Bully

5.0 / 5.0
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New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Penelope Douglas delivers an unforgettable romance that toes the fine line between love and hate….    My name is Tate. He doesn’t call me that, though. He would never refer to me by a friendly nickname. No, he’ll barely even speak to me. But he still won’t leave me alone. We were best friends once. Then he turned on me and made it his mission to ruin my life. I was humiliated, shut out, and gossiped about all through high school. His pranks and rumors got worse as time wore on, and I made myself sick trying to stay out of his way. I even went away for a year just to avoid him. But I’m done hiding from him now, and there’s no way I’ll allow him to ruin another year. He might not have changed, but I have. It’s time to fight back.
سال:
2014
ناشر کتب:
Penguin
زبان:
english
ISBN 13:
9780698180871
سیریز:
Fall away
فائل:
EPUB, 701 KB
ڈاؤن لوڈ کریں (epub, 701 KB)

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37 comments
 
Mercy
I absolutely loved this book. You rock Penelope Douglas
24 August 2020 (00:39) 
Bruh
No words. The book is awesome. Extremely hot. And interesting. Very interesting. Go for it if ur a sucker for slow burn
11 September 2020 (17:37) 
naakersh
hi Penelope I really loved this book keep it up
14 October 2020 (07:45) 
Hunny
LOVED ITTT definitely a fav. It was hot
20 October 2020 (20:07) 
Keerthi
The best best-friends to lovers or enemies to lovers book I have ever read. And thank Mr.Douglas for helping me wander to a new world.??
14 January 2021 (20:27) 
Cynth
A great read, I loved it
03 February 2021 (05:53) 
rohan
overall it was a good book but its ending disappointed me a bit.
18 March 2021 (09:55) 
A T
Overall the book was nice , but if feels like it lacked sth . Like it was incomplete.
26 March 2021 (00:42) 
ninni85
love this book read it again ... the book feels incomplete because there is a series .... if you read the whole series everything will make sense ;)
08 April 2021 (19:51) 
E
i actually really liked this book. it was pretty good
18 April 2021 (16:32) 
USA
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09 May 2021 (20:18) 
teen sub
hi..looking for a daddy..
14 May 2021 (19:04) 
flower
I didn't like this book, the guy was pretty abusive (without violence) and she forgave him super fast
22 May 2021 (06:08) 
-here for the free stuffff-
Honestly this book SUCKS, the pace was wack and it seemed like a glorified Wattpad fanfic, an over used predictable story with a cliche main character.

I can literally see her saying “oh no I’m not like other girls I have self respect ??” *she then proceeded to let a guy push her around. (She’s blond, athlete but hates exercise. Ps. She’s beautiful but doesn’t know it? like ok we get it YoUr NoT lIkE oThEr GiRlS

Honestly I’ve read better things on whattpad!

I don’t really mind abusive relationships in books after all I know it’s just a book it’s not something I want in real life, but this book was so wired in the way it handed everything.

I’m 15 and I know better than this girl. She’s really dumb like drank-bleach-when-she-was-a-baby-and-went-without-air-for-5-min-now-has-brain-injury-that-prevents-frontal lobe-growth kinda dumb.

JUST Tell your freaking school or something, ? your an Attractive rich, tan white blonde girl, who happens to have the perfect body and the perfect best friend, who the book uses as a plot device to make her seem like freaking mother Theresa? and “wise”

I get it you’re being bullied, that’s very sad. But she could solve this problem so easily it’s not even a major conflict in the book, she keeps on ranting about how everything he did there was so awful and then she just forgives him because he was her friend 15 years ago?

Yeah girl go get some treatment, you need help not in the kinky way honestly there was a part in the book where she was being bullied and they asked if she was “special” and had trouble understanding. They were right. But probably not because most artistic people I’ve met are nice. I really think this is a just simple case of rich white hot blonde teenage girl syndrome?
23 May 2021 (11:20) 
ash
the book is kinda cliche but its still super good!! i really liked it :)
12 June 2021 (02:41) 
Bella
This book is so predictable. The guy is abusive and the girl is naive. I regret reading this too shallow.
26 June 2021 (17:36) 
maxxxed
ok i get this might seem like a cliché Wattpad story, but still it was AMAZING or i thought it was. normally the girl gets pushed around and is ''submissive'' but this mc fought back, thank lord.
28 June 2021 (16:45) 
Aristooo
still super good, not bad
28 June 2021 (21:21) 
Ta
Umm this book was ok the last like 80 pages suck because it just drags on so I didn’t even finish reading the last 50 pages. She definitely forgave him way to fast.
29 June 2021 (10:04) 
Sel
If you like this book you will like Until You By the same author. The book is about the same people but just what happened when they were younger.
01 July 2021 (16:52) 
Chante Schnetler
Absolutely LOVE this book!
Very captivating
I would definitely recommend this book.
02 July 2021 (22:21) 
Ajeem
Janntaayanjanntaayan
09 July 2021 (10:31) 
Alanna
The book was good they both lacked communication skills tho
11 July 2021 (17:28) 
saredmi
It was okay not the best I would say it was like Wattpad
19 July 2021 (12:45) 
Casieyfran
Give that guy "here for the free stufff-" a round of applause please. One paragraph is enough to convince me not to read this. For someone who also read wattpad theres a lot of plot like this in there, very predictable and over dramaticaly boring and super cliche. Although i love penelope douglas book like the Punk 57 though the rest have taboo romance but overall this one is not for me too
08 August 2021 (15:19) 
n
ive never rated 10/10 for a book until i read this.
08 August 2021 (20:24) 
I give reviews
A waste of time . I love the friends to enemies to lovers trope . But this one was not it . 1/5
11 August 2021 (21:51) 
nic
the storyline is anti-climatic
16 August 2021 (04:34) 
sadrissa
I waste of time, didn’t really have a plot n the smutt was ok ig. Read better books on Wattpad honestly. 3/5
17 August 2021 (00:39) 
Jero
This book was not worth the emotions I went through
29 August 2021 (15:05) 
:)
anyone have any good enemies to lovers recommendations pls!!!
02 September 2021 (23:31) 
Anshu Kaki
I ABSOLUTELY LOVED this book!!!! It had multiple book tropes in one - enemies to lovers, childhood friends to lovers, I hate everyone but you OMG!!!
04 September 2021 (14:31) 
sukhi <3
Great book give it a shot! I was pissed how easily she let everything slide but then again I've never been in love but yea I thought it was amazing.
21 September 2021 (03:04) 
sza
ugh just hope theres enough smut
01 October 2021 (13:37) 
:)
I mean it was a good book but yeah I don’t like how the bullying went toooo far and she still forgave him for all of it. His reasoning for the bullying was also pretty wack. Im having mixed feelings about this book. Also a good thing to know, it’s a pretty slow book at the beginning…. So it takes a while for them to get that spark.
04 October 2021 (20:00) 
Charne
Loved this whole series! Can't wait for the next gen!
10 October 2021 (07:32) 
Lynxlovescumpuns
This book was shit and the smut scenes where so plain 1/5 stars don't really recommend
16 October 2021 (09:15) 

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آپ کتاب کا معائنہ کر سکتے ہیں اور اپنے تجربات شیئر کرسکتے ہیں۔ دوسرے قارئین کتابوں کے بارے میں آپ کی رائے میں ہمیشہ دلچسپی رکھیں گے۔ چاہے آپ کو کتاب پسند ہے یا نہیں ، اگر آپ اپنے دیانتدار اور تفصیلی خیالات دیںگے تو لوگوں کو نئی کتابیں ملیںگی جو ان کے لئے صحیح ہیں۔
1

Bully Beef & Balderdash: Some Myths of the AIF Examined and Debunked

Year:
2015
Language:
english
File:
PDF, 50.39 MB
0 / 0
2

Bullwhipped

Year:
2015
Language:
english
File:
EPUB, 254 KB
0 / 0
Bully



A Fall Away Novel





Penelope Douglas




			INTERMIX BOOKS, NEW YORK





		 			INTERMIX BOOKS

			Published by the Penguin Group

			Penguin Group (USA) LLC

			375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA





			USA • Canada • UK • Ireland • Australia • New Zealand • India • South Africa • China

			penguin.com

			A Penguin Random House Company

			This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

			BULLY

			An InterMix Book / published by arrangement with the author

			PUBLISHING HISTORY

			InterMix eBook edition / February 2014

			 			Copyright © 2013 by Penelope Douglas.

			Excerpt from Until You copyright © 2013 by Penelope Douglas.

			Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

			 			Cover design © 2013 by Penelope Douglas and Vibeke Courtney.

			Cover design © 2013 by Cover to Cover Designs.

			Cover image by Piotr Marcinski.

			 			All rights reserved.

			No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

			For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group,

			a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC,

			375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

			 			eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-18087-1

			 			INTERMIX

			InterMix Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group

		; 	and New American Library, divisions of Penguin Group (USA) LLC,

			375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

			INTERMIX® and the “IM” design are registered trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) LLC




Version_1





Contents


			Cover

			Title Page

			Copyright

			Dedication

			Epigraph

			Acknowledgments



			Chapter 1

			Chapter 2

			Chapter 3

			Chapter 4

			Chapter 5

			Chapter 6

			Chapter 7

			Chapter 8

			Chapter 9

			Chapter 10

			Chapter 11

			Chapter 12

			Chapter 13

			Chapter 14

			Chapter 15

			Chapter 16

			Chapter 17

			Chapter 18

			Chapter 19

			Chapter 20

			Chapter 21

			Chapter 22

			Chapter 23

			Chapter 24

			Chapter 25

			Chapter 26

			Chapter 27

			Chapter 28

			Chapter 29

			Chapter 30

			Chapter 31

			Chapter 32

			Chapter 33

			Chapter 34

			Chapter 35

			Chapter 36

			Chapter 37



			Special Preview of Until You

			About the Author





For the ladies . . .





There is in every true woman’s heart, a spark of heavenly fire, which lies dormant in the broad daylight of prosperity, but which kindles up and beams and blazes in the dark hour of adversity.

			Washington Irving





ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

			First, to my husband for all of his patience and support. He endured countless nights and weekends alone as I locked myself in our bedroom to write this story. I promise the investment will pay off . . . eventually.

			Next, to my friend Bekke for . . . well, everything! Without you, I would have been fumbling along with Word, HTML, and yes, writing in general. I have no idea where this book would be without you!

			Finally, to all of the readers out there who find their escape in the realm of books. Your time and feedback are the best gifts you can give an author. Thank you for reading!





Chapter 1

			One Year Ago




“No! Turn here,” K.C. shrieked in my right ear.

			The tires of my dad’s Bronco screeched with the sudden, short turn onto a car-packed street.

			“You know, maybe you should’ve just driven like I suggested,” I blurted out, even though I never liked anyone else to drive when I was in the car.

			“And have you bury your face in your hands every time I don’t launch myself through every yellow light? Not!” K.C. responded as if reading my mind.

			I smiled to myself. My best friend knew me too well. I liked to drive fast. I liked to move fast. I walked as quickly as my legs could take me, and I drove as speedily as was reasonable. I rushed to every stop sign and red light. Hurry up and wait, that was me.

			But hearing the pounding rhythm of the music in the distance, I had no desire to rush any further. The lane was lined with car after car, displaying the magnitude of the party we were crashing. My hands clenched the steering wheel as I squeezed into a spot a block away from the party.

			“K.C.? I don’t think this is a good idea,” I declared . . . again.

			“It’ll be fine, you’ll see.” She patted my leg. “Bryan invited Liam. Liam invited me, and I’m inviting you.” Her calm, flat tone did nothing to ease the tightness in my chest.

			Unfastening my seatbelt, I looked over to her. “Well, just remember . . . if I get uncomfortable, I’m gone. You catch a ride with Liam.”

			We climbed out and jogged across the street. The party ruckus amplified the closer we got to the house.

			“You’re not going anywhere. You leave in two days, and we’re having fun. No matter what.” Her threatening voice shook my already unsteady nerves.

