Cat blinks at the woman with her false, bright smile and the clipboard clutched in her hands. It’s been so long since she’s been asked for her name instead of greeted with it.
“Cat.” After a beat, she adds, “Grant,” to be safe.
“Perfect, you’ll be in room 6, right down that hallway and to your right.”
Cat nods at her and pulls her suitcase forward, already missing the amenities of her preferred hotels. But she’s being treated like everyone else, which is just what her publisher recommended. For the next three weeks, she’s just another no name writer trying to chip away at a book project that has landed her with the worst writer’s block she’s ever had in a decades-long career.
After struggling with her bag and a finicky key, Cat finally manages to get through the doorway. The room is…adequate. No television, for obvious reasons, but there’s a nice desk and big bay windows where the last lingering rays of sunlight are filtering through. She shudders to think about how many other people have slept in the bed but decides to ignore it for the moment in favor of hanging up her clothes before they can wrinkle any more than they already have in her suitcase.
By the time she’s finished unpacking and showering, the sun has officially set, and she’s beginning to regret not stopping for dinner on her drive from the airport. Not that she thinks there’s really much around here she would deign to eat. There may have been a 24-hour diner off the side of the interstate, but otherwise it was all hills and nature as far as the eye could see. Which, again, was something she had theoretically agreed to. Even if her publisher had made it sound a bit more…relaxing than it seemed so far.
Fishing out the schedule she’d been given from her bag, Cat skims through the Day 1 itinerary. Supposedly there’s a “get to know you” happy hour event with drinks and hors d’oeuvres going on in the library. She doesn’t particularly feel like getting to know anyone, but a drink sounds like heaven. So, with a sigh, Cat forces herself to pull on a blazer and slip on a pair of heeled boots to head back down the hallway and into the common areas of the retreat house she’d ignored on her way in.
“Welcome, welcome!” Cat grimaces at the same chipper hostess who’d taken her name when she arrived. “Everyone’s right on through there. Go on and make yourself a name tag, then head in!”
Cat writes her name, pretends to contemplate ruining a perfectly nice Smythe blazer with the adhesive back, then shoves the sticker into a trashcan the moment she’s through the door.
The bar is limited, but a few healthy swallows of a mediocre Shiraz are enough to get her through the crowd and to the buffet. It takes a few more sips—and, oh, she’s going to need a second glass—before she’s willing to subject herself to food that other people may have touched. Aiming for the back of the trays, Cat fills a plate with a few cheese cubes and crackers, as well as a brownie bite she’d normally deny herself.
“Oh man, those look so good!”
Cat looks up to find a rather striking young woman piling approximately five pounds of brownie bites onto her plate. “Planning to run a marathon in the morning?”
The woman glances down at her plate, then back at Cat. “Oh, no.” She laughs. “Just a marathon writing session!” She looks much too pleased with herself for such a mediocre pun.
The woman adjusts her glasses with her free hand, then gives a little wave. “I’m Kara, by the way.”
Kara seems to hesitate, a nervous laugh escaping before she throws a hand over her mouth. “I, uh, I know. Sorry, did that sound creepy? I didn’t mean it to sound creepy. I just—well, I, you know, I loved your show. And your journalism. That series you wrote on alien immigration last year was so beautifully written.”
Trying not to preen, Cat lets herself bask in the attention for a few moments. “And you? A budding young journalist yourself?”
“Me? Oh, no. I—well, I thought about it once. My cousin—he’s a journalist, too. But my undergrad advisor got a big grant and asked me to stay on in her lab for a year, and suddenly I was applying to grad school, and before I knew it I was enrolled, and now, well, here we are! Trying to get that dissertation finished.”
Cat hums in understanding.
“Anyway, I can let you go. I’m sure you’ll want to mingle and get to know everyone.”
Crinkling her nose, Cat can barely hide her disgust at the idea.
Kara barely hides a smile. “Or maybe not. I’m planning to go find a quiet corner so that no one judges me for all the brownies. Since you already saw them, and it’s too late to try to convince you I don’t eat like a 12-year-old boy, any interest in joining me?”
