Ash sees her for the first time at Spiral.
His twin brother’s girlfriend, Violet Adams, has just pulled off a successful art show, so they drag him out for tapas. They know Ash isn’t seeing anyone so they’re always conscientious to include him. He’s sick of being the third wheel. His doppelganger’s always holding hands with some ridiculously hot redhead. Meanwhile, Ash is on the other side of the table, swiping left on dating sites when he and Thatcher look exactly the same.
Life is not fair.
Ash sighs. He’s had one good relationship, messed it up, since, has crashlanded a series of bad dates, shitty significant others, and one-night stands. No delicious blonds or brilliant redheads for him. Why the hell does this happen to him?
Oh, yeah. Because he’s the weird twin.
Follow Daddy into the family law firm? Thatcher traipsed down the golden path. Ash had to be dragged kicking and screaming. He threatened to quit college altogether if they didn’t let him double-major in biology. Thatcher has no goddamn clue, bless him. Ash would tear off his right arm if his twin asked for it in passing, but the things Thatcher doesn’t know could fill a goddamn library. He’s too busy playing around, being loud, and having sex.
So while Thatcher gets gooey over Violet’s art show, Ash has been watching the waitress again. He loves the waitress at Spiral — he’s been watching her for like, three months now. She’s pretty. Not in that perfect, polished debutante way that always gets shoved in his face, but in a real-girl way. Freckles not covered in makeup, big eyes lined in smeary black liner, black nail polish. Perfect skin those rich girls would shiv a homeless man for. Dark hair, almost two steps shy of black. Big, high breasts, and when she walks away, a perfect, round ass. Good God.
She introduces herself as Chloe and delivers the standard waitress spiel in a Midlands accent. Down here for Charleston School for the Arts, Ash decided a while ago. When they order, she doesn’t write anything down.
“You gonna remember all that?” Thatcher flirts with all women between the ages of approximately fifteen and fifty-five.
She quirks a cute grin. “You want me to recite it back to you?”
Ash leans back in his chair. “Go for it.” He brushes a stray strand of spiky blond hair off his forehead.
“Red wants the filet and the gorgonzola potatoes with a salad, but she’s going to share the potatoes with twin number one. Twin Number One wants the filet and the salmon and the pad thai. Twin Number Two, and that would be you, wants the garlic fries, the balsamic salad, and the filet, which is really damn popular at this table. You all want to split a bottle of the Cougar Creek Pinot Noir, and the guys want Split Creek bourbons. Plus a water for Twin Number Two.”
“You got one thing wrong.” Ash smiles.
She puts her hands on her hips. “No, I didn’t.”
“I’m Twin Number One. He’s four minutes younger.”
“No fair, Twin Number One.” Chloe laughs. “That wasn’t in the order. I’ll be back with your drinks.” She disappears.
Violet kicks him under the table. “Get her damn number.”
God bless Violet. She’s one of the best wingmen Ash’s ever had, and that includes his brother.
“Too young.” Thatcher shakes his head. “She looks like, eighteen. Hard pass.”
Okay. She does look about eighteen. But Ash doesn’t really care, as long as she’s smart. That’s why he stayed with his last girlfriend for so long. She was a bitch, but that bitch could almost beat him at Scrabble.
“Who cares?” Violet rolls her eyes. Ash suspects she lost her virginity at a much younger age than Thatcher did.
“Oh my god, Ash can’t date an eighteen-year-old.” Thatcher laughs. “We’re twenty-six years old. Talk about fucking cradle-robbing.”
They have a decent rest of the meal. When Chloe brings them their food, she gives everyone their correct order, no hesitation. “Here, Twin Number One.” She sets his filet in front of him. “And it’s rare, the way you wanted it. Which I forgot to add into my recitation, by the way. I apologize.”
She appears again to ask about dessert. “So is it a birthday tonight? Y’all look like you just came from a party.”
“Art opening,” Ash points at Violet.
“Oh, are you at Charleston School for the Arts?” Chloe perks up. “What in? I’m in theater and vocal performance.”
Thatcher raises an eyebrow. “Charleston School for the Arts double art major? I’ve only known one of those, ever.”
“Yeah. Well. How did the opening go?”
“Really well,” Violet smiles. “And I paint, by the way. You must be, what, a freshman?”
She nods. “Yeah, first year. That obvious, huh?” She tears their check. “Y’all have a good night.”
Ash manages to snatch it before anyone else does. “Got it. Your opening, Violet. Congratulations.”
