Prologue

A plume of cigarette smoke was the only indication that I wasn’t alone in the brisk night, shadowed by the few lights in the alleyway. I wasn’t walking away from the thrumming music because of the overwhelming scene inside the normally barren warehouse, I was doing it for the man I’d seen sneak out the emergency exit. He looked more uncomfortable than I did, suffocating in dark dress clothes and putting on a good face to appease the people for the sake of his best friend.

Pushing myself off the brick wall that vibrated my chest with every pump of the slow bass, I found myself drawn to the smell of tobacco, my nude heels clicking over the cracked pavement until my eyes were welcomed by expensive polished Tom Ford dress shoes and pressed dress slacks, perfectly tailored to the tall six-five figure encompassed by them, until my gaze drifted over the tight white silk pulled over taut muscles and olive skin with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, showcasing bulging veins in his forearms, despite it being forty degrees tonight.

I knew the brand of the shoes he wore because I’d once used them to stand on during a dance very similar to the one we walked out on only moments ago. My feet were too tiny to keep up with the slow melody that he set for us at the time. Stand on my feet, little Della. I knew they must have been expensive because the blonde woman who’d been wrapped around his arm that night had all but gasped at me using them as a platform. I didn’t like her because she smelled too much like alcohol and something strong and floral that made my eyes itch. More than that, my dislike stemmed from her taking up all his time and attention if I wasn’t plastered on his feet.

But Theodore West and I danced like that, my tiny feet on his large shoes as he took lead, for as long as I wanted, which was much longer than a man like Theo would typically grant anybody. Even the blonde. Perhaps the kindness he offered me then was why I followed him into the dark, letting the secondhand smoke absorb into my lungs with every inhale I forced myself to take.

I hated smoking, and always wanted to scold him for doing it when he knew my grandfather had died of lung cancer. I may not have known my grandparents, but that didn’t make the outcome of their demise any less important when the man I grew up adoring sucked in nicotine like it was his favorite flavor.

“You shouldn’t be out here.” His gruff voice penetrated the silence, making my leather covered arms pebble with goosebumps.

Tightening my jacket over the skin exposed from the deep V of my black cocktail dress, I hugged myself for warmth. “You shouldn’t be either, especially without a jacket on. It’s cold.”

“I’m fine.” He took another drag of his cigarette, still not looking at me. His focus was on the empty road, dimly lit by broken streetlights. My father had loved this section of the city despite it being worn down and half abandoned. He hated me coming here alone, forbidding it on more than one occasion, no matter his soft spot for the warehouse that he met my mother in when they were younger.

“You left,” I noted idiotically, shifting on my feet. They ached from the four-inch platform heels I subjected them too, but they made my legs look good, longer, which my five-two height needed to pull off the longer dress. It was my mother’s favorite item of clothing and seemed fitting for tonight’s “celebration” of my father’s life.

He finally turned his head, his dark blue eyes piercing mine until I shrunk back. “What are you doing out here, Adele?”

Adele. Not Della. He called me that when he was upset. Not always at me, just life. It made sense considering we were saying goodbye to a man we both mutually cared about. Swallowing past the lump in my throat, I swiped a palm down the side of my thigh. “Checking on you. You were quiet all night and looked like you wanted to murder everybody who came up to you.”

“I’m not a fan of the socialites who decided to come,” he remarked coolly. “Your father kept them in his good graces out of civility, but even he thought they were pompous assholes. We both know who his true friends were when shit hit the fan. Where were they then? Don’t get me started on their comments on the reception like it should have been held at the fucking Ritz or some shit.”

I used to hate it when he swore. His brow would twitch, and his fists would clench if he got really angry, and I always itched to comfort him, to make him feel better. But Theo was not the kind of man you controlled, least of all when he was worked up. He was the man you let control you, and you did it with a smile. It was understandable that he was agitated tonight. He was right about the people in attendance—they sucked up to my father because of the power he held as the governor of New York but talked behind his back the second he turned away. I was surprised that so many people showed up since the scandal broke leading to the Saint James family downfall.

He dropped the half-smoked cigarette onto the ground, damp from the earlier rain showers, and extinguished with the tip of his shoe. “Go back inside, Della.”

The nickname I preferred to be called eased the tightness that had formed in my chest since the night began. There was only so much smiling and thanking people I could do while listening to their empty condolences as if they cared my father was dead. They didn’t care when he was arrested. Why start now that he was buried next to my mother six feet under? “What about you?”

