me, but after all, this was supposed to be a party. My party. Sour guests killed the vibe.
But telling her my usual jokes or funny stories wouldn’t pull her out of the darkness.
“My worst birthday was when I was thirteen. I begged my dad to take me and my friends for a shooting weekend in Arkansas.”
“A shooting weekend?” She recoiled.
“Hunting. Or, more accurately, firing rifles off in the country. My dad grew up hunting in Arkansas, and no, that’s not how we got our name.” I squinted and laughed. “Or maybe it was back in the British isles centuries ago.”
The corner of Sarah’s lips curved up a millimeter. Her hard-won amusement was enough of a victory for me to continue.
“So he took me and a few of my buddies, along with their dads, up to his friend’s cabin near Hot Springs.”
Hank Milani let Ken use it for the weekend. That was back before everything between their families blew up.
My celebration started off like a normal guys’ trip. The dads set up tents outside for the boys. The men slept inside. The kids made a campfire and woke up Saturday morning to go fishing. When we got back, Dad and Marty Samson were drunk.
“Actually,” I told Sarah, “Marty was drunk. Dad was hammered. I’d never seen him like that before. All the other boys had caught fish. Michael, Marty’s son, had caught five, but I’d horsed around and mostly swam. I liked hunting, but I hated sitting in the blazing sun on the water, waiting for fish to bite. When I came back without any fish, Dad looked at me and said, ‘Figures. You think everything should come easy to you. Just like your slut mother. Worst part is that it will. Might as well drop the Hunter. You don’t need it, and you sure as shit don’t deserve it.’”
“All of that over fucking fish?”
Sarah reached out and gripped my forearm. I tensed at first, then relaxed. Indignation flexed her jaw. Tiny as she was, her body coiled as if poised to go find Dad and knock him the fuck out. Her protectiveness sparked warm relief in my gut, displacing the nostalgic pain that usually lived there.
I hated that feeling and tried to minimize it whenever possible. What was I supposed to do? My father was my father. It wasn’t like I was getting another one.
I shrugged Sarah’s comforting hand away.
“He was just drunk. Dad has these moments where he resents his situation.”
She crossed her arms. “What kind of situation justifies talking to your son that way? And on his birthday!”
“It’s a long story, but that weekend was the beginning of my fights with my dad. We still don’t get along. Maybe we never will.”
“That’s a shitty birthday.”
I hoped the story would make hers seem not as bad or at least let her know she wasn’t alone. But as we stood silent, taking in the shittiness, my stomach ached. The weight of unexplained trauma was too much for a brilliant summer afternoon on the shore.
“But today,” I exclaimed, “is a new day and a better day. No Debbie Downers. What’s your poison?”
She grinned, and my spirit turned buoyant again.
“I’m not particular. Surprise me.”
But I didn’t have to. Catie returned with drinks.
“What’s going on over here? You guys look like you’re at a wake,” she said with a pout and handed her stepsister a cocktail.
Sarah’s curls swung to the side as she tilted her head. “You two. I get it now.”
“You doubted my judgment?” Catie pressed her lips tight in humored annoyance.
Sarah slipped to her quasi-sister’s side and knocked the taller blonde with an elbow, smirking. “I’d never in a thousand years, but I can see why you do.”
“Hey!” I barked, not wanting to be offended. Still, Sarah’s dismissal smarted.
“Sorry.” She put up an apologetic palm.
“I think I’m pretty doable,” I grumbled.
Our eyes met, exchanging an unspoken challenge. I checked in with Catie, who appeared unruffled.
“You’re not serious enough for her. But she doesn’t understand that we can have our own version of serious.”
“After three weeks?” Sarah balked.
Defensiveness straightened my spine. “You never know where this could go.”
“I’m not negging your relationship. I’m saying you both like keeping things light. Not let the hard stuff harsh your buzz. So I get how you ended up…”
Her voice trailed off as she chose not to categorize my liaison with Catie.
“This is a party. It should be light. And fun,” I replied.
Sarah shook her head. “I’m not criticizing. It’s a good thing. I could learn the lesson.”
The shadow returned to the edges of her gaze, which flicked over my shoulder. Avoiding me? Dismissing me again?
Maybe I wasn’t serious about Catie yet, but that didn’t mean I was incapable.
Catie turned in front of me and lifted to her toes, brushing my cheek with her lips. Her effervescent expression pushed away contemplation of the past. Perhaps I hadn’t given her enough of a chance.
But I could. My breakup plans could wait. And if it worked out, I’d do a victory dance. My thrills with Catie might have abated, but the goal of proving Serious Sarah wrong motivated me more than anything had in a long, long time.