Jacquelyn Middleton: An Excerpt
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
October 2018
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
October 2018

The following is an excerpt of guest editor Jacquelyn Middleton's latest novel, Until the Last Star Fades.

Until the Last Star Fades

By Jacquelyn Middleton

Chapter Two

“Only aisle seats left.” Brit boy pointed at two blue plastic seats at the back and picked up Riley’s case, lifting it onto the luggage rack. He reclaimed his own and stowed it safely beside hers.

“I like the aisle,” said Riley, gripping the yellow poles lining the path to the vacant seats. She hesitated, bracing herself as the bus veered around a corner.

“Me too. I’m all about the quick exit, you know?”

Riley unzipped her parka and sat down. Jeez, it’s warm in here. She typed a quick text to her mom, Maggie, and hit send.

On bus. Meeting Pip at home. x

The guy slouched out of his backpack and dropped onto the hard seat across from her. His shoes and the calves of his baggy jeans were soaked from his sprint to the bus, but he didn’t seem to care. “So, you live here, eh?”

“Yeah.”

“How long?”

“I was born here—Staten Island. It’s a New York borough, south of Manhattan.” She smiled, relieved to be on the bus and headed home.

“Where are you coming back from?”

Is he gonna chat the whole way there? “Spring break.”

“Oh, I’ve heard about spring break. Love the sound of it.” He sniffed and started to unbutton his jacket. “Beaches, booze, shagging—my kind of holiday.”

“Try blizzards, hot chocolate, and skating.” Her brows furrowed as his light jacket opened to unveil an oversized purple hoodie and hints of a plaid flannel shirt, some sort of red zippy track jacket, and a t-shirt. One, two, three, four—five layers. Is he wearing everything he owns? He’s like Joey from that old Friends episode. She pulled a clean tissue from her bag and handed it to him.

“Ah, cheers!” He grinned behind the Kleenex.

“I was in North Dakota visiting my boyfriend.”

“Oh! North Dakota, eh? The beautiful rugged Midwest?”

“Oh, you’ve been?”

“No, but when I was little I loved atlases, dreaming of far-flung adventures.” He stuffed the tissue in a pocket and swiveled to face her head on, leaning into the aisle. “Long-distance relationship? That’s hot.”

Riley shimmied out of her parka, revealing a sweater and a pair of distressed secondhand jeans. She stood up, folding her coat into a small bundle as the luminous headlights from passing cars invaded the bus and swept over her. “You wouldn’t say that if you were in one.”

The guy dipped his head and his eyes discreetly checked her out underneath the brim of his cap. He cleared his throat and sat up. “What’s he doing so far away?”

She stuffed her coat on the seat, sitting on top of it. Her body swayed with the movement of the bus. “He’s a senior at the University of North Dakota, studying entrepreneurship.”

“Oh, so he’s from there?”

“No, Staten Island, same as me. He’s on a scholarship. The Minnesota Wild drafted him three years ago.”

“Minnesota what?”

“Wild.” She stuck her hand in her tote, feeling around for her library book.

He widened his eyes. “He was drafted…I don’t get it—by who…Wild?”

“They’re an NHL team.”

He shrugged and shook his head.

“The National Hockey League? Pro hockey—ice hockey?” She pointed at his hat. “You’re wearing a Boston Bruins cap…”

“Am I?” He chuckled. “I don’t know. I just liked the B on it!”

Riley giggled and pulled a well-thumbed novel from her tote. “Well, he’ll join the Wild next fall.”

“Holy hell, you’re a WAG?!” He laughed, smacking the metal handle on the seat back in front of him. The woman sitting there didn’t notice—her headphones were cranked, leaking Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way”.

“Shh!” Riley glared and retreated into her seat. Her admonishment pulled him farther into the aisle.

“What?” he whispered back.

“I HATE that term!”

“Well, you’re dating the wrong guy, then.” He nudged his cap above his eyebrows, giving Riley a better view of his eyes, which were waking up with a sparkly playfulness. “‘Wives and girlfriends’ of athletes—”

“If the tables were turned and I was the athlete, he wouldn’t get labeled with such a dismissive nickname.”