He looked me over, his eyes roaming over my covered form, the familiar black leather jacket cradling my body for warmth, before letting his eyes drift back up to mine. The slight shadow lining his square jaw was unlike him. He preferred to be clean-shaven, business called for as much. “Presentation is everything, Adele,” his ex-wife Mariska would always remind me whenever I told him I liked the stubble. It made him look as tough as his personality. No nonsense. Free. I used to think he shaved for her, but even after their divorce over four years ago, he kept up with the façade. Until now, I supposed.

“I’m going home. I did my part.” His pause, heavy sigh, and shifted weight made me wonder if he was reconsidering. He’d stayed almost all day to help set up since the people Aunt Sophie hired had bailed, something she’d been rambling on about when she called freaking out that she’d have to reschedule. I didn’t blame him for wanting to go, I just wished he didn’t. I wanted him to stay. For me. He asked, “Are you going to be okay? You got a ride back to your place?”

I nodded slowly, moving my wavy platinum blonde tresses out of my face. I’d dyed my normally light brown hair two months ago and was met by mixed reactions. But Theo told me he liked it, told me to ignore the “other assholes” who thought otherwise because their opinion didn’t matter. He of all people knew their opinions mattered to me too much. They always had growing up. I’d just wanted to pretend to be somebody else for a while—somebody blonde who had fun with little care. Maybe a piece of me even thought the hair color would appeal to Theo more than my natural did. Turned out, hair dye didn’t have magical powers.

“Aunt Lydia said she’d give me a ride back after cleanup. Are you…Will you be okay?” I knew how much he cared about my father. They were friends for a long time, most of their lives, having shared the most important milestones together every step of the way. When news broke that Anthony Saint James had been involved in a money laundering scandal that took funds from the state and people close to him who had invested in his endeavors, things had gotten bad. Theo was questioned because my father had once been a partner in his growing business, and he hadn’t been hit by the economic fraud my father was committing unlike others close in his circle. The investigators were sure they’d find him as guilty as my father, but there was never any evidence indicating as much. And Theo…he never left my side through it all. Not once during the trials or media blasts did he consider for a second abandoning me to the vultures that New York City, and my father, had fed me to.

His eyes closed momentarily. “I’m supposed to ask you that considering whose funeral we’re at.”

I let my shoulders lift, giving him the best smile I could under the circumstances. “We all lost somebody.”

“He was your father.”

Taking a daring step closer, I inhaled the strong cologne and tobacco mixture wafting from him. He was all man, all the time, in the way he smelled, acted, and carried himself. His blue eyes could see through me, and his smile, on the rare occurrence he gave one, melted the skin right off me.

“He was your friend,” I added softly.

The way he watched me, looked down at me with such intensity, had me shivering. “Are you cold?”

Slowly, I shook my head. Rising on my toes, I brushed my lips on the underside of his jaw, causing him to lock up. It was only a tiny caress, but his reaction made it seem like more. It always did when we got close. And we did. Often.

“Della.”

“Don’t worry.” I stepped away before he could say anything more or move from me first. That kind of rejection on a night like this was one I wouldn’t be able to walk away from without another piece of my heart shattering. “It was a goodnight kiss. Nothing more.”

His voice was rough, cracked. “It can’t be anything more, not even now. Never again. Do you understand?”

I blinked, noting the faint mark of pink lipstick on his skin where my lips rested for a microscopic moment. “I told you I understood when you left my apartment that morning.”

Theo knew which morning I meant. It still hurt to think about even all this time later. To think he believed I would pounce on another opportunity to be in bed with him just because my father was gone made my stomach ache. I might not have been on the best terms with my father after what he’d done, but that didn’t mean I was going to use his death as an excuse.

I didn’t want Theo’s pity.

I wanted his love.

“His death changes nothing,” Theo added.

His death changes everything.  Just not what he was insinuating. Deep down, I knew he was trying to get a reaction out of me. Maybe even hurt me in order to distance us. He’d done that plenty since the morning he left my apartment in a hurry like I’d threatened him. As if waking up beside me in our state of undress was that unappealing to him when he was the one who showed up and initiated our actions that night to begin with. Hurt laced into my being, squeezing my heart to the point of physical pain, but I held my head up high and pretended it didn’t bother me, no matter how much I clung to the possibilities that involved the man in front of me.

