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Whitley Johnson's dream summer with her divorcé dad has turned into a nightmare. She's just met his new fiancée and her kids. The fiancée's son? Whitley's one-night stand from graduation night. Just freakin' great.
Worse, she totally doesn't fit in with her dad's perfect new country-club family. So Whitley acts out. She parties. Hard. So hard she doesn't even notice the good things right under her nose: a sweet little future stepsister who is just about the only person she's ...
Whitley Johnson's dream summer with her divorcé dad has turned into a nightmare. She's just met his new fiancée and her kids. The fiancée's son? Whitley's one-night stand from graduation night. Just freakin' great.
Worse, she totally doesn't fit in with her dad's perfect new country-club family. So Whitley acts out. She parties. Hard. So hard she doesn't even notice the good things right under her nose: a sweet little future stepsister who is just about the only person she's ever liked, a best friend (even though Whitley swears she doesn't "do" friends), and a smoking-hot guy who isn't her stepbrother...at least, not yet. It will take all three of them to help Whitley get through her anger and begin to put the pieces of her family together.
Filled with authenticity and raw emotion, Whitley is Kody Keplinger's most compelling character to date: a cynical Holden Caulfield-esque girl you will wholly care about.
Hangovers are a bitch.
I’ve known this for years, since I was, like, fourteen and went to my first kegger, but the headache I woke up with the morning after graduation was the worst I’d ever experienced. And that says a lot. I mean, it was throbbing. I felt like someone had beaten me over the head with a freaking baseball bat. And God only knew, maybe someone had. I’d been so wasted that night I probably wouldn’t have cared. I may have even found it funny at the time. Everything was funny after a few shots of tequila.
I groaned and pulled the blanket over my face, shielding my eyes from the sunlight that filtered through the window over my head. Why did it have to be so goddamn bright?
“Don’t be dramatic. I’m not that ugly,” a deep, groggy voice murmured beside me.
Suddenly, I felt nauseous for reasons that had nothing to do with the amount of alcohol in my system.
I clenched my eyes shut, trying to remember what the hell I’d done last night. I’d danced with some people, played Quarters for a while, taken a few shots… more than a few shots. But, hey, it was a graduation party. Getting smashed was pretty much a requirement. I forced myself to think past the alcohol buzz and the thudding bass of the stereo, trying to remember where I’d been when I finally passed out.
And there it was.
At some point, after getting entirely shitfaced, I’d made out with some guy I didn’t know—I graduated with almost a thousand kids, so I partied with a lot of strangers that night—and then I dragged him into one of the house’s bedrooms. But everything after that was a blur. One thing I was sure of, though. I’d definitely had sex with him.
Goddamn it. Had I really been that drunk?
I opened my eyes and rolled onto my side. At this point, I just hoped he was cute. And he was… or he would have been if he hadn’t looked so crappy. His brown eyes, staring at me from a few inches away, had deep lines under them, and his dark hair was a mess. Or maybe that was just the way he wore it. That was the style lately, for some reason.
Then again, I was sure I didn’t look too hot at that moment, either. My hair, which had been totally awesome for graduation, was probably ratty from yesterday’s hairspray, and I was sure my eyes were bloodshot and my makeup must have been runny and gross.
Like I said, hangovers are a bitch.
“Hi,” the guy mumbled, rubbing his eyes. “Did you sleep okay?”
As if this whole situation weren’t awkward enough, he was going to talk to me. I wished he’d just pretend to be asleep so I could sneak out in peace.
I sighed and pushed the blankets off me. The sunlight was killing my eyes. I had to squint as I stumbled around the room, gathering my clothes from the floor. I nearly fell over at least twice before I was dressed. Judging by the way everything was scattered, we’d had a pretty crazy night.
Good for me, I guess.
“Hey, um…” Christ, I couldn’t even remember the dude’s name. Had he ever told it to me? I cleared my throat and started again. “Do you think anyone will catch me if I go through the front door, or should I climb out the window? How are you leaving?”
“I’m not. This is my house.”
So I’d screwed the host. I hadn’t seen that one coming. The address was scribbled on every senior’s hand yesterday, and I’d never thought to ask who lived in the place. A party was a party. Didn’t matter who threw it.
“Or it used to be… Anyway, you won’t get caught,” he added, pushing himself up on the pillows. “Mom’s not here. She and my sister had to leave town before graduation to meet the movers. That’s why I offered to have the party here. Partly for graduation, and partly as a going-away celebration.”
“Okay, okay.” I just needed a yes or no, not his whole life story. I grabbed my purse off the dresser. “So I’ll use the front door. No big deal.”
“Hey. Hold on a sec.” He sat up straight, letting the covers fall away from his bare chest.
Yeah. He was definitely hot. Good body. I vaguely remembered telling him that, too. A tiny memory trickled into my consciousness: me giggling, poking him in the chest just after I’d pulled his shirt over his head. “Nice muscles you’ve got there, stud.” He’d laughed and kissed me. He’d been a good kisser.
That was the most I could recall at the moment, though.
“Can I get your number?” he asked, running a hand through his sloppy brown hair. “So I can, you know, give you a call sometime.”
