Evie Colville has a secret identity.
She may be a lot of things to a lot of people—dutiful daughter, loyal best friend, hard-working waitress at her father’s coffee shop, just to name a few—but one thing she absolutely isn’t is even remotely qualified to write her weekly ‘Miss Lonely Love’ column for The Sutterton Herald.
At least she doesn’t think so.
Luckily, no one but her editor, her dad, and her best friend, Grace Bryant, know Evie’s secret. The byline of her column is credited to Shara Strong, Evie’s carefully crafted, fictional alter-ego. Shara is basically Evie’s opposite. She’s definitely not an eighteen year-old senior at Sutterton High. She’s a Grown Up. And she had plenty of dating experience before she married the Man of Her Dreams. The regular readers of ‘Miss Lonely Love’ know Shara is neither a Miss nor Lonely; in her column she often mentions her handsome, perfect husband. Evie assumes, correctly, that if her readers believe she’s been so successful in love, they’ll be more inclined to trust her advice with their own problems.
Which is ironic really, because Evie is nothing of the sort. She’s never been in love. She’s not even dating. She has had a boyfriend. Once. But it wasn’t serious. Evie’s not ready for a relationship. In fact, over the past year, she’s barely thought about boys. Concentrating on her school work and her two jobs, not to mention taking care of her father and brother and squeezing in occasional time with friends—well, it doesn’t leave much room for dating.
She doesn’t mind, though. She needs to graduate at the top of her class to win a scholarship to a good college and escape this tiny town. Falling in love would only complicate things. And she doesn’t want complications.
This evening Evie sits at the counter of Colville’s Coffee Clutch, mug of hot chocolate in hand, polishing her column for Friday’s paper. She’s just finished advising a teenage girl, whom she suspects might be her brother Dylan’s friend Charlie Lancaster to stand up for herself to her controlling boyfriend.
Once Evie’s happy with her replies, she emails the document to her editor. A glance toward the clock over the door shows she still has ten minutes until she can close up.
Sometimes, if she reads a message she feels deserves a response but she’s already finished her column, she takes a few moments to send a personal reply. So tonight, with passing curiosity, she pulls the top letter from the bundle in her knapsack.
The writing is small and cramped, with jagged, crow-scratch vertical lines. She assumes it was written by a man.
Dear Miss LL,
I’ve got a messed up situation for you. What do you do when you find out the love of your life has been sleeping with your brother behind your back? You thank your lucky stars you’re free of her, right?
My problem is I can’t stop thinking about her. She stabbed me through the heart, and I left town and haven’t looked back. But the sad truth is, much as I hate myself for it, I’m still in love with her. And I’m terrified that if she apologized and groveled, I just might give in and take her back.
Now I’m not dumb enough to think that’s ever going to happen. As far as I know, she’s still with my brother, and I really don’t want to see either of them again.
So, my question for you is, how do I get over her?
Just Another Idiot
Evie purses her lips as she re-reads the letter. She’s answered questions about cheating before, but never cheating involving sleeping with two brothers at the same time, then swapping to date the other. She agrees with the writer—that’s pretty messed up.
Tapping her fingernails against the countertop, she contemplates how to reply. She tries to imagine how she might feel if she found herself in a similar situation, and how she’d want to deal with it. Tearing out a fresh sheet of paper from her notebook, she picks up her pen and starts writing.
Even though I can’t include your letter in this week’s column, I wanted to send you a personal reply.
First of all, I’m so sorry you went through that.
Second, you’re absolutely right. You should probably get down on your knees and thank some higher power that you’re free of her and get on with your life. But I know it’s not that easy. Love isn’t something you can flick off like a switch. It burrows deep inside and becomes a part of you. The only thing that might help lessen its grip is time, but I think you probably already know that.
Good on you for leaving town, though. Time and space away from them is just what you need right now. I recommend you get out and meet some people. It might surprise you how new friends can distract from old problems. Although you may not be ready yet, I also suggest you consider maybe starting to date again, even if it’s just casual.
