And Then She Kissed Me will be out on 27 January 2022.
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And Then She Kissed Me
© Harper Bliss
“Look what the cat dragged in.” My brother grins at me from behind the bar. “If it isn’t Hollywood’s finest TV cop.”
“Happy birthday, Sam.” I head toward him with widespread arms. “It’s good to see you.”
“Ditto and ditto.” Sam gathers me in his arms. “Are you ready for an epic party?”
I want to shake my head. I’m tired after having finished the relentless, against-the-clock period of shooting that always happens before the yearly hiatus of our show. I’d much rather have a quiet drink with my twin brother to celebrate our fortieth birthday, but that’s not Sam’s style and I don’t want to be a downer from the get-go.
“Sure.” I step back to get a good look at him. Owning The Bay beach bar doesn’t seem to have affected his wholesome North-Cali surfer boy looks. His skin is golden brown, his hair streaked with sunlit blond highlights, and his body looks as trim as it was when we were in our senior year of high school.
The door to the back room swings open and a blonde girl who doesn’t look a day over twenty-one walks out. My mind races to what has always been the obvious conclusion—that she’s my brother’s latest age-inappropriate conquest—but Sam swiftly puts me straight.
“This is Cassidy, my most valued employee.”
Cassidy brings her hands to her mouth. “Wow. Sadie Ireland in the flesh. It’s such an honor.” She holds out her hand. “I adore King & Prince. I watch it all the time.”
I’m of half a mind to tell her that the very last scenes ever with both King and Prince were shot last week, but I’m contractually forbidden from doing so.
“Thank you.” Since Cassidy is my brother’s employee—and possibly more than that—I shake her hand warmly.
“Will you be in town a while?” Cassidy asks.
“I might very well be.” I catch my brother’s gaze. I’ll be staying with him to recover from what has been an emotionally draining ten months of divorcing my co-star while simultaneously shooting a show together.
“I’ll see you around then.” Cassidy isn’t the lingering type of fangirl, then. She disappears into the back room again.
I shoot my brother a look that can’t be misinterpreted.
“It’s not what you think,” he says. “She’s the best employee I’ve ever had and I’m not about to mess that up.”
“How old is she?”
“Old enough to work in a bar,” is all he says.
Noise comes from the back. A car door slams shut, and I hear animated voices.
“That must be the caterers,” Sam says. “You relax with a beer on the deck. Look out over the ocean and contemplate the first forty years of your life.” He runs a hand through his thick hair. The man doesn’t look a day over thirty.
He reaches into the fridge behind him, takes out a bottle, twists off the cap, and hands it to me.
“Do you honestly believe that anyone who works on-screen in Hollywood actually drinks beer?” We’ve had this conversation many times.
“You’re forty today and recently divorced. Have the beer. Take all the comfort you can find.”
“Sam!” someone shouts from the back.
“I know I’m only twenty minutes older than you, but do as I say, anyway.” With that, he turns around and disappears through the door to the back, leaving me alone in the bar.
I head out, beer in hand, and take a seat on a stool lining the deck, overlooking the waves. I drag my gaze away from the sea for a minute to study the bottle I’m holding. The beer is called Surfer Juice IPA, which probably means it sells well in these parts. I scan the label to see if any new local breweries have sprouted up since I last visited. Lennox Breweries. Not a small-batch local brew then.
I take a sip. I haven’t had a beer in months—not since Sam came to Los Angeles for a few weeks last March to support me through the worst of the fall-out after my divorce from Mike. Sometimes, when you’re being chased by paps, you need your twin brother’s ridiculously muscular arm around you to shield you from the never-ending scrutiny.
The beer tastes crisp and light and I feel myself relax. It’s hard not to with this view. It’s quiet on the boardwalk between the bar and the beach—the calm before the big birthday storm Sam has planned, no doubt.
It suddenly hits me that I didn’t offer to help Sam and Cassidy set up for the party. I’m about to go back in to offer my services when I hear footsteps approach.
“I came straight from work,” Suzy, my older sister, says, followed by a shriek worthy of a teenage girl at a boy band concert.
I get up to hug her, using the time it takes to throw my arms around her to remember what Suzy’s current job is. Even though we speak on the phone several times a week, it’s hard to keep up with my sister’s employment—a bit like Sam and his women. My sister’s quest for the ultimate professional fulfillment has had her job-hopping for decades.
“I did my first solo coaching call,” Suzy says as I sink into her embrace.
Oh, yes. She works as some sort of life coach on the internet.
“I knocked it out of the park with my quick thinking skills. My boss was so complimentary after, I could hardly believe it.”
