In her DJ booth at a Cleveland dance club, Casey feels a sense of connection that's the closest she ever gets to normal. On her college campus, she's reserved, practical--all too aware of the disaster that can result when you trust the wrong person. But inexplicably, Daniel refuses to pay attention to the walls she's put up. Like Casey, he's a senior. In every other way, he's her opposite.
Sexy, open, effortlessly charming, Daniel is willing to take chances and show his feelings. For some reason Casey can't fathom, he's intent on drawing her out of her bubble and back into a world that's messy and unpredictable. He doesn't know about the deep scars that pucker her stomach--or the deeper secret behind them. Since the violent night when everything changed, Casey has never let anyone get close enough to hurt her again. Now, she might be tempted to try.
"A refreshingly strong-willed and flawed heroine makes this layered page-turner memorable, and the soundtrack brings Casey and Daniel's absorbing courtship to life." – Publishers Weekly STARRED REVIEW
"NA fans will love this book about a physically and emotionally scarred Casey, whose story speaks louder than words. Her struggle to open up and step out from behind the DJ booth. . .is necessary in order to fully experience Helms' touching tale. This one's for readers everywhere, both on and off campus. An added bonus is the included playlist." – RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars
"SCRATCH is at once haunting, hopeful, and heartbreakingly tender. Readers will swoon for Daniel!" —Lexi Ryan, New York Times Bestselling Author
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
By Rhonda Helms
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Rhonda Helms
All rights reserved.
"Do you have that one new song by Dogface Thirty?" The girl tilted her overly tanned face and gave me a patronizing smile as she hollered up at me, one high-heeled toe tapping on the steps leading up to my booth. "I'm sure you've heard it. You know, where he says in the chorus, 'I wanna bounce your big—'"
"Yeah, I got it," I interrupted with a polite smile in return. I hated that song and its misogynistic, stupid lyrics, but that didn't matter. "I'll cue it up to play as soon as I can fit it in."
"You really should. People want to hear that one, and sooner rather than later. Oh, and here." She dug into her purse, flipped through a massive wad of cash, peeled off and tossed a single dollar bill on the corner of my equipment. Then she waggled her fingers and walked away, swaying hips encased in the tightest, shortest skirt I'd seen so far tonight.
"Thanks so much," I said to her retreating figure, fighting the urge to roll my eyes about her cheap tip. Oh, well—she didn't have to give me anything at all, so I guess it was better than nothing.
She either didn't hear me or didn't care about the edge of sarcasm in my tone, having disappeared back into the sweaty, raving crowd, which was currently tangled and dancing en masse to the deep, thrumming bass blasting out of my speakers.
I popped my headphones back on and transitioned to the next song, a dub-step that recently came out and was hitting the indie charts big-time. While a few of the club's patrons were full of themselves, like the lovely Oompa-Loompa chick, most of them were awesome and enjoyed my varied music mix. They would shimmy up to my table, drinks in hand and smiles on their faces, and toss me a ten just for playing a song they love. Being here made my weekend nights fly by.
And I had to admit, there was something hypnotic and empowering about being the person to bring dancers to a fevered pitch. Whenever I deejayed here and fed the crowd's craving for good music, we connected in a way. Something I didn't allow myself on campus or anywhere else. Up here I could watch them without actually being a part of their chaos.
I took a swig of the dregs of my lemon water, fanning my plain blue tank top to cool the streams of sweat slipping down my torso. Gently, so my shirt wouldn't pull out of my waistband and show my stomach scars. The Mask, one of the Cleveland area's most popular dance clubs, typically heated up fast due to being packed, but tonight it was warmer than normal. Only an hour into my gig and I was already dying in these clothes. Perhaps if my outfit were smaller and sheerer, like the other girls', I wouldn't be sweating like this. No way in hell was that gonna happen, though.
Justin, one of the bartenders, strolled over to me bearing a fresh glass of lemon water. "Here ya go, Casey," he said with a friendly smile. His red-tipped hair was styled to perfection, and he wore a slim-fitted black tee and skinny jeans. Smart guy, playing up his trim body—women came on to him all the time. He was gay, but had no problem flirting with anyone to get a bigger tip.
"Oh, you're psychic," I replied, tugging out an ice cube and rubbing it across the back of my neck. My hair was pulled up, but the thick tips of my ponytail clung to my wet skin. "It's extra hot in here tonight."
"Sal said the air conditioner is on the fritz." He snorted. "Let's see how long it takes him to get it fixed."
"Probably never." I chuckled. "He'll make more money off these people by keeping them sweaty and thirsty. Clever man."
When I'd answered the ad in the paper three months ago looking for a part-time DJ in an up-and-coming dance club close to my campus, Sal had instantly struck me as a savvy businessman. Short, squat and completely unapologetic for his brashness, Sal had taken one look at me, rubbed a thick hand over his bald head and said, "You're a DJ? Ain't you a bit young, sweetheart?"
Yeah, I looked younger than a freshly minted twenty-one-year-old, which made it hard for people to take me seriously. But when I'd assisted my older cousin John two years ago as he deejayed a distant relative's wedding, I was instantly hooked. I saved up my spare money for several months to buy my own refurbed equipment and music and started working with him regularly, doing parties and other gigs.
William had seen Sal's ad and encouraged me to give it a shot, though with the way Sal's eyebrow had crooked at me, I knew he was skeptical. So I'd looked Sal straight in the eyes and said, "I have an amazing music collection and I own my own equipment. I'm reliable, hardworking and I know music. If you want this club to be a success, fast, I can help you."
I had no idea where that had come from. Desperation? False bravado? I didn't know, but I wanted this job for some reason. Needed it. Enough to blow smoke up his ass and make myself sound amazing.
Sal had stared at me for a long moment, then laughed, clapping me on the back. "You ain't too bad, kid. We'll give it a trial run, see how it goes."
Three months later, I was still here.
A group of young women, wearing nothing more than tiny, stretchy dresses and wide smiles, stumbled into the club, arms thrust in the air and whooping loudly. They looked trashed already, and it was barely eleven. I hoped they wouldn't cause any drama. One girl had on a tiara and a sash—either she was getting married soon or it was her birthday. Odds were, one of her friends would come over and insist I had to put on an overplayed booty-grinding song just for her. Since they typically tipped the best, I accommodated their wishes as quickly as I could.
Justin came back over, a mysterious grin on his face and a light beer in his hand. He put the beer on my side table. "This is for you."
I squinted at him. "Uh, thanks, but you know I don't drink." Never while I was working and rarely any other time, even my nights off when I was at home. Drunk people lost control, said and did things they regretted.
"It's not from me." He nodded his head toward the bar. "One of the guys there bought it for you."
Someone had bought me a drink? I scanned the bar, looking over the crowd. So many people packed in there that I couldn't tell who it could be.
"Well, it was nice of you to deliver it personally," I said, giving him a wry smile.
He grinned back, winking boldly. "I wanted to see your reaction."
I knew why. No one ever bought me drinks. I didn't dress sexily, didn't flaunt my stuff or make myself front and center at the club. The music spoke for me, and I was happy that way.
But someone had noticed me anyway.
"He's really cute, too, by the way. If you don't want him, I do." Justin sauntered back toward the bar, waggling his fingers over his shoulder.
My heart thudded. I was flattered and uncomfortable at the same time. Who was my mysterious benefactor? Should I acknowledge it? Would it be rude to not do so?
My hand shook just a bit as I lifted the beer and nodded my head toward the bar. I couldn't see the guy, but I figured he could see me and my thanks. Then I took a tiny drink to be polite and put it back down on the table.
The next couple of hours flew by. Despite the growing heat, the club was packed and extra feisty tonight. A couple of girls in my business finance class had taken a break from the dance floor and came up to me to say hi, beer bottles in hand. I'd given them a polite smile in return and told them to let me know if there was anything they wanted to hear.
Break time. I needed a stretch and some fresh air, stat. I set up the mix CD to play through, gave a wave to Justin to let him know I was taking my break and slipped out the back door near my DJ booth. The air outside wasn't that much cooler than in The Mask, but a refreshing breeze slipped down the alley. I leaned against the warm brick, lemon water in hand, and sighed happily, taking a sip of my drink.
Normally the alley had a few smokers milling around and a couple of drunk people making out hot and heavy—not bothering to hide the sounds of their horniness—but no one was here right now, which gave me a moment of much-needed quiet. I took a deep breath and rolled my stiff neck.
Then a deep voice from about twenty feet away in a pitch-black part of the alley broke the silence. "Uh, is this spot taken?"
At the guy's voice, I nearly jumped out of my skin, sloshing my water all over my arm. I slipped my free hand to my back pocket and patted my pocketknife to make sure it was still there. I'd never had to use it, of course, but better safe than sorry—especially since no one else was around. "Who's there?" I was proud of the way my voice sounded smooth and confident, despite the tremor in my hands.
A tall, black-haired guy in faded jeans and a white T-shirt came out from the darkness, holding his hands up in front of him as a universal sign of nonaggression. I recognized him—he was in my philosophy class. Couldn't remember his name, but his green eyes struck me just as hard now as the day I'd first seen him in class two weeks ago. He'd cracked a couple of philosophical jokes with our professor that went over everyone else's heads, and they'd laughed for almost a minute, to the point of her practically wiping away an amused tear.
His odd sense of humor hadn't put off any girls, though—he'd already attracted two in our class who sat on either side and flirted nonstop. I sat right behind him, and despite my best efforts had noticed how broad his shoulders were, how nicely a T-shirt hugged his lean torso. I'd also noticed how piercing a girl's giggle could really get when she was in serious man-hunting mode.
The guy had a wry grin on his face as he stepped closer, stopping about ten feet from me. He ran a hand over his mess of black hair, and I could see the muscles in his arms flexing. "Sorry, didn't mean to scare you. It's hot as hell in there, and I ducked back here to cool off."
"Hot as hell out here too," I said cautiously, eyeing him. My upper lip beaded with moisture. I forced my shoulders to relax. He wasn't acting odd or anything, but I'd keep a close eye on him anyway.
He glanced at my water glass, the spilled liquid drying rapidly on my skin. "Sorry, I'd have sent something else to you if I'd known you weren't a beer fan."
My heart thudded in surprise. He'd sent me the drink? "Uh, thanks. But why buy me something at all?" I blurted out. God, I sounded so awkward. And unappreciative. I didn't want to give him the wrong idea about me, but I didn't need to be rude either. Grandma would have given me the evil eye for being so ungracious.
He crooked his head and a slow smile spread across his face. "Why not?"
I raised one eyebrow at him and pursed my lips, not really sure how to reply. Master flirter, I was not.
"You're Casey, right? We're in philosophy together," he said, tucking his hands into his back pockets and rocking back and forth on his feet. "I sit right in front of you, as a matter of fact."
I nodded, trying to ignore the way my heart rate kicked up a notch. So he'd noticed me too. For some reason, that realization made small tingles cascade across my flushed, damp skin.
"I've never met a DJ before. How do you pick what music to play?" he asked suddenly, sliding over to lean on the brick wall, facing me but not moving any closer. He crossed his arms in front of his chest as he studied me.
"Um, I ... do a mix of stuff I dig and stuff the crowd wants to hear. Mostly top-played songs that everyone knows, but also some B-sides and indie hits," I replied, feeling a bit too off-kilter to sound intelligent. The way he was staring at me openly, yet giving me patient space, threw me off.
Sure, I'd been hit on before—pretty much any woman with working female parts would get picked up in a bar by some guy at some point—but after a couple of minutes of clumsy conversation, the guys backed off, realizing I wasn't going to be an easy lay. This guy was different, though. He ignored my awkwardness, keeping his mood casual, nonthreatening.
My body relaxed a touch more.
"I liked that one song where the bass line was echoed by the keyboard, back and forth like a duel," he said. "Haven't heard it on the radio before."
My throat tightened for a second and my cheeks burned hot in a strange flush of pleasure. I knew exactly which one he was talking about.
It was my song.
This week I'd done something I hadn't dared try before. I slipped in one of my own compositions, a piece I'd worked on for weeks in my spare time. I'd loaded up another dance song just in case I needed to change it out due to poor crowd reception. But no one had seemed put off—they'd simply shifted their dance around the tempo and continued the musical foreplay on the floor.
The guy shoved off the wall and gave me a friendly nod. I noticed the well-worn Converse on his feet, and for some reason that made me smile. I had a pair of Chucks, too, stashed in my closet, in a neat row beside my other shoes. "I'd better head back in before my friends think I got my ass kicked in the alley or something," he said with a laugh.
I licked my lips. Sweat dribbled down my back, tickling my skin. "Uh, I have to also. Thanks again for the beer," I added.
He gave me that slow, wide grin again that flashed his bright teeth. Something about that smile made my breath hitch in my throat. Justin was right—this guy was really hot. Hot and unnerving. I didn't know what to make of him at all.
He turned around to leave.
"What's your name again?" I said to his back, embarrassed I had to ask but needing to know.
He paused his step and looked over his shoulder. "It's Daniel. See you in class on Monday, Casey." He stepped back into the dark, swallowed whole in the pitch-black early September night.
I took my half-empty glass and made my way back to my DJ booth. For the rest of the night, it took all my willpower to not look over at him with his group of friends by the bar.
In spite of my better judgment, I couldn't get him out of my mind.CHAPTER 2
I rubbed my forehead and smothered a groan as I stared at our class reading, unable to follow what the hell the text meant. Professor Wilkins had told us to quietly read the extended passage in our textbook on Nietzsche's concept of the Ubermensch and write a response on if that idea was relevant or irrelevant in today's culture.
Far too much thinking for a nine a.m. class. I made a mental note to start drinking a shot or twelve of espresso in the morning. Even if I didn't understand our class discussions, I'd at least be awake.
In front of me, Daniel hunched over his desk, wearing a dark green shirt, his back muscles flexing. I could hear his pen scratching away as he flew in his writing. Obviously he understood what our professor wanted. Even the two girls who sat on both sides of him were writing, though I had serious doubts it was about the class work.
I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, rereading the passage, one sentence at a time. The class was just fifty minutes long, and there were only a few minutes left. My heart started to pick up a stuttering beat as negative thoughts crammed in my mind. If the material was this hard to understand just a couple of weeks in, how would it be in two months, when we were neck-deep in philosophical concepts and theories? Could I keep up? Yeah, I could drop it and take another elective next semester, but it would throw me off my master schedule. I was determined to stick it out.
"Please finish up your journal entry, and make sure to type it at home and bring it with you Wednesday," Professor Wilkins said from behind her desk, pointedly ignoring the low groan that came from a few rows behind me. She closed her notebook and started putting away her massive stacks of paper into a large woven bag. The fabric matched the pattern of her patchwork black and red skirt. As usual, she kept her wiry hair long and thickly braided down her back. I'd bet she had more hand-dyed peasant shirts in her closet than a Renaissance festival.
Excerpted from Scratch by Rhonda Helms. Copyright © 2014 Rhonda Helms. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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