“I have a 12-year-old son, and I assure you, many of them have significantly better-rounded diets than you.”
“So…you’d rather take your chances with Mr. Only Vegetables on his Plate over there?”
“I…” Cat hesitates, glancing over at the man in question, who has a smear of ranch dressing along the corner of his mouth. Kara, at least, seems clean. “Get me another glass of wine, and I’ll scowl at enough people to clear out some quiet corner.”
Deciding it would be better not to give herself time to dwell on whatever horrendous midlife crisis is propelling her desire to spend another minute with this cheery blonde, Cat strides purposefully towards a cluster of chairs in a quiet back corner of the room. Some man in a tweed blazer with elbow patches that screams “trying too hard” is rocking back on his heels and scanning the titles lining the shelves. Cat lets out a loud huff of annoyance and glares at him, then at the chairs he’s blocking, until he takes the hint and excuses himself with something about an “important call” and “really must take this.”
By the time Kara returns with two glasses of wine and her overflowing dessert plate, Cat has settled herself in one of the large leather chairs.
“For you.” Kara hands over one of the glasses before turning and leaning over to place her own plate and glass down on the side table. And, oh, maybe that marathon joke wasn’t particularly far from the truth…
Cat shakes herself out of it by the time Kara sits down and pops the first brownie into her mouth. “So, Kiera—”
“Kara,” she corrects, one hand over her mouth.
Cat hides a smile. A fan, sure, but not so starstruck that she’ll be utterly useless. “Kara.” She enunciates each syllable, rolling them in her mouth to get a proper feel for them. Kara beams back at her. “What is it you study?”
“Oh, well, in undergrad I double majored in physics and English, actually, and I stuck around my advisor’s lab for a year or two, but I ended up applying to math PhD programs.”
“And here I thought mathematicians didn’t deal in the written word.”
Kara grins. “We do. But, well, I’m actually pretty much done there. The dissertation is for a history of science program I was doing on the side.”
“They’re making you write a whole dissertation for some kind of certificate program?” Cat has never been one to discourage rigorous training, but that seems a bit much, even for her standards.
“Oh, er, well, by on the side, I guess I mean more…at the same time?” She tilts her head to the side and considers her words for a moment. “It’s a separate doctoral program.”
Cat pauses, wine glass halfway to her mouth. She blinks. “You mean to tell me you completed two advanced degrees at the same time.”
“Almost completed,” Kara corrects with an easy smile and a shrug of her shoulders.
“Right. So not very impressive at all then,” Cat says with a roll of her eyes, earning a delighted laugh from Kara. “How close are you to being done?”
“The dissertation is…it’s going. It’s just, there’s so much out there! Humans—humanity, I mean—we’ve learned so many things! And gotten there so many different ways! And there are so many ways to tell that story, and you don’t want to leave anyone out, you know? And the librarians keep buying me more books whenever I ask, which is really so nice of them—unsung heroes, honestly—and then I—”
Cat interjects: “Kara.”
“Do you know what a professor once told me?”
“She said the best advice she ever got is that a good dissertation is a done dissertation, and a perfectly complete dissertation doesn’t exist.”
“Yeah…” Sinking deeper into the chair, Kara rubs at the back of her neck. “So I’ve been told.”
“Listen to it.”
With a huff, Kara pops another brownie into her mouth. “I know, I know. That’s why I’m here. Anyway, who’s this professor that the great Cat Grant quotes? Sounds like a smart lady.”
“Not smart enough.” At Kara’s confused look, Cat rolls her eyes and explains, “She’s my ex-wife.”
Cat can’t help but notice the slight pink flush coloring Kara’s cheeks at the revelation. “Very talented at remembering lines from medieval French poetry. Less so at remembering things like, oh, say, our anniversary.”
Kara winces. “My sister can get like that, too. If she’s got an experiment going on in her lab, I practically have to force her to eat meals and sleep. It’s like the whole world fades away.” With a shake of her head, Kara pivots the conversation back to Cat, and before they’ve quite realized it, two hours (and another glass or two of wine) have gone by. “I should probably get back to my room. I still have to unpack before bed,” Kara says.
