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The first time he sees her, he has other things on his mind. His dad. Victor. His grandmother’s confession. So he doesn’t really see her. He just notices her in the abstract. The pretty girl in the magenta dress sitting behind him. Like Cinderella at the wrong ball. His gaze flicks over her. His pulse jumps. But then he’s overwhelmed by six thousand other thoughts, dueling egos, and a bombshell that splits his family into pieces. He doesn’t see her again until days after the fall-out. When he’s still picking shrapnel out of his skin and hoping two shots of Crimson Lights espresso will numb the sting.

The pretty girl in the formal gown, he registers then, has turned into a teenager in a Walnut Grove uniform. Mattie Ashby, Charlie’s twin sister. Her thick black curls tamed by a headband. Her doe eyes hidden behind glasses. He nearly chokes on his Americano. Because Kyle may be a lot of things, but he’s no predator. He likes his partners well above legal age, thank you very much. Hell, he actually skews mid-30s to 40s. His $200-an-hour Manhattan analyst told him it was because he lost his mother at a formative age. It put him off breast play for a month.

Damn. Kyle swallows a scalding mouthful of espresso and shakes his head, grabbing his reckless thoughts by the wheel. New York is thousands of miles away. That life is thousands of miles away. The things he did, the games he played, have no place here in Genoa City. Eyes Wide Shut and Gordon Gekko and three-martini lunches. More than most twenty-six-year-olds get to experience. More than little Mattie Ashby will ever get to know. She has a stack of books piled on a back table and a serious “don’t talk to me” vibe, but Kyle can’t help but steer her way.

“Hey…you’re Charlie’s sister, right?” he says by way of greeting when he’s just a few feet from her makeshift study hall. 

She barely spares him a glance. She finds Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race way more interesting. “I’m my own person,” she corrects him, in a voice so wintry and dry that it cracks his skin. “My identity is not tied to my more popular male sibling.” 

Okay. He grins. Maybe he misjudged Cinderella just a little. Less Wisconsin naif, more social justice warrior in training. “I’m sorry. Matilda?” He helps himself to the seat across from her with the confidence of a privileged white man who’s taken dozens of other chairs in the exact same manner. She looks up at him, slender dark eyebrows arching over the rim of her glasses. His presumption has not gone unnoticed.  “I’m Kyle Abbott. We haven’t been formally introduced.”

“I know who you are,” she says, coolly. She leans back in her chair, looking him over from head to toe. His dove-gray suit is perfectly tailored. His pink and blue paisley tie matches his pocket square. None of it meets with her approval, he can tell. But just to hammer the point home, she heaves a put-upon sigh and closes her book, marking her place with a scrap of notebook paper. “Is there something you need from me, Mr. Abbott?”

Oh, God. Ouch. He has to nip that in the bud. “Mr. Abbott’s my dad. Or my uncle. I don’t think you qualify for a ‘mister’ in front of your name until you’re at least thirty.”

“You’re not thirty?” Skepticism weighs down the three short words.

Fuck, does he look thirty? Kyle is half tempted to pull out his iPhone and book an emergency appointment with his aesthetician. Nothing a microdermabrasion facial can’t fix, right? The mischievous glint in Mattie’s eyes, genuine amusement tilting up the corners of her lips, tells him she knows the direction of his thoughts—and keeps the phone firmly ensconced in his pocket. 

“I’ll have you know that I turned twenty-seven in January,” he tells her, sounding dickish to his own ears. He’s earned the attitude, though. He zipped through college at hyper speed. Has a Harvard MBA. Has brokered deals with—and bedded—East Coast hotshots twice his age. His youth is an asset, one he’s glad to claim.

As for what he needs from her…

It’s a loaded question. He knows that he walked over out of some ingrained sense of Midwestern politeness. After all, their families go way back. Her brother put together Dina’s movie. He was, ostensibly, going to assure her that Charlie was one-hundred percent off the hook for the shitshow that was the viewing party. No one blamed him—or her, by extension. But, sitting across from her now, Kyle can’t seem to form those words. Make those niceties.   

And Mattie…she’s no fool. She’s got him dead to rights. “I’m seventeen,” she says, crossing her arms over her chest. “Seven. Teen.”