			As we walked up the driveway, she trailed behind me. Texting Liam, I assumed. Her boyfriend had arrived earlier, having spent most of the day with his friends at the lake while K.C. and I shopped.

			Red Solo cups littered the lawn, and people filtered in and out of the house, enjoying the balmy summer night. Several guys I recognized from school lunged out of the front door, chasing each other and sloshing drinks in the process.

			“Hey, K.C. How’s it going, Tate?” Tori Beckman sat inside the front door with a drink in hand, chatting with a boy I didn’t know. “Drop your keys in the bowl,” she instructed, returning her attention to her company.

			Taking a moment to process her request, I realized she was making me surrender my keys.

			I guess she wasn’t letting anyone drive drunk tonight.

			“Well, I won’t be drinking,” I shouted over the music.

			“And you might change your mind,” she challenged. “If you want in, I need your keys.”

			Annoyed, I dug into my bag and dropped my set into the bowl. The thought of giving up one of my lifelines irritated the hell out of me. Not having my keys meant I wouldn’t be able to leave quickly if I wanted to. Or needed to. What if she got drunk and left her post? What if someone accidentally took my keys? I suddenly remembered my mom, who used to tell me to stop asking “what if” questions. What if Disneyland is closed for cleaning when we get there? What if every store in town ran out of gummi bears? I bit my lip to stifle a laugh, remembering how annoyed she would get with my endless questions.

			“Wow,” K.C. shouted in my ear, “look at it in here!”

			People, some classmates and some not, bounced to the music, laughing and living it up. The hair on my arms stood on end at the sight of all of the bustle and enthusiasm. The floors echoed the beat coming from the speakers, and I was speechless at the sight of so much activity in one space. People danced, horse-played, jumped, drank, and played football—yes, football— in the living room.

			“He better not ruin this for me,” I said, the force of my voice sounding more forceful than usual. Enjoying one party with my best friend before I left town for a year wasn’t asking too much.

			Shaking my head, I looked to K.C., who winked knowingly at me. I motioned towards the kitchen, and we both slithered our way, hand in hand, through the thick crowd.

			Entering the huge, every-mom’s-dream kitchen, I spied the makeshift bar on the center island. Bottles of liquor covered the granite top along with two liters of soda, cups and a bucket of ice in the sink. Blowing out a breath, I resigned to keep with my commitment to stay sober tonight. Getting drunk was tempting. What I wouldn’t give to just let go for one night.

			K.C. and I had sampled our parents’ liquor stashes here and there, and I’d been to a few concerts out of town where we’d partied a bit. However, it was out of the question to be off my guard around some of these people tonight.

			“Hey, Tate! Come here, girl.” Jess Cullen grabbed me in a hug before I reached the bar. “We’re going to miss you, ya know. France, huh? For a whole year?” My shoulders relaxed as I hugged Jess back, my muscles less tense than when I walked in. At least one other person here besides K.C. was excited to see me.

			“That’s the plan.” I nodded, letting out a sigh. “I’m set up with a host family and already registered for classes. I’ll be back for senior year, though. Will you save me a spot on the team?”

			Jess was vying for captain of the cross-country team this fall, and competing was one experience in high school that I would miss.

			“If I’m captain, honey, your spot is secure,” she boasted animatedly, clearly drunk. Jess had always been nice to me despite the rumors that followed me year to year and the embarrassing pranks that reminded everyone why I was a joke.

			“Thanks. I’ll see you later?” I inched towards K.C.

			“Yeah, but if I don’t see you, good luck in France,” Jess shouted as she danced her way out of the kitchen.

			Watching her leave, my face quickly fell. Dread crawled its way through my chest and down to my stomach.

			No, no, no. . . ..

			Jared walked into the kitchen, and I froze. He was exactly the person I’d hoped not to see tonight. His eyes met mine with surprise followed by immediate displeasure.

			Yep. I’m totally familiar with that look. The I-can’t-stand-the-fucking-sight-of-you-so-get-off-my-planet look.

			His jaw clenched, and I noticed how his chin lifted slightly as if he had just put on his “bully” mask. I couldn’t seem to catch my breath.

			The familiar pounding in my chest echoed in my ears, and a hundred miles away sounded like a really nice place to be right now.

			Was it too much to ask that I had one night of normal teenage fun to myself?

			There were so many times when we were kids, growing up next door to each other, that I thought Jared was the greatest. He was sweet, generous, and friendly. And the most beautiful boy I’d ever seen.

			His rich, brown hair still complimented his olive skin, and his stunning smile—when he smiled—demanded undivided attention. Girls were too busy watching him in the hallway at school that they ran into walls. Like actually ran into walls.

			But that kid was long gone now.

			Quickly turning away, I found K.C. at the bar and tried to fix myself a drink, despite my shaking hands. Actually, I just poured a Sprite, but the red cup would look like I was drinking. Now that I knew he was here, I needed to stay sober around the asshole.

			He walked around to the bar and stood right behind me. A nervous heat ran through my body at his proximity. The muscles in his chest rubbed against the thin fabric of my tank top, and a shockwave burst from my chest to my stomach. Calm down. Calm the hell down!

			Scooping up some ice and adding it to my drink, I forced my breathing in and out slowly. I maneuvered to the right to get out of his way, but his arm shot out to grab a cup and blocked my passage. As I tried to squeeze out to the left next to K.C., his other arm reached out to grab the Jack Daniels.

			Ten different scenarios ran through my head of what I should do right now. What if I elbowed him in the gut? What if I threw my drink in his face? What if I took the sink hose and. . . .?

			Oh, never mind. In my dreams, I was much braver. In my dreams, I might take an ice cube and do things God didn’t intend a sixteen year old girl to do just to see if I could make his cool demeanor falter. What if? What if?

			I had planned on keeping my distance from him tonight, and now he was positioned right at my back. Jared did things like this just to intimidate me. He wasn’t scary, but he was cruel. He wanted me to know he was in control. Time after time, I let the jerk force me into hiding just so I wouldn’t have to endure any embarrassment or upset. Enjoying at least one party had been my top priority all summer, and now here I was again, dreadful anticipation twisting me into knots. Why didn’t he just leave me alone?

			Turning around to face him, I noticed the corners of his mouth turned up. The smile was lost on his eyes, though, as he poured a hefty serving of alcohol into his cup.

			“K.C.? Pour some Coke into here, please.” Jared spoke to K.C. but his eyes were on me as he held up his cup for her.

			“Um, yeah,” K.C. stammered, finally looking up. She poured a small portion of the liquid for Jared and glanced nervously to me.

			As usual, Jared never spoke to me unless it was to bite out a threat. His dark brow knitted before taking a swig of his drink and walking away.

			Watching him leave the kitchen, I wiped away the cold sweat that broke out across my forehead. Nothing had happened, and he hadn’t even said anything to me, but my stomach had hollowed all the same.

			And now he knew that I was here tonight.

			Shit.

			“I can’t do this, K.C.” My weary whisper was a contradiction to the force with which I clenched my cup. It was a mistake to come tonight.

			“Tate, no.” K.C. shook her head, probably recognizing the look of surrender in my eyes. Tossing the cup into the sink and making my way out of the kitchen, I weaved through the throng of people as K.C. followed behind.

			Grabbing the glass fishbowl, I began digging around for my keys.

			“Tate, you are not leaving,” K.C. ordered, every word dripped with disappointment. “Don’t let him win. I’m here. Liam’s here. You don’t have to be afraid.” She was bracing me by my upper arms while I continued my search.

			“I’m not scared of him,” I said defensively, not really believing it myself. “I’m just. . . .done. You saw him in there. He was already messing with me. He’s planning something. Every party we go to, or every time I relax at school, there’s some prank or embarrassment to ruin it.”

			Still searching for my colorful DNA-shaped key chain, I relaxed the knit in my brow and offered a tight smile. “It’s okay. I’m fine,” I reassured her, my words coming out too quickly. “I just don’t care to stay and see what he’s cooked up this time. The dickhead can starve tonight.”

			“Tate, he wants you to leave. If you do, then he wins. He, or that jackass Madoc, might come up with something, but if you stay and stand your ground, then you will win.”

			“I’m just worn out, K.C. I’d rather go home mad now than in tears later.” I returned my attention to the bowl. Every time I sifted through a pile of keys though, my hands would bring up nothing resembling my set.

			“Well,” I shouted over the music and slammed the bowl back down on the stand, “it looks like I can’t leave anyway. My keys aren’t in there.”

			“What?” K.C. looked confused.

			“They’re not in there!” I repeated, looking around the room. My money and my phone were in my bag. Two lifelines safe and sound. My other escape plan was missing, and the walls felt like they were caving in. Curses ran through my head, and the weariness that got me running before turned to anger. I clenched my fists. Of course, I should’ve known this was going to happen.

			“Someone could’ve grabbed them by accident, I guess,” she offered, but she must’ve known that the odds of that happening were slimmer than people leaving the party this early. Accidents didn’t happen to me.

			“No, I know exactly where they are.” I locked eyes with Madoc, Jared’s best friend and henchman, at the opposite end of the room by the patio doors. He smirked at me before redirecting his attention to some random redhead he had pressed to a wall.

			Stalking over to him, K.C. followed in my wake as she viciously texted on her phone—Liam probably.

			“Where are my keys?” I demanded, interrupting the pursuit of his next one-night stand.

			He lifted his blue eyes slowly from the girl. He wasn’t much taller than me, maybe a few inches, so I didn’t feel as if he hovered over me like Jared did. Madoc didn’t intimidate me. He just pissed me off. He worked hard to make a fool out of me, but I knew it was all at Jared’s behest.

			“They’re about eight feet under right now. Feel like a swim, Tate?” He grinned wide, showing his dazzling smile that turned most girls into puppies on a leash. He obviously loved every moment of my predicament.

			“You’re a dick.” My tone remained calm, but my eyes burned from the anger.

			I walked out to the patio and peered into the pool. The weather was perfect for a swim, and people were carousing in the water, so I trekked around the pool looking for the silver glint of my keys through all of the bodies.

			Jared sat casually at a table with a blonde on his lap. Frustration knotted in my stomach, but I tried to appear unaffected. I knew every ounce of my discomfort gave him pleasure.

			Spying the shimmering silver of the keys, I looked around for a pole to grab them. When nothing could be found, I looked to some of the swimmers for help.

			“Hey, would you mind grabbing my keys down there, please?” I asked. The guy turned his eyes on Jared, who sat quietly back, watching the scene, and retreated from me like a coward.

			Great. No pole, no help. Jared wanted to see me get wet.

			“Come on, Tate. Strip down, and go get your keys,” Madoc shouted from Jared’s table.

			“Fuck off, Madoc. You threw them down there, no doubt, so why don’t you go get them?” Liam, K.C.’s boyfriend, had joined her and was sticking up for me like he often did.

			I slipped off my flip-flops and stepped to the edge of the pool.

			“Tate, wait. I’ll do it,” Liam stepped up and offered.

			“No,” I shook my head. “Thanks, though.” I gave him a grateful smile.

			One whole year, I reminded myself, savoring the promise. I was going to have a whole year away from Jared.

			I dove in hands first, and the water cooled my tense skin. My body immediately relaxed at the pleasure of the pool. No sound, no eyes on me. I savored the peace of it, the kind of peace I get when I run.

			I continued downward using the breast stroke. Eight feet was nothing, and I reached my keys in seconds. Clutching them tight, I reluctantly ascended head first, releasing the air in my lungs.

			That was the easy part.

			“Whoo hoo!” An applause sounded from bystanders that weren’t actually cheering for me.

			I just had to get out of the pool and face the whole party dripping wet. They would laugh and joke. I’d endure a few comments, and then go home and eat my weight in Swedish Fish.

			Swimming gently to the edge and climbing out, I wrung out my long hair and slipped on my sandals.

			“Are you okay?” K.C. came to my side, the wind blowing her long, dark hair.

