Love Not at First Sight by Sarah Ready




I’ve always knowntwo things—that life is an adventure and that love makes you weak. If you want to keep having fun in life then you need to stay as far away from love as possible.

“Veronica, come down from there,” Miss Erma calls. She’s in her eighties and she’s been ordering the good people of Romeo around for so many decades that her voice is full of command.

Too bad.

I ignore her and keep climbing. I’m fifty feet up, wedged against a sheer rockface. I reach into the chalk pouch clipped to my shorts and dust more chalk on my hands, then I reach for the next handhold.

“Veronica,” she calls in a long, high voice. She even waves a hand at me.

Nope. Not going to answer.

Don’t get me wrong. I respect Erma and think of her as family. She’s my best friend’s great-aunt and has been a staple in my life since I was a baby. Her oatmeal cookies are to die for and she’s loads of fun. But I live in terror of her. Absolute terror.

Why would I be scared of an eighty-year-old five-foot-nothing woman in a kimono? Because. She’s a bona fide soul mate seer. Last year she predicted the identity of my best friend’s soul mate and it turned Chloe’s life upside down. Okay, in a good way, since Chloe’s a diehard romantic, but still. I’m not.

Speaking of… “Chloe, you are in the best friend doghouse,” I yell. She stands on the rocky trail, fifty feet below me.

“Hey. I didn’t tell her you were here,” Chloe protests. She puts more slack on the belay rope. She’s my climbing buddy. She manages the belay so that if I fall, the device catches and I don’t fall far. Because, as much as I love adventure and adrenaline, I don’t love plunging to my death.

I glance down and try to see Chloe’s face. She’s never been able to lie to me, but I can’t see her from so far up. She’s hidden by the shadow of the craggy rock and the low brush around her.

Doesn’t matter. I’ll climb to the top and hike out without ever having to see Miss Erma. I lift my leg and edge my foot into a foothold. I’m in climbing shoes and my foot fits perfectly in the small crack. I boost myself and grab another handhold. The top is only ten more feet and a couple tricky maneuvers away. I can do this. I wipe away the sweat on my forehead and dust my hands with more chalk.

“Veronica,” calls Erma.

“Nope. No thank you,” I shout down. “Not interested.”

I hear Miss Erma cluck and watch her shake her head.

I can’t believe she actually came all the way out to the gorge to harass me about my soul mate. I mean, I have been avoiding her calls and her hints and her knocking at my door for about two weeks now, but still…

Enough is enough.

“Miss Erma,” I call down. “I don’t want to fall in love. I don’t want a soul mate.”

“But why not, dear? I’ve seen him, he’s—”

“No thank you,” I interrupt. I wish my hands were free so I could hold them over my ears.

“But why not?” she calls.

“Because love makes you weak.” I say it quietly but somehow she hears me.

“No, dear. Love makes you strong.”

I disagree. I have a whole lifetime of experience that says otherwise.

Love makes you weak is my motto.

I keep climbing. I slowly make my way to the top. Every now and then I look down. Erma chats with an animated and happy Chloe. Darn, it looks like Erma isn’t planning on leaving until she tells me her “news.” I make it to the top of the cliff, plant my hands on the rock and boost myself over.

Relief spreads through me and I let out a long sigh.

I’m safe for at least a little longer.

Chloe and Erma are still deep in conversation. Neither notices that I made it to the top. So, I do something that I am in no way ashamed of. Not one bit.

I unclip the climbing rope, step out of my harness, drop it to the ground…and run.

I run two miles all the way back to my apartment in downtown Romeo.

Chloe, being the awesome best friend that she is, will grab my equipment and make sure it gets home.

“What about that one?”asks Ferran. She points to a thirty-something man in a pink checkered shirt and gray slacks.

Me, Chloe, Jessie and Ferran are at our bi-weekly girls’ night out at Juliet’s Wine Bar. We’re playing the ‘can you pick out the player’ game.

“Player,” I say. “Too easy.”

Jessie and Ferran laugh, but they believe me. It’s rare that I’m ever wrong about a man.

“How do you know?” Chloe asks. She frowns, she’s such a trusting romantic that she always fell for the players and the sleaze balls and the jerks. Luckily, she found her soul mate and he’s actually a decent guy. Thank goodness.

