The Brightest Stars by Anna Todd

  “She’s not late that—”

  “Your client is here,” Mali said, looking toward the door.

  “I don’t have a client until—”

  “Not true,” she said. “Here. Look at the schedule.” She pointed to the name scribbled on the little blue line that said ten o’clock.

  “Did someone move their appointment? I can’t read this,” I said to Mali.

  The bell dinged behind me and Mali turned to address the customer in her sweetest voice.

  “Mikael? For an hour deep tissue at ten? That you?”

  I nearly choked on the air when I turned around and saw Kael.

  Sure enough, there he was wearing a gray T-shirt and joggers. They were black, tight on his legs, with a big Nike swoosh on the thigh. He looked exhausted, or hungover. Like I was.

  “Kael,” I said, like I had to tell myself that he was actually standing there.

  “Hey,” he replied.


  Was he here to talk to me? Or to get a massage? Both?

  It was all too much.

  He waited patiently while I collected myself and checked his name off of the schedule. I stared at Mali until she walked away—reluctantly—a smirk imprinted on her face. I looked at Kael and felt the tape of the last twenty-four hours unwind.

  I didn’t like him, I told myself. That addiction stuff was nonsense. It was just that it had been a while since I’d been in close contact with the male species, so of course he was getting inside my head. I was lonely, that was all. Everybody got lonely. It was only natural.

  “Right this way.” My voice was cool, professional. He wasn’t the only one who could be aloof. I pulled the curtain back to enter my room, and as I did, Elodie popped up around the corner, a little French jack-in-the-box. “Hello!” she said, her voice high and cheery. She scared the hell out of me and I jumped away from Kael.

  “I left before you woke up. I had—” She stopped talking when she saw who was with me.

  “Kael? Hello!” She double-kissed his cheeks and I moved out of their way. In fact, I leaned my back against the wall. An appropriate metaphor, I thought.

  “Elodie. How’s it going?”

  They talked for a moment, good-natured casual conversation. But when he put his hands on her elbows—a friendly and completely appropriate gesture—I felt a wave of anger swell. That’s when I knew I had completely lost my mind.

  “I’m really hungry all the time. I can’t seem to gobble down enough food.” She laughed as she said this. Kael smiled at her and I found myself glad he didn’t laugh with her. Yep. Mind was lost. She looked at me and I avoided her eyes. She had to be wondering what was going on.

  How could I tell her if I didn’t know myself?

  “Well, I’ll see you around,” Elodie said, and made her way back to Mali.

  I walked into the room without even looking at Kael. I was usually much politer to clients; I would never turn my back on them. But I did now. Let him follow behind me. Let him feel what it’s like to see someone’s back disappear through a door.

  THE ROOM WAS DARK so I lit a few candles. It was one of those small tasks that helped me ease into the day. Almost a ritual. Mali had a couple of those Bic automatic lighters in each room, but I preferred matches. I loved the scratch as you ran the match head over the striking surface, the tiny little explosion that brought the flame to life. So much better than the nervous click, click, click of those lighters.

  I was aware of Kael, standing just inside the doorway. He might have been evaluating his escape route or maybe even considering a quick getaway. Who knew? I ignored him as I lit the candles. Almond, from Bath and Body Works.

  “I’ll come back in a couple of minutes, give you some time to undress,” I said, but he pulled his shirt off as I made to leave, so I didn’t get a chance. I exhaled a small harrumph to express my displeasure, then turned around to face the wall. I could sense the tight movements of his shoulder muscles as he lifted his shirt over his head.

  “I could have gone out.”

  “I just need to take my shoes and shirt off,” he told me. He was still a client, regardless of whatever had or hadn’t happened between us. Regardless of what I felt. As if I knew what that was. I didn’t want to even come close to being inappropriate with him in my work place. Outside this building I might have slapped his face. But here . . . well, my job was to heal, not hurt.

  I stared at my dark purple wall and tried to imagine it navy. I was still undecided on what color to paint it, but Mali had given me her approval yesterday, so that was a win for this crazy week. The clean, masculine aroma of the candle was working its way through the room and I felt my breathing slow. I stared into the flame until I heard the table creek and the soft pull of the sheet. I counted to ten once he stopped moving.

  “Same pressure as before?” I asked. He was lying there on the table face up, his stomach exposed. The thin blanket and sheet were pulled up only to his hips.

  He nodded. Great. Back to this. His eyes were open, following me around the room.

  “Usually I start with the back, which means that the client lies on his stomach,” I told him.

  “The client,” he said. “Right. That’s me.” Kael turned over and rested his head in the face cradle. I grabbed a hot towel from the warming cabinet and tried to think about him as simply my ten a.m. appointment—an impossibility, really. Was he playing some kind of game with me? It sure felt like it.

  I placed a hot towel on his back. The moist heat would help relax his muscles and make the massage more effective. I took another hot towel and wiped his arms and feet. In silence, I focused on his soft skin, taking in his scent: cedar and campfire, I think. And definitely bar soap. Kael was not the body wash type.

  I started to pump peppermint oil into my open palm, but stopped when I remembered he had refused it on his first session—that curt no being one of the first of his monosyllables. I rubbed my hands together to warm them, although I would have loved to surprise him with icy fingers on his warm skin. A little bit of payback for the merry-go-round he’s got me on.

  I was getting myself worked up again. In fact, I was about two minutes away from telling him to get off the table and get the hell out, or at least explain what his deal was. I was already regretting opening up to him. All that stuff he knew about my mom, my dad . . . about me. I turned the music up on my phone. Banks. Let him tell Kael that I was tired of his waiting game. I made sure that the music was loud enough for him to hear the words, but not loud enough to disturb any other patrons. See—still professional.

  Kael’s sweatpants were faded and the hem at the bottom was almost purple from being washed so many times. Black cotton can do that, turn the color of eggplant. Great. Now I was back to last night—to the party, my bedroom, my purple bedspread. Again, the flash of us alone together. Kael dropping his emotional armor. Leaving those invisible bodyguards outside.

  I looked around the room and saw the purple glow of everything. Why was I surrounded by purple? In that moment, I felt fortunate to have seven brains in my head, all thinking different things at the exact same time. It was my own little streaming service and thank goodness I could switch between channels so that the next fifty-five minutes wouldn’t be awkward, for either of us.

  Comedy? Drama? Home improvement?

  Take your pick, Karina.

  It was good for me to think about other things while I rubbed the balls of his feet, while I ran my palms up his calves. Tylenol. I’d drop by the drugstore after work and pick up some Tylenol. What else did I need—shampoo? I tried to push the leg of his pants up a little, but they were tight at the bottom. They wouldn’t give. He was pulling at his pants and his phone rang but he didn’t answer. I couldn’t bring myself to be nosy enough to ask who it was.

  I was about to tell him that most clients prefer to turn off their phones, that they find the interruptions jarring. But who was I kidding. Kael wasn’t like most clients.

  I moved up the back of his thi
gh, gliding my hands along his bare back. I tried to think of what movie I’d watch when I flopped down on the couch after work, but it was hard to think of anything other than the muscles along his shoulders, so prominent under his soft, dark, skin. Right under his shoulder blade, there was a spot that had to be giving him some kind of pain when I pressed into it.

  “Does this hurt?” I asked him.

  “Yes,” he replied.

  “Like all the time or right now?”

  “Aren’t those the same thing?”

  “No.” I pushed the side of my thumbs into his muscle.

  “Oh, yeah. That hurts all the time.”

  “You didn’t say anything before?” I didn’t remember feeling it, but there was no way it got like that in a week.

  “Why would I?” he asked. I wished I could see his eyes as he spoke.

  “Because it hurts?” I pressed harder than normal and he groaned. The tissue separated under the pressure of my touch. “Because I asked you?”

  “Everything hurts,” he said. “All my body. All the time.”

  I LOVED MY JOB. But I didn’t love the stereotypes. I had worked hard to become a massage therapist, taking classes in anatomy, bodywork, physiology, even psychology and ethical business methods. I practiced countless hours, passed my Massage & Bodywork Exam, got my license. All that and I still had to endure those classy jokes about Happy Endings.

  I remember the first time someone implied that I was a sex worker in scrubs. He got a gleam in his eye when I told him that I worked in a massage parlor. I had been sitting in a coffee shop, enjoying a latte and a book when this older guy sat next to me and asked me what I was reading. We chatted for a bit—he seemed nice enough. Until, that is, the conversation came round to what each of us did for a living. He told me that he was a lawyer at this prestigious law firm. I could tell that he was trying to impress me by name dropping some big clients and talking about billable hours.

  I told him that I was a newly qualified massage therapist and that I was really happy to be starting my career, I was going on about health and wellness, about the whole mind-body connection and how massage therapy was a growing industry when he raised his eyebrows, leaned in close to me and said, “Oh, you’re a . . . massage therapist.” His meaning was clear, and so were his intensions. Even outside of creeps with gross offerings, I got the usual jokes from friends and family- those may be worse.

  Most clients were respectful and seemed to understand that very few sex workers hid under the title of massage therapist. There had been a recent bust of a little parlor on the other side of town and that shook us up a bit. I had applied for a job there before Mali hired me, and I got the creeps just thinking about it. It also made me appreciate Mali even more, if that was possible. The way she ran a tight ship, looking out for our best interests.

  I loved my job, being able to relieve pain and soothe people using my hands. Healing people, offering them relief, both mental and physical. My career was my passion and I hated that the industry I loved so much took such a hit because of just a few. I wouldn’t ever be one of those people who took risks, who stepped over the line of what was appropriate, whether for money or desire. So I tried hard to focus on the treatment I was providing, without so much as a gratuitous glance at Kael’s body, no matter how hard it was.

  He was on his back, now, arms at his side. I took a deep breath. I wouldn’t look at his bare skin.

  I had never thought about a client in this way before and I wasn’t going to start. Well, it had already started, but it wasn’t going to continue. I tried to distract myself with physiology, by naming all the chest muscles. Pectoralis major. Pectoralis minor. Serratus anterior. I remember learning in class that women are biologically wired to prefer men who have strong chests and shoulders, something about testosterone levels. So really, I wasn’t being inappropriate. It was biology.

  “I like this music.” Kael’s voice cut through the dark, surprising me.

  “Thanks,” I said. I wanted to tell him that Kings of Leon were one of my favorite bands of all time and that their first album was the closest thing to a masterpiece my ears had ever heard. But I was done opening up to him.

  When I finished working on the top of his thigh over his pants, I moved up to the top of the table where his head rested. My fingertips trickled down his scalp, pressing firmly against the soft tissue of his neck. His eyes, which had been closed when I worked on his legs, opened slowly.

  Did he see me staring at his strong features, at the deep curve of his lips? I refused to be the one to break the ice today. He left me so suddenly last night, without warning or any explanation whatsoever. He had the nerve to prance in here and act like nothing had happened?

  Maybe that was why I was so upset. Because nothing had happened.

  I skated my fingers down his chest, circling around the span of him. The way his tight muscles felt breaking up under my fingertips. I could almost feel the tension releasing from his pores.

  “You’re quiet today,” Kael said.

  My hands stopped moving.

  “You haven’t said anything,” I countered.

  “I just said I like the music.”

  I rolled my eyes, pursing my lips together.

  “You want to say something, I can tell.”

  “Oh, you can tell,” I said. “Right. I forgot. You know me so well.” Sarcasm is a girl’s best friend. “Why are you even here?”

  “You knew I was coming.”

  “You told me you wanted a massage. You didn’t say when. You didn’t give me a time,” I explained. “Or anything.”

  He was quiet for a few beats of the song.

  “Yeah, thought so,” I said under my breath.

  Kael’s hand shot up from under the blanket, his fingers wrapping around my wrist. His eyes were deep pools and I couldn’t look away from them. I didn’t move an inch. Everything stopped. Even my breath. Intense didn’t begin to cover it.

  “Why don’t you just tell me what’s going on inside that head of yours, Karina?”

  I didn’t think before I spoke. “There’s too much.” I stood at his side, my hips aligned with his chest. “Too . . .” I couldn’t finish.

  His fingers were so warm, pressed against my pulse. It had to be pounding under his fingerprint.

  “Just let go,” he told me in barely a whisper. His pupils were so black in the candlelight, probing me, searching for my words. My insecurities told me he was searching for more, searching for a weak spot.

  “So you can leave?” I bit at him.

  His eyes closed, thick lashes dusting over his cheeks. I couldn’t believe there was a time when I saw him and didn’t see what he actually looked like.

  “I deserve that,” he said. He still hadn’t let go of my hand. “I deserve that and more.” He opened his eyes. “So give it to me.”

  I sighed, pulling my hand away. He gripped a little tighter, but I still pulled away.

  “What are we doing?” I asked him.

  I had so many things to say. So many things to ask. But my thoughts were tripping over my words. I didn’t have a clue of what he had locked away in that head of his. I didn’t know where to begin.

  “We’re talking. Well, you were about to.”

  I stepped away from the table and he sat up, turning to me.

  “I’m serious. Why did you come here?”

  He stared at me. No words, just that look.

  “Now you’re back to this.” I spoke loud enough so he could hear me over the music, but not so loud that anyone outside of the room could hear.

  “Look.” He straightened his back. His hand lifted up like he wanted to reach for mine, but dropped it before I could decide what I would have done.

  “I’m sorry that I left last night. Something . . . my friend had something come up and I had to go. I shouldn’t have just left like that, but I—” He spoke like the words were being ripped from him. “I can’t. But I had to be there.”

  “If your friend n
eeded you, why wouldn’t you just say that? I would have understood.”

  His brow raised. “I don’t know. I just panicked I guess?”

  He looked down at his hands.

  “I’m uhm, not the best at this.” Kael stumbled over his words.

  “Neither am I.” I was pacing around the small room now. A vain attempt to get away from him. “And I’m not asking if we’re dating or whatever, I just don’t have the space for this type of thing in my life right now,” I rambled. “You come and you go, and I’ve had enough of that in my entire life. I don’t need another second of it.”

  “I wasn’t trying to come and go.”

  “What is it exactly you’re trying to do then?”

  His shoulders slid down in defeat. “I wish I knew. Honestly, Karina, I barely even know what day it is, so I’m confused too. Meeting someone was literally the last thing on my mind.”

  “Is that what I am? Someone you met?”

  He shrugged. “I don’t know what it is either. But what I do know is that I drove around the block four times, telling myself not to come in here.” He looked at me. “But here I am.”

  For once, I was the silent one.

  THERE ARE TIMES WHEN you don’t need to say anything. Times when everything is easy and you can share a room or a moment without having to fill the space with words, when everything just falls into place. This wasn’t one of them.

  You could cut the air with a knife.

  Kael must have felt it too. “I’ve been spending a lot of money on massages,” he said, his first attempt at small talk.

  “Self-care,” I said.

  We both laughed, then, and relief poured through me. The way his laughter mixed with mine was like music. It was one of those moments I wished I could just bottle up and keep in a vial around my neck, the way Angelina Jolie had saved her lover’s blood.

  Okay, now that was a weird thought. Why did my mind ricochet like that?

  “If it makes it any better,” Kael said, “I regret it.”

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