Happy book birthday!! We did it, another book and the end to another year. It’s December, you guys. I swear it was just July. This has been a busy year. We published three books, wrote a few that you don’t know about yet and a screenplay for Roomies that *fingers crossed* you’ll get to see soon. We were just in LA doing a table read of the script with the entire team and a room full of actors and it was INSANE. More to come on that soon!
We got the idea for Millie and Reid while listening to readers and friends talk about the adventure and struggles of online dating. In fact, this book couldn’t have happened without our Facebook Group. We sent out the call and so many of you answered. If you look in the acknowledgments, you’ll see the names of everyone who offered their time and their stories. We can never thank you enough.
Happy Book Birthday, friends! Scroll down if you want to read chapter 1, and we hope you have the best day. 22 books and counting, everyone go eat some cake!
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When I was in grade school, my best friend, Alison Kim, was obsessed with horses. She was the horse girl—you know the one. She took lessons, came to school in cowboy boots, and always smelled faintly of barn. Not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly unique among the student body at Middleton Elementary. Her room was covered in pictures of horses; her clothes were all horse-themed.
She had trading cards and figurines. This girl was invested and could be called upon at any given moment to answer a horsey question or rattle off an equestrian fact.
Did you know horses can run a mere six hours after birth?
What about their teeth—were you aware a horse’s teeth take up more space in their head than their brain does?
Didn’t know that, either.
Most little girls are obsessed with something at one point, and for the most part it never gets a second thought. Puppies: standard. Princesses are also frequently idolized. An obsession with boy bands is to be expected. Begging your parents for a pony or unicorn is normal.
I don’t think I’ve ever been normal. Me? I was obsessed with serial killers.
More specifically, I was obsessed with the idea of female serial killers. Hear the phrase serial killer, and most of us probably picture a man. It’s not surprising—let’s be real, men are responsible for at least ninety-two percent of the evil in the world. For centuries, women have been socially programmed to be the nurturers, after all—the protectors, the emotional bridges—so when we hear of a woman who takes life instead of creating it, it’s instinctively shocking.
My particular fascination started around the time I played Lizzie Borden in my seventh-grade theater class. It was an original musical—the brainchild of our eccentric-would-be-an-understatement teacher—and I landed the lead role. Before then, the concept of murder was still loose and shapeless in my head. But, ever studious as a child, I gobbled up everything I could about Lizzie Borden, the gruesome hatchet murders, the dramatic trial, the acquittal.
The fact that, to this day, the murders remain unsolved was enough to get the wheels in my mind spinning: What is it about the male brain that makes it not just more aggressive in general but more prone to serial violence—and what trips that same switch in a woman? It’s why I read every book on the subject I could find as a teen, watched every crime drama and mystery, and why I now teach criminology at UC Santa Barbara, and am working on my own book about the very women who so fascinated me as a child.
It’s probably also why I’m drinking it up with four of my strictly platonic best guy friends, instead of out enjoying myself on an actual date.
No man wants to hear “I wrote my thesis on gender differences in serial murderers” during the Tell me about yourself portion of an initial rendezvous.
My attention first snags on Ed’s voice, and then focuses on Reid’s. “Yeah?”
Reid Campbell—one of the aforementioned strictly platonic best guy friends, the reason we’re here celebrating tonight, and a man whose genetics never got the memo that it’s unfair to be both brilliant and beautiful—grins at me from across the table.
“Are you going to pick your game piece or stare slackjawed at the wall all night?” He’s still waiting, still smiling. It’s only now that I notice the game board on the table, and the pastel money he begins distributing.
Apparently while zoning out, I inadvertently agreed to play Monopoly. “Ugh. Guys. Again?”
Reid, who for some reason is always the banker, looks back up at me with faux-wounded blue eyes. “Come on.
Don’t even pretend you don’t love it. Getting a monopoly on Park Place and Boardwalk gives you an obscene amount of joy.”
“I loved it when I was ten. I still mostly liked it two years ago,” I say. “But why do we keep playing it when it always ends the same?”
“What do you mean it always ends the same?” Ed—or Stephen Edward D’Onofrio! if you’re his mother—pulls out the chair to my left. Ed’s hair is this wild mop of reddish-brown curls that always looks like he either just got up or should really go to bed.
“For starters,” I begin, “Reid is always the top hat, you’re the car, Alex is the ship, Chris is the shoe, and I’m the dog. You’ll go to the bathroom twelve times right before it’s your turn so we all have to wait. Chris will hoard his money and then get mad when he keeps landing on Alex’s hotels. Reid will only buy the utilities and somehow still manage to clean the floor with all of us, and I’ll get bored and quit six hours into a never-ending game.”
