The Brightest Stars Page 1

Author: Anna Todd

Series: Karina and Kael #1

Genres: Romance , New Adult

THE WIND WHIPS AROUND the coffee shop each time the old wooden door creaks open. It’s unusually cold for September and I’m pretty sure it’s some kind of punishment from the universe for agreeing to meet up with him, today of all days. What was I thinking?

I barely had time to put makeup over the swollen pockets under my eyes. And this outfit I’m wearing—when was the last time it saw the wash? Again, what was I thinking?

Right now I’m thinking that my head aches and I’m not sure if I have any ibuprofen in my purse. I’m also thinking that it was smart of me to choose the table closest to the door so I can get away quickly if I need to. This place in the middle of Edgewood? Neutral and not the least bit romantic. Another good choice. I’ve only been here a few times, but it’s my favorite coffee house in Atlanta. The seating is pretty limited—just ten tables—so I guess they want to encourage a quick turnaround. There are a couple of Instagram-worthy features, like the succulent wall and that clean black and white tile behind the baristas, but overall, it’s quite severe. Harsh gray and concrete everywhere. Loud blenders mixing kale and whatever fruit is trendy at the moment.

There is a single creaky door: one way in, one way out. I look down at my phone and wipe my palms on my black dress.

Will he hug me? Shake my hand?

I can’t imagine such a formal gesture. Not from him. Damn. I’m working myself up again and he isn’t even here yet. For about the fourth time today, I can feel the panic bubbling just below my chest and it dawns on me that every time I imagine our reunion, I see him the way I did the very first time I laid eyes on him. I have no idea which version of him I’ll get. I haven’t seen him since last winter and I have no idea who he is anymore. And really, did I ever know?

Maybe I only ever knew a version of him—a bright and hollow form of the man I’m waiting on now.

I suppose I could have avoided him for the rest of my life, but the thought of never seeing him again seems worse than sitting here now. At least I can admit that. Here I am warming my hands on a coffee cup, waiting for him to come through that that raspy door after swearing to him, to myself, to anyone who would listen for the last few months that I would never …

He’s not due for another five minutes, but if he’s anything like the man I remember, he’ll strut in late with that scowl on his face.

When the door tears open, it’s a woman who walks in. Her blond hair is a nest stuck to the top of her tiny head and she’s holding a cell phone against her red cheek.

“I don’t give a shit, Howie. Get it done,” she snaps, pulling the phone away with a string of curse words.

I hate Atlanta. The people here are all like her, tetchy and forever in a hurry. It wasn’t always like this. Well, maybe it was; I wasn’t, though. But things change. I used to love this city, especially downtown. The dining options are out of this world and for a foodie living in a small town—well, that alone was reason enough to move here. There’s always something to do in Atlanta and everything is open later than it is around Ft. Benning. But the biggest draw for me at the time was that I wasn’t constantly reminded of military life. No camo everywhere you look. No ACUs on the

men and women waiting in line for the movies, at the gas station, at Dunkin Donuts. People speak real words, not just acronyms. And there are plenty of non-military haircuts to admire.

I loved Atlanta, but he changed that.

We changed that.


That was the closest I’d get to admitting any blame in what went down.


Just a couple of words, but they pour into and over me, shocking every one of my senses and all of my sense. And yet, there’s that calm too, the one that seems to be hardwired into me whenever he’s around. I look up to make sure it’s him, though I know it is. Sure enough, he’s standing over me with his hickory eyes on my face, searching … reminiscing? I wish he wouldn’t look at me like that. The small room is actually pretty packed, but it doesn’t feel that way. I’d had this meeting all scripted, but he’s disrupted everything and now I’m unnerved.

“How do you do that?” I ask him. “I didn’t see you come in.”

I worry that my voice sounds like I’m accusing him of something or that I’m nervous, and that’s the last thing I want. But still I wonder—how does he do that? He was always so good at silence, at moving around undetected. Another skill honed in the army, I guess.

I gesture for him to sit down. He slides into the chair and that’s when I realize he has a full beard. Sharp, precise lines graze his cheekbones and his jawline is covered in dark hair. This is new. Of course it is: he always had to keep up with regulations. Hair must be short and well groomed. Mustaches are allowed, but only if they’re neatly trimmed and don’t grow over the upper lip. He told me once that he was thinking of growing a mustache, but I talked him out of it. Even with a face like his, a mustache would look creepy.

He grabs the coffee menu from the table. Cappuccino. Macchiato. Latte. Flat white. Long black. When did everything get so complicated?

“You like coffee now?” I don’t try to hide my surprise.

He shakes his head. “No.”

A half-smile crosses his stoic face, reminding me of the very reason I fell in love with him. A moment ago, it was easy to look away. Now it’s impossible.

“Not coffee,” he assures me. “Tea.”

He isn’t wearing a jacket, of course, and the sleeves of his denim shirt are rolled up above his elbows. The tattoo on his forearm peeks through and I know if I touch his skin right now, it will be burning up. I’m sure as hell not going to do that, so I look up and over his shoulder. Away from the tattoo. Away from the thought. It’s safer that way. For both of us. I try to focus on the noises in the coffee shop so I can settle into his silence. I forgot how unnerving his presence can be.

That’s a lie. I didn’t forget. I wanted to, but couldn’t.

I can hear the server approaching, her sneakers squeaking on the concrete floor. She has a mousy little voice and when she tells him that he should “so totally” try the new peppermint mocha I laugh, knowing that he hates all minty things, even toothpaste. I think about the way he’d leave those red globs of cinnamon gunk in the sink at my house and how many times we bickered over it. If only I had ignored those petty grievances. If only I had paid more attention to what was really happening, everything might have been different.

Maybe. Maybe not. I’m the kind of person who would take the blame for anything—except this. I can’t be sure.

I don’t want to know.

Another lie.

Kael tells the girl he would like a plain black tea and this time, I try not to laugh. He’s so predictable.

“What’s so funny?” he asks when the waitress leaves.

“Nothing.” I change the subject. “So, how are you?”

I don’t know what bullshit we’re going to fill this coffee date with. What I do know is that we’re going to see each other tomorrow, but since I had to be in the city today anyway, it had seemed like a good idea to get the first awkward encounter out of the way without an audience. A funeral is no place for that.

“Good. Given the circumstances.” He clears his throat.

“Yeah.” I sigh, trying not to think too much about tomorrow. I’ve always been good at pretending the world isn’t burning around me. Okay, I’ve been slipping these past few months, but for years it was second nature, something I’d started doing sometime between my parents’ divorce and my high school graduation. Sometimes I feel like my family is disappearing. We keep getting smaller and smaller.

“Are you all right?” he asks, his voice even lower than before.

I could hear it the same way I did those damp nights when we fell asleep with the window open—the whole room would be dewy the next morning, our bodies wet and sticky. I used to love the way his hot skin felt when my fingertips danced across the smooth contours of his jaw. Even his lips were warm, feverish at times. The southern Georgia air was so thick you could taste it and Kael’s temperature always ran so hot.

“Hmph.” He clears his throat and I snap out of it.

I know what he’s thinking, I can read his face as clearly as the neon But First, Coffee sign hanging on the wall behind him. I hate that those memories are the ones my brain associates with him. It doesn’t make this any easier.

“Kare.” His voice is soft as he reaches across the table to touch my hand. I jerk it away so fast you’d think it was on fire. It’s strange to think about the way we were, the way I never knew where he ended and I began. We were so in tune. So … just so different than the way things are now. There was a time when he’d say my name, and just like that, I’d give him anything he wanted. I consider this for a moment. How I’d give that man anything he wanted.

I thought I was further in my recovery of us, that whole getting over him thing. At least far enough along that I wouldn’t be thinking about the way his voice sounded when I had to wake him up early for physical training, or the way he used to scream in the night. My head is starting to spin and if I don’t shut my mind off now, the memories will split me apart, on this chair, in this little shop, right in front of him.

I force myself to nod and pick up my latte to buy some time, just a moment so I can find my voice. “Yeah. I mean, funerals are kind of my thing.”

I don’t dare look at his face. “There’s nothing you could have done, regardless. Don’t tell me you’re thinking you could’ve—” He pauses and I stare harder at the small chip in my mug. I run my finger over the cracked ceramic.

“Karina. Look at me.”

I shake my head, not even close to jumping down this rabbit hole with him. I don’t have it in me. “I’m fine. Seriously.” I pause and take in the expression on his face. “Don’t look at me like that. I’m okay.”

“You’re always fine.” He runs his hand over the hair on his face and sighs, his shoulders leaning into the back of the plastic chair.

It isn’t so much a question or a statement, just the way it is. He’s right. I will always be fine. That whole fake it till you make it thing? I own it.

What other choice do I have?

Karina, 2017

I HAD HIT THE JOB JACKPOT. I didn’t have to open the massage parlor until ten, so most mornings I could sleep in. And being able to walk there from my house at the end of the street—bonus! I loved this street: the mattress shop, the ice cream place, the nail salon, and the old-fashioned candy store. I’d saved up my money and there I was, twenty years old, on my own street, in my own tiny house. My house. Not my dad’s. Mine.

The walk to work was only five minutes—not long enough to be interesting. Mostly I just tried to stay out of the way of the cars. The alley was wide enough for one pedestrian and one car at a time. Well, a Prius or some kind of small car would be an easy fit; unfortunately, people around here usually went for big trucks, so most of the time I pinned myself up against the trees lining the alleyway until they passed.

Sometimes I’d create stories in my head, a little bit of excitement before my shift started. That day’s story featured Bradley, the bearded man who owned the matt

ress store on the corner. Bradley was a nice guy, and he wore what I came to think of as his nice guy uniform: a plaid shirt and khakis. He drove a white Ford something or other, and he worked even more than I did. I passed him every morning, already at his shop before I started at ten. Even when I worked a double or a night shift, I’d see that white truck parked in the back of the alley.

Bradley had to be single. Not because he wasn’t sweet or cute, but because he was always alone. If he had a wife or children, surely I’d have seen them at least once in the six months since I’d moved to this side of town, but no. It didn’t matter if it was during the day, at night, or on the weekends—Bradley was always alone.

The sun was shining, but not a single bird was chirping. No garbage truck was grumbling. Not one person was starting their car. It was eerily silent. Maybe that’s why Bradley seemed a little more sinister that morning. I looked at him anew and wondered why he combed his white-blond hair down the middle, why he thought it was a good idea to expose such a harsh line of scalp. Really, what I wanted to know was where he was going with that rolled up rug in the back of his truck. Maybe I’d seen one too many episodes of CSI, but doesn’t everyone know that’s how you dispose of a body—roll it up in some old carpet and dump it on the edge of town? Just as my imagination was turning Bradley into a serial killer, he gave me the friendliest wave and a smile, a real one. Or maybe he was just that good at being charming and was actually going to—

I nearly peed myself when he called out to me.

“Hey, Karina! Water’s out in the whole strip!”

His thin lips turned into a heavy frown as he waved his arms around to show how upset he was. I stopped walking and lifted my hand to cover my eyes from the sun. It was harsh, shining its brightest, even though the air had a little bite to it. Georgia was just so hot. I thought I’d be used to it after a year, but nope. I longed for the cold of those northern California nights. “I’ve been tryin’ to get the water company out here, but no luck so far.” He shrugged his shoulders and held up his cell phone as proof.

“Oh no.” I tried to mimic his tone of frustration over the water, but honestly, I kind of hoped Mali would shut down for the day. I had barely slept last night, so I could have used another hour, or twenty, of sleep.