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I FELL in love when I was eight years old, and it was the best and the worst day of my life. My mom always said, in a town like Romeo, you’re guaranteed to find your true love, it’s not a matter of if, only of when. For me, the when happened early. Some (okay, everyone) might say I live in a fantasy world, that no one can find their soul mate when they’re eight. But I did. And Miss Erma is about to confirm it.
That’s right. Romeo, New York’s number one star, Miss Erma, official soul mate psychic, finally saw my true love. I always promised myself that if Miss Erma ever predicted my soul mate, I’d pursue him with a single-minded passion. I’d do anything for that kind of love. Romeo, the town where I grew up, inspires this kind of thinking. We have more happily matched couples and true love than any other town in the Western Hemisphere. Our small town has a Cupid festival, a Valentine’s Day parade, a Sweetheart’s Day baking contest, and a 30, 40, or 50 year wedding anniversary practically every week. If the cobblestone streets, the overflowing flower baskets, and the cute stone bridge over the river doesn’t convince you, then our charm will—Romeo, Official Town of Love USA, is the place where true love finds you.
Needless to say, I’ve been dreaming of this moment for practically my whole life.
“You’ve seen him?” I ask Miss Erma.
She gives me a smile that on anyone below twenty I’d call mischievous, but Miss Erma is over eighty, so I’ll call it conspiratorial. “I have,” she confirms. “I saw him this morning.”
My stomach does a flip and I clasp my hands together to keep from jumping up and down and shouting in glee. We’re in a library after all. Miss Erma is here for the class I teach, a seniors’ computer skills class. There’s no jumping around or shouting in libraries.
But still. This, this is the moment I’ve been waiting for. Miss Erma told my friends Chloe and Veronica their soul mates in the last year, and I just knew my time would be coming soon. Well, if not knew, then hoped.
Miss Erma adjusts her silk shawl over her shoulders. It has pink cherry blossoms on ivory fabric. Then she leans back in her computer chair and beams at me.
“I’ve finished the internet search assignment. I looked up travel plans for New York City. Wanda and I are planning a trip,” says Erma.
What? This is the most important moment of my life and she wants to talk about the computer class assignment? I look around the library community room. It’s a big, bright room, with a long table filled with computers and comfy desk chairs. The walls are painted cream and the carpet is sage green. Everyone in the class is still at work, ignoring my conversation with Erma.
“Miss Erma, please. My soul mate. Who is he?” I ask, and then I hold my breath.
But a horrifying thought enters my mind. What if she says William?
Please not William. Please not William. Please not William. Please don’t say William Williams IV.
“It’s that Williams boy.”
The breath I was holding shoots out in a loud exhale. I cough and hit my chest. Wanda, Erma’s best friend, looks over from her computer.
“Are you alright, dear?”
“Fine. Fine.” I wave at her.
Everyone else in the class is absorbed in their internet search assignment. They haven’t noticed Erma and me talking. I cough again and clear my throat. My stomach feels like it’s on a roller coaster, it’s being tossed around and I can’t get off the ride.
“The Williams boy?” I ask.
Please be Gavin. Please be Gavin. Please be the boy I’ve wanted since I was eight years old, not his awful, horrible brother.
“That’s right,” says Erma. She winks at me and then digs around in her purse. It’s on the floor next to her chair. When she comes up she’s holding a cookie tin. She opens it and holds it in front of me. “Have an oatmeal raisin cookie. I baked them this morning.”
I look down at the pile of cookies in the red tin. How can Erma offer cookies at a time like this? My stomach is still looping around my abdomen. Doesn’t she realize there are two Williams boys? One is perfect and wonderful and everything I’ve ever wanted and the other is…Will.
She waves the tin under my nose, and the scent of cinnamon and raisins wafts up to me.
“Um, alright. Thank you.” I take a cookie chock-full of raisins from the top of the pile, then I force myself to take a bite, chew and swallow. “Mmm. Really good. Thank you.”
I set the cookie down on the table, there’s no way I’ll be able to force myself to swallow another bite. Not until I know. Is my soul mate the man I’ve always believed it was, or his awful, horrible, rotten brother.
