This is the excerpt for my novel Moonlight and Oranges, currently a quarter finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards.
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CHAPTER ONE: Orange and Vodka
1) Find a guy.
2) Strike up a witty conversation.
If she could get that far. Lorona swallowed her bravado and felt sick. She was beginning to lament her last-minute costume choice. The reading glasses and business skirt were convenient, since she used both regularly at the bookstore, but a warmer version of a psychologist might have been wise.
3) Act interested/dance/improvise.
4) Get kissed and stop agonizing about your first.
As if bringing up a sore subject was going to diminish the agony. Lorona decided the costume had a high chance of working against the goals Yuki had written for the party. Yuki had verbally rehearsed them to Lorona on the car ride over:
5) Act your age. You’ve been twenty-one for too many years to be this skittish around booze.
6) Loosen up, but don’t get killed or pregnant.
7) Thank Yuki for being your awesome best friend.
Lorona stared at the moon above the Seattle skyline, which grinned at her as if it had something up its sleeve, but wasn’t going to tell. As she and Yuki climbed the steps and entered the house, Yuki noticed Lorona’s distress and tried to distract her with a pep talk. “Okay. Whatever you do, don’t enter the costume contest. It’s run by people who were theater majors in college. Enough said.” They maneuvered toward the snack-filled kitchen as Yuki added, “You’re just not ready for that.”
Lorona wasn’t sure if Yuki was being insulting or protective. She was probably just being obliviously happy, which was her default mode.
Yuki bobbed ahead of Lorona in her green tights and sweater. A dramatic silk rose that was glued to a red beret swayed on her head. As if suddenly swallowed by a hole in the ground, Yuki disappeared into the crowd and Lorona was alone.
She spun for a moment, searching in vain for a familiar face to save her from drowning, then gritted her teeth and headed for the candy corn. If she was too nervous to start a conversation with strangers, at least she knew how to eat candy. The kitchen windows vibrated every few seconds with music as if a nearby explosion was jarring the house foundation.
She passed Harry Potter and Marilyn Monroe in the midst of an earnest conversation about the upcoming elections. A woman wearing a flesh-colored suit and a huge stuffed python was dancing the Macarena to music in her head.
Lorona felt as if she were shrinking under the bright costumes and loud noises. If she could find someone who took an interest in her, she knew she’d warm up. She could even be witty if it she was talking to someone lively. Lorona didn’t have a track record of making the first move. The real definition for her condition was painfully-shy-unless-heartily-encouraged. Lorona chewed a few kernels of candy corn straight out of her palm.
“What’s your costume, a geek?” a male voice behind her asked.
Lorona turned to face a slender man in his mid twenties with pale curly hair, blue hell-if-I-care eyes, and a huge set of white wings. He was staring at her hair.
“I’m a psychologist.” She replied.
“I’m not doing anything after this if—”
“That’s okay, Michelle. You go have fun tonight.” Kestrin brushed her off as fast as he could. The way her eyes lingered on the back of his head made it feel like his scalp was coming off in burning patches. She came from the camp of ‘I can’t get over it.’
Kestrin was checking for hairless spots when Ben paused beside him. Kestrin threw a quick hug around his shoulders. “Hey Mr. Host. Nice party.” He raised his cup to toast.
Ben spoke from the corner of his mouth. “Kest, there’s a friend of mine here, who’s looking for a little excitement.” Ben gestured with his chin around the corner where a girl in a pink T-shirt and a cat headband stood chatting with several other partiers using exaggerated body language. She knew she was being watched.
Kestrin took a deep swig of his drink and shook his head. “Not interested.”
“Not in your league?”
“Not in my galaxy.”
“Okay, no problem.”
Kestrin sidled into the kitchen and leaned against the wall. A redhead wearing glasses and the expression of a lost lamb caught his attention. He watched her turn away from the crowd and lap candy corn out of her palm as if she didn’t have fingers. Interest piqued, he approached her. She said her costume was a psychologist.
Kestrin didn’t remember seeing her before. “I’m Cupid, but I forgot my bow.” He said. It was a lie he’d created on the spot, but ‘Cupid’ sounded better than ‘Angel’ and the redhead looked like someone he’d want to impress. Her blank stare meant she didn’t know who he was, which was refreshing. Reputations had a habit of meddling with introductions, even if they were sometimes convenient. He’d have a clean slate with her.
