Just a few more weeks until Coast to Coast hits the electronic bookshelves—the book launches on October 19th. I am so excited for you to read all about the cross-continental love story that is Lily and Gabriel.
But in the meantime, here’s the first chapter.
Lost in Lund
These cobblestone paths and stone buildings are quaint and adorable, but what I really want is a good old-fashioned street sign. Or a map app that works.
This is supposed to be the first day of the best semester of my whole life. I begged to go on exchange in Sweden, over my mom’s protests that I’m too scattered and disorganized to cross a street alone, let alone a continent and an ocean. I battled and now here I am—all by myself in the middle of the Lund University campus.
And I’m completely lost. I have no freaking clue how to get to my first class. The map I got from the exchange office is either wrong or unreadable. Oh, and legible signs on the buildings would be a nice touch, people.
Well, lost is not a problem, right? My Swedish sucks, but everyone here speaks English, so all I have to do is ask someone for directions.
My first target is this guy who is tall, dark, and gorgeous. Just because I’m lost doesn’t mean I’ve lost my senses. I smile and try to catch his eye. But he motors past me before I can even get a word out.
Okay, I’m going to have to be faster. Target number two is also tall and gorgeous. Honestly, this place must be ground zero for model recruiters. Guys and girls all look incredible. Since I’m tall, I appreciate being able to look people in the eye instead of seeing the tops of their heads. I’ve seen more crooked parts than Christoph Waltz.
This time, I’m sure the guy sees me, but he looks away and veers away onto the grassy lawn. He’s walking so fast that I can feel the breeze of him passing.
Maybe I’m scaring off the guys for some reason. I look normal by Vancouver standards: denim mini, cardigan, and a floral print top. But here I’m the only one wearing colour in the middle of Club Neutral. And everyone—male and female—is wearing a uniform of ridiculously skinny jeans, t-shirts, and cotton scarves, even though it’s August. Despite my blonde hair and half-Swedish genes, I look foreign.
Two women walk by and I say hi, but they ignore me completely. Ditto a woman on a bicycle who suddenly goes all Tour de France when I raise a hand to stop her. Remind me to check to see if an open palm means something disgusting here.
An entire group of guys pass by me like I’m a statue. Even an older man, who’s probably a prof, averts his eyes when I smile at him. What the hell is going on?
Standing in the middle of the path, I notice that people are detouring around me. I’m in a plague bubble. They are deliberately avoiding me. Why on earth would they do that?
I check my phone. If I don’t figure out something soon, I’m going to be late for my very first class, then the prof will hate me and fail me. My mother will get to say she told me so. I’ll have to go to university for an extra year, and I’ll graduate in a recession and never get a good job and end up living on the street. My whole horrible future flashes before me, and tears well up in my eyes. I open them wide so I don’t cry. I can’t remember if I wore waterproof mascara this morning, and adding black smears to my face won’t help me look sane. I have an overwhelming urge to call my dad. I’m not sure exactly what he could do since he never went to university here, but at least he’s Swedish. Hearing his voice would calm me down and comfort me which is exactly what I need right now.
Buck up, Lily. I look down at the stupid map again. It doesn’t make any more sense when it’s blurry. I sigh in frustration but it comes out more like a sob.
“Do you want me?”
The voice is right beside me. Someone has penetrated my plague bubble! I turn and look up.
He’s sort of cute. Mature cute, with dark blond hair, a trimmed beard, and pale blue eyes. His face is long and slightly freckled. But he looks stern and his brow is creased. His words sound like a lame pick-up line, but it’s only a lost-in-translation thing. If he were interested, he’d at least smile.
Do you want me? Oh yes, I want you. Lust and relief rush through my body, but relief wins out. I’m grinning maniacally, and words start tumbling out of my mouth.
“Thank you so much for stopping. I thought I had cooties or something. I’m looking for the Lux building.”
Aargh. There’s more than one? I fumble with my schedule until he takes pity on me and removes it from my shaking hands.
“Ja, Building C. I go there as well.” He tilts his head slightly and begins to walk down the path. I take this to mean I should follow him.
My knight-in-shining armour is apparently the strong, silent type, but my verbal diarrhea continues.
“Ugh. Does the fact I can’t even find my first class mean that my whole semester is going to be a disaster?”
“You should say termin.”
He continues without a sideways glance. “Semester is like holiday here. Your termin will be a disaster.”
Thank you for that prediction, Mr. Dictionary. Still, he’s the only person to even offer to help me, so I’m determined to make this friendship work.
“Right, one terminal termin coming up. If I can even find my classes.”
“Lund campus is not large.”
“Well, it’s big enough for me to get lost on my very first day. I’m Lily, by the way.”