He was good at hurting people. That man was skilled at putting others in their place when it benefited him, but never me. Never his little Della. It made me wonder who he’d become now that his oldest friend was truly gone. Not just off to prison, to Rikers Island, but gone.

Who will you become now? I wanted so badly to ask him. 

Theodore Bennett West. My father’s best friend. The man I’ve loved ever since I knew what love was, even when I shouldn’t have.

During a very drunken binge when his guard was down, he made it feel like maybe those feelings were reciprocated. Except he woke up in a tangle of my cheap clearance sheets, half naked, with a mask of regret and disgust on his face when he saw me in nothing more than a matching pink panty set beside him after he’d stripped me of my normal pajamas. He’d barged his way in smelling like his liquor cabinet, touched me in ways I’d never been touched by him before, and made me feel…whole.  

I could still taste the whiskey on his breath, the tobacco on his tongue, and the desperation in his words as he told me he needed one night. Just one.

“Just one night, Della. That’s all I need to…”

I didn’t know what he needed the one night for, but it was clear something had happened. It didn’t take my body long to cooperate as he pinned me against the wall with his hips, pressing his hard erection against me to show me what exactly he needed. The way he ground into my softest spot and touched me in my most sensitive area with those rough fingers made the spark I’d suspected we’d had since I was old enough to know what that felt like, come to life. There was a fire in us that night as he kept me against that wall and made me come using just his hand while his mouth had devoured mine like he needed more.

Though we hadn’t gone as far as I would have liked before he passed out from who knew how much alcohol he’d consumed, the moments we shared were permanently tattooed on my flawed skin for the world to see. I didn’t hide it.

“As I said,” I replied instead, voice skillfully calm, “I understand just fine, Theo. Please drive safe.”

He stared at me for a moment too long before swiping his large palm through his longer-than-normal tussled brown hair and turned on his heels. No jacket, and not another word.

And I watched him walk away.

Again.

Chapter One

Della

Turning the page of sheet music, I settled back onto the bench and straightened my spine before placing my fingers onto the ivory just as Aunt Sophie showed me.

“I’m not sure I’m getting this,” I admitted, trying to remember which keys were which.

The pristine middle-aged woman sitting in an elegant red armchair beside the window scoffed. “You just need to keep practicing as we discussed. Your mother should have taught you how to play years ago.”

Fighting the frown that always came with the conversation, I rolled my shoulders and pressed down on the keys until an ungodly noise came from the pianoforte. There was no doubt in my mind I’d gotten it wrong, mixed up the keys for the umpteenth time no matter Sophie’s insistence that I’d get it. My mother hadn’t taught me how to play because I never showed interest, and she never liked forcing me into things that wouldn’t make me happy. That was why Sophie disliked her.

“She needs to be pushed, Elizabeth. What better way to discipline her?” Not long after that exchange, I’d started ballet. Sure, my mother had suggested it, but it wasn’t like she’d twisted my arm to get me to go. I liked the pretty leotards and all the pink we’d worn—the bows, the tutus, the uncomfortable pointe shoes I learned to love with time. Ballet became a way my mother and I grew close, and it appeased Sophie in some ways because she saw how I excelled at it.

“You have the fingers for it,” she kept going, waving her hand at me absentmindedly as she flipped through some feminine magazine. It was the same one I’d seen my mother look at and begged to read to me.

“You’re too young to learn what’s in these, my sweet Adele. When you’re older,” my mother would promise.

But the day never came because breast cancer took her from us mere months after she was diagnosed. It was fast, aggressive, and ugly. My father had never been quite right after her passing, but he tried for me. For our family. Considering I was only twelve at the time, he did what he could with what knowledge he had having two little sisters—Sophie and Lydia. Plus, they’d both offered to help whenever he needed it. As always, my father had been too proud. It was a trait I got from him.

“My fingers seem to disagree,” I murmured, dropping my hands into my lap and sighing to myself. “Perhaps another instrument?” Please say no. When I gave up dance after circumstances became too much, Sophie insisted I needed something in my life. Even though I’d long since found joy in painting, Sophie told me the hobby I invested in had to be something “appropriate” for young women because getting paint under my nails wasn’t that. It still made me want to roll my eyes, but I relented and tried what she wanted me to. I owed her that much. She did a lot for me after my mother died, starting Sunday brunches so I’d have an excuse to leave the house for a while, and giving me old albums of photos from my father’s childhood, including some of his teenage years that had my mother in them.