I let my sister rattle on for as long as she likes. It’s her thing. The first ten minutes of any conversation between us are spent exactly like this until she’s gotten everything that’s on her mind off her chest. After which she fixes her gaze on me, and asks me, the way I imagine she asks her clients, how I’m doing and what I’m struggling with these days. Come to think of it, maybe life coach is a great profession for Suzy.
“We are complete.” Sam has ventured outside.
“Oh, Sam,” Suzy says. “I invited Devon last-minute. I hope that’s okay.”
“The more, the merrier,” Sam says. “You know that.”
“Sam’s convinced tonight will be epic,” Suzy says.
“You only turn forty once,” Sam replies. “And I’m not the only one.”
I missed our joint thirtieth birthday party because of reshoots that couldn’t possibly be rescheduled and our thirty-fifth because, that season, a few episodes of King & Prince were shot on location in Mexico. But fifteen years on the same prime-time TV show have earned me, alongside the habitual executive producer credit, a bit more say over my schedule. I made it abundantly clear I wouldn’t miss another big birthday party because of the show’s shooting schedule.
“To an epic party with my two favorite people in the world.” I hold up my half-empty beer.
I let my gaze glide over Suzy and Sam. They fall into their easy brother-sister banter. I lean against the railing and, with the ocean behind me and my brother and sister within touching distance in front of me, I revel in the soothing sensation of coming home.
I need it now more than ever.
Sam and Sadie’s party is in full swing when I arrive. I spot a lot of familiar faces, but I’m here for one face in particular. I can see Sadie on my TV screen whenever I want these days, but it’s been years since I’ve seen her in the flesh. When Suzy invited me earlier today, I didn’t have to think twice about accepting. I consider myself a down-to-earth person—you have to be in my profession—but Sadie Ireland has always been the exception to any rule I’ve ever set myself.
I make my way through the throng of people on the deck. I hear two guys I know talking about catching some waves in the morning. I give them a nod of recognition. I try to ignore the coil of nerves in my stomach, even though I know better than most how futile it is to try not to feel your feelings. But again—Sadie’s the exception to everything.
I spot Suzy first. She’s part of a circle of people that have gathered around Sam and Sadie, as if they’re holding court. Suzy’s usually the center of every circle, but maybe she’s happy to surrender the spotlight to her siblings on their birthday. I know all three Irelands and it has always struck me as odd that, out of the three of them, Sadie ended up the TV star.
Not that she doesn’t have the looks for it—she always had. I lock my gaze on her and it all comes back to me, engulfing me like a dream I’m not sure I ever want to wake up from.
We’re both twenty-four years older now, but the slant of Sadie’s nose and the shape of her eyes are as familiar to me now as they were then.
Sadie has spotted me. She does that thing with her eyes when she glances away at first before her gaze is pulled back, as though she has no other choice but to look at me again.
“Devon!” Suzy must have seen something on her sister’s face because she has turned around and is pulling me toward them. “So glad you came.”
“Happy birthday, Irelands.” I stand around awkwardly because I don’t know whether to kiss them or hug them or, more than anything else, how to behave around Sadie.
Sam opens his arms wide and draws me into a bear hug. I’m not a regular at his bar, but I stop by here often enough, usually for a post-surf morning coffee.
“Happy you could make it,” he mumbles, his words slurring a touch already.
“Thank you so much for having me. I’m sorry I didn’t bring a gift. It was all a bit last minute, but it’s definitely forthcoming.”
“Your presence is your gift.” Sam steps back and I have a full view of Sadie again. Does she even remember that day? Probably not. It meant different things to us. That has always been clear.
“Devon!” Sadie sounds surprised to see me. “Oh, my god!” She opens her arms to me and I walk into her embrace. “Wow,” Sadie whispers when her lips are close to my ear. “What a trip down memory lane.”
I’m partial to tight hugs full of intention, but I only manage a limp pat on Sadie’s shoulders.
“I know.” I send her a smile after I’ve stepped back. “It’s been a minute.” I regroup and turn it on in a way that fools even myself.
Sadie arches up her eyebrows and brings a fingertip to my left arm. “Wow,” she says again. “Those are so incredibly cool.”
“Devon’s the most tattooed life coach around,” Suzy says. “Sadie’s right, by the way. You’re such a cool chick, Dev.”
I chuckle heartily. “Cool is the very last thing I’m feeling right now.” I give Sadie a look so she knows I’m referring to her presence.
“Don’t tell me Sadie’s fame impresses the likes of you.” Suzy brings her hands to her hips, as though scolding me. “That’s not what I signed up for when I hired you as my coach.”
