The Brightest Stars by Anna Todd

  “Leaving last night?” I clarified.

  He nodded, swinging his long muscular legs over the side of the table. I was surprised they didn’t touch the floor.

  “I wanted to be there with you, in that room, listening to you tell your stories. I love it when you tell stories . . . I could listen to you for hours,” he said.

  I turned the music up a notch to drown out our voices. “The Hills” was taunting both of us. Raspy and suspenseful, the song fit perfectly between us, filling our silence.

  I love it when . . .

  “Then, why didn’t you?” I finally asked.

  “It was a friend thing—” Kael’s expression changed.

  “Friend?” I asked and it clicked. “Oh, you have a—”

  “Not that kind of friend,” he said. He wanted to reassure me and that was thrilling. A line of electricity charged through me. “One of my buddies is having a rough time right now. It, uh . . . his wife called and I had to go over there.” Kael’s expression was stone.

  I was confused. He was opening up, but I needed more. “So, again, if you were going to help a friend, why couldn’t you tell me? I would have understood if you told me—”

  He cut me off. “Mendoza’s business isn’t mine to tell.”

  “Mendoza?” I moved across the room, stopping directly in front of Kael.

  He sighed. He bit down on his lip. “It’s not my place, Karina. I’m not talking about it.”

  I appreciated his loyalty to his friend. Really, I did, but wasn’t I his friend too? Wasn’t I someone? Apparently not. “And that’s so far from the norm. You not talking about it.” I meant for my words to burn him, or at least make him sweat. They did neither.

  He looked at me like he was taking a lie detector test and I had just asked his name and if the sky was blue. Complacent. Assured. Calm as fuck.

  IT WASN’T EVEN NOON and I was ready for the day to be over. How dare he come here and complicate my life like this. All I wanted was a normal life. A nice job. A nice house. A nice guy. Other people had these things. Why not me?

  I took a breath and tried to soften a little. But I was careful not to melt. Not in front of him. Not anymore.

  “Are we done here?” I asked. He shrugged his shoulders.

  “I still have ten minutes left.” He held up his phone as if to prove it.

  “Fine. But you need to act like a regular client. This is my job and unlike you, I can get fired.”

  Kael looked away from me and at the wall behind my head, focusing on the shelf where I kept my speaker and clean towels. Next to the towels, in a little wooden frame, was a picture of me, Austin, and Sammy. It was homecoming of freshman year and Sammy and Austin went together, their second try at being a couple. I went without a date.

  Sammy and I were all dolled up for the evening. Her dress was a shimmery red with a scoop back. Mine, was purple, come to think of it. Purple ombré. The neckline was a pale color, almost mauve, but the color changed as the dress draped my body, moving from light to dark until the bottom looked like it had been dipped in ink. We got our dresses at JC Penny, but kept the tags on so that we could return them the next day.

  “Fine. Regular client. I get it,” he said. He was trying to crack my shell, but I wasn’t having any of it. He shrugged his shoulders and lay back down on his back. This time I did what I usually did with new clients or walk-ins and draped a soft towel over his eyes.

  I lowered the volume on the music and lifted his right arm. I bent it gently at the elbow, then pulled softly, and as I did the thick muscles in his back shifted in response. I worked my way down his biceps. They weren’t beefy in that artificial way, jacked up on supplements and daily visits to the gym. He was solid under my hands, and I knew it came from hard physical work. Army work.

  I used my forearm to apply pressure to the knot just under his bicep where he had a scar that looked like an unfinished M. The pink tinted skin was puffy and soft. It took everything in me not to run my finger over it again. I tried not to think about the pain he must have felt when it happened, whatever it was that cut at his body.

  The scar was deep, like from the lashing of a serrated knife. It made my heart ache for him. I slid my fingers down his forearm, the part of his body that was the deepest in pigment. He had a soldier’s tan, which was like a farmer’s tan, but worse because they were in the desert getting baked by the sun. I lifted his hand into mine and pressed my thumb against the base of his palm and held it there. I felt his fingers go slack and moved the pressure along the palm of his hand.

