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It’s Not Like It’s Fate Chapter 1

Creeper Jones peeks at me through the blinds of the owner’s office of One Stop Auto. I take my glasses off so everything past ten feet is blurred and pretend I don’t notice him staring from where I stand behind the front desk. The tremors in my hands prove I’m not a great pretender. 

I take slow breaths like the internet suggests to help relieve anxiety, and remind myself that Jones’ employment is temporary. He’s only covering for his uncle Mike, the owner of One Stop Auto, for four more weeks. Once Mike has healed from his hip replacement, Jones will disappear forever. I can do anything for four weeks. I’ve dealt with worse for longer. 

The bell above the door jangles and a customer walks inside. It’s a relief to have someone else to focus on besides Jones. 

“Good afternoon,” I say. “Welcome to One Stop Auto.”

“Hi, I have an appointment.”

I take down her information and she hands over her car key before finding a seat not far away in our waiting area. The front lobby is small. My desk is a half circle in one corner, opposite the owner’s office. There are six chairs for customers to sit, and a bathroom down a short hallway off to the right. Behind me, windows make it easy to see into the four-bay garage. I press the button that makes the red light blink, letting the guys know the next vehicle has arrived. 

Dillon comes through the door from the garage. I sag in relief. All the mechanics are decent guys on their own, but Dillon is just who I need right now. 

“Hey, Kit.” 

He wraps his arm around my back and I lean into his side. Our hug is a little stiff since up until a week and a half ago we didn’t embrace, and now only when we have an audience. Still, his touch calms my nerves and creates a barrier between me and the window. The blinds snap shut and I can breathe easy again. 

Dillon glances over the paperwork on the counter and asks softly, “How is it up here today?” 

“Extra creepy.” 

His eyes cut to the office window. “I’ll talk to him. As your fake boyfriend, it is my right to tell Jones to leave you alone.”

“No, don’t do that. He’s harmless.” 

“He may not touch you, but that doesn’t mean he’s harmless. He’s not respecting your boundaries and he’s making you uncomfortable. He’s the reason we’re pretending to date.”

Maybe, but I can’t allow myself to believe Creeper Jones is anything but harmless. “It’s just staring. Not a big deal.” 

That doesn’t mean I don’t lean into Dillon’s side a little more and soak in his strength while I have the chance. If only this whole charade wasn’t so awkward. Dillon and I have been friends since kindergarten, but that’s all we are: friends. There is no romantic interest between us. Not even when we were teens. At the time, I had a totally inappropriate obsession with Aaron Ledger, my much older brother’s best friend. Dillon only dated the popular girls. Now that we’re adults, there’s no spark. The awkwardness of this hug is a perfect example of our lack of attraction. I trust him more than anyone else besides Mike and my family, but that’s it. 

“This is a big deal,” Dillon says, a hard edge in his voice as he glances toward the office window again. “He needs to stop.”

And I need to not make this situation worse by drawing attention to how pathetic I am. Creeper Jones is awkward and doesn’t know how to talk to girls, so he stares. He’s nothing like my ex-boyfriend, at least that’s what I tell myself so I don’t completely lose my mind.  

“Dillon, let it go. Please.”

He studies my face. I try to look confident.

Dillon nods slowly. “I don’t like it, but okay.”

He releases his hold, grabs the customer’s keys, and disappears out the front door to grab her car. 

The moment he leaves, I hear the blinds rattle. I want to scream, but I swallow down the urge and turn my back to the office. My attention turns to the garage. 

I love One Stop Auto, but I wish I were brave enough to work in the back with Dillon and the other mechanics. Mike has encouraged me to earn my mechanic certificate for years, but I keep putting him off. Once I have the certificate, I’ll have to admit I’m incapable of leaning over an engine when someone might come up behind me.  

Mike was my mechanics’ teacher in high school and nurtured my love of cars and motorcycles. When he made a career change and bought this place, he hired me to work here over the summers. When I dropped out of college, he hired me full-time. He helped me fix up my old Honda Nighthawk motorcycle, the love of my life. My freedom. My escape. 

Since starting here full-time, I spend a few evenings a week helping Mike restore classic cars. At least, I did until he left for his hip replacement. They were my favorite hours of every week. Another reason why I can’t wait for Mike to return. I miss working with him on the cars.  

The bell rings as another customer enters and I get back to work.  

