Chapter One

Gideon

“Why did I agree to come here?” I grumble as I look around the crowded room. This party is like a hundred others I’ve been to since I was fourteen and figured out how to boost a ride from dear old dad’s garage. The music is marginally better since the frat sprang for an actual DJ, but the beer is mediocre and so are the pills.

“Because there’s free booze and hot women. What other incentive do you need?” Cal Lonigan, one of my swim teammates, answers.

“It was a rhetorical question.”

“Did you look at those babes? You either have a half-chub or it’s dead in your trunks. There’s a dozen reasons standing right over there.” Cal waves his beer bottle toward a group of girls.

They all look the same to me. Big blown-out hair, skimpy dresses, and shoes that lace up around their ankles. I think my stepsister had a name for them. Roman sandals? Greek sandals? Shit, do I really care?

No. No, I do not. I gave up on caring a while back.

I hand Cal my beer. “Pass.”

“Pass?” he echoes incredulously. “What about her? The Asian in the corner is a gymnast. I hear she can bend into a pretzel.”

Since when do we want to screw pretzels? “Hard pass.”

“I’m worried about you, man.” He raises the bottle in front of his mouth, I guess to prevent all those lip readers from figuring out what he’s going to say. “Word in the water is that you haven’t dipped your bucket in anyone’s well for a long time. Are you suffering permanent shrinkage?”

I open my mouth to explain to Cal that is not a thing but then decide against it. He was exposed to too much chlorine as a baby and it’s messed with his mental processes. You can’t hold that against him. “It’s a good thing you swim well and you’re pretty, Cal.” I pat him on the back.

“You think I’m pretty,” he squeaks. Eyes wide, he glances around to see if anyone heard. “Look, dude, you’re a handsome fella, too, but you know I don’t swing that way, right?”

“Right,” I drawl. “Anyway, I’m outta here. This party is—”

And that’s when I see her.

Her dark hair is flat-ironed, which I know from past experience takes her an hour to do. Her face is painted into sharp lines with smoky sweeps near her blue eyes and points at the top of her cupid bow lips. It’s the mask she’s worn since she dumped me. The one that says she’s mad at the world and is ready to take it out on some poor sap.

I don’t know how many guys she’s screwed since she told me that she was going to hurt me the same way I hurt her, but I know she hasn’t enjoyed it even once. How can she when her body belongs to me, like mine belongs to her?

“Who’s the honey you’re staring at?” Cal asks curiously.

“Touch her and you die, Lonigan,” I growl.

Then I stalk off to find out what Savannah Montgomery is doing in this hellhole frat house when she should be destroying the dreams of freshmen at Astor Park Prep.

Some Sigma gets to her before I do. He plants an elbow above her head and tries to dry hump her before she can get out of the entryway.

I grab him by the shoulder. “Your brother Paul’s looking for you.”

The polo-shirted, bland-faced asshole blinks at me. “Paul?”

“Peter maybe? Parker? He’s this tall.” I wave my hand somewhere around my chin. “Has blond hair.”

“You mean Jason Pruitt?”

“Must be.” I give the guy a not-so-gentle shove away from Savannah.

“I gotta take care of this.” The asshole winks at my girl. “But keep the place beside you warm. I’ll be back.”

“Who’s brother Paul?” a voice beside me says.

Dammit, Cal. I whip around. “What are you doing?”

“I had to see what caught the mighty Gideon Royal’s attention.” He sticks out his giant paw toward Sav. “Cal Lonigan. Call me Long.”

She takes his hand and holds it far longer than I’d like. “Long? Is that one of those nicknames where it describes the opposite of reality?”

I grit my teeth. It’s a miracle I have any enamel there left. I’ve been grinding those back molars together since we met.

“Nah. Complete truth in advertising. Royal can vouch for me. We’re on the swim team together.” He bends down to kiss her fingers. “Now, princess, where can I take you so that I can show you how real my nickname is?”

“She’s underage,” I blurt out.

“I am not, you asshole.” Sav jerks her hand away. “I’m eighteen. And sixteen is the age of consent in this state, as you know very well.”

“Go away, Cal.” I refuse to call him Long. “This one’s mine. You know the rules.”

Savannah glares daggers at me. “I’m not yours.”

Cal sighs. “Fine. Fine. But the next one, I’m calling dibs on.”

I don’t take my eyes off of Sav. “You do that.”

“I’m not a piece of meat, Gideon,” she snaps at me. “You can’t just tag me like I’m a turkey during a hunt.”

I ignore this complaint because something far more important needs to be answered. “What are you doing here?”

She smiles, but it looks pained. “I’m on a college visit. I’m thinking of attending State.”

Half of me rejoices. The other half revolts. I already hate myself—do I really need to see a reminder of why I’m a miserable human being following me around campus? No. I don’t.

“Don’t you think it’ll be painful for you to attend the same college as me?”

“Why?” she asks coolly. If I didn’t know her so well, I might’ve been fooled, but there’s a flicker of hurt behind the steel in her eyes.

“We both know why. We’ll kill each other.” No matter how much distance or how many bodies we put between us, there’s still a draw. We can’t deny our past and our connection no matter how hard we try. But, when we come together, we cause each other immeasurable pain.

“I’m already dead. You should know. You’re the one who stuck the knife in my heart.” She pushes by me, a wave of sultry heat and crushed magnolias, and is soon swallowed by the mass of students mashing their sweaty bodies against each other.

“Bro, I don’t think she likes you much.” My teammate appears behind me, a dry look on his face.

“You’re a real student of human behavior, Cal.”

“Just sayin’. Where’d you first kill her? If you don’t mind me asking?”

“Where else?” I answer, searching for her, but it’s too dark and she doesn’t want to be found. “High school.”

•••

Three years ago

“Savannah was this awkward middle-schooler,.“Braces. Kind of weird hair. She comes into tenth grade totally changed. Gid took one look at her and slapped his name on her ass.” – Easton Royal, Paper Princess.

 

“Last year, G-man. We’re going to kill it,” Hamilton Marshall III, better known as Three, shouts from the sunroof of my XXXCAR.

His girlfriend, Bailey, tugs on his jeans-clad leg. “Sit down, you fool. You’re going to decapitate yourself.”

He lowers himself from the sunroof reluctantly. “I’m only sitting down because I feel bad for you, babe. If my head did get lobbed off, you’d be tormented for the rest of your days and I don’t want that for you. You, too, G-man.” He reaches over the backseat to pat my shoulder.

Beside him, Bailey snorts. “Ha! You wish. Gideon and I would console each other and forget you ever existed.”

“Say it ain’t so, G-man.” Three slaps a dramatic hand across his chest. “You wouldn’t do a man dirty like that.”

“Does the bro code extend to the grave?” I’m only joking. I’d cut my hand off before I’d touch Three’s girl.

“I got you, boo,” my brother Reed says to Bailey from the passenger seat. He’s so lazy he can’t open his eyes or lift his head from the padded rest.

“No way. The bro code exists even in heaven where I’ll be watching all three of you.” Three points two fingers at his eyes and then waves them toward the front.

“So you’re saying you’d want the love of your life and your best friend to be miserable for their entire lives because you were stupid enough to stick your head out of the sunroof when said best friend is driving eighty?” Bailey asks.

“Ninety,” I correct.

“Ninety,” she repeats.

Three frowns. “That’s not what I said.”

Reed smirks.

“Then you would want us to be comforting each other. You’d want Gideon to be giving me the best orgasms of my life because you want the best for me.”

I hide a grin. Bailey carries Three’s balls around in her Prada messenger bag.

“Bzzztt. Timeout.” Three makes a T sign with his hands. “I draw the line at you getting great orgasms from my best friend, even if I am dead. I’m not going to be enjoying my afterlife if you’re done here getting the big D from big G.”

Okay, maybe only one sack.

“A stranger’s better?”

“Definitely. Which means Reed is out of the running, too.”

Reed waves a finger of acknowledgment in the air.

“You should hook up with someone, Gideon. It’s safer,” Bailey tells me.

“How so?”

“First, because then you’re not stirring a big giant pot of competition. It’s bad enough that Easton’s now at Astor. The three of you are making it hard for the female population to get anything done. Second, it’s healthier to be in a relationship. No worry about STDs or some girl poking holes in a condom. Right, Three?”

“Right, babe. Bailey’s been on birth control for a year now.”

“Most girls are,” says Reed, still not bothering to open his eyes.

“What about Abby Wentworth?” Three suggests.

“Ugh, no.” Bailey protests.

“What’s wrong with the Wentworth girl?” I ask, glancing over at Reed. He’s the one who’d been hanging out with her at Jordan Carrington’s party a couple of weeks ago. “She seems nice.”

“Of course she seems nice to you. She’s one of those girls who is always sweet and kind around the guys, but you catch her alone and she’s petty and manipulative.” Bailey screws up her nose. “Worse, a girl sounds terrible for even complaining about her. Like we’re jealous of her or something.”

Three grabs the side of Bailey’s head and pulls her in for a kiss. “Don’t worry, babe. You’ve got nothing to be jealous of.”

“I know that,” Bailey says, patting his head like he’s a good dog. “What about Jewel Davis? She’s genuinely decent.”

“Sounds boring as hell,” Reed replies.

I gotta agree with that. “I don’t want to date someone my senior year. It makes separations too complicated.”

“Ugh. Fine.” She pulls out of Three’s hand and crosses her arms.

Three throws me a plea of help. He hates it when she’s pissed off. Sighing, I ask, “What’s the plan for tonight?”

Bailey perks up. “Let’s meet at Rinaldi’s at nine and get ice cream.”

“Fine.”

“I’m busy,” Reed says.

Busy, my ass. He’s probably going down to the docks to fight.

“I’ll be there,” I assure Bailey before Three sends me another pitiful look.

Bailey grabs her phone and starts sending out text alerts to all her friends. “Any particular requests? Emilia, Sasha, Jeannette?”

“Isn’t Jeanette dating Dan Graber?” Three says. “I saw the two of them sucking face at Conner Mill’s party over at the pier last week.”

“Really? I had no idea.” She makes a notation in her phone. “How about the Montgomery girls?”

“Girls? I thought there was only Shea, and no thanks.” I shudder.

“What’s wrong with Shea?” Bailey asks.

“She runs with Jordan Carrington. I’d rather cut off my dick than stick it in anyone on her crew.”

“I had no idea you felt that way about Jordan. I mean, I think she’s a snake in the grass, but I didn’t realize that men saw anything but her perfect tits and ass.”

“Hey, what about me?” Three protests. “I was the one who told you about how she felt me up in PE. I’m still traumatized.”

Three’s six-five and built like a brick house. Him being scared of little Jordan Carrington is a joke. He’s going to Louisville on a full-ride football scholarship. Bailey, of course, is enrolled as well. She’s got to protect her investment.

“That’s why you have me, baby.” She pats his shoulder. “Okay, back to the invite list. Yes or no on the Montgomerys?”

“Yeah, whatever. I don’t care.” It doesn’t mean I’m going to sleep with any of these girls. “Invite whoever you—”

And that’s when I see her.

 

Chapter Two

Savannah

 Three Years Ago

As the black Range Rover swings into the school parking lot, I clutch my sister’s arm.

“Ouch, you’re hurting me,” she cries, and jerks out of my grip.

I nearly fall over. Hurriedly, I straighten up. “He’s coming,” I hiss, smoothing down my hair.

Shea pulls my hand away. “What did I tell you this morning? Play it cool. Gideon Royal has girls throwing themselves at him a hundred times a day. If you want to stand out, you have to act like he doesn’t exist to you, otherwise you’ll be one of the masses begging for crumbs.” She sighs. “God, this is so embarrassing.”

“Then leave,” I retort out of the side of my mouth. Having her stand here and criticize me is doing very little for my weak self-esteem.

“I can’t leave you. I have a reputation to uphold, and I’m not going to let you bring me down.” She shoves her arm through mine. “Now smile so everyone thinks the Montgomery family loves each other.”

“We do love each other, you dumbass. Besides, I’m going behind the cameras, not in front of them,” I point out, reminding her of my directing and writing ambitions.

“Whatever.” But she squeezes herself closer to me, and that unspoken encouragement brings my anxiety level down to a bearable level.

Gideon’s driving, as he always does. Reed’s with him today, but I don’t know the two in the back.

“Who’s with Gideon?” I ask.

“Three and his girlfriend, Bailey,” Shea says through a fake smile as she waves to a group of girls to our left. She exchanges air kisses and light hugs with a couple of them—nothing too close, or the clothes will be mussed and the makeup will be smudged.

I get it now, though. This morning, I spent an hour applying about a thousand layers. My lips alone have three different colors on them. Gradient is in, Shea told me. I watched a YouTube video on repeat for five hours to get this effect. Self-consciously, I rub my lips together, which earns me a sharp nudge in the side.

“You’re going to ruin your lipstick,” my sister murmurs.

I pop my lips apart.

“Now you look like a fish.”

I slam my lips shut.

Shea sighs. “This is never going to work. Oh, crap.”

“What?” I look down at my uniform. Do I have a stain? Are my knee socks crooked?

“No. Fish bait to your right. Smile,” she orders. “Morning, Jo! Tali!”

“Shea!” Two girls run up, their high heels clicking smartly on the pavement.

“Jo! I love your coat. Is it…J. Crew?” Shea asks, her fake smile turned up to eleven.

Tali and I gasp at the insult.

Jo’s eyes narrow. “Have you been spending so much time with the casuals that you don’t recognize a decent label anymore? This is Fendi!” She grabs Tali by the wrist. “Let’s go. I don’t like walking near the trash bins.”

Jo stomps off, dragging Tali behind her.

“What was that all about?” I ask. The skirmish was over nearly before it started, and I don’t know who had the upper hand.

“Heads up. Target is incoming,” Shea answers. “And that was about getting rid of the competition. Jo’s been wanting in Gideon’s pants since she learned what a penis was.”

“Oh. Um, thank you?” I guess my sister won. What a strange battle.