Violet gives him a genuine smile. She’s truly sweet. Why can’t he find a girl like her? “Thanks, Ash.”
Like he’s being all chivalrous or something. Except when he’s signing for the bill, and no one’s looking, he flips it and scribbles on the back. “Call me sometime. Twin Number One, Ashton (Ash) Prioleau.”
What the hell ever. It’s better than the dating apps.
Ash drives back to his apartment, because unlike the rest of them, he’s actually sober enough to get behind the wheel of his blue Jaguar. People ask why he and Thatcher go to such lengths to look alike, to have the same car, the same cell phone, the same glasses. Only two people in the whole world can tell them apart: their father, and their older brother Davis. Thatcher’s girlfriend can’t even say which of them is which most of the time. But Thatcher likes it better this way, and since Thatcher cares that much, Ash goes along with it. They could sit in on each other’s classes in school. They can fix each other’s messes. Deal with the shit the other one doesn’t want to deal with. Trade life on and off, basically.
Unlike Thatcher, who chose to live in some postmodern hellhole of an apartment, Ash stays in a rambling bungalow off a square downtown. It has lots of shelf space. Ash needs lot of shelf space. Not just for his books — alongside his novels and poetry, he keeps nature guides, technical manuals, and scientific tomes that costs an arm and a leg. He has his beloved paleontology texts: a pictorial history of the Burgess Shale, a now-outdated (and goddammit, he just bought the thing five years ago) encyclopedia of whale evolution, guides to fossil shark teeth, Cenozoic fossils of the Southeastern Seaboard, Land mammals of the Cenozoic Era, and hard-to-find, out-of-print texts he had to track down through fossil dealers.
But it’s not the books that take up most of his shelf space. It’s his collections.
Ash’s house is stuffed with fossils, some of them museum-quality. Ash has money and he’s not afraid to spend it: Ash is acquainted with most of the fossil dealers up and down the Eastern Seaboard. He has everything from giant ground sloth bones to mammoth tusks to tiny alligator scutes, fossil shark teeth sorted by species and stuffed into plastic cases. He has dinosaur bones. Ash has fucking dinosaur bones.
No one but Ash cares that Ash has dinosaur bones. Mostly, they make fun of him for caring about dinosaur bones and for digging them up over the summers when he was in high school. Now he digs up prehistoric mammals with friends in Summerville, South Carolina.
Thatcher mostly thinks this is a grand joke; for some reason, no one thinks his pinball hobby is a giant joke, but whatever. The twins might have gone to school together, but Thatcher was always the cool one. Ash was always getting called Ross, after the doofy paleontologist from Friends. “Gonna go dig up another dinosaur this summer, Ross?” they’d say, and laugh. Then they’d make Jurassic Park jokes. Ash has spent almost every summer since he was fifteen on dig sites — then getting laughed at for it.
Ash checks the tidal charts and sets his alarm accordingly. Early, too early, he brews coffee and makes the long drive out to Folly Beach in the dark and waits for the sun to rise, shivering in his old prep school hoodie. He wishes, like he does every morning, for a girl to come with him on these excursions, to share a thermos of coffee and watch the sun rise over the Atlantic while he keeps her warm. Like his twin, he does his 100 Marine push-ups every day. Big, 6’0, built like the high school football player he used to be: Ash makes a damn good cuddler. He lost hope in finding a girl to come with him long ago.
He pulls a warm hat over his head — the beach wind is cold — and starts walking. Ash stares at the sand and scans for shape and color. Fossils are that special shiny-black, and shark teeth, that triangle. He passes hundreds of perfect lettered olive shells, intact baby ears, enormous pin shells. But he plucks fossil shark teeth from the debris: tiger shark, lemon shark, great white. He needs to get to Edisto Beach for a week, go camping this summer — the things that wash up on Edisto with the tides every day: sloth toes and horse teeth, megalodon teeth and sabertooth cat parts. And it’s getting to be warmer; he needs to take his john boat out with his paleontologist buddies and dive the blackwater Ashley-Cooper River system for fossils. He knows where the secret fossil beds wait, where they lie in pluff mud and patience amid the snapping turtles and bull sharks and sediment so thick you have to feel, not look. You can dive in the Charleston Harbor, but Ash doesn’t. It’s a freight lane and that scares him.