“That’s not true,” Ed says. “I quit last time, and Chris bought up all the orange properties to get back at Alex for the rooster-shaped birthday cake.”
“Man, that was a great cake,” Alex says, dark eyes downcast as he laughs into his drink. “Still worth Chris putting salt in my beer for two weeks.”
“What’s greater,” Chris replies, “is how you never once expected the salt, even after the fourth time.”
In typical fashion, Reid won’t be distracted from his goal, and pipes up from where he’s organizing the property cards. “The rules were very clear tonight: my party, my choice.”
We groan in unison because he has a point. Reid and Ed are both in neuroscience—also at UCSB—but while Ed works as a postdoc researcher in Reid’s lab, Reid is a newly minted associate professor, just awarded tenure. Said tenure is why I’m wearing both a dress and a party hat, and why there are somewhat droopy crepe paper streamers hung throughout Chris’s living room.
Chris is always Team Reid; he’s gathering up the game pieces, but not to put them away, to compromise. “We’ll switch things up. I’ll be the dog, Mills.”
“I think you’re missing my point, Christopher.”
Four sets of eyes stare blankly back at me, urging me to give up the battle.
“Okay then,” I say, resigned as I stand and walk into the kitchen for another bottle of wine.
An hour later, I’ve lost track of how much pretend money I’ve paid Reid, and how many times Alex has refilled my glass. Alex is a professor of biochemistry, which explains how he can always be counted on to get me drunk. And oh, I am drunk. I don’t know what I was complaining about: Monopoly is awesome!
Chris reshuffles the Community Chest cards and places them facedown on the board. “Ed, are you still seeing that redhead?”
I have no idea how Chris remembers this. Between Alex and Ed it seems there’s never a shortage of odd dating stories to go around. Alex, I get. He’s tall, dark, and wicked, and even though he’s originally from Huntington Beach, he spent every childhood summer with his extended family in Ecuador, giving him an accent that stops women in their tracks. He’s also never serious about anyone, and rarely sees someone again after getting a cab home in the morning.
Ed is . . . none of these things. Don’t get me wrong, he’s not unattractive and he has the aforementioned full head of hair, but he’s more like a grown frat boy than a manly man. If we went to his place right now we’d find ketchup and a case of Mountain Dew in his refrigerator, and a living room full of pinball machines instead of furniture. Still, he goes out more than me, Reid, and Chris combined.
Not that that’s saying much.
Reid is a workaholic. Chris is gorgeous and accomplished, mentoring fellow African American chemists right here at the university. But he’s also picky and serious, and works the same insane hours as Reid does. And me? Honestly, maybe I’m just lazy.
Alex counts out his spaces and sets the dice in the center of the board. “You’re talking about the one with the eye patch?”
Okay, that jogs my memory.
Ed isn’t amused. “She did not have an eye patch.”
“Actually, I remember her, too,” I say. “I distinctly recall seeing a patch covering an eye.” I motion to the board and the neat row of hotels lined up there. “PS, it’s your turn and if you roll anything other than a two—which will land you in jail—you are fu-ucked.”
“Slumlords,” Ed mutters, but rolls the dice anyway. I have no idea how, but he does—miraculously—roll a two, and does a celebratory fist pump before scooting his little car into the space marked Jail. A momentary reprieve from the rows and rows of Alex’s hotels. “And it wasn’t an eye patch, it was a small bandage. We were being . . . amorous and things got a little crazy.”
“A little crazy as in . . .” I trail off, deciding I might not really want the answer.
Reid laughs over the top of his glass. When Ed doesn’t immediately clarify, though, his smile slowly straightens, and a hush falls over the room as we’re all left to mentally unravel this, logistically. “Wait. Seriously?”
I tidy up the meager remains of my money. “He did say it was a small bandage.”
Reid falls forward onto the table laughing, and maybe it’s the fact that half my blood has to be wine at this point, but I’m reminded all over again that the first thing I noticed about him was his smile.
Just over two years ago, Reid and I were introduced by my then-boyfriend Dustin, the department chair for criminology. (Yes, this means that my ex-boyfriend is now my boss—the reason I will never date someone I work with again.) Reid was new to UCSB, and at the dedication of a new computer science building, Dustin made some crack about it being the first time anyone had seen Reid outside his lab. Apparently Reid and his fiancée had just broken up; her first complaint was that Reid spent too much time at work. I didn’t know that at the time, but I found out later that Dustin had. Reid laughed at the little dig and continued to smile warmly as we shook hands. I had a tiny, immediate crush on that sparkling, crinkly-eyed smile that survived the sting of Dustin’s underhanded jabs.