Oh, God, was he serious?
Not that I had a whole lot of experience with one-night stands—I didn’t, really; I mean, I could count the number of boys I’d slept with on one hand. But I had fooled around with a lot of guys while drunk, and most of them had the good sense not to try to keep in touch after. It was better for both of us if we just went on with our lives, pretending like the whole thing had never happened.
Apparently this dude—why couldn’t I remember his name?—didn’t feel the same way.
“Listen,” I said, looking away from him as I pulled out the condom wrapper that had managed to get tangled inside my shirt. “We just graduated, and after this summer we’re off to college. So what’s the point of staying in contact, really?” Ugh. Poor guy. I couldn’t even let him down easy. This hangover was so bad. I met his eyes again, knowing I needed to get this over with so I could get out of there. “I think we should leave things where they are and, you know, never ever see each other again.”
“So… you don’t want to give me your number?”
“Not really. No.”
He blew air out of his mouth in a rush. “Ouch. That’s kind of harsh.”
Maybe, but he was better off. It wasn’t as if someone like me would have made a good girlfriend anyway. I was just some drunken hookup. That’s all I’d ever been.
“Look, you’re moving, right? I’m sure tons of girls in your new town will totally go for the slouchy pretty-boy thing you’ve got going on. You won’t even remember last night in a week…. I barely remember already.” I shrugged and slung my purse over my shoulder, one hand against the wall to keep me stable. “So, nice party. I had a good time. I, um, won’t see you around.”
“Whitley?” he called after me.
But I was already out of the bedroom and weaving unsteadily down the hall. I needed to get out of there. Fast. Not only was I ready to get away from Mr. Clingy, but I also really had to get home. Mom was waiting for me, and I had a shitload of packing to do before Dad showed up in his SUV the next day.
I reached the end of the hall and found the living room completely trashed. Beer cans and half-empty bags of chips had been tossed all over the floor. A recliner and an end table, the only pieces of furniture (I guess the rest had already been sent to his new place), were overturned. A couple stragglers remained passed out on the floor. I felt a little bad for whatshisname. He had a real mess to clean up. I was so glad not to be him.
That’s what he got for volunteering to host a graduation bash, though.
I tripped over the garbage on my way to the front door, wincing when the light hit my eyes. My head hurt like hell, but at least I wasn’t puking. After four years of going to high school keggers—and crashing the occasional frat party—I’d learned to hold my alcohol pretty well. Better than a lot of girls my age, anyway. Most of the girls I saw at parties were kissing the toilet after a couple bottles of Smirnoff Ice, then had to be carried out by their football player boyfriends. Babies.
With a sigh, I dug my cell phone out of my purse and dialed the number to the cab company. I seriously hoped I wouldn’t get a chatty driver. If he said more than five words to me, I wasn’t going to tip.
Mom was sitting at the kitchen table when I got home, eating frozen waffles in her housecoat and watching Good Morning America. She looked up when I walked through the door, the syrup bottle in her hand.
“Hey, Whitley,” she said. “How was the rest of your night?”
“Good,” I mumbled, going straight for the fridge. My mouth was unbelievably dry. “Sorry I didn’t call.”
“Oh, that’s fine. I figured you were staying over at Nola’s.”
I grabbed a bottle of Gatorade, not bothering to inform my mother that Nola and I hadn’t spoken since ninth grade. For a second, I wondered whether she’d notice if I did a line of coke on the table right in front of her. I doubted it.
“Trace sent you something,” she said as I sat down in the chair beside her, clutching some Saltines for good measure and positioning myself to see the TV, which was on the counter across from us. She doused her waffles in syrup and pushed the bottle to the side. “I put it on your bed.”
We sat in silence for a long moment before Mom finally asked, “So, are you excited about graduating?”
She kept staring at the TV, watching as the national weather guy moved on from our part of the country and pointed at Florida, informing us that it was sunny—no shit, Sherlock. I got the feeling Mom didn’t really give a damn about the answer. It was just one of those questions you ask because it makes you a crappy parent if you don’t.
“Not really,” I said, twisting the cap on the Gatorade and taking a big gulp. “Graduating isn’t a big deal. It’ll be nice to start college, though. Dad loved UK. Hopefully he can help me pick a goddamn major.”
“Language, Whitley,” she warned. “And, honey, be careful about taking your father’s advice on this stuff. He can’t even make smart life choices for himself, let alone help you make yours.”
I scowled at her before taking another drink. Six years after the divorce, and she still slammed Dad at every opportunity. You’d think she’d be over it by now.
“I don’t see anything wrong with how Dad lives,” I told her.
“Please.” She laughed bitterly. “In that trashy condo? Jumping from girlfriend to girlfriend? Forty-eight years old and still hasn’t grown up at all. He can’t even make enough time to see his own daughter more than once a year.”
That’s your fault, I thought. I stood up and tossed my Gatorade bottle in the trash, mumbling, “I’m going to lie down. Headache.”