“Of course.” The disappointment about leaving the event comes as a shock. It wasn’t as if Cat had been particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of mingling—not that she’s met anyone besides Kara, of course.
As they walk back towards the rooms, though, Kara doesn’t leave Cat’s side. She continues chatting about everything she’s looking forward to on the schedule, her hand occasionally brushing against Cat’s, and Cat wonders if she missed a sign. Is unpacking some new euphemism? Kara hadn’t been particularly subtle about her admiration for Cat, and sure, once or twice Cat thought she noticed Kara’s gaze dropping down a bit lower than was appropriate, but it wasn’t as if the woman had been particularly forward… “Are you—”
“This is me!” Kara announces, fishing a key out from her pocket.
Cat lets out a noncommittal hum, thanking all the deities she curses on her bad days that she hadn’t managed to get out a blunt: “Are you propositioning me?”
“Where are you?” Kara asks, the half open door resting against her hip.
“Oh, fun, we’re neighbors!”
“Good night, Cat. It was really great meeting you.”
“You, too.” The words don’t sound particularly sincere, but Cat’s struck by how very true they feel.
At least until she’s just settling into bed and hears a loud crash coming through the wall followed by an, “Oh darn it,” that she can hear clear as day.
She lets out a loud huff, wondering if she should ignore it. But, when no further sound is forthcoming, she gives in to a moment of panic, worrying that perhaps Kara hadn’t handled her wine as well as Cat thought she had and might be unconscious and bleeding out on the other side of the wall. “Kara?” she calls, raising her voice enough to be heard. “Are you dead?”
A burst of laughter answers her question. “Not dead! Just a little clumsy.” After a beat Kara adds, “Sorry, I didn’t know the walls were this thin. I’ll try to keep it down.”
Cat grimaces each time a metal hanger screeches along the metal rod in the closet and doesn’t even try to sleep until she hears the bed springs creaking in Kara’s room. Then she closes her eyes and tries not to picture Kara in her bed and all the directions their night might have taken had those little hand touches and lingering glances and effusive compliments meant something more than a bit of hero worship and overfamiliarity.
After a paltry few hours of mediocre sleep, Cat forces herself out of bed and into a shower that is, she can admit, less dorm-like than she had feared. The same cannot be said for the breakfast options, although she has been assured by her publisher that the catered lunches and dinners are “almost to your National City standards.” (She’s not holding her breath.)
As she sips a cup of coffee and skims through the day’s schedule, Kara slides into the seat diagonal from her.
“Do you mind?” Kara asks, looking for all the world like she would get right back up and leave if Cat said she did.
“Stay, it’s fine.”
“Great!” Kara’s plate is stacked high with one of everything, and her fingers twitch in the air as she debates where to start.
“Best not get your hopes up too high.”
Cat wrinkles her nose. “It’s like every hotel’s mediocre continental breakfast.”
Kara hums, then pops a bite of blueberry muffin into her mouth. After a few moments of chewing, she declares it “a bit dry, definitely not freshly made, but decent.”
Cat’s fairly certain there’s no world in which those three things can all be true at once.
Still, Kara seems to have few qualms as she samples the options—at least until she gets to the fruit salad and declares it much too heavy on cantaloupe. Figures it’s the fruit she can’t stomach.
“What do you have on your schedule for the day?” Kara asks once Cat returns to skimming the packet of documents.
“Writing coach meeting, structured writing time, lunch, something called”—she grimaces—“peer review mingle, and then ending the day with unstructured writing until dinner.”
“Mine’s pretty similar.” Kara slides her own schedule across the table, and Cat notes that she’s signed up for a few of the seminars more explicitly geared towards academic publications. This morning she’ll apparently be spending half of the “structured writing” time learning about the balance between research and writing.
