Excerpt One: Reunions

The following excerpt is the entire first chapter of “Stepsisters: A Deceived Novel.”

When Angelina von Essen thought of her best friend, she always thought of three things: football, freckles, and the color green. And maybe the color green, especially. The suburbs of Stirling City were beautiful in the summer when the brutal winters that rendered the chilly northeastern landscape monochrome finally thawed to return color to the canvas of the hills, but she’d never quite felt like the prettiness of the scenery could stand a chance against Aiden’s eyes.

Aiden Andrews had eyes like emeralds. Emeralds that danced and sparkled when he laughed, emeralds that reflected deep pools of compassion when he lent her his shoulder to cry on. Angelina didn’t cry often anymore – mostly because she refused to – but Aiden had always been there, regardless.

At least until this summer. Funny, how you could miss something as simple as a color when it was no longer within arm’s reach. Aiden had spent the entirety of their break from classes hiking with his uncle in Colorado, and Angelina had spent the entirety of hers wishing that he wasn’t. This had been the first summer since third grade that he’d been eighteen-hundred miles away from her, and with their interactions for the last three months reduced to short, faceless phone calls and random rushed texts, the separation had been absolutely killing her. But now, summer was over, which meant the wait was over.

It had to be any minute now.

“I can’t believe we’re juniors already! Do you realize that we’ve officially made it halfway through high school?” one of her other best friends, Katie Winters, exclaimed from her perch on the front steps of Archbishop Wright Preparatory School. She took a gratuitous bite of a puffy pink Snoball cake and flipped her straight red hair behind her shoulder. Her light blue eyes, just visible beneath the thick fringe of her bangs, squinted in disapproval as she scrunched up her nose. “This is crazy – we’re getting really old!”

“Old” might’ve been an obvious exaggeration, but Katie Winters, Gisele Singh, and Angelina von Essen had certainly come a long way from their Saint Joan of Arc days. Long having outgrown the elementary school jungle gym, the trio sat at their usual spot on the first day of another school year, waiting for the warning bell to ring while classmates dressed in their best new uniforms gathered in the cobblestoned courtyard around them. Anxious freshmen bumbled around looking lost, confused, and terrified, while juniors and seniors strutted the grounds with a confident I know this place gait. None of the other students, however, emanated quite the same aura as Angelina. It seemed liked everyone shot her a glance as they passed her by, but she was either too jaded to notice or just didn’t care. She was far too distracted to play Queen Bee already.

Beside her, Gisele crossed one toffee-colored leg over the other. “This summer went so fast. I feel like I was just here.”

“Definitely!” Katie agreed with her mouth full. “I can’t believe it’s really over. I didn’t even get to get a tan this year.”

“Kat…” Gisele dead-panned. “You never get a tan.”

Angelina interrupted the girls with an irritated sigh. “I don’t know what you two are talking about. This summer crawled for me.”

Katie and Gisele shared a secret eye-roll behind her back. They didn’t need to ask her why. She’d been whining non-stop about Aiden since June. She twirled a long strand of dark hair around her finger impatiently as a senior couple walked by hand-in-hand, jabbing her elbow into her crossed leg to rest her chin in her palm.

“This is torture!” she griped, twisting her face into a disgruntled pout. “When is Aiden going to get here? I’m dying.”

“Don’t be so dramatic,” Gisele said. “You’re not dying.”

“I’m surprised she didn’t say that she’s going to throw up,” Katie teased. “If she isn’t dying, she’s either throwing up or her face is burning. Let me know if I’m forgetting something.”

“I hate you both,” Angelina grumbled.

“You love us both,” Katie shot her an overly-cute smile.

“Not to mention Aiden,” Gisele added slyly. “So is this the year that you’re finally going to say something to him or what?”

Angelina gasped. “Gis!”

“Oh Gissy, it’s no use. That’s what she said she was gonna do last year,” Katie reminded her. “And she never did, did she?”