She sniffs delicately. “You want to catch the big shark? You have to get rid of all the lures.” Then she waves a hand to greet Gideon. “Morning—”

But a girl reaches the Royals before Shea can grab Gideon’s attention.

“Oh, God, not her,” Shea mutters in disdain.

‘Not her’ is Jordan Carrington. If Astor Park, or as I like to call it—Asshole Park—is full of predators, Jordan is one of the biggest threats around. Shea told me that on the second day of school, Jordan picked a fight with one of the most popular senior girls, Heather Lange. The two got into it, hurling insults that made me cringe and I wasn’t even there.

Heather Lange left Astor after Thanksgiving and never came back. I guess her dad lost his job and couldn’t afford the tuition. I didn’t connect Jordan with Heather’s departure, at least not until the weird lecture my dad gave to Shea and I about being nice to Jordan Carrington.

Why? I remember asking.

Because she’s a vengeful little snot and has her old man wrapped around her finger.

Since then, Shea’s sucked it up and pretends like Jordan walks on water, so there’ll be no shade thrown toward Jordan’s clothes, handbags, or shoes. And definitely no interrupting the piranha’s attack on the Royal boys.

“Morning, Gid, Reed,” she sings.

“What a bitch.” Shea grabs my wrist again and starts to drag me off. “Let’s go.”

I dig my heels in. “No. Why?”

“There’s no point in challenging Jordan. Let it all shake out and see which Royal she cuts loose.”

“No.” I twist free. “I’m not interested in any Royal. I want Gideon.”

Shea stomps back. “This isn’t a restaurant. You don’t get to go in and order one of them off the menu.”

I glare at her. “Isn’t that what Jordan’s doing? Deciding which of the Royals she wants?”

“You’re not Jordan.”

“Damn right I’m not, but I didn’t get up at five this morning and spend two hours flat-ironing my hair and putting makeup on just to give up before I even get a chance to introduce myself.” I cross my arms over my chest.

Shea heaves a great, put-upon sigh. “Fine, but if Jordan comes after you, I don’t know you.” Then she lifts her chin, tugs on the bottom of her blazer and pastes her best country-club smile on her face.

“You look like you’re at a Miss Bayview contest.”

“Shut up and smile, dummy,” she says without moving her lips. “They’re moving our way.”

I twist around and nearly fall over. She’s right. Gideon’s only a few yards away. Close enough that I can admire the fit of his T-shirt underneath the unbuttoned dress shirt and uniform blazer.

Three’s saying something to him that he finds amusing. The side of his mouth is quirked up. Three’s girlfriend slaps him across the arm. Gideon hides his laughter by bringing a hand up to his nose, but Bailey hears him chuckle and delivers a light slap. Gideon grabs her and pulls her under his arm.

“God, she’s so lucky,” I sigh.

“Yup,” Shea agrees.

We both watch as Three wrestles Bailey away from Gideon, saying something in mock anger as Gideon raises his hands up innocently. The whole time, Jordan’s walking next to the group with only Reed paying her even the slightest attention.

So maybe Jordan’s no competition, after all. Gid doesn’t appear the least bit interested in her. God, he’s beautiful. The sun’s rays seem to follow him, providing his perfect body with the most gorgeous fall backdrop. I could look at him all–

A blot appears in my sight line.

“Hey, Shea,” says the blot. “Who’s this?”

I crane my head around the blot, but it moves, too. With a frown, I look up into the square jaw of senior Aiden Crowley and his two minions, Dumb and Dumber.

“It’s my sister.” Shea flips her hair over her shoulder. “Savannah, this is Aiden Crowley.”

“Yeah, I know. Nice to meet you.” I hold out a hand while still trying to spot Gideon. Crap, he’s going to bypass us because of stupid Aiden.

I barely notice when Aiden takes my fingers in his or steps closer to me. “Wow. Little Savannah Montgomery, all grown up. Last time I saw you, I swear you had braces and…different hair?”

“Amazing what a flat-iron and some makeup will do.” The sweet laced with venom voice belongs to Jordan.

I freeze as she comes to a stop in front of us. She gives me a scary, toothy smile, which I endure because Gideon has stopped, too.

“Too bad about the sophomore smell,” Jordan remarks. “That’s not something even a good bottle of perfume can get rid of.”

“We all had it once,” Bailey admonishes.

“But Jordan has only ever smelled like roses, right?” Aiden says.

Bullshit,” Gideon coughs into his hand.

Jordan throws Gideon a glare as she threads her arm through Aiden’s. “If you say so, Addy.”

Addy? I arch an eyebrow toward Shea, who elbows me in the gut again. Dammit. How am I supposed to stand up straight if she keeps doing that? I shove her aside, gently so no one notices.

A muffled snort catches my attention. I look up to see Gideon smiling at us.

“I can tell you two are related,” he comments. “You remind me of my brothers and me.”

“Yeah, well, can’t live with them, and your mom says you can’t kill them.” I reach over and ruffle my sister’s hair.

“Stop it.” She bats my hand away and gives me the look of death.

“Yup, siblings. Aren’t they the best?” Gideon winks.

My heart explodes. “T-t-the best,” I stammer out.

Beside me, Shea groans. Everyone else grins. Everyone but Jordan.

Instead, she rolls her eyes, and sticks her other arm inside Gideon’s elbow. “Come on, guys,” she says, leading the group away from us. “I’m thinking of having a party and I was wondering if you could give me some tips on how much liquor we’ll need. Did I tell you my dad’s working with Kendrick Lamar’s agent? Maybe we should have him perform at the Fall Ball.”

Gideon perks up. “Kendrick Lamar? That’d be lit, Jordan.”

“I know, right? His music is so interesting.” The rest of her conversation is too quiet for Shea and me to hear.

“Does she really know Kendrick Lamar?” I wonder aloud.

“Maybe? Who knows.” Shea turns and straightens my blazer collar. “You did good up until the end there. Please try to speak in complete sentences when you’re around Gideon. No one wants to date an idiot.”

My cheeks grow hot. “Thanks, Shea.”

She ignores my sarcasm and pats my face. “You’re welcome. Let’s go inside.”

We turn to follow Jordan and the Royals. At the base of the stairs, we find Jordan standing to the side alone, typing something on her phone.

I want to walk past her without saying anything. No need to poke the beast, in my opinion, but Shea stops.

“Hey, Jordan.”

Jordan’s head raises slightly, not enough to look at us, but enough to acknowledge our presence.

“Shea, tell your sister to roll her tongue back in her mouth. She was getting drool all over Giddy’s shoes.”

“I’ll pass that along,” Shea replies dryly, then tugs me up the stairs before I can blurt out an insult.

“Giddy?” I ask incredulously once the school doors close behind us.

“It’s enough to make you vomit,” Shea agrees. “But it is what it is. Jordan’s at the top. Don’t antagonize her or it’ll go poorly for you.”

Asshole Park is turning out to be the nightmare I thought it was going to be. I run a hand over my stick-straight locks.

This school is filled with a few hundred kids of the South’s finest families. And by finest, I mean the ones that have money. But even here, there’s a hierarchy. There’s the old money, the origins of which no one likes to acknowledge. Then there’s the new money, which often has a dirty birthing place, too. Then there’s the scholarship students who are trying to either marry into money or create their own awful legacy. Basically, everyone here is trying to eat the lunch of everyone else.

It’s been this way since middle school. I guess that’s when we first started noticing that we could separate from each other based on how far back to the Mayflower we could trace our family trees.

Shea and I come from new money in manufacturing instead of land like the Royals. There aren’t many old money families left—at least not that have actual money. I think that’s why so many girls are excited about the five Royal brothers. It’s a chance to polish the family tree.

That’s not the reason I’m in love with Gideon Royal. And it’s not because he’s gorgeous, either. Not that his tall, dark-haired, leanly muscled frame is a turn-off, but it’s not that, either.

It’s because Gideon Royal, for all his rumored coldness, was kind to me at a time when I needed it the most. I’ll never forget that moment. He stole my heart then and he’ll always have it.

Now I have one year with him to figure out how to win his.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Three

Gideon

Present Day

The lights in the sorority house begin to flicker off one by one like individual candles being snuffed out. I lift the beer can to my lips. Savannah’s in one of those rooms, taking off her top, brushing her teeth, climbing under the covers. She always wore a pair of shorts and a tank to bed. After we started dating, she’d take my gear and claim it as her own.

I wonder what she wears now. Whose clothes she’s sleeping in.

I wonder how many guys have seen her flushed cheeks and bare shoulders. How many of them have traced the line of skin above her waistband and felt the reverb of her body as she shudders.

The sound of crumpling metal fills the air my fingers curl tighter around the beer can.

“She’s a fine looking ghost,” Cal observes from the sidewalk behind me.

I ease up on the can and sit down on the curb next to my friend. “The best.”

Savannah had caught my eye the first day of school. But it wasn’t her looks that made her stand out. It was the barely suppressed delight in her eyes. To her, each day was an exciting adventure. Until I broke her, that is.

“Did she dump your ass?”

“Something like that.”

He hums sympathetically. “Must’ve been a bad breakup. Is that why you’ve never hooked up with any of the girls here?”

That and I’ve come to hate sex, but that’s a story I don’t want to get into, not even with Cal. It’s easier to claim heartbreak as the reason why I’m not interested in chasing tail around campus.

“That’s why,” I confirm. I grab another can and take a long pull.

He finishes his own drink before snatching another from the case we bought at the convenience store up the street. “There were rumors you were gay.”

“I know.” In college, if you aren’t nailing girls every spare moment, then you’re gay. People tend to be binary like that. “Sorry to disappoint you.”

“Nah. I always knew that was false. You never once looked at my awesome ass.”

“Not true.” I count the windows on the house and wonder which one she’s crashing in. “I’ve noticed your ass plenty. Your cheeks are lopsided.”

“What!” he exclaims. “No way.” He raises one butt cheek off the ground for inspection.

I chuckle into my beer. “You work your left glut more than your right.”

“I’ve got to see this.” He stands up and hands me his phone. “Take a picture of me.”

“And by you, you mean your ass?”

He juts his butt in my face. “Yeah, my ass.” He pats his left cheek with one hand while holding up his sweatshirt with the other. “There’s no way my ass cheeks are different sizes.”

“I’m not taking a picture of your butt, Cal.” I shove his rear out of my face. It’s blocking my view. Another light flickers out.

“Why not? I gotta know,” he insists. “It’s going to bug me now.”

“Your jeans are in the way. The picture isn’t going to show anything but them.”

“Fine.”  He proceeds to unbuckle his belt.

“Jesus H. Christ, Cal. What the hell!” I reach up and grab the back of his jeans and pull them up. “Neither of us are drunk enough for that shit right now.”

Across the street, the front door opens. Both Cal and I freeze. A figure steps out and my breath catches in my throat. As she walks, I let it out. It’s not Savannah. Even in the dark, I can tell it’s not her.

The air would change if it was. My skin would draw tight and it’d be difficult to breathe. The stars would shine brighter and the night sky would feel less oppressive..

No. It’s not Savannah.

Instead, it’s our teammate Julie Kantor.

“Can you two move under the street lamp? We’re trying to film your impromptu porno but the light is bad,” she calls out as she approaches.

Cal waves to her with one hand, the other still gripping the waistband of his jeans. “Julie! We need your unbiased opinion.” He swings around and jiggles his ass in her direction. “Are my ass cheeks different sizes?”

I pop open a beer and hand it to her. “If you don’t answer, he’s going to drop trou and ask you to take a picture.”

“I’m not stopping that,” she says cheerfully and then waves a hand toward the front of her sorority house. “But like I said, get into the light so my sisters can see you better. No point in giving a show if no one can see you.”

“Really?” Cal looks confused for a minute.

I give him a vigorous shake of my head, but he’s torn. Julie said to take his pants off and generally he does what she tells him to because he can’t think for himself when she’s in his orbit. Those two should date already. They remind me of Three and Bailey.

“No, honey,” she sighs. She joins me on the curb and pats a space next to her. “Your ass is fine. Sit down.”

He hesitates but predictably drops down beside her.

“My president was going to call the police and report a suspicious character loitering around the house, but I told her that you’re already suffering cruel and unusual punishment,” Julie informs me.

“Is that right?” I lean back and try to figure out if any of the dark shapes in the front window belong to Sav. Crap, what am I going to do if she actually attends this college next year? Probably pitch a tent and live outside this sorority house.

“You’ve sat out here drinking with Cal for the last half-hour gazing longingly at your ex’s shadow.”

I don’t even try to deny it. “I actually can’t figure out which room she’s in, so I haven’t been staring at her shadow exactly. You could help me out by pointing out which room she’s staying in..”

“Why? Do you plan to scale the castle walls and stare down the dragon?”

“Is the dragon your house mom or president?”

“Neither.” Julie laughs and takes a sip of her beer. “That’d be Savannah herself. She was breathing fire when I left the house.”

“She was, was she? I like that.” The grip around my beer loosens. Or maybe it’s the tight band around my chest that eases up.

“Your ex being mad makes you happy?” Cal asks.

“Sav’s been cold for two years. I like hearing that she’s angry. It means she still cares.”

“That’s not how it works,” my friend protests. “You’re supposed to make her happy, not mad. Mad people leave and they don’t get back together. My parents hate each other, which is why they’re divorced.” He turns to Julie. “Right?”

She gives a small shrug. “Possibly. Maybe our boy Gid’s being delusional or maybe the girl inside who was ranting about the dickface douchecanoe shit lord who sucks his own dick does really care about him.”

The two clowns look at each, say, “Nah,” in unison and then bust out laughing.

When Cal sobers up, he says, “It’d be awesome to be able to suck your own dick. I don’t think I’d leave the house. Would that make me gay? Or is that incest?”

She rolls her eyes, but slings an arm around him. “It’d be masturbation.”

“Oh, right. Good call.”

I drop my forehead to the edge of the beer can. Seriously, the boy needs a keeper.

“So you and Savannah must’ve been a thing in high school?” Julie asks.

“Yeah.”

“You have no idea how many girls inside are relieved to hear that. There was that gay rumor going around. At least if you’re bi, they have a chance.”

Cal’s hand inches up.