When six o’clock hits, I lock the doors and start my closing tasks. We have a cleaning company come once a week, but I do all the tidying up at the end of each day. Just as I’m turning off the computer, Jones comes out of the office. 

He doesn’t look at me as he mumbles my name in greeting. He’s a big guy, over six feet tall and broad-shouldered. His hair is buzzed short, he always wears tan slacks with his work polo, and he has piercing ice-blue eyes that give me the heebie-jeebies. If Mike is to be believed, he’s brilliant with numbers. Unfortunately, I can’t handle being alone with him. 

My hands shake as I sling my backpack over my shoulder and grab the garbage bags I collected around the building. 

“Good night, Jones.”

Before he can say anything, I slip through the door into the garage. Dillon leans against the wall next to the last open bay door, his fingers moving across the screen of his phone. When I reach him, he takes the garbage from my hand and jogs it to the dumpster before meeting me at my Nighthawk motorcycle. 

“Have any plans for the weekend?” I ask.

“A date tomorrow.” 

I raise both eyebrows and smirk. “With who?”

I’m sure I see a blush on his cheeks in the evening twilight. He kicks at the ground. 

“That girl I’ve been talking to on Bumble.”

I bump his shoulder with mine. “I’m proud of you. Taking the virtual out of the equation.”

He shakes his head but smiles. “What about you? Have any plans?”

“Babysitting tonight for my brother.”

“You mean your uncle?”

I don’t roll my eyes, but I want to. Yes, Teddy is technically my uncle since he’s my mom’s half-brother, but their parents died when he was eight and he came to live with my parents. My mom was pregnant with my oldest sister at the time. I don’t understand why people insist on calling him my uncle when to me, he will always be my big brother. 

I ignore Dillon’s comment and continue with my weekend. “Tomorrow, I’m hanging out with my grandpa.”

He laughs. “Exciting times, spending your weekend with little kids and old people. Why don’t you ever go on dates? I know you get asked out.”

“Not by anyone I’m interested in spending time with.” Lucky for me, pretending to date Dillon has given me a ready excuse to turn down offers for dinner. I hate getting hit on by customers, and it happens all too often. “How serious is it with Bumble girl?”

His blush deepens. “I like her.”

It’s been a while since Dillon has been on a date, not since his last girlfriend broke his heart, so I’m excited for Bumble girl. But selfishly, I hope it doesn’t go anywhere until Mike comes back and Creeper Jones is out of the picture. I’m not ready to stage a “breakup.”

“Have fun,” I say as I put on my motorcycle jacket. Next is my helmet. I situate my glasses so they don’t press down on my nose. “See you Monday.”

I start up my Nighthawk and pull out of the lot. It’s the middle of March, a perfect sixty-five degrees, and a beautiful evening for a ride through Tucson, Arizona. A cool breeze blows away my anxiety. The setting sun warms my heart. Traffic is light for a Friday night and I hit more green lights than red. Karma is dealing me a good hand after enduring Creeper Jones all week. It’s a great start to the weekend. 

I leave the city behind just as the sun disappears below the horizon. When I reach my brother Teddy’s house in the foothills, they’ve left the porch light on for me. After parking my bike in the driveway, I take off my helmet, backpack, and jacket as I walk toward the front door, but it bursts open before I reach it and my two oldest nieces, Margot and Lottie, run out. I drop my stuff on the path and they fly into my arms. 

“What took you so long?” Lottie says. 

Margot adds quietly, “We’ve been waiting forever.”

“I came over as soon as I could. Some of us have jobs.” 

“We have jobs!”  Lottie says with indignation. “We work at the Sand Cafe.” 

She runs the Sand Cafe with Margot out of their sandbox in the backyard. I’ve pretended to eat there many times.

“Are you making us dinner tonight?” I ask.

“No, we’re eating pizza!”

I kiss their cheeks and squeeze them close. Already, my arms ache from their combined weight. They’re the same size, no matter that Margot is seventeen months older. Lottie is tall for a six-year-old and they’re both the same height. 

People think they’re twins, even though they look different enough to be strangers. Biologically, Margot has a different dad. Avery was pregnant when she started dating Teddy, and after they were married he adopted Margot. 

Their boxer Lucky runs out of the still-open door and prances around my legs. Next, it’s two-year-old Dora who toddles out, pacifier in mouth and arms reaching toward me. She must think I’m superwoman to expect me to be able to lift her when my arms are already full. 