We all have our weaknesses, I think, but can’t possibly say out loud. “It’s not so much the fame that impresses me, but that the girl I used to sit next to in class is now on my television every time I turn it on.”
“Professional hazard,” Sadie says.
“Here.” Sam offers me a bottle of beer. I’m not much of a drinker, but tonight, in the presence of Sadie Ireland, I may very well indulge.
“Here’s to you two.” I hold up the bottle and both Sam and Sadie clink theirs against it. I try to catch Sadie’s gaze as we toast, but it skitters away. Maybe a flash of memory surprised her, too.
“You must have turned forty recently?” Sadie inquires.
“A few months ago.”
“Here’s to you as well, then.” She lifts her bottle again, and this time, she returns my gaze for a split second. Her eyes still have the same bottomless darkness to them. Her smile is still as lopsidedly gorgeous as ever. “You look really good, Devon.”
Heat flashes up my neck. Thank goodness the light is dimmed in the bar. Damn you, fair complexion. Unlike the surfer dudes on the deck, and despite all the time I spend in the water and underneath the California sun, my skin only knows two tones: alabaster white and lobster red.
“Thank you.” More people arrive and want a piece of Sam and especially Sadie. According to Suzy, even though LA is only a six-hour drive south, Sadie doesn’t make it back to Clearwater Bay very often. Also, according to Suzy, Sam is the luckiest of the three Ireland siblings because Sadie bought him a beach house and a bar in his beloved hometown, and he gets to enjoy the fruits of their sister’s labor the most.
“I hope we get to talk some more later,” Sadie says, before she’s swallowed up by a group of people I’m not familiar with.
I lean against the bar and cast my gaze about the place. I see plenty of people I know and should chat with, but my eyes are drawn back to Sadie time and time again. I’d best get a grip. I look away and think of my son, Finn, who should be fast asleep right now at his dad’s. It’s easy enough to picture him in a funny, haphazard sleeping position, which is exactly what I need to pull me out of my Sadie Ireland induced trance.
When I scan the bar again, it’s with different intentions. I fully acknowledge that I have some residual feelings left for Sadie, while I also know that twenty-four years later, they no longer hold any meaning. It’s more nostalgia than anything else. Perhaps mixed with a touch of loneliness. I won’t wallow in either, which is why I decide there and then, as my gaze scours the women in The Bay, to kill two birds with one stone—if I feel less lonely, nostalgia won’t stand much chance either.
As if on cue, the music is turned up. Suzy’s the first to start dancing, pulling her reluctant brother and sister along with her. Both Sam and Sadie retreat to the bar, while Suzy is quickly surrounded by other people more than willing to dance.
A woman I don’t know catches my eyes. She has a few tattoos of her own, which is always a way in. I try to focus on her, but it’s as though an invisible force field radiates from farther down the bar, where Sadie’s standing. I can’t help but look—and I can’t help but melt a little more either. Damn you, nostalgia.
Devon Douglas looks mighty fine in that orange top. It brings out the fire in her hair. Even though I could tell that seeing me rattled her for a moment, she looks like she has it all together. Like she has it all figured out. She has that healthy glow about her that comes with successfully keeping existential dread at bay. I suppose it’s a minimum requirement when you claim you can coach other people at ‘life.’
When Suzy mentioned that she’d invited Devon to the party, I had no idea she was referring to the Devon Douglas. For a while in high school, we were inseparable, until we weren’t. Because that’s how things can go at that age.
I smile at her before taking another swig of beer. I don’t remember how many I’ve had. As soon as I finish one, Sam is there to put another in my hand. I should talk to him about that. But not tonight.
Devon smiles back, and I take it as my cue to walk toward her. By now, most people at the party are over the fact that Sadie Ireland is here. I’m just a TV actor. I’m no Ida Burton or Faye Fleming. People get over being starstruck pretty quickly when they meet me in the flesh—look at Cassidy. Devon’s attention didn’t fade though—but she knew me a long time before there was any talk of King & Prince.
“Hey.” I can’t help but giggle like the teenagers we once were. “Are you having fun?”
“It sure is a trip seeing you again, Sadie.”
“Of course.” Devon stares intensely into my eyes.
I know I should say something, but I don’t know what. It’s as if my mind has gone blank. The only other time that happened to me was when I had to act opposite Mike again after we separated. Sometimes, emotions catch up with you despite your rational mind’s best intentions.
“Are you okay?” Devon points to the beer bottle in my hand.
“Sam,” I say, as though that should make it all perfectly clear.
“Want me to finish that for you?” Devon holds out her hand. “It might make for less of a headache in the morning.”