“Miss Erma? Which Williams boy? There are two of them.”
“Hmm. Are there?”
She puts the lid back on the cookie tin and pops it into her purse. When she comes back up, her black hair is messy. She pats it down and re-straightens her shawl. She’s fine boned and petite, and some people say she looks like a little bird. She definitely has the energy of a bird. And I’m beginning to see why Chloe always insists her great aunt is full of mischief.
“Yes. There’s Gavin and there’s William.”
My stomach rolls again and I press my hand against it. Please don’t say William, please don’t say William. She couldn’t, she wouldn’t.
“He just came back to town,” she says.
“Yes. Which one? Which one is my soul mate?”
Miss Erma studies me as if I’m missing the point. She gives me the same look that Chloe gives me when I can’t visualize one of her greeting card illustration ideas. I’d laugh if I weren’t so frustrated.
“Jessie. Dear. You already know who your soul mate is.”
“I do?” I try to swallow down the dry cookie crumbs still sticking in my throat. “Does that mean…?”
Miss Erma nods. “Your soul mate is the Williams boy you’ve loved since you were a little girl.”
Not William Williams IV. Not Will. Thank you, God. Thank you. It’s Gavin. His twin.
“He’s my soul mate,” I say with wonder.
Erma’s eyes twinkle. “That’s right. You’ve known he was for years.”
I grab Erma’s hands in mine and then I start jumping up and down and squealing. I can’t help it. This is the best day of my life.
Miss Erma laughs and shakes her head. She’s probably used to this reaction. But me, this is my one and only time to learn the name of my soul mate, and it’s Gavin.
“What is it? What’s happened?” asks Wanda.
She hurries over. But I can’t answer, I’m too busy spinning in a circle. I feel like Maria in The Sound of Music. Any minute, I’m going to stop spinning and start singing to the mountains.
I’ve been transported to my own personal heaven. It’s finally happened. After five years, Gavin Williams is finally back in Romeo, and according to Erma, he’s mine.
THE REST OF THE WORK DAY CRAWLS BY.
I love my job as a librarian, usually I never want to leave. But today, I wanted to find out if Erma was right. Was Gavin was really here? After five years of absence, was he back? Finally I leave work. I speed across town and park on the side of the road next to a five-acre field full of tall grass, chicory flowers, Queen Anne’s lace, and milkweed. One of the Williams’ summer houses is on the other side of the field. I pull a pair of binoculars out of the glove box. Veronica, one of my friends, gave them to me for Christmas a few years ago as a man-watching joke. I never thought they’d actually come in handy. I tilt the rear-view mirror my way. Put on lipstick, finger brush my permanently frizzy hair, smooth my wrinkled dress —1950s vintage as usual—and rush out of the car.
I run across the field. The smell of sweet grass rises and reminds me of childhood and hugs from my mom. I reach the old oak and press my hand against its deeply grooved bark. I take a moment to catch my breath. An ant crawls across my hand and I flick it off. When my heart stops beating so hard, I kick off my saddle shoes and tights. It’s been a long time, but I always climbed this tree best barefoot.
I look over my shoulder at the Williams house and a smile, bigger than I’ve had in years, spreads across my face. The sun comes out from behind the clouds and shines on the house. I take it as another sign. I finally, finally will be loved again. I hoist myself up onto the first limb and climb a long-agomemorized path up to a sturdy branch for the perfect view. I position my hunter green stretch twill dress over my legs and settle in. I pull the lens cap off the binoculars and point them at Gavin’s window.
If Erma’s right and he’s back…
“What are you doing in my tree?”
I startle and drop the binoculars. The strap catches them and they thud against my chest. My heart pounds.
I look down at the man and catch my breath. Even from fifteen feet away his blue eyes hold me in place. For a moment, I can’t move. I don’t remember there being this much awareness between us, or of him having this much command in the way he stands. I want to agree. This is his tree, his field, his world, and I’m his too. I can almost touch the pull between us, the need and connection is so strong.
“Gavin.” My voice comes out husky and hopeful.