Christ. If she has to say it twice, maybe he is a predator. His face goes hot with sudden shame. The prickly guilt he hasn’t felt since he cheated on Summer. “Hey, listen, I didn’t mean…I’m not…” The smooth talk he’s known for fails him. He’s gone toe-to-toe with Victor Newman without faltering, but it’s Matilda Ashby who knocks him off balance. “That’s not why I walked over here,” he manages to get out finally. “I’m not flirting with you. I would never flirt with you.”

“Oh.” The transformation is almost instantaneous. From haughty SJW to…someone else. Someone shy and small and soft, her hard shell cracked wide open. Her shoulders slump. She nods. A faint blush tinges her cheeks. And it’s her turn to stammer. “Of course not. Why would you?” Her gaze goes back to her book. She opens it and places her bookmark carefully to the side before raising her shields. The “don’t talk to me” sign in place once more.

Kyle is the actual worst. Betraying his father. Hurting his family. And now unwittingly undermining the confidence of this smart, and so sweet, young woman he’s just met. Fuck. He works for a cosmetics company. He knows beauty. There is no shade of foundation that matches the naturally golden hue of Mattie’s skin—and they’ll have to work on that if they want to compete with Fenty. Her eyes are stunning; they don’t even need mascara or liner to pop. She is breathtakingly lovely and of course he was flirting with her, whether he meant to or not. He’d have to be dead to resist bantering with a girl like her.

And he can’t tell her that. Because she’s, as she so emphatically pointed out, seven.teen. He finishes his Americano in silence. Then he manages some hollow facsimile of the Charlie thing he should’ve just led with. She doesn’t acknowledge it. Or the scrape of his chair as he pushes back.

He doesn't know why he says it.  To ease his conscience? To add to his sins? But before he walks away, he feels compelled to tell her the most fundamental truth. The most honest thing he's said in a long time. “You're beautiful. I didn't mean to make you feel anything less than that.”

He forgot the most important thing about Cinderella stories. He’s no Prince Charming.

* * *

She's used to it. Genoa City is full of creeps. She's been hit on a million times since she first started developing breasts. Even before that. By all kinds of guys. Even ones her grandpa's age. Gross. It's not something she would ever talk about. With four overbearing men in her family? And her mom? Please. She's not stupid. Not about that and not about men. So, she totally knows what Kyle Abbott is up to when he talks to her at Crimson Lights. It's not about her. Who she is. How she looks. It's about power. It's because he can. 

“You're beautiful. I didn't mean to make you feel anything less than that.”

Whatever. She doesn't believe he thinks that. Even though it's the last thing he says before he leaves—with his blue eyes radiating sincerity and his voice stripped of any cockiness. Even though she can't stop thinking about it days later.  

Kyle's a creep, clearly. Twenty-seven. Fancy suits. A pocket square. He probably posts photos of his outfits on his Insta. Not that she's searched for it or anything. Not that she's spending her last Skip Day of the school year thinking about him instead of looking over her summer class schedule and working out her HWG internship hours. 

Mattie doesn't know why she cares. Why she doesn't just file him away into the GC Jerks folder in her head. Up until recently, Reed took up a lot of space there, but he's been better since he moved away. They DM on Twitter sometimes, and she likes all the Snapchat videos he posts. Reed is the kind of boyfriend you're supposed to have in high school. The dreamy musician with a reckless streak. Kyle Abbott is actual trouble. A grown man.

But she'd be lying if she didn't admit he's good-looking. Like the Instagram models half the girls at Walnut Grove can’t shut up about. Or the guys in the ad campaigns her mom pores over for work. Sitting behind him on that awful night in the movie theater, she was fascinated by his hair. Thick mix of blond and brown. Perfectly styled. Not a strand out of place. Nothing like Reed's perpetually messy mop.  

He's probably been with a lot of women in New York. Maybe men, too. Genoa City may be weirdly uptight and skew red in every election—ugh—but Walnut Grove has had a GSA for years and the student council president is openly pan. No big deal if Kyle is, too, she thinks. 

Kyle's probably a lot of things. Arrogant. Driven. Definitely privileged. If he reads at all, it's Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace. She would bet he bought Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book just to look “woke” and voted for Bernie Sanders in 2016. She's known people like him her entire life. Men who think they can always get what they want. Who view every girl as a challenge to be won. 

She's used to it. She's not used to being intrigued—okay, obsessed—by it.

Maybe she’s a creep, too.

