An eccentric adult shop owner. An agoraphobic game collector. A romantic comedy about finding love and self-acceptance in the strangest places. Opposites attract when Theo offers to help Libby with her shop, but will they be brave enough to play the game of love?
My latest novel, Good Vibes, is available now on Amazon. Read the first chapter below.
“Oh wow, did you know the expansion pack has blank cards you can fill in yourself?” Theo Kostas asked her roommate.
She was sitting on the couch with a ripped-open mailer envelope beside her and a brand new card game spread out on the coffee table in front of her. This one was called Escape From Moon Base 9 and it was all anyone in her online gaming circles were talking about. Of course, that didn’t mean it impressed her roommate.
Andie rolled her eyes on her way from her bedroom to the kitchen. “Nerd alert.”
“Shut up,” Theo teased. “Do you really think spending an entire Friday night waiting in line to get Nat Butler’s autograph is any less nerdy?”
That was what Andie had done last night. She’d gotten home around two a.m. and found Theo staring like a zombie at YouTube videos. She’d talked non-stop for at least thirty minutes about her spiritual connection with the rock star and how she was destined to become the future Mrs. Butler before finally pouring herself into bed around three.
Theo hadn’t heard a peep from her until she emerged from her bedroom, dyed blonde hair wild with sleep, apparently with the sole motivation of making fun of Theo’s hobbies.
Oh, and coffee.
“Make enough for me, will you?” Theo called into the kitchen. Andie grunted and Theo went back to inspecting her new deck of cards. Not enough people took advantage of the fill-in-the-blank cards – it took a certain amount of cockiness to think you knew a game better than the developers, but Theo took it as a personal challenge. Her mind was already turning with possibilities when Andie flopped onto the couch beside her, shoving the empty mailing envelope out of the way.
“Five-minute ETA on the coffee,” she said. “Did I tell you Nat’s eyes have this other-worldly quality to them? Like dark chocolate ganache infused with gold flecks…”
“Yeah,” Theo said, distracted. “About ten times last night.”
“Oh. Well, they’re amazing.”
“So I’ve heard.” Nat Butler was not unattractive, and Theo liked her music as much as anyone could like something their roommate played as if today was the last day it would exist. But Theo wasn’t a celebrity chaser, even though she and Andie lived in New York City and they’d bumped into a few. She wasn’t much of a woman chaser at all, in fact. All she needed lately was Moon Base 9 and her gamer friends online.
“Come on,” Andie said. “You would swoon if you met her.”
“You should have come last night,” she said, dragging herself off the couch as the coffee maker percolated. “I bet you would have had fun.”
Tight crowds in stadium seating. Long bathroom lines. An hour and a half subway ride in the sweltering July heat. Theo’s pulse jumped up and she shook her head. “I had fun at home.”
“You’re 32 years old,” Andie said on her way to the coffee maker. “Don’t you ever get tired of being 80?”
Maybe an attack card to mess with another player’s gravity field… Theo was just mentally filing the idea away for one of the blank cards when the apartment buzzer sounded. Andie was mid-pour so Theo went to the intercom. “Hello?”
“Buzz me up,” her sister said. “And make it snappy – this stuff is heavy.”
“You need help?”
“Nah, I got it.”
Theo buzzed her sister into the building and took the chain off the apartment door, then went into the kitchen to retrieve her coffee from Andie. She was just gathering her Moon Base 9 cards to put them away when Penny burst into the apartment and dropped her 20-pound wedding binder on the coffee table.
“Careful!” Theo said. “I just got those cards.”
“They’re fine,” Penny said with a roll of her eyes. “Thanks for the help, by the way.”
“You said you had it.”
“Now, girls,” Andie said. “Quit your bickering or I’ll have to send you to separate corners.”
“Love you, baby sis,” Penny said, pinching Theo’s cheek. Theo swatted at Penny’s hand, then went into the kitchen to get her a cup of coffee. When she came back, Penny had completely overtaken the coffee table.
“What is all this?” Theo asked.
“Wedding supplies, of course!” Penny said. She took a long sip of coffee, but by the looks of it, she didn’t need to be caffeinated. She’d been riding the wedding planning high for about three months already with no signs of slowing down – and the wedding wasn’t for another eleven months. “You two are my maids of honor – please tell me you did not forget your promise to help me pick out invitations today.”
“Oh Lord,” Theo said, inspecting some of the stuff spread across the table. Theo was no savant, but it looked like there were at least two hundred different sample invitations there. “Where did you even get this many samples?”
“It’s amazing what you can get if you’re willing to ask,” Penny said.
“Or if you want to spend an entire week talking to suppliers, from the looks of it,” Andie said. “Ooh, this one’s pretty.”
“Too floral,” Penny said, plucking the invitation out of Andie’s hand and starting a discard pile. “There – one down, just a few more to go.”
“You’re insane,” Theo said. “What does Chet think of all this?”
“Well, he did send me over here,” Penny said.
“Thanks a lot, Chet,” Theo said. “I’ll remember this at Christmas when I’m choosing his gift.”
Andie and Penny laughed, and Theo brought a chair from the dining room so her sister could take her seat on the couch. The way she saw it, it was her sisterly duty to give Penny a hard time about how impressive it was that she’d become a Bridezilla the instant Chet put that ring on her finger. But sifting through wedding invitations was actually not a bad way to spend a Saturday morning. It wasn’t all that different from getting acquainted with the Moon Base 9 cards – only these were a lot more formal and, tragically, none of them made reference to space monsters.