She took another huge bite of her cake, getting sticky hot-pink sprinkles all over her lips and spilling them onto her vest.

“Oh, shut up. What is this, pick on Angelina day?” Angelina gave her sidekicks a scolding glare. They high-fived and giggled evilly at her in response and her disapproving eyes shifted to the sugar-laden snackie-cake sending crumbs all over Katie’s uniform. “My God, Kat. That thing looks disgusting. How can you eat that?”

Katie took one last bite in defiance and licked her fingers. “Because it’s delicious, and don’t try to change the subject! You’ve been in love with Aiden since third grade and you promised us you’d tell him before he left for his stupid trip. Remember?”

“Maybe I did,” Angelina admitted. “But it was a dumb idea and I’ve changed my mind. I’m not telling him anything. Ever!”

“See, Gissy?” Katie snickered. “I told you.”

Angelina would have loved to argue and tell the girls that they were crazy if they thought that her ridiculous elementary school crush on Aiden was still a “thing” anyway, but she knew that her denials would be useless. She really had been in love with him since third grade – since the first day of school, when she’d been the popular social butterfly showing the nervous new boy the way to their classroom. She and her fraternal twin sister, Blair, were the daughters of one of the richest men in upstate New York: Bruce von Essen, founder and CEO of the successful investment firm, Vonessen Inc. Aiden had been one of the only people she’d ever hit it off with without her dad’s multi-millions being an underlying factor – and more importantly than that, he’d been there for her when she’d lost her mom, and she’d never be able to repay him for it.

Everyone knew her family’s tragic story; it was the nagging gray raincloud that constantly hovered over she and Blair’s heads, no matter their efforts to seek cover from it. They say that childhood can really shape a person, that it’s a time of discovery, exposure, and development for the lens in which we see the world. That in every child’s life, there are a series of moments that define it – a roadmap of happenings that dictate the outlooks, dreams, desires, and scars that forever mark the child and follow them into adulthood. For the von Essen twins, that particularly scarring moment happened on one otherwise normal evening in third grade, when their babysitter had received a phone call that had changed their lives forever.

The news had been grim. The girls’ mother, Cecilia, had been badly injured – maimed by a hit-and-run driver who’d mowed her down in a dark parking lot outside of the opulent banquet hall where Bruce had been throwing a lavish party for his employees. At some point after dinner and dancing, Mom had gone outside for fresh air, away from the noise and the drinking and the revelry, and she’d never returned to him. He’d found her lying on the asphalt in her beautiful blush-peach evening gown with her chestnut hair in disarray and the golden heart-and-key pendant he’d gifted her for their ten-year wedding anniversary just months before dangling loosely from her neck. Her sapphire eyes were cold and vacant and the rust-tinged hue of blood pooled at the back of her head, staining the concrete red. Cecilia had barely been conscious enough to tell him that she loved him; the last words she’d ever spoken. And then, she’d died in the hospital a few hours later, leaving her distraught husband and two young daughters behind to grieve her.

What had followed was an emotional rollercoaster of hurt, confusion, and unanswered questions. Angelina could still recall a turbulent timeline of investigators coming and going from the house, televised pleas for help, flimsy leads leading to nowhere, and her father’s desperate visits to the police station, each one leaving him more discouraged than the last. That night had shattered her family’s reality, but it was Aiden who’d been there to help her pick up the pieces again. As the years passed and the identity of her mother’s killer remained a mystery, he was there. As the police investigation fizzled out and went cold, he was there. He was there while the girls’ broken father slowly distanced himself to drown his sorrows in his work, and he was there when Dad eventually gave up and remarried, bringing a new stepmother – and stepsister – into the von Essen fold. Nicolette, who by fate, luck, or chance just happened to be in the same grade as Angelina and Blair, wasn’t so bad.

Victoria, however, was another story.