“I suppose it could be worse,” Cat sighs, although the thought of two full weeks sleeping in that creaky bed and eating dry croissants and drinking mediocre coffee is a bit more than she can contemplate without trying to make a break for it. If she can make a sizeable enough dent in this damn book, it’ll be worth it. It has to be worth it.
“That’s the spirit!”
The writing coaches run the gamut, and Cat finds herself with a professor who doesn’t seem to care that Cat runs a media empire. In fact, the only things Veronica seems to care about are Cat’s “writing process”—and god, isn’t that phrase dragging her back to freshman comp—and the outline for her book project.
After a full hour of concept mapping, Cat has to concede that perhaps Veronica is worth the exorbitant fees for this retreat. No writing has happened yet, but it’s the first time since signing her contract that Cat’s actually felt like she has a handle on the project as a whole.
The amount of freedom the publishing house has given her is lovely—and she doubts she would have signed a contract with them otherwise—but every time she sits down to write, she finds herself stuck.
Now, though, she has a plan.
The world has already read all about her daytime TV show and her dating advice. (She’s fairly certain she wrote the latter book over the course of a single week spent drunk on rosé taunting Lois about what, at that point, seemed to be a rather unrequited crush on the bumbling Kansas farm boy at work.) They’ve also read all of her award-winning headlines and caught her speeches at awards shows.
But what they don’t know about is how CatCo actually came together. Oh, she’s dropped hints over the years, given quotes in interviews and stray mentions here and there. But the full story—that they’ve never heard.
There are the bad times she normally likes to gloss over in interviews, knowing she doesn’t control the full story then: the meetings with investors who had taken one look at the blonde hair and heels and laughed her out of their offices, the first TV station she bought with mold in the walls and more bugs than she cared to recall, the late nights spent alone wondering if The Tribune would be like too many publications that dreamed big and burned out fast.
But there is also the wonder of watching this thing she built grow. The pride of remembering how she went from only being able to afford renting the cheapest division of windowless cubicles to taking over a full floor of office real estate to eventually buying a whole building and stamping her name on a brand that would come to be equated with journalistic excellence and integrity worldwide.
And alongside it all, there is Carter and all the joy he brings to her life. Oh, there’s stress there, too, of course—the constant fear of failing him, working late nights and hating herself just a little for it, breaking down and crying the first time he reached for his nanny over her, cradling a feverish toddler to her chest and whispering orders to a staff that couldn’t quite decide what to make of this new side of their boss. But more than anything, he gives her purpose, a reason for why she so desperately needs to believe she was working to make the world a little better, a little more just, a little better informed.
It isn’t until she’s staring at his name, scrawled right there in the center of her concept map, that she realizes what has been missing every time she’s tried to sit down and write some narrative of her work life alone, as if he isn’t right there at the heart of who she is and what she’s built.
By the time she makes it to her structured writing time, Cat has a list of specific scenes that Veronica has instructed her to outline and then begin drafting if time allows for it.
For the first time in months, it doesn’t feel quite so daunting. Oh, the sight of the laptop and the blinking cursor on a blank Word page still makes her feel clammy and anxious, but once the document is filled with the bulleted list Veronica has given her, she feels a little calmer. And by the end of the first hour, with a screen filled with phrases and notes to herself and rough outlines of scenes, Cat thinks this book might just be possible after all.
“One of the best lessons we’ve learned over the years is how important it is to remember that writing isn’t this isolating, solitary activity—or at least it doesn’t have to be!” Caitlyn beams out at them, and Cat says a little prayer of thanks that she hasn’t gotten stuck with her as a writing coach. “It’s great to hold ourselves accountable, but it’s even better to have a support system. Now, we recognize that a lot of you probably already have this back home—a friend or family member or even colleague who you trust to read your work and talk through any issues that arise. But for this retreat, we want you to find someone new!” She gestured at the small crowd of participants all gathered in the library.
Cat grimaces as she glances around her. It’s like being trapped in a room with everyone who’d ever been picked last for gym class. Plus herself. And maybe Kara; if those arms so delightfully on display in a sleeveless sundress today are any indication, clearly she hadn’t been the least athletic of the bunch.
