Chapter 1

Savannah, Present

The long life of Meredith Christianson was over.

I just called her Gran.

And she was still gone.

No more phone calls. No more visits. No more Gran. She wouldn’t make fun of my driving or roll her eyes when I back-talked or be my forever cheerleader on my way to success. She wouldn’t be anything because she’d died.

I was still in black from the funeral. A knee-length lace dress that my best friend, Lila, had pulled out of her closet for me. She’d known before I did that I’d need the help today. She’d practically been raised by Gran too.

“Mars,” my twin, Maddox, said with a wash of sadness as we stood before Gran’s empty house.

I closed my eyes to fight back the tears. “I’m not ready.”

“I can wait.”

Maddox knew as well as anyone how hard this was. We’d been dropped off on this stoop at the age of two and never left. I didn’t remember anything before the old Victorian home with light-blue siding and a wraparound porch with peeling white paint. The Spanish moss–covered oak in the front that we’d climbed on as children. The smell of Gran’s cooking in the kitchen—her famous biscuits and gravy, fried chicken, and cornbread. I’d do anything for her biscuits right about now. To see her wrinkled face pinch with consternation at my insufferable mouth.

“You don’t have to,” I told him.

Maddox had been inside the house since Gran had passed. He still lived in Savannah. He’d been the first one to get the call from the caretaker we’d hired so that Gran didn’t have to leave the house she loved. The house she’d lived and died in. The house that now belonged to us, clean and clear. It was worth a fortune at this point since Gran and Gramps had owned it for generations. Not that we ever had any intention of getting rid of it. Other than my memories, the house was all I had left of Gran.

I squeezed my eyes against the pain. Gran was gone. She was gone. Okay. That was how it was. She’d been going for years anyway. But now that it was here, it felt more surreal than I’d ever imagined. Final.

Maddox wrapped an arm around my shoulders. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. We had that twin thing where we knew what the other was thinking. It had always been like that.

He pressed a kiss to my temple. “Take your time. You can come inside whenever you’re ready. We don’t have to make any decisions today.”

I nodded and watched him head up the front stone path to the house. He was gone inside a minute later. I swallowed back tears. I’d cried enough of them to last a lifetime. My eyes were still red and puffy from the funeral.

It hadn’t helped that my mom and aunt had shown up. I’d expected Aunt Ruth, who lived in Savannah even if I hadn’t seen her in at least a decade. But my mom…

My teeth ground together. She shouldn’t have been there at all. She didn’t deserve to mourn the woman she’d all but sent to her grave. The last argument they’d had, the one I’d been there for, I’d wanted to strangle her. It wasn’t enough that she’d been a shit mom, abandoning me and Maddox at the age of two to be taken care of by Gran, but she had to continually make everyone’s life worse by her sheer existence.

I didn’t want to think about her. I never did. How Gran had afforded her sympathy and compassion year after year, day after day, was beyond my comprehension. At least I’d gotten the last laugh when I found out Gran had given us the house and not her own children.

My hand hovered on the gate. It was just a house. It wasn’t haunted or anything. Despite everything else in Savannah seemingly being haunted. Gran had lived a long, long life. She’d passed with peace in her heart, knowing she’d done the best she could with her circumstances. But it didn’t make it any easier to step over the threshold. I’d been avoiding it all weekend after driving in from Atlanta with Lila, where I worked as a professor at Emory. She’d graciously let me stay with her mom down the street. Deb always had warm hugs and an open heart. I was grateful for her this weekend, but now, I finally had to face that the empty house.

With a deep breath, I stepped into the yard. I kept my focus forward as I mounted the small stoop, reaching the iconic bright yellow door. I twisted the worn silver knob in my hand. The hinges gave with a slight creak as I crossed over onto the original hardwood floor. Everything was precisely where it had always been. The floral couch against the far wall. A color-coordinated pink and brown set of chairs on either side of it. Gramps’ brown leather recliner tucked in the corner. The rug was a threadbare multicolored thing that Gran had always taken special care of since it had belonged to her mom. The TV was way past outdated and veering toward an antique. She’d never cared for new, fandangle things. Though she secretly watched soaps on the nicer TV in her bedroom. I’d crawl into bed with her to find out what Stefano was doing to Marlena.

Pictures littered the walls, as they always had, collecting dust as much as memories. Gran was the third oldest of eight with pictures of her immense family all over the room. A scant few pictures of her own two daughters. They’d almost all been replaced by photographs of me and Maddox throughout the years.

“The kids I never had,” was what she always said.

I’d laughed then. I just found it sad now.