  Was it only the night before that we sat together, side by side on my childhood bed?

  I started to think about Mendoza, wondering if he was okay. He hadn’t been gone very long when Kael got the phone call. It had to have been only twenty minutes before Kael left, and if he lived on base near my dad he couldn’t have been home for longer than fifteen. I hoped he didn’t drive.

  “That feels so good,” Kael said to me when I bent his wrists, pressing against the sides, slightly pulling at the same time.

  “I just learned it,” I told him.


  “Yeah, I saw a YouTube video and tried it on myself first. It felt so good. Especially for people who use their hands a lot.”

  “Wait, you learned it on YouTube?” he asked me, lifting his head a little. I pulled the towel back over his eyes and gently pressed my palm against his forehead to lay him back down.

  “Yes. It’s helpful.”

  “You’re such a millennial.”

  “So are you.” I laid his arm back to his side and moved to the other side.

  “Technically, yes. At least tell me you have an actual license and didn’t learn everything on YouTube?”

  “Ha. Ha.” I rolled my eyes back. “Of course I have a license.” I remembered it was his birthday. “Happy Birthday by the way.”


  I quietly slid back into the treatment and even gave him an extra ten minutes. When we were finished, he thanked me, paid, tipped well, and mumbled a shallow goodbye like a good client.

  The fact that he had given me what I asked for and I hated it, burned like bad coffee.

  I WAS NEVER SO RELIEVED to be done with customers for the day. Mali had asked me to take a walk-in after that awful session with Kael. I don’t know if it was the mood I was in or if it was the client, but nothing I did was good enough for her. The pressure was too light, then it was too heavy. The room was cold, could she have two blankets, then her feet were hot under the blankets, could I take one away? And could I please blow out the candle because the fragrance was giving her a headache.

  I made every accommodation and even tried to reason with myself over her. She felt like a test from the universe whether Kael could ruin my day or not. Somehow everything linked back to him and my imagination started to take her on, creating her life where she’s overworked or in a shitty marriage. Maybe I was the only person in her life that she could take her anger out on. Better me than her kids, or family, or even herself. I started feeling for her, everyone has a bad day. Even when she said my nails needed to be clipped … and then she left without giving me a tip. I may have flipped her off as she walked out of the door.

  My one o’clock was okay, thank goodness. The walk-in after that was fine, too—a pretty young woman from the yoga studio the next block over. She fell asleep almost as soon as she lay down and her skin was soft, no tense muscles to work out.

  Still, I was happy to call it a day and to be heading home. Thank God. Mali had given me some Ibuprofen, and that helped turn down the volume in my throbbing head. But I still felt like complete crap. I was anxious and annoyed and nothing was helping.

  All I could think of was flopping down in bed with the blinds drawn and the covers over my head. I wanted darkness and quiet. But then I rounded the corner to my little house and saw him waiting for me on the porch.

  My biggest problem and biggest relief wrapped up and delivered directly to my f
ront door.


  He looked nervous, sitting there with headphones on, a faraway look in his eyes. He was so distracted he almost didn’t see me approach.

  “Did you come for a refund?” I asked, trying to keep it light. I wasn’t at all bothered that he was there. I wasn’t nervous. No, I wasn’t. Nope. Not at all. I was cool. I hadn’t let him get to me, not the way he thought he did. Not me.

  “No refund,” he said, shaking his head. “I think we should finish our conversation.”

  “Oh? And which conversation is that?” I was playing it coy and he knew it. Cat and mouse. You know, how adults foreplay.

  “About meeting someone. You know, whether or not we’re dating, or not.”

  “We’re definitely not dating,” I said through a forced, fake laugh.

  “Well, what are we doing then?”

  “You didn’t know earlier,” I reminded him.

  “Neither did you,” he flipped it back to me.