“Piano is classy, Adele.” I’d gotten her full attention now, the magazine forgotten on her skirt-covered lap. She wore her usual attire—a tight pencil skirt with a button-up tucked into the waist that showed off her sleek curves. She garnered every straight male’s attention with the swivel of her hips no matter where we were. But she never flaunted, flirted, or gave any of them a hint of hope. “How are you going to get a man otherwise? Most men of prestige expect their women to have talents that go beyond the kitchen.”

My face instantly contorted with disbelief. “Maybe with my fast wit and brain? It isn’t the fifties anymore, Sophie. Women can be individuals.”

Her eyes rolled, something she did often when I opened my mouth to point out how derogatory she was to her own sex. “Trust me, darling, men don’t want wit.”

“On the contrary,” a new voice cut in from the doorway. Looking over my shoulder, I smiled wide at Lawrence McKinley’s casual stance against the doorframe of the parlor.

“Oh, hush.” Aunt Sophie stood, a smile on her own face that contradicted her tone. “I wish you wouldn’t encourage Adele on her silly thoughts. Come, give me a hug.”

Lawrence was a friend since we were in diapers. We did everything together from bathing to schooling. We fought like siblings growing up, but things changed during our experimental pre-teen phases, which lead to us being each other’s first everything a few years later. Too young, I realized now, but I didn’t regret it. Even though we were still good friends, we never turned into more for a lot of reasons. Mainly because of his obsession with his male teammates, and mine with a certain forty-year-old business mogul.

My best friend wrapped Sophie in his freakishly long arms that were muscular from the sports he played. Football was his favorite, but baseball was what he was best at, which was what he got a scholarship for at Bentley University, a private school in the city. “I find Adele’s thoughts anything but silly. You should see the way men look at her on campus. I doubt they’d care if she couldn’t play the piano to save her life.”

“Hey!” He wasn’t wrong, but I couldn’t help but frown over his bluntness.

He walked over to me and pressed a kiss to my temple like he always did in greeting. If it weren’t that, he’d pick me up and spin me around until I got dizzy. “You know I love you, Della, but you’re not a musician. Never were.”

Standing, I playfully shoved him away. “I know that but you’re my friend. You’re supposed to lie and tell me how talented I am.”

His laugh was deep, rumbling his broad shoulders until I couldn’t help but join in. “As your best friend I’m obligated to tell you the truth. You suck. Now painting? You’re better than anybody at that. Have you seen her work, Sophie?”

“I have. Don’t get me wrong, they’re good. But—” I tuned her out while she explained why painting wasn’t classy, clean, or good enough for me to do. It didn’t matter what she thought. I found painting relaxing. Like dance was, once upon a time. I’d only just started listening again when Sophie shook her head at us. “I never understood how you two never dated. We all thought you’d be engaged by now.”

Perhaps Lawrence’s bisexuality wasn’t obvious to those who didn’t spend enough time around him, but to me it was plain as day. It didn’t matter who a person was, he had eyes for anyone good looking. That had been me once, but even after our teenage transgressions we knew it wasn’t enough. He was my friend, the very best, but nothing more. He’d asked me if it was because of Theo, how I looked at my father’s friend, because even he knew it was more than a crush.

“Now who’s silly,” I replied softly, looking at Sophie. “We’re still young. Just because you were married at my age doesn’t mean I want to be, and I doubt Ren does either.”

“That’s because you haven’t even tried.”

Ren dropped an arm around my shoulders, tugging me into his side. “I tried setting her up with one of my teammates, but she said he wasn’t her type.”

“Alec spends more time talking about himself than anything else. Do you really blame me for not wanting to be subjected to that?”

Sophie waved her hand in the air. “You don’t want to be with a college boy anyway. They’re too immature. It’d suit you better to be with somebody older.”

My mind instantly went to Theo, and Ren must have known it based on the way his lips quirked up at the corners. He used to tease me about my “stupid girly crush” when I admitted that I liked Theo West. As time went on and I got older, we both realized it was more than that. He was older than my twenty-two years, but he was a few years younger than my father. I’d kept that in mind whenever my conscience told me it wouldn’t work. I’d seen how his eyes wandered over the past few years like they never had before, and if the early morning he’d stormed into my apartment so long ago now wasn’t an indication, he’d certainly felt something for me that I held onto no matter what he told me. “I’m not dating right now. I’ve only got a semester left of school. I want that to be my focus.”

