Blog Tour: Finding Emma by K. Ryan
Finding Emma by K. Ryan Publication Date: October 20, 2015 Genres: Contemporary, Romance
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Synopsis: For the last year, Emma Owens has been quietly detached from everything and everyone. Desperate to escape the demons that chased her out of her hometown, she’s learned that life here in Milwaukee is just less complicated and less tragic when it’s a one-woman show.In the span of one week, everything about her carefully orchestrated solitude comes crashing down. Then again, she can’t really ignore the scratching coming from her patio door or the hungry, pleading grey eyes reflecting in the moonlight. Those four little white paws and that tiger-striped fur thaws some of the ice keeping her heart on lockdown and she’s attached before she knows what hits her. Emma doesn’t have any better luck ignoring another pair of eyes, and her new neighbor, Finn Matthews, with his shy persistence and a painful past of his own, slowly chips away at the rest of the ice trapping Emma in her insecurities and her loneliness. Taking a chance on her new roommate and her next-door neighbor opens a door she’d previously slammed shut: the door to a new lease on life and the right to forgive, to fight back, and to heal. And the craziest part about it? It all started with a stray cat. She was lost...and he found her. **Finding Emma is a full-length, standalone contemporary romance. Due to language and some sexual situations, this book is not intended for readers under 18**
About K. Ryan
K. Ryan is a former English teacher, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in 2009. In between ‘real life’ duties, she’s been writing the Carry Your Heart series quietly on the side for the last two years. When not writing, she’s either binge-watching something on Netflix, running, reading, or cheering on the Packers. She lives in the Green Bay area with her crazy-supportive boyfriend and the best decision of her adult life, a not-so-stray cat named Oliver.
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You can buy Finding Emma for $2.99 through Fri., Oct. 30!
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Chapter One of Finding Emma by K. Ryan
“Thank you for being a friend...traveled down the road and back again…”
I blew my bangs out of my eyes as I fumbled for my keys and shot a wary glance at the door down the hall from mine. Must be nice to sit around and watch Estelle Getty verbally abuse Betty White all day, I mused and shook my head at Mrs. Johannsen’s door. Her apartment was technically directly in front of mine with the way our building was structured. Our connecting walls were so paper thin I was beginning to seriously worry about how much more cackling I could reasonably stand.
If marathon after marathon of old lady escapades blaring through my walls was the worst of my problems with Mrs. Johannsen, then I guess I really shouldn’t complain. Considering that she never asked any invasive questions and generally left me alone, she was the best neighbor somebody like me could ask for. My eyes landed on the door directly across from mine and a little fluttering of nervousness shot through me. Mrs. Johannsen had not-so-discreetly informed me yesterday that we were finally due for some new neighbors on our floor.
The apartment directly across from mine had sat vacant for two glorious months of silence and disruption-free nights. My last neighbors were nice enough, but given that our patios shared a wall and they always had their patio door open, it was difficult to shut out the screeching, ear-splitting crying no matter how loud I turned up my turntable or my TV. The baby was cute. She was really was. Chubby cheeks and pretty brown eyes with little wisps of strawberry-blonde hair.
I still hated her.
All I wanted was peace, quiet, and sleep-filled nights. And all that baby did was cry and cry and cry, making it pretty much impossible for me to sleep or get any work done. I got that babies were difficult, that being a new parent was hard, but that didn’t mean I had to suffer right along with them too. It wasn’t like I could exactly knock on the door and tell them to turn down the noise. I’m sure they would’ve loved a baby-controlling remote that you could just click to mute the noise and I would’ve happily bought one for them if a beautiful invention like that actually existed.
Needless to say, I’d done a little happy dance when they finally bought a house and moved the hell out.
That was the scary thing about knowing new neighbors were on their way—you just never knew what you were going to get, but not in that optimistic life-is-like-a-box-of-chocolates way. They could be the nicest, quietest neighbors ever that just kept to themselves and minded their business, kind of like Mrs. Johannsen, minus her tolerable TV addiction, and my upstairs neighbors, who were rarely home anyway. Or they could be loud. Obnoxious. Intrusive. Uninvited. Messy. Annoying.
I blew out a deep breath just at the thought. I was better off just focusing on what I could control, which over the last year, wasn’t a whole lot.
After finally pushing through the door, I tossed my keys onto the tiny end table I’d set up right next to the door just for that purpose, kicked off my shoes, and opened my patio door to air out my stuffy living space. I inhaled deeply, my eyes taking in the peace residing in my makeshift backyard. Any kind of tree line in this part of Milwaukee was rare and when I first saw the view in this apartment—thick, green brush and tall trees that blocked everything else out—I knew I had to have it.
This apartment and this city really gave me the best of both worlds: I could get lost in the bustle, but come home to peace and quiet.
Today was really just an average day. My shift at The Corner Café was easy, sort of slow, and uneventful. I had $70 in tips sitting in my purse, which wasn’t great for a Friday, but it wouldn’t necessarily put me in the red either. Overall, it was a pretty good, quiet day in the city.
As if on cue, my iPhone buzzed in my back pocket. My eyes flew to the digital clock above my stove and then flitted up to the ceiling with a shake of my head. Jesus, it was like damned clockwork with him. Unfortunately, I also knew that if I didn’t respond sometime soon, my overprotective-to-a-serious-fault older brother would just keep bothering me until he got what he wanted.
Never should’ve given that nosy bastard my schedule.
One swipe across the screen told me what I needed to know: How was ur day?
Well, I guess I couldn’t really fault the guy for trying, so I pounded out a quick reply, telling him what he already knew. Less than a second later, he replied: Good to hear. Love u, Em.