On his way home, Thatcher calls. Does he want to join them for brunch at Spiral? Sure, he says. Spiral sounds great: maybe Chloe is working. Yeah, Spiral sounds good. He changes out of his beach clothes and into traditional Charleston hot guy: checked button down, untucked, and khakis. He does his hair into properly messy spikes. After he parks downtown, Ash slides into the table, purposely fifteen minutes early, and he’s in luck: not only is Chloe working, she’s their waitress, and it’s quiet, not many customers. “Twin Number One returns.” She gives him a wry smile. “You bringing your entourage today?”
“How’d you know I was Twin Number One?” Ash furrows his brow.
She gives him an odd look. “Because you’re clearly not your brother, one, and you’re short a girlfriend.”
“You can tell us apart?”
She rolls her eyes. “Is that so shocking?”
“Considering only our father and older brother can manage it, yes.”
“Then the rest of the world is made up of idiots, Ash. Nice move, writing on the back of the bill, by the way. Super adorable. How’d you manage it without baby brother noticing?”
“Waited until they were getting all gooey for each other.”
“They seem like the types. So lemme guess. They’re meeting you this morning. Mimosas all around.”
“Yep. Theater and voice?”
She shrugs, the way she did last night. “I learned to sing when I was a little girl. I’m in a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream right now at Grant Street. I’m not working much because of performances, but we had the day off.” Ash’s eyes widen: Grant Street Theater’s one of Charleston’s more popular — and biggest.
“One of my favorites. Who’re you playing?” Probably a bit part: she’s a freshman.
One of the starring roles.
“What do you do?” She gives him a grin.
“Study for the bar mostly. Job waiting for me with the family firm. Boring.”
“What’s the rest of the mostly?”
“No, seriously. Or else it has to be a sex dungeon.”
Ash doesn’t know whether to laugh or sigh. “I’m a giant dork. It’s not interesting. No sex dungeon, which would count as interesting. Totally boring, totally uninteresting to anyone. My brothers gets sick of hearing about it.”
She grins. It’s adorable. “I’ll drag it out of you at some point. I’d better go get those mimosas.”
Thatcher and Violet tumble in a few minutes later. The mimosas arrive. Violet tells Ash how sweet he is to order them drinks. Chloe returns and they all order. Thatcher must notice Ash watch her walk away. Thatcher notices everything. Then comments on it.
“Cradle. Robbing.” Thatcher sounds firm. “Too young for you.”
Ash shrugs at him. “She’s hot.” This is the easiest explanation for Thatcher.
“She’s not your type.”
“What the fuck is my type?”
“At least four years older.” Thatcher says it with a straight face.
Violet cracks up. Okay, Ash can admit that was a good one. “Leave Ash alone.” She can hardly talk, she’s laughing so hard. “God, Thatcher, let him do what he wants. Mind your own goddamn business.”
Thatcher steals the check before Ash can grab it. Goddammit. But Chloe’s at the hostess stand when they leave. “Come see Midsummer sometime.” She says it offhandedly, like it’s no big deal.
So for once, the next weekend, Ash goes to the theater by himself. He usually drags Thatcher along. Which means Violet too, but that’s the way it goes. If Ash wants to see a play, or a movie, he usually calls them. Or his best friend from high school, Bennett Yardly, the first girl he ever kissed. And slept with. Then they dated, and it was wonderful and perfect and everything. Til Ash decided, hey, this is college. I should hook up with other people.
He broke up with Bennett, his best friend, the only girl he’s ever really loved.
Luckily Bennett was gracious enough to forgive him. Not see him. But forgive him.
Ash’s love life has been a total disaster ever since.
Ash sits somewhere in the middle and flips open the program. Chloe Angel Stanton, from Florence, South Carolina, double major in voice and theater, a freshman, starred in several plays in the Frances Marion Community Theater, including Chicago and The Glass Castle. Did a stint at The Lost Colony and with the South Carolina Shakespeare Company, where she played Lady Macbeth. This is her first mainstage production at Charleston School for the Arts.
And she’s good. She’s really good.
Ash has seen Midsummer staged half a dozen times, from high school all the way up to the Globe Theater in London, and this is easily one of the best. Chloe is funny but with that hint of malevolence Puck is supposed to have, that true fairy-ness that people often fail to see in the character. A freshman, too. God. She’s smart enough to read the subtext other people miss. Ash finds himself very, very intrigued by this girl with the long, dark hair. They let her play the part with it down and wild, too, in true fairy fashion. Ash wants to tangle his hands through it. Mermaid hair, like she’s been in the ocean and let it dry in the whipping beach wind.
