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Thank you for purchasing this eBook. At Sourcebooks we believe one thing: BOOKS CHANGE LIVES. We would love to invite you to receive exclusive rewards. Sign up now for VIP savings, bonus content, early access to new ideas we're developing, and sneak peeks at our hottest titles! Happy reading! SIGN UP NOW! ALSO BY ESTELLE MASKAME Did I Mention I Need You? Did I Mention I Miss You? Copyright © 2015 by Estelle Maskame Cover and internal design © 2015 by Sourcebooks, Inc. Cover design by Colin Mercer Cover images © PeopleImages.com / Getty; Matt Henry Gunther / Getty Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc. The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author. Published by Sourcebooks Fire, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc. P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567–4410 (630) 961–3900 Fax: (630) 961–2168 www.sourcebooks.com Originally published in 2015 in the United Kingdom by Black & White Publishing Ltd. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data is on file with the publisher. Contents Title Page Copyright 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 Epilogue Acknowledgments A Sneak Peek at the Did I Mention I Love You Trilogy About the Author Back Cover To my readers fro; m the beginning, because this book isn’t mine, it’s ours. Chapter 1 If movies and books have taught me anything, it’s that Los Angeles is the greatest city with the greatest people and the greatest beaches. And so, like every girl to ever walk this earth, I dreamed of visiting this Golden State. I wanted to run along the sand of Venice Beach, to press my hands on my favorite celebrities’ stars on the Walk of Fame, to one day stand behind the Hollywood Sign and look out over the beautiful city. That and all the other lame tourist must-dos. With one earphone in, my attention half on the music humming into my ear and half on the conveyor belt rotating in front of me, I try my hardest to find a spot clear enough for me to grab my luggage. While the people around me shove and chat loudly with their partners, yelling that their luggage just went past and the other yelling back that it wasn’t actually their luggage, I roll my eyes and focus on the khaki suitcase nearing me. I can tell it’s mine by the lyrics scrawled along its side, so I grab the handle and yank it off as quickly as I can. “Over here!” a familiar voice calls. My father’s astoundingly deep voice is half drowned out by my music, but no matter how loud the volume, I would probably still hear him from a mile away. His voice is too irritatingly painful to ignore. When Mom first broke the news to me that Dad had asked me to spend the summer with him, we both found ourselves in a fit of laughter at the sheer insanity of it all. “You don’t have to go anywhere near him,” Mom reminded me daily. Three years of hearing nothing and suddenly he wanted me to spend the entire summer with him? All he had to do was maybe start calling me once in a while, ask me how I was doing, gradually ease himself back into my life, but no, he decided to bite the bullet and ask to spend eight weeks with me instead. Mom was completely against the idea. Mom didn’t think he deserved eight weeks with me. She said it would never be enough to make up for the time he’d already lost with me. But Dad only got more persistent, more desperate to convince me that I’d love it in southern California. I don’t know why he finally decided to get in touch out of the blue. Was he hoping he could mend the relationship with me that he broke the day he got up and left? I doubted that was even possible, but one day I caved and called up my father to tell him that I wanted to come. My decision didn’t revolve around him though. It revolved around the idea of hot summer days and glorious beaches and the possibility of falling in love with an Abercrombie & Fitch model with tanned skin and an eight-pack. Besides, I had my own reasons for wanting to get nine hundred miles away from Portland. So, I am not particularly thrilled to see the person approaching me. A lot can change in three years. Three years ago, I was three inches shorter. Three years ago, my dad didn’t have noticeable graying strands throughout his hair. Three years ago, this wouldn’t have been awkward. I try my hardest to smile, to grin so that I won’t have to explain why there’s a permanent frown sketched upon my lips. It’s always so much easier just to smile. “Look at my little girl!” Dad says, widening his eyes and shaking his head in disbelief that I no longer look the same as I did at thirteen. Oh, how shocking that, in fact, sixteen-year-olds do not look the same as they did when they were in eighth grade. “Yep,” I say, reaching up and pulling out my earphone. The wires dangle in my hands, the faint lull of the music vibrating through the buds. “I’ve missed you a lot, Eden,” he tells me, as though I’ll be overjoyed to know that my dad who walked out on us misses me, and perhaps I’ll throw myself into his arms and forgive him right there and then. But things don’t work like that. Forgiveness shouldn’t be expected: it has to be earned. However, if I’m going to be living with him for eight weeks, I should probably try to put my hostility aside. “I’ve missed you too.” Dad beams at me, his dimples boring into his cheeks the way a mole burrows into dirt. “Let me take your bag,” he says, reaching for my suitcase and propping it onto its wheels. I follow him out of LAX. I keep my eyes peeled for any film stars or fashion models that might happen to brush past me, but I don’t spot anyone on my way out. Warmth hits my face as I walk across the sprawling parking lot, the sun tingling my skin and the soft breeze swaying around my hair. The sky is mostly clear apart from several unsatisfying clouds. “I thought it was going to be hotter here,” I comment, peeved that California is not actually as completely free from wind and clouds and rain as stereotypes have led me to believe. Never did it occur to me that the boring city of Portland would be hotter in the summer than Los Angeles. It is such a tragic disappointment, and now I’d much rather go home, despite how lame Oregon is. “It’s still pretty hot,” says Dad, shrugging almost apologetically on behalf of the weather. When I glance sideways at him, I can see his growing exasperation as he racks his brain for something to say. There is nothing to talk about besides the uncomfortable reality of the situation. He draws my suitcase to a halt by a