From the new novel by Houston’s Katherine Center

Anyway, that was how I’d ended up in Texas, of all places—though that was how almost everybody wound up in Texas: love or money.


In What You Wish For, Katherine Center introduces Samantha Casey, a spunky school librarian whose former crush, Duncan Carpenter, re-enters her life as a buttoned up, security-obsessed principal, nothing like the fun-loving, goofy guy she used to know. In this excerpt, Sam explains to her best teacher pal, Alice, how her crush on Duncan drove her out of California and to Galveston Island, to start over and reinvent herself. 


From WHAT YOU WISH FOR by Katherine Center. Copyright © 2020 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.


Later, after Babette had gone up to bed, and most folks had gone home, as I rinsed cans and bottles for recycling at the kitchen sink, Alice leaned against the counter and said, “What’s going on, Sam?”


Her shirt today said, “GRAPHING IS WHERE I DRAW THE LINE.”


Even though Alice was a year younger than me—27—she was also six inches taller than me, and so she had a big-sisterly vibe. She was engaged to her college sweetheart, Marco, who was in the navy and went on long deployments. They rented a little 1920s bungalow a few blocks down. When he was gone, I saw a lot of her—and when he was here, I saw almost nothing of her.


Fair enough.


He had shipped out a week before Max died, and though I wouldn’t want to say I was glad Alice was alone these days, let’s just say I was grateful to have a friend.


She knew me pretty well. Well enough to know something more was up than I’d confessed to the group.


“So,” she said, like she’d been waiting all night for all the other bozos to leave. “What did you leave out?”


I met her eyes, and I said, “Duncan Carpenter is The Guy.”


“What guy?”


I pursed my lips and leaned in to intensify my look. Then I said, slowly: “The Guy.”


Alice frowned a second, then said, in recognition, “The Guy?”


I gave an unmistakable nod, like, Bingo.


The The Guy? The one who drove you out of California?”


“I beg your pardon. I drove myself.”


“But he’s the one from your old school? That you were obsessed with?”


“Not obsessed.”


Alice squinted at me. “Pretty obsessed.”


“It was not an obsession. It was a healthy, red-blooded, American crush.”


Now Alice was trying to remember. It had been a while—a lifetime, really—since we’d talked about it. “Didn’t you snoop in his diary?”


“I wasn’t snooping, I was feeding his cats while he was out of town.”


“But you read his diary.”


“Well, he left it lying open on the kitchen table. You could argue that on some unconscious level, he wanted me to read it.”


Alice gave me a second to decide if I could stand by that statement.


“Plus,” I went on. “It wasn’t a diary. It was just a notebook.”


“A notebook full of private thoughts.”


“We all have private thoughts, Alice,” I said, as if that was somehow a good point.


“You shouldn’t have taken that cat-sitting job in the first place,” she said.


“What was I supposed to do? Let his cat starve? It was de-clawed and missing a tail.”


“It wasn’t even his cat. It was the fiancée’s cat.”


“I didn’t know that at the time.”


Alice gave me a look then that was part affection, part scolding, and part Give me a break.


Anyway, there was no point in continuing the denials. She knew the whole story. I had read his notebook that day all those years ago while he was on vacation in wine country about to get engaged—or that was the rumor, anyway. And I hadn’t just read the one page that was facing up on the table, either. I had grabbed a pair of kitchen tongs from the drawer—as if not touching the pages with my fingers somehow made it less awful—and used them to turn every single page, searching for clues to his soul like some kind of lovestruck Sherlock Holmes, and careful—like a crazy person—not to leave any fingerprints.


What can I say? It was a low point.


A very low point.


And, actually, it became a turning point.


Before that moment back then, I’d been infatuated with Duncan Carpenter for two solid years. Big time infatuated. Hard-core infatuated. Infatuated the way teenage girls get infatuated with pop stars. If he’d had song lyrics, I’d have memorized them; if he’d had merch, I‘d have bought it; and if he’d had a fan club, I’d have been the president.


Of course, he wasn’t a pop star.


But he was, you know . . . a celebrity of sorts. In the world of private, secondary school education. In our tiny little sliver of humanity, he was a big deal. He was the pop icon of our teaching colleagues, for sure.


And for good reason.


He had a big, friendly smile filled with big, friendly teeth. He was handsome without trying. He had a magnetic quality that was almost physical. If he was in a room with other humans in it for any amount of time, there’d be a group of them gathered around him by the end. He emitted some kind of sunshine that we all wanted to soak up.


Me included.


Me especially.


But I was terrible around him. I was the worst possible version of myself. All the longing and desire and electricity and joy I felt whenever he was anywhere near me seemed to scramble my system. I’d freeze, and get quiet and still and self-conscious, and stare at him, unblinking, like a weirdo.


It was uncomfortable, to say the least.


When I’d first met him, he was single—and he stayed that way for one long, beautiful, possibility-infused year as I tried to work up the nerve to sit at his table at lunch. A year that slipped by fast, and then suddenly, before I’d made any progress—Boom! —a perky new girl from the admissions office just brazenly asked him out.


Their assigned parking spots were next to each other, apparently.


It was front-page teacher news, and the grade-school faculty were by and large offended. Wasn’t it a little uppity to just swoop in and start dating whoever she wanted?


