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Authors: Alessandra Thomas

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Picture Perfect

BOOK: Picture Perfect
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Picture Perfect

Alessandra Thomas

ISBN: 9781482750515

Copyright 2013 by Alessandra Thomas

Cover art and design by
www.humblenations.com

Editing: Jim Thomsen

All rights reserved.

This book is a work of fiction. References to real people, events, establishments, organizations, or locations are intended only to provide a sense of authenticity, and are used fictitiously. All other characters, and all incidents and dialogue, are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real.

Praise for
Picture Perfect:

“Picture Perfect
is an engaging story about not only finding love, but finding ways to love yourself. It made me cry, then smile through my tears, and has earned a permanent place in my heart.” –Lyla Payne, bestselling author of
Broken at Love
.

Chapter 1

My
fingers brushed over the rows of fabric hanging in my closet. I’d just spent the last hour pulling the heavy knits, fluttery tanks, delicate cardigans, pencil skirts, and dresses out of the boxes that had lived in the basement of my sophomore year dorm for the past ten months.

And I was pretty sure not a single one of them fit.

I’d hauled all these goddamn clothes two blocks north to my new room in the big brick Kappa Delta sorority house near campus. Just one reason I was grateful we were on the first floor.

I glanced at the clock. A few more minutes until I promised the girls we’d go out for the first dinner of our junior year—the year we’d all turn twenty-one, the year we’d be upperclassmen in our sorority, finally. The best year yet.

I ran my hand under the hem of my baggy t-shirt and against my belly. Damn, why did I ever have to take this off?

Thank God that tanks that dipped and draped in the front had been in style last year. I pulled one—a gauzy pink one that had always hung low on my hips with loose ruffles at the low neckline—out of my closet and held it up to my torso.

Yeah, this would work. Definitely.

I pulled off the t-shirt, one I’d stolen from my big brother—who, at six foot one, towered over me just enough to make his t-shirts hang loosely—and threw it to the floor. I was careful not to look down at my waistline. I didn't want to see the way my belly curved and creased over my hip if I turned the wrong way. I even put on my bra over the sports bra I’d been wearing since early that morning, just so I didn’t have to feel the way my breasts hung, heavy, resting against my ribs in a way they never had before.

Never before last Thanksgiving, anyway. I’d been at my dad and stepmother’s for the holiday, running barrels with my favorite horse, Sloane. I’d never know why, but she’d bucked me during a run, and I’d broken my lower leg at the joint.

Three surgeries, a huge metal rod and two screws later, not to mention countless doses of steroids, six weeks of bed rest, and ten months of physical therapy, I’d gained sixty pounds and four sizes.

Sixty pounds. And four sizes.

I repeated what everyone had told me as I snapped my bra into place and shimmied out of the sports bra: Dressing was all about wearing what was best for your body. I believed that. I always had. Being a fashion design major meant understanding how to make clothes look good on all bodies. I’d pull some gorgeous boots over these stretch jeans, and this gauzy, fluttery shirt would skim right over my belly and the place where my back rolled down over my bra, no matter how thick the band was.

That is, I thought it would, until I put it on.

No, no. No no no. Instead of flowing around my torso and hiding every bump, roll, and curve, the shirt clung close to my hips and brushed the underside of my boobs.

Shit.

I ripped it off, threw it on the floor, and tore through the closet that I’d just spent the last hour so carefully organizing. But even before I dove all the way in, tangling the hangers and scraping my arms on their wire curves, I knew. That was the loosest shirt I owned. And now it was tight.

I stood back and put my hands on my hips, my breaths becoming more rapid as I stared, panicked, into the closet.

It was not possible that I literally had nothing to wear on my first night back on campus.

The faster my breaths got, the harder it was to get air into my lungs. I pulled Max’s t-shirt on back over my head, and trudged down the stairs.

I never moved faster than trudging these days. I’d be recovering for years from this damn surgery. And my legs would never again strut seamlessly one in front of the other, carrying my body effortlessly down the runway.

I headed to the kitchen. One good thing about being fat was that no one cared if you got a little fatter. They kind of expected it.

