Authors: Melissa Pearl
Thanks for finding me.
Thanks for marrying me.
Thanks for being my jester.
I love you.
TUESDAY, 8:17 PM
The mirror is particularly kind tonight. I turn to my side, relishing how great I look in my new black leather miniskirt with gold trim. It accentuates my slender curves. My scarlet top has a deep V-neck that gives me an extra boost of confidence and my knee-high boots add the final touch. Trent won’t be able to resist me.
I reach for my jewelry box and rummage around the carved wooden chest, the gems and metals clinking together. Sliding on a couple of gold rings and my favorite pair of hoop earrings, I give myself one final look in the mirror and grin. As I start to shut the lid of the jewelry box, a long chain catches my eye.
The two dull metal dog tags swing back and forth as I pull the chain out. I run my thumb over the indented word
and wince. I’d forgotten that I’d kept this, too ashamed to look at it.
I slip the chain on. The necklace lies with a weight against my chest. I gaze into the mirror and run my fingers lightly down the chain. A longing pierces me and I’m about to take it off, to push away my feelings, when a car horn blasts outside.
“Shit.” I snatch my jacket off the end of my bed and shrug my leather bag over my shoulder.
I head downstairs, my heels clicking in a staccato beat against the hardwood floors. The curtains in the living room are drawn, cocooning my mother in darkness. She likes to lay low on nights when Dad’s working late, which is every night these days. Currently, she’s glued to some pathetic reality show and sipping her white wine as if it’s the only thing keeping her balanced. Maybe it is.
I breeze past her. “See you, Mom. I’m out.”
“Where are you off to, Nicole?” Her aqua blue eyes don’t leave the screen.
“Study group.” I dart toward the front door. Thankfully, Mom doesn’t notice what I’m wearing.
The dog tags hit my chest as I rush to escape. I gasp and quickly hide them beneath my shirt.
Amber double-blasts her horn and I roll my eyes as I walk toward her car. I can feel the dog tags pressing against my chest. Amber’s green, catlike eyes skim over me as I slip into the passenger seat of her black Mazda3, and her eyebrows shoot up in approval. She puts the car into drive and we speed down the street.
“You like?” I point to my new attire.
“I love it.” She touches my leather skirt. “Where’d you get it?”
“Online,” I say, adjusting my outfit so my seat belt doesn’t wrinkle it. “It’s Marc Jacobs.”
“No way.” Amber can’t hide the tinge of jealousy in her voice. “How did you afford it?”
I reach into my purse and pull out a shiny silver credit card. Amber leans over and reads—
MITCHELL R. TEPPER
“Your dad is going to kill you when he finds out,” she says with a grin.
“Yeah, right.” I tuck the card away. “The guy is so clueless, he’ll be searching the house for weeks before he even thinks to ask me.”
“What about the credit card statements?”
I throw her a look. “You’ve met my mother, right?”
“That shopaholic’s worse than you,” Amber agrees.
“Exactly. We’re in the clear, so let me know what you want.” This is the delicate balance of our friendship—her jealousy will disappear if I buy her something new. A smile spreads across my face. “Fancy a shopping spree in LA tomorrow?”
Amber smirks. “You are such a bad ass.”
“Oh, yeah.” I hold the card next to my face and flash a wicked grin at my phone camera. I post the photo to Instagram and show Amber.
Watch out, LA, I’m on my way.
She bursts out laughing. “You’re so busted if your parents see that.”
“Come on, my parents don’t even know what Instagram is.” Amber laughs a little harder and shakes her head. Getting into a little bit of trouble together is what the two of us do best. We’re each other’s partner in crime.
I roll down my window and drink in the magical early evening light, the pale dusk sky is clear and beautiful. Even though Big Bear is a sleepy mountain town, sometimes I forget how gorgeous this place is. I catch sight of Dale Finnigan farther up the street. His dark curls are swept back as he jogs down the winding road, his pace slowing as he nears his house. Sweat soaks through the back of his T-shirt.
The dog tags suddenly feel suffocating.
“Oh, man, check it out. Finnigan’s trying to get fit. Hilarious.” Amber leans across to yell out my open window while I slump in my seat. “Nice try, freak!”
Dale keeps staring straight ahead. He’s so strong that way, always letting the bullying slide off of him.
“See you later, Scarface!” Amber giggles, accelerating around a tight curve. I glance out the back window. Dale stops beneath the streetlight, his curls falling over his face as he shakes his head. The gruesome scar that runs down his cheek throbs red. He looks up and our eyes meet. I turn away, afraid to be caught staring.
“A little mean, don’t you think?” I say, trying to keep my tone light, as if I don’t really care about how Amber treats Dale.
“That’s rich, coming from you,” Amber says, stung.
I clench my teeth, knowing that she’s right. To say I’ve been mean to Dale is an understatement.
We stop to collect Penny, who’s decked out in a yellow sundress that makes her black hair and dark eyes pop. As soon as she gets in the car, Penny starts chatting about some celebrity who’s trending on Twitter because she was caught cheating at her boyfriend’s birthday party. I’m usually into this stuff, or at least try to pretend that I care, but I can’t seem to do it tonight. All I can think about is Dale’s stoic expression while he watched us drive away.
“Get ready to party!” Amber says as we pull up to Matt’s house. When it comes to my friends, there isn’t a huge difference between school nights and weekends. If we’re in the mood to party, we’ll make it happen, no matter the night. And judging by the amount of cars parked outside the house, it looks like everyone is in the mood to have some fun on this Tuesday night.