Apparently not.


Soon, they were exclusive, and then they were serious, and then, barely a year to the day after she’d first asked him out, they were moving in together. Rumor had it she’d been the one to ask him. A move I would’ve admired for feminist reasons if it had been any other couple at all.


The consensus among the female teachers was that she was too conventional, too small-minded, and too ordinary to be a good match for him—mostly because he was the opposite of all those things.


Frankly, I agreed—but I also knew my opinion was based largely on one short interaction, when, awkwardly trying to make chit-chat at a school function, I’d said to her, “Admissions! That must be tough! How do you make all those agonizing decisions?”


And she just blinked at me and said, “It’s just whoever has the most money.”


Then, reading my shocked expression, she shifted to a laugh and said, “I’m kidding.”


But was she, though?


Nobody was sure she deserved him.


Of course . . . it didn’t follow that I did.


I couldn’t even say hi to him in the elevator.


Anyway, it was not five minutes after I’d heard the moving-in-together news—from a librarian who’d heard it from a math teacher who’d heard it from the school nurse—that, as I was making my way outside to gulp some fresh air . . . he asked me to cat-sit.


I just rounded the corner of the hallway, and there he was. Wearing a tie with Dachshunds all over it.


“Hey,” he said.


“Hey,” I said, panicking at the way he’d . . . just materialized.


Then, of all things, he said, “I’ve heard you’re a cat person.”


A cat person? Nope. But, not wanting to kill the conversation, I shrugged and said, “I’m more of a dog person, actually.”


He blinked at me.


“I mean,” I went on, feeling like I’d said the wrong thing. “I’m not opposed to cats . . .”


“Don’t you have a bunch of them?”


“Um. Nope.”


He frowned.


“I don’t have any cats,” I added, just to be clear. “At all.”


“Huh. Somebody told me you had like three cats.”


Wow. The only thing he knew about me . . . and it was wrong. Or maybe he thought I was somebody else entirely.


He looked as disappointed as I felt.


I reminded myself to breathe.


“I don’t dislike cats,” I said, then, to cheer him up. “I don’t wish them harm or anything. I’m just . . . neutral.”


He nodded. “Got it.” Then he started to turn away.


“Wait!” I said. “Why?”


He paused. “I’m looking for a cat sitter. For the weekend. Just one night, actually.”


And then, truly, without even considering how pathetic it would be for me to be cleaning the litterboxes of my true love while he was off on a romantic weekend with his new live-in-girlfriend, I said, “I’ll do it.”




“Sure. No problem at all.”


Next thing I knew, there I was, in his apartment, snooping—and doing unspeakable things with his kitchen tongs.


So what was I looking for, exactly, as I tong-flipped those pages in that notebook? What could I possibly have been hoping to find? Some note-to-self that he didn’t really want to be the woman he’d just invited to live in his home? Some daydream doodle of a face that looked remarkably like mine? Some secret code only I could break that spelled out H-E-L-P M-E?




Anyway, there was nothing like that.


There were grocery lists. Reminders. A half-written letter to his mom. A circled note to get his baby niece a 1-year birthday present, with the words “baby biker jacket” scratched out and replaced with: “Something cool.” Doodles (mostly 3-D boxes), and to-do lists, and a whole bunch of tally marks on the cardboard of the back cover. Nothing special, or memorable, or even private. The normal detritus of a perfectly not-unhappy life that had nothing at all to do with me.


And that’s when, flipping the pages back into position, a very important word came into my head: “Enough.”


I heard it almost clearly as if I’d said it out loud. And then I did say it out loud.




Then I shook my head. I couldn’t keep living like this—stealing glances, brushing past him in the hallways, sitting near—but not too near—his table at lunch, pausing to watch him leading kindergarten dance parties on the playground. Yearning.




I had to shut it down. He’d chosen somebody else. It was time to move on.


And even though I did not always, or even often, follow the life advice I gave myself—on that day I did. I put the tongs back in the drawer, walked out, locked the door, drove straight home, and got on the web to start looking for new job.


Anyway, that was how I’d ended up in Texas, of all places—though that was how almost everybody wound up in Texas: love or money.


I’d come to this island by chance, but I’d found a real home here, way down at the bottom of the country in this wind-battered, historic town. I loved the painted Victorian houses with their carpenter gothic porches. I loved the brick cobblestone streets and the tourist T-shirt shops. I loved the muddy, soft sand and the easy waves of the Gulf lapping the shore. I loved how the town was both humble and proud, both battered and resilient, both exhausted and bursting with energy, both historic and endlessly reinventing itself.


Most of all, I loved our school. My job. The life I’d built.


A post-Duncan Carpenter life that—really—The Guy himself had no place in.


From WHAT YOU WISH FOR by Katherine Center. Copyright © 2020 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.


Katherine Center is the author of several novels about love and family: The Bright Side of Disaster, Everyone Is Beautiful, Get Lucky, and The Lost Husband. Her books and essays have appeared in Redbook, People, USA Today, Vanity Fair, and Real Simple―as well as the anthologies Because I Love Her, CRUSH, and My Parents Were Awesome. Katherine is a graduate of Vassar College and the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. She lives in Houston with her husband and two sweet children.