“All right, honey.” Mom speared a bite of waffle with her fork. “I hope you get to feeling better. And don’t forget to pack. Your father will be here to pick you up at noon tomorrow…. But you know how punctual he is.” I didn’t listen closely to the rest of her tirade.
I was halfway inside my bedroom before she finally shut up. When it came to Dad, my mother never knew when to just leave it alone. Everything about him annoyed her now: the way he dressed, the way he drove; she even said that the sound of his laugh made her cringe. She couldn’t see how alike my father and I were, totally oblivious to the fact that some of the traits she loathed in him were part of me, too.
The worst part, though, was that Dad never said a bad word about her. She didn’t know it, or she was too bitter to see, but Dad still cared about her feelings. That was the reason he’d said no when I’d asked to live with him four years ago—he said it would break Mom’s heart if I moved out.
I never told Mom I’d asked Dad that. But over the years that followed, I became more and more certain that he was wrong. She wouldn’t have even noticed if I left. She could bitch to a houseplant just as well as she could to me.
With my head hurting even worse, I yanked the curtains closed to block out any trace of sunlight and fell onto my bed, burying my face in the pillow with a groan.
I felt something stiff and crinkly under my stomach and sighed. The room had finally stopped spinning now that I was lying down, and sitting up seemed like a bad idea. Moving as little as possible, I reached beneath me and pulled out the offending object, holding it up to examine it. It was the thing Trace had sent me. A blue envelope with my name written across it with a pretty pink gel pen. Emily’s doing, for sure. My brother’s penmanship was shit.
With slow, unsteady movements, I opened the envelope and pulled out the card inside. YOU’VE COME A LONG WAY, the cover said. What a cliché. Inside, though, my brother had crossed out all the cheesy poem crap and written his own message. Of course, since Trace wrote it himself in his sloppy boy handwriting, it took me a few minutes to decipher.
so proud of you. so is emily. we wish we could have been there, but here’s a fat check to make up for it but dont go spending it all on booze. call you soon.
Love, the best big brother ever
and Emily and Marie, too
I smiled. It was a mark of how much I loved my big brother that I found his lack of punctuation and proper grammar endearing.
Emily and Trace had been married for about two years. They met when Trace got his job as the assistant to some talent agent out in Los Angeles. Emily was an actress—which means she was a waitress—who was originally sleeping with Trace’s boss, trying to get parts. But then she met Trace, and he claims it was love at first sight.
Normally, if someone told me that, I’d gag, but I bought Trace’s story. After they met, Emily dumped agent-man (she wasn’t getting any gigs anyway) and started dating my brother. I figured that would be a conflict of interest with Trace’s job or something, but I guess that kind of crazy stuff happens all the time in Hollywood because he was still working for the guy. He even got promoted after that. And Emily had Marie, their daughter, just last month.
That was why Trace hadn’t made it to my graduation. Marie was too little to fly, and Trace didn’t want to leave Emily at home with the baby by herself.
I didn’t blame him. He had a lot going on. And picking up and flying all the way out here for just one night would have been stupid. I mean, Dad hadn’t even been able to make it because of work, and he lived within driving distance. It was no big deal. The ceremony was dumb anyway.
But it would have been nice to see Trace.
Next year, I thought, putting away the card and check he’d sent before curling up on my side and closing my eyes to fight off the headache. Dad and I will fly out to California together during his vacation. No work, no Mom driving us crazy. It’ll be great. Next year…
And with that thought, I drifted off to sleep.
After the divorce, my mother insisted on moving as far from Dad as possible. I think she was shooting for California or Hawaii or something, but instead we wound up only two hundred and fifty miles away, just far enough so our antenna didn’t pick up Channel 34.
My dad was this hotshot news anchor. He was, like, the most popular television personality in the tristate area or something. Channel 34 had the lowest ratings of all the local networks before they hired Greg Johnson to do the morning news. And everyone fell in love with him. Women wanted to date him, and men wanted to go fishing with him. Suddenly, Channel 34 was the most popular station in the area.
So, naturally, my mother wanted to move to a place where no one had ever heard of my dad. Even if that meant I was living far away from him, too.
At twelve, I was already old enough to realize how selfish my mother was being.
She moved us to a city four and a half hours from Dad—all the way to fucking Indiana—yet she had the nerve to bitch about how he didn’t spend enough time with me. For God’s sake, it wasn’t his fault that she wasn’t mature enough to live in the same state as her ex or that he had a job that took up a lot of his time, even weekends. Because of her, any traditional custody agreement just wasn’t feasible. So Dad and I worked out a more convenient system.
I’d spent every summer for the last six years at my dad’s condo. He lived only a few miles from Kentucky Lake, so I wasted most of the hot days stretched out on a towel, getting a tan on the beach. At night, Dad would fire up the grill, and last year he’d even mixed us a few drinks, making me promise Mom wouldn’t find out. Sometimes his girlfriend—whoever she was that month—would come over, but he’d never let her stay long. The summer was our time. Our time to make up for the months spent apart.