Be strong. Someday you’ll look back on this and see that it pointed you toward the path you were meant to be on.
Best of luck!
Evie reads her reply over, then tucks it into an envelope and prints the local post office box return address across the front. She glances up at the clock again, and with relief sees it’s time to head home.
She packs up her things, pulls on her heavy winter coat and hat, and dims the lights. The welcome bell over the door tinkles its goodbye as she steps out and locks up.
Sutterton in mid-January after midnight is cold and still. The silence is so overwhelming Evie’s eardrums interpret it as a low roar, a crowd cheering off in the distance, a jet plane passing overhead at six hundred miles an hour. The emptiness feels absolute, with only the fading echo of the bell to ground her in reality.
White clouds of breath mar the frigid air in front of her and her boots squeak on the hard packed snow. She looks up at the clear night sky above the jagged black silhouette of the distant mountains. The stars seem to shine brighter than ever tonight, too frigid to even twinkle.
The buildings are dark, the snow is light, and the few streetlights cast long shadows. The vivid blue of the mailbox on the corner pops out of all that monochrome. When Evie reaches it, she pulls the letter from her pocket and slips it inside.
She takes a deep breath, her lungs filling with ice before hurrying along the frozen sidewalk, anxious to reach the warmth of home.
Friday morning’s alarm is always unwelcome. On Thursday nights Evie has to close the coffee shop late, and the resulting lack of sleep tends to make her grouchy. The crash of the clock hitting the floor as her flailing hand knocks it off the nightstand only jolts her further from dreamland.
With a groan, she pushes back the covers, reluctantly emerging from her cozy cocoon. She trudges to the bathroom half-awake, pounding on her brother’s door to rouse him as she passes. An annoyed groan is her only response.
Her father left nearly two hours ago to open for the before-work crowd in need of their morning fix. Every morning but Sunday it’s just Evie and Dylan, fighting for the bathroom, scrounging up breakfast, and then scrambling out to the corner to catch the school bus.
This morning they manage to end up at the kitchen table at the same time, Evie with jam on toast in one hand and a mug of hot chocolate in the other, Dylan digging into an enormous bowl of half Raisin Bran, half Fruit Loops. He claims it gives him the energy he needs for the day as he’s a point guard on the school basketball team. Evie just rolls her eyes.
Her phone beeps with an email from her editor reminding her of the last letter she’d included in her column last night.
With barely a glance her way, he shoves another heaping spoonful into his mouth. “Mmm?”
“Is Charlie still dating Cameron Wheeler?” She tucks a loose strand of long, dirty blonde hair behind her ear.
Her brother’s face twists. “Yeah. Why?” It’s clear he doesn’t approve.
“No reason. I was just curious.”
Now she’s more suspicious than ever that the email might have come from Charlie. Cam is the captain of the football and basketball teams and is, in Evie’s opinion, a complete alpha-male douchebag. His ego is nearly as big as his father’s. Martin Wheeler is Sutterton’s mayor. The Wheelers were one of the original families to settle in this area. So were the Colvilles, but that might be the only thing the two families have in common. Tom Colville is content to live a quiet life, and though his coffee shop is moderately successful, Evie knows that some months they barely scrape by. The Wheelers have money and power—plenty of it. They live in the largest of the riverfront mansions along Route Ten, and are famous for hosting lavish parties. Since founding families are a mandatory presence at such events, Evie has had to endure every one of them.
She glances at the digital clock on the microwave. Crap! “The bus is gonna be here any minute!” Jumping to her feet, she dumps the remains of her chocolate into the sink and dashes for her coat.
As usual, Dylan heads straight to the back of the bus, while Evie sits near the middle with Grace. She notes her brother has taken the empty spot beside Charlie. Cam drives himself to school, so if he is still dating Charlie, he didn’t bother giving her a lift today.
Evie chats with her friend until the bus approaches the gray stone and red brick castle that is Sutterton High. Her eyes are drawn to the corner turrets whose upper windows have an awesome view of the park and river bend across the way
The high school was built in 1915 at the height of the architectural castle craze that swept across America. Now its hulking edifice seems out of place: an embarrassment to be ridiculed by the students, a point of pride to the mayor and town council, and a roadside attraction to outsiders.