She has the hair. He’d just dreamed that the girl would have copper hair and now here was a redheaded apparition. Fate?
He watched her chew her lip. Her hair was twisted away from her face and seemed to pull her eyebrows up. Her large eyes and long neck made him think of an intelligent swan. Her eyes combed the crowd for someone. Taking her body into account, slender but full in the curves, this someone was likely a boyfriend. Kestrin wasn’t leaving before he knew.
He’d prepare for the best. A voice in his head whispered, It could be her while another voice that sounded a lot like his mother’s snapped, Just have fun and get your head out of the clouds. He pressed the talisman necklace underneath his shirt and asked the redhead, “Have you been to one of Ben’s parties before?”
“They’ll pick the costume queen. It gets pretty crazy, because the dare—”
His last few words were swallowed by new song roaring from the dance room beside them. She flinched, ducked, and moved her hands to her ears as if she expected the windows to shatter.
“Want to dance?” he asked.
She nodded like a child being forced to do something she resented.
He laughed and pulled her by the hand into the gyrating mass of people. The rugs had all been rolled back and the ancient crystal chandelier was strewn with silver and black ribbons that drifted in air currents stirred by the pulsating crowd below.
The crowd tugged her away from him almost instantly and Kestrin experienced a panic that caught him off guard. He’d brought the innocent girl with glasses into a drunken, rowdy crowd and already he’d lost her. His mind insisted that she really was an apparition, transferred from his dreams to the waking world, and Kestrin was about to go get himself another drink when the crowd disgorged her and she slammed into his chest: unshakable proof of her existence.
A handful of white feathers from his wings flew into the air as a pleasant zap radiated from his chest to his neck, shoulders, and fingers. A girl in a happy relationship with her boyfriend didn’t have electricity like that in her blood.
She was trying to shout something over the music. He bent down to hear.
“I need air!”
Kestrin jerked his head toward the stairs. “They’ve got roof access. It’s a great view.”
She peered into the crowd again; then she shrugged. “Show me the stars.” She’d almost smiled at him.
He took her hand and led her up the staircase. The electricity from her touch crackled almost audibly. When they reached the roof, he told her, “There’s a leak in the heating ventilation over here. If you stand on it, you’ll save your toes from frostbite.”
She moved to the warmer patch, relaxing visibly as she felt the steam. She stared at the glowing city skyline as if she’d never seen it before. It glittered a few miles south and the lake smeared the neon signs of shops and restaurants across its surface. Everything harsh, loud or bright had been softened by the dark stillness.
She looked less frightened here in the quiet, as if the starlight was giving her strength. Kestrin found himself wondering if she could see the lines around his eyes that meant he’d been wrestling with the dreams again, or if she was she inwardly flinching at the burn scar on his chin.
The moon inched across the sky, as if to get a better vantage for spying on them. It seemed to say, Stop worrying about what she thinks and who she might be. You barely know her. Kestrin was moving toward the hiding place for the box when the redhead started tracing a constellation with her finger. He paused and drew closer to her. “Which one are you looking for?”
“Pegasus.” She hesitated. “There!” Her hand brushed his chin.
She blushed, drew her hand back as if she’d just touched an electric plug, and turned away. Her teeth chattered rapidly. “I’m sorry, I just realized I might freeze to death with you, and I don’t even know your name.”
“The people of this town call me Zorro. I have no other name to the commoners.”
She wasn’t sure what to think of his attempt at humor.
Kestrin found the box under the tarp right where he had left it. Ben, king of party hosts, had consented to let Kestrin keep it here for his own purposes. Inside were a few bottles of wine, a pair of glasses, a blanket, a sweatshirt, and the miscellaneous smaller supplies that made romance more convenient. Kestrin pulled out the sweatshirt, making it look like it had been discarded on the roof, and smoothed it across her shoulders. “Want to try dancing again?”
She hesitated for a moment, her eyes dark in thought, then she took off her glasses and clipped them to her shirt. She obviously didn’t need them to see. Without the lenses, her eyes were startlingly bright, green framed with thick, curly lashes. He placed his hand on her waist. The electricity in her blood buzzed as she placed her other hand on his shoulder. He spun her in a slow circle and almost gouged her eye with the tip of a wing.