Julie sighs. “Yes, Cal?”

“If he’s stuck on a girl, how does that mean that the rest of them have a chance?”

That’s actually a good question. I cock my head and stare at Julie while she answers.

“The other girls figure when you get unstuck, you’ll make good boyfriend material. Everyone’s inside sighing about how romantic you are and that you’re the one guy who really knows how to love a girl. This type of moony devotion is rare.

“I’m worried about the reasoning skills of your entire house if you think I’m someone who knows how to love. If I did, would I be sitting out here?” I wave a hand at the sidewalk.

“Unrequited love is the most romantic,” she proclaims.

Over her head, Cal and I exchange befuddled glances.

“Only one person around that’s going to unstick me,” I tell Julie.

“Hasn’t it been like years since you two broke up? Savannah said—” She bites her lip and looks away.

I grab her arm. “Sav said what?”

She shakes her head. “I can’t. It’s against the girl code.”

“That’s bullshit,” Cal argues. “We’re teammates. Teammates first.”

“Yeah,” I echo. “Teammates first. Remember how we let you play the Little Mermaid soundtrack on repeat during our Freshman Friday practices?”

“Don’t bring that up,” Cal groans. “It’s a goddamned earworm.”

“I want to be where the mermaids are,” Julia sings, her arms thrown wide. “I want to see, want to see them swimming, flipping around on those—” She taps her cheek as if she forgot the words. “Whadd’ya call ‘em? Oh, fins!”

Cal slaps a hand over her mouth before she can get the rest of the words out. “We don’t have enough beer to make it through the night.” He turns to me. “Quick. Start singing something else.”

“No. You owe me, Julie,” I insist. “What did Savannah say?”

She sighs but capitulates. “She said you broke up years ago and that if anyone in the house wanted you, they could have you.”

That’s a direct hit. I stare at the house again. Seeing Savannah on my turf jolted me. She isn’t ever going to come around unless I do something about it. When she was back at Astor Park Prep and I was at college, it was easier to pretend that she wasn’t moving on, that she’d join me here and we’d start our life together after college was over. But tonight revealed some hard truths I’d been avoiding. Sav’s a gorgeous girl and it won’t be long until she finds her heart again and gives it to someone else.

Which is wrong, because her heart belongs to me. She gave it to me when she was fifteen and I haven’t given it back. She needs to know that.

“Take out your phone and tell her to come out,” I demand.

Julie rolls her eyes. “Why would I do that?”

“Because you’re a romantic.”

“I am not.”

“Julie, you tell us stories about how your socks can only be matched in certain pairs because they belong together and can’t be stuck with another, different sock because that would disturb the balance in the universe.”

“Are you saying that you and Savannah are a one true pairing?”

I hold up my hand and cross my middle finger over my index finger. “We’re destined to be together but circumstances have kept us apart. Clearly the fact that she’s visiting my college out of all the ones she could attend means it’s destiny. Do you want to be the one to stand in the way of true love?”

She sighs and takes out her phone. “The things I do for you guys.” She presses a button on her phone. My heart rate picks up. “Hey, Lou, send the Iron Maiden out, would you? Gideon Royal has just issued a decree.”

I get up and start walking toward the front door just as it opens and a girl’s pushed out. One of the girls in the doorway makes a shooing sign and then the door shuts in Sav’s face. She takes one look at me and starts pounding on the door.

“Let me in!” she yells. “There’s a creep out here!”

I fold my arms over my chest. “Traitors. I’d pledge a different house if I were you.”

She ignores me and continues to knock. Fortunately, no one in the house answers. A couple of the sisters peek out the window. I gave them a friendly wave while Savannah growls in disgust. After a minute of futile pleas, she swivels to face me. Anger shoots out of her eyes. My pulse pounds a little faster and a little louder. She looks so hot right now.

I reach for her but she slaps my hand away.

Across the street, Julia and Cal watch in wide-eyed amazement.

“Kick him in the balls,” Julia yells.

“Noooo!” Cal cries and then tries to cover his balls and Julie’s mouth at the same time.

“We can do this in front of an audience or we can take it elsewhere.” I give a meaningful look across the street.

“Stupid Deltas.” She kicks the metal railing of the front steps. She glares at me again, but is smart enough to know that she’s got few options. “Where then?”

My room? A private island? Mars? Somewhere where there’s no one but the two of us? She’s not going to go for that.

“There’s the Bean café.” I jerk my head behind her. “It’s open twenty-four hours.” Is that disappointment that flickers in her eyes? I raise my eyebrows. “Or we can go back to my place.”

She stuffs her hands in the pockets of her hoodie. “The Bean is fine.”

Sav starts walking briskly down the sidewalk. I guess I imagined that regret.

I catch her in a couple strides and grab her wrist to redirect her. “The Bean’s this way.” I point in the opposite direction.

“Right.” She shakes me loose and tries to put as much distance between us on the sidewalk as she can, going so far as to walk on the grass. I shove my own hands in my pockets so I don’t give in to the urge to grab her.

“What other houses did you go to tonight?” I ask, pretending to make casual conversation. All the frats were having end of the year parties.

She reels off a few, and I scowl. There were hundreds of hungry guys at each stop.

“I went to a couple of those. I didn’t see you.” I’d actually started a house-to-house search but never found her again, so I ended up camping outside the sorority house where I heard she was staying. It turned out to be a good plan. I’ll take that as a positive sign.
“I didn’t stay long.” She falls silent and then asks, “What’d you say to Julie to get them to kick me out?”

“The truth.”

“What? That you cheated on me? That you lied to me? That you used me?”

“That you’re my true love.”

She halts suddenly and spins to face me. I stop, too. Her hand whips out and slaps me hard. I reach up and palm my cheek.

“I’m not sorry,” She fumes.

A slow smile spreads across my face. It burns, but it’s the first time I’ve felt alive in years. She may hate me, but Christ, that means there’s love just on the other side of that thin, thin line.

I rub my cheek. “Good to have you back, baby.”

Chapter Four

Gideon

Three Years Ago

“I take back what I said. You should definitely invite the Montgomerys.” I look down the hall, wishing for another glimpse of Savannah. She’s not here, though, because I’m a senior and she’s a sophomore, which means her row of lockers is at the other end of the building.

“You just said you wouldn’t hook up with anyone that ran with Jordan Carrington,” Bailey reminds me.

“And I’m not.”

Her brow crinkles in confusion. “Then why—” She cuts herself off. “Are you talking about Savannah? Isn’t she a little young for you?”

“Young ones are the best,” Three says, grabbing my shoulder and shaking me roughly. He doesn’t know his own strength. “You can train them. Tell her you only want to see her on the weekends and only if you don’t have other plans. Also, no texting during Tar Heel games.”

Bailey stops, crosses her arms, and shoots daggers in Three’s direction. It takes him a dangerous few seconds to catch on to what he said. When his own careless words sink in along with his girlfriend’s pissed-off expression, his eyes grow comically large.

He raises both hands in front of his chest in a pleading gesture of innocence or stupidity. In Three’s case, it’s probably both.

“I don’t mean you, baby. I love spending time with you,” he declares. Then he proceeds to dig his grave deeper. “I like experienced girls.”

“Experienced?” she shrieks. “Are you calling me loose, Hamilton Marshall the Third!” She slaps him on the back with her purse.

“No. No. No. You’re not loose. You’re tight. Really tight.”

Around us, there are gasps of shock. Bailey turns beet red and Three looks like he wants to die. I lean back against my locker and watch the show with amusement.

Three spins around and enters Bailey’s locker code, then pulls out her books for her morning class. “Let me get these books for you and I’ll walk you to class, baby.”

Bailey’s having none of it. She plucks the books from his arms. “It’s not the weekend, baby, so we don’t need to be together.” Then she shrugs him off and walks away.

Three chases after her. “Bailey. I’m sorry! You know I love you.”

She darts into her classroom, leaving Three standing out in the hall with his shoulders slumped.

Dejected, he wanders back to me. “Gid,” he gripes. “Why don’t you punch me in the mouth when I’m about to say stupid shit like that?”

“Because my hand would be sore.”

“From one punch?”

“Because you say stupid shit like that all day.”

Three grimaces. I grab him around the shoulders and lead him down to our classroom. First period is our study hall, which is a good thing since I’m not a morning person.

“Don’t worry, man. She’ll be back on your lap by lunch.”

“I have second and third period with her,” he moans. “She’s gonna glare at me the whole time.”

“Better having her glare at you than not talking to you.”

“The silent treatment is the worst,” he agrees. “Are you serious about this Savannah girl? All kidding aside, she is young, and if you pursue her, she’s going to be a target.”

“For what?”

“Guys who will want to say that they did her first. Girls who will be jealous of your attention. You know what this place is like.” He spreads his arm out. “Snakes to the right. Vultures on the left.”

“Which predator are we?”

“Snake?”

“I prefer vulture. At least we’re up in the air.”

“See. Even you want the upper hand.”

I sigh. “When did dating become so complicated?”

“Stick in your own lane,” he advises as we reach study hall. “No point in dragging a poor sophomore into the arena, especially if you aren’t serious.”

Inside the classroom, we nod at a few classmates and then drop our stuff onto the table in the corner, where Dane Lovett is already sprawled out. His books are open, but he’s busy texting someone.

“I’m thinking of having a party tonight. Kind of an opening day, welcome-back-to-school sort of thing,” he says without looking up at us.

“Nah, we’re going to Rinaldi’s,” Three says.

“Boring,” Dane intones.

“Who are you inviting?” I ask, my thoughts swinging back to Savannah Montgomery. Her doe eyes are stuck in my brain. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen someone look at me with such open adoration. It was…charming.

“The usual.” He rattles off a bunch of names.

“You should invite the Montgomerys.”

Three raises his eyebrows, asking me if I’m serious. I shrug. I don’t know, but I’d like to see her again.

“Shea?” Dane nods. “Sure.” He starts typing something and then looks back at me. “Wait. Montgomerys plural? As in more than one?”

“There’s a sister,” Three chirps.

Dane makes a face. “Isn’t Shea’s sister in middle school?”

“Nope. She’s a sophomore. Her first day here.”

Dane’s expression brightens. “Oh, nice. Fresh meat. Gotta love that.” He sticks out his tongue and winks.

Three makes a slicing gesture across his throat, but Dane doesn’t see it. He’s too busy typing.

“Nothing like getting them while they’re eager,” he continues. “That way they have zero expectations and you can do whatever you want with them.” He glances up at me. “What’d you say the sister’s name was?”

I place my hand over his screen. “She’s not for you.”

Dane stiffens. “What?”

This time it’s Three’s turn to cross his arms across his chest and watch me with amusement. And I don’t even care. Decision made. I’m serious enough, because the thought of Dane laying one of his dirty hands on Savannah doesn’t sit well with me. Not one bit.

“She’s not for you.” I pull the phone out of his grip and place it on the table. “Find some other girl. Savannah Montgomery is off the market.”

“Since when?”

“Since now.”

“You?” He cocks his head in disbelief. “Have you ever hooked up with anyone younger than you? I thought you liked the college girls because they knew what they were doing and were less likely to turn into stage five clingers?”

I rub a finger across my nose. That does sound like something I’ve said.

Three whacks the back of my chair. “Plus, not a half hour ago he was saying that he was going to be a monk for senior year because he didn’t want to deal with any weeping when he leaves.”

Dane inspects me for a second and then picks up his phone again, apparently deciding I’m not serious. “You in or out for tonight?”

“Out.”

“Why? I just texted five people you were going to be there.”

“We’re meeting at Rinaldi’s,” Three reminds him.

“Just come afterwards, then. The party will just be getting started.”

“I’ll ask Bailey,” Three says.

“Do you have to ask Bailey before you take a shit?” Dane grumbles.

I catch Three’s arm before he drives a fist into Dane’s bent head. Our friend is is back to texting.

“What’s this Savannah girl got that you like so much?” he mutters as his fingers fly over the keyboard. “If she’s Shea’s sister, then the girl’s probably cold and manipulative as hell.”

I stretch out my legs, fold my arms behind my head, and close my eyes to conjure up Savannah’s face. There wasn’t a chilly thing about her. At least not when she looked at me.

#

Dane’s house has so many cars parked around it that it’s almost impossible to get to the front door.

“Just park on the lawn,” Bailey moans. “I don’t want to walk.” She sticks a foot between the armrests. “I’m wearing four-inch Louboutins. My soles are going to get scratched.”

“I’ll carry you, baby,” Three volunteers.

I maneuver up to the driveway and then park the Range Rover on the grass. Three jumps out immediately and runs around to Bailey’s side. I don’t ask why she’s wearing shoes she can’t walk in, because her answer will be that Three likes them. That’s been her answer since they first started dating. While she wears the pants in the relationship, it’s because she’s one hundred percent committed to making him happy.

He pulls her out of the car, her legs dangling over one arm and her body cradled in the other. “Shit, baby, you look so smoking hot right now. I could eat you up.”

He nuzzles her neck while she squeals appreciatively. The sound sends a strange pang into my chest. I shove my fists into the pockets of my jeans and walk toward the back gate. It’s early fall, which means any party Dane is throwing will be out by the pool.

Sure enough, a crowd of a hundred or so are gathered in the backyard. I slap a few hands, backs, and asses as I make my way through the crowd.

“Coke or Sprite?” Dane shoves two bottles into my hand.

I make a face. “No beer?”

“Mixed drinks only tonight. Sorry.”

“Sprite then.” Coke means rum, and I don’t like my drinks sweet. I hand the Coke bottle behind me for Bailey. I scan the faces and check off the ones I know until I find the girl I came for. She hasn’t noticed me yet; she’s busy talking to some guy I don’t know. In fact, there are several dicks around her.

I pin an accusatory glare at Dane. “Did you happen to mention my interest in Savannah?”

He shrugs. “I dunno. Maybe it slipped out.”

“Sure it did.” Asshole.

“Look, senior year is going to be boring as hell. What’s wrong with making our own little entertainment?” He slings an arm across my shoulder.

“You have sorry ass hobbies, Dane.”