I tense up, because thinking about Chloe’s soul mate reminds me that Erma’s after me like a bloodhound on the trail.

“But how do you know?” asks Chloe again. She always gives people the benefit of the doubt. Me…I never do.

“Because,” I say. I wave my hand at the guy. “I can see his wedding ring tan line from here. Too obvious. Ferran, I know you like men in pink, but he’s married.”

“Ugh. Darn my pink shirt kryptonite.”

We laugh and I look around the wine bar and take in the scene. It’s unusually crowded. The barstools at the tasting bar are full, and all of the leather booths are packed tight. There are even couples and small groups standing around the wine barrel tables. Juliet’s serves mostly local New York wines, and some Californian, there’s a few French wines available, but Juliet prefers to support local wineries. I take another sip of my Riesling.

“Is there any guy here that’s decent?” asks Ferran. “It’s been months since I broke up with Craig and I’m really in the mood for a one-nighter.”

I raise my eyebrows. Ferran is more workaholic than romance-aholic, a one-night stand isn’t really her style.

She scowls. “What? I have needs.”

I shrug. You can’t argue with the truth. But…“Let me remind you of my philosophy on men.”

Ferran groans and runs her hands through her curly black hair. “Not again.”

“Oh boy,” says Jessie.

She’s been hearing this recital for years, they all have, but it never hurts to have a refresher.

“There are only two types of men in the world,” I say.

I hold up a finger. “Players.” I hold up another finger. “And wanna-be players.” I point around the bar. “Player,” I say, pointing to a man in baggy jeans and a hoody. “Wanna-be player,” I say, pointing at his friend who is enviously watching him hit on a woman in a short dress.

I go around the bar, pointing out each man. “Player. Wanna-be player. Player. Player. Wanna-be. And…player.”

“So, no one,” says Ferran.

Chloe rolls her eyes. “Don’t believe her. She’s scarred from her childhood. There are plenty of nice guys out there.”

“Name one,” I say.

Chloe huffs and looks offended. “My husband.”

“Oh, right. Well yeah. But, he’s not…hmmm,” I backpedal, “maybe there are three types of men in the world. Players, wanna-be players, and your husband.”

Chloe snorts and I know I’m forgiven.

Chloe sets a hand on her rounded stomach and gets that happy, starry-eyed expression she’s had for months now. That’s right, my best friend is drinking juice at a wine bar, because she’s gonna be a mom. And me, I’m going to be a godmother. The baby’s due in two months. I can’t wait to meet her. But sometimes, when Chloe has me put my hand on her stomach to feel the baby kick, I have to admit, I don’t feel joy like I should, I feel…lonely.

Alone and lonely.

I point across the room at a dark haired man in a business suit, “there. He’s fine.”

“Oh. No. No way. Uh uh,” Jessie says. Her brow draws down and she glares at the man leaning against the bar. Jessie is the town librarian and she usually likes everyone, so her vehement dislike of the guy is weird.

“You know him?” I ask.

“Unfortunately. That’s Will Williams. Your man radar failed on him Veronica, he’s the opposite of fine.” Jessie glares at the man’s back and I get the impression that she really doesn’t like him, and also, that she’s not about to talk about him.

There’s a pause as we all look at the guy then turn away.

“Anyway,” Ferran says, “let’s stop beating around the bush and talk about Erma.”

I swallow the last of my wine and pour another glass from the bottle. “Let’s not,” I say.

Chloe grins. “Come on, Vee. Give in gracefully. Aunt Erma’s seen your soul mate, there’s nothing you can do.”

I look at my friends. Chloe, of course, is excited for me, although she’s trying to hide it because she knows I don’t want a soul mate. Ferran has a half-smile because she usually finds the humor in awful situations. Jessie looks worried for me because she’s sweet like that. I take another fortifying swallow of the wine.

“I don’t want to know,” I say. No matter how alone I feel, I don’t want to find the man I’m supposed to love only to be hurt by him. It’s not worth it.

“But why?” asks Chloe. “You don’t have to marry him. Or even love him. But wouldn’t you like to know, just know who your soul mate is?”

“No,” I say. I don’t even need to think about it.

