Chaos had a way of finding you.
It didn’t matter what you did to avoid it. It could ferret you out, glom onto you, and worm its way into your soul.
That was one lesson I’d learned when Mum disappeared.
If you were prone to chaos, you would never shake it.
Which was why I was currently hiding in the library stacks at my university. University of West London had a decent library. It wasn’t enormous though, so hiding was only a temporary solution.
The journals and tomes stacked on ancient wood were only going to shield me for so long.
And sooner or later, I was going to need to either run or ovary up and deal with the situation.
This is what you get for not shooting him down hard when you sensed he’d started to develop feelings.
Admittedly, I’d had my hands full over the last few weeks with the anniversary of Mum’s disappearance and critique week rapidly approaching for photography class.
My mind was a muddle of emotions, or I would have seen this coming.
I’d started to sense something was off with the Force for weeks. But I thought I could maneuver around it, pretend it wasn’t happening. But now, here we were. Me, hiding in the stacks. Andrew, no doubt, using the Friends Locate app on our phones to find me.
I liked my privacy. Normally, I wouldn’t like people knowing where I was all the time, but my past had taught me that maybe it would be a good idea if even just one person would come looking for me if I vanished off the face of the earth. I just never thought it would be used against me.
My only saving grace was that just like Andrew could see me, I could see him. He was along the other end cap by the far end of the stacks and closing in. I had to wait. Bide my time until he was just close enough.
This was dumb. I should be able to just tell him. To say the words.
You know full well you’ll break his heart.
I didn’t like lying. I didn’t like hiding. Matter of fact, as an adult, it was very much my mantra to always tell the truth. Except in cases like this when I knew it would hurt someone. One of the few people I actually had in my life.
I didn’t want to lose that.
I waited until he made it to the end stack and then turned toward me. And then I hit Location Off and bolted for the door. I would deal with this later.
Maybe I was wrong. Maybe this wasn’t a thing. Maybe it was like all those stories that I’d concocted in my head about my parents when I’d been in care. Fantasies.
I bolted out the side door of the library, my heart rate not even ticking up, despite the adrenaline. My breathing was nice and steady and even. What was always interesting was that when I was in situations where I should be panicked or afraid, I never was. I always had this analytical approach to everything. Maybe that’s why I was no good in relationships.
No, you’re fine in relationships; you just don’t want one.
Okay, there was that too. Relieved that I’d managed to escape without hurting Andrew today, I still knew that I had to come up with a proper plan of attack.
Andrew was a mate, but about a month ago I’d seen that look in his eyes. The one that told me he wanted something more.
Our friendship was important to me, and I didn’t want to ruin it. I knew he wouldn’t understand that I couldn’t be with anyone or that it really had more to do with me than it did him. Even if he recovered quickly, our easy camaraderie would change.
I had done everything I could think of.
I’d made a point to refer to him as one of my best mates and point out that I was not looking for a relationship.
Our other best mate, Gemma Bloom, had also tried to dissuade him. And I thought maybe she’d gotten through to him, but apparently not.
Finally free of the library, I jogged down the main steps and headed to the cafe to meet Gemma, but suddenly, I stopped short.
How the fuck had he gotten out of the library quickly enough to meet me on the stairs?
The bright sunny smile he gave me made my stomach knot.
I was out of time.
“Hey, Kaya! Just the girl I was looking for. I was going to come and meet you and Gemma at the cafe after I retrieved my phone from my mate Carly. I left it in class and she grabbed it for me.“
So, you’ve been avoiding a perfectly innocuous Carly in the library. Not Andrew.
“Oh, yeah? Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of time to chat today. I’m headed straight for the center.“
I worked at a center for displaced women and children several hours a week. It was a temporary stop before we could find them more permanent placement. Unfortunately, it meant a lot of kids were displaced from school. And even if they did have work they could do, they didn’t have their usual support networks.
My job was to provide some of that support. Helping kids with homework, playing video games, doing art projects. I loved it, but it took a lot of my time. Ruined a lot of nights out.
He licked his lips nervously. “Okay. I just wanted to ask you about my department’s drinks meetup this Friday. I know you said you might come.“
I tried not to grind my teeth. Saying I might go was being generous. I had said something along the lines of ‘That sounds like fun.’ I knew a myriad of ways to get out of things.
After all, I’d had lots of practice. I knew how to appear just available enough but never too available. Friendly, but not looking to make friends. I kept my circle small. These were tricks of the trade I’d learned young.
He gave me a sheepish smile. “Okay, maybe not, but it’ll be fun. And you never go out or do anything fun.“
“Not true. You, Gems, and I went out on Wednesday. We had pizza and a pint, remember?“
“Yeah, but that was a study group thing.“
Everyone had to take a basic coding class before they graduated. And Gemma and I had opted to take it this year, our second year, to try and get it out of the way. Andrew had taken the course the year before, so he had helped us.