			“Yeah, of course. It’s just water.” I couldn’t meet her eyes. Here I was again. The laughing stock. The embarrassment.

			But K.C. never blamed me. “Let’s get out of here.” She locked arms with me, and Liam followed behind.

			“Just a minute.” I paused and looked over at Jared, who still had his challenging brown eyes on me.

			Walking over to him—something I knew was a bad idea—I crossed my arms and gave him a pointed stare.

			“I leave in two days and that’s the best you could come up with?” What the hell am I doing?

			Jared fixed me with a hostile smile as he doled out the cards at the table. “You have a good time in France, Tatum. I’ll be here when you get back.” His threat made me want to hit him. I wanted to challenge him to deal with me now.

			And I was none too comfortable with the thought of his impending wrath hanging over my head the whole year I was away.

			“You’re a coward. The only way you can feel like a man is to pick on me. But you’re going to have to get your kicks somewhere else now.” As I dropped my arms to my sides, my fists tightened as everyone around the table and in the general area witnessed our exchange.

			“Are you still talking?” Jared snorted, and snickers erupted around me. “Go home. No one wants your stuck-up ass here.” Jared barely spared me eye contact while he continued to deal cards. The girl on his lap giggled and leaned into him further. The crushing sensation in my chest hurt. I hate him.

			“Hey, everyone, look!” Madoc shouted as I tried to hold back tears. “Her nipples are hard. You must be turning her on, Jared.” Madoc’s goading echoed through the backyard, and everyone began hooting and laughing.

			My eyes closed with mortification as I remembered that I was wearing a white tank top and was definitely chilled from the water. My first instinct was to cross my arms over my chest, but then they’d know that they got to me. Hell, they already knew. My whole face stung with humiliation.

			Son of a bitch.

			I’d be going home in tears again. No doubt.

			I opened my eyes, feeling flushed seeing everyone visibly entertained by the harassment I’d endured tonight. Jared stared at the table, nostrils flaring, ignoring me. His behavior still puzzled me after all this time. We used to be friends, and I still searched for that kid in his eyes somewhere. But what good did it do me to still hang on to a memory of him?

			“Why is she still standing here?” the blonde sitting on Jared’s lap asked. “Is she like “special” or something? She can’t take the hint?”

			“Yeah, Tate. You heard Jared. No one wants you here.” Madoc’s words came out slow as if I really were too stupid to understand him.

			My throat closed. I couldn’t swallow, and it hurt to breathe. It was too much. Something inside me snapped. I pulled my fist back and popped Madoc right in the nose. He dropped to his knees, hands over his face, as the blood gushed through his hands.

			Tears blurred my vision, and the sobs began erupting from my throat. Before I could let them get any more satisfaction out of me tonight, I walked as quickly as possible back through the house and out the front door without looking back.

			I got in my car, K.C. climbed in the passenger side and Liam into the back. I hadn’t even realized that they’d followed me. It was on the tip of my tongue to ask about Jared’s reaction, but then I realized that I shouldn’t care. To hell with him.

			I looked out the front window, letting the tears dry on my cheeks. Liam and K.C. sat silently, probably not sure what to say or do.

			I’d just hit Madoc. I’d just hit Madoc! The novelty of my action was overwhelming, and I let out a bitter laugh. That really just happened.

			I took a deep breath and blew out slowly.

			“Are you okay?” K.C. looked at me.

			She knew I’d never done anything like that before, but I loved the rush of fright and power I felt.

			Hell, the last thing I wanted to do was go home now. Maybe a tattoo or something else was in the cards tonight.

			“Actually, yes.” It was weird to say that, but it was true. Wiping the tears away, I looked to my friend. “I feel good.”

			I reached to put the key in the ignition but paused when Liam chimed in. “Yeah, well, don’t let it go to your head, Tate. You’ll have to come back to town eventually.”

			Yeah. There was that.





Chapter 2

			Present Day




“So . . . how does it feel to be back home?” My dad and I video chatted on the laptop he bought for me before I left for Europe.

			“It’s great, Dad. I’m set.” I counted off with my fingers. “There’s food, money, no adults, and you still have beer in the ‘frig downstairs. I smell a paaarty,” I teased. But my dad could give it as good as he got.

			“Well, I also have some condoms in my bathroom. Use them if you need.”

			“Dad!” I burst out, wide-eyed with shock. Fathers shouldn’t use the word “condoms”, at least not around their daughters. “That . . . just. . . .crossed a line. Seriously.” I started to laugh. He was the dad that all of my friends wished they had. He had a few simple rules: respect your elders, take care of your body, finish what you start, and solve your own problems. If I maintained good grades, demonstrated direction, and followed those four rules, he trusted me. If I lost his trust, I’d lose my freedom. That’s a military parent. Simple.

			“So what’s the plan this week?” Dad asked, running his hand through his graying blonde hair. I’d gotten my coloring from him but thankfully not the freckles. His once vibrant blue eyes were dull with fatigue, and his shirt and tie were wrinkled. He worked too hard.

			I lounged cross-legged on my queen-sized bed, thankful to be back in my own room. “Well, there’s about a week before school starts, so I have a meeting with the guidance counselor next Wednesday about my fall schedule. I’m hoping the extra classes I took last year will boost my Columbia application. She’s helping with that, too. I also have some shopping to do and then catching up with K.C., of course.”

			I also wanted to start looking for a car, but he’d tell me to wait until he got home at Christmas. Not that I didn’t know what I was doing. I just knew he’d want to share that experience with me, so I wasn’t going to burst his bubble.

			“I wish you were home to help me research projects for the science fair.” I changed the subject. “I guess we should’ve done that while I visited you this summer.”

			My father retired from the military after my mom’s death eight years ago and worked for a company in Chicago, about an hour away, that built aircraft and sold it around the world. Currently, he was on an extended trip to Germany, holding mechanical trainings. After my year ended in Paris, I’d joined him in Berlin for the summer. My mom would be happy to know I’d traveled and had plans to continue as often as possible after high school. I missed her so much, even more so in the past few years than when she first passed away.

			At that moment, the French doors in my room blew open with a gust of sudden, cool wind.

			“Hang on, Dad.” I jumped off the bed and ran to the doors to peek outside.

			A steady force of wind caressed my bare arms and legs. I leaned over the railing and took inventory of leaves flapping in the gust and garbage cans rolling away. The smell of lilacs wafted through my doors from the trees that peppered our street, Fall Away Lane.

			A storm was seconds away, and electricity filled the air with anticipation. Chills ran over my skin, not from cold, but from the thrill of a storm brewing. I loved summer rain.

			“Hey, Dad,” I interrupted him as he was speaking to someone in the background, “I need to let you go. I think a storm is on its way, and I should go check all of the windows. Talk to you tomorrow?” I rubbed my arms to erase the chill.

			“Sure, honey. I have to run anyway. Just remember that the pistol is in the entryway table. Call if you need anything. Love you.”

			“Love you too, Dad. Talk to you tomorrow,” I called out behind me.

			Closing the laptop, I shrugged into my black Seether hoodie and opened the doors in my room again. Studying the tree outside, my brain snapped to unbidden memories of the many times I’d sat in that tree to enjoy the rain. I had shared many of those times with Jared. . . .when we were still friends.

			Quickly looking up, I took note that his window was closed, with no light to speak of coming from his house that sat less than ten yards away. With the tree acting as a ladder between our bedroom windows, it always seemed like the houses were connected in a way.

			During my year away, I had fought the urge to ask K.C. about him. Even after everything he’d done, part of me still missed that boy that was my waking thought and constant companion as a kid. But that Jared was gone now. In his place was a sour, hateful douchebag that had no regard for me.

			Shutting and locking the French doors, I pulled the sheer, black curtains closed. Moments later, the sky opened up with a crack, and the rain let loose.

			***

			Awakened later that night, my brain unable to ignore the thunder and thrashing of the tree against the house, I flipped on my bedside light and crept to the doors to check out the storm. I caught the sight of headlights speeding dangerously down the street. I tilted my head as far to the side as I could and caught the view of a black Boss 302 charging its way into Jared’s driveway.

			The car fishtailed slightly before jetting out of my sight into the garage. It was a new car model with a thick, red racing stripe running down the length of the car. I had never seen it before. Last I knew Jared had a motorcycle and a Mustang GT, so that car could’ve been anyone’s.

			Maybe I had a new neighbor?

			I wasn’t sure how I felt about that possibility.

			On the other hand, that car would totally have been Jared’s taste.

			After a minute or so, a dim light fell across my floor with the illumination coming from Jared’s room. I caught the sight of a dark figure moving behind his blinds. My fingers started to tingle, making them too weak to curl.

			Trying to refocus my attention on the fantastical display of wind and curtains of rain, my heart jumped at the sound of Jared’s blinds lifting up and the wash of light spilling between our two houses. I narrowed my eyes as I saw Jared lift up his window and lean out into the night storm.

			Damn.

			He appeared to be observing the spectacle, same as me. I could barely make out his face through the dense spatter of leaves, but I knew when he noticed me. His arms stiffened as he supported himself on the windowsill, and his head was bowed in my direction, unmoving. I could almost picture those chocolate brown eyes piercing me.

			He didn’t wave or nod. Why would he? Absence wasn’t going to make his heart grow fonder—clearly. Dread and apprehension used to plague me when this guy was around, but now. . . .I felt a strange mixture of nervousness and anticipation.

			I slowly backed up to close and secure the doors. The last thing I wanted was to trip and give away the emotions boiling under my calm exterior. During my time away, I’d thought about Jared, but I hadn’t dwelled on him, figuring that time and distance would cool him off.

			Perhaps that prediction was too hopeful.

			And maybe I wasn’t as bothered by his shit anymore.





Chapter 3




“So, have you seen him yet?” K.C. leaned on the frame of my double doors looking over towards Jared’s house. I didn’t have to ask who she was referring to.

			“No. . . .well, yes. Kind of. I saw a pretty severe looking Boss charging into his garage late last night. Would that be him?” I didn’t want to tell K.C. about seeing him at the window. Hoping to have a couple of days’ reprieve before we came face to face, I was trying to hang on to the calm I’d achieved during my year away.

			I continued to sort through the clothes in my suitcase, picking out what needed to be hung up and what needed to be washed.

			“Yep. He traded in the GT shortly after you left and bought that. I guess he’s been making a name for himself racing out at the Loop.”

			My fingers clenched the hanger tightly at her words. Disappointment coursed through me as I realized that things had changed in the year I’d been gone. When we were younger, Jared and I had dreamed of putting a car together for the Loop.

			“It’s a hot car.” I hated to admit it.

			Jared used to work with my dad and me in our garage fixing up my dad’s old Chevy Nova. We were both eager students and appreciated the mastery it took to get a car in prime condition.

			“In any case,” I continued, “with racing and his job, I just hope he’s too busy to get in my face this year.” I circulated the room putting things away, but my brain throbbed with annoyance.

			K.C. backed away from the door frame and belly-flopped onto my bed. “Well, I, for one, am pretty excited to see the look on his face when he sees you.” She leaned her head on her hand, giving me a teasing grin.

			“And why is that?” I muttered as I walked to my bedside table to reset my clock.

				“Because you look great. I have no idea what happened between the two of you, but he won’t be able to ignore you. No rumor or prank will keep the guys away, and Jared will probably be sulking that he treated you so badly.” K.C. wiggled her eyebrows.

			I don’t know what she meant about me “looking great”. As far as I knew, I looked the same as I always had. I stood at 5’7”, blondish hair falling to the middle of my back, and dark blue eyes. Gym workouts made me want to gag, but I had continued my running to keep in shape for cross-country. The only difference was my skin tone. After traveling this summer and being in the sun so much, I was pretty tanned. In time, though, that would disappear, and I’d be pale again.

			“Oh, he never had a problem ignoring me. I wish he would.” I sucked in a breath through my teeth and smiled. “I had such an awesome year. The people I met and the places I saw. It all gave me a lot of perspective. I have a plan, and I’m not letting Jared Trent get in my way.”