Amber frowns as we step out of the car. “What’s Adam Hutton doing here?” To our left, the tall blond steps out of a sleek blue car. Adam is the kind of guy who runs in multiple circles. We don’t see him in ours very often—he’s the resident basketball star and in the running for valedictorian. He’s usually too studious for the likes of us.
“Maybe he needs a night off,” I say.
A wide smile takes over Penny’s delicate Korean features. “I don’t mind. I think he’s cute.”
“Pen, he’s a total study nerd.” Amber’s glossy lips curl with disgust.
“Yeah, a ripped study nerd with a sexy Mustang,” Penny shoots back. “I wonder if he’ll give me a ride home.”
“Please. The car belongs to his mother. He probably has a curfew and will ditch before things get interesting . . . Although, you could probably get a ride to school in the morning. She always drops him off on her way to work.”
I laugh as Penny’s cheeks blaze bright red. Adam’s good looking, but in that corn-fed all-American way. That’s not our style.
We always look for a little bad in our boys. In fact, we pride ourselves on it, which is why I think the girls are jealous of me dating Trent.
He is most definitely a bad boy—he smokes, he drinks, he’s got attitude to burn. Amber in particular loves guys like that. And I do, too. Bad boys are the perfect remedy; their wandering hands can make you forget anything.
I’ll end up in Trent’s arms later, but first I need loud music and a really strong drink.
Penny and Amber head out back while I go in search of Matt to say hi and get myself a beer. Our host is in the kitchen, wearing a fitted checkered-blue shirt, a cowboy hat, and the cockiest smile you’ve ever seen. Matt spreads his arms wide over a keg. “Matty always delivers.”
I grin at him, plucking a red cup off a stack. “Nice hat. Where are the parents tonight?” Matt’s folks are almost as checked out as my own, which makes it easy to have “study group” at his place.
He chuckles, putting on a southern drawl. “The City of Angels, little lady. Not due back until after midnight.” He fills my cup to the brim and gives it back with a tip of the cowboy hat, his eyes lingering over me for a beat too long. “Your boy’s out back already. We’re congregating by the lakeside tonight. Drue’s getting a fire going.”
“Drue’s here?” That’s a pleasant surprise. Drue’s one of our few friends with strict parents—his dad is Mayor Stratham and he’s incredibly worried about Drue tarnishing his squeaky-clean image. It makes it hard for Drue to join most of our study groups. “Is his dad out of town?”
“The old tyrant’s on the east coast until tomorrow night. Drue’s taking advantage,” Matt replies.
“Smart kid.” I sip at the beer, then lick the foam off my top lip. I don’t love the taste of beer, but I love the effect it has. Soon I’ll feel numb. I gulp down another mouthful.
“Whoa, slow down there, sweetness. There’s plenty to go around.” Matt winks at me.
I swipe my mouth and giggle. “You know me, never want to miss out.”
Matt rests his foot on a stool and leans forward, his voice a low whisper. “No way am I going to let you miss out on anything. You know I’d break necks for the likes of you.”
“Oh, please, Matty. Like you could hurt a fly,” I say.
“Hey!” He stands straight, looking a little offended. “I could hurt a fly if I wanted to.” He points at himself. “You just haven’t seen my dark side yet.” His earnest look makes me laugh. He’s such a clown, but he’s also quirky and cute.
Matt shakes his head and snatches another cup off a stack, pretending to be mad. He mutters something under his breath while pouring himself a beer.
“I’ll see you outside, okay?” He waves me out the back door and I head for the steps to the lakefront.
The smell of a smoky bonfire wafts into the clear night air, conjuring sweet memories from my childhood. We used to go camping all the time and my dad would always make his specialty s’mores, the marshmallows burned just so. My sister, Jody, and I would fight over who got the first one and eventually he started making two at a time. I take another sip of my beer and glance up at the sky. The stars are out now—twinkling, bright jewels on a black canvas.
“Pretty,” I murmur and descend the back steps.
There look to be about twenty of us gathered down by the lake, a decent-sized group. Trent is on the edge of the party, his back turned to me. He’s tall and stands out from the crowd. His size is one of the many things I like about him; he makes me feel small and protected.
Making my way through the dewy grass, I stop short before he sees me. A girl with dirty blonde hair and a sultry smirk is practically hanging off him, her fingers pressed against his arm.
. I narrow my eyes.
Lauren’s head tips back in laughter and she thrusts her chest at him, her hot-pink bra pushing out of her top. She’s the world’s biggest flirt, and she
goes after Trent. I don’t understand what this girl’s problem is—she knows that Trent and I have been dating for a few months, but anytime we’re in a group situation, she latches onto him. I can’t decide if she genuinely wants my boyfriend or if she’s just trying to annoy me.
The last thing I’m going to do is show her how pissed I am. I strut toward them, pasting on a smile.
“Hey, guys.” I thread my arm through Trent’s, pulling him down to me and rising on my tiptoes to give him a kiss. He sucks my lower lip before pulling away.
Lauren smiles back and crosses her arms over her body, the gold bands on her wrist clinking. “Trent was just telling me about the time you guys went skinny-dipping and were busted by those two old fishermen. That must have been
My cheeks burn and I’m thankful it’s dark out. I can’t believe he told her that story. I gulp my beer.
Trent’s long arm slides down my back, giving my butt a quick squeeze before pulling me close. I lean into him.
“Fun times, right, baby?” he asks.
“Oh, yeah, definitely.” He buys my lie and fake smile, just like he always does.
He’ll never see me, not really, and that’s just the way I want it.
Sipping my beer, I squeeze Trent around the waist and turn to the fire, staring at the open flames as though they can somehow save me. The dog tags stick to my skin and that deep longing stirs inside me again.