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CHAPTER ONE Hadley
His hand is warm on my bare back. Soothing. I bite the inside of my cheek to stop myself from leaning into it. Perched on the edge of the bed, I squint through the darkness and spot my shirt on the floor over the air vent, billowing up like a sheet drying in the wind. I slip it over my head and shiver, the cotton icy against my skin. His hand and the warmth vanish, along with any desire I had to remain in this room for longer than it’ll take me to get from the bed to the door. “Are you sure you don’t want to stay a little longer?” Josh asks as I stand up. He props himself up on his elbows, his long body still sprawled across the bed. Party sounds filter upstairs and under the closed door, the steady unst, unst of the music pumping its way through beer-thick laughter. In response, I toss him his shirt, straighten my still-buttoned jeans, smooth my hair. “C’mon, Hadley.” His words blend into a soft slur as he drapes his shirt over his lap. I crack open the door. “So, um, this was fun . . .” My voice trails off as the hallway light blazes into my eyes, bringing me back to reality. “Hello? Name’s Josh. I’m in your English class.” I turn to face him, his close-cropped hair coated bronze in the dim light. He tilts his head at me, his full mouth open a little, like he really can’t believe that I’m going to leave him here, half-naked and blue-balled. I force my lips into a smile. The one that pulled him toward me from across the room an hour earlier and had him whispering into my hair within ten minutes of hello. “I know your name.” And then I leave. Alone in the hallway, I press my back against the door, my fingers gripping the handle, and close my eyes. I take a deep breath and wait for all the pleasantly blurred lines to sharpen again. I can still feel his fingers on my face, caressing it like he actually cared. Like I actually cared. As always, it’s a nice illusion. A break from the normal chaos going on in my head. I know it’ll all come rushing back later, when I’m lying in my bed, staring through the dark at the ceiling in my perpetually silent house, but for now, it’s nice to feel a hint of calm. Down the hall, the bathroom door opens and Sloane Waters steps out in a denim skirt and a white top so sheer I can see the lace edging of her black bra. She freezes when she spots me, her top lip curling as if she smells something bad. Sloane had it in for me before I even officially met her. At her infamous back-to-school party a month ago, I made out with Isaac Jorgenson. Granted, Isaac was her ex and we might have ended up in her bedroom, but they broke up a year ago and she’s dated half the football team since then. Sloane’s narrowed eyes roam over my rumpled hair and wrinkled shirt. I feel my cheeks warm, but I pull my expression into one of indifference and brush past her. She’s mercifully and unusually silent. As I pass, I get a whiff of her grape bubblegum smell, so cloying I nearly gag. Downstairs, I swim through the sea of writhing bodies and into the living room of some guy whose name I can’t even remember. The music is so loud that I feel like it’s coming from inside my skull. Despite the crowd, Kat manages to find me seconds after I surface. “So?” she asks. Her breath smells like orange Tic-Tacs. She slips a blue plastic cup into my hands. “No, thanks.” I push the cup away, but she shoves it back with an eye roll. “Lighten up. I’m not trying to get you drunk so I can have my way with you. It’s just water.” I pinch her arm and she swats at me. The water is cool and clean and washes away Josh’s lingering taste of beer and spearmint gum. We make our way to the edge of the huge living room where it opens up into the kitchen. I lean against the wall and drain my cup, my heart rate finally slowing after having Josh’s lips on my neck. “So?” Kat asks again. She tucks her short blond hair behind her ears and takes a sip from her beer. A couple squeezes past us, the guy’s hands on the girl’s curvy hips. Kat presses into me as if she’s afraid she might catch something. “So what?” I look at her arched eyebrows. Kat was born and raised in Woodmont. We’ve been best friends since we were twelve and met in the swim class my dad taught. We’ve always lived a town apart until a few months ago, when my parents convinced themselves that a change of scene would help untie the massive tangle that is our family. They truly believed the move from Nashville to suburban Woodmont for my senior year would make the whole thing easier and bring my father’s little girl back from whatever pit I had banished her to. Four months later, Kat is still the only flower on the crap pile that is my new life. “You’re not going to tell me anything? Come on, Josh Ellison? He’s cute. He’s supposed to be the best third baseman the school has had in, like, a decade.” “Really.” “Yes. God, Hadley. Don’t you know anything about him?” “I know he plays baseball.” I move my eyes around the room, tucking its inhabitants into neat little boxes. Seventeen girls, eleven boys. Sweaty, scruffy, clean-cut. Bored, nervous, horny, drunk. My gaze lands on Matt