“Gabriel Olsson.” He finally stops and looks directly at me. And then he extends his hand, and we shake because we’re suddenly on Planet Old Business Guys. This feels both awkward and hot. His hands are warm, calloused, and large—and we all know what that means, ladies. I stop myself from verifying that fact by checking out his tight jeans. The warmth of his flesh is triggering something inside me, a zing of attraction. But it’s a one-way street, because he’s giving me zero back. Given the many attractive people around here, I won’t be winning the Miss Lund crown any time soon, but I’m cute. And since I’m definitely attracted to him, you’d think he’d get the vibes I’m sending his way.
We resume walking at Olympic speed. Being late is no longer a worry. His strides are so long that I have to trot-walk to keep up. I’m tall, but he’s taller. Tall is something I like.
Although there’s apparently a tax on words here, I keep trying. “I’m from Canada. Vancouver. I’m only here for the semester, I mean, termin.”
“You know? How could you know I was from Canada?” So far, everyone I’ve met assumes I’m American.
Gabriel points to the tiny Canadian flag that my sister pinned to my backpack before I left.
“Oh. Duh. You must think I’m a total idiot, right?”
No response. There must be a tax on smiles too. This conversation has become a challenge. I love challenges. I’m going to make him converse with me.
“Well, Gabriel, you’re the first Swedish person I’ve met in five days. I’m in residence, so I’ve only met other exchange students so far. I have to ask you: am I doing something wrong? It seems like whenever I try to talk to someone, they avoid me. Maybe it’s just my imagination. I mean, they don’t even know me. And I look harmless, don’t I?”
He sneaks a look at me. “Nej, er, yes.”
I take this to mean I look normal. “So, what am I doing wrong?”
There’s a long pause before he replies. “We do not like to talk to strangers.”
“What? That’s crazy. How do you make new friends then?”
He shrugs. He seems proud of this fact, as if only pushy countries need normal social interactions.
Now representing the extroverts of Canada, Lily Larson. “Well, when you’re plunked into a new place like me, if you didn’t talk to strangers, you’d die of loneliness. Everyone is a stranger. You must be from around here, Gabriel.”
“You’re so lucky,” I say. Not only have I loved Sweden my whole life, but now that I’m not lost anymore, Lund has regained its picturesque charms. It’s straight from a fairy tale. “I’ll have to get advice from you on all the good stores and restaurants.”
He struggles to come up with retail advice, which lets me stare at his face. He’s not conventionally hot; his eyes are a bit small, his nose is too long, and his mouth is very wide. But everything put together looks great. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s tall and built: his long arms are sinewy with muscle and, thanks to his tight jeans, I can see his bulging thighs. I’m starting to appreciate this particular fashion trend.
Finally he mumbles a couple of names that I can’t understand at all.
“Maybe you can write them out for me,” I suggest.
“Do you not speak any Swedish?” Finally, a question. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a conversation.
“A little,” I say. “My dad’s from Malmö. We used to visit his family in the summer and my farmor made me practice my Swedish. But being able to ask my grandmother for cookies isn’t going to help me at university.”
The corners of his mouth turn up a little. More success.
“Why did he move to Vancouver?” This is a topic I want to avoid, but Swedes always wonder why anyone ever leaves their land of gender equality and social democracy. However, this exchange is my chance to get away from the huge shadow cast by my famous father. Or maybe it’s more of a chance to figure out who I really am. Whatever, it’s a fresh start.
“For work,” I reply vaguely. Luckily, he doesn’t ask anything else. Gabriel is a good listener.
“We are here,” he announces. We’re at a building that combines steel and glass in the front with ancient red brick in the back.
“Oh great.” I fumble for my battered schedule, but Gabriel is miles ahead of me. Well, kilometres ahead actually.
“You go in here. Your classroom is that way.” He points, to ensure I won’t get lost now that he’s gotten me ninety percent of the way here.
“Thank you so, so much for your help.”
He ducks his head and turns away. But before he can set a new speed-walking record, I grab his arm; there’s solid muscle under his sleeve.
“Wait. Gabriel, you’re the nicest person I’ve met today. Would you like to go out for fika after school?” I’m pulling out all the friendliness stops here, by offering the one thing I know Swedes love the most: a coffee break.
Again he looks at me with zero interest, like I’m a bug on the sidewalk. I’m rethinking the whole gender equality thing, as I get ready to be shot down.
Then he speaks, “Ja, okay.”
“Good, good. We can meet here. I’m done at 3:00—I mean 15:00.” I beam up at him. “This day is turning out great!”
“You are very cheerful.” He smiles, and the smile changes his face completely. His eyes crinkle at the corners, and his full lips part to reveal straight white teeth. I lost my breath. Gabe is so delectable that I’m ready to skip coffee and move right into a delicious dinner—featuring Swedish meatballs.