black Lexus, and I stare dubiously at the polished paintwork. Before the divorce, he and my mom shared a crappy Volvo that broke down every four weeks. And that’s if we were lucky. Either his new job pays extremely well or he just chose not to splurge on us before. Perhaps we weren’t worth spending money on. “It’s open,” he tells me, nodding at the vehicle as he pops the trunk and throws my suitcase inside. I move around to the right side of the car and slide my backpack off my shoulder, opening the door and getting in. The leather is scorching hot against my bare thighs. I wait in silence for a few moments before Dad edges in behind the wheel. “So, did you have a nice flight?” he asks, engaging me in a generic conversation as he starts up the engine and backs out of the spot. “Yeah, it was okay.” I tug my seat belt over my body and click it into place, staring blankly out the windshield while holding my backpack on my lap. The sun is blinding, so I open up the front compartment of my bag and pull out my shades, slipping them over my eyes. I heave a sigh. I almost hear my dad gulp as he takes a deep breath and asks, “How’s your mom?” “She’s great,” I say, almost too enthusiastically as I try my hardest to emphasize just how well she’s getting on without him. This is not entirely the truth though. She’s doing okay. Not great, but not bad. She’s spent the past few years trying to convince herself that the divorce is an experience that she can learn from. She wants to think that it’s given her a life-affirming message or filled her with wisdom, but honestly, the only thing it’s done is make her despise men. “Never been better.” Dad nods then, gripping the steering wheel firmly as the car peels out of the airport grounds and onto the boulevard. There are numerous lanes, cars racing down each one, the traffic heavy but moving quickly. The landscape here is open. The buildings are not leaning, towering skyscrapers like those in New York, nor are there rows of trees like the ones back home in Portland. The only satisfying thing I discover is that palm trees do really exist. Part of me always wondered if they were a myth. We pass under a collection of road signs, one above each lane, outlining the surrounding cities and neighborhoods. The words are nothing more than a blur as we speed under them. A new silence is forming, so Dad quickly clears his throat and makes a second attempt at holding a conversation with me. “You’re going to love Santa Monica,” he says, smiling only briefly. “It’s a great city.” “Yeah, I looked it up,” I say, propping my arm up against the window and staring out onto the boulevard. So far, LA doesn’t look as glamorous as it does in all those images I saw on the Internet. “It’s the one with that pier thingy, right?” “Yes, Pacific Park.” A glint of sunlight catches the gold wedding band around my dad’s finger where his hands grip the steering wheel. I groan. He notices. “Ella can’t wait to meet you,” he tells me. “And I her.” This is a lie. Ella, my dad informed me recently, is his new wife. A replacement for my mom: something new, something better. And this is something that I can’t understand. What does this Ella woman have that my mom doesn’t? A better dish-scrubbing technique? Better meat loaf? “I hope the two of you can get along,” Dad says after a moment of suffocating silence. He merges into the farthest right lane. “I really want this to work.” Dad might really want this to work, but I, on the other hand, am still not completely sold on the whole reconstituted-family-model idea. The thought of having a stepmom does not appeal to me. I want a nuclear family, a cereal box family made up of my mom, my dad, and myself. I don’t like adjustments. I don’t like change. “How many kids does she have again?” I ask, my tone contemptuous. Not only have I been blessed with a lovely stepmother, I have also been graced with stepbrothers. “Three,” Dad shoots back. He is growing irritated by my obvious negativity. “Tyler, Jamie, and Chase.” “Okay,” I say. “How old are they?” He talks as he focuses on the stop sign only yards ahead and slows the car down. “Tyler just turned seventeen, Jamie’s fourteen, and Chase—Chase is eleven. Try to get along with them, honey.” Out of the corner of his hazel eyes, he fixes me with a pleading stare. “Oh,” I say again. Until now I just assumed I’d be meeting a couple of toddlers who could barely string sentences together yet. “Okay.” Thirty minutes later, we’re driving through a winding road in what appears to be the outskirts of the city. Tall trees decorate the parkway on each sidewalk, their thick trunks and crooked branches providing shade from the heat. The houses here are all larger than the one I live in with my mom back home, and they’re all uniquely designed and constructed. No two houses are alike, neither in shape nor color nor size. Dad’s Lexus pulls up outside a white-stone one. “You live here?” Deidre Avenue seems too normal, as though it belongs in the middle of North Carolina. LA isn’t supposed to be normal. It’s supposed to be glitzy and out of this world and totally surreal, but it’s not. Dad nods, killing the engine and closing his sun visor. “You see that window?” He points to a window on the second floor, the one right in the center. “Yeah?” “That’s your room.” “Oh,” I say. I wasn’t expecting my own room for the eight weeks that I’m here. But it looks to be a pretty big house, so I’m sure spare rooms are plentiful. I’m glad I won’t be sleeping on an inflatable bed in the middle of the living room. “Thanks, Dad.” When I try to push myself up, I realize that wearing shorts has proven to have both pros and cons. Pro: my legs feel fresh and cool in this weather. Con: my thighs are now stuck to the leather of Dad’s Lexus. And so it takes me a good long minute to actually get myself out of the car. Dad heads around to the trunk, collecting my suitcase and placing it on the sidewalk. “Better head inside,” he says as he yanks out the handle and begins wheeling it along behind him. I take a wide step over the parking strip and follow my dad along the stone path. It leads up to the front door: mahogany and paneled, just like the doors to houses owned by the rich should be. All the while, I’m just staring at the Converse on my feet, taking a moment to let my eyes run over my scrawling handwriting, which decorates the sides of the white rubber. Just like my suitcase, there are lyrics written in black Sharpie. Staring at the writing helps keep my nerves at ease: slightly, just until we reach the front