Cat hears something about taking the next few minutes to find a partner, and suddenly everyone is scrambling, a few brave souls awkwardly sidling up to one another.
Catching sight of elbow patches fast approaching, Cat sets off at a purposeful stride, making a large lap of the room until she spots Kara, standing in the middle of a group of four overly enthusiastic participants who all seems to want to work with her.
“Kara, darling,” Cat announces, looping her arm into Kara’s, “I’ve been looking all over for you.”
“Oh?” Kara’s cheeks flush a rather attractive shade of pink as her eyes dart back to the small crowd that had gathered around her. “Really?”
“Of course. I figure who better to be my accountability partner than my next-door neighbor, hmm?”
“Um, right, yeah.”
“Unless, perhaps you’d prefer to work with one of these…aspiring writers.”
“No, no! It’s fine!”
Cat pulls Kara a little closer as she flashes a tight smile at those still gathered. “How nice that there’s an even number of you here to partner up.” And with that, she shepherds Kara away.
“Are you, um, did you actually want to work with me? Or were you just trying to get away from that guy staring at your butt?”
“He’s what?” Cat glances over her shoulder for a moment, ready to give him a piece of her mind before deciding that he’s far less important than the issue at hand. “No. You’re…acceptable.”
With a snort, Kara shakes her head. “I guess I’ll take it. Though, ya know, if you’re worried about the competition, they all think I walk on water back there.”
Cat catches sight of the way Kara’s lips curl up ever so slightly as she tries to maintain a straight face. “Cocky, are we?” Before Kara can apologize, Cat waves it away. “No, no, it’s not unattractive.” Kara trips over a nonexistent wrinkle in the rug. “For now.”
By their fourth full working day, Cat is used to the rhythms of the schedule. Mediocre breakfast. Coaching with Veronica. Writing activities. Better lunch. Horrendous group activity (additional coffee always required). Unstructured writing time. Check-in with Kara and Veronica. Actually decent dinner. And, most surprising, the addition of a new, unscheduled daily activity: working with Kara in a little conference room they’d found after elbow patches’ peer review partner had shushed them out of the library.
Each night begins with a check in: what have they done? How did it go? What’s next on the writing agenda? It’s helpful enough, even if Veronica gives more constructive feedback. But after a day or two Cat realizes that she actually wants to know how Kara’s own writing is going.
Most nights they work in relative silence together, air filled with the soft clicking of keys and little huffs of frustration at hitting a blank. Sometimes Kara interjects to ask for a word or an editorial suggestion. Other times Cat demands a few minutes of conversation to break up the monotony.
After an hour or so, they compare notes. Once or twice Kara has let Cat read bits of what she’s written and offer feedback. Kara has offered to do the same for Cat, though Cat has yet to take her up on the offer. Normally, the mere idea would be an absurdity. This time, Cat finds herself considering it, leaving Kara with an honest, “Maybe.”
And all of that is valuable—hell, it’s the whole reason why Cat’s here in this lodge in the middle of nowhere practically handcuffed to her laptop.
But it’s not the reason she chooses to go sit in relatively uncomfortable chairs in a slightly too-air-conditioned room for hours each night after the working day has ended. No, she does it all for what comes after. When she and Kara both decide that they’ve done enough for the day, that their brains are refusing to cooperate and produce another coherent word.
Then, they talk.
Like the first night there, the conversation is easy—never dull, never filled with those unpleasant platitudes that have Cat ducking out of formal dinners early, not even bothering with feigned excuses these days. Cat learns about a foster mother and a sister that Kara adores. There are close friends and a college roommate-turned-girlfriend-now-ex—and, oh, Cat tries to tell herself that it’s simply a fact of who Kara is, not a detail dropped intentionally into conversation to communicate something.
Cat, in turn, talks about her work, her year of sabbatical, the project, and Carter. Kara seems to delight in her Carter stories, and, when she finds out about his love of all things science and engineering, she even offers to introduce him to some of the professors who have what she calls “the coolest labs at NCU.”
All of which is to say, Cat feels fairly set in these new rhythms.