“Kitty,” she mumbles around her pacifier.  

Dora’s the only person alive who I allow to call me by that terrible nickname. She’s too cute for me to get upset at anyone but Teddy, who thought it a funny joke to teach it to her in the first place. Kitty is worse than my real name, Kathleen. I much prefer Kit, a nice medium between someone classy and a pet. 

I can’t resist Dora’s cherubic cheeks and I release Margot and Lottie to pick her up. Lucky licks the bottom of her feet and she giggles, pulling herself higher to avoid his tongue.

“I got your helmet,” Margot says. 

She lifts it like it weighs a ton, her cute face turning fierce. Maybe for her, three pounds is a lot. Lottie grabs my jacket, which is actually quite heavy. I grab the strap of my backpack and follow them inside. 

“Kit’s here!” Lottie calls out unnecessarily as she twirls around the hallway.  

Their deaf cat, Oscar the Grouch, could not have missed the commotion. 

Whenever I come over, I feel as if the walls of their home are wrapping me in a snug embrace. Spending time with them is much better than any date.

 My sister-in-law Avery speed walks out of the kitchen in my direction. Her hair is wrapped in a towel and she’s wearing a bathrobe. In her text, she said they had reservations at some swanky place downtown, for which she is definitely not ready. 

“We are running so late,” she says. “Would you mind getting the kids’ dinner in the oven? It’s French bread pizza. All the toppings are on the counter and I’m defrosting the sauce in the microwave. Be careful, I set it high to speed up the process.”

“No problem.”

“Thank you so much, Kit. We totally owe you.”

She disappears down the hall and the rest of us set out for the kitchen. As promised, everything is ready for us to start decorating the pizzas.  

The microwave beeps. When I pull open the door, the steam escaping the covered dish fogs my glasses. I drop the toddler in her high chair, even as she protests loudly, place my glasses on the counter, and reach for the sauce. The plastic container is hotter than I expect and burns my fingers. I drop it on the countertop, the lid pops off completely, and pizza sauce splatters down the front of my polo shirt and jeans. I look like the victim in a slasher movie. And oh, is it hot! I lift my shirt away from my stomach as peels of giggles come from all three girls. The stinkers.​​

I wash the sauce off my shirt and jeans as best as I can, but it’s going to stain. Even better, now I’m all wet. I grab a spoon and plop sauce on the bread and smear it around before pushing it to where Margot and Lottie sit on stools.

“Can you guys make your own pizzas while I go change?” I ask. 

They nod their heads enthusiastically. 

“Cheese only for me, please,” I say. “Don’t make a mess, okay?” 

That’s a ridiculous hope. 

“Kitty!” Dora lifts her arms and opens and closes her fist for me to pick her up again. I give her some strawberries from the fridge instead and head down the hall to find Avery.

The bedroom door is open. Just as I’m about to knock I notice Teddy and Avery standing at the foot of their bed, their arms around each other. Teddy kisses her lips, then whispers something in her ear. The way they look at each other makes my heart squeeze with envy. I want someone to look at me like Teddy looks at Avery. Like I’m a vital part of his life. 

Their lips touch again, this time for much longer. I squirm. I’ve turned into Creeper Kit. I knock on the door and they draw apart a few inches until Avery sees the massacre on my chest and pulls away and steps toward me. 

“I really hope that’s pizza sauce on your shirt,” she says.

“Yep. Do you have anything I can change into?”

That isn’t a light request. She’s over six feet tall and curvy. I’m six inches shorter, and if you put a brown wig on a two-by-four and dressed it in jeans and a t-shirt, in a line-up you wouldn’t be able to tell us apart. 

Avery rummages through her closet while Teddy knots his tie. “Thanks for babysitting tonight.”

“Sure thing. I love your girls.”

“Still, babysitting on a Friday night must be a drag.”

He studies me with the look I’ve come to hate: is Kit okay? 

As if preferring to spend my time with children means I’m unstable. Can’t I just enjoy my nieces? It’s better than my usual weekend plans: watching old movies with Grandpa Joe. At least when I babysit, the kids are in bed by eight-thirty and I can watch in peace without Grandpa’s commentary. 

Avery comes back holding a red summer dress with yellow flowers.

“I think this will fit.”