I found a half-used tube of chocolate chip cookie dough in the fridge with my best friend’s name scrawled on the wrapper in permanent marker. Leave it to Joey to have baked a batch of cookies in the three days since she’d been back. I found a spoon in the drawer, plopped down on the couch in the next room, and dug in.

The rush of sugar and chocolate and doughy sweetness shot through my system. I tilted my head back, closed my eyes, and for just a second, it didn’t matter that the only clothing in my possession I felt comfortable in was a ratty rugby t-shirt I’d stolen from my big brother.

Just for a second.

That’s when Joey burst into the house, her cheeks flushed, her flyaway curls stuck to the side of her face with sweat. She had four plastic bags from Target biting into one arm and a twenty-four-pack of toilet paper balancing on the other.

“A little help here, Cat?”

I hoisted myself to my feet and grabbed the toilet paper while Joey blew out an exhausted laugh. “Holy shit. You don’t know how hot it is until you get out there.” She glanced at her phone. “At least we have like an hour till we need to leave, and I have no one to impress. Unlike you.” She set the other bags down and elbowed me in the ribs—easy, because she was only five foot two next to my towering Amazonian frame. “Speaking of, have you heard from him?”

“Him, who?”

Joey rolled her eyes. “You know who. Don’t even start with me. Good ol’ Jakey! Mister Tongue!”

I laughed and flushed red. Jake and I had first made out February of my freshman year, at a recruitment party for my sorority when I was far too drunk and he was far too...something. The next morning I gave all my new sisters a full-on demonstration of the wet-tongue acrobatics he’d subjected me to. Those that I’d remembered, anyway.

The girls had all laughed, and immediately after, swooned when I pulled up a picture of us together at the party. He was hot. One of the hottest guys I’d ever seen—from home, at Drexel University, in a magazine, period. He was a year older, too. The most crucial part of his hotness was that he was tall—tall enough that in the following months, I’d bought all the cute stilettos I’d always avoided, and he’d gotten a kick out of easily grabbing me around my slim waist, pulling me into a corner, and doing unspeakably delightful things to me.

Too bad those stilettos were so short-lived. No way I’d get back into them now. I could barely walk a distance in any of the pairs of flats I’d amassed since the accident. Not with my damn gimpy leg and the ache I felt deep in my shin with any impact exercise, including walking from club to club in beautiful shoes. Or walking a runway.

“No, I haven’t heard from him. I mean, I talked to him last week, but not for long. He’s been on vacation, you know.”

Joey nodded knowingly. Jake and I texted every day after my accident, and talked every few days on the phone. But the truth was, that was just at first. As the last few weeks of spring semester wore on, when he was in Philly and I was stuck at home in Pittsburgh, the days between calls had stretched to weeks. He liked sports and I wasn’t moving off the couch any time soon. It was sort of hard to maintain a connection when my tongue wasn’t in his mouth, or somewhere else, I guessed.

Just then, my phone buzzed.

I flipped it over and there was a text from Jake.
Hey gorgeous. You coming out tonight?

My heart dropped into my stomach. My reflexes wanted to preen, but my belly rolls told me otherwise. I always loved it when he called me gorgeous.

The look on my face must have betrayed me. Joey leaned in and did a little dance. “Ooooh, what’d he say?”

I should have been excited. My body should have flushed with wanting him. But instead, a lump rose in my throat and tears stung my cheeks.

The smile on Joey’s face melted away. She’d been my roommate since my first day at Drexel, and had seen me in pretty much every college-girl situation imaginable. She knew.

“Oh, honey. Oh no. What’s the matter? Did he dump you?”

I barked out a laugh. “No, but he will.”

“What are you talking about?

“You know all my clothes? The ones that were in storage here at the house?”

“Yeah...?”

“Well, I just hung them all up, and tried a few things on. And nothing fits.
Nothing
.”

Joey stepped back and cocked her head, looking at me. “No, you look good! We spent a whole two classes last semester learning about this. It’s the size of the average American woman, and it doesn’t mean you’re unhealthy at all! I mean, I knew you weren’t model-skin-and-bones like you were last year, but it’s not like you’re
fat.

“Well, my clothes say I am. And the clothes don’t lie.”

“Seriously, though. What size are you?”

