My first novella, SLEEPWALKING, is available now on Amazon. It’s a prequel to my first novel, Awakened, that asks the question, how many times have you walked past your soul mate before you noticed her?
Read the first chapter below.
Leah McAllister had never felt quite so acutely uncomfortable as she did walking into Westbrook University’s LGBT student organization with her best friend, Michelle. It was past seven and they were running late thanks to Leah’s stalling tactics, and when they opened the door to the library conference room, a half dozen heads all turned in unison to watch them enter. Leah felt nervous butterflies filling her stomach and she fought the urge to clutch the steno pad in her hand defensively in front of her chest.
She hated to be the center of attention like this, and she’d rather melt into the floor–or better yet, scurry back to her dorm room where Netflix and a package of Oreos waited for her–than come to this meeting.
But Chelle insisted, saying it would make for a good article in the student newspaper if nothing else. Leah felt her hand gently on the small of her back, pushing her further into the room. There was a red-headed guy sitting at the head of the table and as Leah took a few tentative steps into the room, his hand shot up in the air and he waved the girls in.
“Welcome to Open Doors,” he said with a large, friendly smile.
“Hey, would you shut that door behind you?”
“Huh?” Leah asked, as a few people around the table laughed and there was more than one groan. One of them came from Chelle.
“Alex, if you don’t stop making that joke we’re going to vote you off the island,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Leah, that’s Alex. He’s the Open Doors president, and he’s not as funny as he thinks he is.”
“Hey,” Leah said, returning his wave.
Chelle made introductions all the way around the table–there was Donovan, linking his arm in Alex’s as he nodded at Leah, and then Christy, who looked familiar but Leah couldn’t place her yet. Chelle gave Leah the names of the other girls and guys sitting around the table, too, but she was starting to feel a little bit anxious again and they didn’t stick in her mind. She was wondering what would happen when they got back around to her.
Leah glanced around the room–it was pretty sparsely furnished, and aside from the conference table in the center of the room, the only other piece of furniture was a long rectangular table pressed up against the wall by the door. There were an assortment of chips and dips and cookies and a veggie tray spread out on it, as well as a couple two-liter bottles of soda and a stack of red solo cups.
Replace the soft drinks with coffee slowly cooling in a grimy carafe, and replace the conference table with a circle of folding chairs, and this would be an Al-Anon meeting. She didn’t know how to introduce herself to an LGBT student group, but she did know what to say at one of those meetings.
She tried the words out in her head. My name is Leah and I’m a lesbian. She’d say them out loud to a round of polite clapping from the other group members.
The idea made her pulse quicken. No, after three years of pestering on Chelle’s part, Leah had finally agreed to come to an Open Doors meeting, but she’d made it very clear that she was here in a journalistic capacity, to cover whatever event the group was planning for LGBT History Month in October. Leah thought that it had been a fine compromise, and she hoped that it would get Chelle off her back for at least a little while.
“And this is my roommate, Leah,” she was saying, and Leah could just tell by the sideways grin she was giving her that this was not the first time the group was hearing her name. Chelle always did have trouble minding her own business. She prodded Leah lightly in the ribs and said, “Introduce yourself.”
“Umm,” Leah said, looking around the table. The girl with the familiar face–Christy–was studying Leah with an intensity in her eyes, and it made her feel flushed. “Well, I’m just here because I got kicked out of Westbrook’s fight club. They really take that no talking rule seriously, and I figured I’d come check you guys out while I’m waiting to hear back from the intestinal parasites support group I applied to join.”
She got a much heartier round of laughter than Alex’s overused one-liner, and Chelle pulled her over to a pair of empty chairs to sit down before she had the chance to second-guess her presence here.
“Leah writes for the school paper,” Chelle said as the laughter died down. “She’s going to write an article about our LGBT History Month events.”
“Well then I guess that means we better come up with some ideas,” Alex said, calling the meeting back to order. “What do you guys have for me?”
People started throwing out ideas–movie screenings and panel discussions and poster campaigns–and Leah flipped to a new page in her notebook to jot down notes as ideas flew around the table.
Once when she glanced up, she caught the stare of Christy sitting directly across from her. She looked tall even in her chair, with impeccable posture and an athletic build. Leah was almost sure that she’d noticed her last spring when she’d gone to the university’s pool to interview the coach of the swim team after they won Divisionals. Christy was very pretty, with long, sandy blonde hair and eyes that had just a hint of emerald in them. The way she was looking at her made Leah feel anxious, and she fixed her eyes down on her notepad for the duration of the meeting.
After the flurry of ideas for LGBT History Month died down, Alex called a snack break and everyone started to push away from the table and move toward the refreshment table. Leah felt the anxiety beginning to well up inside her again, but thankfully Chelle saw the way she was gripping her notepad like it was a lifeline and stuck beside her.
Chelle had always been the more social one between them, Leah preferring to fade into the background in social situations and become more of a wallflower, and as the meeting became more casual she wasn’t sure that her journalistic façade was going to carry her much farther. Chelle took Leah by the elbow and pulled her out of her chair, then they headed over to the snack table where everyone was piling cookies and chips onto little paper plates and chatting with each other.
“Let’s go say hi to Alex,” Chelle said. “He’s been the Open Doors president for two years now, and he’s the reason we’re as functional as we are. If it wasn’t for him, our meetings would probably devolve into sitting around someone’s dorm room eating cookie dough and watching Orange is the New Black.”
“And that would be a tragedy,” Alex said, his voice dripping with hyperbole at Chelle’s prediction. Then he smiled and held out his hand to Leah. “Nice to meet you, Leah. Glad you could finally squeeze us into your schedule.”