			I sat down on the bed and let out a sigh.

			K.C. grabbed my hand. “No worries, babe. This shit has to come to a head eventually. After all, we graduate in nine months.”

			“What are you talking about?”

			“I’m talking about the foreplay between you and Jared,” K. C. chirped, straight-faced as she hopped off the bed and into my closet. “It can’t go on forever,” she called out.

			Foreplay?

			“Excuse me?” Foreplay was a sex word, and my stomach flip-flopped at the thought of “Jared” and “sex” in the same sentence.

			“Ms. Brandt, don’t tell me this hasn’t crossed your mind.” K.C. poked her head out of the closet, using a Southern accent as she pinched her eyebrows together and placed her hand over her heart. She held one of my dresses up to her frame as she examined herself in the full-sized mirror that hung on the back of my closet door.

			Foreplay? I spun the word around in my head trying to figure out what she was talking about until it finally clicked.

			“You think his treatment of me is foreplay?!” I almost yelled at her. “Yes. It was foreplay when he told the whole school I had Irritable Bowel Syndrome and everyone made farting noises as I walked down the hall freshman year.” My sarcastic tone failed to cover up my anger. How could she think all this was foreplay? “And yes, it was completely erotic the way he had the grocery store deliver a case of yeast infection cream to Math class sophomore year. But what really got me hot and ready to bend over for him was when he plastered brochures for genital wart treatments on my locker, which is completely outrageous for someone to have an STD without having sex!”

			All of the resentment I had let go of this year was now back with a vengeance. I hadn’t forgiven or forgotten anything.

			Blinking long and hard, I took a mental vacation back to France. Port Salut cheese, French bread, bonbons. . . .I snorted when I realized that maybe it wasn’t France but the food that I had really loved.

			K.C. stared at me, wide-eyed. “Uh, no, Tate. I don’t think he is engaging in sexual foreplay. I think he really does hate you. What I’m saying is, isn’t it about time you fought back? Played the game? If he pushes you, push back. I tried to let her words sink in, but she continued, “Tate, guys aren’t mean to attractive girls for no reason at all. In fact, most teenage guys’ energy is for the sole purpose of getting laid. They don’t want to diminish their options, so they are rarely mad at any girl . .. . . . unless she’s betrayed him, of course,” she mused.

			I knew K.C. was right to an extent. There had to be a reason for why Jared acted the way he did. I’d wracked my brain a thousand times trying to figure it out. He was cold to most people, but he was downright cruel to me.

			Why me?

			I stood up and continued the task of hanging up clothes, my scarves draped over my shoulder. “Well, I haven’t betrayed Jared. I’ve told you a hundred times, we were friends for years, he went away for a few weeks the summer before freshman year, and when he came back, he was different. He didn’t want to have anything to do with me.”

			“Well, you won’t know anything until you engage. Like before you left for France. You pushed back that night, and that’s what you need to keep doing.” K.C. shot out advice like I hadn’t thought about it for the past year. My anger got away from me the night of Tori Beckman’s party, but no good was going to come from me sinking to Jared’s level again.

			“Look,” I evened out my voice in an effort to appear calm. There was no way I was getting sucked into any more drama with this guy, damn it. “We’re going to have an amazing year. I’m hoping Jared has forgotten all about me. If he has, then we can both peacefully ignore each other until graduation. If he hasn’t, then I’ll do what I think is best. I’ve got bigger things on my mind anyway. He and that asshat Madoc can poke and prod all they want. I’m done giving them my attention. They are not taking my senior year.” I stopped to look at her.

			K.C. looked thoughtful. “Okay,” she offered complacently.

			“Okay?”

			“Yes, I said ‘okay’.” She let the discussion go. My shoulders relaxed. She wanted me to be David to Jared’s Goliath, and I just wanted to focus on getting into Columbia and winning the Science Fair in the spring.

			“Okay,” I mimicked and quickly changed the subject. “So my dad isn’t due home for three more months. What trouble should I dare to stir up? Do you think I should actually break curfew while he’s gone?” I continued to sort out my clothes.

			“I still can’t believe your dad is leaving you alone for three months.”

			“He knows that it’s ridiculous to make me stay with my grandma, start a new school and then move back here when he gets home at Christmas. It’s my senior year. It’s important. He understands.” My grandma always stayed with me while my dad was away, but her sister wasn’t well and needed constant help. I was on my own this time.

			“Yeah, well your grandma is only like two hours away anyway, so I’m sure she’ll pop in here and there.” K.C. pointed out. “Should we possibly risk having a party?”

			She knew I was a worrywart, so her tone was cautious. My parents raised me to think for myself but to use common sense. Far too often had K.C. been disappointed by my lack of “devil may care” attitude. “That way, you wouldn’t be breaking curfew! Because you’d . . . be . . . home,” she quickly reasoned.

			My chest tightened at the thought of an unauthorized party, but I had to admit, it was still something I wanted to do at some point.

			“I guess it is a rite of passage for all teenagers, having a party while the parents are away,” I admitted but swallowed hard when I remembered that I only had one parent. Although my mom had passed away so long ago, it still hurt every day. I glanced over to our last family picture sitting on my bedside table. We were at a White Sox game, and my parents were each kissing one of my cheeks, my lips scrunched up like a fish.

			K.C. patted me on the back. “We’ll go slowly with you. We can start stretching the rules before we break them. How about having a guy over before you have a huge crowd?” She grabbed a black silk top I’d bought in Paris and held it up.

			“Yeah, somehow I think my dad would find one guy more threatening that a houseful of teenage partiers. And I do break rules sometimes. I’m guilty of speeding and jaywalking and. . . .” My voice trailed off as my lips pulled up into a grin. K.C. and I could be adventurous, but it was never of much interest to me to lose my father’s trust. Normally, I didn’t even bend rules. I respected him too much.

			“Yeah, okay, Mother Theresa,” K.C. muttered dismissively as she began flipping through some photos I’d taken during my year away. “So can you speak French fluently now?”

			“I know some useful words for you.” I deadpanned. She grabbed a pillow from my bed and flung it at me without looking away from the pictures in her hand. After three years of devoted friendship, we could exchange harmless insults as easily as clothes.

			Walking into my private bathroom, I called out, “So, can you stay for dinner? We can do pizza.”

			“Tonight I have to be home, actually,” she shouted back. “Liam is coming over for dinner. My mom is getting a little anxious about our relationship and wants to see him more.” She enunciated “relationship” as if there was a double meaning.

			Liam and K.C. had been dating for two years, and they’d been having sex for a while. Her mom no doubt suspected that their “relationship” had progressed.

			“Uh oh, is Sergeant Carter on to you two?” I grunted while shoving my now empty suitcase under my bed. I called K.C.’s mom ‘Sergeant Carter’ due to her authoritarian mothering. K.C. had little privacy and was expected to report on everything. However, it only made her want to keep her secrets more.

			“I’m sure. She found my nightie and went ballistic.” K.C. stood up and grabbed her purse off the bed.

			“I would’ve loved to see you talk your way out of that one.” I shut off my bedroom light and followed her down the stairs.

			“If my parents were like your dad, then maybe I wouldn’t be so nervous about telling them things,” K.C. mumbled.

			I was pretty sure I would never tell my dad about my first time, whenever it happened.

			“Well, we can hook up tomorrow or whenever. As long as it’s before school starts.”

			“Absolutely, tomorrow.” She gave me a tight hug. “I need to go get myself cleaned up before dinner. I’ll see you later.” And she rushed out the door.

			“Later.”





Chapter 4




“Goddammit!” I bellowed up to my bedroom ceiling, now illuminated by the arrival of another partygoer.

			Déjà vu struck me as the house next door roared with music and voices. I’d blissfully forgotten about Jared’s raucous parties. The constant vibrations of engines revving and girls screaming—out of pleasure, I hoped—filled the air for the last two hours and was still going strong. My muscles tensed at every new noise.

			I glanced, again, at the clock on my bedside table, willing it to stop ticking away the minutes. It was after midnight, and I had to wake up in five hours to meet up with my running club for their weekly workout. I had to wake up I thought, and that was providing I could get to sleep in the first place.

			And that wasn’t going to happen without an intervention.

			Isn’t it about time you fought back? K.C.’s words buzzed through my head.

			There was almost no chance that Jared would turn down the music if I asked, but the diplomat in me thought it was worth a shot. The “old Tate” would’ve lain in here awake all night, too intimidated by her bully to ask him to turn down his music. Now, bodily fatigue and weariness had chipped away my patience.

			Maybe, just maybe, Jared had pulled the corn cob out of his ass and gotten over whatever problem he had with me. It didn’t hurt to hope.

			The evenings had turned chilly, so I was reluctant to step out of my warm bed. Throwing off the covers before I chickened out, I slipped on black Chucks and covered my white camisole with my black hoodie. My hair was hanging loose, I was wearing no make-up, and I sported my favorite pair of blue and white pinstriped linen sleep shorts. I could’ve looked better and probably should’ve put on some more modest bottoms, but I just didn’t care. I was too tired, so I just stalked down the stairs and out the front door in all my disheveled glory.

			It was either the warm, August evening or my nerves, but I had to roll up my sleeves to cool down as I left my yard and traipsed into his. The front lawn boasted random people, none of whom I recognized, and the beating of my heart relaxed a bit at the knowledge that there’d be few people I might know here. I knew Jared’s list of friends included people from other schools, colleges, and even legal adults from questionable backgrounds. By now, the crowd was so wasted that I slipped by unnoticed.

			Inside the house, the carousing was loud and obnoxious. People danced in the living room, or rather some slutty looking girls let themselves get dry-humped, while others sat or stood in various parts of the downstairs chatting, drinking, and smoking. My nose crinkled at the revolting den of underage debauchery and stench. . . .but, I admitted, everyone looked like they were having fun and being normal.

			It was official. I was a stick-in-the-mud.

			Chevelle started pumping through the speakers, which seemed to have an output located in every room. Hats Off to the Bull might make it worth my while coming over after all.

			Entering the kitchen in my search for Jared, I immediately halted. While various people lingered around the keg and other, harder offerings located on the countertop, the sight of Madoc sitting at the kitchen table playing drinking games caught me off guard. He was with a few other guys and a couple of girls. It was too late to do an about-face.

			“What the fuck are you doing here?” He popped out of his chair and stalked over to me. His sneer was plastic. For show purposes only. I knew Madoc relished any drama that spiced up his night.

			And I was drama.

			I decided to play it cocky. “Well, I’m not looking for you.” Smirking, I continued to scan the room looking disinterested. “Where’s Jared?”

			“He’s already got a girl for tonight. And I doubt he’d be interested in you anyway.” He got in my face with the last.

			More than a few girls wanted Madoc’s attention, but I wasn’t one of them. He was good-looking with his bright, blue eyes and styled blonde hair. He had a great body, and his clothes complimented his form. However, I doubted he ever used girls for longer than one night.

			I turned to leave and continue my search, but he grabbed me at the elbow. “Actually, I’m a glutton for punishment, but you do look fucking fantastic in your pajamas. If you’re looking for some action, I can take care of you.”

			My stomach turned and my body stiffened. Was he joking? Didn’t he have any pride? Freshman and sophomore year, he and Jared made my life hell. I was suffocated everywhere I went. Even at home. Now, he wanted to take me upstairs? Now, I was good enough?

			“Hey, man, Jared says she’s off limits.” Sam Parker, one of Jared’s nicer cronies, chimed in from the table.

			Madoc’s eyes glided down my body, lingering at my legs. “Jared’s upstairs fucking Piper. He’s got other things on his mind right now.”

			My mouth went dry. Unwanted images of the boy I used to share a tent with in my backyard flashed in my mind. Jared was upstairs, in bed right now, screwing some girl. Blowing out a breath, I turned to leave. I just needed to get out of here.

