“I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.”
—Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
* * *
April 2, Brooklyn
It is a truth universally acknowledged that I am something of a badass.
For starters, I live in Brooklyn, where everyone can more or less handle herself. I drink my coffee black. And I work with professional athletes, holding my own in an office so full of testosterone that caffeine is almost beside the point.
I can do twenty-five push-ups in a set. Last year a hockey player bet against me on this and lost his hundred bucks. So, until twenty-four hours ago, I thought of myself as pretty darned tough.
And I’ll need to be. The Brooklyn Bruisers are closing in on the NHL playoffs for the first time in years. Once my team makes the playoffs, a flood of tasks will head my way. Travel arrangements. Publicity events. Ticket sales in distant venues. As the office manager, it’s my job to coordinate all this happy chaos.
But yesterday afternoon, in a moment of sheer stupidity, I walked out onto the gleaming ice of the practice rink to deliver a message to one of my coworkers.
For two years I’d worked for the hockey team without ever setting foot on the ice. But yesterday I thought…why not? It’s like working at a fine restaurant and never sampling the food.
The why not became obvious about sixty seconds later, when my Chuck Taylor low tops slipped on the slick surface. I went down so fast that I couldn’t even break my fall with my hands. Instead, I went down on one butt cheek. But that slipped, too! I continued falling sideways, my arm and head hitting the ground next. My head actually bounced off the ice before I finally came to rest on the cold, cold surface.
Immediately, I did what any self-respecting girl does after she takes a serious tumble—I dusted myself off and told the two coworkers who witnessed this ridiculousness that I was absolutely fine.
And I thought I was fine, unless we were counting the bruise on my butt, which is the size of the tri-state area.
The concussion I sustained wasn’t noticeable at first. I assumed that my disorientation was from sheer embarrassment. Feeling flushed and confused seemed perfectly rational at the time.
I went home, ate some leftovers out of my refrigerator, and went to bed early. But at two in the morning I woke up again suddenly. My headache had escalated, and I felt a little sick. So I got up and went into the bathroom looking for some aspirin. And when I flipped on the light, the room spun. I grabbed the towel bar so hard that it came off the wall.
For the second time that day, I fell down on my ass.
The crash woke up my sister in the other bedroom. When she found me blinking on the floor, she panicked. That’s how we ended up at the ER at Brooklyn Methodist in the middle of the night. If I think about the bill they’re going to send me, I’ll probably get nauseous again. They poked and prodded me in all the usual places, shining infernal lights in my eyes while I insisted they should let me go home.
They finally did, but not before giving me lengthy instructions on how to recover from a concussion.
So here I roost—on the world’s ugliest couch—in my tiny, overcrowded apartment, wondering what the hell I’m going to do. Meanwhile, tears of frustration are tracking down my face.
And I never cry. What the actual fuck?
Okay, it hurts, dammit. But the headache isn’t what’s got me so upset. The ER doctor said I can’t go back to work for two weeks. He told me to stay home and avoid screens, paperwork, stress, and all physically and intellectually taxing situations.
Another tear glides down my face while I try to get my head around this. I’ve just texted Hugh Major—the General Manager of the Brooklyn Bruisers—to tell him I need a few days off. And I had to squint just to make the letters on the screen stop swimming around.
And two weeks? That’s just crazy talk. The timing is terrible, and Hugh will not be pleased. Nor will Nate Kattenberger, the team’s owner.
Furthermore, I’m not okay with it. My boys are on the cusp of making the playoffs for the first time since I came to work with the team. I have to be there to see it. For two years the hockey team has been my whole life. Sitting out for two weeks? Impossible.
Powering down my phone, I take another shaky breath. My movements are stealthy because my four-month-old nephew is asleep in a basket at my feet. I can’t wake the baby. If he starts crying right now, my head won’t be able to take it.
I focus on his sleeping face and feel a little calmer, because babies know how to relax. Matthew’s dark eyelashes line his chubby cheeks, and the blanket lifts gently with each quiet breath.
Yesterday I thought my biggest problem was sharing an overcrowded apartment with my sister and her family. Oh, and the fact that I haven’t had sex in eleven months and three days. That used to seem like a big problem.
But now I know better.
