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Bait and Switch, page 1

 

Bait and Switch
 

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Bait and Switch


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  Table of Contents

  Cover

  Synopsis

  Title Page

  Copyright Page

  Other Books by Blythe H. Warren

  Acknowledgments

  About the Author

  Dedication

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-One

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  Chapter Twenty-Five

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  Epilogue

  Bella Books

  Synopsis

  Full-time marine biologist and part-time heartbreaker Liv Cucinelli knows that there are plenty of fish in the sea. So why can’t she seem to escape the lure of the one woman she hates the most?

  When Liv is unexpectedly reunited with Mira Butler—the homophobic princess who ruined Liv’s college career—the last thing she wants is to spend even a second in the company of her former nemesis. Having loathed Mira for years, she’s not prepared to forgive her, let alone pursue a friendship. But Mira, who is oblivious to the destruction she caused, refuses to leave Liv alone.

  Once Liv learns the truth about their shared past, she begins to see there is more to Mira than she could have ever anticipated.

  Can they overcome their stormy history to become friends? Or maybe even more?

  Copyright © 2017 by Blythe H. Warren

  Bella Books, Inc.

  P.O. Box 10543

  Tallahassee, FL 32302

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, without permission in writing from the publisher.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

  First Bella Books Edition 2017

  eBook released 2017

  Editor: Ann Roberts

  Cover Designer: Sandy Knowles

  ISBN: 978-1-59493-565-7

  PUBLISHER’S NOTE

  The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

  Other Bella Books by Blythe H. Warren

  My Best Friend’s Girl

  Acknowledgments

  I never would have considered writing this book if not for the friends I found in college—Ellen Joyce, Heather Mathes, Kris Fahey Nelson and the rest of our small, strange group, I learned as much through our friendship as I did in my classes (and being the good kid, I learned a lot in my classes). In particular, I am indebted to Fahey for giving me the idea for this book. It was one of the most challenging and satisfying writing experiences I’ve had so far, so thank you for giving me this opportunity. Thanks also to Eve Barrs for answering my questions about fishes and the life of an aquarist. You shared far more than I could write down. Even better, you helped me recapture my love for the aquarium. As always, I’m grateful for the support, encouragement, patience, feedback and prodding of my sisters Jennie Tyderek and Heidi Krystofiak (my Knowledge Sherpa and Professional Nag, respectively). To my partner, Sue Hawks, you talked me up from my self-doubt more times than I can count, and you are the perfect sounding board when my characters refuse to behave. I’m blessed to have you. My beta readers—Amy Cook, Kathy Rowe, Erin Dunn, Jamie Lee Winner, Rory Rowe, Lynda Fitzgerald, Diane Piña and HLM—thank you for making this a better book, and thank you for doing it so kindly. Additional thanks to the staff at Monk’s (especially Cheryl, Anthony and Beth) for plying me with beer and (along with fellow patron Tyler Ventura) offering title suggestions, and to Diane—you can name all my books from this point forward. To my amazing editor, Ann Roberts, you challenged me to be a better writer, and though I didn’t always enjoy it, I definitely appreciate it. Finally, to everyone at Bella—I’m honored and proud to put my work in your hands. Thank you for all you do.

  About the Author

  Blythe H. Warren teaches English to college freshman, and she has a terrible reputation for infecting English-weary composition haters with her love of writing. They enter her class dreading the written word and leave thinking that writing can actually be fun. When she is not busy writing or shamelessly converting young minds, she enjoys (yes, actually enjoys) running marathons. Much to her surprise, her first book My Best Friend’s Girl was nominated for a Lammy and a Goldie. She and her partner live in Chicago with their pets.

  Dedication

  For the young women of Pemberton Hall, 1994–1996. Your support and friendship were more than any gay girl in the nineties could have hoped for. Love, Edge

  Chapter One

  “Ollie?”

  My stomach fell, and my head snapped in the direction of the voice. I had no idea who had spoken, but I was certain I wouldn’t be happy to find out. No one had called me Ollie in the last fifteen years. Well, no one other than Patsy Collins, my best friend, but she never let anything go. A decade and a half after college ended she was still milking jokes that had amused her back then.

  But Patsy also knew how much I hated that nickname, so she only used it when she was upset with me, which happened often thanks to my pig-headed stubborn side—her words, not mine. Since it was eight thirty on a Saturday morning—almost pre-dawn for my night-owl friend—it couldn’t be Patsy using my old nickname. But who was it?