And this was the last summer before college. I imagined sitting on the beach with Dad, talking about his days at University of Kentucky—where I’d be starting in September—him telling me the crazy stories from his fraternity days while we drank together. Maybe he’d even help me figure out what to major in when I got to UK. Mom said I should focus on business, but Dad knew me better than she did. That could be our project for the summer, deciding what I should do for the rest of my life.
When my dad pulled up the following afternoon, I didn’t even wait for him to get out of the car before running off the front porch to meet him. I tossed my duffel bag into the back of his SUV, eager to hit the road and get our summer started. He was sitting in the driver’s seat, talking to somebody on his cell phone and pretending he didn’t notice Mom watching him from the front window of the house.
She’d never come outside when Dad was here. She’d swear she wanted nothing to do with him, but I always saw her watching.
“Ready to go, munchkin?” Dad asked, shutting his cell phone and plugging it into the car charger.
“Uh-huh.” I slammed the SUV’s door.
“Did you tell your mom good-bye?”
“Yeah,” I muttered, climbing into the front seat. “Let’s just get out of here.”
“First put on your seat belt.”
“Fine.” I sighed, pulling the belt across me.
“Don’t act so casual about it.” He revved the engine. “We just aired a special report over at the station about the death rate for car accidents, and it’s unreal the difference that little lap belt will make.”
Dad chuckled. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with you, munchkin,” he said, already backing out of my driveway.
I turned, thinking I might at least wave good-bye to Mom, but she wasn’t at the window anymore. The blinds were shut. I wondered if she’d gone back to bed, if she’d stay there for days the way she did for the first couple years after the divorce.
The sick part was that she’s the one who left Dad. I think part of her assumed he’d chase after her or beg her not to go. But he didn’t. After two months of separation, he sent her divorce papers, already signed. I didn’t blame him. They fought all the time about stupid stuff. I was sure that was why Trace moved across the country after graduation—to get away from the drama. I was probably the only twelve-year-old to ever be relieved that her parents were getting divorced.
I was less relieved, however, when I realized this meant I had to live with my mom full-time. The first two years were the worst. When she wasn’t depressed, she was angry. She was still angry now.
“Sorry I couldn’t make it to your graduation,” Dad was saying as we swerved through lunch-hour traffic. “I wanted to be there, but with my work schedule, it just wasn’t possible.”
“It’s cool,” I said, watching as the tall buildings of the city zoomed past the windows. “Graduation’s nothing special anyway. It’s actually really boring. But Mom recorded the ceremony on my digital camera so I could send it to Trace. If you want, I can load the file onto your computer and show you the footage once we get to the condo.”
“Right… about the condo, munchkin… I have some news.”
“What?” I turned to look at him, a little nervous as I remembered the beloved condo with its bright retro paintings and squeaky floorboards.
“It’s really not a big deal,” he said. “Nothing to get worked up about.”
“Ugh. You don’t have ants again, do you? I keep saying that you need to get a real exterminator in there instead of trying to do everything yourself.”
“No, it’s not ants,” he said. “And I don’t think we’ll have to worry about those pests again because… well, I moved.”
“Moved?” I repeated. “You mean, like, to a new house?”
“That’s what I mean.”
I stared at him, shocked. “But… you loved that condo. Why would you move? Did you want a place closer to the lake or something?”
“No, it wasn’t about the beach.”
“Then why give up the condo?” I asked. “If you’re not going closer to the lake, there’s no reason to live in Millerton.”
“Well, I agree. But that’s just it. I’m not living in Millerton.”
“What? Really? But you’ve always lived in Millerton. You grew up there—I grew up there. Why would you leave?”
“You’ll see when we get to Hamilton. You’ll love it there, munchkin,” he assured me. “It’s a nice little neighborhood. Great surroundings. Wonderful people. You’ll love spending your summer there, I promise. It’s even better than Millerton.”
Hamilton was a hellhole.
I discovered this three and a half hours later, after listening to every song on my iPod multiple times. I’d spent the drive giving Dad the silent treatment, annoyed that he hadn’t warned me about this move. He’d always had a bad habit of springing things on me, like new girlfriends (those never lasted long enough to matter, though) or remodeling the condo. But never anything as drastic as moving to a new town.
A new, crappy town.
I was just thinking that I needed to get on iTunes to download some music when Dad’s SUV rumbled past the WELCOME TO HAMILTON! sign. As soon as I saw that exclamation mark, I knew I was doomed. It only got worse as we drove farther into town.
A population of less than a thousand.
And definitely, definitely no beach. In fact, Dad’s new house was on the opposite side of Channel 34’s viewing area, which put us more than a hundred miles from the lake.
“Great,” I muttered, watching out the window as white picket fence after white picket fence zoomed past. “So much for spending the summer in a bikini.”
“Hey, don’t get upset just yet, munchkin.” He reached over to pat me on the knee.
Millerton had been twice the size of this place. It wasn’t really a city, but there was a mall, at least, and all the houses didn’t look exactly alike. There had been some diversity, some color. There were skate parks and weekend mini-golf places. And sometimes Dad took me to the go-kart track in the summer.
Unless they were hidden in the middle of a cornfield that separated the tiny neighborhoods, I doubted Hamilton had any of those things.