I pressed my fingers to a graduation photo nearest the door. Maddox and I stood in baby-blue cap and gowns at the local high school. Gran and Gramps had their arms around each of us. Lila and our other best friend, Josie, beamed. I’d never seen Gran as happy as when I got that full scholarship to Duke.

Off to bigger and better, chickadee.

It was too much. How was I supposed to survive a wake here? How could I fill Gran’s house with strangers? How had we gotten wrangled into this in the first place? I wanted to be left alone. I didn’t want any well-meaning cakes and dinners. I didn’t want people to tell me they were sorry for my loss. I didn’t want pity at all. I wanted Gran back. I wanted the impossible.

My heart constricted. That was the last thing I needed.

I could hear Maddox stomping around upstairs. Who even know what he was doing? I wanted to tell him to keep it down, but if stomping around helped him grieve, then who was I to tell him to keep it quiet?

Then the doorbell rang, saving me from making a decision.

I checked my reflection in a giant brass mirror that Gran had always called the Lipstick Mirror. My eyes were still puffy, but they weren’t lined with tears. My curly brown hair was actually manageable since Lila had gotten to it before the funeral. My cheeks rosy from the Savannah summer humidity. My lips a perfect neutral pink, just as Gran had always preferred. I’d even picked her favorite Estée Lauder color, Pinkberry.

“I got it,” I called out to Maddox and then swung the door open.

My heart stopped as I found Derek Ballentine standing before me in a three-piece navy-blue pinstripe suit. As impossibly tall as ever with his sideswept brown hair and those too-damn-keen hazel eyes. His lips were pouty with an exaggerated Cupid’s bow and always appeared as if he’d been kissing all afternoon. He looked like he’d walked off the set of Savannah’s quintessential film, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. He’d always been gorgeous. And he was the very last person I wanted to see.

“Derek,” I growled.

“Minivan,” he said, rolling over the nickname I’d always hated.

“No.”

“Aww, Mars, you didn’t miss me?”

I glared at him, and then without a second thought, I slammed the door in his too-smug face.

 

Chapter 2

Savannah, October 29, 2004

The first time I saw Derek Ballantine, I thought he was the most gorgeous person I’d ever met. Then he opened his mouth.

“Hey, y’all,” he drawled, low and smooth. “Any of y’all have Halloween plans other than losing to Holy Cross?”

He pulled his Holy Cross letterman jacket more firmly around his shoulders and then leaned forward against the chain-link fence. His other basketball buddies chuckled at his incredible wit.

While Danielle and Leigh stumbled over their words to see the hot private school boys talking to us, I narrowed my eyes. Yes, we were losing the football game to the all-boys private Catholic school 42 to 10. Yes, we undeniably sucked. But this guy wasn’t even playing. His letterman jacket was for basketball, which they sucked at. I’d cheered through enough basketball games to know that we destroyed them every year. They had, like, one good guy on that team, and it probably wasn’t even this guy.

“Is that supposed to be a pickup line?” I demanded, planting a hand on my hip and stretching the baby-blue miniskirt.

His eyes dropped to my long, pale legs and back up. “I don’t know. Is it working?”

“No,” I said flatly.

He shrugged, undeterred. “Well, I’m having a Halloween party tomorrow night. My parents are out of town, and y’all should swing by.”

“Oh wow, yeah!” Leigh said with wide blue eyes. “That’d be fun, right?”

Danielle bit her lip. “I’m supposed to go to Jack’s gig. So… I don’t know.”

“What about you?” he asked, nodding at me.

“I mean, the invitation just sounded so tempting, what with the insults and all, but no.”

Of course, I didn’t say it was because Gran and Gramps would never in a million years let me go to an unchaperoned Halloween party. Let alone a Holy Cross party. They’d never liked the local Catholic schools. They had vocally opposed Lila going to St. Catherine’s, the sister school to Holy Cross. But it was hard to argue when her mom got her free tuition because she working there.

“She’s got you there, Derek,” the tall Black guy next to him said with a laugh. “Why don’t you show them some manners? I’m Trask.” He held his hand across the fence, and Leigh shook it. He smacked the obnoxious one in the chest afterward. “This is Derek. And Hooper.”

Hooper waved shyly, a blush forming on his cheeks. He was easily the tallest of the lot—well, they were all tall, but he was a giant. “Sup.”

“I’m Leigh,” Leigh said, jumping in for us. “Danielle and Marley.” She pointed out a few other cheerleaders who had wandered over to find out what was going on.

They all waved, and I heard Christina Arlington whisper in awe, “That’s Derek Ballentine.”

Derek grinned broadly when he realized he had the attention of the entire cheer squad, and again, he invited everyone to his Halloween party tomorrow night. Only I seemed uninterested. Not because he was unattractive, but because I knew his type.