His head snaps back. His demeanor shifts, it was open before, now it’s glacial cold. His hooded eyes narrow on me, and even though I’m fifteen feet above him, it feels like he’s looking down on me.
Oh, no no no.
He’s not Gavin.
I can tell from the expression on his face. He has that sort of permanently superior, elevated-above-humanity, never-madea- mistake-in-his-life expression that grates on me.
“Hello, William. Long time no see.” I swallow my embarrassment at my inappropriate reaction to him. He’s not Gavin.
“Jessie,” he acknowledges. Then, “Why are you in my tree?”
His voice is colder than before.
“It’s not your tree. Besides, I’m birdwatching. Your property ends two feet behind you.” I point to a patch of blue chicory flowers in the field behind him.
He doesn’t turn around to look. He just folds his arms across his chest and lifts an eyebrow. Years ago, I tried to be his friend, but I quickly learned William Williams IV doesn’t need friends. He just needs a checkbook, a ledger, and a business. Even at fifteen he was a cold, arrogant robot.
“Anyway…” I say, hoping he leaves.
“Are you aware, being a peeping Tom is a criminal offense?”
My cheeks flush. “I’m not! I can’t even see anything.”
A satisfied smile spreads over his face and I realize I practically admitted to what I’m doing. I look it his expensive captain-of-industry suit and wonder how I mistook him for Gavin.
Will grabs the lowest branch on the tree and boosts himself up. I gasp as the tree shakes.
“What are you doing?” I squeak.
The branches are thick and sturdy and beautifully spaced for climbing. William, six foot three, muscular and fit, has no trouble climbing up, even in a suit.
I’m sitting on a limb perfectly positioned to see into the wide windows of the Williams’ mansion.
Yes…to my everlasting shame, I spent many nights as a 14- year-old watching Gavin make out with his multitude of girlfriends. I dreamed of the day I’d be in his house and not this tree. I imagined it down to what I’d wear, what he’d say, then I’d make out with the back of my hand and finally descend into a fit of laughter.
But, 14 years later, I’m still in the tree. William is still laughing at me. And Gavin doesn’t know I exist. William manages to lift himself onto the branch next to me. The limb which I previously thought of as sturdy and wide suddenly feels too small and precarious. I grab at the bark and dig my fingers in. Will relaxes, loose limbed and comfortable in the tree. His eyes glint and he smirks as he looks down at my whiteknuckled hand.
“Jessie.” He tilts his head in greeting.
A lock of sandy brown hair falls over his eyes and I watch as he brushes it aside.
“Will,” I say in a choked voice. Why does he have to look just like Gavin? It messes with my head. I can tell them apart from the way they stand, or talk, or heck, look at me. But I still feel a traitorous flip in my stomach around Will. It’s been six weeks since Will was last in Romeo, but it’s been six years since Gavin’s been here. I wonder if his hair is shorter than Will’s? I wonder if when he sees me he’ll feel a spark? Now that Erma has seen us together, I’m sure he will. When Erma told me he was in town, I had to see for myself. I had to know. Hence, the childhood oak tree of shame.
Will leans over and reaches for me. I gasp as his hands brush my dress and he slowly lifts the binoculars strap over my head. I hold still because I’m scared of making any sudden moves. I lick my lips and he smirks. I wonder if he’s remembering the time we kissed in this tree? By the smirk, I’d guess yes.
“Those are mine,” I finally say, pointing to the binoculars.
Will lifts his eyebrow and shrugs. Then he looks through the binoculars. He fiddles with the focus and the magnification. As he does, my cheeks start to burn. I know what he’ll find. Finally, his shoulders stiffen and I know when he sees exactly what I was looking at. Slowly he lowers the binoculars, then hands them back to me. They land hot and heavy in my palm. I turn away although I can feel Will studying my face.
The humid evening air presses on me and I can’t quite pull in a full breath. I squirm on the branch and the scratchy bark irritates my skin. It’s as if he can see everything I try to hide, all my fears, all my hopes, my dreams. A drop of sweat trickles down my chest.
“I didn’t…” I say, but then trail off.
Because I think I see disappointment in his expression. Now, there’s been a lot of emotions between us in the past twenty years—antagonism, indifference, straight-up dislike, but never disappointment.