Four people live in this apartment, but I’m the only one with a full-time job. Fine—the baby is unemployable. But two adults count on me, too. My sister is trying to finish up her associate’s degree, while working a few shifts as a barista. And her baby daddy—our apartment’s fourth occupant—does construction work whenever he can get it. But often he’s doing baby care instead.
That leaves me and my steady paycheck. And even though the team’s owner has known me for seven years, these last two years I’ve worried about my job security. My absence today won’t help.
So what the hell am I going to do now?
I must have said that out loud, because my nephew shifts in his sleep.
Ever since Matthew came to live with me, I’ve learned that babies have an uncanny knack for choosing the worst possible moment to wake up. I wipe my eyes with the heels of my hands and take a deep, calming breath.
Matthew rolls over and grunts softly. His little mouth moves as if to suckle.
Slowly, I lean over the Moses basket, where he’s sleeping, and fish the abandoned pacifier out of the blankets. Then, ever so stealthily, I slide the pacifier into his mouth. These are tricks I never thought I’d learn. But then my younger sister got pregnant at twenty-two. “I’m keeping the baby,” she’d announced immediately. “And Renny is going to go work on an oil rig in the Gulf to support us.”
Fast forward a few months, and I experience exactly zero surprise when Missy loses her Queens apartment for falling behind on the rent. And I experience only slightly more surprise when Renny lasts just a few months on the oil rig.
He came through my door a week ago, dropping to his knees on my rug in an overly dramatic gesture. “I just couldn’t stand another day without my family!” the twenty-one-year-old fool cried. (Yes, my sister fell for a younger man. I’d call him her child-groom, except they aren’t even married.)
Now we’re all one big happy family in the tiny Brooklyn apartment I used to share only with my best friend Georgia. I love my sister, but this apartment really isn’t big enough for so much melodrama.
I’ve been cast in the role of Spinster Auntie. And right now, behind the closed door of the bedroom my sister and Renny share, I can hear the hushed moans of their lovemaking and the rhythmic thump of the headboard rocking against the wall.
They think they’re so sneaky. Ever since Renny returned from Texas, they slip off once a day for a quickie while the baby naps. Any minute now they’ll emerge, flushed and happy, with their soft-eyed glances for one another, their hands lingering on each other’s bodies, as if it would cause them physical pain to let go of one another.
My sister is kind of an idiot. Always has been. And yet she snagged a man who truly loves her. Every time I think about them I want to throw up a little. And that was before I got a concussion.
At my feet, Baby Matthew stretches his short, little arms over his bald, little head. His eyes are still screwed shut, but it won’t last. The pacifier falls out again. Then he makes a breathy little complaint, and those blue eyes pop open.
No matter how shittastic my life is right now, one thing remains unshakably true: my nephew is completely adorable. “Hi,” I say softly, and his eyes find me. “Did you have a good sleep?”
He considers the question.
“Want to come hang out with me on the couch?” I lean over to fit my hands beneath his heavy warmth. I tug. And when I sit up again, my head gives a stab of pain so sharp I hiss with surprise.
The sound catches Matthew off guard, and he whimpers.
“S’okay,” I say, my eyes closed against the pain. “It’s going to be fine.”
It’s unclear which of us I’m comforting.
Matthew makes a few more fussy sounds. He’s working himself up to a full-blown cry. For once I don’t mind because it covers up the sound of the sex crescendo in the other room. But I’ve left the pacifier in the basket on the floor, damn it. Holding Matthew makes it doubly hard to bend over, but I manage it. Barely.
When we’re settled back again on the sofa, the room spins in a way that rooms really shouldn’t. The big brown roses on the ugly couch—The Beast, as Georgia and I call it—seem to swim in front of my eyes.
Matthew sucks a little desperately on the pacifier. It won’t hold him for long. He’s hungry. Sure enough, his whimpers become wails after a couple more minutes. I rock him in my arms, but two fat tears squeeze from the corners of his eyes. In sympathy, a couple of tears leak from my own eyes, too.
Then the bedroom door flies open. “Daddy is here!” Renny declares. He’s bare chested, and the top button of his jeans is still undone. But he runs around the sofa and scoops Matthew out of my arms. “My pumpkin muffin. My sweetie pie.” He lowers his scruffy face to Matthew’s velvety cheek and begins to kiss him.