As we drove through the town, I spotted a library, a grocery store, a bank, and absolutely nothing fun to do.
“I’m going to be so pale when I start college,” I whined.
“You’ll still get a tan. We already have a pool.”
“We?” I repeated. “Who’s we? You mean you and me?”
“Actually…” Dad cleared his throat. “That’s the second part of the surprise.”
We pulled into a driveway. The house we faced was pretty big, with a perfect, well-kept yard and neat little shutters on the windows. The part that caught my attention, though, was the woman standing on the front porch. She was tall, blond, and wearing super-high high heels.
“Dad,” I said. “Who is that?”
He cut the engine and pushed open his door. “Sylvia!” he called out in his deep, booming voice. “Honey, I’m home!”
“Honey?” I frowned and climbed out of the SUV.
The woman was already jogging down the sidewalk, which I had to admit was impressive in those heels. Instead of running toward my father, she steered in the other direction and landed right next to me, reaching out and wrapping her arms around me in a tight hug before I could stop her. Thank God it was a quick one. When she stepped back, she was smiling at me like some kind of lunatic.
“Oh, Whitley,” she said with a sigh, brushing blond hair out of her heart-shaped face. “It is so nice to finally meet you. You are just so, so beautiful. Your dad’s pictures don’t do you justice at all.”
“Uh, thanks…” I glanced over at Dad, who was making his way around the SUV, coming toward us. Then I looked back at this crazy woman. “Sorry, but who the hell are you?”
She looked taken aback for a minute before my father sidled up beside her, slipping his long arm around her shoulders. “This is Sylvia. My fiancée.”
Once we were inside, I got the full story.
Sylvia Caulfield was a lawyer from Indiana. She and Dad had met last September when Dad was doing a story on Land Between the Lakes, a national recreation area near his condo, and Sylvia was there, visiting the park with a friend from college. Dad asked her for an interview about her experience at the park, and she asked for his phone number. Not long after that, they were crazy in love.
The story made me nauseous.
“We mostly exchanged e-mails and phone calls for a few months,” Sylvia explained as she poured herself a mug of coffee in the house’s cheerful kitchen. The pastel blues and greens were in direct contrast to my mood—four hours into vacation and already everything was ruined, and I had the strong urge to strangle my father and his bride-to-be.
“You sure you don’t want a cup of coffee, Whitley?”
I shook my head. She had already offered me one, but I’d refused. I hated coffee with a passion. The smell alone was horrible.
“Well, anyway… Neither of us expected a long-distance relationship to work out. Especially me, I think. I hadn’t dated since my first husband passed away from a heart attack a few years ago. This was so new to me. I was sure we’d break up before Christmas.”
“Did you really think I’d let you get away that easy?” Dad asked, kissing her on the cheek. “I’m not that stupid.”
She blushed and giggled.
I couldn’t believe I was seeing this. It was like a bad made-for-TV movie. Poor little widow meets successful local celebrity. Then it’s all flowers and sunshine in suburbia. Ew.
And it was so unlike Dad. After he and Mom split, my father had turned into a real flirt, which was, you know, pretty normal for a semifamous bachelor. Every summer when I came to visit he had a new twentysomething bombshell following him like a lost puppy. They always had names like Heather or Nikki, and they spent most of their time in way-too-revealing bikinis, lying on the beach and reading Vogue.
Sylvia wasn’t one of those girls, though. In fact, the only thing she had in common with any of them was her hair color, but my father had always preferred blonds. Other than that, she was a total one-eighty from the usual bimbos. For one, she had a real job, whereas all the others had been waitresses or retail clerks. And she was close to his age, too. So not his type.
What kind of spell did this chick have him under?
And how the hell could he not tell me about her?
“But we made it past Christmas,” she said, sitting across from me at the kitchen table. I wrinkled my nose as the smell from her mug wafted my way. “Finally, we realized we just couldn’t stand being apart for so long. Because, of course, your dad couldn’t travel to see me with his work, and I don’t get out-of-state cases that often.”
“So I asked her to move in with me,” Dad said.
“And I said no.” Sylvia laughed. “I just couldn’t live in that condo.”
I scowled. I hated the way she said it. That condo. Like it was a bad place. Didn’t she know that that condo had been a home to me? More of a home than Mom’s house in Indiana ever had been.
“So we negotiated,” Dad continued, either not seeing or choosing to ignore the glare I was giving them both. “I realized I wanted to marry her, but Sylvia wanted to live in a family community. She’d been in the city for too long, and she was right—that condo was just too young for me. It was a bachelor pad, and I wanted a real home. Plus, I was driving more than an hour to get to the station every morning. With that kind of trip twice a day, the money I was paying for gas was really ridiculous.”
“And my sister lives here in Hamilton.” Sylvia took a sip of her coffee, beaming at me over the top of the mug.
“We both knew that this was the perfect place for us. We got engaged last month, and we finally moved everything in last night.”
I looked at Dad, silently asking for a better explanation. Why? Why had he let this woman convince him to move out of the condo and into this place? Who was she to make him change? I kept hoping he’d burst out laughing and shout, Got you! You really fell for it, munchkin. But he didn’t, and that pissed me off even more.
