In a small town like Culler, South Carolina, you guard your secrets like you guard your cobbler recipe: with your life. Georgia Ann Monroe knows a thing or two about secrets: she
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Only three people in Culler, South Carolina, know that Will Montgomery is gay: Will Montgomery, God Almighty, and me. In a town as small as this one, that number could increase at any second and spread faster than the pox; bless his heart, but I don't think Will Montgomery — or anyone in the Montgomery family tree — would survive that news. The whole town would go to hell in a hand basket if anyone found out the golden boy was something other than expected.
If he keeps looking at Hayden Griggs like the piece of meat that every girl in town also thinks he is, then hell may come sooner rather than later. I know Will is not ready for that, so for his sake, I do what any proper Southern girl would do for her best friend: I clunk him in the head.
"Ow, Georgie," Will whines, rubbing the spot on the back of his head so his short blond hair ruffles slightly. "What was that for?"
"I did you a favor. You were fixing to ruin everything with your drooling."
"I'm not drooling." But he wipes his mouth anyway and yup, drool. I smirk to make a point. Straight or gay, staring at hot boys often leads to drool. They should come with warning labels. "I was only looking. Can't a guy look?"
I give him the side-eye. "Don't look at me that. You know I don't have a crow who you look at, but this is your secret."
He crosses his arms. I've been telling Will to come out for months.
We walk side by side through the others who have already gathered on the Newmans' farm for the End of the Year Party. Every year on the last day of school it's the same thing. We all hang out on Spencer Newman's farm and by the river that runs through it. The students from Haymont and Lane — the next two towns over that make Culler look like a big city — come, and everyone gets drunk on wine coolers and Budweiser. It's tradition to bring in summer, and it's the one time each year when the adults turn their heads to underage drinking.
I point toward a group of girls who notice Will as we walk by and wave. "If you want to keep it secret, you should look at one of them."
Will gives me the pouty stink eye. No one has perfected a better look in all of Holden County, and it's enough to make anyone in town stop in their tracks. But I'm immune to it. I've known Will Montgomery since before we were born, and he may have the stink eye down, but I've got plenty of my own charming tricks.
"Or, you know, you can tell them all right now," I say. It's my duty as his best friend to remind him of the possibility of freedom over and over and over.
He gives me the evil side eye. I already know what he's fixing to say. "Dale Westin."
Yup. If I had a dollar every time I was right, I'd be rich by now.
"You are not Dale Westin."
Will shakes his head and forces his eyes ahead. "No, I'm a Montgomery."
The Montgomery family is one of the founding families of Culler. They broke away with a few other families — the Lexingtons, Howells, and my family, the Monroes — and came here to this little stretch of land eighty miles from Charleston in 1809. It's not much to talk about, but it's home. In Culler, everyone knows everything about everyone, and you learn to embrace it or you let it eat you alive. That's what happened to Dale Westin, or so we think.
I'm an embracer, but Will? Not so much. If anyone here found out he was gay, he swears they'd run him out of town — like they did the Westins — not to mention the family disgrace that would follow. I think he's overreacting. Sure, they'd probably stare at him during town functions for a while and ask inappropriate questions, but he's a Montgomery. And even if he wasn't, everyone loves Will. I know it's more than that: he's not ready to tell them. Until he is, their reaction will never matter.
My phone buzzes, so I glance at it. A text from Momma. What do you think about gerberas?
Overdone, I text back.
"You made it," Shelby Kramer calls out.
I know it's her before we see her because the sound of desperation is unmistakable. She wraps her long arms around Will's neck, and her shorts ride up higher on her thigh. Any shorter and we'd be getting a butt-cheek show. She sees me then, as she pulls away from Will, her body falling back into her own space but her arms still totally lingering like she's staking claim. She doesn't say a word to me, and Will must notice it because his eyes do this crinkle thing when he's uncomfortable. Which is always around Shelby.
"Shelby, howdy there," he says. Will turns on the Montgomery charm like it's a switch. Maybe others can't tell — they spend so much time only seeing what they want — but I can. Smile lit up, eyes wider, focused in on one thing, tilt to his head. The Montgomery way. Granny used to say that family could charm their way out of a hornet's nest. Will, with his big baby blues, makes it look easy.
"Always good to see you, Will," Shelby Kramer croons his name. Yes, croons. She is not the queen of subtlety. No one in this town is, really, which is why I'm still shocked that in two years no one has found out about Will. "You too, I guess," she directs toward me.
She hates me, probably because I'm Will's best friend. Everyone in town has been betting on us getting married one day. We are the first generation to have a girl and boy that are the same age at the same time. The Montgomerys and the Monroes will be united at last. If only they knew. All of it makes me a target for Will's would-be suitors. Shelby Kramer is the main one.
Will bends down to grab a cup, and Shelby leans into him, making sure that her cleavage is perfectly placed in Will's face. I roll my eyes. Not only is it pointless, but also, she doesn't have much cleavage to speak of; most of it is upper boob that doesn't fit in her too-small bra. But bless her heart for trying.
Gag me. I spread on my best sugary smile. "I need to find Lyla," I say.
"I'll come with you," Will says, following me out.
Shelby frowns, and I know it's wrong to hate, God may shoot me down for it, but if I could hate someone then it would be her.
"Find me later. I'll save you a dance," Shelby calls out.
Will tips his head toward her, but we practically run away from the table. "Good luck with that," I say to Will when we're out of her sights.
"I know. Hide me from her."
"I can't do that, sorry. It's far beyond my powers." I avoid his gaze because I'm sure I will get an eyeful of puppy if I look at him.
My phone buzzes again. They're classic.
Classic yes, but there are other flowers that don't scream unoriginality.
"Momma, more opinions on the 'wedding of the year.'"
Any RSVP from Kerri Ann?
"Doesn't she know you're at a party?"
I laugh. "She doesn't care where I am."
Momma is the premier (read: only) party planner in Culler. She helps lead all the town events, but the Montgomery wedding is in August. Momma's been working on it since Drew Montgomery popped the question back in February. Lucky me, I get to be her right hand, her second in command, her assistant — a.k.a. do whatever she tells me no matter what, all summer long. It's not that I don't love a good party, I get that from her, and it's not even that I mind helping her, because I don't. But a Montgomery wedding is not a usual party. It's an event. No, it's the event. The whole Montgomery family tree comes back to town for it, and Momma is never so happy as when Montgomerys come to town — and they aren't even her family.
"Our whole house has turned into Drew Montgomery and Emma Claire Stanguard wedding central. I don't plan to see the dining room again until fall," I say. I also don't expect our house to be empty ever again, since the Montgomery clan will be traipsing in and out for two months.
Will laughs. "Your momma's the best. Granddad wouldn't even consider letting them pick anyone else. At least you don't have to live with all of them."
True there. Poor Will. Every room in the Montgomery estate will be full of people soon. A big change from the six people who usually live there. "When do they start coming?"
"I have no idea," he says. "I love my family, but it is going to be a long summer."
The beer is on the porch, and Will beelines there around me. I'm not really into beer so he gets me a solo cup of water.
Will hands me the cup and says, "Let's make a promise to each other."
"Aw, Will. You're sweet as a button, but I'm not saving my virtue for you."
He scoffs and rolls his eyes. "Keep your virtue. Let's promise to help each other make this the best summer."
Will takes a big gulp of his beer. His eyes scan the field then land back on me.
"Let's promise to do whatever we can to make this summer memorable. We'll go new places, get out of here when the family drives either of us crazy, and we'll go together. Like musketeers," he says.
We walk across the yard toward the bonfire, and I smile. "There are three of those."
My own comment makes me freeze. We used to be three a long time ago. I rarely let myself think about Beau Montgomery, but sometimes he pops up. He was such a part of my life that it's hard to completely forget. I reckon his being my first kiss and kind of boyfriend, the only secret I still keep from Will, and the first boy who broke my heart makes him hard to forget. In two years he hasn't set foot in Culler, not even for a visit. He and his momma left two summers ago, before the divorce, and they still haven't RSVP'd to the Wedding of the Year. No one really asks his dad, Hank, what happened or why; Beau and Kerri Ann are kinda this thing no one talks about, a skeleton in the proverbial closet. Still, I can't imagine him not being here for Drew's wedding.
Beau Montgomery. I don't even know if I want him here or don't want him here.
Will smiles. "Amigos."
"Fine!" Will says with a pause, "Like Harry Potter and Ron Weasley."
"And Hermione Granger." I hold up three fingers. "They are a set deal."
Will sighs. "Work with me here."
"Then count better, or stop using analogies."
He pauses, his face lighting up. "Starsky and Hutch, then. That's their names, right?" I shrug. "Bonnie and Clyde. Romeo and Juliet. Bert and Ernie. Batman and Robin. Peanut butter and jelly!" He's yelling by the end and I'm laughing.
"Good job!" I say, wiping some tears out of my eyes.
"Thanks. So you in, jelly?"
I freeze on the rim of my cup. "Why are you peanut butter?"
Will shrugs, this little smirk appearing on his face, and I know why all these girls want to love him. He's lovable, generous, but he's also handsome. Tall, strong jaw, short blond hair, puppy eyes, all sweet tea and Southern charm. How could anyone hate him for loving another person, even if that person is also a man?
"Because everyone loves me best."
I shake my head, but even I can't deny it. "I'm in."