I’d spent long years analyzing people like Derek Ballentine. The ones who wanted sex after the first date, who expected the world but refused to give anything back in turn, who thought they were entitled to respect when they hadn’t earned it. I’d seen them flounder in and out of my mother’s life since I was a baby. One after the other after the other. She’d never been around enough for me to really know their names, but in my mind, they were all the same guy anyway. A placeholder for the real thing. And Mom never saw it, but I certainly did.

“Ladies!” Coach called furiously. “The game is still happening.”

The rest of the girls giggled and headed back into positions. We ran through a few cheers to try to get the crowd into the crippling defeat, but nothing could make them rally. And Derek stood by and watched me.

I’d never felt self-conscious in the tiny blue skirt and crop top before. I’d actually started cheering so that I could wear something other than pants or knee-length skirts. Gran was traditional, and she believed deeply in modesty. I thought she was trying to make up for how Mom had turned out, but I’d only said that once before in her presence and had the shit smacked out of me. So I wasn’t prone to saying that one again.

Either way, cheer wasn’t my passion by a long shot. I preferred dancing and did so at a local studio, but the high school didn’t have a dance team, and Gran wanted me to be “involved”—i.e., she thought it looked good on my transcript. And now, I was strutting around in a skirt that my ass nearly hung out of, and the hottest guy I’d ever met was looking at me like I was a puzzle he wanted to figure out.

A cheer rose from the other side of the stadium. Holy Cross had scored another touchdown. Their quarterback, Ash Talmadge, had run the damn ball in himself. I sighed heavily as they made the extra point, bringing the final score to 49 to 10. Depressing.

“Better luck next week,” Coach called.

I grabbed my cheer bag and slung it over my shoulder, heading for the stands to find Lila and Josie. I hadn’t seen them at all in the stands the second half. That likely meant that Josie had gotten them into trouble. What else was new?

I crossed the fence and squinted for my girls when Derek stepped into my path. He was enormous in person, towering over me with bulk I hadn’t expected from a basketball player. And I hated to admit, he was hotter up close.

“So, you really don’t want to go to the party?” he asked with a quick grin.

It was hard not to look at his lips. They were the kind of lips girls spent money on fillers to achieve. Perfectly pouty and oh-so endearing. I snapped my attention away from those lips.

“Why are you following me? It’s creepy.”

He shrugged. “Public school girls don’t normally say no.”

I rolled my eyes. “To you or your party?”

He shrugged again.

“Well, let me tell you, Derek,” I said, “I’m not like any other girl you’ll ever meet.”

Then I shouldered past him to find Josie flirting with a football player, Kyle Curtis. Lila looked generally miserable.

“Hey,” I said, dropping my bag at Lila’s feet.

“Mars,” she said. “You killed it out there. That high kick put everyone to shame.”

“Obviously,” I joked. I glanced at Josie. “How long will she be like this?”

Lila raised her eyebrows. “How long do we have?”

“Josephine Reynolds,” I called. “Can we keep the flirting to a minimum? I want to go home?”

Josie put her hand on Kyle’s arm and then turned all dramatic to face me. “Marley Nelson, you will wait your turn. I am occupied.”

I rolled my eyes at her. Most days I wished that my last name was Christianson like Gran’s. Nelson was from my father, whoever he was. He’d ditched mom when she found out she was having twins at the ripe old age of eighteen.

“Maddox is going to be picking us up any minute. If we’re late, he’ll drive off without us. I’ve watched him do it.”

Josie huffed. “Fine.” She twirled her fingers at Kyle, mouthing, Call me, and then followed us out of the stadium. “You got your ass kicked.”

“Yep,” I said, “Lila’s team is better.”

Lila groaned. “Let’s not. I’ve only been at St. Catherine’s for three months, and I want to die. I will never fit in there.”

“Well, it’s better than being in Atlanta,” Josie complained.

For as long as I could remember, Josie had spent every summer in Savannah with us. Her dad would drop her off the day after school got out to stay with her mom, who had a reputation in these parts the size of Mount Rushmore, and pick her up the day before school started. But we’d all gotten so attached, and she loved Savannah like it was home that her dad had agreed to let her drive down to see us now that she had a license. Another thing Gran would never, ever let me do.

Maddox was waiting in an old Ford pickup that used to belong to Gramps. Even though we were twins, I didn’t have my license. We’d both turned sixteen three days ago, and Maddox had passed his driver’s test with flying colors. It was the only test I’d ever failed in my entire life. And so Maddox got the truck and the fun job of chauffeuring us around.

“Get in,” Maddox said, reaching across the seat and opening the passenger door.