“I got an Illinois license to practice law, moved to a new firm—one closer—and now your dad is closer to his work, too,” Sylvia was saying. “It’s only thirty minutes to the station from here. And we both just love this little town. It’s lovely, isn’t it?”
“Sure,” I muttered.
I’d been there for twenty minutes and already hated Hamilton. I never thought I’d say this, but I would have rather been back in Indiana. The city would have been better than this place. Dealing with Mom would have been better than dealing with this little surprise.
I couldn’t believe Sylvia had talked Dad into moving here. Hamilton so wasn’t his style. Dad liked bizarre pink flamingos and horseshoe pits in his yard. Not picket fences and cliché little gardens. At the condo, he had these crazy retro paintings and posters in trippy colors hanging from the walls. I think there was even a Velvet Elvis in his bedroom. But there was nothing like that in this house. Floral wallpaper. Watercolor art. Nothing with real personality. It was all generic and uniform.
I wanted to go back to the condo. Back home.
Sylvia got to her feet as the sound of the front door opening caught all of our attention. “That must be the kids,” she said, hurrying into the living room.
I turned to Dad, stunned. “Kids?”
“Oh, yeah,” Dad said, moving to sit in the chair next to mine. “Sylvia has two children.”
I didn’t say anything. I was shaking. Pissed, confused, overwhelmed. Mostly pissed, though. How dare this woman barge into our lives and change everything. How dare Dad let her! How could he just let this woman talk him into moving? How could he do it and not tell me?
“You okay, munchkin?” He brushed my long chestnut hair out of my face.
“It’s kind of a lot to take in, Dad.”
“I know,” he said. “I’m sorry. But I really think you’ll love them. The kids are great, and they’re teenagers like you. And Sylvia’s wonderful, isn’t she?”
I didn’t answer.
“Come on,” he said, standing up and pulling me to my feet beside him. “The kids just got back from the grocery store, and I know they’re dying to meet you.”
So they knew about me? I wasn’t warned about any of this, but Sylvia’s little brats were totally prepared? I knew Dad wasn’t much of a phone talker, but he couldn’t even spare a few minutes to say, “Oh, hey, I’m getting married and moving to Illinois!”
I hadn’t even been given a chance to say good-bye to the condo. To the chilly wood floor I used to sprawl across on hot days. To the shower curtain decorated with multicolored fish and one random mermaid. To the goddamn Velvet Elvis. It was like I had no part of it. Like it had never been mine.
Well, this house wasn’t mine, either. Maybe it was home to Sylvia and her spawn and even Dad—but it would never be home to me.
Before Dad and I could leave the kitchen, Sylvia’s voice came through the dining room, her heels clicking across the tile as she headed toward the archway.
“Thanks for doing the grocery shopping,” she was saying. “Greg and Whitley arrived a few minutes ago. Come in here and I’ll introduce you guys.” She smiled at me when she entered the kitchen, a plastic shopping bag dangling from her hand. “Nathan and Bailey are excited to meet you,” she told me.
A second later a short blond girl appeared in the doorway, followed closely by her dark-haired older brother. They both stepped into the kitchen, letting the bright sunlight from the screen door fall across their faces.
This could not be happening.
I knew the boy in front of me. But the last time I’d seen him he’d been shirtless, hungover, and half-asleep. It was the boy who’d thrown the graduation party. The boy I’d run out on after getting drunk enough to go all the way with him.
I had a flash of his lips on my neck, his slurred voice asking, “Is this okay?” My cheeks burned.
“You,” he said, his brown eyes wide.
“Do you two know each other?” Dad asked.
“No,” I said immediately.
“We went to the same high school,” the boy answered.
Sylvia seemed ecstatic about this. “Oh, you went to Fairmont, too?” she asked, moving her hand to my shoulder. She was very touchy. “Greg, you never told me that.”
Beside me, Dad looked sheepish. “I thought the school was called Fairview…. Shows how good my memory is.”
“Oh, Whitley, if I’d known you two lived that close to each other, I would have asked your father to pick you kids up at the same time instead of letting Nathan take a bus last night.”
Nathan. So that was his name.
“I can’t believe you two went to school together.” Sylvia laughed. “What are the odds?”
“Small world,” I growled.
“Very,” Nathan said. He was smiling now, but I could tell it was forced. At least I wasn’t the only one uncomfortable here. Stiffly, he extended his hand to me. “Nice to finally meet you, Whit.”
“Whitley,” I corrected, reluctantly taking his hand and shaking it for just a second before letting go.
“And this is my daughter,” Sylvia said. She gestured to the blond girl—thank God, I didn’t know this one—who stepped forward. “Whitley, this is Bailey. She’s thirteen, getting ready to start high school in the fall. She’s very excited to have a girl around to hang with.”
“Mom!” Bailey snapped, cheeks red.
“What?” Sylvia asked. “You are, aren’t you?”
Bailey turned to me, clearly embarrassed, and said, “Hi, Whitley. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Yeah… you, too.”