The girls’ new stepmother didn’t care about family – she cared about possessions. She was bronzed by a tanning bed and golden-blonde from a bottle. She never wore a shoe that didn’t have a high heel on it and didn’t have much going for her in terms of emotional depth. The woman was by no means stupid. Supposedly, she’d graduated from a reputable university with a dual Master’s in Business and Accounting, and boasted a professional reputation of being “good with money” – good enough that Dad had promoted her to the coveted Financial Controller’s position at Vonessen Inc. far before they’d been romantically linked and Mom was still alive. Victoria didn’t work for Dad’s company anymore, save for the occasional “consulting” services that she offered the new controller on an as-needed basis, but she sure kept money at the center of her world. She was particularly good at spending it, and her only real hobbies seemed to be shopping, lounging around at the country club, and posting on her pretentious fashion blog. Angelina didn’t know what Dad had seen in her, but he’d pulled away from everyone after Mom had died, save for his new distraction – Victoria.

Mom had been replaced. And by extension, so had they.

It was no wonder the girls had never warmed up to her.

Luckily, they didn’t have to deal with either of them much. Dad was almost always away at the office now, and for as little as Victoria seemed to do, she was absent most of the time herself, or simply didn’t care enough to intrude in the girls lives past the point of necessity. The von Essens carried on with life. The family’s hope for answers had all but been snuffed out by time and circumstance like the dying embers of a flickering candle. But it was Aiden who’d helped Angelina believe that there was still good in the world. That all she had to do when she felt lost or distressed was look for the North Star and know that it would lead her wherever she needed to go. So no… she’d probably never be able to fully block out her “silly” little crush on him. But she could sure as hell pretend that she had.

“You’re acting like him taking a vacation is the end of the world,” Gisele muttered, digging around in her purse for a compact.

“You girls are so mean,” Angelina sighed. She watched her friend swipe a thick glob of mascara over her lashes and reasoned, “Maybe I’m just anxious because I haven’t gotten to hang out with him once since he got back. Football conditioning is such a pain in the ass. If I would’ve had to hear Blair whine about Josh being busy one more time, I think I might’ve smacked her. At least she’s gotten to see him. If you ask me, she really didn’t have a right to complain.”

Josh was Josh Ashford, her sister’s boyfriend. Growing up, Angelina had honestly believed that Blair would be quiet and single forever, more content to play her piano and stuff her nose in her books than bother with something as petty as a romantic life.

Oh, how she’d been proven wrong.

“Aww, poor Ang…” Katie cooed at her. “Don’t worry, it will all be over soon. Where is Blair anyway? Is she already inside?”

“Where else would she be?” Angelina assumed with a disinterested shrug. “She’s probably making out with Josh by the lockers or something. And I don’t know where Nic went, but I’d bet a ton of money that she’s off flirting with some seniors somewhere. Getting a head start on her yearly conquests, you know?”

“Yeah, ” Gisele sniffed. “Typical Nic.”

Angelina made a quiet noise of agreement, reminding herself that there was once a time when she’d been able to describe her stepsister as awkward and quiet. The Nicolette of today wasn’t nearly the same obedient, timid girl that she’d been when Angelina and Blair had met her in Victoria’s living room all those years ago. This Nicolette craved the relevance and attention that she’d never gotten from Victoria, and her unconventional ways of showing her appreciation to the boys who gave it to her had managed to earn her a bit of a reputation come high school. She was more than just a flirt.

Nicolette talked the talk and walked the walk.

But it wasn’t like Angelina could judge her – at least not too much. Nicolette had her beaten by far when it came to bad habits with boys, but she wasn’t a perfect little angel herself. Angelina had made it her own bad habit to throw rowdy parties at the mansion while Dad and Vicky weren’t home solely to spite them, but parties were only one way to rebel. When she’d turned fourteen she’d taken her defiance to a whole new level. What had started as an innocent shopping excursion to the mall with her girls had ended with a tiny diamond stud glinting right above her right nostril. Victoria had absolutely flipped when she’d seen it, but earning her stepmother’s ire had only made her love it all the more. She wore her impulsive new piercing to all of her fancy social functions now just because, and never took it out. But she wasn’t the only girl in the von Essen household to do something drastic to her appearance lately.

