It’s Friday, which means another sneak peek of one of my books! (Yes, I’m finally getting back to this!) This week, The Mrs. Degree went live on Amazon, and I’ve been so excited about it. The hero, PJ, is the son of past characters, Craig and Hope, and I teased part of the story way back in another book, So Like Us, long before I even knew what the full story was. I didn’t even intend to write PJ’s story until a reader said that she wanted it, so I guess the lesson there is this – go ahead and tell me what to write, and chances are good that I’ll probably do it. How fun is that?!
Check out the beginning of PJ and Melanie’s story…
It was ten minutes until midnight on New Year’s Eve, and his shoes were full of sand. Again.
“How much farther?” he asked, feeling himself lag behind his two cousins no matter how quickly he moved. All that sand tended to weigh a man down. It would have been smarter to have worn flip flops like Evan and Adam wore, but PJ had never done things the way everyone else did them, choosing instead to wear a pair of sneakers because they gave him better support, after all. If he’d known that they’d be walking across the beach that night, he’d have done differently.
Or not. Because shoes with good support were important. Practical. And PJ was practical if nothing else.
“Less than half a kilometer,” Evan answered him.
“Which is…?” Adam asked as they continued trudging along.
“Right over there,” Evan nodded with his head.
There it was. A brightly lit restaurant, right underneath the lighthouse. Spacious yet cozy on the inside, with a large bar, seating outside, and plenty of people even at this hour.
Still half a beach to go before they got there, though.
“Why did we walk again?” PJ asked, tempted to just take his shoes off already.
“Riana has the car,” Evan said, smiling over at him. “Hectic, man. It’s not even that far.”
“Yeah, but the sand,” PJ muttered. “And why doesn’t Riana have her own car?”
“Because we went to university together, we’re getting married in two days, and we live here,” Evan said, holding his hands out around him. “A family doesn’t need more than one vehicle in Swakopmund. We can walk practically everywhere.”
“You can walk practically everywhere,” Adam laughed, slapping his cousin on the back. “Because Riana always has your car.”
“That she does,” Evan admitted with a smile.
“Whipped,” Adam said succinctly.
“I’ve been in love with her since I was three,” Evan said. “So… yes. Aptly spoken. And we’re here.”
That they were. PJ leaned against the side of the building and emptied his shoes out one at a time, marveling at just how much sand had collected in each one.
“Glory, PJ,” Adam murmured. “Were you shoveling it into your shoes as we went?”
“Looks like it,” PJ answered. “I should have gone with Riana and her friends since they had the car.”
“You’re just what every bachelorette party needs,” Adam mused. “PJ Lucas, life of the party.”
“I’m loads of fun,” PJ muttered, taking his socks off as he said it. “And women love me.”
When neither Evan nor Adam commented on this, he looked up at them.
In the dim lighting, they looked like brothers instead of cousins. He knew that he fit right alongside them because they’d all heard it more than once. Family resemblance and all of that. Evan’s father, Adam’s mother, and PJ’s mother were siblings. David, Charity, and Hope, none of whom looked anything like one another, but here their sons were, all of them strikingly similar. Genetics are funny like that.
But looks were about as far as it went.
“In what world do women love you?” Adam asked doubtfully just as PJ was shaking his socks out.
“Women love stability and wealth. And I have a good job lined up for after graduation,” PJ noted blandly. “Going to take over Uncle Eli’s business for him.”
“Nepotism is great,” Adam nodded.
“Not nepotism,” PJ corrected him on this. “I’ve been doing the tutoring work for Eli’s business since high school and all through college. I’ve worked my way up from the bottom. Trust me.”
He had. And now, with Eli focusing more on the business end of his business, he wanted PJ to head up the recruiting and the scheduling for students at the university and all the tutors who worked for him. It was good work that would keep PJ on campus, where he could start masters level work immediately, then doctoral work, climbing the ranks of academia as he worked, looking towards being in administration at the university level one day.
For a nerd who loved school, it was a pretty sweet setup.
“Besides,” he shrugged, tugging his socks back on, “like you should talk about nepotism. Grandpa Paul is probably pulling all kinds of strings for you. Seminary, church work, church planting… open doors all over the place.”
Adam smiled just faintly at this, even as PJ got his socks on, and they were finally led into the restaurant, past the crowds, and over to a table close to the water.