“Do girls even play ice hockey?”

“Yes!” With a sneer, Riley nodded her head. “I do! Well, I did…”

“You’re fun to tease!” He laughed. “Why’d you stop playing?”

“Why’d you get drunk and board an airplane?”

“Ahhh! I was celebrating.”

“What were you celebrating?”

He smirked and narrowed his eyes, not answering her question. “A hockey-playing WAG. I would’ve guessed sociology student…maybe languages? Never a WAG.”

“So…you’re saying I’m not hot enough to be a WAG—”

“Hey, don’t get your knickers in a twist. I’m sure you are…underneath that scarf and…” He scratched the dark stubble on his chin. “Jumper.”

“Jumper?”

His bandaged hand waved in her general direction. “Your sweater.”

“The English have strange names for things.”

“I’m Scottish, actually.”

Riley shook her head. “My best friend’s dad is Scottish—you sound nothing like him.”

“I was born there”—he shifted in his seat—“but grew up in England.” He tapped his finger against his generous lips. “Nah, thinking about it—you’re too classy to be a WAG.”

“Obsessed much? Are you a wannabe soccer—oh, sorry, football player?” Riley’s thumb flipped the corner of her book. “Do you play?”

He raised an eyebrow. “Would it turn you on if I did?”

“Yeah, right!” She chuckled sarcastically.

“Back home, WAGs are all flash, no substance. You know: cosmetic surgery, high heels, designer frocks—totty with a taste for living large.”

“Nice.” Riley curled her lip. “Good to know stereotypes are alive and thriving over the pond. Heaven forbid women be celebrated for their brains instead of their breasts.”

“Hey, don’t shoot the messenger. I’m just saying how it is. I’m not saying it’s right…”

“Well, good.”

She opened her library book, drawing their exchange to an abrupt close. They sat quietly for several minutes, their silence invaded by more Fleetwood Mac, cars honking outside the fogged windows, and a restless baby sobbing a few seats ahead. Riley’s phone buzzed on her lap with a text from her mom.

All good here. Say hi to Piper. Love you. x

Looking up from her phone, she saw cute Brit guy’s attention had drifted to the snow globe world passing by outside, and his fingers were toying with something on his right wrist above the bloody bandage. Wide-eyed, he seemed a bit lost. “What happened to your hand?” Riley searched through her tote, unearthing her reusable water bottle. Two crumpled candy wrappers floated to the floor.

He leaned over and rescued them. “These must be good—”

“They’re peanut butter cups.” Her hand reached impatiently.

“Mmm!” Beyond her grasp, he examined the empty brown paper cups and orange wrappers. “Two packs and not a crumb left? Someone’s greedy—”

Riley snatched them from him, hiding the evidence in her bag. Greedy? You should talk, drunk boy! Her glare made him turn away, his smile vanishing. She sipped her water and got lost in her Instagram feed.

Neither spoke for a few minutes. The guy reached into his jacket, fumbling with the zipper on the hoodie underneath. Riley scrolled through photos, her annoyance melting away, replaced by embarrassment for being a grump. It wasn’t this guy’s fault she was stressed, drained, and feeling bluer than her Levi’s. She glanced across the aisle, catching his eye as he sat back in his seat. His muted grin grew as she asked, “So, where are you coming from?”

“I’m an actor. I flew in from LA—you know, pilot season?”

“LA?” Riley’s face lit up with genuine interest. California, its palm trees and sea breezes, swimming in the ocean whenever she desired—her dream life. “Did you like it?”

“Yeah, I didn’t want to leave.”

“Don’t blame you. I love California.”

“Really? I read for a great part in a Netflix series, and I made quite the impression! They think it’s going to be massive—merchandising, comic con tie-ins, maybe a film, eventually.”

“Wow, sounds promising. No wonder you were celebrating.” Riley’s eyes dropped to her phone, catching Piper’s latest Instagram story.

“So, what about you? Women’s studies? Philosophy?” He ducked his head, trying to read the title of the book in her lap. “Future librarian? I love books, me.”