She smiled fully and laughed. Kestrin felt the rooftop float beneath them in weightless bliss, like a magic carpet rising for liftoff. The next moment the roof hatch clattered open and their dance ended.
A pretty Asian girl in a gigantic red flower hat appeared. Kestrin remembered her as a regular attendee of Ben’s parties. She leveled a cold look at him and then addressed the psychologist with a territorial but friendly, “Found you!”
“Hi Yuki!” Lorona waved.
“Hello, Kestrin.” Yuki greeted him in monotone.
Lorona stepped back. This was Kestrin Feather, the one with an appetite for variety and no interest in commitment. She’d heard about him, mostly from Yuki, who had alternated between praise for his charisma and tales of broken-hearted girls who Yuki knew personally. Lorona gulped and whatever nothingness she’d swallowed managed to get stuck halfway down.
Yuki tried to plant herself between them, but Lorona stepped forward, not yet ready for Yuki to make the decision for her. “You’re Kestrin Feather?”
He frowned, apparently noticing that his name meant something. “Yeah, and you’re…Lorona? I don’t meet many people with strange names like mine.”
Lorona reached out to shake his hand.
“Very nice to meet you.” He said. He didn’t let go. “Where did you get your name?”
Their time together was ending and Lorona realized with a rush of heat to her face that she didn’t want it to. She grabbed wildly for words. “My mother loved Mexican folktales and La Llorona is the star of a ghost story. She respelled it to help with pronunciation.”
Yuki cleared her throat as if she were sharpening a blade on it.
“Nice.” Kestrin breathed. A ghost story name seemed to impress him.
Yuki grabbed her arm. “Come with me.”
Lorona followed her out of the moonlight and into the brightly lit noise, fighting the desire to pull herself free. These feelings made absolutely no sense; the desire to stay with Kestrin was idiotic, especially now that she knew who he was. A new part of herself stirred. It had done this once before, during a TV show about second chances that would never come again. Now it lifted its head and asked, What would love with Kestrin Feather be like? Will you get a second chance to know?
Lorona shivered. She looked over her shoulder and Kestrin’s eyes locked with hers. He smiled and turned his face to the moon, as if he was having a conversation.
Yuki announced she had to pee, told Lorona to stay put, and darted for an open bathroom. A guy wearing the sequined pants of a rock star and sporting a two-tone afro wedged his foot in the door before Yuki could shut it. He spoke to her in a low voice and jabbed a thumb over his shoulder at Lorona. Chills rippled down Lorona’s spine as Yuki shook her head, ‘No.’ The rock star shrugged, waited for Yuki to shut the door, and then made a beeline for her.
“Hello, pretty thing. My name’s Enrique.” He kissed Lorona on the cheek.
She blinked, stunned, but did not drop her eyes.
Enrique kept on talking. “Your friend doesn’t seem to think that you can win our costume pageant. I’d asked if you—”
Lorona flushed. “She didn’t think I had a chance?”
Enrique batted his eyes. “All I’m saying is the entry sheet is right here and I promise to look the other way if you put your name down. I’ll even help touch up your costume, if you want.”
Lorona looked at the closed bathroom door, then at the open hatch to the roof. Tonight was a milestone for her. She still didn’t feel brave, but she’d already gained enough courage to rise above the timidity she’d battled ever since her mother had left, and that was fifteen years ago. Better stay on the roll while I have it.
She grabbed the pen. “You said improvise and loosen up, Yuki.” Lorona muttered to herself. “Here I go, so help me.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, the moment you’ve all been waiting for!”
Enrique swept a massive coffee table clear of cups, plates and candy wrappers. A few cups were still full and someone ran for a towel. Enrique leapt atop and waved his hands until the music faded. Someone started stomping till the room thundered.
Enrique boomed, “An impartial male and female cast of judges has deliberated over the course of this evening. From a sparkling eyelash to a teensy too much belly pudge, we’ve been looking closely. The scandalous prize, drawn at random, will go to our lady of the night.”
Behind Kestrin, a door opened with a bone-jarring bang that heralded the most beautiful woman Kestrin had ever seen.
Enrique cooed. “The queen announces herself.”
The glasses had vanished completely. Her hair was unleashed, fluffed and teased into a flaming waterfall. A forest green, fur-edged robe draped luxuriantly over a black silk dress. She balanced in a pair of tall heels that made her legs look long and smooth. She was like a movie star about to walk the red carpet, unafraid to flaunt it. The shyness was suppressed. She was trying to prove something.
Someone helped her, Kestrin decided. He couldn’t imagine it was Yuki. Yuki would have known about the dare. It was someone else, someone who thought that embarrassing someone like Lorona would be fun.
Lorona climbed onto the table with Enrique. She stood with her ankles kissing, clearly self-conscious of her short dress.
“Miss Goddess.” Enrique gave a low whistle. “Let me have a better look at you.” He made a circle in the air with his finger. Lorona turned, trying to balance in her heels. The ribbon-festooned chandelier vibrated overhead as the room howled.
Kestrin shifted his weight from foot to foot. Something wasn’t right about this. Either she didn’t know about the dare or he had completely underestimated her.
“We are now taking written submissions for tonight’s deed!” Enrique swung a plastic Roman soldier helmet over his head. A dawn of horrified realization spread across Lorona’s face as Enrique informed her that the crowd would select a dare of their own diabolical devices for her to perform. Laughter grew in roaring waves as the audience relished her surprise and then devoured her discomfort.
Kestrin ground his teeth. They dressed her up to earn the prize and now they’re going to publically humiliate her. It’s her own dumb fault, but she still didn’t know what she was doing.
“Be nice!” Yuki was pleading as the crowd grabbed pencils and scraps of paper.
Kestrin was elbowing his way to the front before he knew what he was doing. He scribbled four words and signed his name. He caught Enrique’s eye and the MC knelt so that they could speak privately.
Enrique chortled, “She let me doll her up and when they saw her, the judges knew she was the one. She has ‘gullible’ written across her forehead. Can you believe our luck? She really didn’t know what was coming.” he grinned maniacally.
“You’re a cruel bastard.”
Enrique bowed. “What can I do for you, lover boy?”
“What’ll it take for you to use this one?” Kestrin slapped his piece of paper against Enrique’s chest. The mass of fake gold chains jangled.
Enrique read it, his eyes incredulous. “You know this is lame, right? This isn’t what they want to see.”
“You can say whatever you want about me to make it juicier. Remember, you owe me, after last week.”
Enrique frowned. “Damn… I’ll do it. But if they crucify me, it’s your fault.”
“Let the blood be on my hands.”
“It’s my blood, dude. I don’t care whose hands get wet if I’m the one who’s dead. Get out of here.”
As Kestrin stepped back, Lorona made eye contact with him. She’d seen him talking to Enrique.
Enrique fluttered around the table in an elaborate show of “drawing” the dare as Lorona held her hands behind her back like a felon about to be hanged. “The winning submission this year is a challenge from the ladies’ man himself: Kestrin Feather!” Enrique’s voice boomed over the sound system.
Lorona looked straight at him. The crowd fell silent.
Enrique chortled, “When it comes to this man, if you’re beautiful and willing, and he’s in the mood, he’s equally willing to give you a shot. But, like the king of the Arabian Nights, he will be done with you by morning. The rumors of beheadings, like the ones in the story, have yet to be confirmed.”
Kestrin imagined swinging on a rope over the heads of the crowd, snatching Lorona, and disappearing through the front windows in a plume of shattered glass. He shook his head. Where are these thoughts coming from?
Enrique continued. “Mr. Feather has decreed: Make her kiss me.”
The crowd booed. Lorona fired a poisonous dart at him with her eyes.
Doesn’t she understand what I’ve stopped them from doing? Doesn’t she know how bad it could have been? But she hadn’t seen the infamous dares. She didn’t know the profane appetites that surfaced at these parties. She knew nothing about Kestrin’s motives and only about his reputation. The last thought felt like a cold bucket of water on his face.
