By Tess Sharpe
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After years of bickering, Penny and Tate have called a truce: they’ll play nice. They have to. Their mothers (life-long best friends) need them to be perfect, drama-free daughters when Penny’s mother becomes a living liver donor to Tate’s mom. Forced to live together as the Moms recover, the girls’ truce is essential in keeping everything—their jobs, the house, the finances, the Moms’ healing—running smoothly. They’ve got to let this thing between them go.
There’s one little hitch: Penny and Tate keep almost kissing.
It’s just this confusing thing that keeps happening. You know, from time to time. For basically their entire teenaged existence.
They’ve never talked about it. They’ve always ignored it in the aftermath. But now they’re living across the hall from each other.
And some things—like their kisses—can’t be almosts forever.
Told through the two girls’ present, and six moments from their past, this dynamic love story shows that sometimes the person you need the most has been there for you all along.
FAMILY MEETING TONIGHT at 6. Don’t be late!
I stare at the text as June scoots past me, tying on her apron.
“You do all your prep work?”
“Yep,” I answer. “And I married all the ketchups.”
“You okay?” She shoots me a look. I’m holding my phone too tight, staring at Mom’s message.
I paste on a smile. “I’m fine. I should go. See you later?”
I get another text as I leave: Can you pick up Tate at the pool? Anna came home with me, she wasn’t feeling well.
So when Mom said family meeting, she really meant it. They aren’t sisters, Mom and Anna. They like to say they’re more than that. Ride-or-die best friends. A bond deeper than blood.
Was Gran there, too? My head’s spinning, but I don’t know what crisis to land on.… Did Mom get all impulsive again? Is there bad news about Anna’s health? Those are the two big ones that dominate our lives… unless this is some sort of intervention. But I don’t need to be intervened on. I haven’t done anything, unless you count the color-coding on my wall-sized year-to-date calendar. Tate had told me it was excessive, but she says that about everything I do.
Okay. Maybe that’s a little bit of a lie. I have been doing something Mom’s banned me from. But if she knew that, she wouldn’t have the control to call a family meeting. She would’ve tracked me down and screamed by now.
So it can’t be my thing.
Does Tate need an intervention? That can’t be right. Tate doesn’t do anything but swim laps and roll her eyes when I talk. Tate is like, the perfect daughter. Anna never has to worry about her. My mom likes to say that, all envious. Because I’m so troublesome.
Even though having Tate in my car for more than ten minutes usually spells disaster, I text Mom: Sure.
She doesn’t text back. Doesn’t give me any more info.
That means someone’s dying, right?
No. God. Stop freaking out. Don’t think about—
Someone already died.
Am I ever going to get through a day without—
Of course not. He was my father.
Of course not.
She wears his ring around her neck. My mom. When she got it, afterward, it was clipped in half because they’d had to cut it off him. She’d thrown one of the halves across the living room, she was so upset. I tried to stop her, but she couldn’t be stopped—or maybe I just didn’t know how.
Anna had known, though. She held my mother tight and urged me to go outside with Tate. Mom was living with Anna back then, while I was with Gran. Anna found the piece Mom had tossed and she got the ring fixed somehow. Now, two years later, Mom’s never without it.
Is it Anna? My stomach twists into knots as I get in my car and pull out of the Blackberry Diner parking lot. It’s hard to remember a time when Anna wasn’t sick. She had ovarian cancer when Tate and I were little, but she’s been cancer free for a few years. But she got sick again. Last year, she was diagnosed with Alpha-1, which is this genetic thing that messes with your liver and lungs. With Anna, it’s her liver. My mom’s been in fix-it mode ever since the diagnosis.
I turn off South Street, heading away from the diner and toward the other side of town.
The pool’s inside a concrete building that’s aggressively seventies, down to the weird slanted roof. A remnant of a time when the town was supposed to grow, before the lumber boom went bust. Inside, half the floodlights are already off, making the pool glow.
She’s still going hard, the lap clock set where she can see it.
I watch her for a second; I can’t help myself. I’d challenge anyone not to be caught up in it, the way Tate moves in water. She’s not a mermaid or anything mystical—she’s a shark, bulleting through the water like it’s where she belongs and she knows where she’s headed.
She’s alone in the pool. The team doesn’t swim together in the summers—or at least, they don’t swim with Tate.
Tate’s always last to leave practice. I know this, too, just like I know watching her cut through the water will make me have to concentrate hard on my feet for a few steps. She used to be the last to leave because she worked harder than anyone else. She still does, but there’s more to it now. She stays in the water until the rest of the girls are gone because she’s not friends with any of her teammates. That’s my fault, and Tate may seem like she’s over it, but I’m not sure how she could be when I’m not.
She hasn’t noticed me yet, so I walk over to the stack of kickboards and pull buoys, pick up one of the striped buoys, and throw it into the pool toward her head. It splashes in front of her—I may not be a star athlete, but I can aim—and she jerks up midstroke.
Spinning in a slow circle, she doesn’t even take off her goggles when she spots me.
“Seriously?” she asks. Before I can respond, she grabs the pull buoy out of the water and chucks it back at me with the kind of deadly precision I’m barely fast enough to dodge.
The giggle that bursts out of me is entirely involuntary. She knows it, too, because she almost smiles as she swims over to the edge of the pool.
She pulls herself out, and I know well enough to stay far away so she can’t shake water on me like a dog. We’ve been there, done that when we were little. Multiple times, because apparently I can’t be smart about all things… especially when it comes to her.
Tate’s got two racing suits layered over each other and drag shorts pulled over them, one leg torn halfway. She wraps herself in her towel as she asks, “My mom send you?”
“No, my mom. You should check your phone.”
She yanks off her swim cap and goggles as she heads over to her bag and pulls on her parka. I wait, wondering if she got a text or a voicemail. Text, if her frown at the screen is any indication.
Did she get more information than me? Or did she just get the purposefully vague—and clear portent of doom—“family meeting” excuse, too?
I try to read the answers in the sliver of profile I can see. Her nose tilts up at the tip, and her French-braided hair is fuzzy from the cap and the wet and the conditioner she slicks through it before she gets in the water. She needs to shower still to rinse off the chlorine and the swim, but when she looks up from her phone, I know we’re heading straight home.
“Let’s go,” she says, and normally I’d make noise about her getting my car all wet from her swim parka, but now I just nod.
She keeps staring at her phone after we get into the car, and I want to know, I need to know more, but I just drive instead. The worry is there, looming and tense, and it’s like we’re both stretching it so tight, any second it’ll snap.
“When’s your truck gonna be fixed?” I ask, desperate to stave off any snapping or shattering, because it’s a ten-minute drive across town and another twenty up the mountain to get to my house.
More silence. I drum my fingers on the steering wheel, waiting, because Tate sometimes savors her words like she’s one of those wine-tasting geeks who swish and sniff and swirl to their heart’s content.
Sure enough, I’m already turning onto the street out of town when she finally says, “It’s not.”
I glance over at her. “What do you mean?”
She’s resolutely not looking at me when she says, “I sold it.”
“What?” She loves that truck. It’s a heap, but she’s devoted. She puts wax on it and uses those microfiber cloths and everything.
“Don’t tell my mom, okay?”
“Tate.” I can’t stare at her, but I want to. I want to search her face for an answer, because she rarely gives one out loud, but sometimes her face…
Well, sometimes she can’t hide underwater.
She shrugs. “The credit card was almost maxed out. I had to keep the power on. And pay for groceries and meds, and just… I handled it, okay?”
My mouth’s dry from the realization that it’s gotten this bad. It’s always been bad, money-wise, because how can it not be with all the medical bills? But if it’s so bad Tate’s selling her truck behind her mom’s back…
“She’s going to notice you don’t have a truck!”
“She thinks it’s in the shop. Don’t worry about it.”
“I—” It’s like she’s asked me to not breathe, if we’re being completely honest. Because worrying is kind of what I do. “Fine. But if that’s what this meeting’s about, don’t expect me to argue for your side.”
She rolls her eyes. “There aren’t any sides, Penny. I’m just trying to keep things going. I thought you of all people would understand. You did the same thing when—”
My tongue clicks against my teeth, a warning sound that echoes with the flash of hurt fury in my chest. “Don’t.”
Tate’s not even shamed by my demand. She just keeps looking at me like it’s a dare. “Then don’t needle me about figuring out how to pay the bills.”
“Maybe you should’ve asked for help before you sold your truck and made Mom and Anna stage an intervention!”
“That’s not what tonight’s about. If my mom figured out I sold my truck, she’d talk to me, she wouldn’t call a meeting.”
I practically leap on her words—“Do you know what it’s about, then?”—and she lets out her version of a laugh, this huffing thing that never quite reaches her lips or eyes. Her smile does, sometimes. Rarely. You’ve got to earn it.
“Oh my God,” Tate says, all disgusted, and she reads from her phone: “‘Hey sweets, family meeting at Lottie’s tonight! Penny will pick you up.’ Do you want to pull over and read it yourself to check I’m not lying?” she adds.
Now I’m the silent one. Maybe that was her aim, because we’re quiet for the rest of the drive. When I finally pull onto the gravel road that leads to my house, she lets out a relieved breath I pretend not to hear. The kitchen lights are on as I unlock the padlock on the cattle gate I got at the countywide yard sale to replace the one Mom drove through during the bad year. I’m pretty sure the thirty-dollar price tag was because Miss Frisbee felt sorry for me.
I hate that Tate reminded me of that. I hate that Mom’s decided to be cryptic instead of clear. I don’t like vague. I like ten-point plans with three different exit strategies.
As soon as the car’s pulled to a stop, Tate’s out of it. I hate it when she does that, too. Impatience, thy name is Tate, I swear.
She’s almost to the porch by the time I lock the gate and catch up with her.
“We need a strategy!” I hiss. “What if it is an intervention?”
“For what? Have you developed a problem while I wasn’t looking? Did you actually fill your closet with Sharpies like you dreamed about when we were seven? If so, then I’m on Lottie and Mom’s side. No more office supplies for you. The giant color-coded calendar and the bullet journal of doom are bad enough.”
“My calendar is useful!”
“It takes up an entire wall of your room. Why do you need a calendar when you have a bullet journal?”
“You’ll rip my bullet journal out of my cold, dead hands.”
I want to stomp my foot. That’s what she does: She inspires foot-stomping feelings in me. Like I’m a child about to throw a tantrum because the frustration’s just too much.
And then I look up at her, and there it is, in her eyes, because it rarely reaches her lips: her smile.
“Are you just being an ass to distract me?” I demand.
Her eyes crinkle just a little. Oh my God! Why does she do this to me?
Why do I always just trip and fall into it?
“We need to go inside” is all she says back.
“Wait.” It’s like my hand is two steps ahead of my brain, because I’ve grabbed her wrist. The inside of her parka is fleece, so her skin’s already warm, and there’s this long moment when seconds and maybe minutes lose all meaning as she stares down at my fingers around her wrist and then up at me… but still, I don’t pull away.
It’s always so hard to pull away from her.
“If it’s not about the truck…,” I force out. “What if… Tate, what if it’s bad?”
She twists in my hold, and time trips back into reality as her fingers hook around mine in a gentle squeeze before pulling away.
“Then it’s bad,” she says simply.
She goes for the door, but this time, I don’t stop her.
I just follow.
“WHY ARE YOU in your parka?” is the first thing Anna says when Tate and I walk into the living room. “Girls, you didn’t need to rush over.”
“Seriously?” Tate asks. She slumps down on the couch next to Anna. The throw pillows—Mom loves throw pillows—almost envelop her.
Anna bumps her shoulder against Tate’s. “Go get changed,” she says. “You’re going to drip all over the carpet.”
“Mom?” I call, because she’s nowhere to be seen.
“I’m in the kitchen,” she yells from the back of the house.
“You let her in the kitchen alone?” I ask, horrified.
“She’s in charge of the salad, nothing important,” Gran mutters, popping up behind me. I have to bite my tongue to keep from shrieking. Gran is soft-footed and values the element of surprise, and because of that, I’ve been on edge my entire life. She’ll appear out of nowhere like the grim reaper—but one who gives you cookies and teaches you how to hot-wire a car instead of dragging you off to the great beyond.
“I’m just gonna…” I trail off, heading toward the kitchen. Thankfully, Gran’s right—Mom’s chopping lettuce at the island.
“Almost done here,” Mom says, flinging more romaine into the bowl. “We’re going to talk after dinner, okay? Go keep Tate company.”
“Talk about what?”
She still won’t meet my eyes. She wouldn’t be making salad if they were breaking bad health news to us, right?
“I’ll set the table,” I say. I get the silverware from the basket and the napkins from the drawer in the dining room. When Mom sold our house in town, she still was at Anna’s apartment. Mom was beyond the comatose-with-grief stage, but still in the sleeping-all-the-time part. I barely saw her that first year. I lived with Gran until Mom got herself together, and then Mom moved in here and Gran moved into the Airstream she parked across the meadow. It never felt right, driving Gran out of her house. But there’s no way Gran and Mom can exist in the same house for months or years.
It wasn’t always like that, but it is now.
I’m about to start senior year, and the house is a strange mix of the Conner women: Gran’s 1930s buffet with the results of Mom’s pottery phase inside, my tools tucked in the drawer, and Mom’s biggest, most chaotic stained-glass piece set on top—the one that’s all glittery purple shards that should resemble crystals but look like pain instead. Cruder than her other work, it’s one of the first pieces she made after Dad died. Her work since then has been different. She used to be obsessed with symmetry and color and precision. Now it’s all abstract and jagged storytelling, and it has fancy art people interested in ways they never were before.
The silverware is Gran’s, too. But the napkins are all Mom again—hand-embroidered with flowers.
I take the time to fold them so the borders match up, because the alternative is to stew some more. I’m setting out the plates when Tate wanders in. She’s changed out of her suit and parka into her clothes: sweats and a shirt from last year’s 5K to Fight Ovarian Cancer that she cut the sleeves and neck out of because she’s allergic to crewnecks or something. She does that with all her shirts. They’re always dipping off her shoulder.
“Penny, you look like you’re about to have a panic attack,” she mutters as she grabs the plates from me.
“They’re acting weird.”
“Then freak out with me!”
She raises an eyebrow. “Calm down with me,” she counters.
“That’s…,” I sputter, and her eyes crinkle but her mouth doesn’t move. “Mean,” I finish.
“I’d rather get through dinner without you hyperventilating.”
“That was one time, and you know it!”
“It’s been a lot more than once, including that time you passed out… and you know it.”
My eyes narrow. She wasn’t there the time I blacked out. How does she know about it? And I don’t even have to ask, because she sees it on my face and answers and I’m grateful. I’m not someone who can sink into the deep waters of the unknowable like Tate. She never needs to surface… and I always end up having to.
“Who do you think Meghan texted all frantic because she knew if she called your mom you’d be pissed?”
“Of course she did. She’s your best friend and you passed out on her. You’re welcome, by the way.”
“For what?” I want to whip my phone out of my pocket and text Meghan right now, but I don’t, because Tate is right. Again.
“For not telling anyone.”
“There isn’t anything to tell,” but it’s bullshit coming out of my mouth. And because her eyes are still gleaming at me, I add, “I’m fine, Tate.”
“Mmm.” She doesn’t even bother with trying to believe me, but I can’t do anything about it because Mom chooses that moment to come out of the kitchen with the salad.
Tate and I finish setting the table, the rest of the food gets brought out, and then we’re all sitting there.
I get through four bites of salad before I can’t stand it anymore. “So what’s going on?”
“I told you,” Anna says to Mom, pointing her fork at her. “We should’ve done it before dinner.”
“Done what?” Tate asks.
“After dinner,” Mom says again, and it’s just enough to make me snap, the way she still refuses to meet my eyes. “We have a plan,” she stresses to Anna.
“Mom,” I say. “What the fuck?”
The entire table goes silent except for a dramatic clatter of silverware on Gran’s part—which is a joke, because she swears like a sailor.
Anna starts laughing. “This is your fault,” she tells Mom. “Penny, honey, it’s okay.”
“What’s happened?” Tate asks, staring at Anna.
Anna puts down her fork and smiles. No, actually she’s beaming.
“Since my liver biopsy, my doctors have been talking about a transplant,” Anna says.
“It’s what we should’ve been talking about from the start,” Mom says.
“Going on the transplant list like they suggested was a perfectly reasonable thing to do,” Anna tells her.
“Wait… is there a donor? Do we have to go to the hospital now?” Tate looks like she’s about to leap from the table and take my car to get to Sacramento.
“There is a donor,” Anna says.
“It’s me,” Mom says. “We just got the word today that I’ve been approved as Anna’s donor. Why wait for who knows how long when I can give her some of mine?”
“What?” It’s my voice. It’s loud. It echoes in the dining room and makes my mother’s eyes dart toward me finally. But only for a second. Then her gaze is gone. She’s gone.
“The doctors say even though it’s a rarer procedure, there’s a better survival rate with a living donor,” Gran prompts from the other end of the table.
“You’re doing a living-donor liver transplant?” Tate’s words come out so fast, they’re a terrible jumble that takes me a second to sort out because all I’m thinking is What did Mom just say? over and over again. “When?”
“We’re headed to Sacramento in four days,” Anna says.
“Ninety-six hours, baby!” Mom grins and that’s when I realize that they’ve already decided all of this: The three of them have talked it over days—no, months ago. They must have undergone all these tests to make sure Mom was a match and had evaluations to make sure this is what she wanted and… we were just left out of all of it.
“Mom!” Tate says, and then she’s just hugging both of them, practically throwing herself in their laps like a child, and I cannot stand the joy when I’m about to swirl down the drain of panic and fear.
I can’t be here right now.
I’m up out of the chair before I think it through, and I know someone is calling my name, but I keep going.
The backyard is less of a yard and more of a field. This land—the four acres, the house and its corrugated tin roof, with Gran’s beat-up Airstream on the access road across the field—is where my dad grew up. I’ve been here ever since he died. It took Mom longer to get here and for Gran to move into the Airstream. There’s no way Gran would leave me alone with Mom after everything. Not that I think Mom wanted to be alone with me—she’s always looking for an exit when we’re together.