* * *

He sees her again after his whole world shifts on its axis. When his dad has slammed out of the house and sped drunkenly off to God-knows-where. When standing there, alone in the foyer, feels even more alien than it did before. Because now he’s not just Jack’s prodigal son. He’s officially no longer an Abbott. Not someone who belongs in the mansion in any way, shape, or form. So Kyle leaves, too. Hops in his fancy rental and points it toward the GCAC, cranking up Kanye on the satellite radio and flooring it.

His instinct is to go straight to the bar. But he remembers how Dad clutched that glass of whiskey, and his stomach roils. No. He’s not succumbing to the same spiral. There’s a joint in his breast pocket, tucked discreetly beneath the dapper purple handkerchief, but he’s fairly certain the athletic club won’t take kindly to him smoking up on the premises. So that option is out, too. He detours to the dining room, on the off-chance someone he knows is grabbing a bite. And, of course, it’s her. Mattie Ashby. With her books spread all around her. He wonders if she takes them everywhere. If they’re her entourage. It’s not the worst company to keep. He could probably take a page, learn a lesson.

This time, she takes notice of his approach. Her glossy lips pursed, her dark eyes—unshielded by glasses—flinty with suspicion. He’s relieved to see she’s not wearing her Walnut Grove uniform, which makes him feel marginally less like Roy Moore than he did at Crimson Lights. “Are you stalking me now?” she asks, in what he’s coming to think of as her “activist voice.” Arch, take-no-shit…kind of adorable. “Do you not have friends your own age?”

It takes him all of two seconds to flip through his mental Rolodex. Would Mariah count herself his friend? Is Abby disqualified because they’ve been raised as cousins? It’s a pretty sad tally. “Actually, I don’t.” Not in Genoa City, at least. Since he’s been back, he’s spent all his time with his dad or Victor. Though kissing Hilary Curtis to make her ex jealous was a definite highlight. Hilary’s ex who is, he realizes in that moment, Mattie’s uncle. Yeah, he’s not bringing that up. “You’ve got me, Matilda. I’m officially pathetic.” Not only that, “I’m officially not an Abbott.”

“What?” She drops her guard, and her defensive posture, too. Forgets to scowl at him as he slides into the booth. “What happened? Was it that awful clip from the movie?”

He explains as succinctly as possible. The first DNA test that Ashley and Abby ran. The one his dad just took. By the time he’s done, Mattie’s face has a pale cast to it, and she’s leaning across the table to squeeze his hand. Touching him voluntarily. Man, he really is beyond hope. “Oh my God. I’m so sorry.”  

“My dad’s pretty messed up. So am I, I think.” He’s had more time with it, after all. Known for weeks. But he was so focused on using the info to climb the ranks at Newman that he didn’t really stop to process what it meant. It’s finally starting to sink in. That the family he’s never really been a part of isn’t really his family at all. “It all kind of makes sense, you know? I’ve never really been one of them.”    

“That’s ridiculous.” The sharp edges are back. She sits up straight, frowning at him. “Blood doesn’t make a family. DNA isn’t everything.” It’s more or less what his uncle Billy said this morning. But coming from her, it feels…different. Less obligatory. Twin spots of color blaze in her cheeks, and he’s startled to realize that she’s angry on his behalf. Furious for him, not at him. “My uncle Devon is adopted. He’s still my uncle. My mom didn’t carry me and Charlie. Her friend Mac gave birth to us. That doesn’t mean we’re not her kids. You’re still an Abbott, Kyle. A test can’t take that away from you or from your dad.”

She says it all so rationally. Like an expert debater who’s going to crush his rebuttal. Good thing he doesn’t have one. He just stares at her, his head buzzing like he just downed a shot of tequila. Like he didn’t bypass the bar at all. Fuck, this girl is something else. Disney princess meets Supreme Court Justice. Maybe the only person in Genoa City basing her assessment of him on what she sees, not what his pedigree is. It’s…freeing. “I’m not stalking you,” he feels compelled to tell her then. “I like you, Matilda. You give it to me straight.” And going by his sex life alone, that’s not something he finds himself saying very often.

Fuck. It’s a mistake to think about sex while sitting across from her. While she shakes her head and scoffs at him. “You think you’re so cool, don’t you? Calling me ‘Matilda’ instead of Mattie? It’s so transparent. You don’t have a subtle bone in your body.”

