Home > Kittenfish

Kittenfish
Author: Brenda Lowder

Chapter One

Please, God. Anything but a strip club.

“What?” My mother squeals through the phone at my ear. “Liam’s going to a strip club for his bachelor party tonight?”

“What? No. Of course not.” I lean my back against the front door. New rule for Marissa Ryan’s Guide to Life: Keep all internal fears just that—internal. “Liam’s friends are taking him to Topgolf to whack golf balls off the side of half a building tonight.”

I have zero worries that Liam would go to a strip club. He’s as committed and fulfilled in our relationship as I am. He wouldn’t dream of going. Viewing other women half-naked or fully naked would bore him to tears. He always told me that once he met me there wasn’t another woman in the world who’d hold his interest. He said I was his everything bagel—managing to work a reference to our shared love of deli foods and the place we met into the same romantic sentiment. And of course he’s my everything bagel too. Although secretly I call him my asiago bagel because I like those more, but I just don’t tell him. He’s a little too attached to his metaphor.

It’s me I’m worrying about going to a strip club. Kya and Blaire had better not spring one on me. I’m not willing to see any naked chests that don’t belong to Liam. And he just has the one.

“So what’s this about a strip club?”

“Oh, nothing. Just a joke Blaire made. You know how she is. But I convinced her to keep the bachelorette party to something I want to do. We’re going to a Sip ’n Paint place to create drunk masterpieces.”

“That sounds like fun, sweetheart.” Despite her words, I can hear the frown in my mother’s voice. She’s silently objecting to the drunk part. “Although not really advisable for the night before the wedding.”

A trail of rising bubbles floats through me. I’m getting married tomorrow. To the man I love. Forever. My joy is so big it will pop free of my body, and I’ll be able to dance around the room with it.

There’s a shuffle on the front path, and I spin around to peer out the peephole. Liam’s brown loafers step into view.

“Mom, I’ve gotta go. Liam’s here.” Even after three years, saying his name makes my heart fly.

“Have fun at the Sip ’n Paint!”

“I will!”

“And don’t worry about any of the wedding details. It’ll all go perfectly.”

With my mom running the show, it was sure to. “Thanks, Mom. Bye.”

“Bye!”

I tuck the phone into my ruffled apron pocket. The doorbell rings and my heart does the rumba—it would take two to tango—like it always does when I know Liam’s waiting on the other side. I take a deep breath, smooth my skirt, and count to three before marching in place so it doesn’t appear I’ve been lurking in my entryway waiting for him. Which I have.

I flex my smile muscles and fling the door open.

“Hello, gorgeous.” Liam lounges in the doorway, and that, right there, those words, are what make me melt into a chocolate ganache. An overheated chocolate ganache without a double boiler, cooking right on the burner. He makes me feel beautiful, and my heart warms under the heat lamp of his smile.

“Marissa.” His perfect mouth caresses my name.

“Liam.” I throw my arms around him and mold my lips to his until I can’t breathe and have to step back for air. He works his hands up between us and only then do I notice the bouquet.

“Flowers!” I beam my appreciation and take them into the kitchen. There’s a quote from my favorite French film that says deep down women know love doesn’t exist and so they cherish the proof of it—jewelry, chocolates, flowers. I, on the other hand, know love exists. My parents are a glued and glittered shining example of it, but I don’t mind receiving steady proof.

Liam trails me to the kitchen, pulling off his tie as I fill the vase with water. “This is such a treat.” I gesture to the flowers but also to him. The wedding may be tomorrow, but we’re maintaining our separate residences until then. I don’t always get to see him right after work. Starting tomorrow I’ll get to see him all the days forever after.

“Tarek’s picking me up. Or I’m driving him.” He shrugs and hangs his tie over the back of a kitchen chair. I almost want to take a picture of this tiny symbol of our upcoming joint domesticity. “He and Kya are riding over together.”

My best friend and her brother often share rides. Tarek annexed himself to our friendship when Kya and I were in fifth grade together after my family moved from southern California to Atlanta. Twenty years later we still haven’t shaken him.

“Great.” I finish arranging my flowers and put them in the center of the table, rotating the vase a quarter turn so the Stargazer lily catches the light on its pink-tinged petals. “Blaire should be here at seven.” Blaire’s my best work friend and has never been Liam’s—or anyone else’s—favorite person.

Liam rolls his eyes. “If she’s not late.”

“She won’t be late,” I say automatically.

He cocks his head and gives me a knowing look. “She’s always late.”

“She’s not always late.” I hurry on before he can contradict me, “And I know she won’t be late tonight for my bachelorette party that she planned.” Which had better not be a strip club.

The doorbell rings, and Liam pushes off from where he’s leaning on the counter to answer it.

I can hear Tarek’s attention-seeking voice before they’re even through the door.

“Wow! Smells good in here, Duchess. What’re you cooking?”

Inside, deep inside where I bury all my middle school and, okay, high school and college social trauma, I bristle at the nickname. Tarek began calling me “Duchess” on that humiliating day back in seventh grade. A day that remains the pinnacle of the worst days of my life, right above getting two teeth drilled before the novocaine kicked in and squatting in the swim team yearbook photo so the tampon string on the inside of my thigh was memorialized. But my face betrays nothing. Like my mother before me, I’ve learned how to keep it all locked inside and make an outward show of poise and restraint.

“Peanut butter cookies,” I say as I take them out of the oven using the pastel floral mitts my mother made me for Christmas to coordinate with the matching ruffled apron she had made.

“Are you going to put the chocolate on top?” Tarek crowds his six-foot two-inch frame into my tiny kitchen and my even tinier personal space to peer at the cookies. I flatten myself against the counter to avoid brushing up against him. Some women—weak, sad, intelligence-challenged women—think he’s breath-catchingly attractive, and he thinks we all do. He’s suave and slick and a total player. He’s everything that’s wrong with the dating pool today and the reason I’ve stuck to the shallow end wearing floaties. Until I met Liam, of course.

My mouth presses into a hard line. “When they cool. When I get back from the party.”

“You think Blaire’s throwing the kind of bachelorette party you can put your feet up and eat some cookies after?” my bestie Kya asks as she strolls into the kitchen. I leave my cookies to go hug her.

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