He finds the backstage door outside and waits. No one says anything; he’s dressed well and looks like he has money: that ineffable air of wealth, something about the way his clothes fit, his watch shines, his class ring sits on his finger. Chloe finally emerges, stage makeup already washed off, regular, smeary makeup on. That’s what probably took her so long.
“Ash Prioleau.” She smiles. “You showed up. What did you think?”
He pushes off the brick wall he’s been leaning against. It’s February, starting spring for Charleston but still cool. Chloe wears a short skirt and a long black jacket with a nipped-in waist, her neck wrapped in one of those giant scarves girls go nuts for. Violet has one just like it. Her heels make her look a little bit taller — she must be somewhere around 5’5 without them.
“I thought you were good. More than good. Very, very, very good.” Ash pauses. “Do you want an in-depth report of your performance, or is that sufficient?”
Chloe scrutinizes his face. The dark bleeds her eyes to black. “In depth, please.”
So Ash gives it to her — at least five minutes’ worth. Ash usually ended up as one of the leads in the school play — one of the few things that distinguished him from his brother. Chloe’s quiet for a minute. “Thanks. I appreciate an analysis from someone who clearly knows what the hell they’re talking about.” She smiles. “You want to get me a drink? I’d generally tell you to fuck off, but you’re too smart and good looking to ignore.”
He shrugs. “Upscale doesn’t card. Neither do any number of nicer bars, if you don’t feel like drinking Pabst.”
She laughs. “Pabst’s awesome.”
“You wanna meet me there?”
“I walked here from the dorm.”
Oh my fucking god, she really is that young. His stomach swoops. “I’ll drive, or we can walk, if you want.”
“Walk. It’s a nice night. Always walk on a nice night, Ash.” He and Chloe start down the wide Charleston sidewalks. It’s about ten, not too late, the night bustling with people on their way to someplace else. Partiers, mostly, out for the bars. Small trees line the sidewalks. It’s a straight shot to Upscale, only sketchy in the last few blocks. Ash jams his hands in his pockets. He’s dressed in Charleston casual tonight: khakis, an untucked, fitted white button down, and a suit jacket. They make an attractive couple. He’s glad she hasn’t changed her hair. He and Chloe stay quiet for the first few blocks. Is she nervous or capable of silence? Ash hopes it’s the latter. He loves the connection in companionable silence, the attunement and awareness that develops in the absence of chatter.
“So I assume you got the bare basics from the program.” Chloe talks suddenly, startling him. “I grew up in Florence, did lots of theater, blah blah. I learned to sing in church, of all places. Now you tell me about you. Law school, studying for the bar, but only mostly, so there’s more than that. You won’t tell me, but you swear it’s not a sex dungeon.”
“Boring. Undergrad at University of South Carolina and straight into Charleston Law until I die of alcoholism and despair. I’m studying for the bar right now. String of girlfriends that never seems to go anywhere. The usual.” He shrugs.
“Anything but the usual.” Chloe’s hands are jammed in her pockets. “Why don’t the relationships go anywhere?”
He shrugs again. “Secret dork.”
Chloe raises an eyebrow. “Comic books.”
“Vintage Nintendo games.”
“That’s my twin, Thatcher, and those are cool now.”
“Oh god, don’t let it be tentacle porn. You’re too hot to be into tentacle porn. That would truly be a sign of an uncaring universe.”
Ash is good-looking: he sees his identically handsome, blond twin every goddamn day. But it’s one thing to see it and another to hear it so casually from a pretty girl. He looks down at the sidewalk and sort of smiles. “No tentacle porn, sorry.” They steer around a couple holding hands. Someone barfing in the gutter. Oh, Charleston, you inveterate party town. Ash smiles. We wouldn’t have you any other way. “You’ll never guess, and I won’t tell.”
“Why?” She knits her brows. A small line appears between them. “You’re allowed to like what you like. Anyone who thinks otherwise is an asshole. Why do you think I left the meth capital of South Carolina for art school? Total lack of imagination.”
“Fossils.” It pops out before he can stop it.
“I’m an amateur paleontologist. My dining room table is covered in an extinct leatherback turtle skeleton I’m piecing together.” Literally no one knows this. He doesn’t know why he’s telling Chloe, especially since he isn’t even drunk, but something about the “you’re allowed to like what you like,” delivered in such a “you idiot” voice, loosed something inside his chest. Thatcher doesn’t even know about the turtle. Ash dug it up outside of Summerville and he’s been working on it for like, a year and a half. Which means no one else has been in his dining room for a year and a half. Which is super depressing.