“He hasn’t pulled any strings yet,” Adam said as they sat down, raising his voice to be heard over the noise around them. “I’m not even sure what strings I’d even want him to pull, if he offered.”
“Oh, he’ll offer,” Evan said, ordering drinks for them all, then turning back to face his cousins. “Tried to offer me all kinds of things before he heard that I want to stay here and teach high school.”
“Which you’re going to do,” PJ said appreciatively, unable to imagine his cousin anywhere but here in Africa, where he’d grown up. He looked to Adam. “So, what are you going to do? Evan’s practically got all of his life lined up, and no one even knows what you’re planning on doing next week, much less years from now.”
“I don’t know,” Adam shrugged. “I’ve got time to figure it out, though. Seminary, church planting…” He shrugged again.
“No idea then,” Evan noted.
“Not really,” Adam smiled. “But time. I’ve got time.”
“And then, there’s PJ and me,” Evan said, leaning back in his seat. “Already got it all figured out.”
Yes. Down to the details. PJ had it all planned out since he was a second semester into college. Because that’s just the way he was.
“Except PJ has no love life,” Adam noted. “So, he’s floundering in some areas.”
Well… truth. PJ had no love life, but it wasn’t from a lack of interest in having one. When he’d gotten to college, he’d been so focused on the work of actually going to class, studying, earning TA positions, and ruining the curve for everyone else that the social side of things had escaped him. He hadn’t really known that he was missing anything, not until he got here, saw Evan with his fiancée, and began to wonder if maybe he wanted more out of life than just academic success. Maybe he wanted a woman like him, who had a plan for her life and who loved school as much as he did. Someone he could talk history with, spending long afternoons at the library, having these incredible intellectual discussions…
Maybe he wanted a change.
Not that he’d let his two cousins know about it.
“Not floundering,” PJ corrected him. “I’m a perpetual bachelor, which has been my plan all along.”
“Hmm,” Adam mused. “Your plan, you say.”
“I thought you were a perpetual bachelor because you’re completely incompetent around women.”
PJ hoped that wasn’t true. Not like he’d tested the theory or anything by pursuing much of any kind of romantic relationship. Like, ever.
“No, didn’t you hear?” Evan interjected. “Women love PJ.”
Adam laughed out loud at this.
“My mother loves me,” PJ said thoughtfully. “She’s a woman.”
“A weird woman,” Evan noted. “I love Aunt Hope, but… well, she’s just like you, PJ.”
She was, God bless her. She ran twenty pregnancy centers, catering to teenage mothers and connecting them with jobs, with continuing education courses, with the daycare facility they oversaw, and with the church her husband had been pastoring for the past twenty-five years. PJ helped her out at most of them, volunteering his time on the weekends from helping take the kids at the daycare out on day trips to tutoring some of the girls who were working on finishing up their diplomas. It gave him the unique opportunity to see his mother working in ministry in several capacities, and she was more than competent at what she did.
But she was just a little… odd.
PJ could appreciate her even more for being just a little different than everyone else. And he did.
“She is,” PJ agreed. “But back to me.”
“Back to you,” Evan said, nodding.
“Yes, I’m okay being single. Because I like driving my own car, which is something you give up when you find a woman.” He eyed Evan. “Or so I’ve heard.”
Adam continued laughing. “He’s got you there.”
But Evan wasn’t listening to them anymore. He was to his feet and smiling, his attention on a different part of the restaurant, where the voices were louder, seemed to be heading their way, and were faintly recognizable, even though they were speaking a different language.
“Here we go,” Adam murmured.
Sure enough, there she was in her tiara and her giant Bride-to-Be sash. Riana Botha, Evan’s fiancée, and (quite possibly) the loudest woman in all of Swakop, all of Namibia… perhaps all of Africa itself.
“Surprise!” Riana shouted gleefully. “Looks like we all ended up at the same place for the new year countdown!” She rushed to Evan, leaping into his arms, her mouth on his in an instant.
She wasn’t drunk. She was just being herself.
“Shame,” one of Riana’s university friends said, sighing and looking over at Adam and PJ. “I think they planned it like this.”
