Here's a sneak peek at how Nick and Bethany's story starts. Well, their story started years ago, but New Year's changed everything for them. Fate has been throwing them together off-and-on since they were in the eighth grade, and New Year's was only one of many more curveballs to come.
I'll be releasing a behind-the-book storyboard in my exclusive content vault on July 10th (an early newsletter this month to celebrate the release of the book). If you'd like to sign up for my newsletter to receive monthly, exclusive content, you can do so here. Otherwise, happy reading!
New Year’s Eve
The night is dark, the road covered in snow, and my heart thumps in time with the blinker as Nick turns onto Main Street.
“Are you all right?” His voice is tentative and breaks the charged silence that hangs in the warm air blasting from the heater—it’s thick and almost smothering in my panic, but I can’t stop shaking. I don’t think it’s because of the cold, though.
“Not really,” I rasp. “It’s twelve degrees outside and my baby brother is out there.” Alone.
My mind races with unease, but my vision is still a little hazy from too much sparkling wine. I press my eyelids closed and take a deep breath. When I blink them open, I force the night surrounding us into focus. “This is all my fault.”
I peer out at the passing streetlights and each of my panicked breaths steam up the passenger side window. I knew I shouldn’t have gone out partying tonight—I knew something like this would happen. “I shouldn’t have left him.”
“Left him?” Nick grinds out. “Left him where? Jesus, Bethany. I know you like to party, but you left him—alone?” His voice is sharp and drips with judgement, more than I can stomach right now.
“No.” I laugh bitterly. “I didn’t leave him alone. You have no idea what you’re talking about, Nick.” I glare at him, staring into his wide, hazel eyes.
“I know enough,” he says caustically, a strand of brown hair falling into his face.
“Excuse me?” I have no idea what Nick thinks he knows about me, but he’s clueless if it’s that I would ever put my brother in danger. “What the hell is that supposed to mean? You know nothing about me, no matter what you might think.” I shake my head, scoffing at my idiocy. “I confide in you when I’m like, twelve, and you think you have me and my life all figured out?” The words form and roll off my tongue too easily, and I’ve had too many drinks tonight to stop them. “You’re clueless, Nick, no matter what you and your perfect, preppy group of friends think. So just mind your own business.”
“Hey, I might be clueless, but I could’ve left you freaking out in the parking lot at Lick’s.” His anger is sobering, and he’s right. I have no idea what I would be doing right now if he hadn’t offered to help me.
Balling my purse strap in my hands, I force myself to calm down. The constant tug and pull between Nick and me is not something I can deal with right now. Unable to meet his eyes, I peer out the window, willing Jesse’s form to come into view.
“I told you I would help you, and I will,” Nick says, breaking the wounded silence. He rests his hand on mine. “I’m just—I’m really confused right now.” His eyes shift back to the road. “You have an AWOL brother, and I have no clue what happened,” he says more calmly, and his fingers squeeze mine reassuringly.
His touch makes me feel like I’m sixteen again. His hand is big and warm, and I can’t tear my gaze away from the way it wraps around mine. The last time he held my hand we were only kids, and even if I’m not as innocent, Nick still affects me the same way. Only, this time he smells of Old Spice and his voice is more commanding. Even now, after all these years and what’s transpired between us, I feel emboldened and want to confide in him again.
“Thank you for helping me,” I say and pull my hand away from his.
He looks at me askance. “You’re welcome, but you’re not very forthcoming with information, you know? You never have been.” It’s a light-hearted jibe that I appreciate in the tension, and I choke out a sad, pathetic laugh. All I remember from the day we first met are my tears and Nick’s infectious smile. It was comforting and pulled me in. It’s stuck with me ever since.
“I guess very little changes, despite the years,” I think aloud. “It’s exhausting, you know. Keeping it all in.”
“So, tell me what happened,” he urges.