“Of course,” my knowing best friend played along, causing me to elbow his stomach. He moved his arm and winked. “We should probably go. Or did you forget you agreed to go to the house with me tonight?”

Sophie frowned at him. “That frat you’re part of? I’m not sure Adele should go there after the brawl that happened last time.”

“It was hardly a brawl,” I argued lightly. Two guys were arguing over a girl and it got a bit messy. Beer went everywhere, including all over me. I’d broken a heel. Somebody accidently yanked my hair trying to catch themselves when the men bumped into the crowd. It was an interesting night to say the least.

“She’ll be safe, Sophie. I promise.”

“I feel like I need to protect her now…”

That my father couldn’t. My father might not have been fond of me going to these “social events” with Lawrence, but he knew I’d be smart and cared for. I was never one to make reckless decisions, especially if it meant risking my father’s reputation. Not that it mattered. He did that just fine himself.

“I’ve got her back, Soph.” Ren was the only one who could call her that. My aunt always had wandering eyes whenever he was around, which was more times than not. I found it more amusing than weird, because neither one would do a thing about it. Ren was a smooth talker most of the time, so Sophie had a sweet spot for him.

We walked out shortly after I changed into something more “frat appropriate” which, in Lawrence’s mind, was a yellow sundress that hit mid-thigh, strappy heels, and a layer of makeup that I only applied whenever I went out to college events. While I normally preferred clothes that covered me, bare feet, and little to no makeup, it was fun to put on a front that I could wash off as soon as I locked myself away at night.

The drive to the frat house was short, only ten minutes. As soon as Lawrence pulled his Jeep into his usual parking spot in the back, he jumped out and jogged around to my side and opened the door with a grin on his face. “My lady.”

Rolling my eyes, I got out and adjusted my dress. “You’re in a much better mood than last time I agreed to one of these. Did you finally get laid?”

He gasped, his palm flattening against his chest in mock offense. “That isn’t a very ladylike question, Adele. I thought Sophie taught you better than that.”

The smile on my face grew over his theatrics as he guided us into the house, our arms linked as people greeted us in the packed hallway as soon as we stepped through the door. He waved, slapped a few people on the back, and grabbed a beer that was extended to him before passing it to me.

Shaking my head, I look around the room to find other familiar faces. “I don’t want to drink today. Is Jase here? Wasn’t he the one who begged for this party?”

Social gathering,” a husky voice corrected from behind me before two arms wrapped around my waist and picked me up. I squealed in Jase’s arms as he spun us, narrowly missing a few innocent bystanders.

“Ah, that’s right. You could get shut down if the college finds out about any potential parties.”

He set me down with a boyish grin on his not-so-boyish face. Unlike Ren’s boy next door look, Jason, his frat brother, was more matured. In looks, that was. He was the prankster, the guy that got them into trouble nine times out of ten. Even Lawrence was surprised he hadn’t been booted yet. I liked him though. He was fun and could get me out of my head even when I was stuck in there for a while.

“Good to see you, Della.” He bent down and pecked my cheek before shoving Lawrence’s shoulder. “I thought you said you wouldn’t be here. Something about ‘duty calls elsewhere.’ Unless our resident blonde was the duty?” His eyebrows wiggled making me laugh. Even he suspected we were more than friends. I didn’t come to the frat often because I was busy with school, painting, and spending time with Sophie and Theo when I could. When I did make an appearance, it was always with Ren, Jase, and whoever their flavor of the month was. In fact, it was not so long ago I learned the redhead I’d been talking to was sleeping with both…at the same time. It’d made me uncomfortable to know what Ren was up to, but I never judged.

Shortly after that discovery, Jase had admitted that he would have made a move on me if it weren’t for Ren’s territorial nature. Even though I set the record straight, for what felt like the millionth time, Jase told me he wouldn’t make a move anyway because Ren was his brother. Maybe not by blood, but by bond. I could respect that. Plus, I didn’t want Jase as more than a friend to hang out with when I was around anyway. He was nice but knowing what he enjoyed was a little too much for me. It made me wonder what Ren had thought about our few times together. We hadn’t done a lot more than was I assumed was common—traditional even. Looking back now at my lack of sex experience, I wasn’t sure what other kinds there were which made me feel like such a prude. A feeling I hated.