“I know. And I’m too old to do anything about it.”

I shrug his arm off and stride forward, stepping on a few toes on my way to Savannah, Shea, and the snake, Jordan. There are a couple of other girls sitting there, but I can’t be bothered to remember their names.

Leighton Park sits at the end of the lounger that Savannah and Shea are perched on. I tap him on the shoulder. He squints up at me, a blunt hanging out the side of his mouth.

“Move,” I command.

He blinks a couple of times before taking a deep drag. “I like it here.” He pats the cushion, placing a hand dangerously close to Savannah’s ass. “The scenery’s nice.”

I clench my jaw.

Behind me, I can feel the eyes of half my class. So they want a show, eh? Who am I to deny them that.

I pluck Leighton’s joint out of his mouth and throw it in the pool. That gets his ass out of the chair.

“You asswipe!” he screams, and then, like a dumbass, dives into the pool after his joint.

“How baked is he?” I ask the girls.

They all shrug, except for Savannah, who replies, “He just lit it.”

I signal for Dane to come over. “You can give this back when he drags himself out of the pool.”

I hand him the still-burning blunt that I’d just pretended to throw in the water, and then take the spot that Leighton just vacated.

The girls look at me suspiciously, but, again, it’s only Savannah that has the balls—no, the ovaries—to say anything.

“All that because you wanted Leighton’s seat? I could’ve moved.”

Shea slaps a hand against her own face at her sister’s dimness, while Jordan sneers. “This is why underclassmen shouldn’t mix with us. You’re too stupid to live.”

Savannah hangs her head in embarrassment. Jesus, Jordan is a viper.

I’m about to grab Savannah’s hand and drag her away, but then Three’s words come back to me. He told me that singling this girl out would make her a target, and he was right. The guys were already all over her when I arrived, and Jordan’s preparing a pit for Savannah to fall into.

Walking away isn’t in my nature. I’m Gideon Royal, heir to a big-ass fortune. I’m used to getting what I want, when I want it.

But maybe, just this once, I should ask for permission first. Despite her age, Savannah grew up in this world. She has to know that you’re either predator or prey. So I decide to let her make the decision.

Smiling at her, I flip my hand over and lay it palm up. “I’m already tired of this place. Want to go for a drive?”

 

Chapter Five

Savannah

“So did you take his hand?” Kira asks from her desk, where she’s slathering night cream on her face. The bunny ears on her headband bob as she talks. It brings a brief smile to my lips.

“Of course she did. She wouldn’t be crying if she turned him down.” Jisoo scoops out some of the cream before tossing me the jar.

I catch the little pot with one hand and swipe the back of my other hand across my cheeks. Even though Jisoo said I was crying, I didn’t realize I was until my hand comes away wet.

“I took his hand,” I confirm. Quickly, I unscrew the jar and start slathering goop on my splotchy face. I hate that he still gets to me like this.

After I slapped Gideon and ran off, two of my future sorority sisters were waiting at the door. They took one look at my stricken face and half-carried me up to the third floor.

Once upstairs, Kira poured three glasses of wine, Jisoo produced a spa kit, and they both badgered me until I started talking. Jisoo said confession is good for the soul. Maybe it is. I feel better now than when I first saw him at the party.

“If you had to go back, would you do it again?” Jisoo asks.

I take a deep, cleansing breath and try to act like I’m done crying over Gideon Royal.

“You have some nerve.”

“Fortune favors the bold,” he quips.

I curl my fingers into my palms. “Are my feelings some kind of game to you? Have you become such a degenerate piece of shit that you get off on making me miserable?”

He lifts his hand as if to brush my hair off my face, but I step back out of reach. His hand lingers in the air before he drops it to his side. “No. I never got off on that. Every time you were sad, I was sad. Every time you cried, I cried. It got to the point that I couldn’t handle that pain anymore, so I shut down. Just like you did.”

“Don’t make yourself into the victim here, Gideon. This has never been about me. Your feelings always came first. The thing with you Royals is that you believe your pain and loss and trauma is so much more important than the rest of the world’s. Like no one understands how it feels to be you.” I close my eyes in disgust. “If you stopped thinking for one minute that the world revolves around you, maybe you wouldn’t act the way you do.”

“I think about you every minute of the day. Every minute of the goddamned day. What will it take for you to forgive me?”

“Nothing.” Everything. “I don’t want you anymore. Yes, I’m still mad. Yes, I still hurt. But none of that makes me want to be with you again. I’m not the same foolish girl who fell in love with you three years ago. Don’t wait for her, because she’s not coming back.”

He shakes his head. “No. She never left. She’s still there. I left you before. I know that. I caused us both a lot of misery, but I’m done now. I’m done running. I’m done leaving.”

“But you’re not done hurting me,” I say resentfully.

“Then why did you come here?”

“This was always my plan, Gid. You know this. We talked about how this school was the best one in the state to study theatre and filmmaking. I’m not going to let a little thing like an ex keep me from my dreams.”

He nods. “Okay, then. I’ll see you around.”

He shoves his hands in his pocket and turns to leave.

“That’s it?” I ask incredulously. “You had my future house kick me out just so that you could leave me on the sidewalk?”

“I’m staging a strategic retreat. Besides, I thought you hated me?” He gives me a cheerful wave. “I’ll see you, Savage.”

My nickname on his tongue fills my stupid heart with longing. My palm stings, not because it hurts, but because I want to hit him again and again and again.

“I’d like to be able to say that I would’ve refused him, but I don’t think I’d be able to. I mean, look at me tonight. I left with him. I let him get to me.” I flop backward on the bed.

“Eh. We all have boys that make fools of us,” Kira says.

Jisoo nods in agreement. “During spring semester of my freshman year, I crushed hard on this guy in my Lit class. He had long hair and the greenest eyes. I found out he was in a band. I made Kira drive downtown where his practice studio was, but I didn’t go inside. Instead, I sat in the car and took creepy, stalkerish photos from my phone.”

“I joined the intramural flag football team with the Sigmas because I liked this one guy so much, and I hate sports,” Kira chimes in.

“That makes me feel marginally better,” I admit grudgingly.

“Were those girls in high school really mean to you?” Kira asks, coming to sit beside me on the bed.

“Some. A couple were very jealous. They’d put garbage in my locker. Then other people who wanted to suck up to Gideon would clean it out. It was hard to have any real friends, because I didn’t know who hated me and who liked me. But it didn’t matter, because I had him. And for a while there, we were really happy.”

Jisoo stops rubbing her face. “So when did it all fall apart?”

“When his mom died.”

Three years ago

I look over at Gideon’s pensive face. He spent the last ten minutes staring out the window. I said his name a couple times but then gave up. He’s been this way for the last couple of weeks. Shea has told me not to press him. Guys don’t like talking about their feelings.

I set my spoon beside the bowl of half-eaten ice cream and pick up my phone.

Where are you? I text to Shea.

Where do you think? The witch’s house. We’re having a party. It’s so much fun.

She punctuates the text with the eyeroll emoji in case I didn’t pick up on the sarcasm bleeding through every word.

Gid’s in lala land again.

Don’t even go there. If he wants to share w u, he will. No pressure or he’ll run out on you. B cool Sav.

I am being cool!!!

Don’t !!! me. U don’t like my advice, don’t listen to it. Reed’s here. God, I hate these Royals. Every1 is sucking up to him. I hate that ur dating one. It’s bad enough I have to hang out with the witch.

I smirk. Shea’s probably the only girl at Astor who doesn’t love at least one of the Royal brothers.

“What’s so funny?”

I look up to see Gideon watching me. I flash my screen toward him so he can see that I’m texting Shea.

“My sister’s at Jordan’s house. She says your brother is there. Want to go?”

“Do you?” He taps the side of my bowl. “Or do you want the rest of your ice cream?”

The last thing I want to do is go to Jordan’s place. I smile, though, because Shea says that I follow Gideon’s lead. It makes sense. He’s a senior. I’m a lowly sophomore. Two months of dating him and I’m still dizzy with disbelief. My side is black and blue from being pinched so much. “I’m up for whatever you want.”

There’s a slight freezing of his expression, like I’ve disappointed him somehow, but then he smiles his beautiful smile and I think I must’ve imagined it. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a stack of bills. “Let’s go to Carrington’s, then.”

He holds out his arm and gestures for me to precede him out the door. I grab my purse and take a step forward. A bout of bravery seizes me, and I stop.

“What is it?” he asks.  “Are you still hungry? I thought you were done.”

“I think the question is, are you done?” I’m not so courageous that I can look him in the eye, but I get it out.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see him glance over at his uneaten dessert. “Yeah. I had a big dinner.”

I deflate immediately at his misinterpretation and begin walking toward the exit again. Was it deliberate? Is he trying to avoid answering or did he really think I was talking about our melting bowls of ice cream?

There’s a gap between us. No matter how physically close we are, there’s still space and I don’t know how to eliminate it.

Or maybe the truth is that I’m afraid to reach across for fear of being rejected. I run a hand over my hair and flip the ends over my shoulder. Isn’t that why I spend hours every morning getting ready? If Gideon saw the real me—frizzy hair and no makeup and emotionally needy, he’d run away fast and hard.

“You look pretty tonight,” he comments as we reach the door.

“Thank you.”

He laughs. “So formal. Are we at the country club?” He swings an arm around my shoulder.

“What do you want me to say? I know?”

“Why not?” He bends down and nuzzles his nose against my hair. The fall air is chilly, but it’s not the weather that sends shivers down my spine. “It’d be the truth.”

My eyelids flutter shut. Swallowing my insecurity is worth it to have these moments.

“Hey, Gideon!” A high-pitched voice cuts through the air. The voice belongs to a very pretty blonde who looks vaguely familiar. I think she’s a senior.

Her wrist is weighted down by three gold bracelets that clink richly as she waves at us. No, at Gideon.

“Hey, Rhiannon,” Gideon says.

“There’s a party over at Jordan’s. You should come.”

Her top is one of those off-the-shoulder numbers, hanging dangerously low over her boobs. I eye her chest with envy.

“We’re headed that way,” he says and gently urges me forward.

I hadn’t realized I’d stopped walking.

Rhiannon flicks her eyes over me and then turns her attention back to Gideon. “When you’re done with the kindergartener, come and find me.”

I may not be able to be open with Gideon, but in the short time we’ve been dating, I’ve learned that I have to assert myself with other girls or they’ll pretend like I don’t exist. And I’ve learned that fighting back amuses Gideon.

So I smile at her and chirp, “If he wanted you, he wouldn’t be standing next to me.”

Rhiannon scowls. “Please, girl. The only reason he’s with you is because you’ll do whatever he wants. Some of us have standards.”

“Really?” I drawl. “Because you’re the one begging for scraps of his attention. I feel sorry for you. Try hounding a guy who’s not taken. It might go better for you next time.”

I grip Gideon’s hand and pull him forward to his Range Rover.

“Savage, Savannah,” he whispers as he opens the car door.

My cheeks are hot but I feel giddy. Gideon’s phone rings as I settle into my seat.

“It’s my mom,” he says and holds up a finger indicating I should wait. Then he answers. “Yeah? No one else is home?” He listens. “I can come. I’ve got Savannah with me. We’ll be right there.”

I eagerly nod my agreement. I’ve never been to Gideon’s place and I’m kinda dying to go there.

“Oh? No, I guess not.” He makes a face. “Okay, I’ll drop her off and be right home.”

Disappointment replaces anticipation, but I cover it up with a concerned smile. “Is everything okay?” I ask after he hangs up.

“Yeah.”

It’s not a convincing sound. On the ride home, he falls into that silent, brooding mode. The gap between us widens.

I twist my hands in my lap. “Your mom doesn’t like me, does she?”

“Why do you say that?”

It’s not a denial. “Is it me? Has she heard something about me?”

Gideon waves a hand. “It’s nothing. Don’t worry about it.”

“I think if she—”

“Savannah,” he cuts in. “It’s no big deal.”

I bite my lip and fix my gaze out the window.

“Sorry.” Gideon sighs. “It’s really nothing. It doesn’t matter if she likes you. She’s just having issues these days.” But there’s a stiffness in his frame that feels an awful lot like rejection.

“Sure.”

He reaches over to grab my hand. “I’m sorry, Savannah. Think of it this way. You won’t have to hang out with Jordan tonight.”

“Right.”

We travel another mile and then he turns, only it’s the wrong way. I tap his hand. “Um, you missed my turn.”

“I know.”

“Where are we going?”

“My place. I’ll see Mom and then we can watch a movie in my room. How’s that sound?”

“Perfect.” I get a fluttery feeling. I want to clasp my hands against my chest, but I resist. I sit up straight and smooth my hair down. I wish I had a portable flat iron. My straight hair gives me confidence.

“You look fine,” Gideon assures me.

Fine? I want to look amazing. Unless Maria Royal doesn’t like amazing. Then I want to look fine. “Thanks.”

He releases my hand to press a button, and the gate ahead slowly opens. The car moves down the dimly lit lane. There’s a row of Maidenhair trees on either side. The Royals have money. I mean, we’re well off, but it’s nothing like the Royals. We fly business class. Royals don’t even fly commercial—they have their own plane. Their cars all have the logo of their dad’s company stitched into the custom leather seats. Gideon wears a watch that cost as much as his car.

Half the time, I think it’s their money as much as their looks that attracts girls like bees to honey.

Their mansion is enormous. It could house three families. Then again, he does have four brothers. Maybe they need the space.

He stops the Rover at the base of the front steps. As we approach the house, Gid’s feet slow. He hesitates, like he’s wondering if he made a mistake, but then he opens the door.

The entry is polished marble, and there’s a grand staircase just beyond a circular table filled with fresh flowers.

“Mom?” he calls.

A rush of steps on our left draws our attention. Gideon’s brother Reed appears. He stops abruptly at the sight of us.

“Why’s she here?” he demands.

I shrink back behind Gideon.

“Why are you here?” Gideon returns. “Thought you were at Jordan’s.”

“Mom called, so I came home.” Reed scowls at me. “Why’s she here?” he repeats.

Gideon scowls back. “I brought her.”