Several voices demanded Enrique draw another dare. The crowd was almost visibly foaming at the mouth. Still standing near her, Kestrin felt Lorona’s anger pulsing like a space heater set on high. She clearly thought Kestrin had manipulated the whole thing for himself. Kestrin wanted to explain, but the crowd was yapping like hyenas. He took her hand and pulled her through the crowd toward the stairs where Enrique directed them.
Lorona tried to pull away from him, but the crowd pushed her back. As Kestrin put his foot on the first step, Yuki dug her nails into his shoulder and pressed her lips close to his ear, her hat’s red petals drooping. “My brother uses nunchucks. I can have him kill you. Do not mess with her.”
Kestrin felt a rivulet of pain course down his calf. Lorona had stabbed him with her stiletto heel. She clearly didn’t see herself as being rescued.
It felt good to watch him limp for a moment. Kestrin paused on the stairs, set down his drink, and rubbed the red line that was rising out of his skin.
Everything was rigged. Entering the contest had been stupid, she knew that now.
He caught her eyes and pulled her closer so she could hear him as the crowd continued to shove them up the stairs. His drink sloshed in his cup. “I wanted my reputation to get you off the hook.” He hissed. “And what the hell were you thinking? Didn’t you know about the dare? They’re wicked!”
“Everything was manipulated,” she shot back. “And you’re right there with them. You got Enrique make me enter and then you got him to choose your dare. Too bad for you I’m not one of the easy ones.”
Kestrin looked like he had more to say, but he only managed, “I was trying to protect you” before the crowd threatened to push them over. They stumbled to the top landing of the stairs.
“A toast!” Enrique roared from below. “A toast to the queen of the night!”
They stood at a good vantage point for all to see them. A song with a heavy bass beat played. The sea of observers surrounded them with bobbing heads painted in morbid anticipation. Kestrin took Lorona’s hand again and her mind flinched.
He’s trying to be kind.
There was nothing flirtatious now. He squeezed her shoulders gently between his palms and murmured, “I promise I’ll just kiss you and I don’t care what they want; it’s all on me. I can deal with a few disappointed partiers.”
“A toast!” Enrique shouted again.
Kestrin realized Lorona didn’t have a drink, so he took a sip of his, and handed his cup to her. “There’s nothing in here. Just orange juice and vodka. Take a drink and then you can just close your eyes and this will be over and we can all go home.”
The moment he said ‘all go home,’ like he’d accepted the terms of defeat after a long war, Lorona knew that he was being genuine. She whispered, “I don’t know if you’ve been lying to me all night, but right now you look like you’re the one who’s scared.”
“Kiss!” The crowd started chanting the word repeatedly.
Kestrin looked away. “You’d just think I was crazy. Don’t worry about me.” He was staring at her hair again and Lorona wondered for a moment if there was something serious and profound that she was missing.
She took a sip. It burned with fire and citrus. “It’s bitter and sweet.” She took another swallow and her tongue felt like it was melting.
“You’ll get used to it.” He took the cup and placed it on the ground. “Okay, here we go. Close your eyes.”
She felt his arm wrap around her shoulder as the other scooped under her legs so he held her in his arms. A shoe tumbled down the stairs. She smelled orange and vodka close to her face and then he kissed her. It was brief and soft and powerful and then it was over, faster than she could process. Energy thrilled through every follicle on her skin and its aftershock felt like some wonderful memory that had slipped out of reach as soon as it was born.
Kestrin carried her down the stairs as the crowd was shouting and hooting further suggestions. He ran for the front door that Yuki opened for him, cradling Lorona’s head like she was a small child. The room swirled into a blur of animated shapes and lights that pressed into Lorona’s mind until everything fell behind the door as it swung shut. She opened her eyes to see a winged angel sweep her down the porch steps, holding her close against the cold night air. When he set her on the front seat of Yuki’s car, he had to unfasten her fingers from the base of his wings.
When Lorona crawled out of the car and stood in front of her apartment, she found a small feather stuck to her palm.
I wanted to protect you.
She’d drained an entire carton of orange juice from the fridge before she fell asleep with the feather still pressed between her fingers.
“I’ve found her.” Kestrin whispered into the phone.
Kahlil’s rasping sigh implied Kestrin’s news had better be good. “What time is it? And why couldn’t this wait?”