I walked over to the couch and collapsed, and felt it shudder beneath me. Awesome. “I don’t even know. I’ve been wearing yoga pants since my last surgery. They’re easier to get out of, you can roll them down instead of tugging them off, way better for physical therapy, and I never thought...I don’t know.” A fat tear rolled down my cheek. Shit. Now I was going to bawl.

“No. No no no. This is ridiculous.” Joey stalked over and tugged me to my feet. “You are gorgeous, Jake wants to see you,”—she wiggled her eyebrows—“and so there’s only one thing to be done.”

“What?”

“We’re going shopping.”

Chapter 2

Two
hours later, we arrived back at the house with two huge bags from the mall filled with jeans in my (new) size twelve, and a bunch of shirts that draped enough over my front to make me feel comfortable.

And a leg that was absolutely killing me.

I stood in front of the mirror in the outfit Joey had wrestled me into, already uncomfortable in the heavy jeans. I’d picked them because the thicker fabric seemed to suck in my saddlebags a little more, and smooth over some of the bumpier areas on my thighs. Joey had insisted that the skinny jeans were totally flattering, but all I wanted to do was yank up the right leg and scratch at the scar running all the way down my shin, already protesting against the strange pressure there.

Joey had found a sparkly gold swingy top—size large—that minimized my stomach and maximized my boobs. “Because I don’t know how much you could have really gained— and I don’t believe this ‘sixty pounds’ bullshit—however much it was, half of it went to your boobs, Cat. I’m kind of jealous.”

It was the first time I’d ever really wanted to smack Joey. Even in sweats and a sorority sweatshirt, she looked adorable. And she knew it.

“I just can’t believe I can’t wear heels. It would stretch me out at least,” I said, standing on tiptoe and then wincing when pain shot up my leg. It was like that rod in there was a Taser that shocked me whenever I tried to act like my life was normal.

I turned and checked out my butt in the tight jeans. “This is ridiculous, isn’t it?”

“Ridiculous how hot you look. Seriously, Cat, Jake’s gonna die. Curves everywhere.” The syllables on the last word were drawn out as her hands drew an outline of my rounded silhouette in the air. She winked at me in the mirror, smacked my butt, and tripped off to the other bathroom on the far side of the house to fix her makeup. “Finish up, though. We’re late,” she called as she left.

She was right. I did have curves everywhere. No matter which way I turned, not a single part of my body looked thin. And when you’d paid your way through high school extracurriculars and the first year of college’s room and board as a catalog model, that was not good. Not good at all.

I still hadn’t called my Philadelphia agent, even though she’d been hounding me to do so all summer. I explained in the e-mails that I’d gained a lot of weight. Sixty pounds. Her e-mails back were filled with bullshit about how plus-sized models were getting more exposure than ever, and had I seen that spread in
Cosmopolitan
about two of them, and they even posed nude! And maybe this would be my big break, since now I was the same size as the average American woman, and my gorgeous face was always what got me the best jobs anyway.

Except I didn’t want to be that size. I wanted to be the same size as the average me.

And I definitely didn’t want to be the girl with “such a pretty face.” Because everyone would know that meant I didn’t have the pretty body to match.

That damn lump rose in my throat again, and I swallowed it back. “Let’s get home.”

Staring in the bathroom mirror half an hour later, I dusted pink, sparkly eye shadow across my eyelids and followed it up with waterproof cat-eye liner as my insurance against more tears.

I slammed my hands down on either side of the sink and gave myself the hard-eyed pep-talk face in the mirror. “You are hot, Catherine Mitchell. You were hot last year and you have the same face this year. Just look Jake straight in the eye, walk like you’re thin, and everything will be fine.”

***

It took Joey and me a little longer to get to the bar than I would like. Even though it was only a couple blocks away, the uneven Philadelphia flagstones turned out to be a lot harder on my knee joint, now anchored above my leg bones with the help of some pretty serious interior hardware, than the dirt roads of the California farm and the smooth sidewalks of Ohio University where I’d spent most of the year rehabilitating. These streets were a reminder that the rehabilitation maybe hadn’t been as complete as I’d thought.

I nearly sighed with joy when we saw Landmark. It was going to be so good to see the girls again, to hear them squeal over my outfit and kiss my face when they saw me. I really wanted to see the hungry look that Jake’s eyes always got when they met mine. But most of all, I wanted to sit down and ease the pain in both my leg and my ego with a nice, sugary, alcohol-filled drink.