“She can’t be here.”

Reed throws something at me. I catch it reflexively. It’s a set of keys

“Go home, Savannah,” he snaps. “You can take my Rover. Get out.”

My jaw falls open. “But—”

Gideon plucks the keys out of my hand. For a second I think it’s because he’s as dumbfounded by Reed’s behavior as I am, but I’m wrong. He exchanges Reed’s keys for his. “Take mine. I’ll pick it up at school tomorrow.”

I gape at him. “Gideon…”

Gideon exchanges a quick look with Reed. Then he nudges me backwards.

Before I know it, I’m standing outside, staring at the front door. Gideon didn’t defend me. He didn’t say I should stay. He didn’t tell his brother that he was out of line for telling me to get out. Instead, he gave me his car keys and pushed me out the door.

I stare in astonishment for a good minute before finally getting into Gideon’s Rover and driving away.

Chapter Six

Gideon

3 Years Ago
 
“I’m sorry,” Reed says as soon as I close the door on Savannah.
 
“What’s the emergency?” I ask tersely. After tonight, I’ll be lucky if Sav talks to me again, let alone allows me to lay one finger on her perfect body.
 
“Mom. What else? I had the twins out of her reach, but Easton came home.”
 
“Oh, friggin’ A.” But it’s nothing more than I expected when I answered my brother’s call. “Where are they?”
 
“In Mom’s suite. She cornered the twins in the media room, but Easton was able to lure her upstairs. I can take her on, if you want to get the twins,” he offers.
 
“I got this.” I shove him in the direction of our wing, which is where I assume the twins are. My little brothers don’t need this shit. Hell, none of us need it, but Reed and I are the oldest. We’re here to protect the others, since our old man has forgotten us. Speaking of the absentee parent, I ask, “Did you call Dad?”
 
“Of course. Uncle Steve answered and said Dad was in a ‘meeting.’” Reed makes quotation marks with his fingers.
 
“Got it.” In other words, Dad was boning some hooker and couldn’t come to the phone.
 
I take the stairs two at a time. Maybe I can square this all away in the next thirty minutes and then haul ass over to Sav’s. We can watch a movie at her place. Or I can take her somewhere. I know instinctively that the less time that passes, the better chance I have at her forgiving me.
 
A bad feeling creeps over me as I reach the top of the stairs. Mom’s crying can be heard from the hall. I stop outside the double doors and take a stiff breath before entering.
 
I find Mom with her back to me, sitting on the sofa in front of the French doors. The windows are open and the room is freezing. A quick scan of the room reveals two empty wine bottles on her dresser. I cross the room and discover Easton sitting on the floor at her feet. There’s another bottle between his legs, but it’s not the liquor that concerns me. It’s his uncharacteristic stillness. I’m guessing he’s stoned.
 
“Gideon, darling,” Mom cries. She raises a half-full wine glass in my direction. “You’re here.”
 
“I’m here,” I say, taking the glass before she spills its contents on my brother’s bent head.
 
“Don’t close the doors,” she says as I bat the gauzy curtains out of the way to reach for the handles. “It’s stuffy in here.”
 
“You’re going to catch a cold,” I counter and close the doors anyway.
 
She pouts. “Easton and I were enjoying the ocean sounds. So calming, don’t you think?”
 
I don’t know who she’s asking, but Easton’s too gone to answer. I tip his chin up and take a good look at his face. His pupils are the size of quarters.
 
“I’ll put on some music for you.” I pick up the room controller and get some soothing music going.
 
“I want to hear the ocean,” she whines. “The real one. Not fake sounds. I don’t want anything fake in here.”  
 
Ignoring her, I return to the sofa and crouch down by Easton. “You okay?”
 
He rolls his head toward me and gives me a brief and sloppy smile. “Yo, bro.”
 
My heart squeezes tight. This is so wrong. “Give me a sec and I’ll get you out of here.”
 
His glassy eyes don’t register much of anything.
 
“Mom, Easton needs to go,” I tell her.
 
“But I don’t want to be alone.” Her thin fingers clasp my wrist. I could easily break free, but her frailty holds me tighter than any rope.

These past few months, she’s been spiraling harder. Drinking more, taking more pills. Meanwhile, Dad is off doing who knows what, leaving us to take care of Mom.
 
Carefully, I pry her hand loose. “I know. I’m going to stay here.” Which means no seeing Sav tonight.
 
“We’ll all stay. You, me and darling Easton.” Her hand falls on top of Easton’s head. He flinches slightly.
 
“He’s got homework.” She’s big on school and hates it when we skip. Or used to hate it before she got lost inside her head. Without waiting for her response, I pull Easton up to his feet. He’s gaining muscle on his lean frame and it’s not as easy to haul him around as it was just a year ago. “Let’s go, baby bro.”
 
His softly muttered thanks mixes with Mom’s low protests. With one of his arms slung over my shoulder, I lug him out and into his own room. It’s a mess. There are clothes and books on the floor. His mini-fridge door is open and the television is blaring.
 
“Fuck, that’s loud.” He claps a hand over one ear.
 
I drop the kid on his bed and walk over to the television to manually turn it off. I have no idea where the remote is hiding. Then I pull off Easton’s shoes and undress him. He’s so out of it that he doesn’t fight me. Thank Christ for small favors. I tuck him under the covers and leave his bedroom.
 
At the bridge that separates the kids’ rooms from Mom and Dad’s suites, I pause and look down the stairs. The urge to flee washes over me. I could take my car keys and run out of here. Go to the other side of the country, lose myself in the woods or in the mountains. Anywhere to shed some of the responsibility of this family that weighs me down like an iron mantle.
 
But that’s not an option. I can’t leave my brothers.
 
I give myself an internal slap on the face. After tonight, I’m going to get Mom and Easton some help. There’s got to be a doctor that I can hire to come to the house that can treat them for whatever it is they need treating. Depression, I guess.
 
When I return to Mom’s room, she’s still on her sofa, staring at the closed curtains.
 
“Why don’t you try to get some sleep?” I suggest, dimming the lights before crossing to join her.
 
“I can’t sleep without your father here.”
 
“Sure you can.” I slide my arms underneath her and gently carry her to the bed.
 
“Have you heard from him? Your father, I mean?” she asks.
 
“No, ma’am.”
 
“Please don’t leave me,” she begs. “I can’t be alone tonight.”
 
Tears seep out of her eyes. The churning in my gut intensifies.
 
I struggle to find the right things to say to make her stop crying. “He loves you. He’s busy because he wants to provide for us.”
 
“Business is more important than me? Than his family?”
 
“It’s not.” But because I don’t know what to say, the tears and the blame keep coming. I drag a chair over to the bed and pull out my phone. As she rambles, I shoot off a text to Sav.
 
I’m sorry abt earlier. Family stuff. I’ll c u in am. Let’s do smthg tmrw nght. K?
 
Unsurprisingly, she doesn’t respond. I drop my head into my hands and wait for Mom to fall asleep. For as drunk as she is, it takes way too long for her to pass out. Finally, somewhere between two and three, the plaintive, heartbroken sounds are replaced by a gentle snore. I haul my tired ass to my bedroom and go right to sleep.
 
I’m woken a few hours later by a chirping from my phone. The security app alerts me that there’s someone at the front door. Groggily, I pull up the feed. The front door camera shows my uncle Steve’s wife on the front steps. I throw an arm over my head. Awesome. Just what I need. Another distraught female.
 
I force myself out of bed. I have the same jeans and T-shirt on from yesterday. I need to shower and shave, but, first, I guess I need to find out what Dinah O’Halloran wants.
 
“Morning, ma’am,” I say as I open the door.  
 
Dinah breezes by, smelling like fresh flowers. Her blonde hair wafts out like a silk curtain behind her. I can see why Steve married her. She’s as gorgeous as any model, but there’s something that puts me on edge about her despite the fact that she’s been nothing but decent to us boys. Mom doesn’t like her, though. Maybe I’ve allowed that to influence me.
 
“Steve contacted me this morning and said your mother called him several times last night. He asked if I’d come over to check on y’all.”
 
Instantly, my back stiffens. Royal messes should be taken care of by Royals and no one else. “We’re fine.”
 
Dinah shakes her head. “You don’t have to pretend with me. We’re pretty much family.” She pats my cheek before plunging deeper into the house.
 
I shut the door and hurry after her. I don’t want her to see Mom, which means Dinah needs to stay on the first floor. “Um, did you want something to eat or drink?”
 
“Oh, honey, I can help myself. In fact, why don’t I make breakfast for you boys? When do the others get up?”
 
My stomach grumbles. I rub my gut and glance up the stairs. “Reed’ll be up soon. The rest will be up in an hour.”
 
“Let’s get you and your brother fed first, then.” She makes her way to the kitchen, and I follow obediently.
 
“Need help?” I offer.
 
“Not at all. Have a seat.” She taps one of the counter stools. Then she makes herself at home, pulling out eggs and butter from the fridge, and pots and pans from the cabinet next to the stove. “Steve and your dad must’ve had a busy night.”
 
“I don’t know.”
 
She casts an amused smile in my direction. “You don’t need to cover for your father, dear. I’m old enough to know the score. Steve’s always had a wandering eye.”
 
I flush, not knowing how to answer, but Dinah chatters on.
 
“I feel bad for your mother, though. She has all these responsibilities and no help. That’s why I came over. To see what I could do to ease her burden.” 
 
Dinah bustles around the kitchen, mixing up pancake batter, frying bacon, warming up syrup. In almost no time, there’s a huge mound of food in front of me. For a moment, I’m surprised she can even cook—she’s always come off as a spoiled little princess. But then I remember that Dinah didn’t come from money. She married into it, which means she probably knew how to take care of herself before she met Uncle Steve.
 
“Thank you, ma’am.”
 
She ruffles my hair like I’m a little boy. “Don’t call me, ma’am. It makes me feel old. Call me Dee.”
 
“Okay.” I say between bites of food. I’m not going to argue with the woman who just made me breakfast. “These pancakes are awesome, Dee.” 
 
“Good. I’m glad to hear that. It’s astonishing how much you can pack away and still keep such a fit body.” Her fingers trail across my shoulder as she passes by.
 
It’s uncomfortable, but she means nothing by it so I keep my trap shut. No need to complain about an innocent touch. Besides, I have more important things to think about, like how I’m going to get Sav to forgive me. I blow out a deep breath before shoveling more pancake down my throat.
 
“What are you doing today?”
 
“Apologizing,” I blurt out and then immediately regret it.
 
“Oh, what’s this? Do you have girl problems? Tell Dee all about them.” She places both elbows on the counter and leans toward me. The V-neck of her shirt gapes and I can see down the front.
 
I avert my gaze and look over her shoulder. “It’s nothing.”
 
“Honey, you sighed like the weight of the world was on your shoulders. I’m a young woman who was single not so long ago. I bet I can help you out of whatever sticky situation you’re in.”
 
It’s not like I’m full of great ideas. “I may have pissed off my girlfriend,” I admit.
 
Dinah cocks her head. “In what way?”
 
“I invited her over, but…” I pause, not wanting to reveal the full fuckery of my household to anyone, not even Steve’s wife. “I needed to help my brother out last night and had to send her home.”
 
She taps a slender finger against her lips. “Girls like big gestures. Don’t you kids do promposals these days?”
 
“Yeah, I guess so.” Some guys have gone to extreme lengths to invite girls to dances, like creating a treasure hunt. Decker Henry rode a white horse down the street with a banner behind him. His girlfriend loved it, apparently. Loved it so much that she gave up the V to him even before the dance.
 
“Then do something along those lines. Make it big and splashy. She’ll love that.”
 
Big and splashy, huh? I don’t want to ride a horse, but I could make a spectacle of myself. I stuff one more bite of food in my mouth and hop off the stool.  
 
“Thanks for breakfast.” When I hear Reed’s footsteps at the door, I call for him to come inside. “Dinah cooked for us. Pancakes. Bacon. The whole shebang.”
 
His eyes widen in excitement. “Really? I’m starved.” Then he stops in his tracks, because the kitchen is Mom’s domain.
 
“I ate already,” I reassure him.
 
“Awesome.” Relieved, he takes a seat.
 
“Can you drive Easton and the twins to school? I’m taking East’s truck this morning since Sav has my car.”
 
“Sure.”
 
I leave Reed stuffing his face and hurry upstairs to get ready.
 
“Gideon!”
 
I turn to find Dinah right behind me. “Oh, hey, what’s up?”
 
She slides an arm around me and pulls me in for a hug. I awkwardly pat her back and try to avoid her tits getting squashed against my chest.
 
“What’s that for?”
 
“You looked like you needed a hug and kiss.” She kisses me on the cheek.  “Whoops. Got a little lipstick on you.” She wipes a finger across my cheekbone. “All good.”
 
I have the urge to rub a hand down my face but don’t want to seem like a jerk. “Thanks again for breakfast.”
 
“Think nothing of it. I can come over anytime and help out.”
 
I run up the stairs. In no time, I’m clean, dressed, and ready to go. My first stop of the morning is to the nearest floral shop.
 
“How many roses you got?” I ask the clerk.
 
“In the store?”
 
I pull out my wallet and lay several bills on the counter. “In the entire store,” I confirm.
 
It turns out that the florist has over two hundred of them. An hour later, I’ve also cleaned out three other stores.
 
Big gesture, here I come.

 

Chapter Seven

Gideon

Present Day

“You should buy her flowers. That’s what my dad gets my mom whenever he pisses her off.”

I pull back on the resistance bands. “Been there. Done that. Bought the florist shop.” Four in total.

Cal pauses in mid-fly. “The entire shop?”

“The roses,” I clarify. “I bought out all the roses in four flower shops.”

“Damn. How much did that cost?”

I sometimes forget that my friends here have no idea how much money I have. One great thing about college is that you can lose yourself on the campus. No one’s past really matters all that much. High school accolades or scandals don’t matter. It’s what you do here that counts. I try to keep my Royal connections on the down low. The only thing that marks me as having money is my Range Rover, but I’m not the only kid at State who drives a set of expensive wheels. There are Mercs and Beemers, and a couple of Chinese kids have Lambos.