Pavers, Josh’s best friend. He lifts an eyebrow at me and I look away, tugging my shirt lower over my hips. “Do you like him?” She sticks out her forefinger, counting. “Henry was too cocky, Isaac was too Ivy League–obsessed and wore argyle socks and was, well, pretty much still Sloane’s. And Jeremy was . . . what? Didn’t he smell like soup or something?” “Pot roast.” My correction slams into her granite stare. I cross my arms over my chest, my empty cup dangling from my forefinger, and shrug. “What? It was like kissing him right after he downed Grandma’s Sunday dinner.” “So do you like Josh?” I release a breath. “No, Kitty Kat. I don’t like him.” “What’s wrong with him? He’s nice.” “And a total player.” “Well, yeah, I guess so, but—” “Liking him isn’t the point.” “Here we go.” She snorts and then coughs and I bite back a laugh. She’s never been good at disdain, no matter how heartfelt. “Well, what if he likes you?” “I doubt it. Josh Ellison stores his brain in his pants. He isn’t the dating type.” At least, I don’t think he is. Since everything in my life went to crap, I haven’t exactly been on the prowl for heart-fluttering romance. I would have sworn off guys altogether, but there’s something about the way they look at me right before they lean in to kiss me. Head tilted, eyes fixed on mine, thumb swiping across my cheek. It reels me in every time. I would hate myself if it weren’t so damn therapeutic. Plus, it’s not like I’ve ever let anyone beyond second base. In the past six months, there have only been a few guys, but whenever Kat talks about it, she turns into her mother and starts blah-blah-blahing about control issues and daddy issues and vulnerability issues and trust issues. Her mouth forms a neat little knot, her tongue running over her teeth the way she does when she’s trying to figure something out. After all, she was friends with the old Hadley. The old Hadley believed in romance and lasting love. Craved it, would wait a lifetime for it, same as Kat. The new Hadley knows better. “Have you seen Rob?” I ask, to change the subject. She tries to resist. The battle between her quest for my rehabilitation and shameless drooling over her five-year-long crush wages in her face. Eventually a grin presses dimples into her cheeks. “I saw him while you were upstairs. He smiled at me. Can you believe it?” “And?” She puts her cup to her lips but doesn’t drink. Even in the dim light, I can see the crimson spilling into her face. “And what?” “Kat, just go talk to him.” “I can’t. He was playing pool with his swim buddies, and besides, what would I say? ‘I think you’re gorgeous and I’ve loved you since the first day of seventh grade when you walked me to the cafeteria because I got lost’?” I shrug. “Might be a bit too subtle. I’d go for ‘I think you’re a god and I want to bear your children.’” She smacks my arm and laughs. “Or better yet,” I say. “How about ‘Hi. Great party. Nice job on the four hundred IM last week. Wanna dance?’” “Oh, God, I can’t ask him to dance.” “You can and you should.” I try to nudge her forward a little, but she angles out of my reach. “You can’t just wait around for some grand gesture, Kat.” She shakes her head. “I’m not like you, Hadley. I want more than five minutes of feeling special.” My jaw nearly hits the floor. Kat focuses on her cup, picking at a snarled piece of plastic on the rim. Before I can question her, tense voices, sharp and high-pitched, rise up behind us. Kat and I turn and see Sloane and Josh arguing in the kitchen. Josh’s brows bunch together and Sloane gestures wildly. Jenny Kalinski stands between them, biting her bottom lip, her dark pixie hair framing her petite features. I watch Josh shake his head and try to pull Jenny toward him. Sloane pushes his chest, her face contorted. My breath catches when I hear my own name wedged in between some foul words. Josh flinches and rakes his hand down his face. He grabs a beer from a nearby cooler before stumbling out the back door onto the porch. A sick feeling settles into my stomach. I run the pad of my thumb over each of my fingertips, one by one. I watch Jenny try to follow Josh. Index finger. Sloane grabs Jenny’s arm and stops her. Middle finger. Sloane’s red glare takes flight and lands on me. Ring finger. “Uh-oh,” Kat says, her eyes wide on the scene. “Hadley?” I don’t respond, but stiffen my spine as Sloane crosses the room, Jenny in tow. Pinkie finger. I gulp down my surprise as Sloane gets in my face. She’s so close, her features blur together into one snarling mess. I step away, my back hitting the wall. “God, Sloane. What the hell?” “Running out of single guys, Hadley?” she asks. “What do you think you’re doing with Jenny’s boyfriend?” Jenny and I lock eyes. Hers are red and watery and huge, like an ingénue in an old silent film. The effect is so familiar, something knots up in my chest. I force a dry heave down my throat and push myself off the wall, straightening my shirt. “Her boyfriend? Since when?” “Since whenever we say, bitch.” We’ve attracted the attention of half the room, all the conversation replaced with laughs and wide-open stares. Sloane