door. The house itself—despite being an obnoxious symbol of consumerism—is very pretty. Compared with the house I woke up in this morning, it may as well be a five-star guesthouse. There’s a white Range Rover parked in the driveway. How flashy, I think. “Nervous?” Dad asks, hesitating outside the door. He smiles reassuringly down at me. “Kind of,” I admit. I’ve tried not to think about the endless list of things that could go wrong, but somewhere within me, there is a sense of fear. What if they all absolutely hate me? “Don’t be.” He opens the door, and we head inside, my suitcase trailing behind us, its wheels scraping along the wooden flooring. In the entryway we’re immediately overcome by an overwhelming scent of lavender. In front of me there is a staircase leading upstairs and a door to my right leading, from what I can see through the crack, to the living room. Straight ahead there is a large archway into the kitchen: a kitchen from which a woman is approaching me. “Eden!” the woman cries. She swallows me into a hug, her extreme bustiness getting in the way a little, and then takes a step back to examine me. I return the favor. Her hair is blond, figure slim. For some absurd reason, I expected her to look similar to my mom. But apparently Dad has altered his taste in women along with his living standards. “It’s so nice to finally meet you!” I take a slight step back from her, fighting the urge to roll my eyes or pull a face. Dad would surely drag me straight back to the airport if I ever displayed such disrespect. “Hi,” I say instead. And then she blurts, “God, you’ve got Dave’s eyes!” which is possibly the worst thing someone could ever say to me given that I’d much rather have my mom’s eyes. My mom wasn’t the one who walked out. “Mine are darker,” I murmur in disdain. Ella doesn’t push the subject any further and instead turns the conversation around in a completely different direction. “You’ll need to meet the rest of us. Jamie, Chase, get down here!” she yells up the stairs before turning back to me. “Did Dave tell you about the get-together we’re having tonight?” “Get-together?” I echo. A social gathering was certainly not on my Things to Do While in California list. Especially when it’s strangers who are doing the gathering. “Dad?” I glance sideways up at him, willing myself not to fire a death glare in his direction, and arch my brows. “We’re sparking up the barbecue for the neighbors,” he explains. “No better way to kick off the summer than with a good old barbecue.” I really wish he’d stop talking. Quite frankly, I hate both large groups of people and barbecues. “Awesome,” I say. There’s a series of thuds as two boys come jogging down the staircase, their footsteps pounding against the oak as they jump down two steps at a time. “Is that Eden?” the eldest of the pair whispers to Ella as he reaches us, but I hear him anyway. He must be Jamie. The younger one with the wide eyes must be Chase. “Hey,” I say. My lips curl up into a beaming smile. From what I remember of my conversation in the car, Jamie is fourteen. Despite being two years younger than me, he is about the same height. “What’s up?” “Just hanging out,” Jamie answers. He is so totally Ella’s child. His sparkling blue eyes and shaggy blond hair make this connection clear. “Do you want a drink or something?” “I’m good, thanks,” I say. From his straightened posture and his attempt at good manners, he seems mature for his age. Perhaps we’ll get along well. “Chase, are you going to say hi to Eden?” Ella encourages. Chase comes across as very reserved. He, too, has inherited Ella’s flawless genes. “Hi,” he mumbles, not quite meeting my eyes. “Mom, can I go to Matt’s?” “Of course, honey, just be back by seven,” Ella says. I wonder if she’s the type of mom who grounds you for dropping crumbs on the living room carpet or the type who doesn’t mind if you disappear for two days. “We’re having the barbecue, remember?” Chase nods and then brushes past me, swinging open the front door and closing it again just as quickly without even a whisper of a good-bye to any of us. “Mom, do you want me to show her around?” Jamie asks the second his brother is gone. “That’d be great,” I answer for her. Jamie’s company will surely be better than my dad’s or Ella’s or both of them combined. I don’t quite see the point in spending time with people I’d much rather be nowhere near. So for now I’ll stick to my new, wonderful stepbrothers. Surely they are finding this entire thing just as foreign as I am. “That’s nice of you, Jay,” Ella says. She sounds grateful at the idea of not having to be the one to tell me where the bathroom is. “Let her see her room.” Dad gives me a clipped nod and grins. “We’ll be in the kitchen if you need anything.” I try to refrain from snorting as Jamie takes my suitcase and begins hauling it up the staircase. Right now, the only things I need are tanned legs and fresh air, which I most certainly won’t get from lingering inside with my dad. As I turn to follow Jamie upstairs, I hear my dad hiss, “Where’s Tyler?” “I don’t know,” Ella says. Their voices begin to fade as we all distance ourselves from each other, but not far enough that I can’t hear Dad reply with, “So you just let him leave?” “Yes,” says Ella before we move out of hearing range. “You’re right across from me,” Jamie informs me as we reach the landing. “You’ve got the coolest room. The best view.” “Sorry.” I laugh lightly and try to keep a smile on my face as he makes his way over to one of the five doors. But I can’t help but pause to glance down to the hall below, my eyes focusing on the back of Ella’s blond hair as she disappears through the archway into the kitchen. I figure she’s the type who doesn’t mind if you disappear. Chapter 2 If I could only use one word to describe my new room for the summer, I would use basic. There is no other word for a bed against pale walls and a simple dresser. And nothing else. It’s also incredibly hot. “I like the view,” I tell Jamie, despite being nowhere near the window to even see what my view is. Jamie laughs. “Your dad said you can make the room yours.” I walk around this room of mine, circling the beige carpet and checking out the built-in closets. The sliding doors are mirrored. Much cooler than my tiny closet back home. And there’s an en-suite bathroom too. I peer inside the door, raising my eyebrows in satisfaction. The shower looks as though it’s never been used. “Do you like it?” Dad asks from somewhere behind me. I spin around to the sound of his voice, and he greets me with