When Kara asks Cat back to her room.
Surely, even if she’d been reading into things on the first night, this is unambiguous.
She spends the full walk back to Kara’s room cursing herself for not shaving her legs since her first day here.
She isn’t anxious exactly, but her stomach flutters with a mixture of anticipation and…something else. Perhaps a nervousness about ruining this tenuous stability they’ve found with each other.
Still, it’s not as if the signs haven’t been there. At least if Cat looks for them, openly acknowledges the possibility that they really do mean something. The talk of the ex-girlfriend. The compliments that are much too precise to be offhand, no matter how casual Kara tries to act in delivering them. The way Kara’s gaze drops to Cat’s mouth sometimes when they’re talking or the way her hands so easily brush against Cat’s when they walk.
Once they’ve slipped into Kara’s room, tiptoeing the whole way to keep from waking anyone—and god it feels like college again, sneaking into her RA’s room late at night to smoke weed and make out like the teenagers they practically still were—Kara takes Cat’s laptop bag and hangs it by the door.
“Do you wanna make yourself comfortable?” Kara asks, gesturing towards the bed without so much as looking up from her bag.
Cat sighs. “Look, Kara.” Kara glances back at her, eyes wide and curious. “I have no problem with causal, but I have my limits.”
“Oh! Um, we can drag in the chair from your room if you want?”
“I’m sorry, I’m just kind of confused now.”
“Oh god, is this your first time?”
As the pieces refit themselves together—all the little ways everything Kara has said could mean something else—a wave of humiliation rushes over Cat, making her feel dizzy and nauseated.
“What did you think I—” Cat can see the moment it clicks for Kara. “Oh. Oh!”
“Actually I—I’ve just thought of a scene that would be perfect for this chapter, so I should go work on that. Always good to write when the muse strikes.” Cat is moving before the walls can shrink in any further, closing her into this room with its creaky bed and its gorgeous occupant who will probably choose someone new—someone closer to her own age who doesn’t accidentally proposition her—to spend her nights talking to.
Cat decidedly will not wait a moment longer.
But somehow Kara is between her and the door before Cat’s even noticed her moving.
“Move,” Cat practically snarls.
With a loud groan, Kara drops her arms, though she doesn’t budge from her place in front of Cat. “You’re not—you’re misreading things!”
“I. Am. Aware.” Every second Cat is not in her own room and away from this hideous mess of a misunderstanding drags on for a small eternity.
“Cat, would you please just—just listen? Then I swear you can leave or whatever you want.” Inching slowly away from the door, Kara watches Cat, waiting to see if she’ll bolt. “Look, I thought, I don’t know, we’d gotten to be…friends. I like spending time with you, and I trust your judgment, and, honestly, I’m a little panicked that at the end of two weeks I’m just never going to see you again.”
Cat tries to remember that these are technically kind words and sentiments, that the sting of humiliation need not turn a declaration of friendship into a barb.
“And I thought, well, maybe it’d be fun to take a night off work and hang out and watch bad TV and maybe eat some of the cookies I packed in my suitcase that, I promise, aren’t so dry as the scones they serve at breakfast here.”
“I see. Nonetheless, I really ought to do more work this evening, so if you’ll—”
“But I’m not done!”
Cat huffs and rolls her eyes. “I can see why you’re having such trouble finishing the dissertation.”
Folding her arms across her chest, Kara shoots a half-hearted glare at Cat, who tries to rearrange her features into something resembling remorse. “But then you were suggesting…and I know it took me a little while to figure it out, but—”
“But we haven’t even made out yet!”
Cat spins on her heel. “Excuse me?” The words are quiet, slowly drawn out of her, every letter carefully enunciated.
“I…if you’d given me a couple more minutes I was gonna get there, I swear. I just, well, I mean I thought that maybe if we become the kind of friends who hang out with each other without any real reason, then maybe we could keep doing it after this retreat, and one day I could bring up the fact that since the first time we talked I haven’t been able to stop thinking about how gorgeous and smart and easy to talk to you are, and I’d love to take you out sometimes as more than friends, and then we could see where that goes, and then we could maybe get to everything that you thought I meant when I invited you back here tonight.”