either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. Her green eyes are unflinching on mine, and I struggle to school my expression. “Oh, let me guess,” she says. “You had no idea they were together.” “No. I didn’t,” I say, battling to keep my voice even. I try to focus on steadying my heart rate, the hardness of the floor beneath my feet, the feel of my nails digging into my palms. It’s no good. All I can think about are dozens of tiny papers fluttering in the wind, my mother’s silence and her mouth an open circle of shock, my father dragging his hands through his hair. “Yeah, right.” Sloane shoves my shoulders. Jenny winces when I smack the wall, but still says nothing. My chest constricts, ready for her to yell at me, say anything to me, but she just stares at her feet. Kat slips her hand into mine. “Sloane, calm down. Hadley really didn’t know.” “Stay out of this, Pussy.” I feel my best friend shrink next to me as Sloane spits out Kat’s horrible nickname from middle school. “Why don’t you stay out of it, Sloane?” I say. “How is this even about you?” She leans in close, her fruity smell twisting my stomach. “It’s about me because I’m about Jenny. No one effs with—” “Whatever,” I snap, turning away from her. Jenny watches me, her expression a mix of sadness and curiosity and simmering anger. “Jenny, I didn’t . . .” But my voice trails off into the music, into the blood roaring through my ears. Do you have a girlfriend? A beat. Heavily lidded eyes on mine. No. I let him kiss me. His mouth was warm, gentle. A relief. Are you sure? I think I’d remember. “Look,” I say, letting my anger take over. It’s fiery cold and numbing, like snow blanketing a volcano. “Your problem is with Josh. He told me he didn’t have a girlfriend, so he’s the asshole here, not me.” Jenny’s mouth falls open, but Sloane gets in my face again. “You’re done, St. Clair.” Then she grabs Jenny’s hand and stalks off through the gawking crowd. “Oh. My. God,” Kat says, pressing her hand to her chest. Everyone resumes dancing and talking and sucking up all the oxygen in the room. “Jenny and Josh? I had no idea they were together. Must be super recent.” I swallow hard, but it gets stuck. “I need some air.” She frowns and squeezes my shoulder. “Hey, I bet no one will remember this by Monday. Josh is a jerk, so what? Jenny didn’t even look mad.” “I just need some air.” I push through the crowd and make my way out the back door, ignoring the whispers that follow me. I walk quickly through the expansive yard, littered with blue and red plastic cups. When I hit the woods at the back of the property, I break into a run. I run until I’m out of breath and my head aches and the sounds from the party have faded behind a fortress of trees. I stop at a huge oak tree and press my palms against the cool, rough bark. My eyes spill over as I turn, sliding down the trunk until I hit the ground. The October night air is cool and thick. Leaning my head against the bark, I look up into the dense leaves and try to breathe normally. Something red and diamond-shaped is caught in the gnarly branches. A kite maybe. Minutes pass and with each one some guy’s face blooms in my memory. Guys I barely knew except through Kat or from my old neighborhood swim team. Guys who really meant nothing to me. I wrap my arms around knees, pulling myself in further and further. I drop my head onto my arms, breathing in the earthy, damp smell of the ground below me. I shiver, but it has nothing to do with the cold. Instead, my own anger and embarrassment pull goose bumps from my skin, exposing them to the wind. I always ask the guy if he has a girlfriend. Always. And I’ve trusted myself to be able to sniff out a lie. I’ve had enough experience with lying assholes, that’s for sure. Jaw clenching, I push myself to my feet and make my way back to the house. I run again, nerves and anger coursing through my veins, surging me forward. The back deck is packed when I jog up the steps. Music blasts out of the open door, and bodies move in its rhythm. I elbow my way through the crowd, my eyes searching for Josh. “Hadley!” Kat calls, edging through a clump of dancing girls. “Have you seen him?” “Who?” “Josh-I’m-a-lying-jackhole-Ellison.” She frowns. “I saw him leave with some guys from the team.” “Dammit!” I shove my hands through my hair and slump down onto the rough wooden bench that encircles the deck. A lip-locked couple bumps into Kat, propelling her forward. She shoots them a halfhearted dirty look and sits next to me. “Why do you want to talk to Josh?” “I just do.” Kat shakes her head and sighs heavily. “Just let it go, Had. He’s a jerk, but it’s done. Let it go.” I dig my nails into my jeans, but say nothing. Let it go, Hadley. Those words are in every look my dad gives me, every irritated sigh issued from my mother’s lips. Every wary glance from Kat. Kat says something about making her curfew. We weave through the crowd and into the house, making our way toward the front door. In the living room, I see Jenny balled into one corner of the love seat, knees tucked to her chest. Our gazes lock and she shakes her head slightly before looking away. Just get over it, Hadley.