  Kael held an orange in his hand. It was a big orange, but small in his hand, with the little SUNKIST sticker still on it. He was massaging it gently with his thumb, but hadn’t broken into the peel yet.

  “I want to know more about you. That’s all I’m asking, okay?” With a face like his, I doubted he ever had to ask that question. Who wouldn’t want to say yes without even thinking? I was the only idiot who would confuse things. How could I have such a strong attraction to this guy and still be so unsure of how I felt. Of how he felt.

  I took him in. I couldn’t help it, but I ran my eyes up and down his strong body. He was wearing a gray Army T-shirt and black sweats. It was unfair how hot he looked in everything he wore.

  “How do you plan on doing that?” I asked.

  I seemed to be responding the way he had hoped. He was pleased with that, as if that was his plan all along. I liked that he had one. The idea of a plan made me feel important. He made me feel important.

  “By asking you questions about yourself. How else?” He was being so playful, so unlike the composed man I’d come to know over the last few days.

  “Okay.” I was skeptical. “Go ahead.”

  He gestured to the empty spot next to him. “At least sit down with me. What kind of a date is this?”

  “It’s not a date. We’re just hanging out, getting to know each other. That’s it.”

  That was meant more for myself than for him, but Kael didn’t need to know that. I sat down at the top of the porch and let my legs dangle over the lower steps.

  “You keep saying we don’t know each other, so I’m going to get to know you if it’s the last thing I do,” he assured me. He was so confident. In his words, his smile. Even the way he leaned back on the concrete steps conveyed his confidence. I felt that familiar pull move from the bottom of my tummy down toward my legs.

  “Okay, okay. Enough small talk, ask something.” I needed to be distracted from the way Kael’s mouth made me ache as he licked his lips while peeling the skin off of the orange.

  “I only brought one, but we can share,” he said. I loved this playful version of him.

  “Some date,” I joked and he shook his head.

  “Nope, you said it wasn’t a date.”

  “Touché. Now questions or I’m ending this not-date prematurely,” I threatened. We both knew it was an empty threat. “Anyway, you’re the one who doesn’t tell me anything about himself.”

  “You go first then,” he offered. I thought about what I wanted to know about him. There was just so much.

  Music. That’s what popped into my head first. I’d ask about music! “What’s your favorite band that no one really knows?”

  He turned to me, his eyes wide, happy.

  “So many, I love unknown bands. It’s most of what I listen to. What about Muna. I just found them. They’re great.”

  “Muna isn’t unknown, they went on tour with Harry Styles.” I told him how I loved their music and how Elodie and I tried to get tickets to the concert but they sold out so quickly, so I’d need to pick up a few more clients before I could afford resell tickets.

  “Harry Styles, huh? If you could go to any concert, ever, who would it be?” he asked me.

  I nodded a solid yes to Harry Styles, and thought about what concert I would choose if I could see anyone. Alanis Morissette had always been my go-to answer, but with Kael, I chose what I actually thought of first. It felt freeing, to be honest in this way. I liked how he brought me out of myself. I didn’t give him the answer I thought he wanted. I gave him the truth.

  “Shawn Mendes,” I told him.

  “Shawn Mendes?” he repeated. I could practically hear the joke coming, so I tried to move the conversation along.

  “And you?” I asked.

  “Me, well, I would probably say either Amy Winehouse, before she …” He paused. It was lovely, a mark of respect somehow. I smiled, urging him to continue. “Or Kings of Leon on their first tour. Back when they were virtually unknown.”

  “I’m going to make a list of unknown bands before our next … hangout session or whatever we’re calling this,” I said.

  “Our next not-a-date,” he said. I think we were both relieved to hear the word “next.”

  “Right,” I said, feeling both relieved and excited.

  “So,” Kael said. “Here’s another question for you. If you could describe Austin in one word, what would it be?”

  “Hmm.” I tapped my nose, thinking of just one word to describe my twin. “Well-intended?” I finally answered. But I was unsure. It wasn’t the word I was going for. Not exactly.