That baby is hungry, and Renny does not have the plumbing he needs. But apparently a half-naked nutbar like Renny is just entertaining enough to distract Matthew from his empty belly. The baby puts his little starfish hand on daddy’s face, and they stare at each other like long-lost lovers.
“Who’s the best little pumpkin muffin in the world?” Renny babbles. He sits in the other corner of The Beast, and then my sister enters the room looking flushed and more sexually satisfied than any new mother has a right to look. “Mommy!” Renny calls out, sounding like a moron. “We need your luscious titties over here!”
“You know,” I grumble, although I’m positive nobody is listening. “In a couple of years, he’s going to repeat all the stuff you say.”
They don’t even hear me. Missy fits herself against her boy toy and lifts her shirt. Renny adjusts the baby in both their laps, so that the baby can reach my sister’s boob. Matthew latches on, while his two parents gaze at their baby while he feeds, occasionally making sickening little comments about what a great nurser he is.
This is my life.
I’ve never felt more like a third wheel. Or a fourth wheel. Whatever. But this is my couch, and I wouldn’t get up to leave even if I had somewhere else to go. Which I don’t. I will just sit here, stewing in my own misery, alone with my worried thoughts, even if nobody notices.
That’s when the doorbell buzzes. The sound is like a knife through my already achy skull. “Could somebody get that?”
The happiest little family in Brooklyn doesn’t move.
So I get up to answer the buzzer myself. “Hello?”
“Rebecca.” The man’s voice is low and firm. “Can I come up?”
He doesn’t even bother to identify himself. He really doesn’t have to. Nate Kattenberger is the kind of man who’s used to being recognized.
He isn’t, on the other hand, accustomed to stopping by his assistant’s Brooklyn apartment. I’ve worked for Nate for seven years, and never once has he set foot inside my home.
It takes me a moment to shake off my surprise. But then I gather my wits and press the button unlocking the front door downstairs.
I turn my gaze on my living room. The place looks like a bomb went off. “Renny, go put on a shirt! Missy? How much of this baby crap can we pick up in the next 15 seconds?”
“None of it? I’m nursing. Why?”
Because the most successful man in the tri-state area is walking up the staircase right now! I don’t even have time to panic. Nate Kattenberger taps on the door less than a minute later. He must have sprinted up two flights of stairs. Since there’s no cure for my embarrassment, I open the door.
“You should be in bed.” That’s Nate’s opener. He’s never one for small talk.
I don’t answer for a second, because my brain is slow today, and it takes a little longer than normal to get over the same little jolt of disbelief I have every time those intense light brown eyes first lock onto mine. Nate is about ten times more magnetic than an ordinary guy. You’d think after seven years I’d be used to him. But nope.
“Hey,” I point out a beat later. “You rang my doorbell. I can’t open it and sleep at the same time.”
“A fair point, Bec. Were you sleeping before I rang?”
I don’t answer; I just wave him in. As he steps through the door, he pulls something into my apartment with him. It’s the biggest arrangement of roses I have ever seen, outside of a funeral parlor.
“Jesus. I’m still breathing, you know.” The joke is supposed to cover my embarrassment at his generosity, but it comes out sounding snappish. And when I try to take the flowers from him, the basket is so big that I don’t even know where to put it.
“Maybe I overshot,” he says with a chuckle. “Here. You take this instead.” He hands me a shopping bag from Dean & DeLuca, and it’s full of gourmet food. “Can I put the flowers on the table by the window?”
“If they fit! Watch out for the…”
Nate trips on the baby swing because I don’t warn him in time. He almost goes down, but saves himself just in time by leaning on the wall.
“I’m so sorry about that,” my sister says from the sofa. She doesn’t, however, apologize for her half-naked boyfriend, who’s gaping at Brooklyn’s most famous billionaire.
Good lord. We are Brooklyn’s equivalent of a trailer park. And it ain’t pretty.
“Nate,” I say, as if I weren’t dying inside. “You remember my sister Missy.” They met about five years ago when I invited Missy to a benefit at a museum somewhere. I don’t even remember the occasion. “And this is her boyfriend, Renny.”
“How have you been?” Nate asks Missy. The tips of his ears go red, probably because my sister is basically topless. “Are you here to look after Rebecca while she heals?”
“Nope! We live here,” Renny says, swinging his feet up onto the coffee table.
I just want to die now. As long as it’s relatively painless.