a grin. I don’t know when he entered the room. “Sorry it’s a little hot. I’ll turn on the AC. Give it five minutes.” “It’s fine,” I say. “I like the room.” It’s almost twice as big as my bedroom in Portland, and so, despite how basic it might be, it is most definitely impossible not to like. “You hungry?” It seems that questions are the only thing Dad is great at these days. “You’ve been traveling all afternoon; you’re probably starved half to death. What do you want?” “I’m good,” I say. “I think I’m gonna go for a run. Stretch my legs, you know?” I don’t want to ruin my daily running schedule, and taking a quick jog seems like a good way to explore the neighborhood. I watch the hesitation cross my dad’s aging face. For a moment or two, he frowns and then sighs as though I’ve asked him to buy me pot. “Dad,” I say firmly. I tilt my head and force out a gentle but fake laugh. “I’m sixteen; I’m allowed to go out. I just wanna look around.” “At least take Jamie with you,” he suggests. Jamie’s eyebrows shoot up in curiosity. Or surprise. I’m not sure which. “Jamie,” Dad says, “you enjoy running, don’t you? Will you go with Eden and make sure she doesn’t get lost?” Jamie glances over to me, offers a knowing, sympathetic smile, and then says, “Sure. I’ll get changed.” I suppose he understands the struggle of having overprotective parents that treat you like you’re five. So, taking all of this into account, I figure that I’m off to a great start here in Santa Monica. It’s only day one and already the awkward tension between my dad and me is close to unbearable. Day one and I’m already being forced to attend a barbecue with a crowd of strangers. Day one and I’m already being escorted while going out for a simple jog. Day one and I already regret coming here. “Don’t go too far,” Dad says, and then leaves the room without closing my door, even after I call after him to do so. Jamie heads over to it and places a hand on the frame, but not before asking, “You wanna go right now?” I shrug. “If that’s okay with you.” With a quick nod, he makes his way out of my room. He remembers to shut the door. I would rather not waste too much time inside, especially when the air-conditioning doesn’t seem to be working, so I haul my suitcase up onto the soft mattress and unzip it. I’m happy to discover that my belongings—ranging from my laptop to my favorite underwear—have all arrived safe and intact. Usually my suitcase arrives with half its contents spilling out of it because baggage handlers tend to be lousy. So I dig through my surprisingly sturdy suitcase, straight to the bottom, because my workout gear was one of the first things I packed. As I’m prancing into my lavish bathroom to freshen up a little and get changed, my phone vibrates to kindly let me know that it’s about to die pretty soon. I remember Amelia asking me to call her when I landed. Setting down my running shorts and sports bra by the sink, I sit down on the sparkling-clean toilet seat and cross my legs. My best friend is on speed dial, so the call starts connecting in a matter of nanoseconds. “Hello there,” Amelia answers in a goofy voice that sounds something like a cross between a cartoon character and a sports commentator. “Hello,” I say back, mimicking her tone. I laugh but then sigh. “This place sucks. Let me come spend the summer with you.” “I want you to! It feels super weird already.” “As weird as meeting your new stepmom?” “Not that weird,” Amelia says. “Is she okay? She isn’t like the creepy-ass stepmom in Cinderella, right? What about your stepbrothers? Have you been put on babysitting duty already?” I shake my head even though she can’t see me. If only she knew it’s the other way around. “Actually, they’re not even kids.” “Huh?” “They’re, like, teenagers.” “Teenagers?” she echoes. Before I left, I complained for two weeks straight about how terrified I was of meeting my new stepbrothers, because I have a low tolerance for children under the age of six. It turns out they’re all much older than that. “Yeah,” I say. “They’re okay. One of them is sorta shy, but he’s the youngest, so I get it. The other is a little older and I think we’ll get along. I don’t know. His name’s Jamie.” “I thought you had three brothers,” Amelia says. “You said you had three.” “Well, I haven’t met the third one yet,” I explain. Until this point I had forgotten that I do actually have three new stepbrothers to judge me rather than just two. “I’ll probably meet him later. I’m about to go for a run with Jamie.” “Eden,” Amelia says, her voice stern yet gentle. “You just got there. Chill out. You look fine.” “No.” I press my phone to my ear with my shoulder and reach down to slip off my shoes. “Have they said anything else about me?” I ask slowly, despite however much I’d rather not know. But there’s always that interest, that curiosity that eats away at you—and the inability to handle it. And I always give in. Silence radiates across the line. “Eden, don’t think about it.” “So that means yes,” I state, mostly to myself. It’s almost a whisper, so quiet I don’t think Amelia could have heard me. My phone vibrates once more. “Hey, look, this is about to die. I have to go to this lame barbecue tonight. If everyone sucks, I’ll text you the entire time so they know I do actually have friends.” Amelia laughs, and I picture her rolling her eyes straight to the back of her head like she usually does. “Sure. Keep me posted.” My phone bails on me before I even get the chance to murmur good-bye, so I toss it onto the sink counter and reach for my clothes instead. Running is great for clearing your head, and clearing my head is exactly what I want to do right now. I change into my running gear effortlessly—I do it so often I could most likely do it in my sleep—and head back downstairs to enter the kitchen for the first time. I’m greeted by black gloss counters and white gloss cabinet doors and more black gloss flooring. Everything is very, very glossy. “Wow,” I say. I glance down at the water bottle in my hand and then to the spotless sink by the window. I’m almost terrified to use it. “Like it?” Dad asks, and it’s only then that I realize he’s even in the room. He keeps appearing out of nowhere as though he’s following my every move. “Was it installed yesterday or something?” He chuckles, shakes his head at me, and then walks over to flick on the faucet. “Here. Jamie’s waiting for you out front. The kid’s stretching.” I shuffle around the island to awkwardly fill my bottle until it overflows, and then I swivel on the lid and get the hell out of there before my dad has a chance to say anything more. I don’t know how I’m supposed to survive eight weeks with him. Jamie is shuttling up and down the sidewalk when I finally head outside to meet him. He stops and grins. “Just warming up,” he says. “Can I join you?” When he nods, I take a quick sip of my water and then step parallel to him, and we slowly jog around the lawn a couple times. And then we set off, making our way through the beautiful neighborhood at a comfortable speed. It’s the first time in a long time that I’ve run without music as my companion, but only because I figure it would be rude to completely block Jamie out. We engage in brief conversation and the occasional “Let’s slow down,” and that’s about it. But I don’t mind. The sun is beating down on us, almost as though its rays have grown stronger over the past hour, and the streets here really are lovely, with their residents walking dogs or cycling or pushing strollers. Perhaps I will fall in love with this city after all. “Do you hate your dad?” Jamie asks out of nowhere as we retrace our route back toward the house, and it’s so sudden that I almost trip over my own feet. “What?” is the only response that finds its way to my lips. I collect my thoughts and settle my eyes on the sidewalk ahead of me. “It’s complicated.” “I like him,” Jamie says, or pants. I’m surprised he’s still keeping up with me. “Oh.” “Yeah, but it seems kinda awkward between you and him.” “Yeah,” I say, gnawing at my lip while I try to figure out a way to change the subject. “Hey, how cool is that house over there?” Jamie completely ignores me. “Why is it awkward?” “Because he sucks,” I finally answer. This is true: my dad does suck. “He sucks for walking out. He sucks for not calling. He sucks because he sucks.” “I get it.” Our conversation wraps up there, and we jog back to the house, stretching on the lawn before heading inside to shower. Dad doesn’t forget to remind us about the barbecue in two hours’ time. Jamie and I split up and go into our own rooms. By this point, I feel sweaty and gross, so after plugging my phone in to charge, the first thing I do is throw my body into the sparkling shower. The water feels amazing, and I stay in there for thirty minutes, spending most of the time simply sitting down and basking in the steam. Showers back home were never this good. I end up taking the remaining hour and a half to get ready. If I could, I’d turn up on the patio in sweats. But I don’t think that would go down well with Ella, so I rummage through my suitcase and pull out a pair of skinny pants and a blazer. Smart casual. That should do. I get dressed, dry my hair, curl it into loose waves, and then apply a fresh layer of makeup. I’m just spraying some body spray when I inhale the waft of…well, barbecues. It must be nearing seven. I head downstairs, following the scent into the kitchen. The two glass patio doors are slid open, and I realize the get-together is already in full swing. So, correction, it must be after seven. There’s music playing from speakers somewhere, groups of adults milling around the yard, and everything else that makes social gatherings awful. I spy Chase in the pool with some kids around his age. I also spot Dad flipping burgers on the barbecue over in the corner while attempting to carry out a dance move from the ’80s. He looks lame as hell. “Eden!” a voice calls. When I turn around, I’m irritated to discover that it belongs to Ella. “Get out here!” Maybe if I fake a seizure I’ll get to escape back to my room, or better yet, home. “Sorry I’m a little late. I wasn’t checking the time.” “No, no, you’re fine,” says Ella. She pushes her sunglasses up to the top of her head as she steps inside for a moment to pull me out onto the grass. “I hope you’re hungry.” “Well, actually I—” “These are our neighbors from across the street,” she interrupts, nodding toward a middle-aged couple standing in front of us. “Dawn and Philip.” “It’s great to meet you, Eden,” Dawn says. It’s clear either my dad or Ella or both of them have been informing everyone that I’m here. Philip offers me a half smile. “You too,” I reply. I’m not sure what else there is to say. Tell me your life story? What are your plans for the future, Dawn and Philip? I smile instead. “Our daughter should be coming by too,” Dawn continues, which immediately makes me feel unsettled. “She’ll keep you company.” “Oh, cool,” I say. My eyes drift away from the pair. Clicking with other girls has never been one of my strong points. Girls are terrifying. And meeting new ones is even worse. “Nice to meet you,” I say with a farewell smile. I make a quick escape from them and Ella, hoping to avoid any more awkward introductions. It works for the first forty minutes. I linger by the fence and screw my face up at the awful mainstream crap that’s echoing from the speakers at the opposite end of the yard. It’s embarrassing to even be here. At least when the food is finally cooked and everyone begins digging in, the noise of their voices helps drown out the horrendous pop music. I pick at the bun of my burger for a few minutes and then end up tossing the entire plate into the trash. And just when I think I’ve successfully avoided Ella for the night, she decides to haul me around to each individual or couple or family and introduce me to them as her new stepdaughter. “Here’s Rachael now!” she says as she’s leading me over to another batch of our neighbors. “Rachael?” I repeat. If it’s someone I’ve been introduced to already, then I don’t remember. I’ve been given so many new names to learn within the space of an hour that I’ve started blanking them all out instead. “Dawn and Philip’s daughter,” Ella informs me. She nods over my shoulder, and before I even get the chance to turn around, she’s calling, “Rachael! Over here!” Ugh. I take a deep breath, convince myself that she’ll be friendly and nice, and then I plaster the fakest smile I can across my face. The girl joins us and steps around me. “Oh, uh, hey,” I blurt. Ella beams at the two of us. “Eden, this is Rachael.” Rachael smiles too, and we end up looking like a trio of serial killers. “Hey!” She shoots Ella an awkward grin. Ella gets the memo. “I’ll leave you guys be then.” She laughs before striding off to engage in even more boring conversations with boring people. “Parents make everything awkward,” Rachael says. I immediately like her based on this statement alone. “Have you been stuck here the whole time?” I wish I could say no. “Unfortunately.” Her hair is long, blond, and