Evie thinks it’s beautiful. She’s loved this building since she was small—years before she’d ever stepped foot inside its hallowed halls. When she’s having a crappy day, she needs only to make her way to the highest tower and look out at the view to instantly feel a bit better. It’s like something clicks inside and, even if only for a moment, she understands her place in the world. Like she finally feels she’s where she belongs.
After Math class, she has a free period. Normally, she spends this time doing homework in the library, but today she has an appointment with her guidance counselor.
“Good morning, Evie. What can I do for you today?” Mrs. Zeigler asks once Evie takes a seat. She’s an older woman with thick red hair streaked with grey that she keeps piled into a messy bun. Evie likes Mrs. Zeigler. She treats Evie like an adult.
Evie sits with her spine straight, her legs crossed, and her hands clasped on her thighs. “Good morning. I was wondering when I should start applying for college scholarships? Are they all online now, or do any still do paper?”
Mrs. Ziegler shifts some files off a stack on her desk. “I got some paper ones for Syracuse last week. I know for Cornell, Columbia, and S.U.N.Y, you can submit online, but I don’t think they’re reviewing for this fall yet. It’s still a bit early, as your final grades aren’t locked down for a few more months. Try applying in another month, around the end of February.”
“I’ll take the Syracuse application then, please.”
Mrs. Ziegler hands the forms over. “You can fill out most of it now, and then attach a copy of your mid-term report card once you get it. They may want recommendations from some of your teachers as well.”
“That won’t be a problem,” Evie tells her with a self-conscious smile. She knows her teachers will have good things to say. She usually got straight As, and the only time her grades ever dipped below a B+ was in the months following her mom’s death. Otherwise, she’s always been a model student.
She gets up to leave, but Mrs. Ziegler stops her. “You’re only considering in-state colleges, right?”
Evie sighs softly. “For now, yes. I’ll let you know if I need any out-of-state information.”
Mrs. Ziegler nods, and Evie walks back into the hall. She’d love to apply to out-of-state colleges, but the thought of living far away from her father and brother worries her. She wants to get out of Sutterton, that’s a definite, but she also doesn’t want to be too far away. Her father might still need her to work weekend shifts at the Clutch.
There’s also the fact that they have no money to pay for flights or living expenses beyond the bare minimum. This limits Evie’s choices, but she’ll just have to do the best she can with what they can afford. And if she doesn’t earn a full scholarship, she won’t be going anywhere.
It’s been a busy evening, but The Clutch is finally starting to empty as people head up the street to Henry’s Grill for a drink, or home, or wherever else they need to be on a frigid Saturday night. As Evie wipes the counter, she glances back at the slim boy sitting in the corner. Well…he isn’t really a boy, is he? He’s tall and pale, with dark hair mostly hidden under a black Greek fisherman’s cap. He wears tinted glasses and, as usual, has his nose buried in a book. As usual because, although Evie has no idea who he is, she knows he’s been in her shop before. More than once. Always when she’s been too busy to really pay him much notice. She remembers noting his cap and glasses, as well as the thick, black pea coat he wears. And that he only orders coffee, also black, which he has her pour into his own travel cup instead of a red Colville’s Coffee Clutch mug.
“Excuse me, Evie?”
With a start, she turns to the elderly woman at a side table with her husband, where they sit almost every Saturday evening.
“Yes, Mrs. Clancy? Can I top you up?”
“No, thank you. It’s time for us to head on home. I just wanted to say you look lovely in that shade of blue. It matches your eyes.”
Mr. Clancy nods in agreement. A few weeks ago, they had told Evie they’d been married for forty-eight years. He slides a few bills onto the table, then gets to his feet to help his wife stand and ease her arms into her coat. They have matching down jackets with fur-trimmed hoods, perfect for a chilly January night.
“Aw, that’s so sweet of you. You guys take care on those icy sidewalks,” Evie advises.