“Renny,” I try. “Didn’t you tell me you were going to make a trip to the store? After the baby woke up, you said.” This isn’t even a lie. He did mention making a run for groceries. But that was before he distracted himself by jumping my sister.
“Sure,” he rubs his unshaven face. “I could do that.”
“I’ll come with you,” my sister says, bless her. “We’ll carry Matthew in the sling. He’ll be done feeding in a minute here.”
Renny stands up, rubbing his bare chest. “Hey, is the library open? I finished that awesome book—with the parallel universe? But it ended on a cliffy. I need the sequel.”
Faster, Renny! I can see his shirt through the open doorway of Missy’s room. I mentally coach him toward it. The shirt, Renny. Get the shirt.
“Parallel universes are the best!” He wanders in the general direction of the shirt. “Like, there’s a parallel universe where I’m the quarterback for the Giants. And there’s a parallel universe where you’re the Queen of France.”
“There’s no monarchy in France,” I point out. Put on a shirt.
My sister waves her boobs around, then puts them back into her bra.
“But that’s the point!” Renny yells from the bedroom. Clothed now, he emerges to dance over to his son, scooping him out of Missy’s arms. “Anything can happen in a parallel universe. My little man can fly. Whee!” He supports the baby on his palms and flies Matthew around.
“Won’t that make him spit up?” I ask, preparing for the worst.
Missy takes the baby back from her goofball boyfriend. “Let’s roll. Good to see you, Nate. Go easy on my sister. She spent the whole morning freaking out about missing work. But she’s not supposed to touch a computer until…”
“Missy,” I warn.
“Well, you’re not!” Wisely, she opens the apartment door and disappears outside.
Renny grabs the baby’s sling, and then a blanket, too. Even if he’s kind of an idiot, he’s actually a good dad. “Later, Nate Kattenberger and Becca!”
The sound of the door shutting behind him is the best sound I’ve heard all day. My embarrassment factor lowers from 100 to, oh, a 97.
“Wow,” Nate says.
“They’re a little much,” I mumble.
“No…” He’s staring at the giant brown, velvet roses on The Beast. “Your sofa is really quite…”
“Would you believe that it’s super comfortable, though? Georgia and I thought about having it reupholstered, but we weren’t sure it would fit through the apartment door.” I plop down in one corner. “Sit. Try it for yourself.”
Nate drops into the other corner. He lifts his hands behind his head and stretches back. “Yeah, okay.”
“Not only is it comfortable, but when you’re sitting on it you don’t have to look at it.”
Nate laughs again, and I study his profile, as I’ve done a thousand times before. It’s objectively handsome. More than handsome, actually. Hot. Today he’s wearing his trademark black hoodie and a pair of four hundred dollar jeans.
These days he wears suits to his Manhattan office tower. But the hoodie used to be his uniform. Though he didn’t wear expensive jeans or designer sneakers back then. He didn’t have the office tower, either.
When I joined the company, there were 17 employees. Now there are more than 2000.
For five years I worked at Nate’s side as his personal assistant. Then, two years ago, he bought the Brooklyn Bruisers hockey team. That’s when he asked me to leave Kattenberger Tech and manage the team’s office instead. Another woman—the frosty Lauren—took my place as his assistant in Manhattan.
Nate said it wasn’t a demotion, and I didn’t take a pay cut. I actually gained some benefits, because the hockey team is a separate corporation, with a slightly different structure. And I still see Nate several times a week, at least during hockey season.
The move still bothers me, though. I wonder what I did to fall out of favor with Nate.
And now I realize I’m staring at him. But he’s staring at me too. “Are you really okay?” he asks, his face unreadable. Nate is famously stoic. The magazine profile pieces about him love to use the word “inscrutable.” The truth is that he’s actually a bit socially awkward.
“I will be okay.” I clear my throat. “God, it was the stupidest fall ever. I don’t think I even hit my head very hard. I’ll go into the office tomorrow morning, okay? I’ll just take it easy at work for a day or two…”
He’s already shaking his head. “No way. A concussion takes at least two weeks to heal.”
“Two weeks!” I squeak. “But I don’t need to play hockey, Nate. It’s a desk job.”