The girls had already snagged a table and filled it with six pitchers of beer and snacks. As soon as they saw us, the squeals filled the room. They grabbed Joey and exclaimed over how cute her little dress was, how they hardly ever saw her out of scrubs last year. They hugged me too, with quick, closed-lipped smiles, and an extra hard hug on their tiptoes. But they didn’t say a word about my outfit. And seriously, how could they not with all the sparkles? Then, I got the head cocked to the side, and always the same question. “How are you feeling?” Nobody wanted to hear the real answer.

Someone grabbed my hand and found me a seat. I settled down, way too conscious of the way my butt spread farther than the surface of the seat and how my stomach must look from the side to enjoy my surroundings. The girls were chattering about their summers spent interning in D.C. or nannying for rich kids in Martha’s Vineyard or working for their dads’ businesses. All things I would have killed to be busy with, instead of physical therapy.

I tried to answer their questions about how I was doing, but it was better to just give stock answers—“Better every day,” or “I feel mostly normal now,” or “I’ll be back in heels in no time”—than breaking down and weeping into a pitcher of beer. But the lies started to fight for space in my head with the truth, and the fight made a thick black roar that was almost impossible to see through.

Thank God, at just that moment, the bar’s door dinged. And in walked three guys, headed straight for our table. And one of them was Jake.

I got up so fast that I made the table shake, and my arm shot down to steady it, hoping nobody noticed. Jake, who had been joking with the guys and wore a high-watt, confident smile, finally glanced up at me and met my eyes. And the corners of his mouth drew in. Not enough to make him stop smiling, but enough to make me notice.

Jake crossed the few steps between us and motioned for a hug, and my heart jumped. But when he drew me toward him, he had his arms around my neck, hanging loosely over my shoulders. Not grabbing at my waist and letting his fingers crawl along the hem of my shirt. Not communicating how much he wanted to grab me and kiss me, like every other hug we’d ever shared in front of my friends.

When I pressed my body against his, making sure to capitalize on my new cleavage pressing up and making a show against his chest, and turned my head to nuzzle my lips against his neck, I waited for one, two, three seconds to feel that familiar telltale pressure just below his waistband against my stomach.

Nothing.

Oh, shit.

“Glad you’re back, Cat.” He pulled back, ruffled my hair, and didn’t kiss my cheek.

He didn’t kiss my cheek. He always kissed my cheek.

Then he went around to at least three other girls at our table, all friends of ours with boyfriends, and hugged them exactly the same way.

The room spun and I suddenly really needed to put my hand back on that table. I lowered myself into a chair, and stared into the fizzy amber of one of the pitchers of beer, trying to get my bearings. Jake pulled up a chair on the other side of the table, everyone sat down, and nachos and mozzarella sticks were passed.

I was starving, but there was no way I was eating one of those.

“Whaddya want to drink, sweetie?” Joey wasn’t just asking me what I wanted to drink. She was staring at me like I might spontaneously combust.

I broke my dazed expression and cleared my throat. “Nothing. I mean...uh...just a Diet Coke.”

She raised her eyebrow at me. “You said you wanted a strawberry margarita. Or a Sex On the Beach. Something frozen and sweet.”

“Yeah, uh...shopping wore me out. I’m too exhausted to be any fun drunk tonight.”

Joey side-eyed me as she got up to grab my drink. “Okay. Be right back.”

At least two other girls had seen our exchange—one of my sorority sisters, Ashley, and her friend who was visiting from out of town. Even though it was only two sets of eyes, it felt like they were all on me. Boring into me. Reading my mind, and knowing how completely embarrassed I was to be so huge, when last year I was so hot.

I plastered a smile on my face, making sure it touched my eyes, and looked up. “I’m going to the ladies’ room. Be right back.”

I banged into the bathroom, squeezing myself into the first stall. A sob rose in my throat as I tried to tug the stiff new jeans down, and finally I sat down, even though I didn’t really have to pee. I rested my elbows on my knees, raked my fingers back from my forehead over my scalp, and took a deep breath, just like the physical therapy people had taught me to do when I needed a break. Take myself out of the situation. Take a deep breath. Try again.