“NYU, Tisch School of the Arts. I graduate in May.”

“NYU, eh? Sounds impressive. Hey, maybe we’ll perform together one day.”

“I doubt it.”

“Well, at least tell me your name so when you’re famous, I can tell everyone ‘I used to know her.’”

She looked up. “Oh, I’m not an actress. I’m a film and television major. I want to work behind the scenes…in casting or as a director.”

“That makes sense.”

“Why?”

“You’re bossy.”

A forced laugh left her lips. “Jeez, thanks a lot!”

“Hey, bossy is a compliment!” His adorable smile made an appearance again. “You’re feisty, a go-getter. You like to be in charge. I think it’s great. You should embrace it.”

When you put it that way… Riley grinned. “Oh, you’re a charmer!”

“I am!” He promptly offered his hand to her across the aisle. “Benjamin Fagan—Ben.”

Riley squinted at the bloodstained bandage and accepted his hand carefully, barely touching it. “Riley Hope.”

“Ah, sorry.” He frowned, tucking his hand away. “Wanna hang tonight, Riley Hope?”

She returned to her phone. “I can’t…”

“Why not? Technically you’re still on holiday, right?”

“You look and smell like you’re on a permanent holiday.”

“Envious?”

“No.” She laughed.

“Go on, admit it—you’re envious. No classes on Monday, no essays to write, no rules, just…freedom to do what I love and have a blast doing it, you know?”

Sounds perfect… Riley flicked her thumb along her screen, scrolling at warp speed.

“Come on! Put the phone down, live a little. You seem down about…something, and it’s Saturday night—St. Patrick’s Day! Let me repay you for helping me. Let me cheer you up.”

“I don’t need cheering up.”

“You don’t? Really? For someone coming off holiday, you’re really bummed. It’s your eyes—something’s bothering you.”

Shit! Is it that obvious? Riley continued scrolling.

“Want to tell me? I’m a great listener. I won’t tell anyone.”

Like I’m going to tell someone I just met.         

“Or we could get pissed and forget? C’mon, it’ll be a laugh, once we get out of this…tin can on wheels.” He pulled out the tissue she had given him, dabbing his nose. “This bus reeks of wet dog and piss—it’s totes stuffing me up.” Ben nudged her arm with his non-bandaged hand. “Hey, not only will I buy you a drink, I’ll also buy you more of those peanut butter things.”

Oh, I’m SO done with those peanut butter things.

“Earth to Riley?”

“Thanks, but I’m meeting my friend.”

“Cool, bring her—or him—too. Look, I think you’ve got the wrong end of… I’m not auditioning girlfriends, I just want some fun, you know? A proper night out in the Big Apple, see what all the fuss is about. You up for it?”

Riley looked up from her phone. Ben tilted his head, beckoning. His wide smile consumed his face, his eyes almost disappearing into happy-go-lucky crescents. There was something about him that held a promise, a challenge, his adorable grin offering an unspoken invitation: I’ll bring fun and mischief—come hang out with me.

But Riley didn’t have time for fun, not anymore, and mischief was a luxury she couldn’t afford. No, Ben’s persuasive smile wouldn’t work its magic on her. It would have to charm another partner in crime. Riley wasn’t that girl.

The bus came to a sudden stop, lurching the two of them forward and breaking Ben’s smile.

“This is it—the subway.” Riley grinned, stuffing her belongings in her bag as she stood up and collected her parka, letting the woman seated beside her exit first. “Do you know where you’re going?”

Ben stared out the steamy window into the darkness crowding the Roosevelt Avenue-Jackson Heights subway station. “Um, not sure—downtown somewhere, an Airbnb.” The man beside him stood quickly, forcing Ben to vacate his seat for the aisle. His hand dipped into one of his many jackets’ pockets, pulling out a crumpled piece of paper stained with God knows what. “Canal Street?”

“That’s two stops past mine. C’mon.”

Ben stood up and smiled, following Riley toward the luggage rack.

Let's be friends

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