There, that wasn’t so bad. Pushing aside the nagging guilt tugging at my conscience, I figured my best bet was to just stick with my plan for the rest of my night: eating, watching Netflix, blogging, more Netflix, and last but certainly not least, sleeping. Why was that so bad? Noah knew everything, all the dirty, humiliating details, and he still didn’t understand why this was the way it had to be. Why I needed to live this way. Why I needed to separate myself from what he referred to as actual living.
His worry wasn’t necessarily misplaced, but it wasn’t productive either.
Life was just less complicated and less tragic when it was a one-woman show.
With that last thought, I booted up Netflix on my TV and toggled over to the next episode of Orange Is The New Black. I needed to write another blog post tonight, this time on the best BB creams to use this fall—compelling stuff, right?—but that still left plenty of time to lose myself in the goings-on at Litchfield Penitentiary and make dinner. Careful to turn the volume up enough to drown out the cackling Golden Girl, I threw a chicken breast on a skillet and let Piper and company give me a little escape.
By the time I was seated on my couch, nibbling away at the chicken and side salad, and engrossed in the middle of an episode, I’d scrolled through emails, made some mental notes about the blog post I had to write, and had a cold glass of Moscato sitting in front of me.
My phone buzzed one more time and my eyes lifted to the ceiling.
Dinner at our house this weekend??
I had to give Noah credit for trying. For still trying and refusing to give up on me, even though I turned him and Cristina down almost every time. The last time I’d agreed to a dinner at their house, my mom had shown up unannounced and uninvited.
That pretty much put an end to my desire to travel back to Hickory for any reason. Swallowing back more than a little guilt, I pounded out a quick reply telling him I had to work all weekend and couldn’t make it. I would be an aunt in about a month and I didn’t want to be anywhere near the town where my soon-to-be niece would live. It was a kick in the gut, salt in an open wound, but it was something I could live with.
Pushing aside that gnawing at my stomach, my attention shifted back to my TV and I let fantasy drown out reality for a few blissful, carefree minutes. Just as Crazy Eyes got done throwing pie, I saw it.
Streaks of grey and black. Little flashes of white. All hovering around my patio chairs. What the…
I shot up from my couch and darted over to my patio door. There it was. A stupid, skinny, grey and black striped cat.
“What the fuck?”
The cat was weaving in and around the leg of the patio chair closest to my screen door and his head lifted up at the sound of my voice, giving me a good look at the white patch on his chest and four little white paws. My heart did something I hadn’t felt in a long time—it tugged. I swallowed hard in response.
It was the eyes. Soft grey. Glinting almost ethereally in the twilight. It was like someone had taken an Emma-controlling remote and clicked pause. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t think. I just stared back.
As if it could sense it needed to make the first move, the cat ducked underneath the chair, bending and slinking until its nose pressed against my screen door. It sat back on its haunches, opened its mouth, and this little mewing sound croaked out, deep and forceful, like it expected me to understand, to be able to communicate somehow this way.
It stared back at me expectantly as if to say, Well?
I just stared back. I didn’t know what to do. All my faculties had just sort of left the building. Motor ability. Verbal ability...all vanished as I gaped back at this cat.
Finally, the cat seemed to realize I wasn’t going to communicate the way it wanted me to and stood up on all four legs, with its white socks, and slinked down the entire length of my patio door, heading right for my long, rectangular planter filled with rows of little blue and yellow flowers.
Was it going to...and then its long, striped tail flicked up to reveal the biggest pair of kitty balls I’d ever seen. Okay, I’d never seen a pair of kitty balls before but...Jesus.
So, it was definitely a he. No doubt about that.
My attention was too immersed in the logistics of how a skinny little cat like him carried around such massive testicles—bottom-heavy was probably the best way to describe it—that my brain completely delayed when he sat his two front paws on the edge of my planter and then started digging with his right paw.
Oh shit. Oh no...no! No!
My brain was screaming, but somewhere along the way, all the neurons connecting my brain to my voice had completely disconnected. So I watched in complete disbelief and horror as the cat proceeded to use my potted plants as his own personal litter box.
Part of me was a little impressed. At least he didn’t piss all over my concrete patio...but my plants. Oh shit. My plants!
Finally, my voice snapped back to life.
That was all I had.
His head snapped towards me at the sound of my voice and he continued right on pissing, blinking at me as if to say, Whatcha gonna do about it? Bring it, lady.
“Stop! That’s...don’t do that!”
Seriously, this was the best I could do? Couldn’t even muster up enough emotion to reprimand a cat anymore...I guess I’d really lost my touch. He glanced at me again from over his shoulder and when he’d finished soiling my bright blue and yellow flowers, promptly resumed digging to cover up his business.
“Yeah, like that’ll help. Thanks a lot.”
His grey eyes bugged out a little and his mouth curled into a slight O, like he’d suddenly just realized that maybe I didn’t want him using my planter as his bathroom. That long, striped tail flicked at the tip a few times and then he hopped down from the planter, heading right for me in slow, leisurely strides. He stopped in front of the screen door again and sat down, his tail flipping up and down on the concrete underneath him.
His mouth opened and let out one long wail, almost like a call, like a plea for me to do...something. That tugging at my heart was right there again, pulling and twisting and digging, and then he leapt up to scratch both front paws on my screen door, mewing and wailing again.
Let me in. Let me in. Let me in.
That’s what he wanted.
That wasn’t going to happen.
No way in hell.
Even if I wanted to let him in, my apartment complex had a strict no-pets-allowed clause in my lease. So no dogs. No birds. No guinea pigs. And definitely no cats. And most importantly, cats made my eyes itchy and watery. Cats made my throat close and my nose runny. I didn’t typically ever want anything to do with them and kept my distance. I didn’t know what to do with them.
Not happening, buddy, I thought ruefully.
He just kept scratching his paws up the length of my screen door, stretching up as far as he could, mewing and trilling long, throaty sounds. Those eyes...shit, those eyes. Pleading with me. Begging me.