“Andrew, I’m sorry I can’t. I’m at the center on Friday.“
His brows furrowed. “They can do without you for one night. Besides, I’ve already told everyone you’re coming.“
I hated being put on the spot. It was my least favorite thing. Growing up, I’d never been allowed to tell the truth. I’d learned to tell half-truths and sneak about. So as a grown-up, I learned to love the truth.
“Andrew, I’m sorry. Why don’t you go with Gemma?“ The two of them would actually make a great couple. Someone like Gemma would be good for him. Not someone like me.
The furrow between his bushy brows sank even deeper. “Right. You know, for months I’ve been trying to work up the nerve to ask you out.“
And there it was, the truth of it, right there on the steps of the library.
And I didn’t want to look at it. “Andrew…“
“No, don’t. You act like you like me, but you’re just playing with me, aren’t you?“
Remember, you don’t want to hurt him.
I had to give myself that reminder because the sharper thought on my tongue would eviscerate him.
“Andrew, I’ve always been very clear with you that we’re mates. I’ve always been very clear with you that I’m not looking for anything. Any kind of relationship, have I not?”
And yes, my tone was clipped. But it couldn’t be helped. He was forcing my hand and bringing chaos with him.
I just wanted a simple, content life. Why was that so hard?
He shifted on his feet. “Kaya, I just —“
I shook my head. “Andrew, I don’t want to hurt you. So I’m going to say this as directly as I can. We are mates. That’s all we will ever be.“
I could see the mutiny on his face even as I spoke. His pursed lips, usually in a smile for me, now a determined pout. “Well, you haven’t even given us a chance.“
“I’m going to ask you this, Andrew, and I want you to be honest with me. For the last year and a half, have we actually been mates, or were you just waiting to ask me out?“
He chewed his bottom lip. “It’s not like that. I just… I just think we’d have fun and we’d make a great couple.“
“And I think we make great friends. That’s if you even want to be friends after this.“
There was this thing about chaos. If it started to swirl around you, you could almost see the eye of the storm. That calm center where everything might be okay if everyone would just cooperate.
The problem was chaos itself. It would never let you get to the eye. That was the oasis that tempted you, pulled you in, and sucked you down.
Because once you were in the storm of chaos, there was no getting out.
“I just feel really misled, Kaya.“
I blinked at him once, and then twice, mentally watching our friendship disappear, as I inhaled deeply. “Why?“
“I feel like you put out a lot of signals that said you were interested. And I am—”
I shook my head. “I’m sorry, Andrew. I’m going to stop you right there. Have I ever said ‘You know, Andrew, I quite fancy you. When are you going to ask me out?’“
He shook his head. “No, but—”
I lifted a hand to stop him. “And have I given you any indication that I don’t know my own mind?“
Again, he shook his head. “It’s just a drinks do, Kaya. You should just come.”
If he was going to blow up our friendship, he was going to tell me the reason. “Why?” I was afraid I wasn’t going to like this answer.
He shifted on his feet then. “I might’ve mentioned that we were going out.“
And there it was in front of me. Chaos personified.
Before I could even dig into that kernel of shit, Gemma came bounding up the stairs. “There you are. I was at the cafe waiting on you.” She gave Andrew a sunny smile. “What are you doing here so early? You don’t have a class until, what? One, right?“
Andrew flushed. “I have to go,“ he grunted.
Gemma tossed up her hands. “Was it something I said?“
I ran a hand through my tangled curls. “No, it was something I said. You know how you warned him not to ask me out? Well, he did.“
Gemma cursed under her breath. “Oh, for fuck’s sake. And let me guess, he gave you that bullshit line about how you’ve been giving him signals.“
My eyes went wide. “You knew he was going to do that?“
She winced. “He’s been saying it for weeks. How you were totally giving him clear-cut signals you wanted him to ask you out. I didn’t know he was dumb enough to believe that bullshit.”
I joined her jogging down the stairs my backpack flopping against my back as we went. “Well, now he’s annoyed. Can you believe he had the nerve to suggest I had somehow been the reason he misconstrued everything? And he admitted that he’d just been waiting to ask me out this whole time.“
Gemma covered her face with her hands. “Oh, Jesus. He’s like every bad date on Bumble and Hinge right in front of our faces.“
“All this time, he was just thinking about how best he could get into my knickers?“
“I’m so sorry. To be fair, I do think he has been your friend. I just also think you’re the prettiest girl to ever speak to him, so in his head he’s worked it up to be a thing. God, I’m sure that was just so awkward.”