“Enough,” I tell Cal. “And I bought them because I stood her up, so I don’t think going that route again is going to cut it.”

“What exactly did you do this time?”

Recounting my past sins to Cal kinda defeats the purpose of hiding out here, but he’s a good friend and I don’t want to lie to him. I’ve done enough lying to my friends to last a lifetime.

“I cheated on her,” I say bluntly, dropping the resistance ropes. They bang against the tile wall.

Cal’s eyes widen in surprise. “You did what?”

There’s some amount of gratification in his shock. As I said, who you were in the past doesn’t need to touch you when you leave high school. I’ve tried hard to not be that dumbass person who fell into Dinah’s pit.

“It’s a long story, but I did it, and when Sav found out, we broke up. After that, we tried to see who could hurt each other the most.” I grab a towel and toss it to my friend, who still looks shaken up.

“That sounds like a miserable game.”

“The worst,” I agree. “I stopped playing when I came to college.” But Sav didn’t. Word trickled up here that she and Easton had slept together.

I couldn’t even bring myself to be mad about that. If it happened, it wasn’t because either of them cared about each other. They just wanted to inflict pain, but I suspect their own guilt and self-loathing was worse than anything I felt when I heard it.

I can’t hate my baby brother, not after everything our mom put him through. And I can’t hate Sav, because of everything I put her through.

“I think you’re right,” Cal says, tossing his towel into the bin.

“How’s that?” I ask as we head for the locker room.

“She came here instead of all the other unis in the country. She wants you, man.”

I spin the dial on my locker. For all Sav’s excuses and protests to the contrary, if she really hated me, she would’ve stayed away. Or maybe I’m the delusional one, and her coming here is proof she doesn’t give a shit about me.

I rub a hand down my face. No. She slapped me. A girl who doesn’t care wouldn’t slap me. She still has feelings. Right now, they’re all angry and hurt, but I’ve got a chance to change that. “You might be right.”

“What’re you gonna do then?”

“Not sure yet.” I dress quickly and shove a hat over my wet hair.

“You gotta go big,” he advises. “I’m thinking skywriting. ‘Sorry I was an asshat. Please forgive my stupid butt.’”

I snort. “That’s a winning message.”

We shoulder our backpacks. Out in the hallway, Julie is leaning against the wall, talking to some guy from the track team who’s been chasing after her forever. Behind me, Cal stiffens.

“I don’t like that dude,” he growls.

“Why? He’s harmless. If Julie liked him, she’d have taken him up on one of his dozen previous offers.”

“That’s exactly why I don’t like him. He’s sniffing around even after she’s told him to take a hike. He’s standing way too close to her. I bet it makes her uncomfortable. Besides, Julie’s a swimmer. She belongs with the swim team.” He brushes by me. “Hey, babe.”

Julie perks up. “You guys done?”

“Yeah. Hungry? Let’s go have lunch.” Very efficiently, Cal inserts himself between the two.

The runner steps back with a frown. “It’s only ten,” he objects.

“Lunch is a catchall term,” Cal says. “Ready, Jules?” He couldn’t be more obvious, but for some reason, Julie appears to be blind to Cal’s feelings. Maybe that’s because Cal himself hasn’t figured out that the reason he doesn’t like guys talking to Julie is because he wants her for himself. Belongs with the swim team? More like belongs with Cal Lonigan.

“I could go for a Frappuccino.” She leans to the right to address the runner. “Let me check on that info for you. I need to search my inbox. I’m sure I have it, but I can’t remember it off the top of my head.”

He salutes her. “You got my number.”

Cal waits until we’re outside to jump all over her. “What do you mean, you have his number? He’s on the track team!”

“So? You make it sound like he’s selling drugs or something,” Julie replies, rolling her eyes.

Cal scowls. “He could be.”

Time to intervene. I walk between them and drape one arm over each of their shoulders. “Cal’s mad because he’s hungry. We need to feed the beast.”

“Yeah, I’m hungry,” he says, shooting me a grateful look.

“Whatever.” Julie shrugs. “Oh, I forgot. I have something for you.”

“You have something for everyone these days,” Cal mumbles.

Surreptitiously, I kick him in the shin. He lurches away. “What the hell was that for?”

Julie stops walking. “What happened?”

“I kicked him.”

“He kicked me!” Cal accuses.

She throws up her hands and starts moving again. “You two are children.”

Cal is quick to protest. “We’re teens, at least.”

“Here, you big baby.” She shoves a sheet of paper in my hands.

“What’s this?” I ask, but after I read the first entry, I know. “Is this a schedule of Sav’s activities for her visit?”

“Yes, and don’t tell anyone you got it from me.” Julie crosses her arms. “I already feel guilty, like I’m violating some important girl code.”

“How many times do I got to tell you? You’re on the swim team. Your allegiance is to us,” Cal proclaims.

“Ignore him,” I say and then reach over to give Julie a hug.

Beside me, Cal growls. I can’t keep my laugh in.

“What’s so funny?” Julie demands.

“Life. I’m laughing at life.” I shake the paper in my hand. “And opportunity.”

“How’re you going to win her back? Just follow her around and hope she realizes how awesome you are again?”

“Nah, he needs to do a big gesture.” Cal throws out his arms, one of which nearly hits me in the face. “I suggested skywriting.”

Julie wrinkles her nose. “I always thought those were super cheesy. I think you should do flowers. Buy her a big bouquet and get down on your knees.”

“That’s a proposal, not an apology,” Cal argues.

“It can be both,” she retorts. “And what do you know about grand gestures? Have you even made one in your entire life?”

“Hey, I did the promposal thing,” he says, looking wounded.

Julie and I both look at him in surprise. Cal is not the promposal type. His idea of romantic is sticking a candle in a hamburger bun.

“Oh, this I gotta hear,” Julie declares. “Did it involve animals? A treasure hunt? What?”

“I put a bag of chocolate-covered almonds in her locker with a note that said ‘I’d be nuts not to ask you to prom.’” Cal looks so proud that I force myself to choke down my laughter.

Julie shakes her head. “Ugh. So dorky.” She turns to me. “What about you? Did you do a promposal?”

“No.” I avoided my junior prom, and senior prom was a disaster.

“No as in not to Savannah, or no as in not at all?”

“Not at all.”

“Did your school not have prom? I know you went to a private one,” she asks, full of curiosity.

“We had one. I just didn’t go.”

“Is that part of why this girl is mad at you? Because you shafted her on prom night?” Cal asks.

“No. I dicked her over before Christmas. She didn’t go to prom, either.”

“Ouch.” Cal grimaces. “Forget I said anything.”

Julie pats me on the back sympathetically. “It sounds like you were a real jerk. I think Cal might be right for once. You need to do something extravagant and splashy to show her how remorseful you are.”

“He’s done big gestures,” Cal tells her. “He bought her four florist shops.”

Julie’s eyes grow wide. “Really? Five of them?”

“I bought flowers from four different shops,” I explain. “But here’s the deal with big gestures. They’re for people who mess up the everyday stuff. If you’re doing right by your girl—or guy—then you don’t need to do the big gesture. Besides, like Cal said. I’ve done that. It’s time for me to concentrate on doing the everyday thing.”

“What is that exactly?” Julie asks.

“For starters, I need to start listening.”

 

Chapter Eight

Savannah

Present Day

“Here you go.” Adrian Trahern hands me back my phone. With his sharp jawline and dreamy brown eyes, the sophomore looks like he’s better suited in front of the camera than behind it.

Wishing I was moved by his good looks, I muster up a smile. “Thank you. I won’t use it unless I have an emergency.”

“This will be the first time I hope someone has a lot of emergencies, then,” he teases.

In a normal world, I’d be throwing myself into Adrian’s arms and begging him to teach me everything. And I’m not talking about film. Instead, I shift awkwardly from side to side, unsure of myself.

Adrian saves me. “So you’ll be back in June?”

“Yes.” This time my smile is genuine. It’s a relieved smile, not a flirty one, but at least it’s real. “I’m excited, but a little scared. I suspect I might have a lot of emergencies then.”

His grin grows bigger. “I’ll be on the lookout.”

He holds open the door to the Arts building and gestures for me to precede him. A normal girl would be swooning at the obvious invitation from a boy as hot and charming as Adrian, but all I can summon is a weak grin. Damn Gideon.

“Are you producing your entire film here over the summer or do you have some parts ready to go? The equipment here is really great so if you’ve shot some scenes beforehand, you might want to redo them.”

“I’m still at the storyboard stage,” I admit.

“Let me know if you want to bounce any ideas around or get more feedback. Editing my summer festival film took forever because I’d fallen into the digital trap.”

“The digital trap?” I ask, holding up a hand to block the bright sun from my face.

“Yeah. With digital, there’s no difference in cost between filming five minutes or fifty minutes, except there is when you sit down to pare all of that video down to your three-minute short.”

“Oh, good point.”

“There are more tips where that one comes from.”

“Here you are.”

The faintly disapproving voice of Gideon stops me in my tracks. I drop my hand to find my dreadful ex standing in the middle of the sidewalk with his arms crossed over his chest. The pose makes the muscles in his biceps pop out, and a traitorous part of me quivers at the memory of those arms holding me.

Adrian’s lanky frame stiffens beside me, but his tone is light when he asks, “A friend of yours?”

“No. Not really,” I say sourly.

Gideon pretends he doesn’t hear me and sticks his hand out. “I’m Sav’s boyfriend. And you are?”

I slap Gideon’s hand away. “No, you’re not.” The back of my neck heats up with embarrassment, and what had been a vague idea before hardens into determination. “Actually, I’m going to take you up on your offer,” I inform Adrian. “I’d love to go over my storyboard with you. Should I text you some pictures and we can meet up when I get to campus in June?”

The sophomore glances from me to Gideon and back again. “Sure. Like I said, I’ll be around. I’ve got an hour now, if you want to catch lunch.”

“Savage is having lunch with me,” Gideon interjects.

Adrian’s eyebrows go up. “Savage?”

If I was prone to blushing or maidenly swoons, I’d be prostrate on the sidewalk right now.

“Go away,” I mutter with as much menace as possible.

“She means you,” Gideon says to Adrian.

“I do not!” The denial comes out loud, like a scream, and both boys turn to me in surprise.

“Is this guy bothering you?” Adrian asks softly. “Because I can call campus police, if you feel unsafe.”

“Someone’s going to be unsafe in about two seconds,” Gideon growls.

I cover my face with my hands. The Theater Arts and Film department is nearly a half mile away from the Business Administration cluster of buildings. I’d convinced myself that the campus was big enough for the two of us, but after only a couple of days of this visit, I know I’m wrong.

Which means I need to deal with Gideon. I have more unresolved feelings toward him than I realized. When he was away at college and I was in Bayview, it was easier to make myself believe that I was completely over him. Seeing him, though, brought all those memories back. All the good ones and all the bad ones, too.

“Look, man, I don’t know who you are, but you’re out of line,” Adrian snaps at Gideon. “Savannah, I can have campus police here in under five minutes.” He grabs my wrist and jerks me close to him.

Gideon lunges forward, and it takes only a nanosecond to see how this will all unfold. Gideon will punch Adrian. Adrian will retaliate, but Gideon’s stronger and has four younger brothers he’s used to fighting with. The cute film major will have no chance and my four years at State will be marked by being that girl. I’m done with being that girl.

I wrench out of Adrian’s grip and throw myself at Gideon. As expected, he immediately diverts his attention from Adrian to me.

“Stop,” I tell him, my voice quiet. “Don’t ruin this for me.”

He reads the seriousness on my face and gives me a reluctant nod. “All right.” He backs up, holding his hands palm-out in front of his chest. “I’m not here to cause trouble. I wanted to take you to lunch.” He extends a hand beyond me. “I’m Gideon, and yes, I’m Sav’s ex. For the record, though, I plan on changing that, so you can pursue her if you want, but know that it’ll be a fight.”

“Gideon,” I hiss.

“What?” He feigns innocence. “You once said that if my lips were moving, I was lying. I’m trying to show you I’ve changed. Only the truth from now on.”

Behind me, Adrian clears his throat. I know what he’s going to say even before I turn to face him.

“I’ve got plans.” He points to some random point off in the distance. “I’m meeting…” He trails off, probably remembering he just invited me to lunch.

I sigh. “Thanks for everything, Adrian. I’ll see you around.” Translation: I’m not going to call you and make things super awkward, I promise.

Adrian nods and then takes off, slowly at first, but then he starts jogging, as if he can’t get away from us fast enough.

As soon as he’s out of earshot, I turn on Gideon. “What the hell was that?”

“I want you to hear me out.”

“Hear you out about what?”

“About everything.”

“Why?” I ask bluntly, trying to figure out his angle. Why does he still care? Why does he still pursue me? Why does he still want to hurt me?

“Because I…”

Of course, it’s about what he wants. I start walking, but stop when he says, “No. Because you deserve it.”

My outrage dims and cautious suspicion takes its place. “Deserve what?”

A grimace contorts his face. His shoulders hunch forward, making the six-foot two-inch swim god look unusually vulnerable. “Everything,” he says softly. “All of the truths behind all of the lies that I ever told you. That’s what you deserve.”

My heart trips and fear makes my palms sweat. All of the truths? Can I handle that? Do I even want to know? Yet, isn’t this what I’ve been looking for? And if I finally get all the answers and explanations, won’t I be able to move on from Gideon?

“When’s the last time you’ve seen Dinah?” I blurt out.

A sad curve touches his lips, and for a moment I expect another lie. “A couple weeks ago,” he admits.

I can feel my eyes grow two sizes. “You saw her two weeks ago and have the nerve to talk to me?” I’m done with him. So done. “Get out of my face. Don’t come near me. We’re done. From now on, I don’t know you.”

He darts in front of me. “I could have lied. I could have lied,” he repeats. “I could’ve said I haven’t seen Dinah in months or years, but like I told you—only truths, no matter how painful. Honesty sucks, Sav, and not just because the truth is usually more painful than lies, but because there never seems to be a reward. Take now, for example. If I’d lied, you wouldn’t be a second away from running off. If I’d lied, you wouldn’t be mad.”