Ever since I learned that Erma was a bona fide soul mate psychic I’ve been scared that she’d see mine. She’s foretold, who knows, probably hundreds of soul mates, and they all, every single one, has gotten married, had little babies, and lived happily ever after. Erma is a force of nature. Chloe has a family heirloom, this thick book full of photographs of all the happy couples Erma has matched. Chloe was Erma’s latest soul mate vision. And now…apparently I am.

I don’t want it though. I think I’ll be the one person, the one vision of Erma’s that fails.

“But why?” asks Jessie. “If Erma told me my soul mate I’d be ecstatic. I’d do everything in my power to win him.”

“Not me,” says Ferran. “I have a career. Goals. I don’t need a man to ruin my life.”

“Exactly,” I say. “Love makes you weak.”

Chloe shakes her head. “Love makes you strong.”

I raise an eyebrow at Chloe. She’s the only one at this table who knows the reasons why I don’t trust men and why I think that love is the worst thing that can happen to a woman.

When I was little, cute with blonde hair in pigtails, and frilly dresses, my dad used to take me around and pretend to be a single dad so he could land sympathetic women. He called me his lucky charm. Every weekend, from age three to nine, my dad schlepped me around playgrounds, parks, grocery stores, diners, and libraries, using his single dad schtick to great effect. He hooked up with countless women lured in by the hapless single dad routine.

Here’s the kicker. He wasn’t single. He and my mom were still married.

But my mom knew what he was doing and she didn’t stop him. She said she loved him too much. She couldn’t leave him. It hurt too much to go and she couldn’t stop him. So she stayed. My mom, who had once been vibrant and strong, became weak.

After I hit age nine, had a growth spurt and got braces, my dad couldn’t use the cute little girl and single dad scheme anymore. So, he came up with a different schtick, I don’t know what. But I’d seen enough, all player routines are the same. I recognize them to this day.

There’s the “I’m so misunderstood” routine.

The “you aren’t like other women” routine.

And the “I feel so different with you” lie.

The “only you understand me,” or “my ex was psycho,” (except how are all the exes psycho?), or “we’re just friends,” (trust me, they aren’t just friends), or “I love you,” which is the biggest play of all and is almost always whispered right before he lifts up your skirt and goes for it. Men trade love for sex, women trade sex for love. It’s not an even trade.

Never trust a man. The minute you do, you make yourself weak.

Ask my mom.

After my dad died we found his little black book. In it there were nine hundred seventy-seven names of the women he had “dated.”

My mom and I had an argument after finding that book. I told her she was weak for never leaving my dad, and she said I didn’t understand. I didn’t. I haven’t spoken to her since.

I set down my wine glass and force out a smile. “It doesn’t matter. I’m not going to get married. Ever.”

No matter how lonely I feel, or how much my heart squeezes when I feel Chloe’s baby girl kicking. It doesn’t matter.

“What will you do when Erma catches up to you?” asks Jessie.


Jessie and Ferran laugh and Chloe rolls her eyes.

“You say that now,” Chloe says. “But you’ll see. This is a good thing.”

“Agree to disagree,” I say.

“When you find the one, Vee, it’s the best feeling in the whole world.”

Ferran shakes her head. “What if Erma says her soul mate is some creep? Or a toad? What if he’s—”

“A player,” I say.

The words are like acid in my gut. That’s my worst nightmare. To be in love with a player and not to be able to walk away. To remain in a relationship with a cheating, narcissistic player because of love. If I could guarantee that he wouldn’t be a player…but I can’t.

“He won’t be,” says Chloe.

“You have absolute faith in fate,” I say.

“Of course I do.”

“I don’t,” I say. “Fate has a sick sense of humor and Erma is her maniacal handmaiden…”

I trail off. Jessie shakes her head and Chloe’s eyes go wide.

“She’s behind me, isn’t she?” I ask.

“Uh huh,” says Ferran.

“Hi Miss Erma,” says Jessie.

Slowly, I turn my head and look up at Erma. This is it. Two weeks of running and she’s finally caught me.

“Veronica,” says Erma in a scolding voice. “I never imagined you a coward. Running away like that.” She shakes her finger at me.

My cheeks heat. I’m going to claim it’s the wine making them flush, not embarrassment.

“I don’t want to know,” I say. “That’s not cowardly. I just don’t want to know.”