“I don’t know what happened after I left, but I needed to get out of the house tonight. I should’ve stayed, I knew I should have, but I just . . . you don’t know what it’s like. It’s never enough, nothing is ever enough.” My voice is foreign to me, desperate like I haven’t heard it in a while, and I do everything I can to reel my frayed emotions back in and spare us both the humiliation of my impending breakdown. In spite of the alcohol in my blood and the fear clouding my mind, I have to keep it together long enough to find Jesse and get him home.
Running my fingers through my loose curls, I take a deep breath. Sweat still lingers on my skin from dancing in a drunken throng of handsy party-goers. “If I would’ve slept in just a little bit longer this morning,” I say under my breath, “none of this would’ve happened.” I would’ve missed my dad’s homecoming, as well as his disappointment, and I would’ve stayed home tonight with Jesse.
“He was supposed to be at home with my parents. I knew something was wrong when I had a missed call from my mom. My dad said something—he upset Jesse somehow. I know how it goes, even if I wasn’t there.” Shaking my head, I wonder if nothing will ever change. “I’d just stepped outside to listen to my mom’s message, when you walked out.” I eye the snow-covered sidewalks as we drive down Main Street. “I didn’t expect Jesse to have run away. Not in the middle of the night.” Not in the snow with nowhere to go.
“Are you sure he ran away?” Nick asks tentatively. “Maybe he went to a friend’s house.” The incredulity in his voice is both painstakingly sweet and maddeningly naïve. It’s just another reminder of how different Nick and I are.
“Jesse doesn’t have friends,” I explain. “Not really. He’s obsessed with movies, science, and he likes building things. He knows more pop culture trivia than anyone I know.” The awe in my voice seems to surprise him. “But, sometimes Jesse gets triggered and spirals, and he goes off on his own. It’s how he’s been acting out lately, and it’s scary as hell because an autistic eleven-year-old on his own, relatively high-functioning or not, is like a mouse running across a highway, everything is fast and scary, and . . .” My voice breaks off, and I glance at Nick. He’s frowning, staring out the windshield.
“He’s done this twice now, but he’s always gone to the ice cream shop down the street from my house. It’s familiar and safe. At this time of night—I have no idea where he would’ve gone.”
“Why isn’t your mom helping you look for him?” Nick almost spits out the words.
“She is,” I breathe. “I think. But she won’t find him. She doesn’t know him like I do.” It’s a sad, pathetic truth, but it’s the truth all the same. I brace my elbow on the door and watch the flurries of snow pass by the window.
“I feel like the police should be involved in this, Bethany. It’s freezing out, and if you don’t know where to look for him—”
“Let’s just check the park, and then I’ll call them, okay? Just—not yet.” I’m still living the aftermath of the last time I acted preemptively, and I’m not ready to get the authorities involved just yet. “Turn here,” I say, pointing to Beecham Street.
“You think he might be at the park?”
I stare out at the passing shadows, searching for any sign of my brother, trudging along or sitting on the curb, or even fallen down in the snow. “Jesse liked organizing Mac’s shop the other day when we were in there dropping off the Range Rover,” I say, more frantic as it hits me that, if he’s not here, he might actually be lost or in danger. “For a few days after, every time we got in the car, he asked if we were going to see Mac. He’s got it in his head that he likes the shop or her. Maybe he’ll show up there. Or—he likes to read all the info boards at the park . . . It’s all I can think of.” I breathe out my last bit of hope.
Nick’s hands tighten audibly around the leather-bound steering wheel before he lets out a despondent sigh. “If he’s not here, Bethany, we’re calling the police. We can’t search the whole town in the dark by ourselves. Especially if he’s cold and scared.”
I nod because Nick’s right, even if it’s the last thing I want to do. Glancing at the clock approaching midnight, I wipe the silent tears from my cheeks. “I know.”
I scour the shadows of Cal’s Auto, where I half expect Jesse to be standing, staring in the window at the Christmas tree’s blinking lights he seemed so taken with the other day. But he’s not there.
I grip my cell phone in my hand, prepared to make the call, when Nick brings the Explorer to a stop.