I took a shaky breath and before I knew what I was doing, I backpedalled into my kitchen, keeping my eyes on the cat on my patio the entire time. My mind flipped through the meager supply of food I kept in the refrigerator. What the hell did cats eat anyway? Was I supposed to give them milk? Wait, I didn’t have any milk. I hitched my hands on my hips, mentally surveying what little I had to offer.
This was a bad idea.
A really bad idea.
I’d always heard that you should never, ever feed a stray cat. They’d just keep coming back. This was probably the stupidest idea I’d ever had, but I just couldn’t help myself. He was so skinny...even through the dark fur and even darker night air around him, little bony ribs protruded out of his body. He wasn’t skeletal by any means—he just looked like he hadn’t eaten much in awhile.
My stomach flip-flopped as I grabbed a few pieces of bread and filled up a plastic bowl with water. When I stood in front of the screen door again, he was just sitting there observing me with those shimmering grey eyes and I swallowed tightly.
The problem was that I had to actually open the door now.
How was I supposed to know what he would do? He could jump at me, bite me, scratch me, try to sneak inside my apartment...I didn’t know this cat. Even though he seemed harmless, that didn’t mean he’d be friendly once the barriers between us came down. As far as I was concerned, he was just a mangy, wild animal who couldn’t be trusted.
He opened his mouth again, this time letting out a long meow that sounded more like a maawhr than an actual meow. Then again, what the hell did I know about cats? This was the closest I’d ever been to one in years. And now he was still sitting there, waiting expectantly.
With a deep breath, I slid open the screen door just enough to toss the pieces of bread out to the furthest edge of my patio. He took the bait, leaping up to go after the bread and I hastily stuck my arm out to set the water bowl down a few feet away from me, sloshing water all over the place in the process. Then I snapped my arm back and slammed the screen door shut just as quickly.
There. I did it.
As I watched him wolf down the two pieces of bread, that fluttering sped up again in my stomach. I’d probably just created a huge problem for myself by feeding him, but now that I’d done it, I didn’t feel guilty. I didn’t regret it. I was just sort of glad I’d been able to help him, even if it was just for a night.
Happiness and relief that he’d have some food in that skinny little body knocked out any other feelings of unease and hesitation.
Happiness and relief were not feelings I was used to having. I wasn’t used to feeling like I’d done the right thing. I think I’d forgotten what that even felt like in the first place. But I felt it now. It surged through me, sweeping down from my toes all the way up to the tip of my nose. I took a deep breath and watched him move from the edge of my patio until he sat down right in front of me to lap up some water.
I still couldn’t move.
I still stood there, frozen at my screen door, staring at this stray cat.
My eyes wandered over him to take in the details I’d missed before. Patches of wiry, pale whiskers on tiny cheeks. Dark streaks slashed across his face. A brown-tipped nose with pink smudging. Sharp, pointed dark ears. A long black stripe starting in between his shoulder blades running all the way down to the base of his tail, layered with rings of alternating black and grey.
As he lapped up the water like he hadn’t seen it in days, which might’ve been true, the tip of his tail, which looked like it’d been dipped in ink, flicked from side to side. His head popped up once, his eyes boring into me to say, Geez, lady. Would you quit staring and let me drink this shit in peace?
In the moonlight, his eyes looked a little more green now than grey. Like sea foam. Sweet. Maybe even a little innocent too.
Where did he come from? Why was he out here by himself? He was obviously somebody’s cat, given the way he’d violated my potted plants, so why wasn’t he home now? What had brought him here, tonight, to my patio door?
Well, clearly the aroma of chicken brought him to my patio door, but that was besides the point. Did he have a home and just get lost? Was someone looking for him? Hoping he was okay? Or did someone not want him and just let him go?
That last thought seized my heart and squeezed tight. I hoped that wasn’t the case. I hoped he had a home. Maybe he was just one of those outdoor cats that roamed around during the day and then went back home at night. I mean, he’d used my plants as a litter box, so I was pretty sure he was at least a little house-trained.
Once he’d had his fill from the plastic bowl, his bright pink tongue shot out to tug up the length of his right paw and then he dragged his paw over the side of his head. His dark-rimmed eyes flicked back to me once and a moment later, he was leaping up onto the patio chair closest to where I stood. He reared back on the seat, leaning his body down into his front paws in a long, easy stretch that stuck his butt high in the air then he circled the seat once, found a good spot, and plopped down on the chair, making sure he was still facing me.
He blinked. Then he blinked again. And then he rested his head against a white paw, those grey, sea foam eyes sparkling a little in the darkness.
I sawed on my bottom lip and frowned back at him.
“I see you’ve made yourself comfortable,” I called out to him softly and narrowed my eyes a little when his head popped up at the sound of my voice. “Well, just...don’t get too comfortable, okay? You can stay, I guess. But just for tonight. Don’t get any ideas.”
What was I doing...talking to a cat? Like he could understand me anyway. Still, I felt like I’d made my point and I went back to my plans for the night, finishing my dinner and that episode of Orange Is The New Black, my eyes shifting out to the patio every few minutes.
When it was time to start writing my blog post, though, the cat was a distraction. It was hard to focus on whether or not to choose a moisture-based BB cream or a higher SPF formula when there was a wild animal sitting on my patio like he owned the place.
After about 20 minutes of staring at my screen, I figured a little music would do the trick and switched the needle on my turntable to the record I’d lazily left there the night before. Music had long been a source of comfort to me and tonight was really no exception. Whenever I needed to clear my head, or just needed a distraction in general, music had always been there to pick up the pieces, lulling through any pain, any heartache, and anything that ailed me. Whether it was a sad country song or a catchy pop song, the beats never failed to either cure my emotions or enhance them. It was the only form of therapy I could ever agree to and the only thing keeping me sane, in light of recent life-shattering events.
And in light of those recent events, I’d needed music more than ever.
I glanced over at the patio to find the cat watching my every move like he was just sort of...observing. Taking inventory. It was a little creepy. And weird. Definitely weird. Like he wasn’t just watching me, but seeing me, too.
I wasn’t sure I liked it. And I also wasn’t completely convinced that my imagination wasn’t playing tricks on me right now either.
But when I carried my computer over to the patio and dropped down until my back rested against the wall right next to the screen door, I don’t know who was more surprised: me or the cat.
As if on cue, he hopped down from the chair and sat down right across from me until the only things separating us were a few feet and some flimsy wiring.
“Hey,” I whispered to him. His ears pricked up and one of them tilted to the side. “You like this song?”
His mouth quirked a little, curling into that tiny O shape again, and he moved a hair closer.
“Hail, hail,” I sang softly. “What’s the matter with your head?”
Those shimmering eyes focused on me and I kept on singing: “Come and get your love...”
“Sorry,” I told him. “I probably won’t be trying out for American Idol anytime soon, you know?”
His chest jumped, like he’d hiccuped or something, and he made a noise that sounded like...meh. Like a grumble or a murmur. Like he was answering me.
“I gotta get some work done, but I think I’ll sit right here while I do it if that’s okay with you.”
My lips twitched at the sound and I shifted my focus back to finishing up this blog post. I had about another two hours or so before I needed to post it, but I still needed to get my ass in gear.
“Can you believe I actually make some money off this?” I told him as I typed. “I guess I’ve been doing it for so long and enough people started reading it...advertising and all that, you know? You wanna know what my blog is called?”
I grinned at him. “Northern Chic. Kinda catchy, huh? You know, because we live in Wisconsin?”
“Yeah, I started this beauty blog when I was a senior in high school and I just sort of never stopped, even through college and after I graduated. I don’t use my real name or anything. No one knows who I am, which, trust me, is a good thing. But it’s fun. I like it. I like when companies send me things to try, too.”
And I especially liked the extra padding it gave my bank account every month. Between ads and online retailers giving me a kick-back for linking to products on their sites, I had a healthy little side business. It wasn’t quite enough to cover my bills every month, but between my blog and waitressing, I was living pretty comfortably, or at least, as comfortably as I could.
“The Smashbox BB cream tends to run a little oily, so if you have combination skin, that might not be the best option for you. When I tested it earlier this week, my cheeks were shiny and greasy enough that I felt like I needed to wash it off immediately. This one just didn’t work for my skin, but if your skin tends to start to dry out come fall, it might work better for you than it did for me….there, what do you think of that?”
I shifted my eyes back to the cat, whose grey eyes were still observing me intently. That murmuring rumbled from his chest again and I smiled back.
“Now, all I have to do is add some pictures, some purchase links, and I’m all set to post. It probably shouldn’t be this easy, but people read it, you know?”
My head bobbed a little more to the music as I finished up my post. “Hail, hail, get it together, baby…”
Once I had everything all loaded up on my blog, my eyes fell to the clock on my laptop. In my past life, I’d been used to getting my ass to bed by 10 at the latest on school nights, but now that issue was pretty much obsolete. So, when I got the random breakfast shift, my body tended to reject morning-person mode and I usually felt like a zombie for the first hour or so of my shift. It definitely didn’t help that this was actually a double shift tomorrow and I probably wouldn’t get home until after four.
“Well,” I told him and his chin tilted up at the sound of my voice. “I should probably head to bed. I have to get up for work early tomorrow and...um, like I said, you can stay, I guess, if you want to.”
His chest bopped and then his mouth opened for one last maawhr as I stood up to head into my bedroom and shut the patio door, feeling a prickling of guilt as his eyes stared up at me and his tail flicked up and down on the concrete. It was mid-September, but the air was still a crisp-warm contradiction that was normal for Wisconsin this time of year. Not exactly hot, but not freezing temperatures at night either. My fingers immediately flew to the weather app on my phone and I relaxed a little. Low of 57 degrees tonight. That wasn’t so bad.
He’ll be fine out there tonight, I told myself as I crept down my hallway, and this obviously isn’t the first night he’s spent outside by himself.
Just as I reached my bedroom door, I glanced over my shoulder to find his dark, shadowy shape perched on that patio chair again.
Maybe he’d...nope. Not going there.
He’d gotten what he wanted from me and he’d be gone in the morning anyway.
EXCERPTS: Finding Emma by K. Ryan
Excerpt #1 of Finding Emma
I grinned at my computer because “Moondance” was playing now—not exactly ideal mood music for reading a 900-plus page nonfiction novel about Abraham Lincoln, but that didn’t make me enjoy the music any less.
And there it was again.
A guitar strummed lightly along to the music, which was impressive considering this song was heavier on the piano and jazzy saxophone, but the player had the hard staccato picks down pat like he’d played this song a million times before. Granted, I still didn’t know which of my neighbors was currently treating me to this little performance, but somewhere, deep down, I hoped it was Finn.
Even if that scared me. Even if part of me wanted to scramble back into my apartment. I still kinda hoped it was Finn.
Now, “Go Your Own Way” was playing and my neighbor easily switched gears, changing up the tempo and matching Lindsey Buckingham’s strums tab for tab. After about a minute of Fleetwood Mac, I decided to throw him a curveball and clicked “Any Way You Want It” in my music library and suddenly had images of Rodney Dangerfield dancing with that goofy grin on his face flashing across my mind. Still, impressively enough, my neighbor rolled with the punches and while he couldn’t exactly replicate the electric guitar parts on his acoustic, he still nailed those famous duh-duh combos in the stanzas.
After another minute or so, I clicked on “Closer To The Heart”, a selection my dad would’ve wholeheartedly approved of, to see just how deep my neighbor’s knowledge of classic rock really was. Again, he riffed right through the opening chords, plucking away at the strings and a slow smile crept across my face as I leaned a little closer to the wall to hear him better.
Once we’d both had enough of Rush for the time being, I moved through my library, clicking on “Hey Jude” next to see if he could pick out the guitar chords through the piano. Sure enough, he strummed easily along with Paul McCartney, finding the rhythm through the melody with practiced ease.
Hmm, I guess I needed to up my game.
I hit my next selection, but when all I heard was Elvis Presley crooning to his mama, my heart sank a little. Maybe he’d decided he’d had enough and went back inside his own apartment. About 30 seconds into the song, the strumming started back up again, this time a little less sure, a little unsteady, but despite the fact that he’d clearly never played this song before, he picked up the chords halfway through the song.
My lips curled up again and I glanced at Oliver out of the corner of my eye, who looked more annoyed by the disruption to his sleep than anything.
“Oh, come on,” I whispered to him. “Don’t look so pissed. You know you secretly love this.”
My eyes went back to my library. What to play next...I clicked my selection and my neighbor easily picked up the strains of “Hold On Loosely” no problem. Okay, that one was just too easy for him. The next one needed to throw more of a challenge at him because other than the Elvis song, he’d pretty much nailed everything I tossed his way.
Ah. There it was.
As the famous 50s chord progression of “Stand By Me” sounded out through my laptop, I waited eagerly to see if he could do it and sure enough, after a good 15 seconds into the song, I heard him strumming along, the soft, familiar rhythm flowing from his guitar. It was nice just sitting here on my patio with Oliver, watching the sun fade out into twilight beyond the tree line, and listening to my neighbor’s guitar ministrations.
But when I clicked on “Under the Boardwalk”, I finally got the answer I wasn’t so sure I’d been looking for. At least 20 bars played all the way through with silence on the other side of the patio before I finally heard a low, familiar chuckle.
“Sorry,” he told me through the barrier between us. “Don’t know that one.”
So. The neighbor treating me to this little show was Finn. Deep down, I’d figured that, even though I didn't know how I could’ve possibly known...it was just a feeling. Or a hope. Or a fear. I wasn’t sure which one of those options made me the most uncomfortable.
“Hey,” Finn called out to me. “You got any Kings of Leon?”
My lips pulled apart in a grimace. Did I…? Maybe, but that wasn’t really the kind of music I tended to gravitate towards.
“Um, gimme a second.”
“Sure,” he chuckled. “Take your time. I got all the time in the world tonight.”
Smiling a little to myself and sawing on my bottom lip in thought, I scrolled through my library until I came across the two songs I had. When the opening strains of “Sex On Fire” started playing, with its electric guitar riffs rocking back and forth, Finn’s grumble was unmistakable.
“Of course. That’s the one you’ve got.”
“Oookay,” I drawled hesitantly and glanced sideways at the wall.
“No, no,” he laughed and I swallowed hard at that deep, throaty sound. “Not your fault. Lemme guess, you have one other Kings song, right?”
“And it’s called ‘Use Somebody’?”
“That’s the one.”
“Shocking,” he informed me dryly. “You see what most people don’t realize is that they’ve got more than just those two songs and that those particular two songs don’t even crack the surface of what that band can do.”
Now, I was the one chuckling. “I take it you’re a fan.”
“Oh yeah. Everything in life is better if the Kings are playing in the background.”
I bit down on my bottom lip to keep from laughing out loud. “Okay. So, what song would you play now?”
There was some shuffling from behind the wall and I heard Finn’s deep voice again, “Hold on. I got it all on my phone. Just gimme a second.”
Then the strains of one of the prettiest country songs I’d ever heard echoed from around our shared patio wall...easy guitar and lazy violin and then, “Come on out and dance…”
At this point, Finn was already strumming along with the acoustic in the song and his familiarity with the chords was pretty clear. He’d definitely played this one more than a few times before.
“This is pretty,” I told him. “I didn’t know that band played country music too. I thought they were just a rock band.”
Finn’s strumming stopped for a second so he could answer me. “Ah, you know, this is the only song they have like this, but it takes them back to their Southern country-boy roots. That’s why I like it.”
“I like it too. What’s it called?”
“‘Back Down South’. It’s the kinda song that needs to be played when you’re just sitting outside having a beer around a fire, except we don’t have a fire and I’m pretty sure I’m the only one of us drinking a beer, but you get the idea.”
Despite my better judgment, my fingers flew over to the store on iTunes and after a quick search, downloaded the song into my library.
“What else you got?”
“Hmm, let me think,” I tapped my index finger across my lips. So, we were obviously taking this little jam session in a more modern direction. Let’s see...what did I have that wasn’t too old, but would still throw a challenge at him?
I clicked “Snow (Hey Oh)” and as those complicated, rolling chords hummed from my speakers, I heard Finn trying and failing to keep up with the complex melody. For every tab he nailed, he completely flubbed the next one until he gave one last, frustrated drum on the strings with a loud huff.
“Now I’m just embarrassing myself,” Finn muttered. “But I’m man enough to admit that song’s just too damn hard. How ‘bout something else?”
“Sure,” I laughed, clicking over to another Red Hot Chili Peppers song. “How about ‘Californication’?”
“Yep. Do it.”
This time, the slower, simpler chords were a little easier for him to pick up and he strummed along for a few bars until he called out to me, “Hey, how ‘bout this one?”
He jumped into something faster, obviously well-practiced, but it was a little more aggressive, a little angrier even, like he was somehow channeling the frustration of the song...whatever it was.
“I don’t know that one.”
“Gimme a second,” Finn called back and within moments, those same acoustic chords played back for me almost exactly how he’d just played it. “You don’t know Jack Johnson?”
“Ah, gotta get on that one. He’s great. Real chill, too. This one is ‘Sitting, Wishing, Waiting’.”
It was almost like he knew I was silently taking his suggestions and immediately downloading them into my library. I already had a search for Jack Johnson going before he even told me the name of the song.
“How ‘bout this one?”
He launched into another song, starting slow and quiet before upping the tempo, strumming back and forth in a way that had me bobbing my head right along with the rhythm.
“I take it you don’t know ‘The Pretender’?”
“No, I don’t recognize it, but I like it.”
“Okay, you go now.”
I scrolled through my library, looking for something that would throw him off completely and came across the perfect option. All I heard was silence on the other side of the wall as Finn listened, trying to place the song, and when the singer started in with, “Gonna find my baby, gonna hold her tight”, Finn let out a quick burst of deep laughter and I could practically see him throw his head back against his chair with his shoulders shaking as he sang along.
“Aw, man,” he chuckled. “I feel like I need to go watch Anchorman now.”
“Yeah,” I laughed. “Me too.”
“What about this one?”
His strumming turned into something a little folksier now with a more staccato twang, but I still couldn’t place it.
“I don’t know that one either.”
“‘Skinny Love’ by Bon Iver,” Finn told me as he continued plucking away. “Fun fact: the lead singer of this band, Justin Vernon, is from Eau Claire. This whole album was recorded in a cabin about four hours up north from here in Medford, I think.”
“Well, look at you with all your musical knowledge,” I laughed.
“Hey, I try. And—that album’s actually called For Emma, Forever Ago. I’m pretty sure the entire thing is all about one break-up, but still, that’s crazy, right?”
It wasn’t as if I didn’t expect him to remember my name. I just hadn’t expected him to...I don’t know. This whole thing was starting to make me itchy, my palms were already sweaty, and my heart did a few jumping jacks in my chest to drive the point home. He was being friendly and neighborly by sitting out here like this with me, playing along to whatever I threw his way and tossing a few songs of his own into our little game. That old familiar twitch worked its way down my spine until both my legs jumped with anxiety.
Excerpt #2 of Finding Emma
“You look nice,” he told me, gesturing to the outfit he didn’t need to know I’d inappropriately agonized over.
“Thanks,” I grinned.
I was painfully aware of how overeager I sounded right now, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. The Browning Adonis had arrived. All mental functioning was shot now.
He just winked back at me and as he took a few unsteady steps to the middle of my kitchen, I found myself running an anxious hand through my hair, watching Finn survey my little cardboard box of an apartment.
“So you cleaned up a little, huh?” he cast me a knowing glance from over his shoulder.
“Don’t worry,” I shook my head, gesturing into the open air between us. “This isn’t for you. You saw this place before. It looked like a tornado ripped through here.”
“Nah,” he just batted a hand. “It wasn’t that bad. You’ve obviously never seen my place after a game day.”
I could only imagine...and then I realized I still wasn’t completely ready. Ugh. This was just pizza. That was it. And here I was, over-analyzing and freaking out over nothing more than a shared pizza between neighbors.
“Um, I just, uh...still need a few minutes,” I told him sheepishly, already feeling a slight flush creep across my cheeks in embarrassment. “I was on the phone with my sister-in-law before and I wasn’t—”
“I know,” Finn cut in with that sexy, sly grin that threatened to buckle my knees. “I’m early. Sorry about that. I just...well, I guess I just didn’t wanna wait another 10 minutes, you know?”
And with those words, all the doubt lingering over what this was, my own hang-ups, Finn’s intentions…everything…it all just slipped away.
“So, take your time,” Finn went on, leaning an arm against the dividing wall between my kitchen and my living room. “I can wait.”
There was something about the way one side of his lips rolled into a soft curl that told me those words might have a deeper meaning. If I stood there for too long, I had a sinking feeling I might do or say something I’d kick myself for later, so I gladly took the out he’d given me and retreated to the bathroom to put the finishing touches on my hair and my makeup.
Now, as I stood in front of the mirror with a tube of mascara in my hand and Finn Matthews waiting in my kitchen, I couldn’t help but feel like a complete idiot. There was a kind, generous, patient, funny, and devastatingly handsome man in my apartment and here I was, locked in the bathroom because I didn’t know what else to do. Because I was nervous. Because I was scared.
This was beyond stupid.
Laughing to myself, I swiped another layer of mascara on, passed a brush through my long, caramel-colored waves, tousled my bangs, spritzed a dab of perfume on just for good measure, and took one more glance in the mirror. There was a man out there I wanted to spend time with and I was just getting in my own way. Cristina’s words of encouragement echoed in my ears, but it was more than just that.
In spite of the short time I’d known him, and in spite of the sudden frenzied feelings of chaos he inspired in me, there was also an inexplicable aura of calm around him, too. Acceptance, even. Like nothing I’d done before meeting him, no place I’d been, and no ugly, pain-leaden past following me from Hickory really mattered all that much to him.
I could do and say anything in front of him, embarrass or lay myself bare, and he wouldn’t care. It was as if the past didn’t exist and with him, there was only now. It was as if he’d judged me from the moment we met, but hadn’t found me wanting...hadn’t tried to push me into anything I wasn’t ready for. He’d given me space, followed my lead, but shown me a different path at the same time. A new possibility. A new chance.
There was a safety in Finn Matthews’s presence I never thought I’d ever feel again.
It was liberation. It was a rediscovery. It was a door opening. It was that elusive second chance I’d been chasing since the moment I left my hometown without looking back. It was the possibility, the real, honest-to-goodness possibility, that everything might be okay now.
I glanced back at my reflection again and shook my head, a mirthless laugh escaping my lips. Turning this into something it wasn’t would only end up hurting myself in the long run. And while the idea that redemption, forgiveness, and second chances were irrevocably intertwined with a man, especially a man I barely knew, flew directly in the face of being the independent woman I’d once prided myself on being, maybe that was something I could live with.
That last thought was enough to propel me from the bathroom and back towards my poor excuse for a living room and I found Finn leaning against the wall with Oliver tucked under his arm and his free hand scratching underneath my cat’s chin.
Something clicked into place for me then and the time for second-guessing and overanalyzing was over. My feet padded over to him and the sight of that bright smile curling into his handsome face, the smile that was all for me, only spurred me towards him. Just as he pushed off the wall and turned to face me, my hands slid over both his cheeks to bring in him closer and then I pressed my lips against his mouth.
It only lasted for a moment, but when I pulled back, Oliver abruptly dropped to the carpet. Finn’s lips curved and his free arm snaked around my waist to pull me in as close to his chest as possible as his head dipped lower to capture my lips.
This time he didn’t let me pull back so easily. This time his lips parted, sealing his mouth over mine, taking the control and pressing me even deeper into his chest. My hands trailed down his cheeks to his neck, finally resting over the hard, sinewy muscles over his worn T-shirt.
His lips continued their ministrations and my feet lifted up onto my toes, Finn pulling me along with him as he leaned back. Then, he settled me back onto my feet, placing sweet, feather-light kisses against my lips and the hand around my waist drifted a little further down, curving down the side of my hip.
That was a little more than I felt ready for and when I pulled back just enough, Finn didn’t miss a beat, sliding his hand back up to its original resting place.
“Sorry,” he murmured against my lips.
I laughed and he quickly caught it with his mouth.
“It’s okay,” I managed to get out in between kisses with another laugh.
There was something about how careful he was being with me that told me pulling back and pumping the brakes was absolutely fine with him. No pressure and no need to rush something that just felt so good.
Excerpt #3 of Finding Emma
On any other day, somebody blasting The Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” at full throttle would’ve been awesome. It probably would’ve been coming right from my own speakers, too, if I didn’t have at least a little consideration for the people around me.
My new neighbors, on the other hand, were too busy engaging in tailgate festivities to really give a shit about anyone else.
Their screen door slapped open and closed every few minutes and wave after wave of party-goers poured in and out from the apartment. Pre-game radio interviews were blaring in between songs, some guys were throwing a football around right in front of my patio and making the cat nervous, bottles were clanging, the smell of smoky, greasy brats and charcoal wafted through my screen door, people spilled out from the patio onto the grass, flooding out towards the tree line and taking over pretty much half the apartment building like they’d just started a new frat or something.
Okay, maybe that was an exaggeration, but they were still wreaking havoc on what should’ve been a peaceful day off. Who had a party right after moving anyway? Didn’t they have things to unpack? Organize? Make presentable? Then again, my new neighbors were two guys, so they’d probably didn’t care—
And then it happened.
Someone starting playing “Green and Yellow”, a Packer-themed knock-off of “Black and Yellow” by Lil’ Wayne and something dark and sinister twisted all the way down to my stomach. My head turned, glaring at the wall, for all the good it would do, and my lips curled back into a snarl.
I’d been turned into the demon from The Exorcist by my new neighbors and Lil’ Wayne.
“Hey, Sling!” a deep muffled voice yelled from the other side of the wall. “Jesus Christ, man, turn that shitty song off.”
“Hey, step off, Finn,” was Slinger’s equally muffled response. “I can do whatever I want. You wanna know why? It’s GAME DAY, BITCH!”
“Oh yeah? Do you want my foot up your ass?”
“Then turn it off.”
Two seconds later, the music switched to “Mama Said Knock You Out”, which was only slightly more pleasing to the ears, but not by much. It might have been a passive-aggressive response to the foot-in-your-ass threat, but I didn’t need LL Cool J rapping about takin’ the world by storm and makin’ the world go boom through my walls.
I think I growled. No, I definitely growled. And the worst part of it all was that every time somebody from the other side of the building yelled, screamed, and/or hollered, the cat crouched down on his chair, ears bent back, eyes wide with terror.
They were scaring the damned cat they were so loud.
Now, as I hunkered down on my couch, shooting daggers at the wall, I felt like the Grinch on Christmas Eve as he paced on top of his mountain, glaring grumpily down at the Whos down in Whoville.
If there’s one thing I hate, it’s all the noise, noise, noise!
Right about now, these last two months or so of peace and quiet seemed like paradise. A blissful dream. A figment of my imagination.
I know, I know. I really should’ve just shut my screen door. Or at the very least put my earbuds in and listened to some actual good music. But the problem was that if I shut the door, which would effectively drown out a good chunk of the current bane of my existence, I worried I would also be shutting out the cat. The only other times I’d shut the heavy sliding door was when I left the apartment or went to bed.
If I shut the door and just went back to pouting angrily on my couch, two things could happen: he could either paw and maawhr at the door with those wide, sea foam-grey eyes of his, making me feel like a pile of crap for doing that to him, or he could just say enough was enough, hop off the patio chair, and disappear into the tree line, never to be seen again.
But I wasn’t going to be that neighbor either, the one with a stick up her ass that stomped her foot until the people who were actually having fun and enjoying life dialed it back a notch. I didn’t think I’d know what fun felt like anymore if it slapped me across the face.
Then, the unthinkable happened: someone, probably that red-haired, apple-cheeked guy with the weird nickname, gave Luke Bryan permission to sing about country girls shakin’ it for him by blasting his song through the speakers.
That was it. I’d had it.
I didn’t really know how to deal with this kind of crowd anymore. I was used to the hustle and bustle of the city now, where I could weave in and out and then leave it behind me in my apartment, but this was different. This was the kind of crowd I’d thrived on in college. Even before the bomb dropped, I’d enjoyed the random tailgate party or night out at one of the three bars in downtown Hickory. Now, I was lost. Anxiety-riddled and practically shaking with frustration and antisocial grumblings.
