EXCERPT: Good On Paper by Jennifer Millikin
Natalie Shay never imagined a day like this would come.
She did what she was supposed to do: graduate college and marry her handsome, popular college sweetheart. With the ink still drying on their divorce papers, Natalie tries to move on from an ending she thought would be happy. When she feels a spark with her stubborn, charming best friend Aidan Costa, Natalie's life becomes even more unrecognizable. Aidan has been her best friend for years, stood beside her when she got married, and has a notorious aversion to relationships. As confusion and denial overwhelm them, their spark grows. Held back by a secret he has been keeping his whole life, Aidan decides to ignore his feelings for Natalie. Natalie's discovery of his secret pushes them past the boundaries they've carefully constructed around their friendship. For Natalie, this could be a second chance at her happily ever after. But when a person from Aidan's past reappears, everything he has built with Natalie is threatened.
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“Thank you,” Aidan tells our server, smiling at her. Flustered, she backs into another server, nearly upsetting his tray. Her cheeks pink and she hurries away.
“Way to go,” I say, pulling the celery stalk from my drink and taking a loud bite. “I hope she doesn’t forget our order now.”
Aidan shrugs. “Can’t help it. I didn’t ask her to get twitterpated.”
“Technical term. As a writer, you really should already know that.” Aidan removes everything from his Bloody Mary, including the straw, and lays it out on a napkin.
“Unnecessary,” he explains, motioning at the discarded vegetables before taking a drink.
I don’t agree. I leave everything in.
“So,” he says, setting the drink down and pushing it away. “Are you going to tell me you stayed up all night writing hot sex scenes?”
Heat creeps through me at the thought.
Aidan sits back against his side of the booth, his lips twitching with the laughter he’s keeping contained. “Come on. Confess.”
“You know I didn’t.” I grab my own drink and take a long pull through the straw. The heat of it makes me cough, and I reach for my ice water, thankful I thought to ask our twitterpated server for a glass of water alongside my drink.
Aidan watches me, his thumb running across his bottom lip. “Don’t you think it might be time you got over that?”
“Says the guy who had meaningless sex last night.”
He shakes his head. “Says the guy who had meaningless sex last night and this morning.”
I feign shock. “A two-fer?”
Aidan’s shoulders shake as he laughs. When his laughter subsides, he grows serious. “I think I’ve figured it out. You wrote a book for two people who don’t love each other. And no matter how many happy endings you write, they will never have one.”
Ouch. Aidan always knows how to get to the heart of a matter. If there were an arrow lodged in a tree trunk, Aidan’s words could be the arrow to split the existing arrow in half. His words are simple and honest. Painful to hear, and his accuracy even more painful to admit.
He continues. “If you weren’t writing for them, what kind of book would you write?”
I don’t respond, mostly because I’m not sure what to say. I grab hold of my straw and make designs on the surface of my drink. The red liquid dips and sways, little flecks of black pepper disappearing and floating back up to the surface.
What kind of book would I write if I didn’t write the happily ever after my parents never had? I…don’t know. I love romance. The angst, the desire, the tension, and at the bottom of it all, the one feeling that connects us all. Love. We all want it, we all need it. Love ignites passion and causes wars. It instills fear in the bravest of us, and the threat of its removal brings the strongest to their knees.
I want it for myself as much as I wanted it for my parents.
My parents tried. They were in love when I was a little kid, I’m positive of that. Something happened. What I saw were small hurts that led to pain-soaked side comments and passive-aggressive arguments. Then came the aggressive arguments, the holes in the walls, the bruises on my mom’s arms from where he’d grab her while they argued. And then, what I now understand
to be the silent marriage killer: Indifference. At the time, I didn’t know what it meant when my dad had to work late, and my mom didn’t appear to care. I was just relieved they were no longer fighting. What I didn’t understand was that was because neither believed there was anything to fight for.
My room became my refuge, and I put my nose in a book and came out only when necessary. Romantic novels were my escape, and I pictured my parents as the heroine and hero. Until the steamy scenes, anyhow.
Flash forward ten years, and I’m operating as the adult version of that girl. Adult me is divorced, lives in New York City, makes a living at a soul-sucking job, and receives rejection letters at an impressive rate. How can I tell my teenage self that this is what she will become?
I look up at Aidan, and my heart floods with how grateful I am for him. His eyebrows lift, and I realize he’s still waiting on my answer.
“I don’t know. Romance, definitely. I love love. It’s a sickness for which there is no cure.”
“You still wouldn’t let your characters get it on even if you weren’t picturing your mom and dad while writing?” Aidan raises his eyebrows.
“My characters get it on,” I reply, just as the server drops off our breakfast. It’s probably not the weirdest sentence she’s ever heard at one of her tables.
Aidan thanks the server and picks up his fork. He stabs the air between us before using it to pick up a link of turkey sausage. “Your characters do not get it on. They have chaste kisses.” He takes a bite, chews, and continues. “Side note, that’s the first time I’ve ever used the word chaste.”
“God knows you’ve never behaved that way.” I cut off a piece of my pancake and take a bite. Yum. Warm. Fluffy. Sweet icing. Eat those feelings, Natalie. Normally I’m a ‘clean eater’ as my sister puts it. Vegetables all day, no carbs after four in the afternoon, lean protein, blah blah blah. But when I’m sad, I eat. If I told Sydney, she’d tell me to find a better way to handle my feelings. Precisely why I don’t tell my sister.
“Is that what you wanted?” Aidan nods at my next forkful.
“Um hmmm,” I answer, chewing.
“Why do you write chaste kisses, Natalie?”
I stare at him, confused. He knows my reason. Why ask me?
“Childhood trauma can only be your excuse for so long. Why else do you write the way you do?” He leans forward, forearms pressing into the edge of the table. For someone who’s asking a question, he doesn’t have the look of someone with a query. His eyes are warm. Confident. Knowing.
“Just say it,” I tell him. “You obviously think you have a direct line to my brain.”
He laughs. “In college I majored in What Natalie Isn’t Saying.”
I laugh too. I can’t help it. “Well, come on then,” I say, motioning with one hand. “Lay it on me.” Picking up a slice of thick-cut bacon, I munch and wait for Aidan to answer.
He eyes me for a second, places his palms on the table, and pushes to stand. He steps away from his side of the booth, only to slide into mine. His leg bumps mine, and I slide down, making room for him. “What are you doing?”
He still doesn’t answer. Using two fingers, he pulls the bacon from my own two fingers and tosses it on my plate.
“Aid—” The rest of his name is stolen from my mouth. The tip of his pointer finger is on top of my right hand and he’s sliding it up my bare arm, past my elbow, up to my shoulder.
I’m too shocked to speak, too shocked to move, too shocked to even breathe.
His finger continues across my collarbone, tickling up my neck and to the far corner of my jaw, where his one finger multiplies into all five. He turns my head so I’m facing him, and I look into his eyes, searching for an explanation. In all our years of friendship, he has never touched me this way. When I get to his eyes, I find his gaze not on my own, but on my lips. He sucks his lower lip into his mouth and lets it slide back out.
I start to ask a question, but then he leans in, pressing his lips to the space beside my ear. “In a book, whatever followed me touching you like this, would not be chaste.”
At once every part of him that’s touching me disappears. He leaves my side of the booth and sits back down. He takes a bite of eggs and looks up at me like nothing happened.
“You’re flushed.” He points at my face with his fork.
“No shit,” I mutter, looking for something to throw at him. Aside from my cutlery, there is nothing I can throw that would do only minor damage. “I was attacked by a one-fingered bandit.” Retrieving my bacon, I stuff the rest of it in my mouth and glare at him. “Why the hell did you do that?”
“Material,” he says. “Now you can go home and write about the kind of kiss that would come after a lead-in like that.”
“Pretty sure of yourself, aren’t you?”
“Your cheeks tell me my effort was not in vain.”
Cupping my hands, I place them on my traitorous cheeks and give him a dirty look. “Extreme surprise causes flushing too.”
Aidan’s eyes grow wide. “That’s it,” he says, his hand shaking with excitement. A forkful of eggs tumbles to his plate.
“What?” I’m still not over what he just did to me. I’m not sure if I should be angry. I don’t feel angry, but it seems to be the right emotion to have when your best friend does what he just did.
“Are you free tonight?” he asks, then chuckles. “Why do I even ask? Of course you’re free. I’m coming over to—”
“I have plans, actually.” I cross my arms. Now I’m mad.
Aidan waves off my plans without hearing them. “Old movies at that crappy little theater don’t count.”
“They do too.” I love those movies. Tonight they’re playing Scarlett, and I want to watch it. I haven’t read the book since high school.
“Cancel that plan. I’m coming over and we’re setting up an online dating profile.”
“Nope.” I shake my head. “No in every language, in every way a person can say it. No.”
Aidan crosses his arms and looks at me. “I’ll watch Gone With The Wind with you.”
I twist my lips and look away. Behind the bar, a guy in a white T-shirt throws a towel over one shoulder and presses buttons on a gigantic, complicated looking coffee machine. The Bloody Mary has settled into my veins, the vodka covering me in a soft, gauzy haze. I should probably order a coffee soon.
I look back to Aidan. Excitement lights up his eyes. He senses I’m about to cave. For years I’ve tried to get him to watch old movies with me, and for years he has refused. Sappy romances are my limit. I can practically hear him saying it.
Creating an online dating profile doesn’t mean I’ll actually have to use it. It can collect dust in the farthest corner of the internet.
I reach my hand across the table. “Deal?”
Aidan places his warm hand in my own and grins. “Deal.”
About The Author: Jennifer Millikin
Jennifer Millikin is a contemporary fiction author of five full-length novels and a contributor for Scottsdale Moms Blog. When she isn't writing she can be found cooking, hiking, or in downward dog.