It has spaghetti straps but is stretchy across the bust, so I don’t think it will gap open at the top. At least I hope not. My boobs are the size of oranges, of the mandarin variety. It doesn’t fit Avery’s usual style, so I’m not surprised when I see it still has the price tag. It’s not really my style either, but beggars can’t be choosers. 

I go down the hall to the half bath and quickly change. The last time I wore a dress was over three years ago. A glance in the mirror shows I look very different from my usual jeans and an oversized work polo or t-shirt. The feminine cut of the dress makes me feel exposed, vulnerable. I’m not a fan of the girl who looks back at me with wide eyes and a pale complexion. She’s the one who lets Jones intimidate her. Who allowed RJ to steal the hope of true love, or any kind of happy future. 

Still, here in this house, I’m safe. Why not enjoy the evening dressed up to my fullest? I pull the elastic from my hair and brush my fingers through the strands. 

As I make my way back to the kitchen, the doorbell rings. Even though the girls are giggling in a way that makes me believe trouble is brewing, I veer to the front door expecting a neighbor to drop by a lost toy from a playdate. Or something.  

Instead, standing on the other side is someone I never expected to see again. 

Aaron Ledger. 

I’ve been dropped into the arctic tundra because the shock turns my body into a block of ice. 

This is my brother’s best friend, the man I had a crush on all through middle and high school. I haven’t seen him in almost seven years, not since he moved to Connecticut. He’s gained a few extra wrinkles around his eyes and lost his beard, but it’s definitely him. The dark sports jacket fits perfectly across his broad shoulders. He smells spicy and I have to resist leaning forward to catch another whiff. 

Aaron smiles. His front teeth are a little off-center, just a hint crooked.  

Unbelievably, he’s more handsome at age thirty-four than he was at twenty-eight.

An odd cocktail of emotion swirls inside. 

Attraction, because he is hot. 

Pleasure, as his eyes drift over my face. He really, truly, finally sees me. 

Vulnerability, because this is Aaron Ledger. Growing up I loved him with every ounce of my heart and by the way it’s beating in my chest, I think I might still be true.  

Anxiety, because RJ messed with my head and any attention has the potential to be bad attention, just give it enough time.  

He holds out his hand. “Hi, you must be Elise. I’m Aaron.”

I blink. Then blink again. 

Aaron Ledger doesn’t know who I am. 

Teddy comes up behind me and claps my shoulder. “Thanks for getting the door, Kit. Aaron, come in. Elise is running a little late.” 

Aaron steps inside as his hand drops to his side, his expression turning from open and friendly to confused.

He must be here for a double date. The only reason he looked at me for longer than two seconds is because he thought I was here for him. 

My cheeks burn and I duck my head. When my hair falls on either side of my face everything makes sense. My hair is down. I’m wearing a dress. My glasses are still on the kitchen counter. I’ve given myself a make-over just like every nineties movie ever filmed that starred an average girl wanting to catch the attention of the most popular guy in school.

“Kitty,” Aaron says to me, but I can’t lookup. “Nice to see you again. Sorry, I didn’t recognize you.” 

His voice is deep and rough. Shivers race down my spine at the familiarity of the sound. He clears his throat like I’m making him uncomfortable. Join the club, buddy. 

“So, Theo, did you get a motorcycle? I’m surprised Avery’s okay with that.”

My brother laughs. “No, that would be Kit. She loves her bike.”

Their words swirl around me, but I’m too caught up in my own thoughts to pay attention. I let the sound of Aaron’s voice wash over me. The only word that sticks out is “Theo.”

Theo. Teddy’s name to everyone outside of the family. I never could understand why Aaron doesn’t call him Teddy. He’s practically family. They’ve been friends since they were kids and he was over at our house all the time while I was growing up. I thought of him like a brother, until I got old enough to be glad he wasn’t.

He became the embodiment of all my dreams of a romantic relationship, filled with adoration, acceptance, and safety. He and that dream are out of my reach. Forever. I need to get that through my head and deep into my heart. He has power over me by doing nothing more than existing. 

I won’t give him a chance to reject me again, however unintentionally. He’s an adult with a career and eleven more years of life experience than me. He’s a player, a serial dater, a lady’s man, a rake. I’m a twenty-three-year-old college dropout who can’t be alone with a guy without having a panic attack. 

I’m already broken, I won’t set myself up to be shattered.