“Is that him?” He leans closer to the window.
Heart racing with hopefulness, I peer through the windshield into the park. Moonlight illuminates the seesaw and roundabout settled in the snow. Everything is a glistening blue against utter darkness, and at first nothing appears out of place.
Then, I see a shadowed outline on one of the swings.
Throwing my seatbelt off, I fling open the door. “Jesse!” I shout out his name, praying it’s him as I climb out of the car and hurry over as quickly as I can, even if my high-heels make it seemingly impossible over the frozen pavement and snow. Frigid air bites at my legs and face, and snow crumbles into my shoe, but I welcome it as my brother’s outline becomes clearer. “Jesse!”
He’s staring down at his feet when I reach him, wrapped in a down jacket and in his beanie and boots. “Oh my God, what the hell were you thinking!” I want to smack the crap out of him, but I pull him into my arms instead. “Running off like that—I’ve been so worried! Mom and Dad had no idea where you were.”
“I wanted ice cream,” Jesse mutters against my chest. His breath is warm on my neck, and I grip him tighter. “I went to the ice cream store but they were closed.”
I nearly laugh with hysteria. “That’s because it’s midnight, J. I know you wanted to get out of the house, but you could’ve called me,” I tell him, breathing in the scent of his hair—his clothes—anything to reassure my senses that he’s here and real and that he’s okay. I catch my breath and temper the tears in my eyes. “Don’t ever do that again. Like, ever. Okay? You’re going to give me a heart attack and then who will you design your theme park with?”
He tries to pull away from me, but I grip him tighter. “Hey,” I bite out. “I know you’re not a hugger, but you don’t get to pull away from me, not after what you just put me through. Consider it punishment.”
When I finally let go long enough to look at him, a small smile pulls at the corner of his mouth. “I just wanted ice cream,” he repeats.
“I know, J.” I allow myself a heavy sigh in relief, then shiver. “Come on.” I turn toward the car. “Nick’s waiting.”
Jesse’s eyes shift toward the Explorer, or maybe at Nick standing beside it. “Was he with you?” he asks as I lead him along.
“No, I ran into him when I was going to look for you. Nick’s the one that spotted you out here all alone. I was about to call the police.”
Jesse crunches through the snow behind me as I slog my way back to the Explorer, utterly shaking with relief and cold.
“Hey, kid,” Nick says as we reach the car. “I’m glad you’re not frozen to the swing.” He opens the back-passenger door in offering.
Jesse barely tilts his head, but I can tell he’s concentrating on Nick the best he can as he starts to climb in. I take my brother’s hand. “J,” I say briskly. I try to keep my composure, but the adrenaline and panic all come crashing back down over me. “Wait for a sec.”
He looks around at the dark night and up at the street lamps and the flurries floating in the air—anywhere but at me.
“Jesse,” I say calmly—earnestly, “you can never do that again. I need you to promise me.” The sudden pitch in my voice is like a crack in a glass mirror, and I hate the way it fractures, but I can’t help it. I squeeze his hand, knowing a squeeze back means he understands. I know he can sense my distress, he can even feel it, and after a brief moment, he finally squeezes my hand back.
“Thank you—I love you.” I kiss his forehead and nod for him to climb into the car.
“The heat’s on,” Nick tells him, and Jesse situates himself inside without another word.
Closing the door, I turn to Nick, tears of gratitude filling my eyes. “Thank you,” I say, and white puffs of breath surround us.
Nick looks at me, concerned . . . and curious. “Yeah, of course. I’m just glad you found him.”
With the panic in the air dissipating, the charged current of attraction I’ve always had for him enlivens the space between us again. He can feel it. It’s in the tension of his shoulders. I can feel it, humming through my body with anticipation and unease. I can’t seem to look away from him, and thankfully, it’s too dark for him to notice my reddening cheeks under his gaze.
Sometimes he’s the boy who sat with me all those years ago as I cried, thinking my entire world was coming to an end. Sometimes he’s the jock who broke my heart, even if he doesn’t realize it. So much passes between us in a single exhale, a lifetime of unspoken questions and drowning attraction. It’s an inescapable pull and the promise of ecstasy, as well as heartbreak.
“You’re cold,” Nick says, and he clears his throat. “Let’s get you in the car.” His voice is low and his actions swift as he opens the passenger door for me.
“Thanks,” I whisper and climb inside. I think about the past ten years and how many times I’ve both despised Nick and wished he was mine. Now, here we are. Two people who are more than acquaintances, but have never been friends. And he’s the one who found my brother.
Rubbing the warmth back into my legs and arms, I turn around to find Jesse’s eyes on me from the backseat. It happens so rarely, I can always feel his gaze. Watching. Wondering. Processing.
He looks away when my eyes meet his dark blue ones, but I know the way his mind works—everything is a puzzle that needs to be solved, a chronology of memories that lead to a single moment. Everything is a question he wants to ask or that he works to solve himself. I just don’t know what he’s processing now or what he’s deciding.
“Let’s get you home, J,” I say, turning back to the front. I shut my eyes against the heat pumping in from the vents, and chills trickle over my skin as warmth envelops me.
Nick climbs into the driver seat and quickly shuts the door. “So, where to?” He pulls his seatbelt over his shoulder and runs the windshield wipers to brush off the bits of fallen snow.
“Home,” I breathe out, as Jesse speaks over me, “Denny’s.”
I turn around to look at him. “Excuse me?”
Jesse looks at the clock. “I still want an ice cream.”
“A hot fudge sundae does sound primo right about now,” Nick muses and looks at me, expectant. “Besides, it’s New Year’s.”
“I think we’ve earned it. Don’t you?”
Spending more time with Nick feels significant, and I’m not sure that it’s a good idea.
Then, Nick smiles at me.
With two sets of eyes staring back at me, waiting, I can’t possibly say no. “Yeah, okay. Sure.”
“What’s your favorite,” Jesse asks between spoonfuls of hot fudge. It’s all over his lips and he’s got a little on his cheek, but Bethany just sits there, smiling at him, laughing and happy. She’s relieved, I think. “The Last Crusade, Temple of Doom, Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Crystal Skull?”
“You know all of the Indiana Jones movies?” I ask, surprised. “Aren’t those a bit before your time?”
Jesse’s brow furrows as he stares into his ice cream dish. He shrugs. “I like all movies.”
“All movies?” I clarify. I wonder what this kid watches with his free time, other than Jurassic Park.
He shrugs again, more of an inability to sit still than out of indifference, I think. “A lot of movies.”
“Jesse’s a movie buff,” Bethany explains.
“I’m starting to get that. Well, in that case, Crusade, hands down.”
Bethany frowns down at her phone as it buzzes on the table. I get the impression she’s texting her parents, but I haven’t asked.
“That one’s all right.” Jesse’s brow is still furrowed, like he’s deep in thought as he watches the fudge dripping off his spoon.
“Just all right? The Last Crusade is epic. The Holy Grail—Sean Connery . . . It’s a classic.”
“You are a smidge older than him,” Bethany teases, finally peering up from her phone as she drops it into her purse. “What’s considered classic is sort of relative, right?”
I shake my head. “I’m disappointed in you. Classic is classic, there’s a difference between what’s currently ‘cool’ and what’s ‘classic.’”
Jesse doesn’t bother looking up at us. I’m beginning to pick up on a pattern with him, so I don’t take it personally that he doesn’t really look at me. At least he’s not tapping on the table anymore, which makes me feel better, like maybe he’s warming up to me a bit more.
“Cool verses classic, huh?” Bethany says with amusement. “You seem very certain of this.”
I shrug. “Of course I am.” I drop my spoon in my dish and sit back in the booth. “Queen, the best band of all time, is classic; and The Goonies movie is another classic, one I think even you would like, Jesse, since you’re so keen on adventure.” It’s a harmless dig, but true given his midnight outing and penchant for taking off once in a while. “And of course, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a motion picture classic to everyone.”
“Maybe to people born in the 90s,” Jesse clarifies and he finally looks up at me.
Eyes wide, I gape at him, then at Bethany. “A sense of humor? I didn’t see that one coming.”
“Sometimes,” she says. She smiles and runs her fingers through his brown hair.
Though Jesse doesn’t seem to take much notice to her attention, I get the feeling she’s the one person in the world he probably cares most about. There’s something calming in the way they are together, putting Jesse more at ease. I’ve only been drip-fed information about her parents over the years, but they seem like cold-hearted ass-hats. And, after tonight, learning how careless they’ve been with Jesse, I doubt his relationship with them is half as easy as his relationship with his sister.
He stares thoughtfully at his sundae. “They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” he says, catching me off guard.
“Who was, Queen?” I ask, and lean my elbows on the table. “How do you know that?”
“And they received the Lifetime Achievement Award this year at the Grammys.”
I look at Bethany, who’s smiling from ear to ear. “I told you, he loves pop culture.”
Chuckling, I lean toward him a little bit. “And how is it that you know so much about Queen—wait, how do you know who Queen is at all?”
He glances at Bethany. “My sister listens to them sometimes,” he explains. “She listens to a lot of music.”
My eyes widen with surprise. “Does she, now? I had no idea.” I look at Bethany and our eyes meet for a brief moment. “This gets more interesting by the second.”
Bethany rolls her eyes. “Oh, please. It can’t be that surprising. You barely know anything about me.”
“I guess.” I know enough, though. I know that every time I think I have her figured out, she throws me a curveball, and that every time I tell myself I’m done thinking about her, she does something surprising that hooks me in again, making thoughts of her inescapable.
I lean back in the booth, my sundae long gone. “All right then, so you guys are awesome and like my favorite band, but what about this Indiana Jones business?” Watching Jesse lick his fingers, I settle in for another debate. “Which is your favorite—wait, let me guess . . . Raiders of the Lost Ark?”
Jesse’s blue eyes meet mine and hold for a brief second. “How’d you know that?”
Suppressing a triumphant smile, I shrug. “Maybe a lucky guess. Or, maybe I figured that since you like dinosaurs”—I nod to his Jurassic Park shirt—“you’re partial to the snake scene—reptiles, that sort of thing.”
Jesse smiles a little, but I’ve lost his gaze again. “Yeah, you’re right.”
I clap my hands together. “What can I say, nothing gets by me.”
“But,” Jesse continues, “paleontologists say dinosaurs were a mix between warm and cold blood. So, they weren’t actually reptiles, like snakes.”
Bethany smiles again, with pride this time, and shakes her head. She’s beautiful when she’s like this, when she opens up and lets her walls down. It’s her crinkled, stormy gray eyes that have stuck with me all these years, making it nearly impossible to forget about her, no matter how many times I’ve tried.
“So, you’re a smart guy, huh?” I say. “I dig it.”
Jesse shrugs. “I read a lot.” He stirs what’s left of his sundae around in his glass.
My phone buzzes on the table beside me, and Savannah’s name fills the screen. I frown down at it. “Uh . . . Give me a sec, would you?” I look at Bethany, whose eyes are on me as I excuse myself from the table and make my way to the door.
I answer the call as I step outside. “Hello?”
“Hey!” Savannah shouts, laughing into the phone. It’s her drunken laugh, her happy laugh. “Happy New Year, Nicky!”
I let out a relieved breath, glad she’s just tipsy and not crying or depressed on the other end. Leaving Saratoga Falls—me, her job, and her friends—to go back home to take care of her parents has been more difficult for her than she’d expected, and for me, if I’m honest. “Happy New Year, Red. Where are you?”
“Umm, I’m at a bar in Hannington Beach with a couple of new acquaintances. It’s my new hangout. What about you? Is Brady being a mean ol’ bastard and making you work all night or did he let you off the hook to meet up with Mac for New Year’s?”
I glance inside the restaurant, through the window at Jesse and Bethany as they sit, tucked away at our booth. “I’m at Denny’s, actually, of all places.”
She laughs. “That’s . . . unexpected.”
“Yeah, it is.” Savannah has no idea.
There’s movement on her end, and she’s huffing and puffing before the commotion dies down in the background. “I miss you, Nick,” she says quietly. “I just—I wanted to hear your voice. It’s weird being here, when I really just want to be there, with you.”
I clear my throat, the timing of her call while Bethany is inside, waiting for me, shrinks the world in around me a little, and I feel uncomfortable. “You didn’t want to do the long-distance thing, remember?”
“Yeah, but . . .” she sighs. “That was before.”
“Before I knew how hard this would be.”
I peer out at the dark street, watching what few cars are on the road pass, at a loss for words. We’ve gone around and around about this so many times, and it always ends the same. We try it out, it’s too hard for her, so we put an end to it. We take some time apart and somehow, we keep ending up where we started. I can’t do it anymore. As much as I care about her, I need some sanity too. “It’ll just—it’ll take time to get used to everything,” I tell her. I feel like a broken record, but she’s buzzed, and I’m not sure anything I say will matter all that much. “But I’m glad you called, and I’m glad you’re having fun . . . You deserve that, at least.”
“It’s not the same though,” she says sadly.
Shoving my cold, free hand into my pocket, I glance inside again to meet Bethany’s curious gaze. She quickly looks away and brings her phone to her ear.
“Nick,” Savannah says, “I miss you.”
“I miss you, too, Savannah.”
“Do you, really?” she asks hesitantly. “You sound . . . different tonight.”
“Yes, of course I miss you, but this is how things are now.” You’re the one who left.
Whether it’s my tone or that she knows deep down this isn’t a helpful conversation to be having, she finally says, “You’re right. I’ll let you go.” After an exhale, she adds, “Happy New Year, Nick. Tell everyone I say hi, would you?”
“Of course I will . . . Happy New Year.”
We hang up after a few seconds pause, and just as I’m about to head inside, the door swings open and Bethany and Jesse step outside, adjusting their coats.
“What’s up?” I ask, glancing inside to see what the rush is all about. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah, everything’s fine. We just need to get home. My mom’s worried.” There’s an unexpected distance to Bethany’s voice and all the walls she’d let down earlier, all the laughing and openness, is gone. “I already paid, so you don’t have to worry about it.”
“You didn’t have to do that.”
“It was Jesse’s idea to come here, and it’s the least I can do for all your help tonight.” She flashes me a smile, but it’s a smokescreen. The distance she’s putting between us is too reminiscent of the past. I don’t like it, not after everything that’s happened tonight.
“Our ride’s here,” she says and gently urges Jesse toward a blue sedan parked at the curb. “Climb in where it’s warm, J.” Her tone brooks no argument as she pulls her blonde hair out of the collar of her jacket.
“So, you’re leaving, just like that?” I’m not sure if I’m more upset or confused.
“I need to get Jesse home,” she says, digging around in her purse. “It’s late, and my parents—well . . .” She shrugs.
“They didn’t seem too worried earlier,” I remind her.
She’s tapping something into her phone as she walks to the sedan.
“Hey—” I say, and reach for her arm. “What’s with you all of the sudden?”
Finally, she looks at me. Her lips are pursed and her delicate eyebrows are drawn together. “Thank you for your help tonight, Nick. I don’t know what I would’ve done without you. I mean that.” But her brow furrows even more and she gets into the car without another word and shuts the door.
Just as suddenly as she appeared in my life this evening, she disappears again. And like always, I’m left standing there with my mind spinning and the all too familiar sting of disappointment.
And if you'd like to get an in-depth, behind-the-book look at my story and character inspiration, you can sign up for my newsletter here for exclusive subscriber content.
For more information about me and my projects: