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When Jessica Taylor lost her virginity three months and six guys agoafter fiercely guarding it for fifteen yearsshe'd been stone-cold sober.
She hadn't made that mistake again.
Her stomach rolled. From the Jack Daniel's, she assured herself. She should've stuck with beer. It always gave her a nice, mellow buzz without making her want to puke. Mostly because she knew her limit. Whiskey was a new beast, one she hadn't figured out her tolerance to yet.
But Nate had been so sweet when she'd arrived at the party a few hours ago, teasing her into trying J.D. and Diet Coke, making sure her glass was always full, adding more soda when she choked, her eyes watering at the first taste.
Yeah, he was a real prince.
A cold sweat broke out along her hairline. Her stomach churned again. Because of the alcohol. It had nothing to do with her being on her back in the middle of the freaking woods.
She stared up at the moon peeking through the branches of the trees and pretended she was somewhere else, anywhere else, doing anything except what she was doing. That she wasn't wastedyet again. And that Nate Berry, with his floppy, pop-star hair and tight circle of friends, really liked her. Cared about her. That he wasn't using her.
That she wasn't letting him use her.
Her skin grew clammy. Prickled with the cold. Nate's fingers clenched her hips, his face pressed against her neck. He was just another boy. And this was just another meaningless, drunken hookup in what was quickly becoming a long line of meaningless, drunken hookups.
Tears stung the backs of her eyelids and she squeezed her eyes shut. No. No feeling sorry for herself. She had every right to have sex with whoever she wanted, whenever she wanted. It was her body after all. Her choice to give it to some guy or not.
She was in control.
Her back and butt scraped against the rough earth. Her neck was stretched back, her hair caught between the crown of her head and the ground, pulling painfully each time he moved. She just wanted it to be over. Wanted to pretend it had never happened in the first place. Just like all the other times.
Clutching his arms, she lifted her hips to keep from getting the mother of all brush burns, to stop the contents of her stomach from sloshing. She inhaled deeply, breathed in the scent of Nate's cologne and the pungent smell from the bonfire in the clearing outside the trees. His grip tightened, his nails digging into her skin as he groaned hoarsely and shuddered then finallyfinallystilled.
He collapsed on top of her, surprisingly heavy for a guy who looked as if he'd never heard of carbs, let alone ate any. His heart beat frantically against her chest, his breath hot and ragged against her shoulder. They had connected in the most elemental way. And still she felt alone. Always alone.
Her throat closed. Without a word, without a kiss or a murmured endearment or even an outright lie about how fantastic it'd been, how fantastic she was, Nate climbed to his feet. He turned his back and adjusted his clothes.
The cool night air washed over her bare skin. She shivered but couldn't find the energy or the care to cover herself. After she'd lost her virginity to a smooth-talking college freshman, she'd stopped believing guys' lines. Had quickly learned they'd do and say anything to get into a girl's pants.
Yeah, she'd learned. But she hadn't stopped hoping, couldn't stop wishing that each time would be different. That, when it was all over, the guy she'd been with would think she was special. Instead, once she gave them what they wanted, they all thought she was trash.
She was starting to wonder if they were right.
As she yanked up her jeans, shouts of excitement from the party still going strong reached them. The bonfire illuminated the colorful graffiti on the huge rocks that formed a barrier between the woods and what passed for civilization around here. Flames shot high into the airprobably from someone tossing gasoline onto the fire.
What a bunch of idiots.
"Come on," Nate said, facing her as he stuffed his hands into his jean pockets. "Let's go. Sounds like the party's getting wicked wild."
Jess snorted. "Yeah." She lurched to her feet and swayed. He held out a hand to steady her but she slapped him away. She didn't want him touching her again. "I'm sure it's a crazy wild time," she continued, her words slurring. "At least by this town's standards."
"Mystic Point not good enough for you?" okay, so she'd pissed him off, either with her comment or her slap. Good.
She rolled her eyesand immediately wished she hadn't when she almost tipped over. "Relax. God, why is everyone so defensive about this place?"
"Maybe we don't like outsiders slamming our town."
Outsider. That was her. And she was glad. She didn't want to belong here. She just wanted to go home.
"There's a whole big world out there," she said, waving her arms. "Places where parties are held in actual houses instead of in the middle of nowhere surrounded by some stupid rocks."
She'd much preferred last week's party at the secluded part of the beach. The one and only thing she liked about Mystic Point was its proximity to the water. She loved the sound of the waves crashing on shore, the smell of salt water, the power of the ocean. But word had spread that the local cops had gotten wind of the underage drinking going on there and were going to increase their patrols of that area.
Which is how she ended up at some old quarry at the edge of town.
"If you hate it here so much, why don't you go back to Boston?" Nate's tone was snide, superior, as if he knew damn well why she was stuck here.
He thought he was better than her because he had a normal family, a mom who didn't spend all her time so strung out she barely remembered she even had a kid. A dad who not only acknowledged him, but spent time with him.
Jess's mom couldn't even say for sure which of her lowlife boyfriends had knocked her up.
Her hands curled. He was right. She did hate it here. And she hated Nate, too. Him and all his friends with their small-town attitudes and stupid cliques. They'd all heard about her pastnothing was sacred in a small town, after all. They'd discussed her. Judged her. And found her lacking. Even if she'd wanted to fit in, she'd never had the chance.
Several car headlights flashed twice then remained on, the brightness cutting through the trees. Jess squinted against the glare.
"What's the matter, Nate?" a male voice called. "Having problems performing?"
"Dude, I bet she knows all sorts of tricks to help with that," another guy yelled.
"She should," a girl added gleefully, "she's had enough practice. She spends more time on her back than her feet."
Laughter erupted and a moment later, the lights shut off. But not before she saw the grin on Nate's face. Saw how little he really thought of her.
With a low growl that, if she wasn't careful, could easily turn into a sob, Jess picked up his sweatshirt and threw it at his face.
He caught it before it could make contact. "What's your problem?" he asked. "They're just joking around."
"I don't have a problem." But everyone else did. They were too small-town boring and uptight. She started walking deeper into the woods.
He grabbed her arm, stopping her so fast, the entire world tilted. She clamped down on the urge to vomit.
"The party's this way," he said.
Once the trees stopped spinning, she jerked away. "Get off me." No one touched her unless she wanted them to, and he'd lost that right. "I'm leaving."
Her voice broke and she prayed he didn't notice.
"All right," he said slowly, as if trying to calm her down, "if that's what you want." This time, he reached for her hand. "Come on, I'll take you home."
She crossed her arms. "Why?"
He sighed heavily and glanced back at the party. "Because you're drunk and shouldn't be wandering around the woods at night."
"What's the matter? Afraid I'll die of exposure or get attacked by a wild animal and you'll be blamed?" Though she gave him plenty of time to deny it, he didn't. All he cared about was getting into trouble if something happened to her. "Go back to the party. I'm sure you're dying to tell everyone what a stud you are." She raised her voice. "But you might want to leave out the part about how it lasted a whole five minutes."
"Everyone was right about you," he said. "You really are a bitch."
Bitch. Slut. Loser. All names she'd been called before. Whoever said words couldn't cause pain had obviously never gone to high school.
"And don't you forget it," she said with her patented sneer. And she walked away.
This time, he let her go.
Good. She didn't want him chasing after her pretending he cared about whether she made it home safely or not. Oh, sure, he'd been all charm when he'd called and invited her to the party, had layered it on even more when she got there, flirting and joking around, but it'd all been an act. She wasn't sure who she was angrier with: him for not being different, for not living up to her hopeful standards.
Or herself for sleeping with him anyway.
She squinted at the narrow path cutting through the woods. If she kept walking, she'd end up in the clearing near the quarry's entrance.
Too bad the farther she got from the clearing and the fire, the darker it got, the trees seeming to have multiplied to cut off any and all light from the moon. But it still beat going back the way she and Nate had come. She knew what would happen if she rejoined the party. The girls would freeze her out with their bitchy comments and accusing glares, blaming her for giving the boys what they were too frigid to. The guys would exchange smirks and elbow nudges and Nate would end up avoiding her the rest of the night.
And she was too wasted, too emotionally messed up at the moment to pretend it didn't bother her.
She took out her phone and pressed the speed dial for Marissa, her best friend back in Boston. Holding it to her ear, she began making her way through the woods again, her steps unsteady, her head spinning.
"Come on," she muttered when Marissa didn't pick up. "Where are you?"
Despite her best efforts, tears streamed down her face. She angrily wiped her cheek with the back of her hand. Her toe caught on a tree root and she pitched forward. Her phone flew from her grip and she landed hard on the ground on her hands and knees.
Tears and snot dripped from her face as she fought to catch her breath. To not puke. Her palms stung, her head swam. She straightened her leg, felt material rubbing against her knee and realized she'd ripped a hole in her favorite jeans.
God, but this place sucked. She hated it here.
Patting the ground around her for her phone, she crawled forward. Something rustled behind her. She froze, holding her breath as she listened. When only silence surrounded her, she continued her search, inching forward along the forest floor, the sharp twigs scratching her.
"Shit," she whispered.
"You can say that again."
Her head jerked up and she fell onto her rear, squinted against the harsh glare of a flashlight. But she didn't need to see who had spoken, didn't need a light to know a cop stood before her. No, not just a cop, but Mystic Point's new chief of police.
"Hi, Uncle Ross," Jess said. Then she reared forward and threw up at his feet.