definitely not its natural shade. But I’ll let that slide simply because she doesn’t seem to hate me yet. “I live right across the street, and you probably don’t know anyone here, so we can hang out if you’d like. Seriously, come over whenever you want.” I’m surprised by yet grateful for the suggestion. There’s no way in hell I’m spending eight weeks stuck in the house with my dad and his new family. “Yeah, that sounds good…” My voice tapers off as my attention is reeled in by something out front. I can almost see the road through the gaps in the fence by the side of the house, and I squint through. There’s music playing. More like blaring. I can hear it over the crappy music that’s already bouncing around the backyard, and as a sleek white car speeds up to the edge of the sidewalk and skids against the curb, I grimace in disgust. The music cuts off the second the engine is killed. “What are you looking at?” Rachael asks, but I’m too busy staring to even attempt to answer. The car door swings open roughly, and I’m surprised it doesn’t fall straight off its hinges. It’s difficult to see clearly through the fence, but a tall guy gets out and slams the door shut just as aggressively as he opened it. He hesitates for a moment, stares at the house, and then runs a hand through his hair. Whoever he is, he looks super depressed. Like he’s just lost all his life savings or his dog just died. And then he heads straight for the gate. “Who the hell is this jackass?” I mutter to Rachael as the figure nears us. But before either of us can say anything more, Jackass decides to hit the gate open with a fist, drawing the attention of everyone around us. It’s like he wants everyone to hate him. I figure he’s probably that one neighbor that everyone despises, and he’s only here in a fit of rage because he wasn’t invited to the lamest barbecue get-together that’s ever been hosted. “Sorry I’m late,” Jackass comments sarcastically. And loudly too, with a smirk on his lips. His eyes flash green as emeralds. “Did I miss anything besides the slaughtering of animals?” He throws up the infamous middle finger to, from what I can see, the barbecue. “I hope you guys enjoyed the cow you just ate.” And then he laughs. He laughs as though everyone’s expressions of disgust are the most entertaining thing he’s seen all year. “More beer?” I hear my dad call out to the silent crowd, and as they chuckle and return to their conversations, Jackass heads through the patio doors. He slams them shut so hard I can almost see the glass tremble. I’m stunned. I have no idea what just happened or who that was or why he’s just entered the house. When I realize I’m slightly slack-jawed, I close my mouth and turn to Rachael. She bites her lip and pushes her sunglasses down over her eyes. “I’m guessing you haven’t met your stepbrother yet.” Chapter 3 I don’t know exactly what I was expecting before I arrived in Los Angeles, but I can say this: I did not expect to have a lunatic for a stepbrother. “He’s the third one?” I spit as the guests around me ignore what just happened. I, on the other hand, simply can’t shake the bizarre scene from my mind. Who does that guy think he is? “Uh, yeah,” Rachael says, and then she laughs. “I feel for you. And for all of the heavens above, I really hope your room is nowhere near his.” “Why?” She looks slightly flustered all of a sudden, as though I’ve just uncovered her deepest and darkest secret and it just so happens to be the most embarrassing thing in the world. “He can be really annoying to be around, but hey, I really shouldn’t say anything. It’s none of my business.” With her cheeks flushed and a lopsided smile playing on her lips, she quickly changes the subject. “Are you busy tomorrow?” My mind is still dwelling on what she said about my room. “Yeah—wait, no. Sorry, I don’t know why I said yeah. Um.” Way to be awkward, Eden. Thankfully Rachael doesn’t write me off as a complete idiot just yet. Instead she laughs again. “Do you wanna hang out? We could go to the promenade or something.” “Sounds good,” I say. I’m still a little distracted and a little confused and a little irritated by Jackass’s rude entrance. He couldn’t have just come in through the front door? Was it necessary to even say anything? “It’s amazing for shopping!” Rachael continues to talk, occasionally flicking her blond hair over her shoulders, the strands whipping my face each time. Eventually she stops babbling about the promenade and says, “I’ve got a bunch of stuff to do, so I’m gonna head home. Sorry I can’t stay longer. Mom wanted me to drop by on my way back to the house to say hey. So, hey.” “Hey,” I say. She tells me she’ll see me tomorrow, and then departs just as quickly as she arrived, leaving me alone with a semi-drunk group of adults. And Chase. “Eden,” he says as he approaches. He says my name so slowly and so carefully that it’s obvious he’s testing it on his lips. “Eden,” he says again, this time much faster and blunter, “where’s the soda?” His friends slowly edge toward us, their wide eyes innocent and anxious. Right, I think, because I am oh-so-intimidating. “Probably on the table,” I suggest. “Ask your mom.” “She’s inside,” Chase says. And then one of his friends shoves him forward, laughing as though it’s the greatest prank in the world, and Chase bumps into my body with a soft thud. He reels back immediately and is, quite obviously, a little embarrassed. It’s then that I realize my tank top is damp. “Sorry,” he blurts. He glances down at the empty plastic cup in his hand. It was a quarter full a second ago. “It’s fine,” I say. In fact, it’s great. Now I get to head inside and escape this terrible barbecue while I change my shirt. I make my getaway then, almost gleefully twirling into the house. Hopefully Dad will have one beer too many and won’t notice if I decide not to head back out there for the rest of the night. I’ll hang out in my ever-basic room and call my mom or video chat with Amelia or maybe break both my legs. Any one sounds better than standing alone outside. I heave an exhausted sigh—it’s been a hell of a tiring day—and make for the staircase. But I’ve barely set foot on the first step when I hear explosive yelling bouncing from the walls of the living room. And I’m too curious, too intrigued to even think about ignoring it. So I don’t. I edge toward the small gap in the door. From my limited view, I see Ella close her eyes and bury her head in her hands as she rubs her temples. “I’m not even late,” a male voice says from somewhere at the opposite side of the room. His tone is harsh, and I immediately realize it belongs to Jackass. “You’re two hours late!” Ella yells, and I find myself taking a slight step back as her eyes snap open. I’m afraid she’ll spot me. Jackass laughs. “You really think I’m gonna come home to watch a damn barbecue?” “What is your problem this time? Forget the barbecue,” says Ella, and she begins to pace back and forth across the cream carpet. “You were acting like a little kid before you even got out of the car. What’s wrong?” He’s a little out of breath as he clenches his jaw and angles his face to the side. “Nothing,” he says, his teeth grinding together. “It’s clearly not nothing.” Ella’s tone is stern and scolding, which is a far cry from the sweet tone I was offered just fifteen minutes ago. “You just humiliated me again in front of half the neighborhood!” “Whatever.” “I shouldn’t have let you leave,” Ella says, more quietly this time, as though it’s herself she’s mad at. “I should have just made you stay, but no, of course I didn’t, because there I was, trying to cut you some slack, and you throw it back in my face as usual.” “I would have left anyway,” Jackass retorts. He steps into my view, shaking his head as he chuckles at Ella. His back is turned, and it gives me a chance to get a half-decent look at him—he stormed past us all so quickly the first time that I barely had a chance to take in anything. “What are you gonna do? Ground me again?” His voice is deep and husky and his hair is almost jet black. It’s tousled yet neat, and his shoulders are broad, and he is tall. Very tall. He towers over Ella by several inches. “You’re impossible,” she states through gritted teeth. But as she says this, she glances over his shoulder for a split second and fixes her gaze directly on me. My breath catches in my throat as I scramble away from the door, desperately wishing that she hasn’t actually seen me, that perhaps she was glancing toward the door and not the person hiding behind it. But my wishing proves to be a waste of hope when the door swings open seconds later, before I’ve had the chance to make my escape. “Eden?” Ella steps into the hall and her eyes drop to mine, for I’m half sprawled across the staircase. My pathetic attempt to quickly clamber upstairs hasn’t worked out that well. “Um,” I say. If my arms weren’t frozen stiff, I’d be face-palming right now. And then the worst thing in the world happens. Jackass sticks his head around the door frame and moves out into the hall beside us, and that’s when I get a good look at him up close for the first time. His eyes are emerald—too bright to be considered a mere green and too vibrant to be considered normal—and they narrow at me in a way that sends a shiver down my spine. His jaw clenches again, wiping the smirk completely off his face. “Who the hell is this chick?” he demands, his eyes flashing sideways to Ella as he awaits an explanation for why there’s a clueless teenager on his staircase looking like she’s doing aerobics. I can see the hesitation cross Ella’s features as she carefully considers how to reply. Gently, she reaches for his arm. “Tyler,” she says, “this is Eden. Dave’s daughter.” Jackass—or, more formally, Tyler—snorts. “Dave’s kid?” I push myself up a little and get to my feet, but he’s still looking away. “Hi,” I try. I’m about to hold out my hand, but then I realize how stupid I’ll look, so I interlink my fingers instead. His eyes finally move back to mine. He just stares at me. Stares and stares. It’s like he’s never seen another human being before, because to begin with he appears confused, and then angry, and then perplexed again. His sharp eyes make me feel uncomfortable as he studies me, so I drop mine to his casual brown boots and jeans for a second. When I steal a look at him, he slowly swallows and glances at Ella. “Dave’s kid?” he repeats, this time his voice much quieter, laced with disbelief. Ella sighs. “Yes, Tyler. I already told you she was coming. Don’t act stupid.” He’s facing Ella, but out of the corner of his eye, he’s looking me up and down again. “Which room?” “What?” “Which room is she staying in?” It feels odd hearing him talk about me like I’m not even here, and judging by his reaction, I’m guessing he wishes that was the case. “The one next to yours.” He dramatically groans, exaggerating his annoyance at knowing I’ll be near him, and then turns back to fully look at me. Now he’s glaring. Does he think I want to be living in this house with this pathetic excuse for a family? Because I don’t. Once he’s glowered at me, as though to make a statement, he nudges Ella to the side and then barges past me and storms upstairs. For the several long seconds that it takes for us to hear a door slam, Ella and I remain silent. Waiting for him to slam a door before talking again seems like it must be a daily occurrence in this house. “I’m sorry,” Ella apologizes. She genuinely looks stressed and mortified, and I find myself feeling sympathetic. Maybe even empathetic. If I had to deal with as big a moron as him every day, I’d probably have three breakdowns every twenty-four hours. “He’s just… Look, let’s head back outside.” No thank you. “Actually, Chase spilled his drink on me, so I’ve got to change my shirt.” “Oh,” she says. Her eyebrows arch as she studies the damp stain on my tank top with a slight grimace. “I hope he apologized for it.” As she makes her way back to the yard, I finally move up the staircase—swiftly this time, without looking deformed—and collapse into my room, breathing a sigh of relief the second I get the door shut. Alone at last, with no one to irritate me. For exactly eight seconds, until music starts blasting from the room next door so loud I fear the wall might collapse. Rachael said she hoped my room was nowhere near Tyler’s. Forget being near—I’m right next door. I feel speechless and annoyed and tired as I stand in the center of my room and stare at the far wall. On the other side of it, a moron sleeps at night. Thankfully after about five minutes the music dies down until it’s silent again, the only noise the sound of a door opening. Perhaps my stepbrother has calmed down by now. And it’s this hope that draws me toward my own door, pulling it open slowly to meet the fierce, far-from-calm eyes outside. “Hi,” I try again. If this person is now a permanent fixture of my new “family,” I need to at least make an effort. “Are you okay?” Tyler’s emerald eyes laugh at me. “Bye,” he says. With the same red flannel shirt on his back and brown boots on his feet, he smoothly descends