Snapping out of the thought, I grinned at Jase and said, “He had to come to my house and insult my piano playing skills first.”

His face twisted. “You’re learning to play piano? Boring.” He dropped an arm over my shoulders but had to bend slightly because of our height difference. He was well over six feet tall, probably close to six-three. “Let me guess. Your aunt? The one that looks like there’s something shoved up her—”

“Yep, that’d be the one.”

He chuckled. “Want me to tell her what men really want? I could probably show her a thing or too so she could get a good visual.”

Unlike Lawrence, I had no doubt that Jason would try to hook up with my aunt. “I don’t need therapy, but thanks.”

Ren shoved his friend away and stole my arm again. “Come on. I want us to hang out downstairs. I challenged Rita and her latest boy toy to beer pong and need a partner.”

As he dragged me toward the basement stairs off the kitchen, I couldn’t help but tease him. “Is this the same boy toy you’ve been going after since you had that sociology class together?”

“Perhaps.” Translation: yes.

“You’re hopeless.”

“Hopelessly infatuated,” he corrected before shooting me another wink. As soon as he walked into the open living area where a pool table, flat screen, and few couches were set up, we got loud cheers from some of the other guests. There weren’t many people lingering down here because it was typically for “VIP” guests only, usually girlfriends of the fraternity, or whoever they were hooking up with at the time. Then there was me, the perpetual best friend slash third wheel. I was okay with it though because it meant I didn’t have to suffocate in the crowd of people upstairs.

I spotted Lawrence’s crush instantly hanging around Rita Malcom. She was a sweet girl that ran in a similar social circle as us. Her father worked with Theo as some investor—they might even be friends or something close to it if memory served. Rita and her father both showed up to the funeral where she’d given me a hug and her father gave me his apologies. For once, I’d believed somebody had actually felt bad that my father was killed. I didn’t talk to Rita much other than the occasional greeting in passing or during these where we were typically partnered up for whatever Ren forced me to take part of, but I could see her being a friend. An ally.  

As always, I didn’t get a choice before I was teamed up with Rita to go against Lawrence and Ben. He was cute, around the same height as Ren, and the kind of preppy, clean-shaven guy that my best friend usually went for. He was on the lacrosse team at school, something Rita told me a while back when they first started hanging out. Like a lot of women who hung around this house, she was into any sports team and loved the attention from the players. She was sweet, but knew how to play the field, so to speak.

We lost horribly after forty-five minutes, and I downed one too many sour beers despite telling Lawrence I didn’t want to drink. I usually opted against alcohol because of the medication I was on for anxiety, something my therapist had prescribed a few years ago. I didn’t take them on days I knew I was going out because there was a chance this would happen. Truthfully, I wasn’t even sure if they worked that well. I had good and bad days where I felt more anxious than not. It wasn’t as debilitating as it used to be when I went out because media wasn’t parked in front of my building trying to get an interview. There weren’t paparazzi following me and snapping pictures from shrubbery or calling out my name to get an ugly photo that would be on every gossip site known to man. It was because of them that I got worse. Not just my anxiety, but…

Blowing out a breath, I cradled my stomach where a pink scar rested. How many times did TMZ make comments on my appearance? She’s gained weight. Stress eating is a sign of guilt. I thought she was a dancer? The comments on my thighs, the way I filled out my leggings on the way to practice, the tint of my skin or how and if I wore makeup, all came back to one thing: I was a Saint James, which meant I was guilty. Guilty of pretending I didn’t care about what my father had done to people or how he abused his power. Guilty of not caring about the state of the New York after my father was arrested. They crucified me in every way possible until I hated myself more than I already did. Because I did gain weight from stress eating. I did stop trying at ballet. I did stop caring. Not about others. About me.

I just…stopped.

My mood swings then had gotten me in trouble with Judith, our ballet teacher, when I stopped being able to do the routines as easily as before. She’d berated me for gaining weight and demanded I go on a special diet, making me see a dietary specialist to help me cut out the food I was “poisoning” my body with. Then there were the stretch marks. The little reminders on my stomach and thighs that told me I’d lost control when the trial began. It was televised. There were reporters everywhere. I’d snuck food everywhere I went with me to ease the pain, in the form of chocolate, carbs, and anything in between. I’d damaged the body that had once been naturally thin, and my metabolism did nothing to stop the transition that would send me into a downward spiral every time I stepped in front of those studio mirrors.

“Again, Adele!”