“Have you girls seen Nic yet?” she mentioned on that note. “Just wait till you do. You think this thing was a shocker for Vic?” She jabbed her finger at the diamond in her nose. “You should have seen her explode when Nic got back from the salon this weekend.”

“What did she do?” Gisele asked. “Chop all of her hair off?”

“You’ll see,” Angelina said. It was better to keep the girls in suspense – she knew that was what her stepsister would want. Besides, she was far too anxious to ruin her big reveal right now.

Where the heck was Aiden at?

Just as she was starting to wonder if she’d somehow missed seeing him go inside, she spotted his dad’s old Taurus pulling up to the curb and her stomach did a gleeful somersault. Finally! Seeing that car again felt like taking an instant espresso shot. She jumped up, yanking on Gisele’s sleeve, a big smile spreading across her face.

“Yes! There he is!” she gasped, waving vigorously to grab his attention. “Hey, Aid!” she called across the courtyard. “Over here!”

When she caught his eye and he shot her that adorably roguish smile of his, she swore that she could feel her heart skip a neurotic Double Dutch in her chest. Aiden looked amazing, even better than she remembered. Once a cute little boy with a knack for dirtying the knees of his jeans, he’d grown up considerably in the years since she’d met him. He was dressed in a crisp new uniform, looking classy and smart in grayish-khaki pants, a white button down with the sleeves rolled to his elbows, a maroon tie, and a black vest adorned with the intricate Archbishop Wright emblem. He still looked slightly awkward in such stiff, stuffy garb, but Angelina secretly loved that about him. His new blue backpack – they were always blue – was slung loosely over his shoulder, and his short brown hair stuck up uncooperatively in the front, like it usually did. She’d almost forgotten how handsome he was, but having such attractive friends could be so cruel! As cruel as the familiar butterflies she could feel fluttering around relentlessly in her stomach. So much for denials – she couldn’t even fool herself, let alone her girlfriends.

“Hey, Trouble!” he rushed over to greet her with an enthusiastic bear hug. “Holy shit, long time no see!”

Angelina lost her breath as he scooped her up and crushed her ribcage.

“Aiden! I’m so happy to see you!” she squealed, wrapping her arms around his shoulders and squeezing back hard. A part of her wanted to scream, another part wanted to cry, and the most hidden part of her wanted to kiss him all over his face like a long-lost prodigal son, but she was trapped so snugly against him that she could barely breathe let alone do any of those things. “What do they feed you at football camp? Let go, you’re squishing me!”

He set her down and made a goofy muscle.

“Oh yes, I’m so big and buff now!” he played along in a horrible, overdone Arnold Schwarzenegger voice. “I have come to pump you up!”

She laughed, red-faced and flustered, and put her hand on his bicep, giving it a playful squeeze. “Ooh, impressive!”

“That’s what happens when you spend an entire summer hiking and come back to practice twice a day,” he claimed.

Angelina folded her arms over her chest and pursed her lips to prevent grinning stupidly at him. Aiden wasn’t actually full of himself – but he could sure act like a ham pretending! Normally she would have something snarky to retort back to him in response, but she was so happy to simply be standing in the same zip code as him again that she was finding it hard to say much of anything coherent. Now that he wasn’t smothering her, she could see that his eyes were glinting the perfect shade of emerald green and his face was littered with a fresh dashing of freckles from long days out in the sun. She felt her cheeks prickle a hot red when the knee-jerk admittance that came out of her mouth was a lame, “You look really good, Aid.”

“You too,” he winked at her. “Been hitting the gym?”

It was only a tease, the typical playful her-and-Aiden banter that she’d missed so sorely over the summer, but she’d take it. The stupid grin that she’d been trying to hold back escaped.