I’d like to put my subtle bone in YOUR body. That’s what he’d say if she were anyone else besides a seventeen-year-old high school student. If she were a pretty boy in a Hell’s Kitchen gay bar, or an Upper East Side trust-fund baby at a pop-up speakeasy. But she is who she is. An underage SJW in a sweet yellow sundress. So he steals her water glass and takes a sip, hoping the cold slap will knock some sense into him and ease the sudden tightness at his groin.

“Subtlety is overrated, as whoever spliced the footage into Charlie’s movie can attest,” he points out, making an effort to shift the subject back to something safe. Painful, sure. Sordid, definitely. But completely lacking in intimacy. There’s nothing remotely flirtatious about his grandmother’s decline, his father’s heartbreak, his own precarious place in one of Genoa City’s foremost families. It means she's going to lecture him again. He's okay with that. Watching her passionately defend his right to be an Abbott almost makes him believe his life hasn't been upended—something he absolutely brought on himself. He did this. He put it into motion by having Ravi recover the footage. By giving it to Victor.   

He’s always been proud of his ambitious streak. Greed, as Gordon Gekko said, is good. Growing up in the perpetual war between Jabot and Newman Enterprises, between Jack and Victor, that’s a lesson that sunk in. To take and take and take. He’s greedy about business, greedy about sex, and—dammit. Kyle shudders, staring down at the pristine white tablecloth. At Mattie’s soft, slender fingers just inches from his hands. This is fucked up. Why is he here? Why is he putting all of this on this girl?

“Hey.” Her verbal nudge brings his attention back to her eyes. The crease of worry between her brows. “Are you going to be okay?”

He mumbles something that might be “yes.” Might be “no.” And then he gets the hell out of there and goes looking for his dad.

 * * *

The school year ends without much fanfare. She’s suddenly, officially, a senior. Though, with all of the AP credits she’s already amassed, she’s pretty much a college freshman. Thanks to the big, splashy, Walnut Grove centennial gala in April, both prom and graduation are more or less afterthoughts. Things she skips and things Charlie goes to because he just has to be seen.

She's so caught up in the transition from school to summer that she doesn't have time to think about Kyle Abbott. Except in the morning. And at night. And when she hears his dad got in a minor car accident during the big storm. She doesn't know Mr. Abbott at all. It's not something she can ask her parents about without sounding weird. Without her cheeks going hot and her hands making awkward flapping motions. But the questions plague her. Is Mr. Abbott okay? Is Kyle okay? Is he wandering around GC sliding into seats across from other unsuspecting young women?

She lays there in her bed, one of Sam's baby monitors nearby on the night stand and the sounds of Charlie's music vibrating through the wall, and tells herself it's academic inquiry. Curiosity. Compassion. He's going through something big. Like she was when the whole thing with Juliet and Brash & Sassy happened with her mom and dad. It’s a seismic shift. Something that makes you reconsider the very foundation of who you are and everything you know to be true. So how can she not be concerned?

Sure, Kyle’s identity problems aren’t on the same scale of, say, growing up a biracial woman in super-pale Wisconsin…but Mattie’s not myopic enough to think she has it all that much worse than him either. Her family is as well-to-do as his. She goes to private school. Her uncle and grandfather own a zillion-dollar company. Her mom is a former model. Even when her dad was out of work, they didn’t have to worry about losing their health insurance or going on food stamps. He was looking for executive-level jobs, not hourly shifts at a big-box store or a coffee chain. She has a good life. A privileged life.

A sheltered life.

That’s why you can’t stop thinking about him. The practical voice in her head—one of many practical voices in her head—calls her out as she punches her pillow and shifts, restlessly, under her sheets. Reed was rebellious. Kyle is dangerous. Too cocky, too ambitious, too old for her. Of her world, but completely out of her reach. He makes her want things that she didn’t realize she was ready for. Sure, she’s read some of the racier YA books. Some romance. Not to mention that Shakespeare and the Bible aren’t exactly PG. And she and Reed did clear first base—her parents were so worried about the bases, but she reassured them that the first one hasn’t changed that much since they were teenagers. So, she’s not completely in the dark about sex and sexual desire. Plus, she’s a huge believer in bodily autonomy for women. But the theoretical is one thing, the reality another.