			Madoc jerked me backwards into his body and wrapped his arms around me. I briefly registered Sam bolting out of his seat and out of the room. My body twisted and my muscles tensed, but I held off on any serious struggling for the time being. I wanted to see Jared, and hopefully that’s where Sam went. If I could get out of here without major drama, I’d prefer it that way.

			But Sam had better be quick, because Madoc’s nose was about to meet the back of my skull.

			“You don’t learn, do you?” I stared straight ahead. A few feet away, some guys were playing pool, but paid us no attention. Clearly, the game was more important to them than a girl being assaulted.

			“Oh, my nose? It’s healed well, thanks. And I think I owe you for that one, by the way.” His words were muffled as his lips glided down my neck. My shoulders wiggled from side to side as I tried to pry myself out of his grasp.

			“You smell good,” he whispered. “Keep fighting me, Tate. It turns me on.” His snort was followed by his tongue darting out and licking my ear lobe before grabbing it between his teeth.

			Motherfucker!

			My pulse raced with anger, not fear. Fire surged in my arms and legs.

			Play the game. I forgot if those were K.C.’s words or mine, and I didn’t care.

			Let’s see how he likes being handled. I worked my hand behind me, in between our bodies, and grabbed Madoc by the crotch. I squeezed just enough to get his attention but not enough to hurt him. . . .yet. Madoc didn’t release me, but he stilled.

			“Let.Me.Go,” I gritted out. Onlookers were beginning to take more notice of the scene, but still stayed out of it, looking amused. No one made a move to help me.

			I applied a little more pressure, and he finally released his hold. I quickly stepped away before turning to face him, forcing my anger down. Until I got Jared to turn down the damn music, I wasn’t leaving.

			Madoc raised an eyebrow. “You’re probably still a virgin, aren’t you?” he took me off guard. “Guys sure wanted to fuck you, but Jared and I took care of that.”

			Isn’t it about time you fought back? K.C.’s voice egged me on.

			“What the hell are you talking about?” Pulling my hoodie back into place, I stood my ground, my body a wall.

			“What the hell is it between you and Jared anyway? I mean, when I first met him, and he wrangled me into sabotaging all of your dates freshman year, I assumed it was because he had a thing for you. Like, he was jealous or something. But then after a while, it was pretty clear he wasn’t pursuing you. . . .for some reason. What did you do to him?” Madoc looked at me accusingly, cocking his head to the side.

			My fingers curled into fists. “I didn’t do anything to him.”

			Our confrontation was becoming a scene. My raised voice forced people to start clearing out. I circled around to the other side of the pool table to give myself distance.

			“Think.” Madoc goaded with a cocky smirk. “You’re gorgeous, and speaking for myself, I’d have screwed you every which way by now. A lot of guys would’ve, if not for Jared.”

			My thighs tightened together. The idea of this asswipe thinking he could get into my pants reached a new level of grossness. “What do you mean ‘if not for Jared?’” The hair on my arms stood on end as my breathing got heavier.

			“It’s simple. Every time we’d get word that someone was interested in you or had asked you out, we’d set out to make sure it ended as quickly as it’d started. We were pretty lame about it for the first few months. Todd Branch asked you to that bonfire freshman year, but he heard you were receiving lice treatments and never called you. You never wondered how he heard that?”

			That particular rumor was one of the least hurtful ones over the years, but at the time, it was devastating. I had just started high school, was trying to make friends, and then I realized people were laughing behind my back.

			“Daniel Stewart asked you out for the Halloween dance that year, too, but never picked you up because he heard you had lost your virginity to Stevie Stoddard.” Madoc barely finished the last word, he started laughing so hard.

			I grimaced uncontrollably as heat rose up my neck. Stevie Stoddard was an incredibly sweet kid, but he suffered from serious acne and ate his boogers. Every school had a Stevie Stoddard.

			Madoc continued, “Yeah, we were pretty busy at first. A lot of guys wanted to get in your pants, but by sophomore year our rumors got more sophisticated. People had pretty much caught on that you were a social leper. Things got easier for Jared and me. . . .finally.”

			And things had gotten harder for me.

			Movement was impossible. What had I been thinking? Of course, it was all Jared!

			I knew he was behind some of the pranks as well as all the parties I was shut out of, but I didn’t think he’d been responsible for all of the rumors, too. I never knew why Daniel Stewart stood me up, and I’d never heard the Stevie Stoddard rumor. How much else escaped my notice? He pulled pranks on me, leaked some lies, and was an all-out dick throughout high school, but I never suspected he was so active in my unhappiness. Had he just gone ballistic for no fucking reason?

			Think.

			“What is she doing here?” Jolted out of my internal musing, I found Jared braced in the doorway between the pool room and the stairs. His arms were above his head, hands secured to both sides of the door frame.

			My breath caught. Seeing him face to face made me forget everything else. Madoc, his disclosures . . . Shit! What the hell were he and I just talking about? I couldn’t remember.

			Even with my resentment towards Jared, I couldn’t look away from the way the muscles in his smooth chest stretched with his arms. My body involuntarily reacted as heat gathered below my belly and steam moved up my neck. I’d been in France for a year, and seeing him again up close sent my stomach into a double back handspring.

			His dark brown hair and eyes seemed to make his skin glow. The severe straight eyebrows enhanced his forbidding presence. Looking at him should be a sport. Whoever pulled their eyes away from him the soonest won.

			He stood half naked, wearing only a pair of black pants featuring a wallet chain hanging from his pocket. His skin was tanned and his hair was shamelessly mussed. His two tattoos blazed, one on his upper arm and one on the side of his torso. His blue and white checkered boxers peeked out of the top of his pants, which hung loose due to the unfastened belt looped around his waist.

			Unfastened. I closed my eyes.

			Tears burned behind my lids, and the magnitude of his deeds came flooding back. Seeing this person that hated me enough to hurt me day after day made my heart ache.

			He’s not getting my senior year, I committed to myself. Blinking away the unshed tears, my breathing slowed. Survival is the best revenge, my mother would say.

			Under one arm, I saw Sam peeking in, looking comically like Dobby cowering behind Lucius Malfoy. Under the other arm, a sexy brunette—whose name I assumed was Piper—squeezed through, looking like the cat that just ate the canary. I recognized her vaguely from school. She wore a skin tight red halter-top dress with scary, black heels. Even with the six inches added to her height, she still fell below Jared’s chin. She was pretty in a . . . well, in every way, I guess.

			Jared, on the other hand, might’ve been about ready to eat a live baby with the scowl he wore. Making no eye contact with me, he made it clear that he spoke to Madoc and that I wasn’t being addressed.

			I stepped in before Madoc opened his mouth. “‘She’ wanted a brief word with you.”

			I crossed my arms over my chest and hooded my gaze, trying to look tougher than I was. Jared did the same, and while his lips were still, his eyes were amused.

			“Make it quick. I have guests,” he ordered.

			He strolled into the room and took position on the other side of the pool table. Madoc and Sam took their cue and shuffled back into the kitchen. I caught Madoc out of the corner of my eye, swatting Sam over the head.

			The control I was desperately trying to maintain threatened to rupture. After the epiphany brought on by Madoc’s confession, I hated Jared more than ever. It was hard to look at him.

			“I.Have.Guests,” Jared repeated, fixing me with an annoyed stare.

			“Yes, I can tell.” I peered around him to the doorway where the brunette still stood. “You can get back to servicing them in just a minute.”

			Jared’s expression fell to a slight scowl. The brunette finally took the hint, walked over to Jared whose eyes never left mine, and kissed him on the cheek. “Call me,” she whispered.

			His glare stayed on me as he continued to ignore her. After a few moments’ hesitation, she backed out of the room, twisted on her heel and left. No wonder guys acted like jerks. Girls like that let them.

			Pulling myself together, I held my head high. “I have to be up in about five hours for an appointment in Weston. I’m asking politely that you please turn down the music.” Please don’t be an ass, please don’t be an ass.

			“No.”

			So much for the power of prayer.

			“Jared.” I paused, already knowing that I wouldn’t win. “I came here being neighborly. It’s after midnight. I’m asking nicely.” I was trying to keep my tone even.

			“It’s after midnight on a Friday night.” He kept his arms crossed over his chest, giving the impression of being bored.

			“You’re being unreasonable. If I wanted the music off, I could file a noise complaint or call your mom. I’m coming to you out of respect.” I looked around the empty room. “Where is your mother, by the way? I haven’t seen her since I’ve been back.”

			“She’s not around much anymore, and she won’t be dragging her ass down here in the middle of the night to break up my party.”

			“I’m not saying to ‘break it up’. I’m asking that you turn the music down,” I clarified, as if I still had any chance that Jared would concede.

			“Go sleep over at K.C.’s on the weekends.” He started circling the pool table and rolling balls into pockets.

			“It’s after midnight! I’m not bothering her this late.”

			“You’re bothering me this late.”

			“You are such a dick.” The whisper left my lips before I could stop it.

			“Careful, Tatum.” He stopped and glared. “You’ve been gone for a while, so I’ll cut you a break and remind you that my goodwill doesn’t go far with you.”

			“Oh, please. Don’t act like it’s such a burden to tolerate my presence. I’ve put up with more than a little from you over the years. What could you possibly do to me that you haven’t done already?” I, again, crossed my arms over my chest and tried to look confident.

			My past nervousness came from my inability to handle him. He was clever and quick-witted, and I always lost when we verbally sparred. But I was not afraid of him.

			“I like my parties, Tatum.” He shrugged his shoulders. “I like to be entertained. If you take my party, then you’ll have to entertain me.” His hooded gaze and husky voice were probably meant to be sexy, but it only came off as threatening.

			“And what disgusting task, pray tell, would you like me to do?” I lavishly waved my hand through the air as if talking to a Duke or Lord. Maybe the jerkoff wanted his toilets cleaned or socks folded. Either way, he was only going to get my middle finger pointed in his face.

			Sauntering over to me, Jared grabbed the hem of my hoodie and said, “Take this off and give me a lap dance.”

			My eyes widened. “Excuse me?” I choked out in a husky whisper. He stood so close to me, and my body hummed with energy. His head was level, but his dark eyes were downcast with a penetrating gaze. I was hyperaware of his body, his bare skin, and then the mental pictures of a lap dance started flowing. Oh, my. I hate him, I hate him, I reminded myself.

			Jared flicked the Seether emblem on the left breast of my hoodie. “I’ll put on Remedy. Still your favorite song? You give me a quick lap dance, and the party’s over.” The corners of his mouth turned up, but the dead coldness was still in his eyes. He wanted to humiliate me again. The monster needed to be fed.

			Isn’t it time you fought back?

			If I accepted his offer, Jared would only find some way to back out of the deal and embarrass me. If I didn’t accept the offer, we’d be at an impasse. Either way, Jared was aware he didn’t have to surrender anything. The jerk also assumed I was too flustered to think of a third choice.

			Isn’t it time you fought back?

			In the brief moment it took me to make my decision, I took one final survey of him. It was such a shame. Jared was stunningly gorgeous, and once upon a time, he was a good guy. If things had been different, I could be his. Once upon a time, I thought I was his. But I wouldn’t be sacrificing my pride to him. Ever. Again.

			My legs started to shake, but I refused to let go of my resolve.

			I backed away and screamed into the living room. “Cops!” Dancers looked around in confusion.

			“Cops! Everyone get out of here! Cops coming in the backdoor! Run!” I was surprised by the amount of commitment I could summon to pull this off, but it worked. Damn, it worked!

			Pandemonium ensued as the mob reacted with immediate panic. Partiers, the underage ones at least, started scattering to the four winds and seemed to pass the word to the people outside, too. Everyone else grabbed their weed and bottles before running off. They were too drunk to scan the area properly and actually look for the cops. They just ran.

			Twisting around to meet Jared’s eyes, I took notice that he hadn’t reacted. He hadn’t moved. As everyone bolted from his house in a flurry of screams and engines revving, Jared just stared at me with a mixture of anger and surprise.