“Sure.” I give Devon my beer and watch how she brings it to her lips and tips the bottle back. For some reason, probably severe inebriation, my gaze is glued to her neck as she swallows.
“How long are you in town for?” Devon asks.
“For the entire hiatus of the show. I’m not doing anything else. Just retreating to my home base and licking my post-divorce wounds.”
“I’d love to meet for coffee sometime. Catch up.”
“I’d love that very much, too.” I tilt my head. “You look… I don’t know. Like the opposite of how I feel. Happy. Like everything is as it should be in your world.”
“Looks can be deceiving. You should know that.”
“Oh, I do. But…”
“It’s okay. Whether you’re Sadie Ireland living it up in Hollywood or Devon Douglas enjoying a quiet life in Clearwater Bay, we all go through good and bad times. It doesn’t matter where you live or what you do for a living.”
“That’s deep for a birthday party.” I’ve drunk too much to come up with even the slightest witty repartee.
“Yeah, I’m sorry.” Everything Devon says sounds so heartfelt. “And I’m sorry you’re going through a tough time.”
Of course, she knows all about my divorce. The entire world knows. By lying low, I hope the attention on my former marriage will die down soon.
“I’m here now, with my family.” Suzy has somehow convinced Sam to stay on the makeshift dance floor—The Bay isn’t exactly a clubbing hotspot. My brother has many talents but moving his body in synch with a musical beat is not one of them. He seems to be having a blast, however. So much so it’s infectious, and I feel like I’m missing out—kind of how I’ve felt about their lives since King & Prince took off and I had less and less time to come home.
“Do you want to dance?” Suddenly, I’m curious to see how Devon moves to the beat. If she can maintain that cool demeanor on the dance floor.
“How can I say no to Sadie Ireland?” She leads the way and, as these things can go at a boozy party, one moment I find myself lamenting my private life, while the next I’m going bananas to a Tina Turner song.
Suzy curls her arm around me and pulls me near. “I’m so glad you’re home, little sis,” she yells in my ear. “I missed you so much.”
“I missed you too, Suze.” My eyes go watery as I look at her. That must be the beer as well.
“I know what we need.” Sam has approached us.
I groan in anticipation.
“Shots! Shots! Shots!” Suzy joins in.
I’m having too much fun with my siblings to put up much of a fight. And it’s not as if I have to be on set tomorrow. I’ll have two months to recover from what will be a heinous hangover.
Sam orders shots with a few well-practiced hand gestures and next thing I know, liquor is burning down my throat. So much for letting Devon finish my beer earlier. Speaking of, where is she? She doesn’t seem to partake in the reckless knocking back of shots. She’s moved away from where we are clumsily swaying to the music and is talking to a woman I don’t recognize. Devon’s smiling and the other woman is peering intently at the tattoo sleeves on Devon’s arms.
Next thing I know, I’m being lifted in the air, my legs swinging in front of me.
“Put me down, Sam,” I yell. “I’m forty years old, for crying out loud.”
“Only if you do another shot with me.”
“Oh, what the hell.” Thankfully, he releases me from his hold. My legs wobble when my feet touch back down on solid ground. “I might as well.”
“To you and me, sis.” Sam offers me another shot. “I promise I’ll be on my best behavior while you’re staying with me.”
“Big words, bro. Big words.”
“I’ll try to remember to put the toilet seat down.” He grins at me.
“Some other things as well.”
“How about you try not to bring a new woman home every other night? I would really appreciate that.”
“That’s not a promise I can make.” He pulls his face into a forced scowl.
“Of course you can! We can agree on one night a week and I’ll make sure I’m elsewhere. I’ll stay at Suzy’s or Dad’s.”
Sam shakes his head, then his eyes grow wide. I follow the path of his gaze.
“Someone’s getting lucky tonight,” he says.
Devon and the woman are standing very close but it’s not as though they’re doing anything that might indicate they’re ‘getting lucky.’
“They’re just talking.”
“Yeah right. And I’m a virgin.” Sam elbows me in the biceps. “Maybe you’ve been out of flirting practice for too long, but I certainly know it when I see it. Anyway, good for them.”
I stare at Devon and the woman she’s talking to. Are they flirting? And does it matter whether they are? If so, why does it seem to bother me to the extent that I find it hard to look away because I want to see how it ends?
Is it because Devon Douglas isn’t just a girl I went to school with? She’s also the girl who kissed me, out of the blue, on a sunny Wednesday afternoon.
<<End of preview>>
And Then She Kissed Me will be available on Thursday 27 January 2022 from all retailers. (The audio, narrated by Abby Craden, will follow later this year.)
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