Anyone But Nick (Anyone But... #3) - Penelope Bloom

Chapter 1


If I closed my eyes and listened to the clatter of falling bowling pins, the dated soundtrack of easy nineties hits, and the hum of arcade machines, I could imagine I’d slipped back seven years. Almost. If I’d really stepped into the past, I’d feel the slight pressure of a pair of boring granny panties digging into my cheeks. I would also be wearing the infamous cardigan-and-camisole combination I’d thought was the height of fashion.

Nowadays, I was far more sophisticated. I’d traded the granny panties for ass floss and the cardigans for silky blouses and power jackets. I’d learned to stop apologizing for being intelligent and hardworking. My philosophy was that I needed to feel like I could step into any office in America, bust down the door, and start kicking corporate booty. Figuratively, at least. I’d tried self-defense classes once, and the only technique I was halfway proficient at was blowing the rape whistle.

I looked down at the soggy paper tray of nachos in my left hand and the hamburger and fries in my right. I even had a water bottle awkwardly wedged between my elbow and my side. Tonight, I wasn’t a door kicker. I was the third wheel—or, more technically, the fifth wheel—on a double date.

The more I thought about it, the more the sounds around me stopped feeling nostalgic. All they did was remind me of how different I was now—how much things had changed, and maybe not all for the better.

I could hear the deep laughter of Cade King and the rumble of his twin brother’s voice, even over all the chaos. That was enough to snap me into full awareness as surely as an ice-cold toilet seat at three in the morning.

Just down the short stairway leading to the bowling alley, my two best friends, Kira and Iris, were smiling and laughing at something Cade had said. It was getting harder and harder to be a good person—the kind of friend who would see their happiness and smile right along with them. Instead, watching them have fun felt almost accusatory. They had figured it out. They had found that special someone. So what did that say about me if my life seemed to be cracking apart at the foundations?

Be glad for them, Miranda. I repeated the thought a few dozen times in the hope that it’d overpower my gloominess. After all, why shouldn’t they be happy? Iris still worked as a cop, even though she’d recently paired off with Cade. Kira still loved her job as a teacher, and she was in a seemingly perfect relationship with Richard King. They’d found their happily ever afters—their kisses on the beach with one foot kicked up behind them. So what if I was currently buried up to the neck on that same beach while little crabs made nests in my hair and seagulls stole my food? At least I could be glad my friends weren’t screwed too.

A young kid who looked around middle school age bumped into me. I spun, did a teetering balancing act, and watched helplessly as Cade and Iris’s nachos fell to the carpet.

“Sorry, dude,” the kid said in a tone that was so far from apologetic it was actually insulting. He looked up at me with a strange mixture of confidence and blind panic, then dabbed. I expected him to run off, but he just stood there, looking at me.

I glanced down at the nachos and felt a swirl of unexpectedly strong emotions swelling up. The kid was watching me curiously, almost like he knew something was about to happen.

Normally, I would’ve composed myself, pushed down any emotions I felt, and handled this like a proper woman.


I lunged forward and started stomping the nachos. For a few seconds, all I saw was pure-white rage. I stomped so hard it sent shock waves up my leg and made my knees hurt. When I was done, there was just a cheesy, crumby paste on the ground.

I stared down at the mess in numb fascination. “Taco salad,” I whispered.

The kid was still staring at me, but his jaw had dropped. “You’re a psycho.”

“Listen, you little turd. I just got out of a long-term relationship a week ago. And yesterday? I lost my job. Do you have any idea what it feels like when everybody thinks you’re so perfect? Can you imagine what it’s like when you realize one day that you’re trapped in someone else’s illusion? That your whole identity is dictated by the expectations