“Higher! If you didn’t eat that, you’d get a better jump!”

“What was that? Can you not bend further because of the extra padding?”

On and on it went until one day I’d broken down after practice. I’d waited until all the girls left before I realized what I needed to do. So, when I got home, I threw out all the junk food, got rid of anything that wasn’t appropriate for my diet, and…stopped eating altogether. When my father looked, I was nibbling here and there to disregard any growing suspicion he might have had. That was when I discovered purging.

The anxiety medication might have helped more than I gave it credit for, but there was no medication from the level of self-hate a person had for themselves. There wasn’t a pill to swallow to make people love themselves. No injection could make self-worth higher than self-consciousness on a whim. It would always be a fight for me to eat without sticking a finger down my throat or finding new methods of starving myself when nobody was looking. There were always going to be days when I wished my weight was as low as my self-esteem.

But I was better.

Be better.

Those words were a chant in my head, a soft-spoken demand that was not pointed at me, but one I took as a sign that I needed to listen.

“Be better,” my mother had said.

It was about two hours into the party when I stumbled toward the little kitchen downstairs off the main room and grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge. Ren was flirting with Ben, Rita was hanging around a frat boy who looked new to the scene, so I stayed in the corner and tried sobering up.

After about ten minutes, the water was gone, and I was tired of watching everybody couple up. Throwing the bottle into the recyclables, I pushed away from the wall on slightly unsteady feet and started walking toward Lawrence until an arm hooked around my waist from behind.

Nearly falling from the jerked motion, I groaned. “Jase, I’m not—”

“Not Jase.” A pair of hot lips found the back of my neck, making me lock up. My elbow instinctively jabbed the unknown person who was giving me unwanted attention but he barely budged. “Relax, babe. I’m just playing around. You looked lonely.”

I managed to turn, glaring at the idiot who smelled like cheap beer and even cheaper perfume of whoever he was mauling last. It shouldn’t have surprised me to see Evan Wallace there, grinning at me half-baked like the stoner he was. “Seriously, Evan?”

“What? Lawrence is busy so I figured I’d keep you company.” He hated Ren and I didn’t know why, but worse, he disliked me. I barely knew him but his actions toward me since we first met had been nothing but annoying. He’d made comments, catcalled, and tried getting me to go to his attic loft with him. It didn’t matter how many people told him to stop, Evan was determined to do what he wanted, and it gave me a bad feeling every time.

“I don’t want you to,” I stated firmly.

“Aw, don’t be like that, babe.”

“Don’t call me that.” How many times had I told him that? It was impossible to tell at that point, that was how many.

His arm went back to my waist, hooking it around me and tugging me into his chest. The smell coming from his breath was nauseating, so I held my breath. It didn’t help that I felt off, tired, draggy, and realized I’d drank too much to be wandering about. “You always play hard to get. We both know you’re not with McKinley even if you’ve fooled others into believing it.”

“That doesn’t mean I want you.” Shoving him away with what little energy I had, he stumbled into a group of girls who all complained when beer spilled onto the hardwood. It wouldn’t be the worst thing the floors had seen. I was sure of it.

The water might not have helped all that much because my legs felt funny, but Evan’s persistence was definitely doing something to keep me hyperaware if not semi-sober. Blinking back the heaviness of my eyes, I backed up and made my way toward Lawrence.

Except he disappeared.

“Shit,” I grumbled, wincing at myself. I normally didn’t swear unless my filter was off. That usually only happened when I was pissed, tired, impatient, or a little of all three. I guessed drunk could be added to that list.

Rita saddled up beside me. “He and Ben went upstairs. Said something about fresh air, but I think we both know that’s a lie.”

I rubbed my temples. “Doesn’t that bother you?” I loved Lawrence, but he didn’t care if the people he chased were with somebody else. If he was interested, he went for it. Shameless flirting usually led to more with him if he set his sights on somebody. It was sort of impressive how bold he was, even if I didn’t agree with his tactic.

Rita shrugged. “Ben and I were having fun, but I think he was using me as a beard because of his dad. His family is old school if you know what I mean.” Ben’s family wasn’t one I knew, but it was upsetting if that was the case. I didn’t know many people who were against that kind of relationship, but I wasn’t naïve to think they didn’t exist. Ren’s parents played dumb, but I was almost positive they knew of their son’s interests and just chose not to intervene.

“That sucks.”