“Isn’t this great, munchkin?” Dad said, stepping up beside Sylvia and putting his arm around her. “You kids will have a wonderful time together. Won’t this be a fun summer?”
Fun? Fun was not the word I would have chosen. Unbearable, awkward, torturous… Anything but fun.
This was a nightmare.
I was supposed to be at the condo, wasting time on the beach, just Dad and me, figuring out college and my life and spending time together. Instead, I was in a new house with new people—including a future stepbrother who’d seen me naked.
“Well.” I sighed, facing my father again. “It will definitely be interesting. That’s for sure.”
Sylvia asked Nathan to show me to my new bedroom. Talk about irony.
“This is it,” he said, pushing open the second door on the left when we reached the top of the stairs. “Right across the hall from mine.”
“Great,” I muttered, stepping into the room with my arms folded tightly across my chest. It wasn’t small, but it wasn’t very big, either. The walls were painted a boring shade of white, and they didn’t even have any paintings or pictures hanging on them, which gave the place an eerie psych-ward feel.
My gaze moved to the queen-size bed in the middle of the room. It wasn’t the bed I’d slept in at Dad’s condo, the bed I’d called mine for six years. This one was larger, with an oak frame and way too many pillows. The comforter was a neutral shade of beige, matching easily with the carpet and the curtains that hung around the only window. It was perfect and clean and pretty, just like everything else in my dad’s new life.
And I hated it.
The thing that stung—the thing that was most obvious to me—was that this room was meant to be a guest room. It wasn’t mine.
My bedroom at Dad’s condo hadn’t been fancy or anything. The old bed creaked, and the carpet really needed to be redone. A few photos of Dad and me were the only things that had decorated the walls (aside from one of his crazy bright paintings); I’d never taken the time to put up posters. But the room had been mine. No one slept there but me. Even during the school year, I knew Dad hadn’t used my room for visitors. He had a spare room for that. My room had belonged to me and only me.
This room didn’t. It never would.
“Did you know?” I demanded, turning to face Nathan. The anger over everything I’d learned in the past hour was finally boiling over. “The other night, did you know we were…?”
He sighed and calmly shut the bedroom door. “No. I mean—yes, I knew Greg had a daughter, but I never asked what her name was. I had no idea it was you.”
“Right.” I walked over to the window and stared down into the backyard, noting the fancy-looking patio strewn with lawn chairs and a table with an umbrella in the middle. I could also see the big-ass inground pool. The water was crystal blue, and a diving board stood at the far end. Just the kind of thing you’d see on TV. “This sucks.”
He didn’t say anything. He was so calm, taking this so well. I kind of wanted to punch him, to make him yell the way I wanted to yell. Couldn’t he see how fucked up this was?
I squeezed my eyes shut and clenched my fingers around the windowsill. My summer wasn’t supposed to start like this.
“I won’t tell them,” he said, breaking the long silence. “You don’t have to worry about your dad finding out.”
“I don’t really give a shit what you tell them.” I opened my eyes and turned away from the window, walking over to unzip my duffel bag.
Okay, that wasn’t true. I did care. I didn’t want Dad to know about the things I’d done. With Nathan or anyone else. No matter how angry I was at him, I still wanted him to see me as his little girl.
But I admit, I would have loved to see Sylvia’s face when she found out a member of her perfect little family had thrown a wild party and slept with a girl he barely knew. She’d be scandalized.
“Either way, you don’t have to worry about it. Obviously I’d be in trouble, too. So as far as I’m concerned, that party never happened.”
“Awesome. Are you done now?” I asked.
Our eyes met then, and he wasn’t smiling anymore. Not even that fake cover-up smile. He took a slow, deep breath before saying, “Sorry. I’ll let you unpack.”
“How are you so calm about this?” I cried as he walked toward the door.
Nathan didn’t look at me. He kept one hand on the knob, but hesitated before turning it. “We have to spend two and a half months living under the same roof. I think we should both just forget what happened the other night and start from scratch. So, like I said, that party never happened.” He opened the door. “Good luck getting settled in. I’ll be across the hall if you need anything.”
And he walked away.
I closed and locked the door behind him. Forget it ever happened? He made that sound so easy. I knew I’d told him he’d forget about me in no time, but I hadn’t expected to be living across the hall. I hated him for making it sound so simple.
With a sigh, I walked back over to my open duffel bag and stared down at my clothes, thrown haphazardly into the bottom. I never folded things. I didn’t see the point; I’d just wear them and they’d get all crumpled again anyway. Folding T-shirts was a ridiculous waste of energy.
I grabbed an armful of clothes and went to put them away, but I stopped in the middle of the room. I stared at the double doors of the closet, which I knew must be humongous. It was probably full of linens, I realized. There was probably an old ironing board inside, or maybe a collapsible treadmill. It wasn’t my closet. It wasn’t meant for my crap.
So I put the clothes back in my bag. I wasn’t about to unpack. Not here. This wasn’t home.
I was thinking of digging out the bottle of Margaritaville Gold at the bottom of my duffel. I’d brought it for the nights when Dad and I mixed drinks together. He preferred to use rum, which I wasn’t a fan of, so I’d packed my own tequila this summer. It looked like I was going to need it sooner than I thought, though.
