Unearthly, the first book in the Beauty and Her Alien series, is available this month! Here is the first chapter as a preview for you.
The moment Joe walked into the shop that night I knew I’d let things go on far too long.
I’m an early bird by all definitions, but I’ve been on the late shift ever since Kris had her baby last spring. Not that she’s left the shop for good—she’s on the call list if one of the college kids doesn’t show—but babies keep their own timetable, and an eight-o’clock close, which means you’re actually walking out the door eight forty-five-ish, just wasn’t going to cut it anymore. And I’m the most reliable of all our bunch, and the one who’s been there the longest besides, so when my boss, Ray, sat me down and asked nicely if I’d consider coming in a bit later, and oh, by the way, how about a two-dollar-per-hour raise—well, I said okay. Two dollars more an hour is almost enough to make working at a kayak-and-ski shop respectable when you’re twenty-three years old.
Not that the shop is unrespectable. People like us, and we get great online ratings—a full star more than Ski and Sail in Scarlettville, the next town over. That’s all down to Ray, who makes sure to run a tight ship (har har) since we get all sorts—racers, people looking to rent, middle-aged guys with money to burn, paddleboard pussies (Evan’s term, not mine). Our ski inventory is top notch, and we have kayaks that run the gamut from entry-level to whatever model Sail Freak has listed as the latest and greatest. Plus all the accessories you could ever want and refurbishing services, too. And the Big Deer River is right out back, or the Big D to anyone with even the mildest sense of humor, which makes it easy for us to run lessons for kids and beginners. So I can understand how you could hear the words kayak-and-ski shop and think it’s a basic operation, and keeping the shop alive and gasping is pretty much second nature to me after six years—but what I’m trying to say is that there’s more to it than you’d think, and me doing Ray a favor and taking the late shift for a little while, which soon turned into a longer while, was one of those things that count for more than what they seem.
But the shift didn’t agree with me. I like going into work, doing my time, then having the rest of the day to myself. Flipping that schedule on its head made me tired and lazy; I’d never been so permanently behind on laundry, nor so familiar with Bamboo Garden’s takeout menu. There was also the added complication that I don’t like driving on Fett’s Gap Mountain Road at night, which is the route you have to take to get from the shop back to my house. I mean, I’ll do it if I have to, but I’ll do pretty much anything not to.
I’d actually worked matters out so that the driving thing wasn’t a big issue. My best friend Molly and I close together on Mondays and Wednesdays, and she didn’t mind me carpooling back with her. But save for Sundays, which is my consistent day off and a prize hard fought for and carefully guarded, all the other days it’s Evan and I who close up, and that was becoming a problem. Not with Evan—out of all the college kids on our crew, he’s the best by far. Shows up on time, doesn’t think he’s above retail, doesn’t exhale sarcasm like the other college kids, good conversationalist. Just a real sweetheart (save for his severe prejudice against paddleboarders). And he was totally fine with driving me home whenever we closed together—but Joe had increasingly been giving indications that he was not fine with that.
Joe and I had been a thing for a bit—a nebulous, amoebic thing that I had a hard time looking at straight. We’d managed to hit all the initial benchmarks of two people who are moving towards establishing a relationship: a tipsy make-out session at a late-summer pool party to kick things off, then a proper movie date. Then some more dates: hiking, milkshakes and chili dogs at Arlene’s Bar and Grill, a requisite kayaking trip down the Big D. When we talked, the conversation was good. He was courteous, handsome, owned his own landscaping business. We hadn’t slept together yet, but surely he’d be great. On paper, he was perfect. But everything we were together, and everything we’d done, somehow felt like a bunch of puzzle pieces that didn’t quite match up.
That, and there was something about his face sometimes when I looked at him sidelong, when he didn’t know I was watching. A part of him that he kept tucked out of sight, only rising to the surface in odd, fleeting moments. I couldn’t say I felt like I knew him.
It was a hard thing to put into words, so I tried to talk around it to Molly, circling a murky bull’s-eye that I didn’t understand. “The issue,” I said to her one day as we were leaving the shop, “is that everyone likes those things. Kissing, milkshakes, and kayaking.”
The headlights of her old Civic winked at us as she unlocked it. “Not everyone likes kayaking.”
“The good ones do.”
She snorted. “Like you have so much experience. You barely dated before Joe.”
“We’re not dating,” I said, shutting the car door more firmly than necessary.
Her blue eyes bored into me. Molly might be short, but she’s intimidating when she needs to be. “And what else would you call it?”
“Individual dates. That just happen to be with the same person.”
“And what does one plus one equal?”
“He’s just so…” I tugged on my braid as I grasped for words. I like to keep my hair out of my face while I’m working; anything else is just asking for trouble. All the long-haired girls can probably relate: it’s oh-so-fun to have a mane, but at the same time I am forever getting it caught in things or dragging it through my food accidentally. Also, having it down is a magnet for customer flirtation—guys like blondes with big boobs, go figure—which was exhilarating when I first started working at the shop, but now is just an annoyance. “…so urgh,” I finished lamely.
Molly started the car. “Then give me urgh any day. Joe’s hot.”
“Yes, technically. I just don’t know if—”
“And he’s a good kisser,” she said, pulling out of the parking lot. “You said that.”
I fidgeted in the seat as my eyes bounced from one side of the road to the other, on the lookout for deer. Mating season runs through early December, so we still had a week or so left before their numbers would drop off. “Again, yes. Technically.” Joe knew his way around a woman’s mouth, but wasn’t being with the right guy supposed to be a bit more melty? Books were always talking about pulse-racing kisses, knee-buckling kisses, kisses to make your cheeks hot and nether regions pulse with lust. Against that admittedly unscientific benchmark, Joe was… maybe a five?
But it could be my standards were too high. Molly certainly thought so.
“Corinne, listen to me.” Her voice sank into her I’m-going-to-Mom-at-you-right-now register. “He has a car and a good, stable job and his own place. And he’s not an EMT.” This was always a plus in Molly’s book, who had stories from the EMT she’d dated briefly before getting back together with her now-husband. “Or a heroin addict!” Yet more stories. “Choose Joe. Choose Joe.”
“Yeah,” I said, watching the headlights split the night in two, Moses-like. There weren’t streetlights this far out of town. “I don’t know. I mean, he’s bought IMAX tickets for Out of the Aether this Saturday. So I’ll see how that goes.” I tried to inject some conviction into my voice, as if a night spent watching guys blow things up with ray guns was going to help me decide the future of… whatever this was.
But I was spared the movie, because on Friday, with just a few minutes till close, Joe strolled through the door.
Evan and I were deep into a discussion about aliens as we straightened up the shelves, sparked by the release of Out of the Aether, which he was going to see that night at its midnight release. Evan’s a firm believer, especially when he’s just taken a couple hits from his vape pen out back. Me, I’d always been more of a skeptic, but I saw no harm in letting Evan have his fun, just like I always let my Aunt Misty go on about the ghost in her house and her latest favorite angel.
“Just think about the numbers,” Evan was saying. “The amount of stars in the universe. The amount of planets.”
“I read an article the other day that said there are about twenty billion trillion stars.”
“Wow, twenty batrillion?”
He shot me a withering, red-eyed look. “Shut up, Corinne. So, you take all those stars, some of them are going to have planets just the right amount away that you’re not freezing off or burning away all potential life. Conservatively, that gets us down to, say, five billion trillion stars. Then you whittle away all the stars with orbiting planets that are the right distance away but still have issues—no water, the wrong gases, stuff like that—and maybe we only have a couple billion trillion so-called perfect solar systems now to choose from. How many of them have allowed life to form? What about intelligent life? Civilization? Technology?”
My eyes drifted to the clock—five minutes till close. “Sounds about as likely as winning the lottery.”
He shook his head. “But when you crunch the numbers we’re still talking about literally billions of solar systems. And all it takes is one to—”
But the creak of the door cut short his building soliloquy. A red bolt of anger shot through me; what customer dared cross the threshold of Wakpa Paddling and Ski Center at this hour? Then I turned around, my shopgirl smile pasted on and my we’re-just-about-to-close voice ready to deploy, and my anger cooled to annoyance when I saw Joe striding towards me.
And with that annoyance came a cool, hard certainty that this was over. No matter how great this man might be on paper, no matter how strong his jaw or model-like his dark hair, no matter how much Molly loved living vicariously through my dating life, something about him chafed at me like fine-grit sandpaper.
“Hey,” I said to him as my thoughts raced. How and when was I going to do this? Surely it was best to get the breakup over with as soon as possible.
“Hey, babe.” His blue eyes darted over to Evan, and he raised his chin. “’Sup?” Then his gaze was back on me, and he treated me to a beaming smile, his perfectly aligned teeth the brightest thing in the shop. A movie-star smile. Molly was going to flay me alive for breaking up with this man.
I drew a breath. “So… what are you doing here?”
“Just thought I’d drop by and give you a ride once you’re done. You feel like stopping for burgers? My treat.”
“Ooh,” Evan cut in, stoner eyes bright. “Where you going to go? Arlene’s? The Roadhouse?”
“Lady’s choice, of course,” Joe said with another smile at me.
“I don’t know that I’m up for burgers,” I said. “My stomach’s been feeling a bit off.”
Evan raised his eyebrows. “But we just had those cupcakes, what, like an hour ago? Joe, you want a cupcake? Ray’s wife brought them in…”
Damn it, Evan, shut up. “I think it might have been the cupcake that did it,” I said, then offered a silent apology to Ray’s wife, whose wonderful cupcakes didn’t deserve the lie.
“I’ll take you home,” Joe said smoothly. He turned back to Evan. “Listen, since she feels sick, you can close up yourself, right?”
If Evan were a puppy, Joe would be Cesar Millan. Evan’s eyes widened slightly, then he gave a sharp nod. There’s some magnetic quality about Joe that makes other people, especially other guys, straighten up and listen. Hence him owning Wakpa’s most successful landscaping company at twenty-seven.
I, meanwhile, was swiftly slipping from annoyance back to anger. “But he’s just an associate—sorry, Evan, but it’s true. I still have to close out, write the log—”
Evan was fighting back a smile. “Here’s the log: ‘It’s Friday night. Nobody comes in Friday nights because they’re all at Arlene’s. We haven’t had a customer in since five, so why the hell do we have to be here until eight?’ Relax, Corinne, I got this. You go home and rest up.”
“Go.” And I saw that his shoulders were set, my battle lost. Feeling more than a little like a person in the process of being kidnapped, I grabbed my things, then trailed Joe out the front door to his gleaming truck—a new purchase, which still reeked of new-car smell. As it started up, I cast a desperate look back at the warm, familiar comfort of the shop. Evan gave me a cheery wave through the window as we backed up, then we jetted off into the night.