“How about this one?” Theo asked, passing an elegant card with pretty calligraphy to her sister. “It’s simple but the font makes it feel modern.”
“I like it,” Penny said. “This’ll go in the maybe pile.”
The three of them sorted wedding invites for close to an hour before they could finally see the coffee table again beneath all that card stock. The discard pile was towering by the time they finished and Penny had narrowed it down to about ten maybe cards for Chet to weigh in on.
“Is that all for today?” Andie asked with a yawn. Obviously the coffee, followed by a rigorous invitation scavenger hunt, had done nothing to offset her Nat Butler-induced sleep deprivation.
“Maybe you’ve got a thousand first dance songs for us to listen to?” Theo suggested. “Or fifty different brands of Jordan almonds to taste for the wedding favors?”
“Don’t tempt me,” Penny said, tapping the overstuffed wedding binder, the weight of which was most definitely going to throw her back out before next June. “I do have one more wedding-related item to discuss with you two. The bachelorette party.”
“Planning that already?” Theo asked. A little nervous jitter worked its way through her stomach – wasn’t that something to worry about next spring?
“Yeah, isn’t that something you’re supposed to leave up to your maids of honor?” Andie asked.
“I would, but you know me – I don’t want to,” Penny said with a laugh. She turned to Theo. “And I know you don’t like taking trips…” The nervous jitter turned into a fist clenching Theo’s stomach. No, she very much did not like taking trips, and she didn’t like where this was going. “But this is my wedding and I only get to have one bachelorette party – I want it to be perfect.”
“Ooh, are we going somewhere fun?” Andie asked. She was always up for an adventure and Theo was already calculating Andie into her escape plan. She’d go in Theo’s stead, simple as that.
“Vegas,” Penny said and Theo’s stomach promptly dropped about five inches like a heavy stone had just materialized inside it.
“Las Vegas? Nevada?”
“Sin City, baby,” Penny said. Her big blue eyes were alight with excitement and she was obviously already married to the idea. Theo felt sick. Vegas was not just a quick day trip, which she might have been able to handle, or even a weekend trip to the family cabin in the Catskills. Las Vegas was a full-on trip and it was giving Theo hives just thinking about it.
The airport. The plane that was nothing more than a steel tube coasting through the air. The lights, the crowds, the distance from her safe little apartment with the shelves full of card games and her computer and everything else she needed just a few clicks away.
“I can’t,” Theo blurted.
She pulled Penny and Andie out of their reverie. They were already getting excited about hotel rooms and cocktails and exploring the Strip, and now they were both staring at Theo. Andie looked sympathetic but Penny had a hard look in her eyes that reminded Theo of their dad. He was the tough-love type, always telling her to ‘suck it up’ rather than let her weasel her way out of the things that scared her.
“You have to,” she said. “I’m sorry, but you’re my co-maid of honor and I need you at my bachelorette party.”
“You’ll have Andie-”
“I love Andie, but you’re my sister,” Penny said. “It’s just for a few days – Friday to Sunday – and it’s not happening for nine more months. I figured we’d go in April before the weather in Nevada gets too brutal.”
Theo’s whole body felt too hot, like someone had turned her internal thermostat way up. The trip could be in a week or eight years from now and she’d feel exactly the same way about it – Penny might as well be asking her to go to freaking Moon Base 9.
“I want to,” Theo said. Lie. “I’ll do my best.” Another lie. She was already brainstorming a dozen ways she could get out of it. Work obligations. Sudden illness. She’d pick a fight with Penny the day before the trip if she had to. It wasn’t that Theo was looking forward to disappointing her sister – after close to three decades of fighting the same exhausting battles over and over inside her own mind, she would love to just get on a plane and travel carefree across the country.
But Theo was barely capable of getting out of her chair right now, let alone taking all the steps required to go to Vegas and come back in one piece.
“I’m sorry, but that’s not good enough,” Penny said, her hands on her hips.
Well, that was new. Theo’s pulse started racing again. Everyone in her family was used to Theo’s anxiety-related limitations and she’d trained them a long time ago to expect a certain failure rate when it came to following through on plans. She always meant well, but sometimes she’d be standing in the doorway of her apartment, all ready to show up and not be a disappointment for once. But then a little voice inside her head would whisper in her ear, It’s not safe out there. And she’d be frozen to the floor.
Her family might not understand it, but they accepted it.
Until now, apparently.
“I don’t ask much of you,” Penny said. “Do you know how much of a pain in the ass it is to carry twenty pounds of wedding invitations across town on the subway? But I brought them to you because I know you’re more comfortable here. I do shit like that for you all the time, Theo, and I don’t mind. But this is my wedding. I want to go to Vegas with my best friends to celebrate and my sister will be there.”
Those blue eyes could turn icy when Penny was angry. Theo had seen it a few times, like when Andie told the entire middle school about Penny’s embarrassing crush on a teacher, or when Mom grounded Penny for a month over a dented bumper that had actually been a successful frame-job by Theo. She never got used to it when that icy stare was directed at her. Theo shivered and said, “Okay.”
Easier said than done – much easier said than done. But obviously Penny wasn’t messing around and Theo’s well of excuses had run dry. It didn’t matter if Theo had crippling agoraphobia, or if her boss needed her to work through the weekend, or if she was so sick she was actually dead. She was going to freaking Vegas in April.