His smile radiates. I know I gave him exactly what he wanted, but I usually do. There's not much I wouldn't do for him, whether it's as simple as promising a great summer or as major as giving him a kidney. For Will, I'd do it.
"Montgomery," one of the football guys yells. Will looks at them, then at me, and I nod. "Be right back," he says, and he runs over to the guys.
I sip my water and look around the farm. There's a good turnout tonight. I hear laughter and glance over my shoulder to see Haley Howell, Abby Thomas, and Lyla Perry coming my way. They — along with Shelby and me — are the rest of the Southern Belles. We are all in charm classes together, prepped for cotillion together, and will be announced in society together in December. Abby is the youngest, so we have to wait for her to turn sixteen. I don't think the world is ready for us to be thrust into it and declared suitable for marriage. If I had my choices, I'd be far from it. I don't mind the tradition, but I only agreed because Momma was sick and I wanted to make her happy. Now she's not sick, which is good, and I'm too far in it to quit, which is bad. At least the wedding will be keeping me busy so I don't have to do any of the Belle events, one perk of Momma being the committee head.
"That dress is amazing, girl!" Lyla says. She's always smiling, and I don't know how she does it all. Between the Belles, the Dean's List, and Humanitarian Club, you'd think an overachiever would fail at being friendly and social. Lyla makes it all look easy. She's pretty no-nonsense, which I like, and she knows who she is, which I admire. The first time I ever talked to her, one of the girls in English asked her if To Kill a Mockingbird was offensive to her as a person of color. Lyla had a long response about the black community in the novel and how instead a better question was to ask what we could learn about fighting discrimination with each other's support and the understanding of people like Atticus. After, I told her she was a better teacher than Mr. Brun and she smiled. She's been my closest friend of all the girls ever since.
"Yeah, you look really nice," Haley adds. She's the sweetest one out of all of us, even me. She once cried in third grade because a bee died after stinging her.
But then Abby looks me up and down. Abby is nice too, but the Belles are life for her. Life.
Before she says it, I know what she's thinking. Her eyes land on my feet — on my flip-flops — and her ears practically burn with steam like in the cartoons. Lord have mercy. I know she means well. She's like Momma in that way, but I am not like either of them.
"Where are your shoes?"
I happen to like sparkly flip-flops instead of walking around in death traps all day. Especially at a party in the dirt. Your heel gets stuck in the mud and it's all over. Trust me, I've done that before.
"Here you are, Georgie," Will announces, sneaking into our little circle. Perfect timing.
The other girls practically forget I'm there and look right at Will, all smiles and heys and hair flips. Except Lyla, who rolls her eyes. There's a moment when a girl is around Will where she turns into something else. It's instinct, hot Southern boy radar. They all do it.
"Will, as I live and breathe, I didn't know you were here," Abby says, her voice all sugar.
"We just got here a few minutes ago," Will says. "I had to help Georgie pick out her shoes." A small smile appears on his face.
Abby's face falls a smidgen, and then she smiles again. "Aren't they the cutest? I was telling Georgie that they were adorable."
Lyla sends me a look as she pulls up her long, black hair into a ponytail. She's maybe the only girl, aside from me, who's not into Will Montgomery. It could be considered a sign of the Second Coming.
"Aren't you happy school is over? I'm happy. I love summer," Abby says, her white teeth all too big under her molasses smile.
"Yeah, summer is pretty great, Abby." Then he turns to me. "Come with me to find the guys?"
"Sure," I say. I'm glad my best friend is there to save the day.
Did you check the RSVP email today?
Do it now, Georgia Ann. Every day. That's the rule.
I sigh as I type, I will. Kinda at a party here.
Will and I go toward the river, which for some reason is always where our friends tend to find themselves. I know the reason, actually. They're always looking for trouble.
"Montgomery!" Chris Howell's deep voice is hard to miss. Even when he's yelling he still sounds like an old man. "Get your ass over here!"
I'd much rather hang out with the guys than the Belles. With them, I know what I'm going to get. Growing up, aside from when I was forced to be with the girls, I was always with Will and Beau. Someone'd see one of us then they'd get the other two. That was how it was until Beau left. Boys are less complicated. At least when you're only friends with them.
As we walk I load up the email on my phone. The guys are sitting by the water, not too far from another keg. The party hasn't been going on that long yet because by the end of the night this whole area will be make-out central. It's what always happens. They start on opposite corners, make the rounds, and then they're coupled up everywhere. When the Lane and Haymont kids come, the options vary. Beau and I kissed at this party, and that was the beginning of it all for us. For that one summer anyway.
They're laughing when we reach them.
"What are we doing?" Will asks.
"Watching Reyes make an ass of himself. He said he could jump across that part of the lake," Spencer Newman says.
Excerpted from "The Sweetheart Sham"
Copyright © 2017 Danielle Ellison.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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