Not long after they leave, her history teacher, Mr. Wright, also heads out. Now there’s only Evie and the reading stranger.
She takes a breath, straightens her spine, and walks back to him.
“Warm you up?” she asks, holding out the coffee pot.
He looks up at her and lowers his glasses.
Evie’s breath catches in her throat as she stares into the most brilliant green eyes she’s ever seen. In the harsh fluorescent light of the shop they shine like emeralds—emeralds framed by thick, black lashes. And right now those mesmerizing eyes are watching her with amusement.
Crap. She missed most of that. Heat floods her face. “P…pardon?”
“I said depends what you have in mind,” he repeats, one side of his mouth curving into a lopsided grin.
She flushes deeper as she realizes the double entendre of her words. Warm you up. Oh God.
“More c-coffee?” she stutters. Holy cow. Get a grip, loser. You left yourself wide open for that one.
“No, thanks.” He flashes a real smile this time. “I should probably go. Aren’t you about ready to close?”
His smile is as striking as the rest of him, and it eases Evie’s embarrassment a little. She wonders how old he is. She’s sure she’d remember if she’d seen him at school. No, he is definitely not a teenager. But not by a lot.
“We’re open ‘til midnight Thursday to Saturday,” she says with a bit more assurance. “I have to stay, even if there’s no one here.”
“That sucks. Don’t you get bored?”
She shakes her head. “Nah. If it’s dead I just do homework or clean or read. There’s always something the needs doing.”
He looks her up and down and her temperature spikes again. “You’re in high school…” Pausing, he checks her nametag. “Evie?”
“For a few more months,” she admits.
One dark brow arches thoughtfully. “Huh. I pegged you for older.”
“I’m eighteen. Why? How old are you?”
He looks at her for a second, his face going neutral. Then that easy grin returns. “Twenty-two. Just moved here a few weeks ago.”
“Welcome to Sutterton. What brings you to our quiet little town? Certainly not the weather.” She sits down opposite him. Why not? There are no other customers to serve.
He sighs, so softly she almost doesn’t hear it. “That’s a long story I’d rather not relive right now. My uncle owns a house on Route Ten just outside town. Used to be a bed and breakfast. I’m staying with him at the moment.”
Evie’s eyes light up. “Oh! Your uncle is Max Sterling! My dad knows him. He comes in here pretty often.”
“Yep.” His eyes shift down to the book in his hands.
Following his gaze, she asks, “What’re you reading?”
He flips it over so she can see the cover.
A bright smile of recognition lights Evie’s face. “The Great Gatsby? Cool. I’m reading that right now for English. Well, I actually got so into it I couldn’t put it down and finished it in two days, but I’m re-reading at the pace we’re supposed to. Have you read it before?”
He presses his lips together self-consciously. “Nine times,” he confesses.
Evie’s eyebrows fly up. “Woah! Maybe I should get you to help me with the five-thousand word essay I have to write on it,” she laughs.
“Maybe,” he mumbles, shifting around on his chair. Tucking his book inside his coat, he abruptly stands. “Hey, so, I gotta bounce. Thanks for the coffee and conversation.”
Evie wonders if she’s said something wrong. They seemed to be getting along fine, but now he looks like he’d rather be anywhere than here. Scrambling to her feet as well, she clarifies, “You don’t actually have to help. I was just kidding.”
Their eyes meet as he adjusts his cap, for a moment revealing more of that messy dark hair. A waft of fresh, light cologne hits her as they stand in close proximity, and much to her surprise, hot desire clenches low in her belly.
“I don’t mind looking over your essay. As you might’ve guessed, it’s one of my favorite novels. Maybe I’ll see you in here next week. Enjoy the rest of your night, Evie.”
She doesn’t reply at first, frozen in thought as she watches him walk away. Just as he reaches the door she calls, “Wait!”
He pauses and looks back at her.
“I don’t even know your name.” Her voice comes out sounding much younger than her eighteen years.
With a small smile, he replies, “It’s Alistair.”
Then he slips out into the night.