Standing there, Cat tries to find a solid foothold in Kara’s rambling speech. Perhaps the longer version would have given her more to work with. She doubts it, though. “Kara.” A pause. She can’t help but ask, “Did you really have a five-year plan?”
“Ideally it was supposed to be closer to a one- or two-year plan, though I suppose you never can anticipate all the intricacies, and obviously you have Carter, who would need to get to like me first—but only if you’re okay with me meeting him—and then there’s a chance that you’d meet someone new who’s probably all fancy and knows what to say and doesn’t steal a whole tray of brownies from a buffet—”
“You told me they ran out of brownies!”
“Look, I needed to replenish my midnight snacks, since, honestly, I’m getting kind of low on those cookies.” She shakes her head. “Is that really the point here?”
With a loud huff, Cat rubs at her temples. “At this point I don’t know.”
Kara drags the tips of her toes along the gray carpeting. “Do you, um, maybe want to share some of those midnight snacks with me? And we can watch something on my laptop?”
It feels like side-stepping a whole lot of things that still need to be said, but they’re at the end of a 12-hour day, and Cat’s coming fresh off of what could have been the second-most embarrassing moment of her life, so she sighs out a resigned, “Fine.”
Which is how Cat finds herself on Kara’s bed—in a decidedly G-rated capacity—watching old reruns of some lawyer show that she’s only half-watching. As the first episode turns into the second, Cat feels her shoulders finally starting to lose some of the tension they’ve been holding as she relaxes into the bed. Kara smiles at her and grabs another cookie out of the bag, humming along with the theme song before quieting once the show starts.
Only this time, Kara’s fidgety. She grabs another cookie, then puts it on a napkin on her nightstand. She crosses her arms, then uncrosses them (then does the same with her ankles).
“Are you okay?”
Looking chagrined, Kara spends the next few minutes preternaturally still before starting to fidget again.
“Kara,” Cat huffs. “What is wrong? Should I go back to my room?”
“No!” Kara’s gaze drops to Cat’s mouth, and Cat practically rolls her eyes at the idea that she’d been misreading the signs that are so very obvious now. “I know I just gave this speech—”
“I don’t think any of that qualified as a speech.”
“—about taking things slow,” Kara continues, as if there had been no interruption. “But I was thinking about, um, what you thought I’d meant and wondering if, well, we don’t have to move that fast, but maybe…”
With a frustrated groan, Kara buries her face in her hands. When she sits back up, though, the earlier hesitation seems long gone, replaced with a hint of steel that is, if Cat’s being honest, incredibly attractive. One of Kara’s hands comes up and cups Cat’s jaw, her thumb brushing softly along her cheekbone. “Is this okay?” she whispers as she leans forward.
Tangling her hand in Kara’s hair, Cat draws her closer and closer until they’re finally kissing—soft and slow until Kara sucks Cat’s lower lip between her teeth and draws a whimpering moan from Cat.
After a moment of two of awkward fumbling, Cat finds herself lying on the bed kissing Kara, the cookies safely put away and the computer somewhere—Cat can’t quite bring herself to care where. And oh Kara might not be great at flirting, but this—this she knows how to do, easily reading Cat’s body, falling into a rhythm that has Cat’s heart racing and her skin feeling scorched with heat everywhere Kara touches.
Somewhere in the background, Cat can hear the show still playing, but stopping to pause it would mean, well, stopping, and she can’t think of any world in which she’d voluntarily do that.
Cat has no idea how long they’ve been at it, but her lips feel swollen, and her hair’s certainly a mess, and her shirt hasn’t been buttoned for a long time.
“I could do this forever,” Kara whispers as she nips down Cat’s throat—and Cat can’t even bring herself to care that Kara might be leaving marks. Who’s going to see? A writing coach she’s paying to work with her for two weeks and will never speak to again? Elbow patches and a bunch of second-rate Kerouac-wannabes? It doesn’t matter, and that thought alone gives her a heady rush of nostalgia for simpler times.