Kestrin’s words tumbled out. “I just did an internet search for La Llorona—the ghost lady this woman who I just met is named after. It all lines up. White dress and crying and everything. I’m totally sure it’s her. I’m going to need your help. Can you trust me on this one?”
“Kest, it’s not me you have to worry about. You still need to get her to believe you.”
CHAPTER TWO: Taste
Kahlil didn’t sound very convinced. “So you read her the part in your journal and she knew the answer?”
“Not yet. I will, when I can find the thing. I lost it. But I’m sure it’s her. And I dreamed about her, but not the recurring dream. This one is new. I was asking her to marry me and she was telling me to look at something.”
“Asking her to marry you? Were there stars in the dream?”
Kestrin grinned. Starlight proved his real dreams legitimate. “A whole damn meteor shower. Destiny is improvising. Since I lost the journal, I guess I’m supposed to use signs other than the riddle to find my way. It must be fate.”
“You think everything’s fate.”
Kahlil sighed noisily.
“I trust myself on this.” Kestrin whispered. “I’m going to propose.”
“And you know she’ll just say yes?”
“I’ll plan it today at work and then I’ll propose after I get off.”
“I’ll be praying that this girl isn’t another H—”
“Don’t jinx it.”
Kahlil laughed. “I don’t believe in luck. I can’t.”
“One more thing. Swear you won’t tell my mom.”
“Are you going to eat that?” Lorona pointed at the decorative orange wedge on Yuki’s salad plate. Yuki handed it to her and cleared her throat meaningfully. She’d bribed Lorona by treating her to lunch, but hadn’t received one scrap of juicy gossip in return.
Lorona had woken that morning with more than a craving for orange juice. She’d wanted vodka and another kiss. She hoped Yuki hadn’t noticed the empty juice carton in the recycling bin.
You’re being stupid. Lorona told herself. She wasn’t interested in a man like Kestrin. Not one bit. One memorable talk followed by a dance and argument and finished off with a kiss. It was over. Lorona felt a sinking dread. She was trying too hard to convince herself.
Yuki’s recognized her distress and chortled, “It’s practically written in Webster’s Dictionary—Kestrin Feather’s Kiss: Noun. Definition: See Love Potion Number Nine.”
“Not even the littlest bit?”
“I don’t care if he’s the sexiest guy in the world. If he isn’t interested in long-term stuff, why do you want to set me up with him?”
“It’ll be good for you. I’ve never seen you put on this much make-up for work or,” Yuki sniffed the air, “wear your gardenia perfume to sit with a bunch of dusty books all day. There’s something different. I can smell it.” Yuki laughed at her own joke. “Besides, I think he got pricked with his own arrow. That kiss dare thing was his way of saving you. He wouldn’t have done that if he didn’t like you.” She leaned forward. “I want to see if his fling habit can be broken.”
“You’re asking me to believe that he really thinks I’m special?”
Yuki shrugged, but her eyes danced.
Lorona heard Yuki’s voice again, It’ll be good for you. The “what if” questions wriggled to life. Lorona silenced them by speaking. “So I’m your experiment?”
Yuki stood. “I’ll pick you up after work.” She winked, dropped a twenty dollar bill on the table and sauntered out, swinging her faux alligator purse.
Lorona wished the purse would come alive and bite the smug grin right off of Yuki’s face.
Amanda Feather ran her nail down the book’s smooth spine. “So much faith in such a silly dream.” She mused. “My sweet boy, do I have to save you from everything?”
She opened her address book and flipped through the names, mostly men, of souls who adored her. There were red marks beside those who owed favors. Amanda paused to relish a little thrill as she read the names of a politician and a police chief under the R section.
She shut the book. She couldn’t enlist help. This was her own son’s love life and she needed to save him. The dream needed to die.
Perhaps if she took away the tangible reminder, the mirage would dry up. Amanda slid the leather-bound journal under a thick stack of Glamour and Vogue magazines on her coffee table. She approached her wall of photographs and stared at one with a mother and four-year-old son sitting in front of a three-foot tall Christmas tree. A golden retriever puppy had its head on the boy’s lap.
“Mother knows best. Better than that bad dream, doesn’t she?” Amanda kissed the glass directly over the little boy’s hat. “Trust me.”