“Doesn’t matter.” He folds his hands like the CEO that he is, and then he drops a bomb. “For the next two weeks, Lauren is leaving her Manhattan seat to cover the Bruisers’ office. Until you’re really back on your feet. It’s already decided.”
My heart slides into my gut. “That’s really not necessary.” Not Lauren! It’s déjà vu all over again. “Lauren hates hockey, anyway.” She’d said so herself a dozen times.
Nate just smirks. Most men can’t pull off a smirk. But most men aren’t Nate Kattenberger. If you’re as smart and attractive as this guy, you can do pretty much anything. “Lauren will just have to deal.”
“Is there really no way I can talk you out of this? I’m just going to sit around this little apartment, bored.”
“You’re benched, Bec. It happens. The players bitch about the downtime, too. We need your brain, okay? We don’t fool around with concussions.”
I don’t point out the obvious difference—Nate’s hockey players get their head injuries while doing great things for the team. I got mine being an idiot.
“Thank you for the flowers, Nate.” My voice is so low I can’t be sure he heard it.
Our eyes meet, and the years fall away. I see the twenty-something guy I used to know, the one with a scrubby office and a big dream. Back then we worked late, eating leftover Chinese at our desks, and competing to see who could throw wadded-up napkins into the waste can from across the room. He was the guy with the knowing smirk and the big brain. And I took care of the little things so he had time to reinvent the way your mobile device connects to the internet.
Now Nate smiles at me, showing me his dimples. The dimples don’t fit the rest of the Nate Kattenberger package. They’re too boyish for such a serious face. They soften him. I smile back instinctively. And for that moment, everything is okay.
It’s a funny thing to be so familiar with this powerful man, and yet still aware that he holds my whole life in the palm of his hand. I trust him. But I also really can’t afford to let him down.
“Alternate universe theory is a thing,” he says suddenly.
“Wh-what?” As always, I’m a couple of paces behind Nate. Even when I don’t have a concussion.
“Alternate universes. The multiverse. It’s a legitimate theory in physics.”
“Pfft. Renny just reads science fiction.”
Nate’s eyes brighten. “Because science fiction is awesome. The multiverse theory posits that infinity is large enough to simultaneously encompass every parallel chance. Every non-choice. Every possibility.”
“Well, that’s just scary! Please don’t send me to a planet where my brother-in-law runs your company.”
“But I do like the idea that there’s a universe in which I did not step out onto the ice yesterday and then mess up our end-of-season workflow.”
His smile fades. “It’s going to be okay, Bec. What’s a little more chaos between friends?”
“Right?” I ask, but my voice cracks. I’m so tired of chaos. I’m just suddenly so…tired.
“Hey,” his voice is soft. He stretches a hand across the ugly brown roses on the sofa and squeezes my hand. “Would you tell me if you weren’t okay?”
“Yes.” No. Probably not. “In a few days I’ll probably feel great.”
“I hope so. Besides—the team still has to get us there. My model predicts we’ll clinch our playoffs spot a week from tonight.”
“In this universe, right?” I tease.
“Listen, bitch,” he says.
And then we both crack up, because “listen, bitch,” is from a B-movie we watched once on a jet to…Brussels? London? I don’t remember the destination. The flight was delayed, and we ended up watching two aliens fighting, and the purple one said “Listen, bitch!” to the green one.
It’s been a part of our shared vocabulary ever since. That and palindromes. With Nate it’s just all dork humor all the time.
“Clinching the playoffs next week, huh?” I poke his foot with my toe. “I’d better chill the champagne.”
“That’s more like it.” His glance travels around my cramped living room, where a giant package of disposable diapers is wedged under the coffee table, and three discarded pacifiers dot the floor. “Are you going to be able to get the peace and quiet here that you need to heal?”
“It’ll be fine,” I insist. “We’re usually not all home at the same time.” That’s true, but only because I’m the one who’s usually at work.
Nate stands up. “You’ll call me if you need anything?”
“Of course,” I lie, rising to my feet. Complaining to Nate isn’t my style. I wouldn’t want to ruin my Tough Girl cred. And he has enough to worry about right now.
He gives me a long look, and I try to smile. The man is observant as hell, and I don’t want him to know how scared I am. “Be well, Bec. Don’t try to do too much before the doctors say it’s okay.”
“All right. I promise.”
He gives me the world’s most awkward hug and then vanishes into the Brooklyn afternoon.