“What about you? Not strung out for your best friend. He’s cute. You’d make an adorable couple, and unlike Ben, it looks like Lawrence swings both ways.”

Instantly, my head shook. It was instinctive at that point because I’d had the conversations plenty of times. “That won’t be happening in this lifetime. We’re just friends. Although, I’d be tempted to question that since he ditched me.”

She giggled, flipping her hair over her shoulder. “I’m sure they’ll be back down soon enough. Want to grab a drink with me?”

I wanted to be nice and say yes, but my head was already light and fuzzy, and all I wanted was to go home and sleep tonight off. If Ren was busy with Ben, that meant heaving to find somebody else to get me home, maybe Dallas, a driver Sophie hired for me when the one my father employed was let go right after the arrest was made. “I really shouldn’t. I’m going to find Ren. I kind of want to head out.”

“You just got here!” She normally stayed until the middle of the night, but that wasn’t me. Not even on the days I was sober, maybe especially then. Seeing what the people here did without a care in the world made me realize how much I didn’t fit into their crowd. Or any crowd, it seemed. Plus, there were still people who gave me one look and started whispering. Probably about the scandal and my father, maybe about the articles online on me. That was when the tingling started, the itch of anxiety creeping up the back of my neck like prickles of heat sent to taunt me as they watched me.

I waved despite Rita’s protest and gave her an apologetic smile. Evan’s eyes were still on me like a hawk, following me as I weaved through the crowd. They were narrowed and it made my skin crawl, so I stayed vigilant of the way he moved a few feet behind me like he didn’t want me knowing he was but was too smashed to be as stealthy as he wanted. Even a few of his frat brothers had talked about the growing difference in him over the past year. He was always annoying, but then he turned into a drunken stoner who acted out like he had nothing left to lose. Maybe if he wasn’t such a pest to me, I’d find it in me to care, even be concerned.

My hand found the phone in my dress pocket, speed dialing Lawrence by muscle memory as I pulled it out. He didn’t pick up, making me wonder just how busy he got with Ben as soon as they’d found a place. There was a chance they’d gone to his room, but there were too many other ones in the house for me to check and the stairs were packed full of people already.

Blinking back exhaustion, I stumbled into a few partygoers when my legs became like jelly beneath me. I murmured an apology that a few people brushed off, while a guy I recognized as Ren’s teammate looked me over with concern from where he was talking to somebody by the refreshment table. I thought his name started with J. Jamie? Jacob? It didn’t matter.

I dragged my hand along the wall until I made it outside, my fingers dialing a different number as my feet became heavier.

He picked up after one ring. “S-Something’s wrong,” I slurred, dropping onto an abandoned beach chair outside the house. There were a few people mingling, one couple making out on the lawn, and empty cans and red cups littering the freshly mowed grass.

“Where are you?” His voice was clipped, but there was enough worry etched in it to make me think it wasn’t because I called. At least, I hoped it wasn’t.

I was pretty sure I gave him the address, but my brain shut off somewhere between sitting down and saying anything to him. My phone was on my lap, my eyelids blinking heavily, and my mouth like lead to the point I couldn’t move it. A voice in my head told me to stay awake, but it was hard to listen.

It was sometime later when I heard my name being called before familiar hands found my arms. His deep voice barked at somebody before I was being lifted.

“Della?” A new voice said from close by. “Jesus Christ, what happened?”

“What happened,” the man holding me spat, “was that you left her alone at an STD fest. What the fuck did you think would happen?”

My eyes cracked open slightly to see Theo’s hard face glaring over me. I didn’t turn my head, but I recognized my best friend’s voice as he replied, “I’m sorry. Shit, I was just—”

“Does it look like I give a shit what you were doing?” Theo snapped, his grip tightening around me. His head shook as he carefully adjusted me in his arms so one of them was perched behind my knees and the other supporting my back.

“I’m sorry. As soon as my buddy noticed she was acting off, I came as soon as I could.”

Theo didn’t grace Lawrence with a reply before turning. His eyes found mine as we walked, the cold air making my overheated body feel better despite the goosebumps that formed from the way his gaze bored into me. “What did I tell you about drinking at these?”

I couldn’t answer him. He swore again.

I tried saying something, but he just quieted me, yanking open a door before carefully draping me on cool leather seats. I didn’t remember what happened after that except drifting off to the familiar and easing scent of tobacco and cologne.  

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Releasing June 25th, 2020
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