“He’s getting married,” says Will.
The sheen of sweat turns cold and my stomach drops.
“What?” It comes out like a croak. That’s not possible. “He can’t.”
Will narrows his eyes. They go ice cold and not even the lines around them can soften his expression. “He can. He is.”
It can’t be. Erma just confirmed Gavin is my soul mate, something I’ve dreamed of nearly my entire life. She told me Gavin was back in Romeo. It was like everything was finally, finally falling into place. William’s words crash over me like a bucket of ice. My soul mate is marrying another woman?
“Of course he can,” says Will. “He’s here for a week; his engagement party is Saturday. Then he’s getting married.”
Will moves to climb down from the tree, then pauses. I look at him, taking in his features. Sure, he’s Gavin’s identical twin, but I always wondered how two people who look so much alike could be so completely different. Will has ice-blue eyes. Gavin, a happy blue. Will has a hard chin, a hooked nose and a full lower lip. On Gavin, that lower lip looks mischievous and inviting. On Will, it looks…wicked. The one soft part on a hard uncompromising man. Taste it and maybe it will unlock the rest of him.
“Look,” he says.
I look into his eyes. I can tell he’s about to say something I won’t like.
“I know you’ve always had this unrealistic little-girl crush on my brother—”
I blink. “That’s not true.”
He pointedly looks down at the binoculars and then back up at me. I flush.
He continues and his voice isn’t gentle. “It’s time to come back to reality. And it looks like I’m the one who has to help you do it.”
“Not necessary,” I say. In fact, Will is going to feel like a fool when I marry his brother. My embarrassment shifts to anger. My love life is none of Will’s business. Will sighs and points at the Williams’ house. It’s a stately, white-columned, colonial revival mansion from the 1920s. Two stories, eight bedrooms, four bathrooms, a grand staircase, a formal dining room, a conservatory, and a landscaped backyard that once hosted some of the most beautiful summer parties for the New York City elite.
“See that house?” he asks.
I nod. Of course I see it. That house featured a starring role in many of my childhood dreams. Then Will turns and points in the opposite direction back toward the house where I grew up. It’s an old single-wide trailer from the 1970s. Faded blue and rust-stained white siding, cement blocks for stairs, dingy princess sheets for curtains.
“See that house?” he asks.
I don’t need to turn to know what it looks like.
A thick lump lodges in my throat. I see where he’s going with this. Will has never sugarcoated his opinions.
“You and my brother are as different as those two houses. Even if he weren’t getting married, which he is, the two of you would never work. No matter how much you wish you were, you will never be the type of woman Gavin wants. I guarantee it.” He says this with so much certainty that I remember why I dislike him. Why I’ve always disliked him. He may be a financial genius, and he may have single-handedly saved his family’s business from bankruptcy at age 14, and he may have the business world at his feet, but…he has no heart, no capability to love.
His closed off expression, his awful words, and the news that Gavin is marrying hit me again and I blink back tears. I look at his pressed suit and his cold face and I do what my mom always warned me against. I speak before thinking.
“I feel sorry for you.”
“Really?” he drawls.
“Really. You don’t know anything about love. About what someone will do or give. I think when you and your brother were born, he got a heart and you got a calculator. Maybe you can’t see anybody loving me because you just see me as a poor investment, but not everybody sees people as numbers. So yeah, I feel sorry for you. Because with a calculator for a heart and a ledger for a soul you’re never going to find love. Never.”
I stop, and as soon as I do, remorse floods me. Will blinks and a small line forms between his brows.
He nods and swallows. “Right. Glad we set things straight. Stay clear of Gavin. He doesn’t need your crush as a distraction.”
I shake my head then grab the branch and drop down to the next lowest limb.
I slide down the tree and drop to the ground. The binoculars knock against my chest. I grab my shoes and tights and hurry across the field back to the road. I don’t look back, but I swear I can feel Will’s gaze on me the whole while I’m walking away and long after he’s out of sight. It doesn’t matter what Will says, there’s nothing he can do to stop me from loving Gavin.
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