Yeah, that was fine when you were in the middle of a rehab center when half the people there had it way worse than you, and all the therapists understood. Not when your hot whatever-he-was from almost a year ago waited outside at a table with a bunch of other girls, obviously not interested in you.

I sat up straighter. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t leave this bar through the bathroom window. There wasn’t one, since it was attached to a damn fitness club. Just the reminder I needed. I had to get it together.

I breathed in through my nose and out through my mouth a couple of times until my stomach calmed down. I had to quit that, too, unless I wanted the next person walking in to think I was a crazy person and freak out.

Even if I was. A crazy person.

I pulled up my pants, with a little grunting and stretching, shouldered out of the stall, and stared at the bathroom mirror. Being fat required so many layers. Bra with wide band, tank top, shirt. I pulled and stretched each one back into place, trying to note which movements caused bulging or gapping.

I really should have practiced this back home instead of lazing around in stretchy pants and huge t-shirts. I just had never thought that clothing would turn out to be such an
issue
. It never had been before. Both in life and in the runway shows I’d done to make some cash and pay the bills, it was as easy as pulling clothes on and going. Half the time, I never even looked in the mirror. That’s how sure I was that I would look good in whatever I wore.

Finally, I felt like my belly and hips were dammed up safely behind my Spanx-slimming camisole, one I’d grabbed off the rack even though Joey had grabbed a side of it in each hand, strained to stretch it, and frowned, warning me it would make me feel squished and miserable. It did, but it also smoothed things. As long as I didn’t move too much.

I turned to the side and stared at myself in the mirror. Instead of a sharply defined torso and legs, I now had a body full of carefully controlled bumps.

Awesome.

That was when the tears started again. Big fat ones, barreling down my cheeks and plopping on the sink like the heavy drops that come moments before a summer thunderstorm.

Only difference was, those storms cleared the air, took the humidity away. I was pretty sure, right here and right now, that these pre-bawl tears would only make things worse. And seeing myself standing there, crying, made my lips twist down into the beginning of the Ugly Cry. Not good.

Just then, the door swung open and Joey stood there, hands on hips. “Cat, you’ve been in here for ten—” Then she saw me ridiculously dabbing at my wet cheeks with the one piece of toilet paper I’d brought out of the stall. “Oh, honey. What? What’s going on?”

“I’m just...fat. I don’t know.”

She reached up to grab my shoulders, which were starting to shake with the sobs rolling up through my body. “No. No. Now
stop
. You look amazing. You don’t look like you did last year, and everyone knows that. But you look
so good
, Cat.” Her eyes narrowed. “Did someone say something to you?”

“No,” I said, dabbing at my eyes, trying to staunch my tears like I would blood from an open wound. “But I could tell. Especially Jake.”

Joey’s mouth twisted down and she sighed. “He didn’t feel you up like usual, huh?”

A short laugh tumbled out from my belly. “You noticed that, huh?”

“Yeah, because it was always so gross when he did last year.”

Joey always knew how to make me laugh. “Shut up.”

“Seriously, though. You just got back. Give him some time. I’m sure he’ll be mauling you in dark corners in no time.”

I peered into the mirror and tried to clean up some of the mascara that had dribbled down my face. Then I sighed, and said, “Thanks, Jo.”

“I know this sucks, Cat. And I will be here for you every time. But you’re not gonna be a stick figure again for a long time. Maybe ever.”

“I wasn’t a stick figure!” I protested. Even though I knew she was right, on both counts.

Joey scoffed. “Okay. Grab my head in one hand and my feet in the other, stretch me half a foot, and that’s what you looked like. You were skinny as a twig before, and you’re not anymore. That’s the only reason none of your clothes fit. Everyone knows what happened, and nobody cares. But they’re gonna get kind of annoyed with the whining and the moping if you don’t start feeling comfortable in your own skin.”

It felt kind of like she’d twisted a warm, loving knife in my gut. I knew she was right, but I still wanted the time to feel sorry for myself. But when I looked up in the mirror again and saw my careful makeup destroyed on top of puffy red eyes, I decided I was going to do my best.

Getting comfortable with how I looked was going to be tough, though, with the overwhelming feeling that all I wanted was to get the hell out of my body.

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