It only had one long seat across the front, and we had to squash inside to fit. Josie practically crawled onto Maddox’s lap, then Lila, and then me after I threw my bag into the bed. He zoomed away with all the freedom that I was lacking.

Maddox parked on the street, like everyone else in Savannah, and we trudged inside. Gran was waiting up for us, as usual, with Gramps snoring softly in the old brown recliner. She got to her feet as her eyes went to the clock. As if she didn’t already know the time.

“Late game,” she said, pulling us each in for a hug. “Y’all win?”

I shook my head. “Nah. We’re no good.”

“Ah, next time, chickadee,” she said with a kiss to my forehead. “Now, change out of that ridiculous skirt. Y’all hungry?” A chorus of yeses followed. She nodded. “I’ll whip something up. I got some biscuits in the freezer, and I can make some gravy.”

“Thanks, Gran,” Josie said, knocking her hip against Gran’s. “You’re the best.”

“Nothing like Gran’s biscuits,” Maddox agreed.

“And fried chicken,” Lila said. “Makes my mouth water thinking about it.”

“I’m going to change,” I said and headed up the creaking stairs to my room.

It was still decorated in a splash of pink from the days when I’d liked the color. I was more partial to dark colors now, but it wasn’t like we could afford much to renovate. So, pink it was. Lila and Josie followed in my wake, crashing into my room and dropping onto the bed.

“So, who was that hot guy you were talking to?” Josie asked.

I slipped out of my cheer uniform and into oversize sweats and a T-shirt. “Some Holy Cross guy.”

“I missed it,” Lila said.

“He invited me to a Halloween party.”

Josie perked up. “Party?”

“We’re not going,” I told her.

“But…” She pouted.

Lila laughed. “As if Gran would let her go.”

“Tell her that you’re staying with Lila. Works like a charm.”

“I don’t want to go.”

“Well, I do!” Josie said. “Hot guys are my specialty.”

“You’re boy crazy.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing!”

Maddox cracked his head in. “Gran said food’ll be ready any minute.”

“Excellent,” Josie said. She leaned against the door and fluttered her eyelashes at Maddox. “Do you think you could cover for us tomorrow if we go to a party?”

“I, uh… have a gig,” he stumbled over his words, as he always did around Josie.

“For what?”

“Maddox is in a band,” I said, “remember?”

“Local Carnage,” he said with a grin. “We’re, uh, we’re playing a local Halloween party for some rich dude.”

I groaned. “It’s probably the same party. Gran is letting you go?”

He scratched the back of his head. His dark hair falling into his eyes. “Well, I told her it was for a charity thing.”

Lila cackled. “Brilliant.”

Josie squealed. “Let’s do it!”

Everyone turned to stare at me. The only one who had no interest in a Holy Cross party on Halloween. But how could I say no with everyone else on board?

I sighed heavily. “Fine.

 

Chapter 3

Savannah, October 30, 2004

I didn’t have a costume.

Josie was going as Marilyn Monroe, iconic white dress and all. Lila had gone for Greek goddess, complete with a skimpy toga that Josie had sewn into place. I’d declined a dozen suggestions. If Gran saw me in any of Josie’s outfits, I’d be in trouble for the rest of my life.

Which was how I’d donned Lila’s St. Catherine’s uniform. A plaid miniskirt that Josie had hiked up against my protests, white button-up, and tie. Lila had fished out some knee-highs and braided two pigtails to give off the perfect Catholic schoolgirl effect. I felt like a fraud.

“You look hot. Shut up,” Josie said.

I rolled my eyes. “Easy for you to say.”

I gestured to her. Josie was… Josie. Tall and tan with flowing black hair and hazel eyes. She was extroverted and flirtatious. She dominated a room. She always had. And then there was sarcastic, cynical, brainy, introverted me.

“You do look hot,” Lila said with a shrug.

Her blonde hair was loose and lips painted bright red. Long dancer legs were exposed against the white toga and black high heels. The benefit of having really hot friends meant no one spent too much time looking at me at least.

“All right,” I said with a sigh. “Let’s do this.”

Maddox was waiting out front in his truck. He wasn’t dressed up, except to look like a rocker, which wasn’t that different than his normal attire—ripped black jeans, a white Nirvana T-shirt, and his hair brushed forward to look emo. I was pretty sure he was even sporting guyliner.

“Hot, Maddox,” Josie said, shimmying in tight next to him.

He went nonverbal. Typical.

“Just drive. Let’s get this over with.”

Lila and Josie laughed at my lack of enthusiasm, but it was short-lived. It was hard to be with my two best friends and not be happy. We were so rarely all together that it would be a travesty to not revel in it.

Halloween weekend in Savannah meant three things: one, my birthday, two, parking was shit, and three, the ghost tours were packed. If we had to lay on the horn at one more oblivious tour, I was going to go mad. I remembered why we never did anything other than birthday shenanigans for Halloween. Savannah was one of the most haunted cities in America. Any local could probably rattle off a half-dozen ghost stories without blinking, but the tourists made it all so over the top.

“We are never going to find parking,” Lila said, craning her neck down Gaston as we passed Forsyth Park. “Literally just park anywhere, and we’ll walk.”

“In these heels?” Josie complained.

“Deal with it,” I said. “We’re never going to find a spot near the square.”

Josie huffed but nodded at Maddox. Then she pointed. “Oh there! Parallel park.”

Maddox huffed. “Great.”

Maddox sucked at parallel parking. Meanwhile, I was a pro from years of parking Gran’s minivan in the spot across the street. I’d baffled the person who administered my driver’s test by blowing the parallel park test out of the water and failing the actual driving part.

“I’ll do it,” I offered.

“You don’t even have a license,” Maddox said.

“So? If you hit that Beamer, Gran will never forgive you.”

Maddox sighed heavily and shot me a pained look. As if how dare I make him look bad in front of Josie. But he relented, and I swung it around with practiced ease.

Maddox pulled out his guitar from the back, and then we headed down Whitaker. A gentle mist hung over everything as the humidity doubled the size of my hair. I tried to flatten it, so it looked long and glossy like Josie’s, but there was no hope.

“This is the place,” Maddox said.

All four of us gawked at the enormous Victorian. It didn’t matter that I’d lived in Savannah all my life; there was always a new mansion with giant oaks covered in Spanish moss, which left me slack-jawed. And this one came complete with a gold plaque, listing the residence as The Ballentine House, built in 1833. Well, at least that confirmed that it was Derek’s party.

“Man, I want one of these,” Josie said, swinging open the giant wrought iron gate that led to the courtyard.

“Don’t you have a house like this?” Maddox asked with a grin.

She arched an eyebrow. “No, that’s Mom’s.”

His smile faded. We all knew she had issues with her mom, which was why she was staying with us this weekend.

My head craned ever upward, past the massive double doors to the sprawling white brick with tiered balconies. On some level, I had known that Holy Cross guys were rich, but there was knowing, and then there was knowing.

“Holy shit,” I muttered.

“Seconded,” Lila said, looping arms with me. “How the hell do I deal with this every day?”

That was a fantastic question. St. Catherine’s and Holy Cross felt like a completely different world. A world we were about to enter.

Maddox didn’t bother knocking; he just stepped into the mansion, which was already full. Everyone held a red Solo cup and laughed and chatted as if they’d all known each other their entire lives. I kept my mouth glued shut as we passed through the immense entranceway with its marble floor and two giant staircases leading up to the second floor.

Josie dragged us through the house as if she owned it. We stopped in the kitchen, where booze covered every available surface. Josie grabbed us each a drink and passed them out.

“I can’t,” I said, trying to pass it back to her.

“Just hold it,” Josie said. She took a good long sip of hers. “Then no one will ask why you aren’t drinking.”

“Fine,” I said with a sigh. I wasn’t opposed to drinking, but I preferred to do it in safer scenarios. Not at some random Holy Cross guy’s house miles from home.

Lila winked at me as she took a sip of her drink and then pulled a face. “You’re not missing anything anyway. This tastes like shit.”

I laughed as we followed Josie through the kitchen and into a living room the size of my entire house. Maddox was tuning his guitar as the rest of the guys got set up. I saw Danielle dressed like a black cat and waved. She pulled me into a hug once we walked over.

“I didn’t realize until I talked to Maddox that this party was the same as his gig.”

“Me either! But I’m glad you came,” she said with a smile.

“I kind of got roped into it.” I gestured to Lila and Josie.

Danielle grinned and hugged Lila. “We miss you at school. This year is just not the same without you.”

“Tell me about it,” she said, taking another fortifying drink. Her eyes roamed the room. “I certainly don’t fit in with these people.”

Danielle laughed. “No shit. This place is ridiculous.” She glanced back at the band. “I’m really just here for Jack. I don’t know if Leigh is coming.”

Josie leaned in. “Is that your boyfriend?”

She bit her lip, and the lead singer looked up from his guitar. His smile ignited when he realized we were all looking at him, and he sideswept his dark brown hair. His eyes were so crystal-clear blue that they seemed to see straight into our hearts. All of us melted at the same time.

He hopped off the makeshift stage and slung an arm around Danielle. “Hey, y’all. You here for the Local Carnage show?” Then he nodded at me. “Mars.”

“Hey,” I said.

“Don’t think we’ve met.” Josie held out her hand. “I’m Josephine Reynolds. My friends call me Josie.”

He grinned at her. “I’m Jack Howard. Friends just call me Jack.”

“It’s so nice to meet you.”

Lila shot me a look that said everything I needed to know. We needed to get Josie far away from Danielle’s boyfriend, or she’d have her claws in him by the end of the night. Which I’d hardly blame her. Jack was two years older than us in school and easily one of the hottest seniors. Not to mention, he had this charisma about him. If I were Danielle, I’d watch out where that smirk landed.

“We’re here for Maddox,” Lila interjected.

Josie shot her a look. “Yes. Maddox.”

“Cool. Cool. Enjoy the show.”

He winked at us and hopped back on the stage. Maddox waved, and Josie was already distracted again. Welp. My poor twin.

“He’s great, isn’t he?” Danielle said in awe.

I laughed at Josie’s expression and then let her drag us around the room as she made friends. Local Carnage began their set, and Josie went in search of more drinks while I watched my brother perform. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t going to blow anyone out of the water.

“Look at what we have here,” a voice sounded behind me.

I turned to find Derek Ballentine standing over me. For a second, my breath caught at the sight of him. He wasn’t in a costume that I could discern, just a pair of white shorts that revealed a few inches of tanned thighs with a thick brown belt, a blue button-up with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and boat shoes. His dark hair looked wind-whipped, and he had these mercurial hazel eyes that were more gold than anything in the lighting of his mansion home. His perfect lips tilted upward at the sight of me.

I managed an ounce of bravado. I lifted my chin up and met his gaze. “Can I help you?”

“Marley, right?”

“Yeah,” I said with an annoyed look.

“Thought you were too good for my party?” He grinned this little half-smile, his lips curling up on one side, as insufferable as I could imagine. His eyes crawled my outfit. “And dressed like a St. Catherine’s girl. The girl not like anyone else is dressed just like everyone else.”

I gritted my teeth. “I’m here for the band.”

“Right. The band,” he said disbelievingly.

“My brother plays guitar.” I pointed Maddox out.

Derek barely glanced that way. “We both know you wanted to see me.”

I actually snorted. “Keep dreaming, Holy Cross boy.”

“You know, Holy Cross boys and St. Catherine’s girls go together.”

“Is that what you’re supposed to be dressed up as?”

He laughed. “No. I’m a sailor.”

I looked him up and down. He just looked like a regular dude. “Right. Obviously.”

He opened his mouth to say something else that I’d likely detest, but then his gaze shifted past mine, and his face dropped. I turned to search the crowd, but it was just a bunch of drunk people.

“Excuse me,” he said and then brushed past me as if I weren’t there.

He stormed right up to some girl. I didn’t recognize her, but she was beautiful. Waist-length, pin-straight brown hair in an all-white tennis outfit, complete with a racket. He grabbed her arm and furiously spoke to her.

I shrugged and turned away. Probably his girlfriend. Maybe she wasn’t supposed to be here, so he could flirt with everyone else. Sounded like something Holy Cross boys would do.

“Hey, who were you talking to?” Lila asked, coming back with drinks.

“No one,” I said, putting Derek out of my mind. I took one of the drinks out of her hand and sipped. Then I sputtered around the harsh taste. “You’re right. This tastes horrid.”

She laughed. “Right?!”

***

Despite Derek being a dick, the party was actually—as much as I hated to admit it—fun. Local Carnage played a full set, and then a DJ showed to play dance music. Maddox tried to talk to Josie and failed. Josie was too busy flirting with half of the room to notice or care. Lila and I danced our asses off. Both of my friends had probably had too much to drink.

“I’m going to find the bathroom,” I yelled to Lila.

She nodded. “Want me to come with?”

“I’m good. Just stay with Maddox.”

Lila grabbed my twin’s arm and put her head on his shoulder. “Got him.”

I laughed and went in search of a bathroom. But the house was enormous, and after a few minutes, I gave up and asked someone. The girl pointed me in the other direction, and I headed that way, only to stop and curse. There were at least ten intoxicated girls in the line for the bathroom.

“Motherfucker,” I said under my breath.

There was no way that I was waiting in that line. There had to be more than one bathroom in this huge house. I backtracked to the main foyer and ducked under a rope that blocked off the stairwell. I assumed it was to keep drunk people from having sex in the upstairs bedrooms. Not that it likely did a good job of that either, but I was here for the bathroom.

I just made it to the second-floor landing when I heard a thunk. I turned around and found Derek holding a guy up against the wall. The pretty girl from earlier was standing behind him, crying.

“Derek, stop it!”

Derek ignored her protests. “Don’t ever let me catch you touching my sister again.”

Sister.

Oh! Well, that explained everything. No wonder he’d looked so pissed when he saw her.

Whoever the guy was, he looked a lot older than her, which was a red flag.

“Derek!”

“Mia, shut it,” Derek snapped.

“What the fuck, man?” the guy said.

“Did you fucking hear me, Chuck?” Derek snarled. “Nod your head if you can’t open your big fucking mouth to do anything but shove your tongue down her throat.”

He smartly nodded his head once. “I hear you.”

I obviously wasn’t supposed to be witnessing this. But as I stepped backward to find my escape, the hardwood under my foot squeaked. I winced at the noise.

But all three of them whipped their heads in my direction.

I cleared my throat and waved awkwardly. “Uh… sorry to interrupt. I was looking for the bathroom.”

Derek released Chuck with a shove. “We were just finished. Weren’t we?”

Chuck glared at Derek and then brushed out of the upstairs, passing me and darting down the stairs. He all but ran down them. Personally, I thought he was getting off easy. Derek looked half-ready to kill him.

His sister swiped at her tears. “You’re such an asshole, Derek.”

“Fine, Amelia. I’ll be the asshole, but Chuck Henderson is not good enough for you.”

She shoved his arm, and as she rushed away, she said, “God, I hate you.”

Derek watched her leave with his jaw clenched. A door slammed hard from somewhere down the hallway. He winced at the sound and then closed his eyes. He stayed that way for a few seconds before releasing the tension from his shoulders and finally turning to face me. All of it had happened so quickly that I’d been too frozen to move.

“Uh…” I managed.

Because the Derek Ballentine that I’d seen at the football game and downstairs in front of his row of adoring fans was not the person standing in front of me right now. This Derek only cared that he’d saved his sister from a creep. And then tried to act as if he didn’t care that she was mad at him, but he did. He definitely cared. For some reason, that made him twice as hot.

So now, my words were fractured and forgotten. So much for all the SAT vocabulary prep.

Our eyes met across the distance, and my face flushed at the attention. I’d found guys hot before. I’d even found Derek hot before. But in that one interaction, something shifted. I witnessed something private. A side of himself that he clearly didn’t show everyone else. That he cared… even if throwing a guy against a wall maybe wasn’t the best way to show it.

“Sorry you had to see that,” he said.

“Yeah. Well, that was my bad. There are a dozen people in line for the one downstairs.”

“Sounds right.”

He pointed down the hall, the way that Amelia had gone. “The bathroom is the second door on the left.”

“Um… thanks.”

“No problem,” he said and then sank into the sofa in the second-story landing. It was large enough to be a whole other living area, complete with a giant television and all the video game consoles.

I scurried past Derek and found the bathroom with ease. I took my time in the bathroom, hoping that I could avoid any more of the awkwardness. After I finished, I peeked back out to find him still sitting there, staring off into nothing. I could scurry away like Chuck Henderson and not ever have to talk to Derek again. It would be easy.

And somehow, it wasn’t.

I bit my lip as I walked out onto the landing and then took the seat next to him. He looked up in surprise. Those hazel eyes searching mine for an answer for my continued appearance.

“That was a nice thing you did for your sister,” I said.

He chuckled, a low rumble in the back of his throat. “She sure doesn’t think so.”

“I’m well acquainted with the Chucks of this world. Seen a bunch of them up close and personal.”

He arched an eyebrow, and my cheeks heated again.

“My mom,” I said quickly. “She’s dated her fair share of jerks. I’m usually pretty good at spotting the Chucks. Which is kind of why I was like that with you.”

“You thought I was a Chuck?” he asked. “What a pickup line.”

I laughed. “I’m not trying to pick you up. I’m trying to say that I think maybe you’re not as terrible as you make yourself seem.”

He straightened on the sofa next to me and swept a curly lock out of my face, tucking it behind my ear. “I wouldn’t go that far.”

“Oh? You think you’re terrible?”

“I know what I want.”

I laughed and pulled back. “You were doing so well.”

He arched an eyebrow. “So why are you still here?”

“Really asking myself the same question,” I admitted. “You’d think I was smarter than this. I’m in Duke TIP and everything.”

“Ah, good old Duke TIP,” he said with a sneer.

“What?” I asked, automatically offended. “You have something against smart kids getting opportunities for one of the best schools in the South?”

“Nah. Now, hold on. I didn’t say that. I was offered for TIP, but we don’t do Duke in this house.” He grinned broadly. “Go Heels. Go America.”

I snorted. “Oh, I see. You’re a UNC fan.”

“Tar Heels all day, every day, baby.” He leaned back on the sofa and stretched his arms out wide.

“That’s nice and all, but Duke is a better school.”

He snorted. “No.”

“No, what? Objectively, that’s true.”

“Meh.”

I shook my head at him. “You do realize that rivalry is clouding your brain so that you can’t think clearly about this.”

“You can say that, but I will continue to disagree. UNC is better than Duke on every metric.”

“Wow. That is blatantly false.” I threw my hands wide at his rejection of the one thing that had made me special for so long. The one way to get out of this town. My brain, my supposed brilliance, the scholarship that would put me on the road to bigger and better.

“Look, Marley, you’re hot when you’re all riled up,” he said, tipping my chin up. “But UNC is just better at basketball, and that’s a fact.”

“Basketball,” I said slowly with a disbelieving head shake.

“Priorities.”

“You’re absurd.”

He grinned. “I’ve been called worse.”

“I don’t—”

But I didn’t get to finish my sentence.

His hand slid back into my wild brown curls. His perfect lips formed the word, “Shh,” and then he fitted his mouth to mine.

My brain malfunctioned at the touch of his lips against mine. Those damn lips that I’d thought were too pretty and perfect for one person. Now they were touching mine, and fuck it, they were even better in person. Soft and tender.

My heart raced as he dragged me closer. He laughed softly when I didn’t immediately respond and pulled back to look deep into my eyes. When I didn’t run in the other direction, he slid his thumb across my bottom lip. I shuddered at that touch. God, he knew what he was doing, and I was so inexperienced. This was my first kiss, and I was sure that I was botching it.

“Should I stop?” he asked sincerely.

Though he’d stolen my first kiss, he was offering me my second.

And to my surprise, I responded, “No.”

He tugged me forward, harder this time. And I forgot all else but the feel of his lips against mine. I moved against him, letting instinct take over. For the first time in a long, long time, I didn’t think at all. Not even a little. I just gave myself over to the moment.

He dragged his tongue across the seam of my lips, and I gasped. I felt his smile against my mouth at my response, and then his tongue moved forward and brushed against mine. I moaned at that first sweep of him inside my mouth. Everything felt so amazing and overwhelming. I was hot all over, and his hand moved from my neck down my back. I could feel every point that our bodies touched like it was superheated. A small inferno down my back, all the way to my hip, and then across my thigh to the hem of my skirt.

I gasped as he slipped a hand under the tiny St. Catherine’s skirt and pulled back. His breathing was ragged as he stared down at me. He didn’t apologize, but his hand moved back on top of my skirt.

“I should probably…” I managed.

“Marley,” he breathed my name like a prayer. His hazel eyes swirling all over my face.

I didn’t want to go. My lips felt swollen. My body hummed in a way I’d never experienced before. Was this how I was supposed to feel? It was exhilarating. And I was going to make a huge mistake if I stayed.

I tried to stand, and he tugged me down into his lap. My eyes widened as I felt exactly what our kiss had done to him.

“Stay,” he pleaded.

I shook my head, even as I leaned forward and kissed him hard and in earnest. In that moment, I understood drug addicts. Because Derek Ballentine could very easily be the most addictive substance on the planet.

“Derek, I…” I tried again.

“Keep kissing me like that.”

And so I did. I’d always followed logic. I’d always been the smart one. And I didn’t want to be.

But I wanted to be my mother even less. With twins at eighteen, right out of high school, and no husband to show for it. A desperate need for love, chasing stupidity around every block and never taking responsibility for a damn thing in her life.

I pushed him backward, ignoring the pitter-patter of my heart and the ragged quality to my breathing. “I should get back to my friends.”

“Marley…”

I stumbled to my feet. “I should go.”

I didn’t wait. I just hurried back down the stairs. A second later, a hand grabbed my elbow at the base of the stairs.

I whipped around to find Derek had followed me.

“What?” I got out.

“I just…”

“Yeah, Derek!” a group of guys yelled nearby.

I jolted at the noise, sharply bringing me back to reality.

Derek laughed and shouted out to them. I looked up at him and saw the same guy that I’d seen at the football game yesterday. It hardly mattered that he’d given me my first kiss and made me lose my ever-loving mind. We existed in two separate worlds. And I couldn’t end up like my mother.

So, I snuck away while he talked to his friends and headed back to Lila, who was still attached to Maddox.

“You were gone forever!” Lila said. “Did you find the bathroom?”

I glanced backward to make sure Derek hadn’t followed me again. “Uh, yeah. Yeah, I found it.”

I’d found a whole hell of a lot more than the bathroom.

At First Hate
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