What happens if she dies this time? What if she leaves me for good?
Selfish thoughts. Selfish questions. I want to be selfish here. Greedy for the only parent I have left.
Foxtails brush against my ankles as I reach the edge of the field, where a group of volcanic slate formations juts skyward. I perch on the edge of the biggest rock, my fingers searching for the spot beneath the lip of the stone.
There. I trace the initials. GC + CC = PC
George Conner + Charlotte Conner = Penelope Conner
My mother has always been so very extra in the love department, down to carving things in stone and giving up her whole heart to Dad so that he took it with him when he was gone… and handing over part of her liver to Anna, because that’s what you do for your best friend.
She’s great on a team, my mom. When she has a partner, she shines. When Dad was alive, she was brightness personified. But when he died, that light snapped off so abruptly, it left me groping in the dark.
Those first six months—that entire first year, really—she was reeling, needing a teammate, while I needed a mother. Everyone thought I was the stronger one, so I had to be. It’s better now. Anna was there for Mom through all of it, because that’s what best friends do.
I’ve been hearing that line my whole life. I’ve been around the two of them and their stories and their secret language and the fact that they are even closer than sisters or lovers would be. They’ve created something entirely beyond bonds of blood or romance—an I’ll-get-rid-of-a-body-for-you sort of friendship. It’s the kind of thing that’s so strong it ripples through everything they touch. Half of my life has been spent around Tate just because of them. Gran is as good as Tate’s grandmother, and she’s the only one either of us has got. There is no part of my life that isn’t rippled through because Anna caught my mom shoplifting when they were kids and covered for her.
I should’ve seen this coming. Of course Mom got tested to see if she was a match. Of course she agreed to do this without even talking to me.
I lean back on the rock. I’m out there for long enough that dinner’s probably over. But I still don’t go inside. I don’t even move until—
My mouth tightens when I hear Tate’s voice. I stare at the sky, back flat, knees up. I keep my eyes fixed on the stars even when she walks up and sits down next to me.
I’ll cry if I meet her eyes and she’s all sympathetic and pitying. And I’ll yell if she’s mad.
“Penny.” It’s just my name. I’ve heard it hundreds of times in my life. I’ve heard it dozens of times from her lips. But this time, she kind of sighs it through her fingers as if she’s trying to hold it in. As if it’s suddenly become a secret I’m not supposed to hear.
- * “Tess Sharpe's latest endeavor has all the trappings of a quintessential romance. [It dissects] Penny and Tate's thorny romance…their relationships with themselves, and…the very nature of love.” —Booklist, starred review
- “In this character-driven, slow-burn romance, both Penny and Tate are engaging voices, enriching the narrative with their strong and very different personalities. It’s impossible to choose a favorite…Well characterized and wholly entertaining.”—Kirkus
- "Sharpe smartly navigates familiar romance tropes, such as friends-to-lovers, to craft a refreshing and gratifying dynamic…a savvy, slow-burn romance."—Publishers Weekly
Praise for Tess Sharpe
The Girls I've Been:
* "A captivating, explosive, and satisfyingly queer thriller." —Kirkus, starred review
* "An arrestingly incisive narrative . . . fiercely captivating and impressively characterized, this tightly plotted thriller is engrossing from start to finish." —Booklist, starred review
* "Not since Veronica Mars have hardscrabble swagger, enormous grief and teenage noir been combined into such a satisfying piece of storytelling. The Girls I've Been is a heart-wrenching, perfectly paced, cinematic thriller . . . a romance, a tragedy and a story about reclaiming agency and power. It is a triumph." —Bookpage, starred review
Barbed Wire Heart:
"Harley is one of the most complex, fascinating, dangerous characters I've encountered in years." —Lisa Gardner
"Terrific. " —David Baldacci
"Pulls off something rare." —Chicago Tribune
"Possibly the most powerful, original female character we've had in decades." —New York Journal of Books
* "Highly satisfying." —Publishers Weekly, starred review
* "Sharpe is definitely a name to watch." —Booklist, starred review
Far From Here
* "This beautifully realized debut delves into the emotions of a girl recovering from drug addiction and grief, all wrapped up in a solid mystery." —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
* "Sharpe creat[es] a lacerating picture of grief and regret. ...The murder mystery is compelling, and its resolution serves as a reminder that love is irrevocably tied to loss and that few people get out of it unscathed." —Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, starred review
"This romance is full of struggle and strong emotions, likely to find an appreciable YA audience." —School Library Journal
- On Sale
- Jan 24, 2023
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers