Main Rival (Fall Away #2)
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This book is AMAZING! Absolutely recommend, it does have some graphic words but still highly recommend. 5/5 if I could I would give this a 10/10!!!
01 July 2021 (20:55)
By Penelope Douglas: Bully Until You Rival COPYRIGHT Published by Piatkus ISBN: 978-0-349-40582-7 All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Copyright © 2014 by Penelope Douglas The moral right of the author has been asserted. Excerpt from Falling Away © 2014 by Penelope Douglas All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher. The publisher is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher. Piatkus Little, Brown Book Group 100 Victoria Embankment London, EC4Y 0DY www.littlebrown.co.uk www.hachette.co.uk Contents By Penelope Douglas Title page Copyright page Rival Playlist Dedication Acknowledgments PROLOGUE CHAPTER 1 CHAPTER 2 CHAPTER 3 CHAPTER 4 CHAPTER 5 CHAPTER 6 CHAPTER 7 CHAPTER 8 CHAPTER 9 CHAPTER 10 CHAPTER 11 CHAPTER 12 CHAPTER 13 CHAPTER 14 CHAPTER 15 CHAPTER 16 CHAPTER 17 CHAPTER 18 CHAPTER 19 CHAPTER 20 CHAPTER 21 CHAPTER 22 CHAPTER 23 CHAPTER 24 CHAPTER 25 CHAPTER 26 CHAPTER 27 CHAPTER 28 CHAPTER 29 CHAPTER 30 CHAPTER 31 CHAPTER 32 CHAPTER 33 Excerpt from Falling Away About the Author RIVAL PLAYLIST Music inspires the development of my characters and inspires my scenes. Enjoy! “Far from Home” Five Finger Death Punch “All I Want Is You” U2 “Numb” Linkin Park “Headstrong” Trapt “21 Guns” Green Day “Why Don’t You Get a Job?” The Offspring “La La” Ashlee Simpson “All I Need” Method Man “What I Got” Sublime “Whore” In This Moment “Say Something” A Great Big World “Schism” Tool “Rockstar” Nickelback “You’re Gonna Go Far, Kid” The Offspring “Sail” AWOLNATION “Inside the Fire” Disturbed “Team” Lorde “Silhouettes” Smile Em; pty Soul “Paradise City” Guns N’ Roses This novel is dedicated to my husband. Honey, I know life without me would be unbearable, but life without you would be unbearable AND boring. To Hubs . . . There are so many things throughout the years, Things you have done that have brought me to tears. You refuse to replace the empty toilet paper roll, Or to load the dishwasher with your messy ice-cream bowl. I pick up your socks, and you never have to vacuum, And I toss your empty Coke cans, which you leave in every room. But then I think of all the wonderful things that you do, Like stocking the zombie weaponry with guns that are new. We have machetes, daggers, water purifiers, and radios, And the zombies will never get our stash of SpaghettiOs. Your skill with back rubs and burgers is no small feat, And I love that Zebra Cakes are your favorite treat. You put up with my drama and inappropriate humor, And I know you wish my Fifty Shades obsession was just a rumor. I promise to always untie you as soon as I’m through, Because, baby, there’s no one in the world as loving as you. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS To my husband, who is my biggest supporter and always takes care of me. He is my partner and brightens my day with his wonderful sense of humor. To my friends Bekke, Marilyn, Tee Tate, Ing, and Lisa—you have been constantly supportive with advice, feedback, words of encouragement, and humor. Thank you for sticking by my side. To my agent, Jane Dystel—thank you for always being available and working so hard for me. You’re the only person who asks if I’m eating or sleeping enough, and I love how you look out for me. To my editor, Kerry Donovan—you have been great holding my hand and making me happy during this new adventure. I am so grateful to have someone easy to talk to that cares as much about the characters as I do. To all of the bloggers, reviewers, and readers—what a crazy ride we’ve had together, and it’s not over yet! With your love and support, I’ve been able to devote myself to writing and am so incredibly happy to be able to do this every day! Thank you, thank you, thank you for your positive comments, reviews, and promotion. You have honored me, and I hope that I continue to write stories you adore. PROLOGUE FALLON There were people I liked and people I didn’t like. People I loved and people I hated. But there was only one person I loved to hate. “Why are you doing this?” I heard a whiny female voice ask as I rounded the hall to sophomore P.E. I immediately halted, locking eyes on a red-faced Tatum Brandt as she faced off with my douchebag stepbrother, Madoc Caruthers, and his friend Jared Trent. They stood in the hallway next to the lockers with flat expressions, looking bored, while she clutched her backpack straps for security. “You barked at me yesterday,” she continued, pinching her eyebrows together at Jared as Madoc smirked from behind him. “And then all of your friends followed along. It’s been forever, Jared. When are you going to stop? Why are you doing this?” I sucked in a long breath and completed my usual awesome combination of eye-roll-head-shake. I really hated turning corners. I hated closed doors. I hated not seeing the path ahead. Corner #1: Your dad and I are getting divorced. Corner #2: We’re moving. Again. Corner #3: I’m getting married. Again. Corner #952: I don’t really like you or my husband or his son, so I’m going to take fifteen vacations a year by myself! Okay, my mom never really said that, but I’m damn good at interpreting shit. And corners sucked. I hung back and stuck my hands into the pockets of my skinny jeans, waiting to see what this girl would do. Would she finally grow some balls, or at least take the little ones these idiots had? I kept hoping she would step up to the challenge, and she always disappointed me. Tatum Brandt was a wimp. I didn’t know much about her. Only that everyone called her Tate, except Madoc and Jared; she was a rocker on the outside, but played it safe on the inside; and she was pretty. Like cheerleader pretty. Long blond hair? Totally. Big blue eyes? Absolutely. Long legs, full lips, and big boobs? Even at sixteen. She was the perfect package, and if I were my stepbrother, I wouldn’t have any problem sticking my tongue into her mouth. Hell, I might do it anyway. I chewed the corner of my lip, thinking about it. Yeah, I could be a lesbian. Maybe. If I wanted. No, never mind. The point is . . . why Madoc and Jared tormented her rather than tried to date her was a mystery to me. But for some reason I was interested. From the start of freshman year, they had both bullied her. They spread rumors, harassed her, and did everything they could to make her unhappy. They pushed, and she retreated time and again. It was starting to piss me off so much that I was about to go knock their heads together to defend her. Except I barely knew her. And Tatum didn’t know me at all. I stayed so far off the radar that sonar couldn’t pick me up. “Why?” Jared answered her question with a question and jutted into her space with a cocky swagger. “Because you stink, Tatum.” He scrunched up his nose in mock disgust. “You smell . . . like a dog.” Tate straightened immediately, and the tears in her eyes finally spilled over. Kick him in the balls, bitch! Exhaling a furious breath, I pushed my glasses back up the bridge of my nose. It’s what I did before I braced myself. She shook her head. “You don’t even remember what today is, do you?” She folded her trembling lips between her teeth and looked down at the ground. And without even seeing her eyes, I knew what was there. Despair. Loss. Loneliness. Without looking at him again, she turned around and walked off. It would’ve been easy to hit him. To toss an insult back at him. And while I despised her weakness, I understood one thing that I hadn’t before. Jared was an ass, but he was an ass who could hurt her. She was in love with him. Crossing my arms over my chest, I walked over to the lockers where Jared and Madoc stood staring after Tate. Madoc spoke up behind him. “What did that mean? What’s today?” Jared shrugged off the question. “I don’t know what she was talking about.” “It’s April fourteenth,” I piped up over Madoc’s shoulder, causing him to spin around. “That mean anything to you, Shit-for-Brains?” I directed at Jared. Madoc raised a dark blond eyebrow at me, a hint of a smile in his eyes. Jared twisted his head only enough so that I could see the side of his face. “April fourteenth?” he whispered and then blinked long and hard. “Shit,” he murmured. And Madoc reared back a hair as Jared slammed the palm of his hand into the nearest locker door. “What the hell?” Madoc scowled. Jared ran his hands down his face and then shook his head. “Nothing. Never mind,” he growled. “I’m going to Geometry.” Stuffing his fists into his pockets, he stalked off down the hall, leaving Madoc and me. Between my stepbrother and his friend, I respected his friend more. They were both Grade A assholes, but at least Jared didn’t care what people thought of him. He stalked around like a weird cross between a jock and a goth. Popular and foreboding. Dark but extremely coveted. Madoc, on the other hand, cared what everyone thought. Our parents. The principal. And most of the student body. He loved being loved, and he hated his association with me. As sophomores they were already starting to wield power that was going to be out of control by the time they reached senior year. “Wow, your friend is a loser,” I teased, sliding my hands into the back pockets of my jeans. Madoc zeroed in on me with his playful half-smile and relaxed eyes. “So are your frien—” he started, then stopped. “Oh, that’s right. You don’t have any friends.” “Don’t need ’em,” I shot back. “I travel faster on my own. I’m going places. You know that.” “Yeah, you’re going places. Just stop at the dry cleaners on your way, Fallon. I need my shirts picked up.” He smoothed an arrogant hand over his navy Abercrombie button-down. With his medium-wash boot-cut jeans, black Paracord bracelet, and styled dark blond hair, Madoc dressed to impress. Girls flocked to him because he looked good in clothes, could talk the ears off an elephant, and loved to play. For all intents and purposes, he was a fun guy. And he always made me feel small. I talked a lot of shit, but truth be told, it was more for my ears than anyone else’s. Madoc was designer. I was Target. He was Godiva. I was Snickers. And as far as he was concerned, he was entitled, and I was the freeloading daughter of the gold-digging whore who had snagged his father. Madoc thought I was dirt under his shoe. Screw him. I gave his outfit a condescending once-over. “Your shirts—which are super stylish, let me remind you. The gay community would be proud.” “You could get nice things, too. My dad pays your mom enough for her services, after all.” “Nice things? Like the miniskirts you date?” I challenged. Time to educate the little shit. “Most guys, Madoc, like something different. You know why you want to see me in ‘nice,’ skimpy things? Because the more I show, the less I’m hiding. I scare you.” He shook his head. “Nada, little sister.” Little . . . I was only two months younger than him. He said shit like that to piss me off. “I’m not your little sister.” I took a step forward. “And I do have friends. And plenty of guys interested. They like how I look. I don’t subscribe to you and our snotty parents’ stand—” “Wow, I’m bored,” he cut me off with a sigh. “Your life doesn’t interest me, Fallon. Holiday dinners and once in a while around the house. Those are the only times I want to run in to you.” I tipped my chin up, trying not to give anything away. It didn’t hurt. Not his words or his opinion of me. There was no ache in my throat that dropped down into my stomach and twisted the ever-present knots tighter. What he said didn’t matter. I liked who I was. No one told me how to dress, how to behave, what clubs to join . . . I made my own decisions. Madoc was a puppet. A drone. I’m free. When I said nothing, he started walking backward away from me. “The parents are out for the night. I’m having a party. Stay out of the way. Maybe hide out in the servants’ quarters where you belong.” I watched him go, knowing I wouldn’t listen. I would wish that I had. CHAPTER 1 MADOC 2 years later “Seriously?” I exclaimed. “Could she move any slower?” I asked Jared as I sat in the backseat of his girlfriend’s G8 with my hands locked on top of my head. Tate twisted around in the driver’s seat, her eyes sharp like she wanted to drive a knife right through my skull. “I’m heading around a sharp turn at nearly fifty miles an hour on an unstable dirt road!” she yelled. “This isn’t even a real race. It’s practice. I told you that already!” Every muscle in her face was tight as she chewed me out. I dropped my head back and let out a sigh. Jared sat in front of me with his elbow on the door and his head in his hand. It was Saturday afternoon, a week before Tate’s first real race at our local, makeshift track—the Loop—and we’d been on Route Five for the last three hours. Every time the little twerp downshifted too soon or didn’t hit the gas fast enough, Jared kept quiet—but not me. He didn’t want to hurt his girlfriend’s feelings, but I didn’t care. Why tiptoe around her? I wasn’t trying to get in her pants. Not anymore, anyway. Tate and Jared had spent most of high school hating each other. Battling with words and antics in the longest-running game of foreplay I’d ever seen. Now they were all up in each other’s shit like Romeo and Juliet. The porno version. Jared turned his head but not enough to meet my eyes. “Get out,” he ordered. “What?” I blurted, my eyes widening. “But . . . but . . .” I stuttered, catching sight of Tate’s triumphant smile in the rearview mirror. “But nothing,” Jared barked. “Go get your car. She can race you.” The zing of adrenaline shot through me at the prospect of some real excitement. Tate could definitely race a chick who had no idea what she was doing, but she still had a lot to learn and some balls to grow. Enter me. I wanted to smile, but I didn’t. Instead, I just rolled my eyes. “Well, that’ll be boring.” “Oh, you’re so funny,” she mocked, gripping the steering wheel even tighter. “You make a great twelve-year-old girl when you whine.” I opened the back door. “Speaking of whining . . . want to make a bet on who’ll be crying by the end of the day?” “You will,” she answered. “Not.” She grabbed a package of travel tissues and threw them at me. “Here. Just in case.” “Oh, I see you keep a ready stock,” I retorted. “Because you cry so much, right?” She jerked around. “Tais-toi! Je te détes—” “What?” I interrupted her. “What was that? I’m hot, and you love me? Jared, did you know she had feelings—” “Stop it!” he bellowed, shutting the both of us up. “Goddamn it, you two.” He threw his hands up in the air, looking between us like we were misbehaving children. Tate and I were both silent for a moment. Then when she snorted, I couldn’t help but let out a laugh, too. “Madoc?” Jared’s teeth were practically glued together. I could hear the tension in his voice. “Out. Now.” I grabbed my cell off the seat and did as I was told, only because I knew my best friend had had enough. I’d been trying to bait Tate all day by making jokes and distracting Jared. She was finally racing a real opponent, and even though Jared and I had been working with her, we knew things went wrong out there on the track. All the time. But Tate insisted that she could handle it. And what Tate wants, Tate gets. Jared was whipped worse than cream when it came to that girl. I walked back down the track to the driveway leading in to it. My silver GTO sat along the side of the road, and I dug in my jeans for my keys with one hand while I ran the back of my hand across my forehead with the other. It was early June, and everything was already so miserable. The heat wasn’t bad, but the damn humidity made it worse. My mom had wanted me to come to New Orleans for the summer, and I gave her a big, fat hell-to-the-no. Yeah, I love sweating my balls off while her new husband tries to teach me shrimping in the Gulf. Nope. I loved my mom, but the idea of having the house to myself all summer while my dad stayed at his apartment in Chicago was, no doubt, a much better prospect. My hand tingled with a vibration, and I looked down at my phone. Speak of the devil. “Hey, what’s up?” I asked my dad as I came up on the side of my car. “Madoc. Glad you answered. Are you home?” He sounded unusually concerned. “No. I was about to head there soon, though. Why?” My dad was hardly ever around. He kept an apartment in Chicago. since his big legal cases kept him working long hours. While often absent, he was easy to get along with. I liked him. Didn’t love him, though. My stepmom had been AWOL for a year. Traveling, visiting friends. I hated her. And I had a stepsister . . . somewhere. The only person I loved at home was Addie, our housekeeper. She made sure I ate my vegetables, and she signed my permission slips for school. She was my family. “Addie called this morning,” he explained. “Fallon showed up today.” My breath lodged in my throat, and I nearly dropped my phone. Fallon? Putting my palm down on the hood of my car, I put my head down and tried to stop grinding my teeth. My stepsister was home. Why? Why now? “So?” I spat out. “What does that have to do with me?” “Addie packed you a bag.” He ignored my question. “I talked to Jared’s mom, and you’re going to stay with them for a few weeks until my schedule frees up. I’ll come home then and get this sorted out.” Excuse me? It felt like the phone would crack under my fingers as I clenched it. “What? Why?” I yelled, breathing hard. “Why can’t I stay at my own house?” Since when did she get the run of things? So she was home. Big deal! Send her on her way then. Why did I have to be sent away? “You know why,” my dad answered, his deep tone threatening. “Don’t go home, Madoc.” And he hung up. I stayed planted where I stood, studying the reflection of the trees on the hood of my car. I had been told to go to Jared’s house, where Addie would bring me clothes, and not to go home until further notice. And why? I shut my eyes and shook my head. I knew why. My stepsister was home, and our parents knew everything. Everything that happened two years ago. But it wasn’t her home. It never was. It’s been my home for eighteen years. She lived there for a while after our parents got married and then disappeared a couple of years ago. I’d woken up one morning, and she was gone. No good-bye, no note, and no communication since then. The parents knew where she was but not me. I wasn’t allowed to know her whereabouts. Not that I fucking cared anyway. But I damn well wanted to be in my own house for the summer. • • • Two hours later I was sitting in Jared’s living room with his half brother, Jax, biding my time until their mom stopped watching us like a hawk. The more I sat, the more anxious I got to go find some distractions. Jared had a ton of liquor up in his room that I’d brought over from my house, and it was time to start my Saturday night warm-up. Jax was slouched on the couch playing video games, and Jared had left to get tattooed. “This is not how you handle it, Jason,” I heard Katherine Trent whisper-yell from the kitchen. My eyebrows shot up. Jason? That was my father’s name. She crossed the doorway as she paced, talking on the phone. She calls my dad Jason? Not weird, I guess. That’s his name. It just seemed weird. Not many people got away with calling my father by his first name. It was usually “Mr. Caruthers” or “sir.” Getting up, I inched into the dining room, which sat right off the kitchen. “This is your son,” I heard her say. “You need to come home and deal with this.” I stuck my hands in my pockets and leaned back against the wall right by the door leading to the kitchen. She was quiet for a while except for the sounds of dishes clattering. She must’ve been unloading the dishwasher. “No,” she answered. “One week. Tops. I love Madoc, but this is your family, and they need you. You’re not getting off the hook. I already have two teenage boys. You know what they do when I try to impose a curfew? They laugh at me.” I fought between smiling out of amusement and clenching my fists in irritation. “I’m here,” she continued. “I want to help, but he needs you!” Her whispers were futile. It was impossible to try to order my father around and be quiet about it. I shot a look to Jax and noticed that he’d stopped his video game and was watching me with a quirked eyebrow. Shaking his head, he joked, “I haven’t obeyed a curfew in my entire life. She’s cute about it, though. I love that woman.” Jax was Jared’s half-brother. They had the same father but different mothers, and Jax had spent most of his life either with their sadistic dad or in foster homes. Late last fall, my father had helped Katherine get Jax out of foster care and into her home. Jared and Jax’s father was in jail, and everyone wanted the brothers together. Especially the brothers. And now that Jared, who’d been my best friend all through high school, had found his soul mate and love of his life, he wasn’t around as much as he used to be. So Jax and I had grown closer. “Come on.” I jerked my chin at him. “I’m grabbing a bottle from Jared’s room, and then we’re going out.” • • • “I want to see your biggest balls,” I ordered in the deepest voice I could muster. My eyes were narrowed, and I had to press my teeth together to not laugh. Tate’s back straightened, and she slowly spun around with her chin down and eyes up. It reminded me of how my mother looked at me when I had pissed in the pool as a kid. “Wow, I haven’t heard that one before.” She widened her eyes at me. “Well, sir, we have some quite heavy ones, but they all take two fingers and a thumb. Are you that skilled?” She had an expression on her face like we were talking about homework, but I could see the smile playing at the corner of her mouth. “I’m so skilled,” I teased, my tongue suddenly too big for my mouth. “You’d be jealous of what I could do to that ball.” She rolled her eyes and approached the counter. Tate had been working at the bowling alley since last fall. It was almost a court-ordered requirement that she get a job. Well, not quite. It probably would’ve been court-ordered if Jared had pressed charges. This five-foot-seven, one-hundred-twenty-pound bit of nothing had taken a crowbar to her boyfriend’s car in one of her famous violent fits. It was pretty nasty and pretty awesome. The video was on YouTube and had practically started a feminist movement. People did their own renditions of it and even put it to music. They titled it Who’s the Boss Now?, since Jared’s car was a Mustang Boss 302. It was all a misunderstanding, though, and Tate paid for the damages. She grew up. Jared and I grew up. And we were all friends. Of course, they were sleeping together. I got no such perks. “Madoc, have you been drinking?” Tate put her palms on the counter and looked at me like a mom. “What a stupid question.” Of course I’ve been drinking. It’s like she didn’t even know me. Jerking her head up, she looked over to the lanes behind me, and I was afraid her big blue eyes would actually fall out of her head. “You got Jax drunk, too!” she accused, clearly pissed now. I twisted around to see what she was looking at, stumbling when my foot got caught in the legs of the stool next to me. I let a holler rip from my throat. “Whooooo!” I shouted, holding up the bottle of Jack Daniel’s in the air when I saw what Tate saw. A crowd of people was gathered in front of one lane, laughing and watching Jax run and do slip and slides down a bowling path. “Hell, yeah!” The bottle was torn out of my fingers, and I turned to see Tate stuff it under the counter, pressing her angry lips together and scowling. “Why is the whiskey gone?!” I imitated Captain Jack Sparrow and pounded my fist on the counter. Tate stomped down the aisle toward the door leading out to the lanes. “You’re in deep shit when I get over this counter,” she whisper-yelled at me. “You love me. You know you do!” I laughed and sprinted away through the maze of tables and chairs around the concession stand to where Jax played. A couple of other guys had joined in and flew down the lanes, much to the delight of the Saturday night crowd. At this hour, there weren’t too many families out and about, and the only people not entertained were the single dudes who spent their older years lamenting their beer bellies and how lucky they were to escape marriage. They just watched and shook their heads. “Fallon’s home. Don’t go home.” I swallowed down the whiskey that kept creeping back up and threw my head back. “Woohoo!” I bellowed, before pounding down the light-colored hardwood floor, leaping onto the lane on my belly and sliding down the alleyway. My heart pounded, and excitement bubbled in my chest. Holy shit! These lanes were crazy slippery, and I just laughed, not caring that Tate was pissed at me or that Jared’s fist would leave a permanent mark on my face for messing around at his girlfriend’s work. All I cared about was what got me from one moment to the next. I can’t go home. The crowd cheered and yelled behind me, some of them jumping up and down. The only way I could tell was because I felt the vibrations under me. And when I rolled to a stop, my legs dangling into the next lane, I just lay there, wondering. Not about Fallon. Not even about whether I was too drunk to drive home at this point. I wondered out loud, “How the hell am I going to get up?” These lanes were slippery. Duh. Couldn’t stand up, or I’d slip. Shit. “Madoc! Get up!” I could hear Tate’s bark from somewhere near me. Madoc. Get up. The sun’s up. You have to leave. “Madoc. Get. Up!” Tate shouted again. I snapped to. “It’s okay,” I grunted. “I’m sorry, Tate. You know I love you, right?” I jerked to a sitting position with a hiccup. Then I looked up to see her walking on the median between the lanes. Like a boss. She put her hands on her hips, a stern set to her eyebrows. “Madoc, I work here.” I winced, not liking the disappointment in her voice. I always craved Tate’s respect. “Sorry, babe.” I tried standing up, but I only slipped again, a deep ache settling on the side of my ass. “I already said sorry, didn’t I?” She squatted down and wrapped her arms around one of mine, hauling me up. “What’s wrong with you? You never drink unless you’re at a party.” I lodged one foot in the gutter and wobbled until Tate pulled me closer to her and I was able to set the other foot on the median. “Nothing’s wrong with me.” I gave a half-smile. “I’m a joker, Tate. I’m . . .” I waved my hand in the air. “Just a . . . joke—a joker,” I rushed to add. She continued to hold me, but I could feel her fingers ease up underneath the hem of my short-sleeved T-shirt. “Madoc, you’re not a joke.” Her eyes were serious again but softer this time. You don’t know what I am. I held her eyes, wanting to tell her everything. Wanting my friend—someone—to see the real me. Jared and Jax were good friends, but guys didn’t want to hear that shit, and we weren’t that observant. Tate knew something was wrong, and I didn’t know how to tell her. I just wanted her to know that underneath it all, I wasn’t a good guy. “I do stupid things, Tate. That’s what I do. I’m good at it.” I reached up slowly and tucked the few stray hairs from her ponytail behind her ear, lowering my voice to a near whisper. “My father knows it. She knows it.” I dropped my eyes and then looked back up. “You know it, too, don’t you?” She didn’t answer. Only studied me, the wheels in her head turning. My hand fell to her cheek, and I remembered all the times that she had reminded me of Fallon. I stroked Tate’s cheek with my thumb, wishing she’d yell at me. Wishing she didn’t care about me. How much easier it would be to know that I didn’t have anything real in my life. I held her sweet, unknowing face and leaned in closer, smelling her barely-there perfume as I brought my lips closer. “Madoc?” she asked, her voice confused as she watched me. Tilting my head down, I planted a soft kiss on her forehead and then leaned back slowly. Her eyebrows were pinched together in worry as she stared at me. “Are you okay?” No. Well, sometimes. Okay, yes. Most of the time, I guess. Just not at night. “Wow.” I took a deep breath and smiled. “I hope you know that that didn’t mean anything,” I joked. “I mean, I love you. Just not like that. More like a sister.” I burst into laughter and hunched over, barely finishing the sentence as I closed my eyes and held onto my stomach. “I don’t get the joke,” Tate scolded. A high-pitched whistle pierced the air, and Tate and I looked up. “What the hell’s going on?” Jared’s big and angry daddy voice ripped through the bowling alley, making my ears ache. But as I turned around to face him, I accidentally stepped back onto the slippery lane. “Oh, shit!” My breath caught as I slid, and I stupidly kept my weight on Tate, which was too much for her. Backward I fell and into my lap she stumbled. We slammed to the floor, hitting the wood hard. I’d probably bruised every damn inch of my ass, but Tate was cool. She landed on me. That was cool for me, too. But when I looked over at my best friend standing at the start of the lane, looking at us with murder in his eyes, I pushed Tate off me in disgust. “Dude, she slipped me whiskey and tried to date-rape me!” I pointed at Tate. “She keeps it under the counter. Go look!” Tate growled and crawled back up to the median, her messy ponytail hanging by a prayer. “Jax!” Jared yelled to the lane at my right where Jax was crawling back up the lane. “And you.” Jared’s eyes shot bullets at me. “Get in my car now.” “Ooooh, I think he wants to give you a spanking,” I singsonged to Tate as she stomped down the median to her boyfriend. “Shut up, doofus,” she spat back. CHAPTER 2 FALLON “Was that your first kiss?” he asks, pulling his head back to look at me. I keep my gaze down and clutch the kitchen counter behind me. This feels wrong. He’s pressing my back into the countertop, and I can’t move. It hurts. Just look at him, I will myself. Look up, you idiot! Tell him to back off. He doesn’t see you. He’s a user. He makes you feel dirty. “Come here.” He grabs for my face, and I cringe. “Let me show you how to use that tongue.” This feels wrong. “Fallon?” The soft, feathery voice broke through my dream. “Fallon, are you up?” I heard a knock. “I’m coming in,” she announced. I opened my eyes, blinking away the fog of sleep from my brain. I couldn’t move. My head felt separated from my body, and my arms and legs were molded to the bed, as if a ten-ton weight sat on my back. My brain was active, but my body was still sound asleep. “Fallon,” a voice sang out to me. “I made you poached eggs. Your favorite.” I smiled, curling my toes and clenching my fists to wake them up. “With toast to dip?” I called from underneath my pillow. “White toast, because multigrain is for pussies,” Addie deadpanned, and I remembered I’d told her those very same words about four years ago when my mom married Jason Caruthers and we came to live here. I kicked the covers off my legs and sat up, laughing. “I missed you, girlfriend. You’re one of the only people in the world I don’t want to cut.” Addie, the housekeeper and someone who’d acted more like a mother to me than my own, was also one of the only people that I didn’t have hang-ups about. She walked into the room, carefully maneuvering a tray full of all the things I hadn’t eaten in years: poached eggs, croissants, freshly squeezed orange juice, a fruit salad with strawberries, blueberries and yogurt. And real butter! Okay—so I hadn’t tasted it yet. But if I knew Addie, it was real. As she set the tray over my legs, I tucked my hair behind my ears and grabbed my glasses off the bedside table. “I thought you said you were too cool for hipster glasses,” she reminded me. I dipped a wedge of toast in egg yolk. “Turns out I had a lot of opinions back then. Shit changes, Addie.” I smirked at her happily as I took a bite, salivating more as the warm saltiness of the yolk and butter hit my tongue. “But apparently not your cooking! Damn, girl. I missed this.” Addie is far from a girl in looks but more so than anyone I know in personality. She’s not only a valuable housekeeper, but she proved to be the lady of the manor that Mr. Caruthers needed. She took care of things the way my mother didn’t. Of course, Addie and Mr. Caruthers weren’t sleeping together. She was a good twenty years older than him. But . . . she took care of everything. The house, the grounds, his social calendar outside of work. She anticipated his needs, and she was the only person he’d never fire. Seriously. She could call him a fuck-up, and he’d just roll his eyes. She made herself invaluable, and because of it, she called the shots in this house. She also took care of Madoc. That’s why I needed her. “And I missed you,” she replied, picking up my clothes from the floor. I cut a piece of egg and put it on my toast. “Come on. Don’t do that. I’m a woman now. I can clean up after myself.” I hadn’t been paying my own bills, but for all intents and purposes, I’d been taking care of myself completely for two years. My mother had deposited me at boarding school, and my dad didn’t micromanage. When I got sick, I dragged my ass to the doctor. When I needed clothes, I shopped. When it was laundry day, I studied next to the washing machines. No one told me which movies to see, how often to eat vegetables, or when to get my hair trimmed. I took care of it. “You are a woman. A very beautiful one at that.” She smiled, and I felt a warm hum in my chest. “A few more tattoos, but you took the piercings out, I see. I liked the ones through your septum and lip.” “Yeah, the school I went to didn’t. You gotta know when to fold ’em and know when to hold ’em.” I wouldn’t exactly say I was going through a phase the last time Addie had seen me, but I’d definitely loaded up on multiple forms of self-expression. I had had a piercing through my septum—a small ring—and another through the side of my lip and a stud in my tongue. I hadn’t kept any of them, though. St. Joseph’s, my boarding school, didn’t allow “unorthodox” piercings, and they limited you to two in each ear. I also had five in my left ear—my industrial was one piercing, but it took two holes—and I had six in my right ear, counting my tragus, two in my lobe, and three going up the inside ridge of my ear. The school had ordered me to take those out, too. But when Mom didn’t answer her phone to deal with their complaints, I finally told them to “fuck off.” When they called my dad, he gave them a hefty donation . . . and then told them to fuck off. “You and Madoc have both grown up so . . .” She trailed off, and I stopped chewing. “I’m sorry,” she finished, looking away from me. If someone had tried to take my heart right then, they would have needed both hands to hold it. I swallowed the heavy lump of food in my mouth, and took a deep breath. “Why are you sorry?” I shrugged. I knew why. She knew why. Madoc and I hadn’t been alone in this house after all. Everyone knew what had happened. “You don’t have to worry,” she assured me, sitting on the edge of the bed. “Like I told you last night. He’s not here, and he won’t be back until your visit is over.” No. “You think I have a problem with Madoc, Addie?” I snickered. “Madoc and I are fine. I’m fine. We took our idiotic rivalry too far, but we were kids. I want to move on.” I kept my tone light, and my shoulders relaxed. Nothing in my body language was going to give me away. “Well, Jason thinks it’s unsafe. He says you’re welcome to stay for as long as you like, though. Madoc won’t be here.” This was why I needed Addie. I could talk her into getting Madoc home. I just couldn’t be too obvious about it. “I’ll only be here for a week or so.” I took a sip of my juice and set it back down. “I’m going to Northwestern in the fall, but I’ll be staying with my dad in the city for the rest of the summer until school starts. Just wanted to visit before I start the next phase.” She looked at me the way moms on TV looked at their daughters. The kind of look that makes you feel like you’ve got a thing or two to learn, because honey, you’re just a kid, and I’m smarter. “You wanted to face him.” She nodded, her blue eyes locked with mine. “To resolve things.” Resolve things? No. Face him? Yes. “It’s cool.” I pushed the tray down the bed and climbed off. “I’m going for a run. Do they still keep that trail trimmed around the quarry?” “As far as I know.” I walked across the newly decorated room to the walk-in closet where I’d thrown my duffel bag yesterday when I got here. “Fallon? Do you usually sleep in your underwear and a T-shirt too short to cover your ass?” Addie asked with a laugh in her voice. “Yeah, why?” I heard nothing for a few seconds as I bent over to get my bag. “Good thing Madoc’s not here after all then,” she mumbled in an amused tone and left me alone. I got dressed, looking around my bedroom in the light of day. My old room with new décor. When I’d gotten in yesterday, Addie had walked me up to my room, but the interior was very different than the way I’d left it. My skating posters were gone, my furniture had been replaced, and my red walls were now a cream color. Cream? Yeah, gag. I’d had a whole wall lined with bumper stickers. It now featured some impersonal mass-produced photographs of the Eiffel Tower and French cobblestone streets. My bedding was a light pink, and my dressers and bed were now white. My graphing table with my drawings, my shelves with my Lego robots, and my DVDs and CDs were gone. I can’t say I thought about any of that shit over the last two years, but I felt like I wanted to cry as soon as I entered the room yesterday. Maybe it was that I’d assumed they’d still be here, or maybe I was thrown off that my entire life could be thrown away so easily. “Your mom redecorated shortly after you left,” Addie had explained. Of course she did. I allowed myself about two seconds to lament all of the hours I’d spent skating on boards that were now in a trash dump and building with precious Legos that were now rotting in the dirt somewhere. And then I swallowed the ache in my throat and moved on. Screw it. My room now was mature and even a little sexy. I still liked boys’ clothes and wild forms of expression, but my mom didn’t suck at decorating. There were no floral motifs anywhere, and the room was designed for a grown-up. The soft pink tones of the bedding and draperies, the innocence of the romantic furniture, and the black-and-white photographs in vivid frames made me feel like a woman. I kind of liked it. And I still kind of wanted to kill her for throwing away all of my stuff, too. • • • The best part about my mom marrying Jason Caruthers was that his house sat in the Seven Hills Valley, a huge gated community—if you considered it a “community” when your nearest neighbor was a half mile down the road in either direction. Rich shits liked their country houses, their space, and their trophy wives. Even if they used none of them. When I thought of my stepfather, Richard Gere in Pretty Woman always came to mind. You know the dude who reserves the penthouse suite but can’t stand heights, so why the fuck did he reserve the penthouse suite? Anyway, that was Jason Caruthers. He bought houses he didn’t live in, cars he didn’t use, and he married women he didn’t live with. Why? I asked myself that all the time. Maybe he was bored. Maybe he was looking for something that he never seemed to find. Or maybe he was just a rich shit. To be fair, my mom was the same. Patricia Fallon married my father, Ciaran Pierce, eighteen years ago. Two days later, I was born. Four years later, they divorced, and my mother took me—her meal ticket—on all of her gold-digging adventures. She married an entrepreneur who lost his business and a police captain whose work turned out not to be glamorous enough for my mother. But through him, she met her present husband and in him my mother found exactly what she was looking for: money and prestige. Sure, my father had it, too. In certain circles. I had never truly wanted for anything. But my father lived outside of the law—far outside of the law—and to protect his family, he kept us hidden and quiet. Not really the glamorous life my mother was looking for. But despite her selfish decisions, I liked where she ended up. I liked it here. I always had. The estates all sat tucked away beyond large driveways and dense little neighborhoods of trees. I had loved running—or even walking—along the quiet, secluded roads, but what I anticipated more now was the way the community connected into the Mines of Spain recreational area that featured narrow woodsy trails and deep quarries. The sandstone all around, the greenery, and the perfect blue sky overhead made this the ideal place to get lost. Sweat poured down my neck as I pounded the shit out of the dirt under my feet. Tool’s “Schism” played through my earbuds while I zoned out on the trail, and I had to remind myself to keep my eyes up. My father hated that I ran alone. He hated that I ran in quiet, unpopulated areas. I could hear his voice in my head: Keep your head up and protection on you! He had ordered a crap-load of running shorts with gun holsters attached to the back, but I refused to wear them. If he wanted me to attract less attention, that was the wrong way to go about it. If you run in your underwear, someone will get the wrong idea, he’d said. And then I have to hurt people. You know I like to do that as little as possible. I didn’t run in my underwear. But some spandex running shorts and a sports bra? Fuck it, it was hot. So we had compromised. He had a bracelet designed that featured a small pocket knife and some pepper spray. It looked like some sick, twisted charm bracelet, but it made him feel better to know I wore it whenever I went out running. Scanning the trail ahead of me—because I listen to my daddy—I noticed a young woman, about my age, standing between the trail and the pond, looking out over the water. I saw her lips were turned down, and she sniffled. That’s when I noticed the shake to her chin. Slowing to a walk, I took a quick inventory. She was dressed like me, running shorts and sports bra, and from what I could see, she wasn’t hurt. There were no other runners or hikers. She just stood there, eyes narrowed, watching the soft ripple on the water. “Nice tunes,” I yelled over the noise from the iPod strapped to her arm. She jerked her head toward me and immediately wiped the corner of her eye. “What?” She pulled out her ear buds. “I said ‘nice tunes,’” I repeated, hearing Guns N’ Roses’ “Paradise City” spitting out of her ear buds. She choked out a laugh, her flushed face brightening a little. “I love the oldies.” She reached out her hand. “Hi, I’m Tate.” “Fallon.” I reached out and shook her hand. She nodded and looked away, trying to covertly wipe away the rest of the tears. Tate. Wait . . . blond hair, long legs, big boobs . . . “You’re Tatum Brandt,” I remembered. “Shelburne High?” “Yeah.” She draped the cord to her ear buds around her neck. “I’m sorry. I don’t think I remember you.” “It’s okay. I left at the end of sophomore year.” “Oh, where’d you go?” She looked me straight in the eye as we spoke. “Boarding school out east.” Her eyebrows shot up. “Boarding school? How was that?” “Catholic. Very Catholic.” She shook her head and smiled as if she couldn’t believe what I’d told her. Or maybe she thought it was ludicrous. Didn’t people ship their unwanted kids off in her world? No? Weird. The wind blew through the trail, causing the leaves to rustle, and the breeze was a welcome comfort to my hot and wet skin. “So are you just back for the summer before college or for good?” she asked, sitting down on the ground and looking up at me. I took that as an invitation and sat down, too. “Just a week or so. I’m heading to Chicago for school. You?” She looked down, losing her smile. “I was supposed to go to Columbia. Not now, though.” “Why?” Columbia was a great school. I would’ve applied, but my father didn’t want me so close to Boston. The farther away from him the safer, he’d said. “My dad is having some . . . issues.” I could see her damp lashes as she leaned back on her hands and continued to study the pond in front of us. “For a long time, apparently. I think it’s best to stick close to home.” “It must be hard to give up Columbia,” I offered. She stuck her bottom lip out and shook her head. “Nope. I didn’t think twice about it, actually. When someone you love needs you, you suck it up. I’m just upset that he didn’t tell me. He’s had two heart attacks, and I only found out through hospital bills I wasn’t supposed to see.” She acted like it wasn’t even a choice. Like it was so easy. My dad is sick. I stay. I was jealous of her resolve. “Wow, I’m sorry.” She smiled and sat up, dusting off her hands. “I bet you’re glad you stopped to say hi.” “It’s okay. Where do you think you’ll go to school now?” I looked over at her and saw that she had a little tattoo on the back of her neck. Down at the curve where it met her shoulder. It wasn’t that big, but I could make out flames bursting out of a black lantern. “Well, I got into Northwestern,” she offered. “It’s a good option for my degree, and it’s only about an hour from here. The more I think about it, the more excited I get.” I nodded. “Well, that’s where I’m going.” She raised her eyebrows, surprised. “Well, well . . . you like old-school GNR, you’re going to Northwestern, you’ve got some nice ink”—she motioned to the Out of Order tattoo I had written behind my ear at my hairline—“and you jog. Tell me you’re into science, and I may have found my hetero soul mate.” “I’m majoring in Mechanical Engineering,” I singsonged, hoping that was close enough. She put her fist out to bump me and smiled. “Close enough.” Her smiles were a lot more frequent than the last time I’d seen her. She must’ve either gotten Thing 1 and Thing 2 to leave her alone, or she’d put them in their place. “So,” she started, standing up and brushing off her butt. “My friend is having a party tomorrow night. You should come. He has no problem with pretty girls crashing. You may have to forfeit your underwear at the door, but I’ll protect you.” I stood up, too. “He sounds like a hell-raiser.” “He tries.” She shrugged, but I could see the proud little smile underneath the gesture. She grabbed my phone out of my hand and punched in some numbers. “Okay, I just called myself. Now you have my number, so text if you’re interested. I’ll shoot you the address and time.” “Whose party is it?” I asked, taking my phone back. “It’s at Madoc Caruthers’s house.” I closed my mouth and swallowed at the mention of his name. She continued. “He requires that you wear a bikini, but if you kick him in the balls, he’ll shut up.” She hooded her eyes in an apology. “He’s one of my best friends. It just takes some time getting used to him,” she explained. Best friends? Huh? My breathing turned shallow. Madoc was supposed to be having a party tomorrow night? She backed away, getting ready to leave. “See you tomorrow, I hope!” And then she was gone, while I stood there, shifting my gaze left to right, searching for I-don’t-know-what. Madoc was friends with Tatum Brandt? How the hell did that happen? • • • “I like that metal in your mouth. I heard a tongue piercing can be all kinds of fun for things other than kissing.” He grips my hair, breathing into my mouth. “So are you really a bad girl or just playing at one? Show me.” I’m not sure what woke me up first. The nausea rolling like thunder through my stomach or the high that was flooding my nerves with excitement. Nausea and excitement. Sickness and thrill. Why did I feel both at the same time? I knew the queasiness was from the dream. But the excitement? The thrill? And that’s when I noticed what had woken me up. The flow of air in the room had changed. It was now filtering out into the hall. My heart beat faster, and my belly tingled with butterflies. I tensed my muscles in response, because the elation flowing through them was too much. My bedroom door was open! I snapped my eyes open and bolted upright in bed, my heart lodging in my throat as I tried to take a breath. A dark figure, much bigger than I remembered, stood in the doorway. I almost screamed, but I clamped my mouth shut and swallowed. I knew who it was, and I definitely wasn’t scared of him. “Madoc,” I fumed. “Get out.” CHAPTER 3 MADOC I leaned against the door frame, bringing the bottle of beer to my lips. She was right. I should get out. Bad fucking idea to stay, dude. But for some reason, I just had to see for myself. I don’t why I didn’t believe it. My dad had told me, and Addie confirmed it, but I just couldn’t swallow the fact that Fallon Pierce was back in town after so long. I’d nursed a nasty hangover this morning, thanks to her, and then driven home after I knew everyone would be in bed. There had been no plan to come to her room, and I had no plan to enter, but I was too damn curious. What was she like now? How had she changed? And there were some answers I needed, whether I liked it or not. She reached over and grabbed her black-rimmed glasses off the nightstand. The moon was under cover tonight, so I couldn’t see shit. Only her form. “So you’re really back.” I pushed off the door frame and sauntered toward the end of the bed. “You’re not supposed to be here. Addie said you were staying with friends.” What the fuck? They were right. She was afraid of me. But why? What the hell had I ever done to her? I squeezed the green bottle in my hand and tried to make her out in the darkness. She wore a dark blue T-shirt with some white swirly writing I couldn’t read, and her hair was all over the place. She used to have piercings, but I couldn’t see anything right now. “This is my father’s house.” I spoke low and straightened my back. “And someday all this shit will be mine, Fallon. That bed you sleep in, along with everything else under this roof.” “Not me, Madoc. You don’t own me.” “Yeah.” I brushed her off. “Been there. Done that. Got the T-shirt. Thanks.” “Get out,” she ordered, her tone hard. I took another sip of my beer. “The thing is, Fallon . . . I told you before to lock the door if you wanted me to stay out. Funny thing is . . .” I leaned in. “You. Never. Did.” In one swift movement she whipped off her covers and stood up on the bed. Charging to the end, she slapped me across the face before I even knew what was happening. I almost laughed. Hell, yeah. My body stayed in place, but my head had twisted to the side with the blow, and I closed my eyes out of reflex. The sting started as a few little needles under the surface but exploded and spread like electricity. I kept my eyes shut for a few seconds longer than necessary, savoring the rush. With the bed elevating her, she stood about six inches higher than me, and I turned my head back to her slowly, welcoming whatever she had. She scowled down at me. “I was sixteen years old and too stupid to keep you off me,” she spat. “Little did I know that they have toothbrushes bigger than you. And I’ve definitely had better than you in the past two years, so count on the door being locked from now on.” Sometimes I wore smiles but didn’t feel them. Sometimes I felt them and didn’t wear them. I didn’t want her to know how much I craved this. I bit my bottom lip. She spun around, heading back up the bed, and I reached out and pulled her ankle out from underneath her. She crashed down onto the mattress, landing on her belly, and I quickly came down onto her back, whispering in her ear. “Do you think I’d even touch you now? You know what I used to call you? Pussy-on-the-Premises. You were convenient when I needed to blow a load, Fallon.” She whipped her head around to look at me but couldn’t twist far enough with my weight on her back. “And don’t think I ever thought it was more than that, either, Madoc. I was bored, and it was cute to see you brag about your skill. I’ve never laughed so hard.” I could hear the smile in her voice. “But I know better now,” she finished. “Yeah?” I asked. “Spreading yourself around like your mother? You were right, Fallon. You sure are going places.” I pushed off the bed and watched her flip over and sit up. It was then I noticed what she was wearing. A T-shirt and bikini underwear. Shit. I blinked long and hard. My dick jolted against my basketball shorts, and I clenched a fist, forcing control. “But,” I continued, “don’t overestimate yourself, baby. You can’t get me kicked out of my own house. I live here. Not you.” Her chest rose and fell hard, and the anger in her eyes brought back everything I lived for two years ago. Her facial piercings were gone, and I wished she still had them, but her hair was beautiful chaos. The way it always looked at night. She still wore her sexy glasses, and I couldn’t help thinking about those strong legs. I’d been there. And her temper? Yeah, the Irish in her was no lie. “Madoc?” I sucked in a breath and turned around to see Hannah standing in the doorway in her bikini. “The Jacuzzi’s ready,” she said, hands on her hips. I looked at Fallon, still sitting on the bed and her eyes going round at seeing my date. I smiled. “Stay,” I told her in a relaxed voice. “Eat the food. Use the pool. And then get a fucking life of your own when you leave.” CHAPTER 4 FALLON I knew exactly how I felt about Madoc. And I knew why I felt that way. I hated him. I hated what he did to me. But why in the hell did he hate me? I scrubbed my face, going through my morning rituals, while I thought about him. Madoc had been rude last night. Volatile. He clearly despised me. That wasn’t part of the plan. We had left things unfinished, but what was his problem? He got what he wanted, didn’t he? Why was he so angry? I dried my face and threw on my glasses, heading downstairs as I replayed his words from last night. “Do you think I’d even touch you now? You know what I used to call you? Pussy-on-the-Premises. You were convenient when I needed to blow a load.” He was never that cruel. Not even before we started— A loud scream echoed through the long corridor heading to the stairs, and I stopped. “Madoc, put me down!” Addie’s voice rang from downstairs somewhere. I crossed my arms over my chest, realizing I was still in my tank top with no bra, and Madoc was still in the house. But I quickly dropped them again. He’s still here. Good. This was where he needed to be, and now I wouldn’t have to work Addie to get him back home. I tipped my chin down, straightened my shoulders, and headed downstairs. Entering the kitchen, I saw Madoc standing behind Addie and reaching over her shoulder to dip his spoon into the batter she was mixing. His easy smile that always reached his eyes stopped me short, and I narrowed my eyes. Stop smiling, I mentally ordered him. I narrowed my eyes even more so that my eyebrows were probably touching. He flipped the spoon upside down and stuffed the chocolate-looking goo into his mouth as Addie tried to snatch it back. He twisted away, and she tried to swat him on the head, but they were both laughing. “Don’t double-dip, you little brat! I taught you better than that.” She shook her big wooden spoon at him, flinging drops of batter onto her white shirt despite the apron she wore. Madoc winked at her and walked to the refrigerator, silver spoon still hanging out of his mouth—go figure—and grabbed a Gatorade. My gaze lingered on the huge tattoo across his back, stretching from shoulder to shoulder. And my heart missed a beat. Was that my name? But I blinked and shook off the ridiculous idea. No. The tattoo said “Fallen.” They had messed up the “e” by inking it to look like flames. It was a good-looking tattoo, though, and I had to stop myself from dwelling on how it made him hotter. Tattoos made everyone hotter. My mother—when I spoke to her—was known to comment on how I’m going to look at eighty with tattoos. I’m going to look awesome. His jeans hung low without a belt, and he didn’t have a shirt on as if he just woke up and forgot to finish getting dressed. But who was I to talk? I was standing there in my sleep shorts and tank top, looking a hell of a lot more indecent. My hair was everywhere, spread around my face and down my back in knots and tangles. He was fresh and bright, and I was wilted. “Fallon!” Addie exclaimed, and I blinked. “You’re up.” She wasn’t fooling anyone with the nervous edge to her voice. Madoc faced away from me, but I noticed his arm freeze for two ticks as he took a swig of the Gatorade. He recovered quickly, though. “Yeah,” I drawled out. “It’s hard to sleep with the commotion going on down here.” Madoc twisted his head to face me and eyed me over his shoulder with an arched brow. He looked annoyed. His gaze slowly dropped, taking in my appearance or maybe just trying to make me uncomfortable, but my cheeks immediately warmed anyway. He scaled down my chest, over my stomach until he reached my bare toes, and then came right back up to meet my eyes, disgust clear in his blue depths. The same flare to his nostrils as last night was there, but his gaze was flat. I clenched my teeth to force myself to breathe more slowly. I couldn’t get upset with the way he looked down on me. I’d trained myself to not get upset. Madoc was always calm, after all. So calm all the damn time growing up. He didn’t shout or show his anger until he’d had enough. And you never knew exactly when that was going to be. That was the scary part about him. “Fallon, Madoc surprised me this morning,” Addie jumped in to explain. “But he’s heading back out after breakfast, right?” she asked Madoc, prompting him with raised eyebrows. He looked to her and back at me, mischief and pleasure evident in his expression. He shook his head. “Nah,” he said, brushing off Addie’s concern as if he’d just told her he didn’t want any dessert. “Fallon and I talked last night. We’re cool.” He looked over at me, his eyes squinting up in a smile. “I have a hell of a summer planned, and this is a big house. Right, Fallon? We’ll play nice or stay out of each other’s way.” He nodded as he spoke and looked to Addie with the same carefree, innocent, wide-eyed bullshit I’ve seen him use a million times. This is why Madoc was going to be a great lawyer like his dad. Working people wasn’t just about the words you spoke. It was about body language, tone, and timing. Keep your voice natural, your body relaxed, and distract them with a change of subject as soon as possible. Here it comes in three, two, one . . . “Come on,” he nudged Addie. “It’s fine.” He came up to stand behind her at the counter and reached around and placed his arm across her chest, hugging her close but with his eyes dead set on me. “Just finish my chocolate pancakes. I’m fucking starving.” “Madoc!” she whisper-yelled, scolding him but failing to hide her smile. And that was it. He’d won. Or so he thought. I cleared my throat. “Yeah, Madoc’s right, Addie. I have no problem with it. I told you that yesterday.” I saw Madoc raise his eyebrows. I bet he thought I was going to fight him on this. “And anyway, I’m gone in a week. I only came to eat the food and use the pool.” I let the sarcasm drip slowly from my tone and kept my eyes locked to his. I’d missed playing with him more than I wanted to admit. “Where are you going?” he asked, leaning on his elbows over the wide granite island. “Chicago. I’m starting Northwestern in the fall. You?” “Notre Dame,” he sighed, thinning his lips with a hint of resignation to his voice. No, not resignation exactly. Acceptance. As if he’d lost a battle. Notre Dame was the family school. Madoc’s father, aunts and uncles, and grandfather had all gone there. Madoc didn’t dislike the school, but I couldn’t tell if he actually liked it, either. It was hard to tell if he had any dreams of his own aside from what his father had planned for him. “Oh, that’s right!” Addie dumped the spoon into the bowl and brushed her hands on her apron. “I completely forgot to give you your graduation presents.” She walked across the kitchen and grabbed two “somethings” out of a cabinet. “Fallon, I didn’t know that you’d be here, but I’d gotten you one anyway to ship to you. Here.” She handed both Madoc and me what looked like lanterns. They were black plastic on the bottom with a glass capsule on the top half. The bottom featured five rows of the alphabet. “A cryptex!” I smiled at her while Madoc looked at his like it was an alien baby. “But . . .” He pinched his eyebrows together. “You know I just wanted to see you in a bikini,” he told Addie. “Oh, put a cork in it.” She waved her hand. “What is this?” His eyebrows were still pinched together while he studied the puzzle case. “It’s a Puzzle Pod Cryptex,” Addie explained. “You have to solve the riddle that I have taped to the bottom, and dial the five-letter answer to open the pod. Then you can retrieve the present inside. Madoc read his out loud. “‘At night they come without being fetched, and by day they are lost without being stolen. What are they?’” His eyes shot up to pin Addie. “Seriously?” He threw back his arm, raising the cryptex high above his head, when Addie reached out and grabbed him. “No, don’t you dare!” she yelled, while he mock-scowled at her. “You’re not breaking it open! Use your brain.” “You know I suck at stuff like this.” But then he started dialing letters, guessing at the answer. I read mine to myself. “What gets wetter the more it dries?” Please. I snickered and dialed in “towel.” The cryptex opened, and I pulled out a gift card to a skate shop I used to frequent in town. “Thanks, Addie,” I chirped, not wanting to tell her that I no longer skated. I looked over at Madoc, who was still working his puzzle with an eyebrow arched. He was struggling, and the more he struggled the dumber he was going to feel. Walking over, I took the cryptex out of his hands, my breath catching for only a moment when my fingers brushed his. I looked at the puzzle and spoke quietly as I dialed. “‘At night they come without being fetched, and by day they are lost without being stolen.’” It clicked, and I met his soft eyes staring down at me, not the cryptex. “Stars,” I said, almost in a whisper. He wasn’t breathing. The stern set to his eyes as he loomed over me reminded me of so many times I’d looked up at him, wanting things I was afraid to ask for. But we were different now. I wanted only his pain, and judging from the girl he’d come home with last night, Madoc was still the same. A user. I hooded my eyes, trying to appear bored, as I shoved the now-open cryptex back at him. He took a deep breath and smiled, the intense concentration now gone. “Thank you.” Then he turned to Addie. “See? We’re getting along fine.” And he left through the sliding-glass doors leading to the vast patio and pool area with his gift card to the go-kart track. I swallowed, trying to calm the windstorm in my stomach. “So that’s it?” I asked Addie. “You’re letting him stay, after all?” “You said you were okay with it.” “I am,” I rushed to add. “I’m just . . . I just don’t want you to get in trouble with the boss.” She gave a half-smile and started pouring batter onto the griddle. “Do you know that Madoc started playing the piano again?” Her eyes stayed glued to her task. “No,” I responded, wondering about the change in subject. “His father must be thrilled.” Madoc had taken music lessons since he was five, specifically the piano. Jason Caruthers wanted his son proficient, but when Madoc turned fifteen—around the time my mom and I moved in—he realized that Daddy really just wanted him to perform. Something else for Mr. Caruthers to brag about and show off. So Madoc had quit. He refused lessons and threatened to trash the piano if it wasn’t moved out of sight. It was taken down to the basement where it sat with my half-pipe. But I had always wondered . . . Madoc did love to play. It was a release for him, or it seemed to be. He usually only practiced at required lessons, but he ran willingly to the piano when he was upset or really happy. After he quit, he started doing stupid shit without that release anymore: hanging around that asswipe Jared Trent, bullying Tatum Brandt, breaking into the school to steal car parts, which no one knew about but me. “Oh, I doubt his father knows,” Addie continued. “Madoc still won’t perform or take lessons. It’s more of an in-the-dead-of-the-night thing when the whole house is asleep and no one can see or hear him.” She stopped and looked up at me. “But I hear him. The light tinkling of the keys trails upstairs from the basement. It’s very faint. Almost as if it’s a ghost that can’t decide whether to stay or go.” I thought of Madoc playing alone downstairs in the dead of night. What kind of songs did he play? Why did he do it? And then I remembered the Madoc from last night. The one who’d insinuated that I was a freeloading slut. And the rapid beat of my heart slowed to a dull thud. “When did he start playing again?” I asked, looking out to the patio where he talked on his phone. “Two years ago,” she said softly. “The day you left.” CHAPTER 5 MADOC Now I understood why Jared drowned himself in constant partying over Tate. Distractions were useful. If you had too much on your mind, then you could push your thoughts away with noise, liquor, and girls and keep moving forward at lightning speed. When my friend slowed down long enough to think, that’s when he got into trouble. But eventually things worked out for them. He pushed her, and she started pushing back. He kept pushing, and she finally knocked him on his ass. Fallon and I were a lot like them. Only I didn’t love her, and she didn’t love me. I was infatuated with her once—and loved that she let me take my pubescent urges out on her—but we weren’t in love. We were two people in a fucked-up family taking our cues from fucked-up parents. And neither one of us knew how to do anything differently. She stomped up to her room after pancakes, and I got ready for my party that was starting mid-afternoon but going ’til the next morning if I had anything to say about it. I hoped that she’d show up, and at the same time I wanted her far away from me. Fallon affected my body in weird ways. But only because she’s different, I told myself. The last time I saw her she was sleeping on the leather couch in the theater room wearing only my T-shirt. She had twisted her lips up as she rubbed her nose in her sleep, and I remember thinking how much I couldn’t stand her during the day but how much I wanted her when she put her forked tongue away at night. Everyone at school thought she was a freak. They definitely thought she was a lesbian. And none of the guys thought she was hot. Pretty? Sure. Even with the beanies that covered her head and the glasses that hid her eyes. But not hot. Her piercings were scary to them, and her clothes were an embarrassment to any guy calling her his girlfriend. Only I knew the truth. I’d seen her without the clothes—accidentally of course—and I knew what she covered up. But that was two years ago. She wasn’t sexy to me anymore. Now she was lethal. Despite her pale Irish ancestry, her skin was golden with the most beautiful sprinkle of freckles across her nose and under her eyes. Her hair had been colored. Whereas before it was a dull, light brown, now it was about three different shades of brown with some modest chunks of blond blended in. Her green eyes stood out more than I remembered, and it took clenching every muscle in my body this morning to look like I wasn’t checking her out. Seeing her walk into the kitchen in her pj’s, looking like she’d been blissfully fucked all night long, made me hot. But what-the-fuck-ever. That ship between us sailed long ago, and there was no way she’d redeem the damage she’d done. “No one drives.” Addie pointed a finger at me as I set up my laptop and hauled my speakers outside onto the patio in preparation for the party. I gave a halfhearted salute and shooed her away. “Go watch your reruns of The L Word.” She rolled her eyes before walking up the stairs to her bedroom on the third floor. We weren’t that pretentious that we kept the servants so far away from us. It was just that Addie was our only live-in, and the third floor was like an apartment in itself, complete with a kitchen, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a living area. It wasn’t always like that, but my father had it converted for Addie when he realized he wouldn’t let her go in his lifetime. Fallon had taken off on her sport bike late this morning and had come back around one. Other than that, I hadn’t seen her. And by three thirty, my house was slammed with just about everyone from my graduating class. Jax arrived early on, helping me set up and put out the food I had had delivered. I saw Jared’s car parked on the side of the house, which meant Tate and he were in their room—the one I gave them so they could have “alone time” without her dad on their case. Screw him. They’re in love, and I loved them like family, so mi casa es su casa. “Come on, dude. Hurry up,” Jax pressed, carrying the tap for the keg while I grabbed the cups. Everyone filtered in and out of the house and in and out of the pool, enjoying the balmy afternoon. “Jamison,” I called out to Ben, who was in the pool hitting on Kendra Stevens. “Don’t even think about it, man. I’ve already been there,” I teased. “Shut up, Madoc. You wish,” she shot back, flying her hand across the water, trying to splash me. “Hey, you were good, baby.” I shrugged, following Jax to where the keg sat. “For a fat chick, you didn’t sweat much.” Ben’s eyes bugged out and Kendra screamed, “Madoc!” She kicked her skinny legs on the raft, spilling her drink. I turned back to Jax, who was silently laughing so hard his face was turning red. Pulling the seal off the keg and plugging in the nozzle, Jax poured about five bags of ice into the bucket around the keg, while I began pumping and pouring out the first few cups of foam. “Hey, Madoc.” Hannah and her friend Lexi came up to my side. “Jax.” They nodded to him while he did no more than nod back. “What’s up, ladies?” I asked, taking a gulp of beer. “Are you having a good summer, Madoc?” Hannah asked as if we hadn’t just seen each other last night. “Absolutely. You?” “Pretty good so far,” she answered and put her hands on her hips, making her chest more prominent. “How’s your summer, Jax?” “Couldn’t be better,” he mumbled, still loading ice. “Oh, I think it’s going to get a lot better.” She trailed a hand down his back, and I saw him stiffen. Her meaning was clear. “See you around,” she taunted, and she and Lexi walked off. I laughed again under my breath and took another gulp. Jax was getting a lot of attention at school, and with Jared off the market and me leaving for college, I was pretty confident Jax could handle the workload. It really depended on his mood, though. Sometimes he went all predator with a seek-and-destroy mentality. Other times he acted like he’d rather pull out his toenails than talk to certain girls. “Resistance is futile, Jax.” I slapped him on the back. “Don’t let them scare you. Just enjoy the ride.” “Give me a break.” He stood up straight, throwing the empty bag aside. “I’ve been having sex longer than you. I just don’t like women like that.” He stared off into the crowd across the pool. “They see me as a toy.” I handed him a beer. “And what’s wrong with that?” His jaw twitched, and his voice was quiet. “I just don’t like it.” Jax wasn’t scared of women by any means, and while I knew he’d had a hard life, I often wondered if I really knew what the hell “a hard life” was like. I’d caught on after more than a few clues that Jared and Jax’s dad—who was currently in jail—had abused them physically. Jax more so, because he grew up with the man, whereas Jared had only spent one summer with him. Jared’s dark moods tended to be more noticeable and more volatile than his brother’s. Jax had them, too, but we rarely saw them. He’d disappear for long hours, stay out half the night and still be up for school early the next day. The brothers both had a lot of anger, but they had different ways of dealing with it. When you stepped on Jared’s toes, you’d get punched in the gut. If you stepped on Jax’s toes, he’d hack into the county database and issue a warrant for your arrest. If you hit Jared, he’d pound you into the dirt. No one hit Jax. He carried a knife. “Now her on the other hand,” Jax piped up, gesturing with the beer in his hand. “She looks like a librarian in a porno bookstore. Who the hell is that?” I followed his gaze across the pool to the patio doors where Fallon had just appeared. Jesus Christ. What the hell? Fallon didn’t show skin, she didn’t wear makeup, and she didn’t tame her hair. So why the hell was she doing it now? Tate walked up to her, taking her hands and smiling. Leading her over to one of the tables, she looked like she was introducing to her to Jared. But Jared knew Fallon. How did Tate? CHAPTER 6 FALLON “Now I’m in the twilight zone,” I blurted out when Tate introduced me to her boyfriend. “You’re dating him?” I asked her. First the girl is friends with my stepbrother, and now she’s sleeping with the other half of the Dipshit Duo. I mean, I get it. Kind of. Madoc has a winning personality, and he’s hot. But Jared is just hot. At least Madoc has more going for him. Was she on a mission from God to reform assholes? “Well,” Tate snipped as she sat down at the table across from Jared, “she obviously hasn’t slept with you if she’s not a fan. That makes me feel better.” Jared slouched in the chair looking every bit like he owned the place. Dressed in knee-length black swim shorts, he ran his index finger across his lips as he studied me. Not bothering to hide my feelings, I crossed my arms over my chest and tried not to snarl. “The last time I saw you two together, you were making her cry,” I pointed out, looking at Jared and waiting. I heard Tate snort to my right, and Jared’s smile peeked out of his fingers. “My personality has improved, Fallon. I’m not sure yours has, though. Care to start over?” He held out his hand, and I hesitated long enough to make everyone feel awkward. But I took it. What the hell? If the girl was happy—and she looked happy—then it was none of my business. And they did make a good-looking couple. He still looked the same, only bigger, and she was dressed as cute as hell in red bikini bottoms and a short-sleeved black rash guard. “Hey, man.” Jared nodded behind me, and I felt pressure hitting my back. Not that someone was touching me. “Tate,” Madoc said behind me, “how do you know Fallon?” “We met jogging yesterday. I invited her to the party. Hope you don’t mind.” Tate smiled at me and continued. “She never texted, though, so I didn’t know for sure if she was coming. How do you guys know her? From school?” “Fallon lives in my house,” Madoc taunted me. “Our parents are married,” I explained and turned around to face Madoc. “But we’re not close. Never have been.” Madoc’s eyes narrowed as if he was trying to figure something out. “I can see your bra, Fallon.” He sighed and looked away, appearing bored. I knew he could see my bra. I knew everyone could see it. It’s what I wanted. I had no plans to go swimming, so I wore a black bra with elaborate straps stretching from the front of my torso to my back and down over my shoulders from my upper chest. It wasn’t meant to be hidden, so I wore it with a loose, deep V-neck tank top that showed it off. Paired with my black shorts and flip-flops, I only accessorized with my earrings and glasses. I’d already gotten some appreciative looks, and I knew that that would piss off Madoc. Whether or not he still wanted me, I knew he wouldn’t want anyone else to have me. “Does it bother you?” My lips twisted in a spiteful smile. “Tate, tell him it looks hot.” “I’d do her,” she backed me up, and I heard Jared laugh behind me. Madoc kept his eyes locked on mine in what I knew was a challenge. He wanted to play, but he also didn’t want to admit it. I leaned in to whisper to him, folding my arms across my chest. “You remember what happened the last time I showed up to one of your parties uninvited? You still think about it, don’t you?” The slow rise and fall of his chest quickened as he kept his mouth glued shut for once and pierced me with hard eyes. “Come on, Madoc!” I shifted to my right and walked backward toward the pool. “It’s a party. Don’t be a pooper.” And I turned around giving him my back, not wanting to admit how much I wanted to see his face right now. With my heart in my throat, I threw my tank top over my head and let my shorts fall to the ground. I took a moment to breathe as the chatter around me ceased and partygoers stopped what they were doing to look at me in my underwear. I was more covered than some of the other girls here. My bra was definitely made for sexiness, but it covered my breasts, and my hipster underwear was black lace. Yeah, I was more covered, yet I was the indecent one, because I wore lingerie. My hands shook. What am I doing? I didn’t want to make a spectacle of myself. I wore the outfit to get his attention, not everyone else’s. But it was a necessary step if I wanted him to react the same way he did two years ago when I showed up to his party. I wanted him angry and out of his mind. I wanted to trap him. “Tate.” I looked behind me, avoiding Madoc’s eyes. “Get your ass in the pool. Let’s talk Northwestern.” Her eyebrows shot up, and then she blinked as if unsure how to respond. “Um, okay.” And she pushed out of her chair, heading for me as I dove in. Tate and I didn’t really swim. We just caroused and laughed, while once in a while someone would cannonball into the pool or some idiot would let their boyfriend throw them in. I refused to search for Madoc, but I knew he was around. I caught sight of his ridiculously preppy gray-and-black plaid board shorts and immediately averted my eyes. Okay, so they weren’t that ridiculous. Madoc made things work that others couldn’t. I remembered how much I hated his attire two years ago. Safe. Conformist. From the Gap. But I found out that they were part of a façade that he adopted. When the clothes came off, so did Madoc’s mask. At night when he’d hang out in just jeans and nothing else, it was like I was seeing an entirely different guy. Strong. Powerful. Mine. Apparently others had seen his good side, too, if he could count Tatum Brandt as a friend. As far as I could tell, she was ambitious and levelheaded. And although her boyfriend and Madoc’s best friend could go piss up a tree as far as I was concerned, I had to admit that he seemed to have grown up. He had some nice ink, a gorgeous tree tattooed on his back, covering almost the entire area. My tattoos were smaller, but I had more. We might even have a thing or two in common now. As much as I wanted to know Jared and Tate’s story, I was more and more satisfied as the night wore on that he deserved her. He didn’t say one wrong word to her, or talk to any other girls, and always touched her when they were close. An arm over her shoulder, a hand at her back, a kiss on the top of her head. And these people were Madoc’s best friends. They were people that didn’t make me cringe or despise being around them. After I’d toweled off, I put my clothes back on and poured myself a beer from the keg, while Jared and Tate joined Madoc and some blonde over at the fire pit. The sun had set and while it wasn’t chilly, there was a nice breeze coming through the trees. The party was still loud and still busy, but people were spreading out. Some went into the house to watch movies or play video games, while others filtered out onto the grounds. I was sure there were several bedrooms already occupied, as well. “So how does Madoc have a sister?” A deep, velvety voice came up to my side. I tipped my head up from the tap and did a double-take, my mouth falling open. Holy crap. The guy—a young one, too—was entirely too beautiful for words. Who the hell . . . He had a smooth face, but a strong, angular jaw and high cheekbones. His eyebrows were straight and at a slant, making his striking blue eyes stand out even more against his tanned skin. Or maybe that was his natural skin tone. He wore his dark brown hair long, but it was pulled back into a ponytail. He had no tattoos, and he didn’t need them, either. With his height and toned build, why cover any of that up? Looking like that shouldn’t be legal. Hell, looking at him like I was probably wasn’t legal yet, either. I hardened my eyes, hoping my glasses obscured my gawking. “Madoc doesn’t have a sister.” I pursed my lips. “Who are you?” “Jaxon Trent,” he said lightly. “And don’t worry, I’m not trying to hit on you. I think I’d have to get in line, what with you showing the whole world how you look in lingerie.” He smiled with a twinkle in his eye. “I like your spunk. Just wanted to say hi.” “Trent? As in Jared Trent?” I took a sip of my beer and peered up at him. “Yeah, he’s my brother.” He looked so proud saying it I didn’t have the heart to be sarcastic. “I like your piercings.” He motioned to my ears. “Are you the one that inspired Madoc’s?” “Madoc’s what?” We started walking toward the fire pit, my flip-flops sloshing through puddles on the now drenched pool deck. “Piercing,” he answered, leaning in to whisper. “Rumor is that he has one somewhere, but we can’t see it. Tate thinks it’s a Prince Albert. I’m going with a Jacob’s Ladder. Madoc’s either all in or all out.” Madoc with a piercing? And that asshole gave me so much shit about mine. I let out a bitter laugh. “Well, I wouldn’t know.” “Yeah, it’s driving us all nuts,” he joked as we sat down in the circle surrounding the fire. The pit, along with the Jacuzzi, helped make the outdoor area usable all year long, even during the bitter-cold Midwest winters. It was a large copper bowl stretching about four feet in diameter, and it burned real wood. Not only did it create substantial flames, but it also generated a lot of heat. Since the evening wasn’t nearly cold enough, there was only a small amount of wood burning. The soft glow kept the area dim except for our eyes that were brightened by the dance of the flames across our faces. Jared sat on the ground, leaning against a rock, with Tate between his legs and her back pulled up to his chest. Madoc was in a similar position; however, he sat on a chair across the fire from me with a girl on the ground between his legs. Figures. He had his hand around her neck, but not in a threatening way. His fingers lightly caressed her while his thumb moved in circles. She stared into the flames, closing her eyes every so often, clearly enjoying the attention. I watched his fingers, mesmerized by how she was putty in his hands. He was soft and slow, gentle and attentive. Possessive. Pressure built low in my belly, and I clenched my thighs, feeling the long-forgotten burn. And then I looked up. My chest heaved. His eyes were on me. Pinning me with the absence of everything they usually held. The amusement was gone. The mischief had disappeared. The game was silent. The mask was off. In This Moment’s “Whore” poured out of the speakers, and I stared into his hard eyes that were hot and urgent on my skin. My tongue moved around my closed mouth, trying to quench the dryness in my throat. He touched her with his hands but held me with his eyes, and every time he stroked her jaw or ran his finger across her cheek, I could feel the tingle on my skin. I closed my eyes, then opened them and blinked hard to break the contact. “So do you still skate?” I blinked again, registering thunder in the distance. “What did you say?” I asked, looking over at Jax. Just breathe, Fallon. “The skateboard tattoo on the inside of your wrist.” He gestured. “Is that your half-pipe with the severe incline in the basement?” My half-pipe? He’d seen it? “It’s still there?” I asked, incredulous. I couldn’t believe it. He nodded. “Yeah, next to the piano.” I dropped my eyes immediately. That was strange. With all of my other belongings tossed out with the trash, why would they keep a huge half-pipe that took up space? A lot of space. I was about to ask Jax if there were any skateboards around it, hoping against hope that maybe Madoc or one of his friends salvaged those to use for themselves, but he had started up a conversation with some guy across the fire pit. Tate brushed my arm, and I looked to my right. “So what’s with you and Madoc?” She looked like she was trying to keep her voice low, but Jared’s eyes flashed to mine when he heard her question. “Seems like there’s bad blood between you two,” she added. I quickly glanced at Jared again, wondering if Madoc ever told him about us, but he wasn’t paying attention. “We just never hit it off.” I shrugged to Tate, keeping my voice light. “With the way these two behaved around you the last time I was in town,” I joked, gesturing to Jared and Madoc, “I’m sure you understand where I’m coming from.” She grinned and twisted her head to the side, looking up at her boyfriend. “Yeah, I guess I do.” And then she fixed me with a stern expression. “But I also know there’s two sides to every story. You two should talk.” “We can barely stand to be in the same room together.” Madoc was still across the fire, eyes shifting between Tate and me, and there was no mistaking it. He was pissed. Maybe he wondered what we were talking about, or maybe he just didn’t want me here. Hell, I knew he didn’t want me here—which was why I was here. Clipped voices to my left caught my attention, and I dragged my gaze away from Madoc. “I would think that if you don’t have the balls to get on the track yourself, then you can shut up.” The guy next to Madoc was barking at Jax, who still sat next to me. “And race who?” Jax sneered. “You? Yeah, that’ll get me off. I’ll race when it’s a challenge.” “I don’t know what the hell you want from me, Jax, but I’m sick of—” “You want to know what I want?” Jax interrupted, keeping his voice cocky. “I want your girlfriend to wipe off her poseur pink lip gloss and get in my car. That’s what I want.” I darted my eyes to all of the snorts going off around the fire. Madoc laughed silently, shaking his head, while Jared’s body shook as he buried his laughter in Tate’s neck. Tate saw my confused look and explained. “That’s Liam,” she whispered. “He’s K.C.’s boyfriend.” She pointed to the beautiful dark-haired girl sitting next to Liam, who stared at her lap, stunned. “He cheated on her last year, but they got back together. Jax hasn’t said anything, but I think he . . .” Wants her. I finished her thought in my head. Well, if he wants her, then why wasn’t he going after her? Clearly, her winner of a boyfriend had nothing on him. Liam’s jaw turned hard as his gaze trailed between Jax and his shocked girlfriend, who looked like she wanted to crawl inside of her shell. “Is something going on between you two?” he asked her. She pursed her lips and swallowed, averting everyone’s eyes. “Of course not,” she said quietly. Everyone watched as Jax and Liam went at it, and Jared, Tate, and Madoc all either smiled, laughed, or stiffened as Jax cracked jokes or suffered an insult. I realized how much of a unit they all were, and how they all stuck together. Madoc had a smile of pride in his eyes when he looked at Jax like a brother, and he had such an ease with Tate. He had a family in them. Well, aside from Liam and K.C., anyway. She stayed quiet, clearly embarrassed, but her quick glances at Jax didn’t escape my notice, either. She looked breakable. Kind of like I was once. But breaking was beautiful. It hurt, and it was an uphill climb back to sanity, but you came back stronger, fiercer, and more solid than you were before. I waved my hands in front of me and shook my head at Liam, finally having enough of the idiocy. “Whoa,” I interrupted whatever asinine comment he was making. “So you cheated on your girlfriend last year.” I stopped and waved at K.C. “Hi, K.C. I’m Fallon, by the way.” And then I shot my attention back over to Liam. “And you’re worried about her cheating on you? I’d say you got a better girl than you deserve.” Snorts sounded around the fire, and K.C. shifted in her seat, looking uncomfortable. With her eyebrows narrowed, she stood up and hesitated as if she wasn’t sure what move to make without instructions. My eyes dropped to her thumbnail that she kept dragging across the wrist of her other hand. “I’m heading home.” She grabbed her T-shirt and pulled it over her bikini top. “See you all later.” She walked down the stone steps to the pool deck, and I saw Jax’s fists tighten when Liam got up and approached him. He leaned down, hovering over Jax, whose forearms rested on his knees, and he did nothing more than cock his head, welcoming whatever Liam was bringing. “Leave him alone, Liam.” K.C.’s deep command surprised me, and I peered around her boyfriend to see a fire in her eyes that wasn’t there before. Liam ignored her and threatened Jax under his breath. “She’s mine.” “Only until I start trying,” Jax shot back. And we all did a piss-poor job hiding our smiles as Liam marched off the patio, following K.C. One thing I knew right then and there. I might hate Madoc, but I loved his friends. CHAPTER 7 MADOC I was going to throttle her. Not the girl at my feet whose neck I imagined was Fallon’s as I tried not to strangle it but Fallon herself. The chick walked around my party as if this was her house, and she had friends here. She and Tate were acting like they were besties already, and Jax was smiling and chatting her up. Next thing I knew Jared was going to be talking shop about her motorbike or some shit. What was her game? Why come home willingly after so long when she practically ran from here two years ago? She was only going to be here a week. What was she doing? “Who is that?” Taylor, the girl sitting between my legs, had turned around and was questioning me. She looked over at Fallon and then back at me, and I realized that I’d been staring. Not good. I flashed a smile, trying to appear cocky. “Someone who likes to watch, I guess.” Fallon had been staring, too. We’d been locked in for who knew how long, and I was hoping no one had noticed. I did a quick sideways glance around the fire. Jared was whispering in Tate’s ear, while she nuzzled into him, and everyone else was deep in conversation. “Get lost, honey.” My date, Taylor, snickered in Fallon’s direction. “You’re in the middle of a party, honey.” Fallon mimicked Taylor’s fake sweetness. “Get a room.” Taylor made a move to get up, but I put my hands on her shoulders, gently pushing her back down. Taylor wasn’t a wallflower. She acted catty, but she had the guts to back it up, too. “It’s okay.” The rumble of a laugh began in my throat, but my tone rang true. “Fallon likes to cause trouble. Don’t let her draw you in.” Fallon’s green eyes burned across the fire, and I waited for a reaction I thought for sure would come. She always spat something back. “You should watch who you invite to your parties, Madoc.” Taylor leaned her back into the seat of the chair, relaxing again. “I didn’t invite her,” I replied. “I feel sorry for her, though. She doesn’t have many friends.” Taylor laughed. “Yeah, her clothes will only get her enemies.” “Madoc, what the hell—” Tate started but got cut off. “It’s okay, Tate.” Fallon sat up straight and pushed her glasses to the top of her head. The audience around the fire pit had grown as quiet as a graveyard. Fallon continued. “We learned in school that bullies abuse others because they feel bad about themselves. They’re hurting.” She brought up her knees and locked her arms around them, her tone light and taunting. “We shouldn’t be mad. We should pity them. Madoc has never had to make a real decision in his entire life, which means he’s never had anything real. This house, the cars, the money. It’s all an illusion. It’s like parading a victory when you missed the war.” She took a breath and whispered slowly. “Madoc has no idea who he is.” Something gripped my heart, and it felt like it was spreading across my chest and down my arms. I let the fake amusement in my eyes seep out toward her, but I didn’t feel the humor. Fallon had always been so stubborn. Always. She spouted off and said shit that she didn’t think about all in an effort to look tough. But now it was different. More calculated. She’d thought about me. Assessed me. And anticipated my reactions. “You’re right, Fallon.” I looked down at the beer in my hand, swirling the brown liquid in the cup. Letting out a condescending sigh, I took out my phone, gesturing. “But I also know that if I call my parents right now, they’ll both answer. My mom would fly here on a moment’s notice if I needed her, and my dad isn’t hiding from wiretaps or indictments. I also have friends I wouldn’t trade for any of this shit.” I waved my hand, referring to the estate. “And I do have something else going for me.” I grinned as big as my face would allow and popped up, draining my beer. I didn’t make eye contact with anyone, knowing they were all watching anyway. Don’t do it. Tossing my cup to the side, I ran down the stone steps to the lower-level deck and circled the pool to where the music was playing near the patio doors to the house. “I can sing.” The sky flashed with lightning as I got ready. Clicking to one of my workout playlists, I opened an Offspring song—perfect for this occasion—and grabbed a water bottle to use as a microphone. The lyrics started before the music, and I was ready. With a couple of small changes, of course. Offspring’s “Why Don’t You Get a Job?” gave me only a second to catch my breath, because the lyrics started before the music. “My dad’s got a wife!” I belted, standing up on the edge of the Jacuzzi. “Man, he hates that bitch!” Everyone spun around to face me. I gripped the water bottle and when the drums started, I bobbed my head in rhythm to the beat, letting the crowd feed off my attitude. My attitude. It’s what I fed off of as well. It’s what made people like me. I continued the song, smiling as the crowd started singing and laughing, too. Beers sloshed as people held up their cups, dancing and hollering their approval. A hand wrapped around my wrist, yanking me off the ledge. “What the hell’s the matter with you?” Jared asked. I couldn’t keep my amusement in check. Everyone was dancing and belting out the lyrics, clearly drunker than I was. I snorted. “Wait.” I held up a hand. “You’re going to give me tips on how to treat a woman? Wait while I take notes.” “She’s your family, dickhead. And she just ran out of here in embarrassment!” She left? I stepped around Jared, making for the house, but was cut off. “I think she’s had enough.” His voice was softer but still firm. I didn’t know where he got off being so self-righteous. How many times had he tormented Tate—and now he was pulling the reins on me? “Do you remember the time I wanted to help you, and you told me to keep my mouth shut?” I bared my teeth. “Time to take your own advice.” Whatever. Maybe he thought I was drunk, or maybe he was trying to calm a situation he didn’t understand, but I didn’t like how he immediately went to protecting her. Fallon didn’t get to have my friends. I threw open the sliding-glass door and charged inside, steering around people loitering in the kitchen and down the hall into the marble-tiled foyer. Swinging myself around the thick banister, I started taking stairs two at a time. “You’re not looking for your sister, are you?” my friend Sam called behind me, and I rocked back on the step. He had door duty, checking people’s keys on the way in and sobriety on the way out. I turned around, not liking the way he’d asked that. “My stepsister,” I clarified. “Yeah, I’m looking for her. Why?” He jerked his thumb to the front door. “She just took your car.” My eyes widened. Son of a bitch! “You gave her my keys?” I yelled, pounding down the stairs. He straightened his back, pushing himself against the wall from the stool where he sat. “She’s your sister,” he said as if that was explanation enough. I held out my hand. “Give me Jared’s keys,” I barked. “He and Tate keep theirs in their room. They weren’t going anywhere tonight, anyway.” “Then give me Jax’s!” Sam’s mouth dropped open, and he fumbled as he dug through the bowl of keys. Leave it alone. Go to bed. Or better yet, go get Taylor and go to bed. Sometimes I wondered if the angels talked to get me to behave or to entice the devil to come out to play. I grabbed the keys out of Sam’s hand and bolted out the door. CHAPTER 8 FALLON I’d snatched Madoc’s keys and run out of the house, but it wasn’t until I got on the road that I realized I didn’t have any fucking clue where I was going. This town had no friends for me, no family, and there was really nowhere I could run to regroup. At least at St. Joseph’s I’d found solace in the chapel. I didn’t go to pray, and I barely participated in the masses even though they were required for students. But I liked the chapel. It was beautiful and quiet. Pray or not, it was a good place to think. To plan. No such luck right now, though. It was too dark for the quarry, and pretty soon it was going to be too wet for any outdoor space. As it was almost midnight, it was also too late for any public indoor escape, as well. Thunder cracked nearby, echoing across the black sky, and I applied the brakes when rain started to splatter the windshield. I’d noticed the lightning and thunder at the party, which was why I’d borrowed Madoc’s car. Didn’t want to get pummeled with rain on my bike. When the prince found out, it was going to take them a week to unbunch the panties up his ass. Guys didn’t like their cars messed with. And I didn’t like being messed with, so I guessed we were even. I punched the stick shift into fifth gear and hit the gas. Slow down and get it together, Fallon. I already had what I needed on my mom and Mr. Caruthers. I just needed Madoc. But I hadn’t known it was going to be this hard. Seeing him. Knowing that what he said was true. I tried to act like I was stronger. I mean, after everything that had happened, I should be, right? Tears burned my eyes, threatening to spill, but I forced down the golf ball–sized ache in my throat. As I traveled down the deserted highway, I zoned in on the sound of the spray being kicked up by my tires and the headlights reflected off the black road. Up ahead the lights from the town glowed bright, and I spotted a familiar sign off to the side. IROQUOIS MENDOZA PARK. Tons of afternoons and weekends spent there flashed through my mind. It was where I used to hang out with the few friends I did have when I attended high school here. I shook my head and almost laughed. The park had an awesome skating area. Nostalgia pulled me into a left turn, and I drove into the park, coming to a stop right in front of one of the many bowls. Overhead lighting was usually available when events were going on in the park, but tonight everything was eerily dark. I left the car running and the headlights on to illuminate the area. Stepping out of the car, I blinked against the light but steady fall of rain. My feet squeaked in my wet flip-flops as I walked to the edge of the deserted bowl and peered down into the smooth, shallow depth. Slipping my shoes off my feet and shivering in my now damp clothes, I sat and then slid down into the bowl, feeling the velvety cement on my toes. A shiver ran through my body again, but I wasn’t cold. The night was warm, and although the rain made the air chillier, it was a comfortable temperature. I took a step, breathing hard, feeling too damn closed in by the steep walls around me. They never used to scare me. I used to charge down the vert, relishing how my heart pumped faster as I raced at top speed toward the next incline. This was where I used to breathe easier. But now . . . I spun around, the low growl of an engine digging through the thick air. The peel of tires pierced the calm as a black Mustang screeched to a halt next to Madoc’s GTO. Straightening my shoulders, I tipped my chin up and prepared to face what I knew was coming. Madoc jumped out of the car, not even caring to close the door behind him. “You stole my car?!” he shouted, peering down into the bowl. With the headlights behind him, the area was well lit, and I tried to breathe against the flutter in my chest. He was here. We were alone. We were angry. Déjà vu. This is what I wanted. It’s what I’d planned. But I turned my back on him, anyway. I’d told myself time and again that I didn’t care what he thought of me. I didn’t want his heart, after all. It wasn’t part of the equation. He didn’t need to love me or respect me for this to work. I would get what I wanted without worrying about whatever was in his head. It. Did. Not. Matter. So why couldn’t I just draw him in like I’d planned? Why did I want to spit back? “I didn’t steal it. I borrowed it, princess,” I shot back. H