The reality is like a hot itch under her skin. One that chases her into vaguely embarrassing and uncomfortable dreams and follows her into the shower the next morning. She can’t scratch it away or scrub it off. She doesn’t particularly want to address it head-on. Because it feels…invasive. Wrong. To make Kyle the focus of her fantasies. To imagine it’s his hands, not hers, ghosting over her body. It takes it to a place she shouldn’t go. A place he can’t meet her. Not with a ten-year age difference.

Sure, that’s basically the gap between her parents. And her mother wasn’t that much older than her when they got together. But this isn’t debate team. No amount of well-made points will win the Kyle argument. Not for her family. And not for herself. Mattie has principles. They count more than a few squishy feelings of attraction.     

She’s officially a senior. More or less a college freshman. Kyle Abbott is a graduate-level course that she definitely doesn’t have the pre-reqs for.

 * * *

He has to stop running into her. Accidentally. On purpose. Whatever it is, it's inviting trouble that Kyle doesn't need. He goes through two discreet Grindr hookups and an OKC date just to ease all the tension building up inside him. It's not all sexual, he can admit with something that resembles relief. He has plenty of other steam he needs to blow off that has nothing to do with Mattie Ashby. The ongoing drama at Jabot. His dad’s precarious mental state. Dina’s latest revelations. It’s a lot. That he sublimates with an age-appropriate partner at the very same motel where his grandmother conducted her life-altering liaison…well, his analyst can help him unpack that during their next video session. For four days, he just holds onto the high. The endorphins. The bruises on his hips. Reminders that he likes things hot and dirty, not sweet and innocent.    

And then, of course, because the universe isn’t done laughing at his expense, he walks into Crimson Lights for a coffee and, boom, there she is. No books this time. Just a tablet and a giant mug of whatever she likes to drink. Chai, he guesses. Or green tea. He gets his own triple-shot Americano and busies himself putting two packets of cane sugar in it. Pretending she’s not there. Pretending he’s not completely aware of her halo of dark curls and her candy-pink halter top. She looks like summer feels—fresh and warm and full of promise.    

Five years. Maybe in five years, it will work. He’ll come back to GC from Shanghai or London or somewhere else. She’ll be done with college, spending the summer with her family before she jaunts off to grad school or Teach For America or something. It will be slightly weird, but not inappropriate. Not taboo. And they’ll laugh a little before they kiss for the first time. Remembering this. Remembering now. How he could have crossed the line but didn’t. Yeah, that’s how it will go. He won’t be her first. He’ll be her fifth or sixth or tenth. She will have tasted so much of life that when she takes a bite out of him, it’s not something quite so momentous. “Virginity is a construct anyway,” she’ll tell him as she unbuckles his pants and shoves him against a wall.

Fuck. Kyle takes a swallow of his still-steaming espresso and tries not to think about all the things he wants Future Mattie to do to him. He tries not to think about Mattie at all as he turns toward the doors out to the patio.

“Hey.” One syllable is all it takes to stop him in his tracks. And her hand on his arm, gently tugging him to face her, sending ripples of awareness through his body, changes the course of his entire life.

Kyle looks down into her huge dark brown eyes. At the concern tilting her lips, shaping questions like “How are you?” and “Are you doing okay?” She’s kinder than he deserves. More everything than he deserves. Bright. Beautiful. Brilliant. Strong.

Five years? He’ll be lucky if he can hold out five months before he falls head-over-heels in love with this girl. And he can’t tell her that. So, he says the closest thing to it. Pulling his arm from her grasp. Lifting his hand to her cheek, fingertips hovering an inch from her satiny skin. “I’m not good, Matilda,” he confesses. Warns her. “But I want to get there. Maybe, someday, I’ll get there.”  

She laughs at him. Clicks her tongue and chides, “Again with the ‘Matilda’?” And then she shifts just enough for his palm and her face to make contact.

Fuck. Damn. He has no business touching her like this. Absolutely no right to cup her cheek and rub his thumb across the curve. Absolutely no reason to find faith in how she leans in, inhales, and whispers his name. Damn him to hell and back. It shouldn’t feel so right. It shouldn’t feel so pure. It shouldn’t be his redemption.

And it isn’t. He’ll never be Prince Charming to her Cinderella.

But, for this one perfect moment, Kyle lets himself believe in the fairy tale.

 

 

--end--