  “That’s two words,” he said.

  “Actually, it’s hyphenated, so that counts as one word.” He liked that. I could tell. “He has good intentions,” I continued. “He just makes bad choices to go along with them.”

  “I get that,” he said. And I really felt that he did.

  “My turn,” I said. “What about you? What about your little sister?” His expression hardened for a moment, almost as if I imagined it. Then just as quickly, it went back to normal.

  He thought for a moment, considering not answering. I saw it on his face, but he came up with, “Powerhouse.”

  “Powerhouse?” I repeated. What a lovely way to be viewed by someone, especially by someone in your own family.

  He nodded. “Yeah, she’s brilliant. And doesn’t let anything stop her. Her high school, it’s one of those fancy private schools where they only teach the thing the students are good at. Science is her thing. She tested high enough to get into the school back when she was nine, but my mom can’t drive and wouldn’t let her ride the city bus alone until she turned fourteen. Now she takes the bus alone, across town, every morning, and every afternoon.”

  “Wow,” was all I could manage. Of course Kael’s sister was a science prodigy. It was impressive and humorous to compare this teenaged prodigy riding a bus across town to get to her gifted school to my brother who got himself in trouble even when he stayed home.

  “Next?” it was Kael’s turn to change the subject.

  I asked a basic question. “What do you like to do in your spare time?”

  “Get massages,” he smiled at me, “and work on my house. I bought a duplex while I was deployed. Remember when you took me to the parking lot to get my keys? They were supposed to be there. Anyway, I bought this run down duplex and I’m fixing up the empty side now, and slowly working on my side so I can rent it out and then move into another one and repeat the cycle. Maybe spread out toward Atlanta when I can.”

  “I bought my house for the same reason,” I told him. He took a bite of the peeled orange. I could smell the sweetness from where I sat. My mouth watered.

  “Well, the remodeling part. I couldn’t stand living with my dad and his wife anymore, so I found this little house online and have been slowly, I mean, s l o w l y fixing it up.” I dragged out the word for emphasis.

  He laughed, inching closer to me. “I noticed.”

you think I’m doing a good job?” I asked. “Didn’t you see the shower tiles?” I bet he cringed at the number of unfinished projects scattered around the house.

  He was close to me, so close that I could smell the fruit on his breath. I didn’t know if it was me, or if it was Kael, but one of us was inching closer to the other. By the time Kael and I had asked each other random questions like how long we could hold our breath and what noise could he listen to all day, every day without being annoyed, we were inches away from each other.

  It was a magnetic pull. An irresistible attraction.

  “I could listen to you talk all day,” he said, surprising me. “It’s become one of my favorite things to do.”

  His eyes were on my mouth.

  My heart was beating out of my chest.

  “I wish I could hear you talk all day,” I confessed to him. We felt so close there, huddled together on my porch, not noticing the cars or any of the people passing us.

  “One day you’ll regret saying that.” Kael’s breath covered my cheeks, my wet, needy lips.

  His lips were so close to mine. Was he going to kiss me, here, now, out of the blue, with the dew of orange on his lips?

  My mouth begged for his to inch closer, to touch mine. I had never wanted something more than I wanted him to kiss me, there on my porch.

  Was he going to kiss me?

  His lips soon answered my question. He leaned over and put his soft mouth on mine. Everything went quiet then. The traffic. The sound of the birds. Even the noisy station inside my head. I had no words. No thoughts. Just him.

  He was timid at first, gentle … until I pushed my tongue between his lips and tasted him. From that taste, my addiction flared up and I knew I would never get enough of him. I would need every hit and I would take every chance to get it.

  That first kiss turned into countless more as we toed the line between causal and committed. I knew the danger. If my own history had taught me nothing, at least I could heed the lesson of nearly every issue of Cosmopolitan and every romantic comedy from the past two decades. This was never, ever going to work.

  But I had to risk it.

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