I was about to reach into my bag and find it when someone knocked on the door.
“Um… Can I come in?”
I frowned and walked across the room. After flipping the lock, I pulled the door open a crack and looked out into the hall. Bailey was standing there, running her fingers through her hair. Now that I got a decent look at her, I realized just how small this girl was. She hadn’t even hit five feet yet, and she looked like she might weigh ninety pounds. If Sylvia hadn’t mentioned that she was about to start high school, I would have guessed the kid was ten years old.
“Is it okay if I, um, come in?”
“Uh, sure,” I said, pulling the door open and stepping aside.
“Thanks.” She walked into the room, barely looking around as she moved to plop down on the bed. She glanced at my duffel bag. “You unpacking?”
“No,” I said. Before she could ask why, I added, “Do you need something?”
“Oh. No, not really,” she answered, shaking her head. “Sorry. I can leave if I’m bothering you. I just thought I’d help you unpack or something.”
“Are you okay?” she asked. “I mean, you seem… like, really surprised by all this.”
“That’s because I am,” I said, pushing the door closed again.
“Really? Your dad didn’t tell you about us?”
“You’d have to ask him that.”
“Wow… I’m sorry. That kind of sucks.” She paused for a moment, then added, “I hope you’ll still have fun here, though. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you. We can, like, hang out. I’ve never had a sister before.”
This will not make us sisters, I thought. I wanted to scream it at her. It took everything I had to hold it back.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she was saying, unaware of my fuming. “Nathan’s okay. We don’t fight that much. Not like my friends do with their brothers. He drives me places and takes me to movies. He’s all right, but I’ve always wanted a sister…. You probably think that’s stupid, don’t you?”
“Pretty much.” She looked suddenly hurt when I said this, and I felt kind of guilty, so I added, “I mean, I sort of get it. I have a big brother, too, but he moved out years ago, so I haven’t really been much of a sister in a while. I probably suck at it.”
“I’m sure you don’t,” she said. “I love your clothes. Those jeans are awesome. We could, like, hang out and go shopping if you want. I need some new clothes for high school, and, well, Mom said she’d take me, but… she has really bad taste. She always puts me in this old-woman-looking stuff. Stuff no one my age wears. I’d rather dress the way you do.”
I looked down at my green cotton tank top and low-slung Tommy Hilfiger jeans. “Thanks.” The girl deserved some credit. At least she knew good fashion when she saw it. If there was one thing I cared about, it was my wardrobe, and I had certainly mastered the “I don’t give a shit” look. Believe it or not, it took a lot of talent to pull off that style without looking sloppy.
“We should definitely go shopping,” she said again.
“Awesome,” she said. “My birthday is in August. I’ll have money after that. We could go to the mall in the next county over before you leave for college. That would be fun.”
“Maybe,” I repeated. I wasn’t committing myself to anything. But it was impossible to flat out reject this girl. I wasn’t a pushover or anything. Far from it. She just had those big puppy eyes that made you feel guilty, you know?
That’s why, when she asked, “Do you want me to go? So you can unpack and get settled in?” I shook my head and let her stay.
“So do you, like, have a boyfriend?” she asked, pulling her legs into a crisscross position on the bed. “Is he going to miss you while you’re here?”
“I don’t have one,” I told her. “And I don’t want one, either.”
“Why not?” she asked.
“Boys are a pain in the ass.”
Bailey laughed, like she thought I was kidding. “I’m allowed to date once I start high school. I’m going to try out for the cheerleading squad this summer. Boys like cheerleaders, right?”
“I guess,” I said, walking over to stare out the window. “I wouldn’t really know. I didn’t hang out with the cheerleaders much. We weren’t in the same crowd.”
“So what crowd were you in?”
I looked over at her, thinking of how to answer.
I remembered being thirteen and thinking that high school would be some great new adventure. I’d even dreamed of being a cheerleader, too. At the time, though, I’d been in the middle of an awkward growth spurt. I was all knees and elbows, and I could barely walk without tripping, let alone do a decent cartwheel.
By the time tryouts rolled around the next year, though, my ambitions had changed. I’d started partying and drinking and getting a reputation for being easy, which was funny, I guess, since I wasn’t even having sex when the rumors first started. The prissy little cheerleaders thought I was a wild-child slut, and I thought they were stupid bitches. So it just hadn’t worked out.
It was weird to think I’d been so much like Bailey once.
I cleared my throat, suddenly aware that she was still waiting on my answer. “Well, I was in the… the…”
“Bailey!” Sylvia’s voice called from downstairs. “Honey, come help me set the table for supper.”
“Coming!” Bailey yelled. She hopped off the bed and walked over to the door, looking back at me with that same happy smile. “We’ll hang out again later, okay?”
“Sure,” I mumbled.
“We eat dinner at six,” she added. “I’ll see you downstairs in a little while, Whitley.”
Excerpted from A Midsummer's Nightmare by Keplinger, Kody Copyright © 2012 by Keplinger, Kody. Excerpted by permission.
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