PJ would have asked Evan if he had, but Evan was still occupied, his hands wrapping Riana’s legs around his waist and holding her there, her red hair all but covering his face as she leaned into him and had her way with him right in the middle of the restaurant.
“Eish, man,” Riana’s sister, Annika, spoke up. “Papa would beat you if he could see you right now. Or maybe it’s Evan he would beat.”
“Either beat him or make him take a cold shower,” Evan’s sister, Zoe, spoke up from where she sat next to Adam and grabbed his drink.
“Nope,” Evan said, finally pulling back for air. “Piet loves me. Because I’m taking this one off his hands, finally.” He grinned at Riana, pushing her hair back with his fingers. “You had fun tonight, ne?”
“It was okay,” Riana cooed at him, still holding his face in her hands. “I would have rather spent the evening with you, lovey.”
“Thanks a lot,” Annika said, making herself comfortable at their table. “All this planning we did, only to have you rather spend the time with Evan.” She looked over at PJ, a smile on her face. “Is Evan just as miserable, PJ?”
Not miserable at all, not at the moment, given how Riana was mauling him again. PJ was about to say this to her, when he felt her leg up against his underneath the table. Not a bump but a slow rub.
Well, that was weird. He scooted over fractionally. She scooted over, too. And there was her leg again.
He looked over at her. She met his gaze and smiled.
Was she flirting with him?
She raised an eyebrow at him and smiled again.
Yes. Yes, she was. And this wasn’t the first time this week. In all the preparations they’d been helping out with and all the celebratory dinners they’d had, she’d been giving him these looks.
He wasn’t entirely sure what to do with that.
He wasn’t accustomed to women flirting with him. He wasn’t accustomed to them even looking at him more than once. On the off chance that they did, he was probably clueless enough that he never realized it.
He was definitely aware of what Annika was doing and the attention that she was wanting when she looked at him, though. If she didn’t live halfway around the world, he might consider doing something about it. If her parents didn’t scare him (and her father didn’t, but her mother, Kait, was like a formidable force to be reckoned with), he might flirt right back.
No. No, he wouldn’t. He didn’t know the first thing about flirting back, and though Annika was beautiful and intelligent, he wasn’t willing to expend the energy it would take to figure out how to return her interest.
Lame. He could just imagine his younger brother, Reid, echoing the word. Laaaaammmmmeeeee.
Whatever. He was a nerd, of course, but he had a job and a plan.
Eat that, losers.
Except, well… maybe he was the loser. Maybe it was time for a change.
Zoe slammed Adam’s empty drink back on the table. “You need a new one,” she told him, disinterest in her voice.
“Thankfully there wasn’t any alcohol in that,” he murmured. “Why are you so thirsty?”
“We’ve been out dancing all night,” one of Riana’s other bridesmaids said, fishing through her purse. “So, we came here for drinks. Or so she said.”
But that clearly wasn’t the reason at all, as Evan and Riana continued holding one another, ignoring everyone else.
“She wanted to give him a kiss at midnight,” Zoe said, rolling her eyes. “Which we should have expected. I wish Luke was here so I could kiss him, but he stayed back at Mom and Dad’s with Grandpa and the baby.”
“Stuck with us, then,” Adam said, nudging her shoulder with his.
“Maybe I’ll kiss you on the cheek,” she said, grabbing up a napkin and rubbing it on his face. “Kissing cousins. The new year’s kiss sets the tone for a new year, you know. So me kissing you will set a precedent for a weird year, Adam.”
“The weirdest,” he nodded. “You gonna kiss PJ, too? Or am I going to have to kiss him?”
“I would prefer you didn’t,” PJ spoke up.
Annika scooted even closer.
Riana turned slightly away from Evan, her eyes on her watch, as she began jumping up and down and yelling.
“Ten seconds until the new year!”
Based on what? PJ looked at his own watch. They still had five minutes. He held it up to his ear. Yep, still good. Five minutes, and –
“Five, four, three, two, one, Happy New Year!”
PJ was still tapping his watch as Riana attacked Evan again, as Zoe kissed Adam’s cheek so hard that she forced his face into the most awful grimace, and as Annika put her hand on his knee.
“Oh,” he managed as he turned to her and she put her lips to his, nearly knocking him out of his seat.
No telling what that meant for the year ahead.
“Happy New Year!”