She throws her hands up in the air and her bracelets clack on her wrists. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you,” she says. “You can’t run away from this. He’s coming.”

“What?” I ask. The hair on the back of my neck stands on end. I don’t want this.

“He’s coming to Romeo and you won’t be able to run away.”

“Umm, Aunt Erma? Who’s coming?” asks Chloe.

“Her soul mate, dear.”

“When?” I ask. Forewarned is forearmed. I can avoid him. I can…

“Tomorrow,” says Erma.

“How do you know?” Ferran asks.

Erma drops the Romeo Record, the town’s weekly paper on the table. “Because it says so right here.”

On the front page is a picture of the old Reddington Mansion. I scan the article. It’s been sold to a new owner.

“Who bought it?” asks Jessie.

Erma pins me with her shrewd gaze and if I could get up and run, I would. But I feel stuck to the chair.

“Frederick Knight,” she says.

My stomach bottoms out.

“Oh no,” Chloe says in a horrified whisper.

“But…” Jessie says.

“Jeez,” Ferran says.

I stare at Erma, shaking my head in denial.

“Aunt Erma, maybe you’re…wrong?” asks Chloe in a hopeful voice.

Aunt Erma purses her lips. She’s never wrong. Never, ever, ever wrong. She’s been predicting soul mates for decades and she’s never made a mistake. I stare at Erma and my friends in a daze. The room tilts and my mind must be fuzzy from the wine because I thought she’d said…

“Did you say Frederick Knight?” I ask.

Erma smiles and nods. “That’s right, dear.”

I grab the edge of the table to steady myself.

“Jeez,” Ferran says again.

But then, a surge of clarity busts through my mind. Chloe had this misunderstanding too. It could be any Frederick Knight, any Frederick Knight in the whole world, not necessarily…

Erma lifts her hand and points at the flat screen TV hanging over the bar.

“That man,” she says.

Oh. Oh no.

There’s no misunderstanding.

Acid burns through my chest and down to my stomach.

Fate, with her cruel sense of humor, has matched me with Frederick Knight, the most unrepentant, detestable, horrible poster child for players that ever existed.

“Never,” I say. “I will never, ever fall in love with that man. The King of Players. I loathe him. I’ve never met him and I loathe him. He’s reprehensible.”

The King of Players. That’s the press’s nickname for billionaire bad boy Frederick Knight. He’s the idol that all players bow down to and worship.

I watch the TV screen with growing horror. He’s in a hot tub, wearing a panama hat and aviator sunglasses. He’s holding a champagne flute and a bottle of champagne. There are six topless models in the hot tub with him. He laughs as they pour bottles of bubbly over his bronzed skin. One of the models starts to lick his chin as he grins and motions the others over. The clip cuts away.

I make a desperate sound, like an animal in a trap.

“Oh no,” says Chloe. “This isn’t good.”

“Jeez,” Ferran says.

“Your soul mate is Frederick Knight? The billionaire?” Jessie asks. I can hear the worry in her voice.

“It doesn’t matter,” I choke out. My voice is thick with tears.

“Why not?” asks Chloe.

“Because,” I say. “I will never speak to him. Never meet him. Never have anything to do with that…that…player. I will never love that man.”

“You can’t fight it,” Chloe says sadly. “Trust me.”

Quickly, I push back from the table and stand. “Maybe I can’t fight it,” I say. “But I can run.” I take a step back. Erma narrows her eyes on me, but I’m past caring if she thinks I’m a coward or not.

“I’m taking two weeks off work,” I tell Chloe. We’re partners in an incredibly successful independent greeting card company. She’s the artistic talent and I’m the business brains. “I’m due for a vacation and you can man the ship.”

“Allllright,” Chloe says uncertainly.

“I’m going…on a hike. I’m going backcountry camping on the White Pine Trail. I’ll…I’ll… Text me when he leaves, okay?”

Because a player like Frederick Knight won’t stay long in small-town Romeo. He couldn’t possibly. He’ll get bored, miss his hot tubs and models, and run back to whatever obscene circus he lives in.

I don’t wait for my friends to confirm. I hightail it out of the bar. A little unsteady, a lot scared. My worst nightmare, this is my worst nightmare coming to life.

I’m going to go pack my backpack and get myself so lost in the backwoods that fate will never be able to find me. Guaranteed.