  Craning my neck, I tried to scan the crowd inconspicuously. I was surrounded mostly by children—the almost twenty young girls who had been my students for the past week. They were now milling about the lobby of the aquarium where I worked as a marine biologist and where we had all spent the night. Whenever the opportunity arose, I tried to spearhead our educational efforts by teaching classes to every group that showed an interest. I’ve had senior citizens, scout troops, kindergarten classes and just about everything in between in my classroom, but this was the first time I’d designed and offered a course specifically for young girls. The verdict on the course was still out, but I hoped it had been successful enough for a repeat the following summer.

  The girls (not even a little tired after an entire night of gossiping and pranking one another) were giggling, hugging, swapping phone numbers and saying goodbye as their parents gathered sleeping bags and backpacks, trying to herd their daughters in the direction of the exit. I didn’t immediately recognize any of the parents as anyone who would think to call me Ollie.

  Very few people knew my old nickname. I wasn’t
wildly popular in college, even before circumstances forced me out of the dorms. While there was a chance that the voice belonged to one of the rare friendly faces from my days in undergrad, given my luck over the last twenty-four hours, I felt confident this wouldn’t be a joyful reunion. I mean, why wouldn’t a horrible reliving of my hellish college years come at the tail end of a day that had already included an abruptly cold shower (jarring even in mid-summer), no drinkable caffeine in my apartment, a flat tire on my bike and Carson Phillips (one of my students) suffering through a serious asthma attack without her inhaler? Obviously that last one was worse for Carson than it was for me. I’d just kept the situation under control until the paramedics arrived to help her, but the anxiety I felt in those endless, terror-stricken minutes before help arrived was enough to turn even the most stoic person into a nervous wreck.

  As I looked tentatively about for the source of this unwanted bit of nostalgia, I heard it again. “Ollie? Is that you?” Something vaguely familiar about the voice tugged at my memory as I continued to scan the crowd. Still seeing nothing, I hoped I was in the clear, and then my eyes locked on her, the source of almost all the torment in my life, my arch nemesis—Mira Butler.

  Okay, maybe arch nemesis was a bit dramatic. It wasn’t like we were in a comic book—Mira set to destroy Chicago with her super high-powered death ray unless I stopped her wicked plan. Certainly she could be a menace, but her reign of terror tended to be emotional and personal rather than physical. Somewhat less destructive (but no less evil) than obliterating the city, she was headed my way at warp speed, her expression one of oblivious good cheer. By the looks of her, she had no clue I despised her. That, or she had moved on.

  In truth, I thought I had too. Even though she’d ruined my life, it wasn’t like I’d spent the last fifteen years plotting sweet revenge. I had forgotten all about what she’d done, or so I thought. But seeing her there in my aquarium, beaming as she weaved in and out of clumps of chattering girls and earnest parents on her way to the spot where I stood, feet stubbornly glued to the earth that refused to open up and swallow me whole, brought back all of the hurt and anger and embarrassment from the humiliation she’d orchestrated. It felt as raw at that moment as it had more than fifteen years earlier.

  Panicked, I searched for a way out of this encounter, but damn if every one of my students (who not an hour earlier had been clamoring for my attention) wasn’t busy saying hello to parents or goodbye to classmates. I was on my own.

  I just stood there, blinking stupidly and praying this was a vivid nightmare. Meanwhile, the closer a broadly grinning Mira got to me, the more I lost hope that I was still asleep. My system threatened to shut down as the very real possibility of a warm, friendly hug from my enemy grew larger, especially if I continued to stand there, silent and idle.

  When I finally regained the power of speech, I blurted out the first thing I could think to say. “I don’t go by Ollie anymore.”

  Her megawatt smile dimmed a kilowatt or two, and she put on the brakes far enough away that she couldn’t manage an embrace, but unfortunately still close enough to converse.

  “I’m sorry,” she said, and she looked genuinely apologetic. “I didn’t know.” She waited a beat, possibly expecting me to reply, probably with what she should call me in place of Ollie. When I said nothing, she picked up the slack. “You look great.”

  That was a lie. I looked like I’d spent the night in an aquarium with nineteen adolescent girls. Without needing to check a mirror for confirmation, I knew that my usually uncooperative short hair stuck out in all directions like it was sending out distress signals. I didn’t even want to think about the bags under my bloodshot eyes.

  Mira, on the other hand, looked fantastic. Her long dark hair had that perfectly tousled look that comes from too much time and money spent in a salon. With her pillowy lips, large eyes and sculpted brows, I doubted Bernini could have formed a more perfect face, except for her nose. It was maybe a sliver too small, but I doubted anyone had ever complained. Her flawless beauty hadn’t changed much in the fifteen years since I saw her last. It was depressing but not unexpected.

  “What are you doing here?” I managed to sound more inquisitive than accusatory because she beamed again.

  “I’m picking up my daughter,” she said, and my heart sank as I watched Cassie Morgan, my favorite student, heading our way.