Suddenly it’s all washing over her. She’s here in this tiny double bed, barely keeping quiet enough for how thin these walls are, touching and being touched by a beautiful woman who doesn’t want to be anywhere else, already half out of her mind with pleasure when all they’ve done is half-strip off each other’s shirts.
Before she realizes exactly what she’s doing, Cat’s rolled Kara onto her back, slotting one thigh between Kara’s legs and letting her own mouth drop down to Kara’s neck. “Want you. So much,” Cat pants between gentle bites.
“Harder,” Kara manages, her voice reedy and thin as her hips buck up into Cat’s.
Kara gasps when Cat complies, and Cat’s willing to do almost anything to make that happen again. So she nips and sucks and rolls her hips, hands palming at Kara’s chest through her bra and trailing down the well-defined muscles that she desperately wants to run her tongue over before the night is through.
Suddenly Kara’s back is arching, her fingers digging hard into Cat’s ass, urging her closer.
“Take what you need,” Cat whispers, and it’s enough for Kara to fall apart, shuddering beneath Cat before collapsing back into the pillows.
The digital alarm clock reads 2:32 by the time Cat and Kara concede defeat in the face of exhaustion.
“This won’t be the last time we do this, right?” Kara asks.
“I would hope not.” Cat grins, pressing a teasing kiss to Kara’s jaw. “A rather decent motivation to get so much done during the day that all my nights are for you.”
“But, um, when we get back…?” Kara trails off, picking at a loose thread in the comforter and failing utterly at looking casual.
“Ah.” Cat watches as Kara’s hopeful smile crumbles. “I didn’t say no, Kara. But there’s my son, and your research, and I can only imagine you’ll be out on the job market this year. Enough to warrant a conversation not had in the middle of the night, perhaps.”
“Yeah…yeah, that’s fair. But I meant what I said earlier, you know? About wanting to keep seeing you after this retreat is over, even if it’s as a friend or just someone you met at this thing.”
Carding her fingers through Kara’s hair, Cat shakes her head. “No. No, I don’t think anyone could look at you and think you are ‘just’ anything, Kara.”
Chapter 2: Epilogue
To Dr. Suresh for all of the mentorship and guidance I could possibly need these past six years. Thank you for encouraging my curiosity (and reminding me that there is a limit to how many books someone should check out of the library at one time before they start writing). More broadly, thank you to all the faculty who were so generous with their guidance and teaching along the way.
To the librarians at NCU for, every so often, helping me to ignore that advice in their generosity with ordering new books for me as I followed all the footnote wormholes I could possibly dream of following.
To my mother, my father, my Aunt Astra, and everyone else I’ve lost over the years, thank you for more than I can ever put into words. You are in my heart and in all the work I do.
To Alex and Eliza Danvers, you made me a part of your family when I was lost and grieving and gave me a place to call home filled with love and warmth. Thank you for modeling the kind of curiosity and love of learning that helped me get to where I am today.
To Cat and Carter, you’ve welcomed me with open arms into yet another family and made me feel at home with you. Thank you, Carter, for being my snacking buddy and helping to remind me to take breaks and have fun, even at the most stressful moments. And thank you, Cat, for finally getting that whole “a good dissertation is a done dissertation” thing to stick and for valuing me and my work enough to use your prize-winning editorial talents to improve this dissertation immensely. I love you both (and sorry for writing it here before telling you in person…hopefully I’ll rectify that before you ever start reading this acknowledgments page).
To my son Carter, without whom none of this—the book, CatCo, me—would be what it is today. May you grow up to see a world filled with potential sprawling out in front of you, my brilliant boy.
Many thanks are due to my publisher, my agent, and the staff at Back to Nature Writing Retreats, who helped shepherd this book along from the germ of an idea to an edited volume.
And to the newly minted Dr. Danvers, thank you for reminding me that there is joy in writing and for not taking it personally when I made you sleep on the couch for three days after you offered constructive criticism on the first full draft of this book.