And with that, there was a quiet, dignified round of applause and laughter as the clock struck midnight. No confetti, no balloons, and no glitter (good heavens, no) like a lot of parties, because this one was in their house, this was New Year’s Eve, and her mother forbid it.
Melanie could have done a far better job if she’d been the one planning this event. There had been occasions where her dad had given her the reins on similar celebrations because both he and his wife were swamped with cases at work, and each and every time, Melanie had handled catering, venues, and the like with the ease of a professional, making each party more memorable than the last. This was New Year’s Eve, though, and it was all her mother.
Yes, this, in its subdued, light snobbery. All her mother.
Couples around the room, all of them her parents’ colleagues and close friends, paired up with appropriate, subdued kisses to greet the new year, continuing on with polite and uptight conversation, because how you looked and what others perceived about you was more important than anything else.
Melanie didn’t know much, but she knew this.
She had just put her drink down when Drew scooted closer to her, once again invading her personal space, just as he’d been doing the majority of the night.
“Happy New Year, Melanie,” he whispered, being so bold as to angle her face towards his with a hint of possessiveness and putting his lips to hers with a less than gentle pressure.
She was no stranger to kissing, even to kissing men she didn’t particularly care for, but this was too much. There was too much subtext between Drew and her, and she didn’t want to encourage this.
“You, too,” she said as she disengaged from the kiss, reaching out to wipe the lipstick from his lips a moment later, absentmindedly… and giving him just a little shove as she did so.
He wasn’t her boyfriend. Not at all. He was her friend… kind of. He’d legitimately been her friend for most of her life, ever since she was a newborn in a pack n play in the dining room during one of these parties and he was the curious toddler who sat by her and just watched. Her dad and his dad were old fraternity buddies, so this was the twentieth new year they’d rung in together, just like this.
Well, they hadn’t all been rung in together, just like this. No, the year before, Drew had brought Heidi with him. Heidi, of even more prestigious lineage than either Drew or Melanie, as her family had been rich for several generations, not just a few. She was Drew’s age and clearly in the market for a husband, and Melanie had found herself feeling something, though she’d not been certain what it was, at the sight of her with her arm through Drew’s that night.
It hadn’t been jealousy. Or not that kind of jealousy, at least. New Year’s Eve had just been their night, hers and Drew’s, and this party had been one of the things that had always been something they endured together through all those years. As kids with a movie in the television room, with snacks to keep them occupied. As teens who might have figured out a way to grab up a couple of champagne glasses and toast each other on the fringes of the crowd, where their parents wouldn’t see. As young adults on their own, shaking hands and socializing as part of their parents’ team, with Drew leaning down at midnight to give her a small peck, just like he had every year since she’d turned sixteen.
Just friends, though, which meant that she shouldn’t have cared about Heidi and her intentions either way, but she had. She had been jealous of Heidi in the way she might have been had Drew been an older brother. Suddenly someone else had his attention and his time, and Melanie, acting a bit like the petulant teenager that she had been at the time, had thought Heidi obnoxious and annoying. Heidi was… well, she was a little bit like Melanie’s mother, honestly, and Melanie couldn’t fathom the thought of Drew actually picking a woman like that.
She hadn’t been able to sort through all of those thoughts and annoyances, even as she’d not gotten her midnight kiss, watching as Drew gave it to Heidi instead. When she walked out of the room shortly afterwards, she hadn’t known that Drew’s eyes had followed her. She hadn’t known that a couple of weeks later, he’d broken things off with Heidi.
But she’d certainly figured out that he had different intentions towards her now, after a year of making it subtly known.
Drew had been a friend, but now… he was trying to be something more.
Melanie wasn’t exactly sure how she felt about that as he watched her with a knowing smile, his feelings clear in light of this new year. He was familiar, like home, and she hardly had one memory without him. He was a decent guy, a guy who would be someone she could count on for years to come, and a guy who would let her continue on living like she did.
Well taken care of. Looked after. Wanting for nothing.
She was a little spoiled. She could admit it. Even though she’d gone on to a state university instead of an expensive private one, she’d only done that because her mother was an alumnus and a trustee and had pulled some strings to get her in. Not that either of her parents expected much of her at that state university. Her mother had sighed and made the comment that Melanie would do well to come out of it all with an MRS degree since the odds of her getting an academic degree with her abysmal grades were slim. Any pride her mother might have had about the fact that Melanie was following in her footsteps, even pledging her sorority, was lost as soon as the first round of horrible grades came out.