“It was awkward at best. Just horrible. And the worst thing was there I was in the stacks with nowhere to go.“
“Long story.” I summed it up for her.
“Well, the good news is it’s out in the open. That’s if you even want to be friends with him anymore.“
“I’m not even sure how I feel about the whole thing. On the one hand, it’s Andrew. On the other hand, did you know he told his entire department that we were dating?“
Gemma stopped in the middle of the walkway and grabbed me by the arm. For a little thing, she was fiercely strong. “Stop it. He did not!“
“He told me he did. Tried to use that as a good reason why I should go out with him.“
“Yeah, bloody Andrew indeed. I’ll deal with him another time. I just have enough time to grab a smoothie on the way to the center.”
“Oh, blasted. I wanted to talk to you about my Professor Hottie project.”
Professor Hottie was none other than the Xander Chase. He was hands-down the best-looking professor we had. Everyone had a crush on him. He was married of course. Didn’t stop anyone from dreaming though. His wife was this amazing West End actress, Imani Chase. They were actually really cute together. And stupid in love. Gemma and I were both photojournalism majors, and Xander’s class was a tough one.
“I’m happy to help you scope out locations. I got my project done early.” For her photo project, she had asked to photograph me. I had said no, but we’d brainstormed another idea for her project, and I was her location scout.
Gemma danced on the balls of her feet, and I could tell there was something she was holding back. “That’s just it. I don’t need you.“
“Well, that’s all well and good. One friend who needs me too much and another who doesn’t need me at all. I’m doing just great,“ I joked.
Gemma rolled her eyes. “Will you stop it. Have you heard of the tycoon, Connor Phelps?“
“Should I have?“ I asked as I placed my smoothie order.
“I suppose not. He’s huge in finance. Also stupid wealthy and very good-looking. When I narrowed down the parameters of my project, I realized that I could do a profile on him, complete with photos. Which would cover me for both my writing assignment and my photography assignment.“
“Okay, fine. I forgive you just this once for not needing me to model for you.“ I pursed my lips and struck what I thought was a model pose.
She laughed as we collected my smoothie and she took a sip of her energy drink. “You can scout for me another time. In the meantime, what are we going to do about your Andrew problem?“
I didn’t want to think about it. “You know I hate chaos.”
“Oh, I know,“ she said with rolled eyes.
“This is just so messy. And the last thing I want.“
“I get you. But you can’t avoid him forever. And from the looks of it, that did not work out well today.“
Fair point there. “Well, I very much doubt he’s speaking to me right now, so it might not even matter.“
“Look I’m going to say this, and I don’t want you thinking that I’m taking his side.“
I lifted a brow. “If you take his side, I swear to God, Gems…”
“I’m not. And to be fair, all the bad decisions he made, I told him not to. So he made his own choices. That’s not your fault, and you shouldn’t have to pay for that. What I will say is that you don’t date anyone, Kaya. Ever. Not that Andrew should take that as a hint or some declaration that you’re holding out for him to ask you out. But the only time in the last two years we’ve known each other that you went out on a date was so Andrew wouldn’t ask you out. Not that it’s any of my business. Even though we’re besties. You can tell me if you like girls or are asexual or something.“
I lifted my brow. “Thank you for the approval. I once did have a crush on Lizzie Dubois, but I discovered Henry Cavill shortly after that. And that was the end of poor Lizzie,“ I said with a smirk.
“Fair. Henry Cavill will make anyone salivate.”
“You never date anyone though. And I just wondered maybe if you were worried about telling me something.“
“Trust me, if there was something to tell you, I would. And I wouldn’t be ashamed to be into women or asexual. Sadly, I crave the devil’s eggplant. Just not Andrew’s eggplant.“
She howled with laughter. “Eww, Andrew’s eggplant.“
I held up my hands. “For all I know he has a very nice eggplant. I just don’t really want to know.“
“I just don’t like seeing you closed off.“
“I don’t need a relationship to make my life complete,“ I muttered.
“Of course you don’t. But I also don’t want to see you avoiding relationships like you’re hiding.”
That direct hit made my lips pucker. Sometimes Gemma was an easy friend. And by that I meant she didn’t dig too deep, didn’t try to unearth any scars. But every now and again she saw too clearly, and that made me nervous.
“Not hiding. Just not really focused on that right now.“
“Fine, I’ll stop harassing you.” She started riffling for something in her bag. “Where did I put my bloody headphones?“
As she looked, out fell two notebooks, a pencil, and a magazine. I helped her dive for a wayward pen and the magazine that nearly toppled off the cafe table. I froze when I saw it.
Staring back at me was someone I hadn’t seen in five years.
The last person to see my mother alive before she vanished.