Kat Richardson isn’t running away from grief; she’s just hiding out in a gloomy Welsh university town until she’s sure it’s gone. Now, one year, nine months, and 27 days after the climbing death of her first love, Gabe, she thinks she’s ready to venture out into the relationship world again. And Owen—a cake-baking, Super Ball-making chemistry student—appears to be a kind, funny, and very attractive option.
But the arrival of Kat’s newly adopted niece, Mai, forces her home to northern England, where she runs headfirst into all the memories of Gabe she’s tried to leave behind—and discovers that Mai stirs up an unnerving feeling of déjà vu. Before long, Kat’s logical, scientific beliefs about life after death are in battle with what she feels to be true—that reincarnation is real and Gabe has come back to her through Mai. The question now, is why?
Taking on the topics of love, loss, and how we deal with grief, A Strange Companion is a twisted love triangle among the living, the dead, and the reincarnated.
CHAPTER ONE: The Girl with the Dead Boyfriend
When the rain comes down in Wales, there’s no avoiding it. It comes down, not in the form of cats and dogs or even with the piercing determination of stair rods. In fact, it doesn’t actually come down at all. It comes across, and sometimes up. It comes in billowing sheets of gray that envelop you in a sodden embrace of cold, damp misery and hold you prisoner for days. There’s no “dodging” the rain in Wales, no ducking into a doorway until it passes. The only way to deal with it is to put your head down and soldier on through.
I scurried through this particular deluge one April morning in my second year of university. I slogged across the puddle-drenched courtyard between the Environmental Science building and the Chemistry block, having long-since resigned myself to the fact that I would spend the rest of the morning’s lectures sitting in saturated underwear and wrinkling in unmentionable places. Despite this, a little ray of sunshine had settled inside me, one tiny happy thought to warm my insides for the rest of the day.
Even saying his name—Owen—caused an exhale that relaxed me and allowed me to be myself. That feeling doubled in his easy, comfortable company. I ran over the plans for our big date for about the hundredth time, wanting every detail to be perfect, even though Owen would flow with whatever happened. He’d offered to bring his legendary homemade chocolate hazelnut marble cake and the rest was up to me. All the ingredients for the meal I would cook were stashed in a plastic box in my fridge and marked “Toxic! Do Not Touch” for the benefit of my light-fingered flatmates. My clothes had come back from the student laundry service clean, fresh, and even ironed! I had wine and candles and mood music. And, just in case, there were clean sheets on my bed.
Ugh. My stomach gave an anxious squeeze when I thought of where the evening might lead. Everything else was in place, except my head. I sucked in a breath of chilly air and ordered my hopping thoughts to settle. “It’s time, Kat,” I told myself. “In fact, it’s long past time.” I had to move on—I wanted to move on—and, more to the point, I wanted to move on with Owen.
CHAPTER TWO: Towel Boy
I hadn’t been thinking about Gabe the first time I saw Owen undressed. Instead, I was thinking about the importance and difficulties of bringing clean water to remote African villages, and trying to come up with another word for problem.
It was halfway through the first term of my second year and I hadn’t seen the weak Welsh sunshine for so long, I’d forgotten what it looked like. From my usual spot in a secluded corner of the library, a small study room with a privacy door, I gazed out into the evening drizzle, wondering if it would ever stop. As I willed the right word to spring into my mind, I stared out at the halls of residence a short distance past the faculty parking entrance. I didn’t realize I was looking right into an open window until my brain registered a semi-naked body. In the second-to-last window on the third floor, a student wandered across his dorm room wrapped only in a ratty-looking towel that was probably once white, but was now an indefinable shade of gray. His dark blond hair was wet and tousled and it was clear he’d just come in from the showers, as his pale skin was still slightly pink from the hot water. He had a nice body—not too muscular, but not flabby either—and he moved across the floor with neither a swagger nor an apologetic shuffle. Even from this distance he looked friendly. I was still staring when he walked towards the window and reached up to close the curtains. For a brief instant I took in the Jesus-like stance of his elongated torso and his outstretched arms, and my eyes ran down over his chest and across his extended abdomen. When I finally dragged my attention back up to his face, he was looking directly at me…and smiling.
CHAPTER THREE: Chocolate Hazelnut Marble Cake
My underwear drawer was a hodgepodge of comfort—multicolored cotton and coordinated practicality. “Casually alluring” was the look I had in mind for my big date with Owen, but everything I owned screamed, “No-one but me has seen my smalls in years!”
Which was true.
I owned two bits of skimpy purple lace—an unsubtle hint from my best friend, Maggie, that I needed to stop living like a recluse—but one pair had a hole in the side where I’d stuck my thumb through while trying them on. I wanted everything to be just right tonight. I wanted to look like a girl who knew her way around a bedroom, even though Owen had probably guessed by now that I wasn’t.
In the two months since our first date for tea and Owen’s truly orgasmic cake, we’d executed a complicated two-step, with Owen trying to pull our friendship to the next level and me digging my heels in to hold it back, wary of getting too involved and always feeling guilty about Gabe. But after Owen kissed me for the first time, my steps back had become smaller and less convincing, and Owen’s two-step had turned into more of a tango, until I’d found myself whirling along with him, my fear of missteps diminishing, and the passion of the dance glowing steadily between us.
Now, as I finished preparing myself and my specialty chicken pesto—the one foolproof dish in my limited repertoire—I was determined to put any remaining doubts behind me and dive headfirst into the Owen Tango. I told myself, for about the 749th time, that it was time for me to be happy again. I had a quick shot of the cooking wine to calm my nerves and boost my resolve, and when I heard the front doorbell ring at a minute past seven, I put on a casually alluring smile to match my casually alluring underwear, and went to let Owen in.