School wasn’t her thing. It never had been. In a perfect world, it wouldn’t matter, and she would be able to get by on something other than her slim intelligence. But she was living in this world, and maybe her mother was right to think that she should just look to settle down with someone rich and successful instead of disappointing herself over and over again each and every semester.
“What are you thinking?” Drew asked, his voice lowered.
“Nothing,” Melanie shook her head, bringing her eyes back up to his.
Her parents would have no problem with her being with Drew. They’d welcome it. They’d start planning the wedding tomorrow.
And there could be worse things than being married to him, she’d often reasoned, trying to convince herself to feel something. There was everything he was and who he’d been all of her life. Then there was the very shallow truth that he was hot, that she knew she’d be the envy of a lot of other women, and that by the world’s standards, it didn’t get much better than Drew.
But some part of her believed that, despite what her mother thought, she was meant for something more than just settling down and depending on someone else for the rest of her life.
That, and there was just a hint of impatience with Drew these days, something that had never been part of their friendship. He was more insistent in his questions, more demanding with his glances, and –
“You want to blow off this party?” Drew asked, his hand on her knee for a moment, his thumb rubbing tiny circles there, slowly and methodically. “We can go somewhere. You don’t have to stay at this party any longer, Melanie.”
He knew how tired she was of these parties, even if he had no idea what she was really, truly thinking.
She smiled, doubting that his motives were entirely innocent, yet still thankful for his willingness to blow off this whole thing with her if she needed him to, when her mother’s voice broke into her thoughts.
“Happy New Year,” she trilled pleasantly, reaching out for Drew. “And it’s going to be a good one, isn’t it?”
Drew squeezed Melanie’s knee again, then stood and let her mother embrace him. “Thanks, Alicia,” he said. “I think so.”
“Melanie,” her mother cooed, just a little tipsy, holding her arms out for her daughter.
Melanie stood and hugged her as well, making a face over her shoulder at Drew, which he returned with his reassuring smile. “Happy New Year, Mom. The party’s great.”
“I do well,” Alicia grinned, congratulating herself like she usually did as she surveyed the room.
“It’s as great as last year,” Melanie said, remembering that it had been just as subdued and lifeless as it was this year, yet unable to speak a word against her mother no matter what she felt.
Why was she always trying to please the woman when there was no way to please her?
“Going to be a great year, too,” Alicia said, smiling over at Drew, all but ignoring her daughter as she poked him knowingly.
Melanie wasn’t sure what that meant.
“Same old, same old for you, I’m afraid,” Alicia said, now turning her attention to Melanie and sighing with regret. “Your grades are still down. Drew, she flunked half her classes.”
How embarrassing, just announcing it like that in front of Drew, who had managed to graduate at the top of his own class last May, entering into a very lucrative job with a prestigious investment firm that fall and making, by all accounts, a brilliant success of his life.
“Yes, Drew,” Melanie said, holding her head up despite her mother’s words. “I’m an idiot, apparently.”
“You’re not an idiot,” Alicia corrected her. “You’re just… struggling. Chronically struggling.”
And this was the truth. That was a fitting description of her entire academic career, though Melanie would have preferred her mother not share this like she had.
“Well, we’ll work on it,” Alicia nodded, as though she herself was taking up Melanie’s school performance as her personal cause. Because that made her look good, even if the truth was that she never really involved herself in all of that beyond just complaining and criticizing.
Melanie wondered if Drew could see through the act.
“I heard your good news,” Alicia said, grinning even wider at Drew now.
He glanced over at Melanie, just a hint of panic in his eyes.
Good news? He hadn’t said anything about any news in all the time they’d spent talking that evening about her classes, about what she might eventually decide to major in, about her sorority and all the fun she’d been having, about how he’d like for them to spend more time together away from their parents’ parties and social obligations –
“News?” she asked.
Drew opened his mouth to clarify things, but Alicia beat him to it.
“Drew’s being moved overseas,” she said. “He got a really big promotion that came with a transfer to his company’s London office.” She beamed. “I just love London.”