Leah blushed, then shot a look at Chelle.
“I may or may not have mentioned you a time or two,” Chelle said.
“Well, thanks for having me,” Leah said. “And I’ll be happy to do a follow-up article when you get the details of the panel discussion worked out.”
Alex arched one eyebrow at her, and she was worried that she’d said something wrong. Then he cocked his head to the side and asked, “Are you sure you’re only here in your capacity as a reporter?”
Leah felt a lump forming in her throat and she swallowed it down hard, glancing over to Chelle for backup, but she was very unhelpfully wandering away to talk to a pretty girl with beachy brunette waves in her hair who was standing near the drinks. Leah rolled her eyes and then turned back to Alex, ready to defend her motivations, but thankfully the boy Chelle had introduced as Donovan came over and threw his arm around Alex’s shoulder, distracting him.
“Baby, we’re out of regular Coke,” he said, resting his head against Alex’s. “Do you have any more in your car?”
“I suppose you couldn’t possibly drink a diet soda instead,” Alex said, playfully poking Donovan in his somewhat pudgy stomach and eliciting a scowl from him. After a moment, he relented. “Oh, fine. I think there’s another bottle in the trunk. I’ll go get it because I wouldn’t want you to die of aspartame ingestion.”
“Thank you,” Donovan said sweetly, planting a kiss on Alex’s temple.
“Excuse me, snack emergency,” Alex said to Leah as he dug a keychain out of his pocket. “It was nice to meet you, Leah. I hope you’ll come back to Open Doors sometime. Oh, and help yourself to some food.”
“Thanks,” Leah said. She looked around for Chelle and found her sitting at the conference table, eating chips off the brunette’s plate while they talked and smiled at each other. Then she looked at the snack table. It was clearing out now as people took plates back to their seats, so Leah wandered over.
She was pouring herself a cup of diet soda when she sensed someone approaching behind her. She turned just as Christy grabbed a plate and gave Leah a flirtatious little grin that made the butterflies in her stomach burst into flight once again. She was even taller standing beside Leah, lean and muscular through her bare arms, and she thought that she caught a slight smell of chlorine in her thick blonde hair.
“Umm, you’re Christy Jameson, right? You broke the school’s hundred-meter freestyle record last year,” Leah said, then went back to busying herself with the snack table so she wouldn’t have to look into those smoldering eyes. It was obvious from across the conference table that Christy was flirting with her, and it made her heart race.
“Yeah,” she said, a broad smile breaking across her face as she set down her plate and turned to face Leah. “How did you know?”
“I write for The Western Review,” Leah said. “I didn’t cover that particular story, but I remembered your name because I did do the article on the team’s Divisionals win last spring.”
“Very cool,” Christy said, leaning against the end of the snack table and sliding a few inches closer to Leah. She looked around at Chelle, wondering if she could use her as a feasible excuse to run away, but Chelle was watching the two of them and shot Leah a devious look.
She thought she knew everything about Leah, from the first moment when they’d been assigned to be roommates freshman year. It took Chelle exactly ten seconds to look her up and down and decide exactly who Leah was, even if three years later Leah still hadn’t quite figured it out for herself. She knew that Chelle would be of no use in this particular situation because she would fail to see the problem.
“So this is your first Open Doors meeting,” Christy observed, and Leah felt another flush rising into her cheeks as she felt Christy’s eyes on her. “You’re not a freshman, though?”
“No,” Leah said, grabbing a plate and piling it with chips and cookies for lack of something better to do. She wasn’t even particularly hungry, but she didn’t like the way her insides went fuzzy and fluttery when she made too much eye contact with Christy. “I’m actually a senior.”
“Me too,” Christy said. “What are you studying?”
“Journalism,” she said, her voice cracking just slightly as she spoke.
“Oh, duh,” Christy said with a laugh. Then she took a step closer and Leah could feel her body heat. It was making her pulse throb in her ears and an uncomfortably strong, thrumming warmth build somewhere deep in her core.
“It just seemed logical,” Leah replied with a nervous laugh. Finally, her plate was full of food she didn’t really want and she had nothing left to do but turn and look Christy in the eyes.
She was at least a full head taller than Leah, with long, straight hair the color of the wheat fields that surrounded the campus. Her lips were full and pink, and her eyes sparked with something wild while she studied Leah’s expression. It felt almost obscene to be looked into like that in front of so many strangers. Leah’s eyes darted around the room, expecting to see an audience hanging on the tension growing between them, but instead, everyone was wrapped up in their own conversations.
“Do you want to come to Tink’s with me after this?” Christy asked, and her voice was practically a whisper. Leah bit her lip. Tink’s was another place that Chelle had spent three years trying to drag Leah to. Christy saw the hesitation in Leah’s face and added, “Hey, how can you write about the Westbrook LGBT community and not mention Tink’s? Bring Chelle, of course.”
“The thing is…” Leah said, then paused. Her heart was racing all the more as she said, “I’m not gay.”
Christy’s brow knit together, and while it wasn’t quite the skeptical eyebrow arch that Alex had given her, it didn’t look as if she was fully picking up what Leah was putting down. She was just about to thank Christy for the offer and say that she had an early morning tomorrow–it was true, after all–when Christy said, “Doesn’t matter to me. So are you in?”
“In for what?” Chelle asked, finally choosing to come over and rescue Leah at the exact wrong moment. Of course she was going to want to go to Tink’s–it was her favorite place in Westbrook. Leah knew there was no way she was getting out of it now.
“Tink’s,” Christy said.
“Hell yeah, we’re in,” Chelle replied, shooting a shocked glance over at Leah, who returned it with a somewhat helpless shrug.
“Why not?” She said.