  I knew I shouldn’t have a favorite, and I was pretty sure I had managed to keep my preference a secret from everyone, but how could I help but adore Cassie? Her sharp mind and inquisitive nature energized everyone in the class. I should have expected as much because, on the first day of the course, she introduced herself to me before class and let me know that she was the vice president of the science club at her school and how excited she was to be learning from “a fellow woman of science.”

  As if that wasn’t enough, she told me all this in sign language without preamble or comment on the fact that she was deaf. It reminded me of my mother, who maneuvered through life as a deaf woman in much the same way people with green eyes would, in other words, not worrying what those who weren’t green eyed (or deaf) thought about the matter. For my mom, anyone who thought a hearing impairment was an issue or a handicap wasn’t worth her time, and I got the impression that Cassie had a similar worldview. I pretty much fell in love with the kid right then and there. She was a science loving miniature version of my mom. No one else stood a chance.

  Now here she was, embracing a woman I couldn’t hate more if I tried. I stared at them, noting their physical similarities—dark hair, dark eyes, stunning smile—and prayed, in defiance of overwhelming visual evidence to the contrary, that Mira was not Cassie’s mother. Or that Cassie had been adopted. Barring that, I hoped Mira had changed since college. It seemed both impossible and unfair that someone as sweet and wonderful as Cassie could have someone as close-minded and horrible as Mira Butler for a mother. Seeing them together, though, I had to admit that Cassie looked happy to be with her mom, so maybe Mira wasn’t as evil as I remembered.

  As I continued to stare and tell myself that Cassie wasn’t fated to be a she-devil just because of her unfortunate lineage, Cassie signed something to her mother that I missed. I moved to step away and give them their privacy when Mira spoke.

  “So you’re Miss Liv,” she said, recognition dawning.

  “Guilty as charged, I guess.”

  “When Cassie hasn’t been telling me about fish and ecosystems, she’s been raving about Miss Liv. I was eager to meet my daughter’s new favorite person. I had no idea I already knew her.”

  I couldn’t help my snort, but based on her grin it came off as more of a “life is funny” guffaw than the “as if you actually know me” I’d been feeling when it slipped out.

  “Small world,” I said before Cassie handed me a pair of envelopes Mira had pulled from her purse.

  Some of the other girls had already given me cards or even small gifts, so I wasn’t caught completely off guard, but that didn’t make me any less uncomfortable. I was glad they enjoyed the class enough to thank me, but that wasn’t why I’d created the course. I just wanted the girls to learn about science, have fun while doing it and maybe see it as an option in their futures—or at least not dread the mandatory science classes they would face in school.

  I signed a quick thanks and goodbye to Cassie before my embarrassment got the better of me, and I bid farewell to Mira, thinking I was fortunate to escape before she suggested we get together to catch up. With any luck this would be our last encounter.

  Once all the girls cleared out and I had a moment to myself, I opened the tokens they had given me. Most had opted for pre-printed thank you cards in which they’d written short notes in their adorably bubbly cursive. I was also now the proud owner of three World’s Greatest Teacher pencil holders and a planter shaped like a goldfish.

  Cassie, whose cards I’d saved for last, had given me a thank you as well as an invitation to her thirteenth birthday
party, taking place in one week. Perfect. Unless I wanted to disappoint a young girl I adored and admired, I would have to willingly spend more quality time with the woman who had accused me of rape.

  Now what was I supposed to do?

  Chapter Two

  I was a menace on two wheels all the way home thanks to my inability to focus on anything other than the unexpected invitation to Cassie’s birthday party. While I was touched and honored she wanted me to be a part of her celebration, I was also alarmed. I was almost forty years old. How weird would it be to attend a thirteen-year-old’s birthday party?

  On top of the strangeness of going to a party where my only friend would be a child, there was the small matter of me hating her mother. Not an hour prior, I had implored the fates to keep me away from Mira from that point on. Now I was voluntarily contemplating another encounter in a week’s time.

  Reeling from that disturbing and distracting thought, I focused on my commute just in time to avoid plowing into a pedestrian. When I swerved, I narrowly missed colliding with a parked car. This was not good, especially since I had already had two close encounters with cabs.

  I eventually made it home (no closer to making a decision about Cassie’s party but thankfully without breaking myself or my bike) and put the kettle on for a much-needed cup of tea. While foraging in my kitchen for something to eat, I called the one person who had seen me through every crisis in the last fifteen years.

  “How was sleeping with the fishes?” Patsy asked.

  “Fun but exhausting.” I spotted a slightly dusty can of SpaghettiOs lurking in the back of a cabinet. “I think the girls got a lot out of it,” I said, sparing her all the rotten details of my day. I didn’t think she would want to hear about them any more than I wanted to relive them. Instead, I told her about the invitation from Cassie.

 
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