This was my life now. Always on the outside looking in. No interest in joining the party.
A loud crash of breaking bottles rattled and split through the walls and I’d barely had time to recover from the abrupt smashing when the cat scurried off the chair and darted right for the tree line, bypassing the patio on the other side of us and sprinting on all four white paws away from me.
Then the panic came, a feeling I was well-acquainted with, and now, the abandonment sent this sharp spike of adrenaline through my body and had me taking off after him.
“Oh no! Wait!” I cried out and scrambled for the screen door. I made it all the way to the edge of my patio before skidding to a stop.
The cat ran right past my new neighbors’ patio. It shouldn’t have been a big deal. They were just people. It was just a party. But I still stood frozen to the concrete like the coward I was. After peeking around the corner to see if I could catch at least a glimpse of where the cat had scampered off to but coming up empty, I swallowed a hard breath and retreated back into the safety of my apartment.
Maybe he’d come back. After the party died down and everything went back to normal, he’d—
It was the same deep voice I’d heard muffled through the front seat of the truck yesterday and through the walls about 10 minutes ago. On reflex, I turned on my heel to find the same scruffy, scarily beautiful guy I’d seen yesterday, wearing a forest green Aaron Rodgers jersey to boot, smiling back at me from where he stood on my patio. I might’ve been completely slack-jawed by his presence alone, but it was what he had tucked underneath his arm that stole all the words right from my lips.
The same cat I’d been nervous would try to bite me, scratch me, or anything else a cat could do to attack me. He was just happily nestled in this stranger’s arms like it was the most natural thing in the world.
“I think this is your cat, right?” My neighbor grinned back at me a little sheepishly as he held the cat up. One side of his mouth pulled up more to the side in the kind of crooked smile that hit me right in the knees.
I opened my mouth to respond, but nothing came out. My mind had gone completely blank.
“I saw him out here on your patio yesterday,” he told me. Then his light eyes widened as he seemed to realize what that must have sounded like to me and jumped to explain. “I, uh, needed to hook up our hose so I could wash off our patio. The tap’s over on your side of the building, so...”
He shuffled a little closer and gingerly set the cat down on the chair that held his makeshift bed, glancing up at me with his teeth sawing across his bottom lip.
“Sorry about my dumbass friends,” my neighbor went on...and was his voice shaking a little? I was too busy staring at his lips to nail that one down. “I swear we’re not gonna be those neighbors that have loud parties every weekend. This one just...got a little out of hand, you know?”
I swallowed tightly and nodded, pressing a quick smile on my face more for my own benefit than his. “It’s okay. Don’t worry about it.”
That smile widened just a hair, but it was enough to propel me closer until I was just inches away from the screen door.
“My name’s Finn, by the way.”
I found myself smiling back at him. “I’m Emma. It’s nice to meet you.”
That smile widened until it seemed to stretch all the way across his face, crinkling his eyes and radiating something I couldn’t quite place.
“Nice to meet you, too, Emma.”
Those eyes...they might as well have been a clear sky reflected back at me. They just about knocked me sideways. And then Finn reached out to scratch the cat behind his ears, making him nuzzle his head against Finn’s hand like he was nudging him to keep going. Oh yeah, right there. That’s the spot.
“He’s pretty friendly,” Finn was telling me now as the cat purred away underneath his ministrations. “He came right over to me and everything when I went running after him before. Most cats aren’t like that, you know?”
No, I really didn’t know. I’d never been around a cat, let alone multiple cats, long enough to know.
Luckily, I found my voice. “He’s, um...he’s not my cat.”
Finn frowned at me, perching one hand on his hip and scratching his beard with the other in thought as his eyes roamed from the cat, the chair, the towels, and the little bowls of food and water underneath the chair. As if on cue, the cat glanced at Finn and then his wide eyes shifted back to me, letting out a high-pitched maaw. Finn chuckled a little in response and started sawing on that bottom lip again.
“Fair enough,” he laughed. “For contraband, I guess he’s pretty cute. I promise I won’t rat you out, okay? If our landlord shows up asking questions, I know nothing. You should probably get him a collar, though, if you’re gonna keep him out here like this. A tag or something like that—just saying.”
I guess him thinking my flat-out denial was more about our lease agreement than my actual relationship to the cat wasn’t the worst thing in the world.
Finn ran a hand through his hair, pushing the long, droopy pieces of chestnut away from his face, and he blew out a quick breath. “I know things seem pretty crazy over on our side of the wall, but do you wanna grab a beer or something on us? We almost scared your cat away, so it’s the least we can do—we’ve got brats, chips and dip...all that stuff.”
I probably should’ve expected the offer, but I was still unprepared for the hope creeping into his eyes. It was almost a shame to have to extinguish all that hope just as quickly.
“Thanks, but I actually already ate and I’ve got a lot of work to do today.”
His lips curled up again, but this time the smile didn’t quite reach up far enough to crinkle his eyes. Despite the hope, I had a sneaking suspicion he’d fully expected me to turn him down.
He shoved his hands deep inside his pockets and now, his lips pulled tightly across his face in a grimace.
“Okay. No problem,” Finn shrugged, his eyes falling on the cat one last time. “Well, if you change your mind, feel free to stop over whenever you want.”
“Sure. Thanks for the offer. I appreciate it.”
I was starting to feel like a robot. Like these excuses were just on auto-loop now. Like I wasn’t fooling anybody but myself. Sooner or later, the more I refused people, the more they’d ignore me completely like what had happened with basically everyone from my old life except for Noah and Cristina.
There was a part of me that felt devastatingly pathetic just thinking that.
The other part of me knew it was a necessity.
Finn waved, a pained expression on his face that looked more like a wince than it did a smile, and he shoved both hands in his pockets again with his head down before disappearing around our shared brick patio wall.