London. Melanie thought back to trips she’d taken there as a teenager, one of them with Drew’s family when he’d been a college freshman “home” for the summer. Home had translated to traveling, and he and Melanie had made great tourists. Days spent going from one destination to the next on the underground, dropping in on dive restaurants and cheap souvenir stores their parents would have turned their noses up at, going up in the London Eye at night, looking over the whole city together…
They’d been friends then, real friends, without these expectations Drew had adopted in the past year. Thinking of those days of friendship and the genuine companionship they’d shared once upon a time had Melanie regarding him with gentleness again, letting her guard down.
“Drew,” she whispered. “Congratulations.”
“Gotta plan a trip out there, huh?” Alicia asked her daughter. “Maybe meeting up with Drew and changing your plans will be a better decision than continuing on with that degree of yours.” She raised her eyebrows in Melanie’s direction. “And maybe just staying out there with him long term would be the smartest thing of all, huh?”
Her mother had said that out loud. She’d actually said that out loud. She was tipsy so it was understandable, but Melanie still found her face reddening as she said the words right in front of Drew, suggesting something more than friendship between them (encouragement Drew most definitely did not need) and demeaning her daughter all in the same breath.
Alicia was like that, sad to say. Melanie should have expected no different, but it still stung.
And then, Alicia was done with them, obviously, as she began glancing over her living room and seeing more guests she needed to speak with, leaving them without another word.
Melanie looked over at Drew again, humiliated and demoralized, yet still dreading the knowing look in his eyes as he watched her.
“I’m sorry,” he said, unable to keep from smiling.
“That my mother is a witch?” she asked, attempting to make a joke of it all, chiding herself for not being able to speak so plainly to her mother’s face when it clearly needed to be done.
“No, about London,” he said.
Drew wasn’t going to speak to the rest of it, thankfully, to all that her mother had implied.
“You’re apologizing for getting a promotion?” she asked, finally smiling at him in earnest.
“I’m apologizing for not telling you first,” he said. “I hate that you found out like that. My parents have been telling everyone here, apparently.”
“It’s good that they’re proud of you,” she managed, feeling a lump in her throat. Her parents had never been proud of her. Well, beyond those times when she’d shone in social situations or when someone had commented on how pretty she was. There wasn’t much beyond that, though.
But this wasn’t about her. This was about Drew and his big news.
“When do you leave?” she asked.
“Next week,” he said, still watching her.
“Oh,” she nodded. She wasn’t sticking around for very long either. She was going back to school in a couple of days herself, trying to do an i-term to bring up a grade that she’d bombed last semester.
She kept this to herself.
“Well, have a safe trip,” she said. “And a great start there.”
Things were weird between them, and she didn’t know what she wanted. But she wished him the best anyway, if for no other reason than all the memories and the childhood they’d shared.
Drew was watching her thoughtfully.
“You’ll come visit me,” he said. Not a question. A statement.
Something in his tone made her bristle. He didn’t intend anything by speaking as though it was already a foregone conclusion that she’d meet up with him, but she heard in his tone the same barking commands that her parents gave her about literally everything in her life.
You’ll go here, Melanie. You’ll do this, Melanie. You’ll be this, Melanie.
She’d spent so much time doing what everyone else told her to do and being what everyone else told her to be that she hardly knew who she even was. That was the one good thing about college. Classes were miserable, yes, but she was at home in her sorority house, around girls who’d picked her because of who she was, making friends and living her own life, far from the expectations and disappointments that her parents harbored.
And now, Drew had expectations as well.
“I don’t know that I will come visit you,” Melanie said, not liking that he’d implied it like this.
“You love London,” he said, knowing this much about her.
“I do, but it’s going to be a busy semester,” she said. “I’ve got sorority stuff, and a full load of classes –”
“Have your fun this semester,” he said, conceding this. “Then come and visit me this summer. And maybe… maybe your mom is right, and things will be different then.”
Was he implying that she should drop out and stay with him? Was this something that she would have honestly considered had her mother not been the one to suggest it earlier?
She thought about how she regarded Drew and wondered if there could be more, despite her misgivings…
“Seems a waste of time to keep on with school when we both know how this is going to end.”
He’d said it. Just like that.
And Melanie, who was so tired of being underestimated, felt for the first time like maybe they were right.
Want to read more? Get your copy of The Mrs. Degree here!