“Just tennis,” she informed him. “You know, gotta whip those skanks at Holy Ghost this year. Speaking of which, I’m really sorry that I wasn’t at the airport when you got back, but Victoria signed me up for this ridiculous tennis camp like I’ve never picked up a racket before. I was so mad at her! I told her when you were coming home, but she went on this absurd tirade about how ‘grateful’ I should be that she booked me for lessons with some former pro in the minor leagues. Like she really did it for me.”

“That definitely sounds like Vic,” Aiden snorted. “But no worries. I feel like I’ve been living at the field since I got back, anyway. I swear, my parents are going to think I’ve permanently moved out soon. They’re going to start using my room for storage.”

Angelina giggled at the stupid joke. “Oh, please! Your parents would never do that to you. You’re their baby.”

“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “They might.”

“Well please don’t let them, okay? I’m seriously glad you’re back, Aid. Maple Springs is so boring when you’re not around.”

An amused smirk tugged at Aiden’s lips. That was such an Angelina thing to say. Maple Springs is so boring! And then, if he’d try to say the same thing, she’d argue back that it wasn’t, solely on principle.

“I missed you too,” he assured her. “But I swear, I’ll make it up to you. How about we hit up Red’s tonight? I’ve been dying for one of their burgers. Maybe I’ll even be nice and treat.”

“Do you promise?” Angelina gave him two big doe eyes.

“I promise,” he reached out for a pinky swear.

She smiled and wrapped her finger around his just as Katie and Gisele shared another of their secret looks. The school day hadn’t even started yet and they were already designated back to being the third and fourth wheels. The girls had stopped bothering to feel jealous about it years ago, but only because they wanted Angelina to be happy. It was the same reason they ragged on her – good-naturedly – about Aiden so much. In school, everyone thought that Angelina was so self-assured, cocky even, like nothing ever bothered her. But losing your mom was something that never went away. It left a permanent scar. And frankly, the two of them found it sad that they’d had to keep her crush a secret for so long. If there was ever any bandage that could keep the pain at bay, it was Aiden.

The girls straightened up innocently as he unhooked his pinky from hers to turn his attention to them instead.

“Hey Gis, hey Kat,” he grinned. “How were your summers?”

“Oh, don’t mind us!” Gisele brushed him off with a dismissive wave of her hand. “We haven’t been sitting here being ignored or anything. Just carry on with your big reunion, you two.”

Angelina shot her a scolding look and Aiden laughed in disbelief. “Oh, come on! Is that how you girls welcome me back? I was gonna say hi sooner. I just got distracted. Trouble missed me.”

“No kidding!” Katie sniggered. “This Trouble over here has been giving us nothing but trouble!”

“Hey!” Angelina protested.

“It’s true, Aiden,” Gisele backed her up. “Please don’t leave us again. I swear to you, she was a real pain in the ass.”

“Not as much of a pain in the ass as you girls are to me!” Angelina snapped back.

Aiden folded his arms over his chest and laughed.

“Now girls… play nice.”

“This is as nice as I’m going to get on day one!” Katie jabbed her finger at him. “I’m bitter right now! My summer was too short, I didn’t get a tan, and I’m not looking forward to test-taking and studying again.”

As if she’d somehow conjured it just by saying that, the warning bell rang, right on cue. The girls let out a cohesive groan.

“Wow, really?” Aiden shook his head. He hiked his backpack onto his shoulder and sighed. “Good going, Kat. You’ve cursed us. Let’s just hope the teachers go easy on us for the first week.”

Yeah, right. Angelina was sure that they wouldn’t. But at least Aiden was home, and with the return of her best friend bolstering her mood and the promise of an after-school outing on the burner, she was feeling much less apprehensive about testtaking and studying already. She coaxed the girls from the steps and followed him inside, biting her lip as her mind rushed with possibilities. Who knew what junior year had in store for them  now that he was back?

She sure didn’t. But she couldn’t wait to find out.

If you like what you’ve read so far, check out “Stepsisters” on Amazon.