His words are full of truth and pain, which only makes me angrier. I advance on him, shaking my fist in his face, wishing I could inflict on him even an ounce of the hurt he’s caused me. “I’m mad about everything. I’m mad you cheated. I’m mad you lied. I’m mad you just saw Dinah. I’ve got so many grievances, it’s hard to catalogue them all.”

“I know.”

“You know? That’s all you can say to me?”

“No. I’m willing to tell you everything, but we both know it won’t justify what I did. It won’t erase the past, but if you need to hear it, then I want to tell it to you.” He spreads his arms wide. “Ask me anything. Ask me why Dinah was here on campus two weeks ago. Ask me what went on every time I had to leave you abruptly. Ask me why I’m here, ready to humiliate myself in front of you. Ask me anything—just don’t leave.”

“Then tell me.” My voice is so low even I can barely hear it, the words coming from the deepest well of my heart. “Tell me why you chose her instead of me.”

 

Chapter Nine

Chapter Nine

Gideon

Three years ago

“Dammit, Sav. I can’t come over right now. I’m not ignoring you, but I’ve got some stuff to deal with here. Can’t you let it go?” I clench the phone in my fist. Why can’t she understand that if I had a choice, I’d be with her? As if spending time with my four loud and obnoxious little brothers is better than lying in Sav’s sweet-smelling bedroom under the sheer curtains that are draped around her headboard.

But Mom’s on another bender and I can’t let her get ahold of Easton. Reed and I are trying to dry the kid out. If we leave him alone, she’ll manipulate him into buying her more pills.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Savannah’s unnecessary apology nearly cracks me open. I want to scream out the laundry list of every damn thing that is wrong at home, but I battle the urge back until those cracks are covered and sealed.

“It’s nothing,” I lie. “Just gonna play some video games with my brothers.”

“Video games. You’re going to play games with your brothers instead of hanging out with me. Am I hearing this right?”

I give a strained laugh. “Yeah, it sounds crazy, but I forgot I promised Easton that we’d play.”

“Do you want me to talk to her?” Dinah whispers from behind me, only it’s not really much of a whisper. I cover the speaker on the phone, but it’s too late.

“Who’s there?” Sav demands.

“No one.” I make an angry shooing gesture for Dinah to move away. Dinah just rolls her eyes.

Sav doesn’t respond right away. She knows I lied. I know she knows, yet I remain silent. Her acceptance of my shitty behavior makes me unreasonably angry. Yell at me, I silently fume. Call me out on my assholeness.

Of course, she doesn’t.

“All right, Gideon. Call me when you have a chance.”

“Later, Sav.”

“I love you,” she says, unknowingly sticking the knife in deeper.

I choke out the same words in reply and then hang up. I press the edge of the phone to my forehead, digging the hard case into my temple as if the pressure will take away the pounding headache I’ve developed.

“You’re doing the right thing,” Dinah tells me. “If you drag that sweet, innocent girl into this mess, you’ll make her feel responsible somehow, and that will add to your already tough burden.”

“I don’t give a shit about my so-called burden,” I mutter. A spot between my shoulder blades begins to itch. I don’t feel comfortable having Dinah so close to me, but the woman doesn’t have a good sense of boundaries. She’s always in my space.

Dinah stretches her arm around my shoulders, letting her fingers dangle above my left pec. “The best way to shield her from hurt is to keep her away. It’s a selfless act, Gideon. One that few people would be willing to make. I admire you so much for it.”

“You shouldn’t. I feel like a big pile of dog shit right now.”

Her nails tap against my chest. “You shouldn’t. And one day soon you’ll explain all of this away and she’ll be so sorry she was angry with you for even a second.”

“The problem is that she isn’t angry.” I shove the phone into my pocket. “She’s so damned accepting and that makes all of this worse.”

Dinah clucks her tongue and sidles closer. “It’s because she’s young. How old did you say she was?”

I shift my weight to one side and try to move away. Then I wonder how much to confess. When Sav and I started dating, I stupidly assumed she was sixteen. She’s not. She doesn’t turn sixteen until next month, which means, technically, she’s jailbait since I turned eighteen in August. But this is Dinah and she’s not about to rat me about. After all, there are bigger and better Royal family secrets for her to blab about.

“She’s fifteen. She’ll be sixteen in December.”

Dinah’s eyes widen before a sly smile spreads across her face. “Why, Gideon, I had no idea you liked the forbidden.”

“I don’t.” I scowl. “I thought she was older.”

“Of course you did,” she says in a singsong voice. “Don’t worry, cradle-robber. I’ve got your back. Mum’s the word.” She zips two fingers across her lips.

“Appreciate it,” I say, and shift again to create more space between her body and mine.

Dinah only closes the distance. Her touching always gets my back up. It doesn’t feel right, but I don’t know how to tell her to stop. She’ll want to know why, and I don’t have a concrete answer—just a feeling that all her physical contact wouldn’t sit right with Savannah. But how do I point out that Dinah’s boob is on my arm without being rude?

Besides, this sort of contact doesn’t mean anything to Dinah. She’s trying to help me. I’ve noticed she’s the touchy-feely type, and I’m not going to offend her by acting like a kid who’s too immature to withstand a peck on the cheek by a mother figure.

“I’m always here for you, Gideon,” Dinah murmurs, her lips almost brushing my ear lobe.

I know she doesn’t mean to sound suggestive, but sometimes that’s the way my lizard brain reads it. “Thanks. I think I’ll see what’s for dinner.” Without waiting for a response, I give myself an internal slap across the face and head into the kitchen.

Sandra is busily chopping onions on the center island. There are two pots on the stove, and the smells filling the kitchen are amazing. My stomach growls.

“What’re we having?” I ask, gliding up to the counter.

“Chicken parm.”

“Nice. I’ll tell the boys. What time should we come down?”

“Forty minutes,” she says.

“Awesome. You’re the best, Sandy.” I give our housekeeper a one-armed hug before moving toward the back stairs.

I have one foot on the bottom step when Sandra clears her throat.

“Yeah?” I glance over my shoulder at her.

She hesitates and then says, “Will Ms. Dinah be joining us?”

“She eats?” I joke. Dinah’s thin as a rail. I don’t see much going into her mouth unless it’s Skinny Vodka.

“I’ve cooked more for that woman than I have for Ms. Maria lately,” Sandra complains. “I was worried.”

About what? Mom not eating much of her food or Dinah eating too much of it? But asking that is like asking someone which stick of dynamite she wants to light first. Both end in a lot of unnecessary crying.

“She’s trying to help out,” I say in Dinah’s defense. She was the one who brought Dr. Whitlock here when I mentioned that I was worried about taking Mom to the hospital. Mom would hate everyone around here knowing her business.

“Is that what we’re calling it these days?” Sandra mutters.

Since I have no idea what she means by that, I let it go. But upstairs, I wonder. Do other people watch me interact with Dinah and think that something’s going on? No, of course not, I assure myself. The woman’s nearly a decade older than I am. Besides, for all intents and purposes, Steve is my uncle and that makes Dinah my aunt. She’s nothing more to me than a nice older relative who’s trying to help our family through a difficult time.

Ultimately, I believe in Dinah. Telling Sav what’s going on in this house will give the poor girl ulcers. It’s best that I keep this to myself for now. Once everything gets sorted, I’ll confess everything. Better to ask for forgiveness than permission, right?

Right.

 

Chapter Ten

Savannah

Three Years Ago

“What’s with the frowny face?” Lydia Scully asks, adjusting the thousand-dollar silk Hermes scarf that’s tied around her hair.

Shea and I were invited to Lydia’s house to hang out after school. So far, it’s just been a lot of boring fashion talk, but now that everyone’s attention is suddenly on me, I’m not bored so much as uncomfortable.

“Don’t frown. It gives you ugly wrinkles,” Ginnie advises. Next to her, Francine nods. The three of them make up Jordan Carrington’s main girl posse. Everyone calls them the Pastels. The girls think it’s because they tend to wear Easter egg colored clothing when they’re not in their Astor Park uniforms, but it’s mostly because their personalities are pale and featureless. They have no true color of their own. Whatever vibrancy they have is borrowed from Jordan.

“I didn’t realize I was frowning,” I say awkwardly.

“Well, you were.” Lydia informs me. “Is it boy stuff? No offense, but it wouldn’t surprise me if you’re having problems with Gideon Royal. He’d be a handful for anyone, let alone a sophomore.” She stares at her manicure as if she cannot care less about my response, but I know she’s dying for details about Gideon.

They all are. Even Jordan, who’s busy texting one of her three boyfriends, is intensely curious about how I managed to hook one of the Royal boys.

The Royals have been elusive up to this point. None of the older brothers have had a serious relationship—until now. So everyone wants to know why me. As if I have some secret technique that can collar a Royal.

“I can’t believe I’m dating him, either,” I say in complete honesty. I don’t know why Gid’s interested in me. And, frankly, I’m afraid I’m already losing him.

Hence the frown.

On the lounger beside me, Shea twitches and not from the cool night air. I’m supposed to pretend everything is awesome in my life, and admitting that I’m less than confident about my relationship violates the family code.

Oh well. The truth will be out there soon enough when he breaks up with me.

Lydia snorts. “No one can believe it.”

The truth stings. I glance at Shea, knowing that she’d rather I keep my mouth shut, but I could use some advice. These girls have more experience handling boys than I ever will, and I’m not talking about sexual experience. They just date more. Plus, Jordan’s otherworldly pretty. She always has boys giving her their number. She was stopped on the street the other day by a girl who wondered if she was a model.

According to the Pastels, during Jordan’s summer trip to Sweden, she had flowers sent to her hotel room every day by a guy she literally bumped into at the train station. Two Astor Park guys have broken bones trying to impress her. One cracked his wrist during a failed skateboarding trick, and another fractured his trying to make a jump on an untrained horse. Currently, she has three guys making fools of themselves over her.

Talking about Gideon and me is embarrassing, but I feel desperate, which is why I open my mouth and start blabbing. “Not only do I not know why he’s into me, but I don’t really know how to keep him, either.”

Lydia’s eyes light up. This is some good gossip and she’s here for it. Jordan’s busy fingers pause as well. Although she doesn’t look in my direction, I can sense her attention. Shea sighs.

“Are you putting out?” Lydia asks.

“That’s not any of your business,” Shea barks.

“What?” Lydia says innocently. “I need to know details in order to be helpful.”

I can’t stop my cheeks from heating up. These aren’t my besties. They’re girls that I hang out with because my dad insists on it and because Shea thinks it’s good for my reputation at school. It’s a shield, she explained. No one’s going to go after Jordan, so by extension, I’m safe, too.

Gideon’s not really a shield because he’s a guy. He’s not in the girls’ locker room or in the bathroom or at the private parties where the real slings and arrows come out.

You need a good girl posse who will watch your back, and although Jordan’s circle is the best there is at Astor, that doesn’t mean I want to share any intimate details with them.

“He’s not complaining,” is the best answer I can come up with.

“She’s boning him,” Lydia concludes.

I’m not, but I don’t bother correcting her assumption. She won’t believe me anyway.

“Send him a sexy picture,” Francine suggests. “Torin loves it when I send him stuff.”

“That’s dumb,” Shea says bluntly. “The minute that you and Torin are done, he’s going to share those pics with twenty different guys and those guys will share it with their twenty friends until you’re some meme about how dumb girls are.”

“Thanks for nothing, bitch.” Francine scowls. “Torin and I are not breaking up. We love each other.”

“Don’t get mad at Shea,” Jordan interjects. She smiles at my sister, and I nearly recoil at the venom in her eyes. “She doesn’t know any better. Remember the bad experience she had with Dooley? I wouldn’t want to share a picture with anyone if that had happened to me. But not every guy is going to humiliate a girl like Dooley did. That was just poor decision-making on Shea’s part.”

I’d be laid out on the floor if Jordan cut into me like this, but Shea merely smiles back as if Jordan didn’t just pour salt on an old wound. “Maybe not,” Shea says coolly, “but why take the chance?”

The Dooley incident happened two years ago. Shea was on a ninth grade class trip. Matthew Dooley was a senior. They’d been flirting heavily. Shea texted him a picture of herself on Francine’s boat, only she didn’t realize she’d spilled berry juice in her lap. Her white swimsuit showed a red stain in an unfortunate spot. Dooley shared the picture on his Instagram feed with a shark photoshopped in the background. The caption read: “Sharks can detect a single drop of blood in the ocean. Be careful out there. #sharkbait #auntflosrevenge #dontwearwhite”

Shea spent the next six months humiliated and mocked by everyone at Astor. Thinking back, that was about the time she started hanging with Jordan, even before Dad instructed us to suck up to her.

“Oh, let the girl live,” Jordan says. She leans across Francine to address me directly. “The sad truth is that guys are super visual. If he’s going to be looking at a naked girl’s body, why not yours? You’re gorgeous, Savannah. It’s better that he’s fantasizing about you rather than Olivia Munn, right?”

Everyone but Shea nods. Even I’m starting to be convinced.

Jordan somehow senses my indecision and presses me harder. “If you can’t trust Gideon not to share a sexy pic, then you shouldn’t be dating him and you certainly shouldn’t be sleeping with him. Feed the beast.”

“She has a point,” Francine says. The other two Pastels nod their agreement.

Shea’s had enough of this conversation. “Speaking of couples that are mismatched, did you see how hard Abby was panting after Reed the other night?” she asks, throwing chum into the water. The sharks go after it, and the topic turns away from me and Gideon and naked selfies.

*

Later in the car, Shea unloads on me. “Don’t do it. You just started dating him and if he’s already straying, sending him nudes will look desperate. Plus, what if he shares them with Three or someone?”

“He wouldn’t do that.” Gideon doesn’t seem like the type to brag. He doesn’t even talk about his swimming success, constantly downplaying any wins as part of a group effort.

Shea purses her lips and rolls her eyes, implying I could not have said anything more stupid. “Right. Just like he wouldn’t cheat or break your heart.”