“What do you have?” Chloe seems genuinely interested.
Ash suddenly finds himself tongue-tied. He only talks about this stuff to his family, and that only to fill empty space when neither Thatcher nor their older brother Davis is at dinner. “Um, a little bit of everything? Lots of stuff. Some I found on my own. Some I bought. It’s all over my house. It’s not super interesting.”
Her heels click on the sidewalk. They’re almost at Upscale and swiftly entering the seedier part of town. This is why he and Thatcher usually take an Uber or drive. “No, it’s actually fascinating.” Chloe pauses and bites her lip. “Do you have any, like dinosaur bones?”
“I’ve never seen a real one.” She looks away from him. “Only casts. Museums only ever put the casts out.”
“I have some crazy casts. But I have some real ones, too.”
“I want to see them. I swear, this isn’t an attempt to get in your bed. But I really, really want to see actual dinosaur bones. I was obsessed with dinosaurs as a kid. I was supposed to be obsessed with dance. And I was fairly well-behaved then so I danced my little ass off. But then I’d go read my dinosaur books, until my mother’s boyfriend threw them all out because he said girls didn’t need to learn about dinosaurs.”
Ash knits his eyebrows together. “Uh, what a dick.”
Ash pushes open the black door to Upscale. “After you.” Ash loves to hold the door for girls. The music blares classic rock; there’s no tables, just a long, horseshoe-shaped bar. They only take cash. Chloe and Ash grab the last two seats on the end.
Chloe grins. “So, straight out. How old are you?”
“Twenty-six.” No reason to lie. “How old are you? Eighteen?”
“On August 29th.” Ouch. She really is barely legal. But she’s smart and cute and she really can act. She grins again, adorably. “So what are you doing out with an eighteen-year-old? You graduated from high school when I was in fifth grade.”
Ash manages to keep the cringe off his face. “You don’t have to put it that way.”
“Seriously, though. What’s the deal?”
Ash takes a drink, looks into the glare of the neon that’s about all the lighting Upscale has to offer. Probably for the best. “You seem really smart. You’re really good at what you do. Helps that you’re gorgeous. I suspect you have an eidetic memory, but I’m not sure on that.”
“And you know exactly what it means.”
“It means I remember things very, very, very well. But unfortunately, Ash Prioleau, I have a rule: I only see people who watched the same cartoons that I did growing up. So while I still really, really hope you’ll show me your dinosaur bones, that’s about all I hope you try to show me.”
“Not a chance?”
She seems to think about it, takes a drink, and stares into the neon. She doesn’t act like she’s giving him a glib answer but actually considering the question. “I don’t like guys my own age. They’re idiots who just want to get up my dress. You’re smart. You’re interesting. You can actually hold a decent conversation. And you have dinosaur bones. So yeah, I might break the rule for you.” She takes a long drink of her Pabst.
“I see you’re already an accomplished drinker.”
She raises her eyebrows. “What else you think there is to do in Florence? Other than meth, and I’m not into meth.”
“Probably nothing.” Ash throws down the rest of his Pabst. He signals for another, and the bartender slides one down to him. Ash actually really likes Pabst, a relic from his time at dive bars outside of paleontological dig sites and something Thatcher would endlessly ridicule him for. “Weren’t you busy starring in Chicago, though?” Something he is trying not to think too much about. Because Chicago is totally hot.
“What did you think we did at cast parties?”
“Point. So how’d you end up at Charleston School for the Arts?”
“They gave me a full ride. Juilliard didn’t.”
Ash nearly spits out his beer. “You got into Julliard?”
She shrugs. “A few of us at Governor’s School did. South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts? In Greenville?”
Which she just graduated from. In June. It’s February. Ash should not be here at all. Thatcher was right. He’s contemplating cradle robbery. But Chloe is drop-dead gorgeous, and the more she talks, the prettier she gets.
“You like Charleston School for the Arts so far?”
She shrugs. “It’s okay. A lot of people drinking a lot, having wild sex six ways from Sunday, and making art that’s as provocatively weird as possible. I mean, I’m all for some partying. But when there’s a guy standing in the corner wearing a ball gag, I’m out.”
Ash laughs. “My brother’s girlfriend says basically the same thing about Charleston School for the Arts: she’s there to throw pots, not watch people weave things out of cat hair.”
She stands up. “Okay, one’s my limit. Show me some dinosaur bones, Ash Prioleau.”