			Approaching me slowly, the huge smile that developed across his face forced my stomach to do a cartwheel. Letting out a fake pitiful sigh, he declared, “I’ll have you in tears in no time.” His tone was calm and decisive. I believed every word.

			Taking a long breath, my eyes narrowed at him. “You’ve already made me cry countless times.” I raised my middle finger to him slowly, and asked, “Do you know what this is?” I took my middle finger and patted the corner of my eye with it. “It’s me, wiping away the last tear you’ll ever get.”





Chapter 5




The next few days passed in a flurry of activity as I prepared for school to begin. As much as I tried to talk myself into believing that Jared’s silence was a good thing, it was only a matter of time before the other shoe dropped.

			My actions at his party had been careless, but sometimes the worst ideas felt the best. Even now, after a week, my pulse sped up, and I couldn’t help but grin at the thought of how I’d gotten him. The awareness I’d gained while living abroad made things that were once threatening seem more trivial now. Nervousness still surged in my chest at the thought of Jared, but I no longer felt the need to avoid him at all costs.

			“So, are you in the fishbowl today!” It wasn’t a question. K.C. bounced up next to me as I put my books away. Her hand gripped the top of the locker door as she peeked around it.

			“I’m afraid to ask.” I let out a small sigh without looking at her. It was the first day back, our first day of senior year. I’d had a full morning of Physics, Calculus, and P.E. I grabbed another notebook for French, which was my last class before lunch.

			“So you haven’t noticed everyone noticing you today? In a school of about two thousand people, I think you might’ve caught on that almost all of them were talking about you,” she said with a giggle.

			“Did I sit in chocolate pudding again? Or maybe a new rumor is circulating that I spent the past year hiding a pregnancy and gave the baby up for adoption.” I slammed my locker door shut then turned to head to French, knowing she’d follow me. I really didn’t want to hear what people were saying, partly because I didn’t care what bullshit they were circulating now and also because it was nothing new. France had been a peaceful respite, but Shelburne Falls was probably the same old, same old. Thanks to Jared, my high school experience had been one long succession of rumors, pranks, tears, and disappointments. I hoped for more this year, but I wasn’t holding my breath either.

			“Not even close. And actually, the talk is good. Really good.”

			“Oh, yeah?” I absent-mindedly responded, hoping she’d sense the disinterested tone and shut up.

			“Apparently, your year in Europe has transformed you from ubergeek to ubercool!” K.C. broadcasted sarcastically, knowing that I had never been ubergeek. Not that I was ever considered ubercool either. My default identity had always been “of those on the outside”, but only because the long arm of Jared Trent had deemed me less than acceptable in most social circles.

			I jetted up the stairs to the third floor for class, sidestepping other students as they rushed down to their next destination.

			“Tate, did you hear me?” K.C. jogged behind me, trying to catch up. “I mean, look around you! Would you stop for two seconds?” she whisper-yelled, eyes pleading when I glanced back at her.

			“What?” Her urgency to pass on the latest gossip was amusing, but all I wanted was to walk into school without wearing my invisible body armor. “What’s the big deal? So what? People think I look nice today. Today! What will they think tomorrow after Jared gets to them?” I hadn’t told her about Jared’s party and what I’d done. If she knew, she wouldn’t be so optimistic about my chances.

			“You know, he wasn’t that bad after you left. Maybe we’re worrying about nothing. All I’m saying is that—” K.C. was cut off.

			“Hey, Tate.” Ben Jamison came up behind K.C. and reached behind me. “Let me get the door for you.”

			I stepped aside, giving him room to swing the door open. Having no choice but to end our conversation, I pursed my lips and waved at an open-mouthed K.C.

			“It’s great having you back,” Ben whispered as we walked into class, me first and him close behind. I widened my eyes and had to stifle a nervous laugh. The reality of Ben Jamison engaging me in small talk was too surreal.

			He starred on the football and basketball teams and was one of the best looking guys in school. We had been in French I and II together, but he’d never spoken to me.

			“Thank you,” I muttered, keeping my eyes downcast. This was out of my comfort zone. I slipped stealthily into a front row seat.

			It was great having me back? Like he ever cared before? This was probably one of Jared’s tricks. I made a mental note to apologize to K.C. for trying to warn me about the unusual attention. Cute guys talking to me equaled unusual.

			Madame Lyon, our actual French French teacher, started launching into a full blown lecture right off the bat. Aware of Ben sitting right behind me, I tried to concentrate on the lesson, but even studying Madame’s cute, bobbed haircut couldn’t take my mind off the stares boring into the back of my head. Out of my peripheral vision, I noticed several students around the room glancing my way. I shifted in my seat. What was everyone’s problem?

			Thinking back to what K.C. had said when I first got back, I didn’t really think I looked any different. After all, my year abroad hadn’t consisted of any great makeovers or shopping trips. My skin was a little darker, my clothes were new, but my style hadn’t changed.

			I wore skinny jeans tucked into mid-calf high black boots with no heels, and a white, flimsy boat neck t-shirt long enough to cover my butt. I loved my style, and no matter what anyone thought, I stuck to it.

			After a painfully long fifty minute class of smiles from unexpected people, I retrieved my phone from my black messenger bag.

			See you outside for lunch? I texted K.C.

			2 windy! She shot back. Always about the hair.

			Fine. Heading in now, look for me.

			As soon as I stepped in line in the cafeteria, goose bumps crept over my skin. I grabbed a tray and closed my eyes. He was in here somewhere. I didn’t need to turn around or hear his voice. Maybe it was the climate of the room, the way others traveled or the polarity of his presence in relation to me. All I knew for sure was that he was definitely here.

			In elementary school we played with magnets that clash together when you flip them to the positive side, but if you flip them to the negative side, then the magnets will repel each other. Jared was one side of a magnet, never flipping over to accommodate anyone. He was what he was. Everyone else either had a pull to him or was pushed away from him, and the flow of a room reflected this. There was a time when Jared and I were inseparable, like the positive sides of the magnets.

			My lungs ached with a breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding, and I exhaled. After choosing a salad with Ranch dressing and a water bottle, I handed the cashier my card to swipe and found a seat near the windows. The bustle of the room was an entertaining distraction from meeting his eyes. Several students nodded in passing and offered a “welcome back.” My shoulders finally relaxed after the swirl of greetings.

			Jess Cullen waved to me from a few tables over, and I reminded myself about practice this afternoon.

			Where are you? K.C. shot a text.

			By the north windows.

			In line now!

			K. I texted back. Twisting around in my seat, I spotted her in line. I gave her a little wave to signal my location and quickly turned back around before I gave in to the urge to scan the room for him.

			Twisting the cap off my water bottle, I took a long swig, relishing in the relief. It felt like my heart had been beating a mile a minute for the last hour. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.

			My relaxation, however, was cut short by the voice of Madoc Caruthers.

			“Hey, baby.” Madoc placed his hand on the table to my side and leaned into my ear. As I replaced the cap on my water bottle, my shoulders slumped slightly. Not again! Didn’t the little fucker ever learn a lesson? I stared straight ahead in an effort to ignore him.

			“Tate?” He was trying to goad me into acknowledging him. Non-confrontational me was still not making eye contact.

			“Tate? I know you can hear me. In fact, I know every part of you is very aware of me right now.” Madoc ran the knuckles of his left hand down my arm. I sucked in a breath, and my body jerked at his touch.

			“Mmmm, you’ve got goose bumps. You see?” He toyed with me.

			Goosebumps? If I weren’t so sickened, I would laugh. “Yes, you do make my skin crawl. But you knew that, right?” My disdain couldn’t get any thicker.

			“I really missed you last year, and I would actually like to call a truce. In fact, why don’t we put everything behind us and you let me take you out this weekend?”

			He had to be dreaming if he thought—

			His hand glided down my back and quickly descended to my rear. I sucked in another breath.

			Son of a bitch! Did he really just grab my ass? Without my permission? In public? Oh, no.

			Then, he squeezed.

			Everything after that point happened in a rush of reaction and adrenaline. I popped out of my seat like my legs had springs. The muscles in my thighs were taut with tension, and I clenched my fists.

			As I faced Madoc, who had raised himself to meet my gaze, I grabbed him by the shoulders and lifted my knee into his groin. Hard. The amount of pressure must’ve been a lot, because he yelped and fell to his knees, moaning while holding his crotch.

			I had been manhandled my Madoc enough. There was no way I was going to be able to turn the other cheek anymore. Breaking his nose a year ago clearly wasn’t the end of my rope. It was the start of a new one.

			With my heart pounding and a cool heat surging down my arms, I didn’t stop to think about where this would put me tomorrow or next week. I just wanted him to stop.

			Jared had been threatening for years, but he had never crossed that line. He had never touched me or made me feel physically violated. Madoc always crossed the line, and I wondered what the fuck was his problem! If what Sam had said was true, that I was off limits, then why did Madoc mess with me so much? And in plain sight of Jared?

			“Don’t touch me and don’t talk to me.” I hovered over him, sneering. Madoc’s eyes were closed as he breathed hard. “Did you really think I would go out with you? I hear the girls talk, and contrary to popular belief, good things do not come in small packages.” The entire room erupted in laughter, and I crooked my pinky finger to the bystanders. I spotted K.C., tray in hand and an “oh, my God” expression on her face.

			“Thanks for the offer anyway, Madoc,” I sang with mock sweetness. Grabbing my tray, I headed through the ocean of eyes and threw away my food. The only thing that mattered was making it out of the lunchroom before I crumbled. Everything felt weak with tingles, and I was afraid my legs would give out. What had I just done?

			But before I reached the doors, I threw caution to the wind. Oh what the hell, I’ve developed a death wish lately. May as well drown in it. I turned around and immediately locked eyes with the one person that made my blood boil more than Madoc.

			Jared’s full attention was focused on me, and the world in my peripheral vision stopped as we stared at each other.

			He wore dark distressed jeans and a black t-shirt. No jewelry, no watch, only his tattoos as accessories. His lips were slightly parted but not smiling. Those eyes, however, seemed challenging and too damn interested. He looked like he was sizing me up.

			Fuck. Shit.

			Leaning back in his chair, he had one arm hooked behind him on the back of his seat and one arm resting on the table. He was staring at me, and unwanted heat rushed to my face.

			There was a time when I had all of his attention and loved it. As much as I wanted him to leave me alone, I also liked how he seemed surprised. I liked the way he was looking at me right now.

			And then I remembered that I hated him.





Chapter 6




The rest of the day unfolded as one surreal moment after another. I had to constantly tell myself that I was in a dream and this wasn’t really the first day of school. I received mounds of admiration over my lunchtime rumble, and I felt like this couldn’t really be my life.

			After my high dissipated, it occurred me that I’d hit another student on school grounds. I could get in trouble—a lot of trouble—for that. Every announcement or knock at a classroom door had my hands shaking.

			I texted K.C. after leaving the lunchroom and apologized for ditching her. Since I hid in the library for the rest of lunch, I had time to try to figure out what the hell was going on with me. Why hadn’t I just walked away from Madoc? Had it been fun to knee him in the balls? Yes. But I was losing control lately, and perhaps I was taking K.C.’s advice of fighting back too literally.

			“Hey, Jackie Chan!” Maci Feldman, a fellow senior in my Government class, sat down next to me. She immediately reached into her purse and pulled out a tube of glittery pink lip gloss, applying it while eyeing me happily.

			“Jackie Chan?” Raising my eyebrows, I pulled a new notebook out of my messenger bag.

			“That’s one of your new nicknames. The others are Super Bitch and Ball Buster. I like Jackie Chan.” She smacked her lips together and slipped the gloss back into her purse.

			“I like Super Bitch,” I mumbled as Mr. Brimeyer handed out the syllabus with a questionnaire attached.

			Maci whispered, “You know, a lot of girls were happy about that scene in the lunch room. Madoc’s slept with half the senior class, not to mention some juniors, and he deserved what he got.”

			Not knowing how to respond, I just nodded. I wasn’t used to people being on my side. My responses to Jared’s and Madoc’s antics might have changed, but my goal to keep my head focused on school remained the same. My first day had included too much drama already. If I’d kept my head down, I might’ve escaped notice for the most part. But it was almost as if I had no desire to be silent anymore, and my actions were inviting more trouble. What was I doing? And why wasn’t I stopping?

			***

			Catching up with Madame Lyon after school, I was able to get my mind off the day’s events. She expected me to speak to her entirely in French now, and it irked me that the German I learned during the summer was getting me flustered. I kept saying things like “Ich bin bien” instead of “Je suis très bien.” and “Danke” instead of “Merci.” But we laughed, and it wasn’t long before I got my sea legs back.

			Coach Robinson wanted us on the bleachers by 3:00, so I ran to get changed for cross-country practice. After a year away, my spot on the team didn’t exist, but I had every intention of earning it back.

			“Have you had any backlash from what happened at lunch?” Jess Cullen, our captain now, questioned me as we headed for the locker room after practice.

			“Not yet. I’m sure it will come tomorrow, though. Hopefully the Dean will go easy on me. I’ve never been in trouble before,” I replied hopefully.

			“No, I mean from Madoc. You don’t have to worry about the Dean. Jared took care of that.” She glanced back at me as we walked down the aisle to our gym lockers.

			I froze. “What do you mean?”

			She opened her locker door and stopped to smile at me. “Mr. Sweeney came by right after you left the lunch room asking what happened. Jared walked over and said Madoc slipped and fell into a table or a chair . . . or something.” Jess laughed.

			I couldn’t help myself either. It was too ridiculous.

			“Slipped and fell into a table? And he believed him?”

			“Well, probably not, but everyone backed him up, so there was little Mr. Sweeney could say about it.” She started shaking her head in disbelief. “And when Madoc finally got back on his feet, he backed up the story, too.”

			No, no, no. They did not save my ass!

			Caving, I took a seat on the bench in the middle of the aisle and planted my head into my hands.

			“What’s wrong? This is good news.” She took a seat next to me and began removing her shoes and socks.

			“No, I think I’d rather be in trouble with the Dean than indebted to those jerks.” They wouldn’t have covered for me unless they wanted to administer the punishment themselves.

			 “Aren’t you applying to Columbia? I don’t think they’re interested in bright, young, scientific minds that have a penchant for assaulting guys. Just saying, anything is probably better than this winding up on your record.”

			She rose, finished stripping down, and headed to the shower with her towel. I stayed there a few moments, contemplating her final words. She was right. I had a lot going for me if I could keep my eyes on the ball. My grades were great, I was fluent in French, had a year abroad under my belt and a slew of note-worthy extra-curricular activities. I could survive whatever Jared had up his sleeve.

			My first day back at Shelburne Falls High School was more eventful than I would have liked, but I was being noticed in a positive way. I might actually leave my senior year with a few good memories, like homecoming and prom.

			Grabbing my towel, I headed for the showers.

			The hot water cascaded down my back, giving me the kind of chills you get when you’re cozy and enjoying something completely pleasurable. After the workout Coach gave us, I ended up lounging under the exhilarating pressure of the shower for longer than anyone else. My muscles were exhausted.

			After coming out wrapped in my towel, I joined the other girls at the lockers, who were mostly dressed and going to dry their hair.

			“Get out. Tatum stays.”

			I jerked my head up at the masculine voice and audible gasps. I zoned in on Jared. . . .who was in the girls locker room! I clutched my towel, which was still wrapped around my body, and pulled it tighter as I frantically looked around for Coach.

			A chill ran over my body. His eyes were on me as he spoke to everyone else, and it made me disgusted with my sex to see how everyone scurried away, leaving me alone with a boy who had no right to be in here.

			“Are you kidding me?!” I heaved at him as his advancing steps matched my retreating ones.

			“Tatum”—he hadn’t used my nickname Tate since we were kids—“I wanted to make sure I had your attention. Do I have it?” He looked relaxed, his beautiful eyes bore into mine making me feel like there was no one else in the entire world but us.

			“Say what you have to say. I’m naked here, and I’m about to scream. This is going too far, even for you!” I stopped retreating, but my frustration was evident as my voice raised and my breathing quickened. Score one for Jared. He’d surprised me, and now I was completely vulnerable. No lifelines and . . . no clothes.

			I clutched the towel at the top of my breasts with one hand and hugged myself with the other. All of my important parts were covered, but the towel rode up just under my butt, leaving most of my legs exposed. Jared narrowed his eyes at me before they began to fall downward. . . .and kept going. My mind swirled and my face flushed with heat as he continued checking me out. His intimidation tactics were stellar.

			No smirk accompanied his violation. He didn’t eye-fuck me like Madoc did. His roaming gaze was reluctant, as if it was involuntary. His chest heaved slightly, and his breathing got heavier. Tingles covered my body, and another sensation I was a little pissed off about settled between my legs.

			After a few moments, his gaze met mine again. The corners of his mouth turned up.

			“You sabotaged my party last week. And you assaulted my friend. Twice. Are you actually trying to assert some force in this school, Tatum?”

			“I think it’s about time, don’t you?” Surprising myself, I didn’t blink.

			“On the contrary,” he said, leaning his shoulder into the lockers and crossing his arms, “I’ve moved on to more interesting pastimes than punking you, believe it or not. It’s been a very peaceful year without your smug, I’m-too-good-for-everyone-else fucking face around these halls.”

			His biting tone was old news, but the words cut me, and I clenched my teeth.

			I mocked him with fake concern. “What—are you, big, bad Jared—feeling threatened?” What the hell was I doing? I had an out. He was confronting me. I should be trying to talk to him. Why wasn’t I trying to reason with him?

			In an instant, he pushed off the lockers and invaded my space. Walking up to me, he placed his hands against the locker doors on both sides of my head with his eyes glaring down at me. I suddenly forgot how to breathe.

			“Don’t touch me.” I’d meant to yell, but it came out as a whisper. Even with my eyes to the floor, I could feel the heat of his stare mauling me as he hovered. Every nerve in my body was on alert at his proximity, and every little hair on my skin stood on end.

			Jared moved his head from side to side trying to catch my eyes, his lips inches from my face. “If I ever lay my hands on you,” he said low and husky, “you’ll want it.” He brought his lips in even closer. The heat of his breath covered my face. “Do you? Want it, I mean?”

			I met his eyes and breathed him in. There was something I was going to say, but I completely forgot it as his scent invaded my brain. I liked it when men wore cologne, but Jared didn’t wear any. Good. Awesome. The jerk just smelled like soap. Yummy, delicious, musky bodywash.

			Shit, Tate! Get a grip.

			His hooded stare faltered while I maintained eye contact. “I’m bored,” I finally choked out. “Are you going to tell me what you want or what?”

			“You know?” He looked at me curiously. “This new attitude you came back with? It surprised me. You used to be a pretty dull target. All you’d do was run away or cry. Now you’ve got some fight in you. I was prepared to leave you alone this year. But now . . . ,” he trailed off.

			“What will you do? Trip me in class? Spill O.J. on my shirt? Spread rumors about me, so I don’t get any dates? Or maybe you’ll up your game to cyberbullying.” Though that was no joke, and I immediately regretted giving him the idea. “Do you really think any of it bugs me anymore? You can’t scare me.”

			I should shut up. Why wasn’t I shutting up?

			He studied me as I tried to control my temper. Why did he always appear so calm, so unaffected? He never yelled or flew off the handle. His temper was in check, whereas my blood boiled to the point that I felt like I could go another round with Madoc.

			My eyes were level with his mouth as he leaned in slowly. One of his arms stretched over my head resting on the lockers to bring his face within an inch from mine. A sexy grin played on his lips, and I had a difficult time looking away from his full mouth.

			“Do you think you’re strong enough to take me on?” His slow, soothing whisper caressed my face. If it weren’t for his formidable words, his tone might’ve calmed me . . . or something.

			I should’ve moved away, but I wanted to appear confident by standing my ground. I could give back as good as I got. At least I thought I could.

			“It’s on.” My stare met his as the raspy challenge left my throat.

			“Tatum Brandt!” Shocked out of the strange trance Jared created, I looked up to see Coach and half the team at the end of the row staring at us.

			“Coach!” I knew there was something for me to say, but words failed. Horror took root in my brain and held it hostage as I tried to search for an explanation. Jared was leaned into me, speaking intimately. It couldn’t have looked good. A few of the girls had their phones out, and I cringed at the sound of pictures being taken. No!

			Dammit!

			“There are other places for you two to do this.” Coach spoke to me but then looked to Jared. “Mr. Trent? Leave!” She spoke through her teeth, and the girls around her stood giggling behind their hands. No one looked away.

			Jared assaulted me with a smug grin before walking out of the locker room, winking at some salivating girls as he left.

			Realization dawned, and my eyes widened. He’d planned this!

			“Coach—” I started and pulled the towel tighter around me.

			“Ladies,” Coach interrupted me, “get on home. We’ll see you Wednesday. Tate? I’ll see you in my office before you leave. Get dressed.”

			“Yes, ma’am.” My pulse thumped in my ears. I’d never been in trouble before, not at school. I dressed quickly and tied my wet hair into a bun before hauling ass to Coach’s office. Only a few minutes had passed, but I guessed those pictures were probably up on the Internet already. I wiped the sweat off my forehead and swallowed down the bile rising in my throat.

			Jared had sunk low—really low—this time. I came back to town prepared for another year of aggravations and embarrassments, but it chilled my bones when I realized how our exchange must’ve looked. The rumors before had been just that, but now there were witnesses and evidence to our encounter.

			Tomorrow, half the school would have some version of what was happening in those pictures. If I was lucky, the story would be that I’d thrown myself at him. If I was unlucky, the rumor would be more sordid.

			Jess exited Coach’s office as I made my way in that direction. “Hey.” She stopped me. “I talked to Coach. She knows Jared ambushed you in there . . . that he wasn’t invited. I’m sorry I abandoned you like that.”

			“Thanks.” Relief flooded me. At least my butt was safe from Coach’s wrath.

			“No problem. Just please don’t tell anyone I spoke up for you. If people knew I got Jared in trouble, it wouldn’t be good,” Jess explained.

			“Are you scared of him?” Jared had a lot of power around school.

			“No.” She shook her head. “Jared’s fine. He can be a jerk if he’s provoked, but he’s never concerned me. Honestly, it seems like you’re the only one he wants to beat down—metaphorically speaking, of course.” Jess’s narrowed eyes made me think she was turning over something in her head.

			“Yeah, well. Lucky me.”

			“Jared’s important around here, so I don’t want people getting on my case about ratting him out.” Her eyebrows lifted as she waited for my understanding.

			I nodded, wondering what the hell Jared did to deserve anyone’s loyalty.





Chapter 7




The fishbowl got smaller over the next few days.

			Some people heard that Jared and I were in the locker room having sex. Others believed that I’d invited him in an effort to seduce him. A few thought that he’d come in to threaten me after the episode with Madoc. Whatever story people latched onto, I was receiving more stares and hearing more whispers behind my back.

			“Hey, Tate. Do you just screw in the locker room or do you do blowjobs as well?” Hannah Forrest, queen bee of the mean girls, shouted to my back while I walked to Calculus. Her drones laughed with her.

			I spun around to face them and held my hand to my heart. “And steal all of your business?” I took the time to enjoy their dumbstruck looks before I twisted on my heel and headed to class.

			As I disappeared around the corner, the echo of expletives from her and her crew brought a smile to my face. I’d been called a bitch before, and it didn’t hurt the way being called a slut did. Being a bitch could be a survival technique. They get respect. There was no honor in people thinking you were a slut.

			Jared must not have received much of a punishment for being in the girls’ locker room, since he was at school every day. He didn’t look at me or otherwise acknowledge me even though we shared a class together. I had transferred out of a Computer class in the afternoons, having already exceeded the senior syllabus in France, and transferred into Themes in Film and Literature without knowing he was in that class, too. The elective was supposed to be a cruise course, lots of movies and reading.

			“Tate, do you have an extra pen I could borrow?” Ben Jamison asked when we sat down in Themes. He, thankfully, had continued to be friendly and respectful in French, despite the current talk, and I was relieved with the distraction from Jared in this class.

			“Um . . .” I reached in my messenger bag, searching. “I think so. Here we go.” Ben awarded me with a brilliant smile that accentuated his dark blonde hair and green eyes. Our fingers touched, and I pulled away quickly, dropping the pen before he’d grasped it.

			I don’t know why I’d pulled away, but I felt Jared’s eyes wash over the back of my head.

			“No, I got it.” He stopped me as I bent over to grab it. “Don’t let me walk off with it at the end of class, though.”

			“Keep it.” I waved my hand in the air. “I’m stocked. I mostly use pencils, anyway. With all of my Science and Math classes, it’s a necessity. Especially with me. . . .lots of erasing.” I was trying at humility, but it came out as verbal diarrhea instead.

			“Oh yeah, that’s right. I forgot you were into that stuff.” He probably didn’t forget. He almost certainly had no idea. My nostrils flared with the reminder of all of the damage Jared had done. He was the reason more boys hadn’t taken an interest in me.

			“I’m trying to get into Columbia, pre-med. What about you?” I inquired. I hoped I didn’t sound like I was bragging, but I didn’t feel self-conscious with Ben. His family owned a newspaper, and his grandfather was a judge. He’d probably be applying to Ivy League schools, too.

			“I’m applying to a few places. I have no head for Math or Science, though. It’ll be Business for me.”

			“Well, I hope you like some Math. Business goes with Economics, you know?” I pointed out. His eyes widened, and I realized he didn’t know.

			“Uh, yeah.” He looked confused, but recovered quickly. “Absolutely. As long as it’s not too much.” He smiled nervously as I registered a snicker coming from behind me.

			“So . . .” I tried to change the subject, “you’re on the Homecoming Committee, right?”

			“Yeah. You coming?” Ben looked excited.

			“We’ll see. Have you booked a band, or is there a D.J.?” Band. Band. Band.

			“A band would be nice, but they tend to play one genre of music, so it’s hard to please everyone. We’ll have a D.J. I think that’s what everyone decided. He’ll keep the party going with a good mix: pop, country. . . .” He cast a smile as he trailed off, while I struggled to keep a happy face.

			“Oh. . . . pop and country? Can’t go wrong there.” I mentally cringed as I registered another snicker behind me, this time louder. Without the sense to let it go like the last time, I glanced back to Jared, whose eyes were downcast as he fiddled on his phone. But I saw his lips turned up and knew his pent-up amusement was provoked by my conversation with Ben.

			Jackass.

			Jared knew I hated country music and had little tolerance for pop. As did he.

			“So, you like pop and country?” I redirected my attention to Ben. Please say “no.” Please say “no.”

			“Mostly country.”

			Ugh, that’s worse.

			Math and Science? Negative. Musical tastes? Negative. Ok, last ditch effort to find something in common with the guy I would be sitting next to in two classes this semester. The teacher was going to be in soon.

			“You know, I heard we get to watch The Sixth Sense in here this semester. Have you seen it?” My phone beeped with a text notification, but I silenced it and stuck it in my bag.

			“Oh, yeah. A long time ago, though. I didn’t get it. I’m not a big fan of those thriller-mystery type movies. I like comedies. Maybe she’ll let us watch Borat.” He wiggled his eyebrows teasingly.

			“Hey, Jamison?” Jared piped up from behind us, his inflection overly polite. “If you like Bruce Willis, Unbreakable is a good one. You should give it a shot. . . .you know, if you’re looking to change your mind about thrillers that is.”

			My desk had suddenly become the most interesting view. I refused to turn around and face Jared. Words failed me when I realized that he’d remembered.

			Ben turned in his seat and responded, “Yeah, I’ll remember that. Thanks.” He turned back around and flashed me a smile.

			Jared was bold. He wanted me to know he remembered that Bruce Willis was my favorite actor. We had watched Die Hard one day when my father was gone, because Dad wouldn’t let me see it due to all of the swearing. Jared had a lot of knowledge about me, and I resented that. He didn’t have the right to claim any part of me.

			“Alright, class,” Mrs. Penley called out with a stack of papers in her hands. “In addition to the packet I am handing out, Trevor is giving you a template of a compass. Please write your name at the top, but leave the areas surrounding North, East, South, and West blank.”

			We all took papers, stuffing the list from Mrs. Penley to the side and following the directions regarding the compass. Starting class with an activity relieved me. The tormenting pressure of the stare I could feel boring into the back of my head was distracting, to say the least.

			“Ok.” Mrs. Penley clapped her hands together. “The packets I gave you are lists of films where important monologues occurred. As we’ve already started discussing monologues and their importance in Film and Literature, I would like you to start looking up a few of these on the Internet for research. We’ll discuss, during tomorrow’s class, your first project for presenting a monologue to the class.”

			Solo presentation. Ugh! Acting out a monologue. Double ugh!

			 “Also,” Mrs. Penley continued, “for various discussions this year, you’ll be asked to pair up with a different person in class. You’ll know who to pair up with based on this compass. You’ll have five minutes to circulate the classroom finding partners for your North, South, East, and West. Whoever you pick to fill in on your North, for example, they will also put you as their North, and so on. Kind of elementary, I know, but it’ll help mix things up.”

			Group work was fine occasionally, but I preferred to work on my own. My nose scrunched up at the thought of hearing “Buddy up!” constantly this year. Dreadful words.

			“Go!” the teacher shouted. The screech of chairs scraping across the floor filled the room. Grabbing my paper and pencil, I started looking for someone not already paired up. As I looked around, others were jotting each other’s names down, while I hadn’t even started.

			Ben grinned and nodded at me, so I filed over to him where we exchanged names on East. Catching sight of others’ papers and their blanks, I was able to secure West and South from two girls.

			I need a North. I mentally sang to myself as I looked around for another partner. Almost everyone scampered to their seats as the five minutes came to a close. I glanced to Jared, who I don’t think even got out of his seat. Everyone probably rushed over to him.

			This was the part of school I hated. The sinking feeling in my stomach reminded me of all the awkward times, before France, that I’d felt left out. Grade school was easy. I had friends and never had to feel lonely in these situations. High school had made me less confident and more introverted.

			I was still down one partner and would be left odd man out again. Weary of this feeling after being accepted in France for a year, I grabbed the bull by the horns.

			“Mrs. Penley, I’m missing a North. Is it alright if I make a threesome with two others?”

			Snorts sounded around the room, while some whispered under their breath. I knew I’d walked into that one.

			“Hey, Tate. I’ll do a threesome with you. My compass always points North.” Nate Dietrich fist-bumped his buddy as others laughed again.

			Surprising myself, I threw back, “Thanks, but I think your right hand will get jealous.” The class erupted in Whoa’s and Burn!

			It was that easy. Due to the use of a couple of immature quips today, I was able to regain a little respect from my classmates. Who knew? Pride hit me, and I had to bite back a smile.

			“Does anyone need a North?” Mrs. Penley interrupted the barbs before Nate could shoot back with something else.

			Everyone else was seated, meaning they had all of their partners. I kept my attention on Mrs. Penley, waiting for her to just tell me to find a threesome.

			“She can be my North.” Jared’s formidable voice hit me from behind, sending shivers down my spine.

			The teacher looked expectantly to me. This couldn’t be happening. Why hadn’t he gotten off his ass and found a North like everyone else?

			“Well, Tate. Go ahead then,” Mrs. Penley urged me.

			Spinning around, I practically huffed back to my seat without sparing a glanced at my North, and carved “Jared” on my paper. . . .and I think accidentally on my desk, too.





Chapter 8




“So when do you come home exactly?” My Calculus homework was done, and my Government book was cradled in my lap as I video chatted with Dad.

			“I’ll be home by the twenty-second for sure.”

			Still more than three months away. My dad’s arrival back home would be welcome. My days felt lonely without him to share things with, and after my mom passed away from cancer, our home was even emptier without him around. K.C. and I had spent time together, but she had a boyfriend. I was slowly making more friends at school, despite Jared’s latest blow to my reputation, but I’d decided to stay in this weekend and focus on planning for the Science Fair. I’d yet to decide on my research topic.

			“Well, I can’t wait. We need a decent cook around here,” I chirped, holding my steaming cup of tomato soup. As light as my supper was, the cascading warmth soothed my body. My limbs were still adjusting to the cross-country practices.

			“That’s not your supper, is it?”

			“Yeah.” I drew out like “duh.”

			“And where are the vegetables, the grains, and the dairy?”

			Oh, here we go. “The tomatoes in the soup are the vegetable, there’s milk in the soup too, and I’ll make a grilled cheese to go with it if that’ll make you happy.” My playful air told my dad “see, I’m smarter than I look.”

			“Actually, tomatoes are a fruit,” Dad responded flatly, knocking me off my pedestal.

			Laughing, I put the cup down and picked up a pencil to continue my outline for the essay we were assigned on Henry Kissinger. “No worries, Dad. I’m eating fine. Soup just sounded good tonight.”

			“Alright, I’ll back off. I just worry. You inherited my eating habits. Your mom would freak if she saw the things I let you eat.” Dad frowned, and I knew he still missed Mom like it was yesterday. We both did.

			After a moment, he continued, “You’ve got August’s bills all paid, right? And you have plenty of money in your account still?”

			“I haven’t blown my entire trust in a week. Everything’s under control.” He did this every time we talked. I had complete access to the life insurance my mom left me, and he still always asked if I had enough money. It was like I was going to go ballistic with my college fund without him looking, and he knew better. Maybe he thought he was doing his job as a parent the best he could from so far away.

			My phone buzzed with a text, and I grabbed it off my bedside table.

			Be there in 5.

			“Oh, Dad? I forgot K.C. is stopping over. Can I let you go?”

			“Sure, but I’ll be leaving tomorrow for a day or so. Taking the train to Nuremberg for some sightseeing. I want to chat with you in the morning before I leave and hear about the Science Fair prep you’re doing.”

			Ugh, shit. No prep had been organized, because I hadn’t even come close to deciding my project.

			“Ok, Dad,” I mumbled, leaving that discussion for tomorrow. “Call me at seven?”

			“Talk to you then, sweetie. Bye.” And he was gone.

			Closing my laptop and tossing my book onto the bed, I walked to the French doors and opened them wide. School had ended for the week three hours ago, but the sun still cast a radiant glow around the neighborhood. Leaves from the maple outside my doors rustled in the subtle breeze, and a few tiny clouds sprinkled the sky.

			Turning around, I slipped out of my school clothes and into a pair of plaid pajama shorts with a white and gray fitted raglan t-shirt. I let out an overly dramatic sigh. Of course, I would be in my pajamas at six p.m. on a Friday night.

			The doorbell echoed from downstairs, and I jogged to answer the door.

			“Hey!” K.C. breathed, stepping into the house with her arms loaded down. What the hell? We were just doing my hair, not a makeover.

			My eyes watered at her perfume. “What’s that scent you’re wearing?”

			“Oh, it’s new. It called Secret. You like?”

			“Love it.” Don’t loan it to me.

			“Let’s go up to your room. I want to have access to your bathroom when we do this.” K.C. insisted on coming over to give me a honey hair treatment she read about in Women’s Day. It’s supposed to soothe sun-damaged hair, which she says is a danger with all of the outdoor sightseeing I did this summer and with the cross-country practice.

			Okay, so I didn’t really care. I thought my hair looked fine, but I wanted to catch up with her after the busy first week.

			“Can I take the chair to the window? There’s a nice breeze coming in.” The honey would be messy, but the room boasted dark hardwood floors, so it would be an easy cleanup.

			“Yeah, sure. Just take your hair out of the ponytail and brush