“He’s not cheating and my heart’s just fine, thanks very much.” But I avoid looking into her eyes.

“Ugh. You’re going to do it, aren’t you?”

“I haven’t made up my mind.”

Shea knows me too well. The lack of an outright denial is the same as saying yes.

“Let’s hope that Dad’s willing to spring for a boarding school for you in Switzerland, because that’s where you’ll have to go after your nudes leak.” She guns the engine through the intersection.

I sigh. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

“Have you never heard of a thing called revenge porn? It’s real and it’s ugly. You’re happy now, but the minute that things go bad, he can put up a picture of you on the Internet and it’ll live there forever. You’ll apply for a job and someone on the hiring team will search your name and your tits will be the first result.”

“That’s not going to happen.” But I say it with more confidence than I feel.

After dinner, a text from Gideon comes in.

What r u doing?

Studying. I glare at my chem book. I hate science. You?

Hanging w/ the bros.

And then, as if he senses my insecurity, I get a little video panning the Royals’ media room. Some game is being played up on the projector screen. I see Easton lying on the floor and the back of the twins’ heads. At the end of the short video, Reed gives me a two-fingered wave. He must be sitting next to Gideon.

Wanna come over?

Yes! I scream internally, but he’s with his brothers and I don’t want to intrude.

Too much homework L

Gotcha. Miss u tho. Let’s go somewhere this weekend. Boat? Just u n me?

My heart flutters like crazy.

YES!

I get a thumbs-up picture in return. God, I love his hands. Now other parts of my body are fluttering.

Send me a selfie. Miss ur pretty face

Send me one, I shoot back. He’s the king of taking pictures of other people, but he surprises me by sending a dark, grainy picture of himself. He has one eyebrow arched and his tongue is touching the corner of his upper lip. Christ, I’m dead.

Rude, I type back. Stick that tongue back in ur mouth before u kill me with it.

Gotta feed my girl

His words are an unintentional echo of Jordan’s earlier ones. She’s right. If I can’t trust Gideon, then I shouldn’t be with him.

I hurry to the bathroom and strip down to my bra and panties. Of course, they don’t match. I wore nude panties today and a white-and-pink polka-dotted bra. What was I thinking?

I whip off my bra and then lift the camera.

No. I’m not ready for a topless photo. Baby steps, I caution myself.

I grab a tight fitting tank top and a new pair of panties, both in black, and return to the bathroom. I take a picture and look at it. The flash is reflected in the mirror and is that toothbrush splatter in the corner? I can’t send this!

My phone beeps. Another text from Gideon.

U alive?

1 min, I reply.

Frantically, I glance around. My room’s clean and the bed’s a sexy place. I’ll take a picture there.

I stack three books on my desk and then set the timer on the camera phone. I rush to the bed, kneel, and try to look at the camera with smoldering eyes. Once the flash goes off, I hop over to the desk and check out the picture.

Not sexy enough. In fact, it looks like I’m constipated. Maybe I should smile?

I reset the timer and return to the bed. This time, I tuck a finger under the side of my panties and pull up the tank so my stomach and hipbones are showing. And I smile.

I check the picture again. It’s okay, but I still look awkward. So I take several more. Some are with my top off. Some are of me lying down. Some are of me completely naked. I cross off the naked ones entirely. I don’t love my body enough to send those, but in the twenty or so selfies that I’ve captured, one of them is good.

My head’s slightly chopped off, but you can still tell it’s me. The strap of my tank is sliding off my shoulder and my panties are riding low on my hips. One arm is raised behind my back as I lift my hair off my neck and the other one is reaching for the bed.

I select a soft filter and then press send before I can talk myself out of it.

I don’t get an immediate response.

Deflated, I sink back on the bed. Maybe I should’ve sent a different picture. I flip through the photos. I should’ve spent more time setting the stage and playing with the lighting. I could’ve bought a special set of underwear. God, I feel so anxious! Maybe I shouldn’t have sent it at all. Maybe I—

The phone rings. It’s Gideon.

My heart’s hammering as I answer. “Yes?”

“How much homework do you have left?” he asks tightly.

“What?” I send him a sexy selfie and he asks me about my homework? What kind of failure am I? Was it that bad?

“How much homework do you have left?” he repeats.

“Um, a page or two?”

“I’ll be at your house in ten minutes,” he says.

“What?” I’m so confused. “Why?”

“Why? Because if I don’t get my hands on your body within ten minutes, I will be dead.”

And then I get nothing but silence, because he’s hung up. And he’s coming over in ten minutes! I throw the phone up in the air in utter glee. Then it hits me. He’s coming over in ten minutes!

I jump up and scurry to the bathroom. I guess Jordan was right. Hot selfies are the way to a guy’s heart.

 

Chapter Eleven

Savannah

Three Years Ago

I have way too much junk, I decide, as I scurry around my room. There are piles of books stacked by the desk. The counter in my bathroom has more makeup on it than the Dumpster behind the Sephora store.

I scoop all the discarded clothes off the floor and shove them in my closet. It takes three kicks to get the door shut. I only have two tiny drawers in my vanity, so I end up dumping all my toiletries in the bathtub and then tugging the curtain shut. I mean, when is Gideon going to be opening my closet doors or taking a bath, right?

I throw on a pair of skimpy sleep shorts and an oversized hoodie that makes it look like I don’t have anything on underneath. The hoodie’s for Gideon and the sleep shorts are to make me feel more comfortable.

My phone dings.

Here, the text reads.

I rush out of the bathroom and hurry to the door. I’ve got the doorknob in my hand when I hear a throat clearing behind me. Whirling around, I find Gideon leaning against the wall between my two windows.

I gasp. Actually, the sound that flies out is more like a shriek. “How’d you get in here?” I hiss.

With one side of his mouth tilted up, he jerks a thumb at the window. Wide-eyed, I rush over and peer out. Like most big plantation homes, I have a balcony, but the two attached to my windows are Juliet balconies, which means the foot-wide structures with the wrought-iron fencing jutting out from each sill are merely for show. They’re not meant to be stood on or climbed on.

I try to retrace his path. There’s the garden, a drain spout, the trellis covered in Carolina Jessamine vines. The trellis is composed of cedar but isn’t well anchored to the ground. The boy who mows the grass is constantly knocking it off kilter. Daddy gripes about how he has to reset the northern post every Sunday.

I eye Gideon suspiciously. “You didn’t?”

“I did,” he says smugly. His arms are folded across his chest, making his biceps bulge in a mouthwatering way. “But I have to say that it’d be easier if you had a tree outside your window. Maybe we should plant one.”

“Sure. And you’d be able to use it in, say, ten years or so.” I manage to say the words lightly despite my excitement over what he’s implying. Does he really believe that we’ll be together that long?

The thought of still being with Gideon years from now, long enough to see a tree grow from a sapling into a mature tree, makes me want to clap with glee. I manage to hold myself together and bury those feverish fantasies underneath a curtain of coolness. It’s bad enough that I sent him the selfie. I don’t need to make myself look more desperate.

“Bamboo trees are fully mature in sixty days,” he says as he crosses the room and stops in front of my bed. He toes off his shoes and lies down, tucking his hands behind his head, looking for all the world as if he’s as comfortable here as he is in his own room.

I crawl onto the bed, lying down but leaving enough space for another person between us. “Mom’d chop down that growth before it got knee high. Bamboo wouldn’t go with her Southern Living couture.”

“Your mom loves the South more than raccoons love garbage.”

“You know it.” Mom was born in Connecticut, but she hates any reminders of her past. In her mind, life started when she enrolled in Mississippi State. Ever since her Freshman year, she’s been trying to erase her Northern origins. Not that Mawmaw will ever let Daddy forget that he married a Yankee.

Gideon pats the space between us. “You expecting company?”

“No. I wasn’t expecting you.” I scoot over and fit myself against his side. He tucks an arm under my neck and positions my head in the slight dip formed beneath his collarbone.

His body’s warm and welcoming. He wraps an arm around my waist. “I couldn’t stay away.”

The words are sweet. Cocooned in his arms, I wonder why I ever felt anxious. He loves me. I know he does. He couldn’t hold me like this if he didn’t.

“Any reason you didn’t use the front door?” I ask, trying to keep a casual tone despite the earnestness filling my heart.

“What would be the fun in that?”

“Good point.” But it bothers me. Why not knock on the door? Is he trying to hide from my parents? “Mom and Daddy love you, you know. They don’t care if you’re here.”

He shrugs. I feel the movement under my head and hand.

“Sure, but then I’ve got to play the good boy. Drink some sweet tea with your mom. Make bad jokes with your dad about how he’d offer me something stronger but I’m underage. Then there’d be questions about my dad and mom and why they don’t ever go out. I’m here for you, not all of that.”

I get it. I really do. It’s effort to make small talk with my parents, and I shouldn’t take it personally that he doesn’t want to do that. All those things he hates doing, Shea’s old boyfriend did and he turned out to be a big asshole.

“Want to watch some sports?” I offer.

“Nah.” But he takes the remote on the nightstand and flicks on the television. Real Housewives of Beverly Hills pops up.

I shrink a little, wondering if I should be watching something smarter or more with it. Something cooler than a reality show featuring rich women and fake rich women who fight all the time.

But then he says, “I like the New York crew myself.”

I prop myself up on an elbow and stare down at him in surprise. “You do?”

“Yeah, I like the skinny girl chick. She’s smart.”

“Kind of mean, though.”

“Yeah. I think it’s because she used to be the poorest of them and was always fighting for respect. She doesn’t realize that now that she has money, she’s not inferior to them. But she still feels it and that’s why she acts the way she does.”

“Oh.” That was unexpectedly insightful. “She overcompensates like my mom.”

“Not just your mom. I see it in other women, too.” He doesn’t say any more, but it’s obvious he finds that type sympathetic.

It’s endearing, really, how thoughtful and generous he is. See? So unlike Shea’s ex. Or anyone else, for that matter. I rest my head back on his shoulder. As we watch the women pretend to eat, drink a lot, bicker, shop, and drink some more, his thumb finds a sliver of exposed skin between the hem of my hoodie and the waistband of my shorts.

The light touch makes me breathless. I forget about the women on the screen and their petty but addicting fights. All I can think about is the small patch of skin he’s caressing. The pad of his thumb sweeps forward and then back in a slow repetitive motion. The rest of my body becomes jealous, wanting the same attention, the same electric feeling.

But he takes no liberties, seemingly content to touch that tiny area of bare flesh. It’s not enough for me, though. I want more. With him, I always want more.

I reach down and tug my sweatshirt aside, exposing more of myself to him. His palm makes contact with my waist. He spreads his hand wide, his index finger reaching past my belly button, his pinkie finding the crease where my leg and hip join. The tips of his other fingers slip under the elastic of my shorts to sweep over my hipbone.

My mouth becomes dry.

I swallow hard as my blood heats up and begins to race through my veins. The once steady thud of Gideon’s heart against my cheek gets faster. He reaches down and drags my hand up his chest.

“You can touch me, too, you know,” he whispers.

I trace a tentative finger along his T-shirt-covered collarbone, pausing at the edge and then diving into the hollow at the base of his throat. His chest is one hard slab of muscle, formed from daily workouts. Even under the cotton of his shirt, I can easily trace the ridges of his abs. His ribcage fills and contracts as he takes one shuddering breath after another.

The air is thick. We’re both finding it difficult to breath. I think that’s why I seek out his mouth and why he searches for mine. We are each other’s oxygen. He tastes sweet, the flavor addictive.

His hand sweeps higher, leaving my shorts to smooth upward along my ribs and stopping to wrap those long, elegant fingers around the curve of my breast.

“Is this okay?” he asks.

“Ye-yeah,” I croak.

My entire body feels different—not fully familiar anymore. The skin is tight against the bones, the blood is rushing fast, my head is dizzy. I move closer, wanting all of me to be touching all of him. My legs intertwine with his. My left hand clutches his T-shirt while my right one curls around his biceps.

He rolls, sweeping me underneath him. I find new places to touch him. His broad back flexes as I sweep my fingers over his shoulder blades, down his spine until I reach the waistband of his jeans. Against my hipbone, I feel him vibrating.

Wait. Vibrating?

Gideon must feel it, too, because his head pops up. I whimper at the loss of contact.

“Sorry,” he mutters and then throws himself to the side.

I watch in frustration as he digs a hand into his front pocket and pulls out his phone. I strain to read the name on the screen, but I can’t make out anything before he swipes his finger to answer.

“Yeah?” he barks into the receiver.

I pull down my sweatshirt. In the mirror over my desk, I catch a glimpse of myself. My hair’s a mess from Gideon’s fingers. My lips are swollen from his kisses. My pupils are dilated and my cheeks are flushed. The hoodie is nearly falling off one shoulder. Meanwhile, Gideon looks about the same as he did when I first spotted him at my window.

His cropped hair is as tidy as ever. His T-shirt shows no wrinkles. And, most exasperating, he doesn’t even look as if he just spent the last ten minutes making out with me. His face is expressionless, his tanned cheeks unmarked.

I adjust my sweatshirt.

“I’m busy right now,” he says.

I take some solace in the terseness of his voice. He doesn’t sound happy to be interrupted. Yet, he answered the phone. I think Daddy could’ve come in and I wouldn’t have noticed.

“Right now?” A frown creases his brow. “All right. I’ll be there in ten.”

What?

He hangs up and climbs off the bed. “Sorry, Sav. I’ve got to go.”

“Uh-huh,” is all I can manage.

He shoves his feet into his boots and needlessly straightens his shirt. “I don’t want to leave, but I have to.”

“Uh-huh.” I wrap my arms around my waist.

He comes over and hugs me. “I’ll call you when I have a minute.”

“Uh-huh.”

He shoves a hand through his hair. “I really am sorry, baby.”

I push out of his arms and march over to the door. “See you later, Gid.”

He stares at me for a second and gives a little shake of his head. I hear him mumble something as he leaves, but I’m not interested in his sorries anymore.

I slam my bedroom door shut and then throw myself on the bed, fighting back tears of anger and frustration.

I should’ve never sent that picture.