For un-Reid-related reasons, I broke up with Dustin a few months later, but because it turns out no one likedDustin anyway, I got to keep Reid, and all his friends, too: Chris and Reid went to graduate school together, Ed joined Reid’s lab as a postdoc shortly after he was hired, and Alex shared lab space with Chris when they were both new faculty at UCSB. I’m the only non-sciencey person in the group, but at work and at home, these guys have become my sweet little chosen family of sorts.
“So,” Chris says, “I’m going to take that as a no, on the still dating question.”
Ed rolls again, happy when he doesn’t manage a double and gets to remain safely in jail. “Correct.”
“Then who are you inviting to the commencement banquet?” Chris asks.
Reid pulls his attention from the board and over to Chris. “Do we have to think about that yet? The banquet is
in June. It’s only March.”
Chris smiles and looks smugly around the table. “I take it none of you heard the rumor about this year’s speaker.”
Reid searches his expression. “The speaker will make me want to bring a date?”
Chris stands and walks into the kitchen to grab another beer. “I heard a rumor that Obama is giving the commencement address, and a keynote at the Deans’ Banquet. Black tie, plus-one, the whole nine.”
We all gasp, deeply, in unison.
“I got word that the chancellor is going to announce it this week,” he adds.
“No way.” Ed stares at him, eyes wide behind his thick glasses. “Oh. I am definitely going this year.”
Reid laughs, picking up the dice. “You’re supposed to go every year.”
“Last year the commencement speaker was Gilbert Gottfried. I don’t think I missed anything.”
“I actually wanted to talk to you guys about this,” Chris says. “None of us is dating anyone—” He stops, glancing to where Ed is balancing a cork on his nose and counting to see how long he’s able to do it.
“Look at this, Millie.” Ed stretches his arms out. “Ten seconds, no hands.”
Chris turns back to the rest of us. “—or has any serious prospects,” he continues slowly. “Who are we taking?”
Ed straightens, catching the cork in his palm. “Why can’t we all go together?”
“Because it’s not junior prom,” Chris says.
“We can’t just go solo?”
“I mean, you could,” Chris says, “but this is gonna be a big deal with dancing and coupley stuff. Go solo and be the loner, go in a group and we’re the table of dudes—and Mills—sitting there awkwardly. We should get dates.”
Reid rolls his dice and begins counting out his turn. “I call Millie.”
“You call me?”
“Whoa, whoa.” Derailed from his initial argument, Chris turns to Reid with a frown. “If we’re just going to pair up, why’d you pick her?”
Reid shrugs and gives a vague nod in my direction. “She looks better in a ball gown.”
Ed seems genuinely insulted. “You have obviously never seen me in one.”
“I took you to the Deans’ Banquet last year,” Chris reminds Reid. “We had an awesome time.”
His turn completed, Reid drops the dice onto the center of the board and picks up his drink. “We did. I’m just being fair and going with someone else this time.”
Ed smacks Chris’s shoulder. “I’m more Reid’s type. Remember that cute bartender he liked? The one with the curly hair?” He makes a show of pointing to his head and the mass of auburn curls there. “Tell me we wouldn’t look great together.”
“I can beat that.” Alex brings up a foot to rest on the table and rolls up the hem of his jeans, flexing his calf muscle. “Reid is a leg man. Just look at these stems. I could spin you all around that dance floor.”
Reid watches each of them, bemused. “I mean, technically speaking, Millie is my type. Being female and whatnot.”
“Is it weird to anyone that this roomful of straight men is fighting over Reid and not me?” I ask.
Chris, Alex, and Ed seem to give this fair consideration before answering “No” in unison.
I lift my glass of wine and take a deep swallow. “Okay, then.”
Finally, Reid stands, carrying his empty glass into the
kitchen. “Millie, you need anything?”
“Other than tips on how to develop an alluring female presence?” I ask. “I’m good. Thanks.”
At the counter Reid rinses his glass and bends to open the dishwasher, carefully setting it inside. It’s something I’ve seen him do a hundred times, and I don’t know if it’s the talk of dates, or the wine, or if Reid is just looking particularly good in that dark gray shirt, but tonight, I don’t look away.
I watch as he easily moves around the kitchen, picking up stray dishes near the sink and loading them into the correct tray. I can see the muscles in his back flex as he bends when he’s done, rubbing a hand over the broad head of Chris’s silver Labrador, Maisie.
I’ve had enough to drink that my limbs feel loose and pliable; my stomach feels warm. My brain is a little fuzzy around the edges—just enough to block out my tendency to overthink everything. Instead, my mind meanders around the fact that Reid doing something as mundane as loading a dishwasher and petting a dog is absolutely fascinating.
With the kitchen tidied up, Reid extends his arms above his head in a leisurely stretch. My eyes are like magnets and follow the lines of his body, the way the fabric of his shirt pulls tight across his chest and strains along the curve of his biceps. I get a peek of stomach.
Reid has a really nice stomach.
I bet he’d look great with that shirt all the way off . . .
Kneeling above me, arms outstretched, fingers wrapped around the headboard while he—
I mean . . . WHOA. Where did that come from?
I fix my attention down at the dining room table and it’s a full five seconds before I dare to move again. I just had a sex thought about Reid. Reid. Reid Campbell, who always roots for the underdog in any sporting event, who pretends he enjoys classical music so Chris doesn’t go alone to the symphony, who buys a new pair of running shoes precisely every six months.
When he returns to the table and sits down next to me, if the pounding of my heart is any indication, I do not look like I’m thinking about resuming our fascinating game of Monopoly.
I blink over to my empty wineglass, eager to point blame in the most convenient place. How many of these did I have? Two? Three? More? I’m not hammered, but I’m not exactly sober, either.
I’m the kind of tipsy where I should want to hug everyone, not pull my best friend’s pants down.
Strictly platonic best guy friend. Strictly platonic best guy friend.
Heat rushes to my face and I stand so quickly my chair teeters on its back legs. Four sets of curious eyes swing in my direction, and I turn, making a beeline for the bathroom.
“Millie?” Reid calls after me. “You okay?”
“Gotta pee!” I shout over my shoulder, not stopping until I’m safely inside the bathroom and the door is firmly closed behind me.
Normally I laugh when confronted with one of the dozen roosters we’ve given Chris over the past two years. But now? Not so much. The cock thing began as a joke—Chris complimented a giant rooster painting at Ed’s mom’s house, and she gave it to him on the spot—so of course every birthday, Valentine’s day, and Christmas present since has been some form of rooster décor. But even the sight of one of my favorites—a RISE AND SHINE MOTHER CLUCKERS sign I got him for his last birthday—only makes me think of the cock joke, which makes me think of penises, which reminds me of the image of Reid naked, in my bed, on top of me.
Hands on the counter, I lean in to examine my reflection and, okay . . . it could be better. My cheeks are flushed, my eyes a little glassy. My eyeliner and mascara have converged in a dark smear below my lower lids.
Kneeling, arms outstretched, fingers wrapped around the headboard—
With the faucet on as high as it will go, I clean up and splash cold water on my face. It helps a little—cooling down my skin and clearing out the haze so I can think.
It’s not that I find Reid unappealing in a sexual way— he’s gorgeous and brilliant and hysterical—but he’s also my best friend. My Reid. The guy who held my hand during an emergency root canal and dressed up as Kylo Ren when we went to see The Last Jedi on my twenty-ninth birthday. I’m close with the other guys, but for whatever reason, it’s different with Reid. Not that kind of different, but . . . closer. Maybe it’s because he always knows to find me in the true crime section of the bookstore. Maybe it’s because he has a level of intuition that I’ve never known in a friend before. Maybe it’s because we can be quiet together, and it’s never weird.
I squeeze my eyes shut; it’s hard to have an existential crisis when you’re drunk. Part of me thinks I should head to the nearest exit, but the other part thinks we should just . . . hug it out.
There’s a knock at the door and I step back just far enough to open it a crack. It’s Reid, looking sweetly disheveled with a dish towel still slung over his shoulder.
God damn it.
I straighten, hoping I look more sober than I feel. “Hi.”
“Everything okay?” he asks.
“Totally.” I lean against the doorframe in an attempt to appear casual. All this really does is bring my face within inches of his, which somehow makes me feel drunker. “You know how I am with wine. Goes right through me.”
I’m an idiot, but before I can regret what I’ve said, he’s laughing. Why does he always laugh at my dumb jokes?
“Ed and Alex are headed out,” he says quietly. “You can’t drive. Can I take you home?”
“I’m not drunk.” This statement would carry more weight if I didn’t hiccup immediately after saying it. “And I
wasn’t going to drive.”
He tilts his head and a piece of soft brown hair falls forward, curling over his forehead. My brain immediately sides with Team Hug It Out.
“Come on,” he says. “You can control the radio on the way.”