the staircase and heads out the front door without a single person noticing his departure besides me. He is quite clearly grounded, but it seems he couldn’t care less. I simply sigh and shuffle back into my room. At least I tried, which is far from what he did. I slip off my blazer and haul off my tank top, dropping it on the floor before collapsing onto my new bed for the first time. The foam mattress engulfs my body, and once I develop the ability to tune out the faint pumping of music laced with drunken laughter, I stare at the ceiling and just breathe. I breathe even when an engine growls to life outside and catapults a car down the street. Presumably Tyler. I use the next hour to call Amelia, emphasizing just how agonizing the barbecue was and how lame my dad is and how much of a douche bag Tyler is. I offer my mom a similar summary. “Eden.” Dad’s voice echoes through my door a little while later when I’m half asleep. He opens my door and walks in before I even give him the right to. “The neighbors all pretty much headed home,” he says. He smells of burned meat and beer. “We’re going to hit the sack. I’m done for the day.” I offer him a quick good night and then roll over to face the wall, burying my head in my comforter as he leaves. People say it’s either very easy to fall asleep in a foreign bed or very, very difficult. And right now, despite the fatigue overcoming every inch of my body, I’m beginning to realize that it’s the latter. I roll back over and press a hand to my forehead. The day’s heat is trapped in my new room, and the AC still hasn’t come on. I can’t decide if it’s broken or if Dad has just completely forgotten about it. Either way, I’ll mention it in the morning. It takes me a good hour of tossing and turning and testing my will to live before I do finally fall asleep. For exactly forty-seven minutes. Nothing seems to last long in this house before it gets interrupted. I’d assumed if anything were to wake me it would be the scorching heat in my room, not the sound of drunken wails bouncing through my open window. The moans and groans and occasional curse make my ears prick up and my eyes widen. I creep across the floor on my bare knees, slowly and on high alert. I steal a peek over the window ledge. The cool night air feels great against my face. “No,” a drunk Tyler tells the air. “No.” His expression is completely solemn. A hand is pressed firmly to the lawn. “What the hell is going on?” As he talks to no one but himself, his voice is hushed. I figure he must have walked home, since his car seems to be nowhere around, which reassures me that he does have some common sense. Driving under the influence is too idiotic even for him. “When did it pass midnight?” A tremendous laugh escapes his lips and into the air. “Hey,” I whisper-yell out the window as I sit up and push it open a little wider. “Up here.” It takes Tyler’s rolling eyes a good few seconds to locate my voice, and when he spots me up on the second floor, he blesses me with a glare. “What the hell do you want?” “Are you okay?” Once the words leave my lips, I realize how pointless the question is. He is clearly not okay. “Open the door,” he says. His words are slightly slurred as he talks. With a single nod, he advances beneath the slanted roof and out of my view, but not without swaying. Because I’ve stripped down to nothing but my underwear in an attempt to cool down, I quickly grab the first pieces of clothing that find their way into my hands and pull them on as I jog down the staircase. I’m careful to remain silent. I keep the lights off and my steps quiet. The outline of his figure is sharp through the glass panels of the front door. “What am I doing?” I whisper as I play around with the lock. The jackass who has done nothing but irk the hell out of me is asking me to let him into the house, and I’m doing it? Yet without hesitating, I pull open the door the second I hear the lock click. “You took your damn time, huh?” Tyler mutters as he barges past me. He carries with him the charming scent of booze and cigarettes. I close the door and lock it again. “Are you drunk?” “No,” he says. His grin is wide, and it soon quickly falters into a smirk. “Is it morning yet?” “It’s 3:00 a.m.” He chuckles to himself and then attempts to get upstairs, but it involves a series of stumbles and trips. “When did these get here?” he asks as he pats one of the steps. “They weren’t here before.” I ignore him. “Do you want water or something?” “Get me another beer” is his answer. Through the darkness, I see him reach the landing and then disappear into his room, thankfully without slamming the door this time. Surely Ella would have him murdered if she saw him right now, drunk and unable to hold himself up for more than a few seconds. I swiftly follow suit, creeping upstairs and into my own room, hauling off my clothes again and strewing them carelessly across the floor. The room is still unbelievably hot, so instead of crawling back into bed and dying of heat exhaustion, I sit down by the window. I press my face to the cool glass and breathe in the night air. There’s a crushed beer can by the mailbox. Jackass. Chapter 4 When Rachael said she would talk to me in the morning, I hadn’t expected her to turn up at my dad’s front door at 10:04 a.m. Waking up, yet alone socializing, before noon in the summer is an absurd thing to do. It’s against the norms of society for any sane teenager. I shoot Rachael a heavy glare the second I descend the staircase. Dad holds the door open with one hand, a coffee mug in the other and a grin on his face. “Here she comes now!” “Bye, Dad,” I say gently and throw in an eye roll too. He continues to beam down at me—it’s like I’m in kindergarten again and I’ve just made my first friend—and then he finally moves to the living room. “He’s so embarrassing.” Rachael laughs. “So’s mine. It must be a rule that all dads have to be lame.” “Yeah,” I say. Still half asleep, I’m surprised I’m even able to string words together. “I didn’t realize we’d be leaving so early.” Rachael’s eyes widen as she smiles in a this-girl-is-so-stupid sort of way. “It’s Saturday; if we’re going to the promenade, we need to go super early, because it’s gonna be packed!” I don’t even know what a promenade is. “Ohhh.” I pause for a second (or four) to run my eyes over Rachael’s outfit. She’s wearing cute shorts, a cream button-down blouse, aviator sunglasses, and a whole collection of jewelry. And I’m wearing an oversize T-shirt with cartoon alpacas on it. “I’m gonna go get ready. Do you want to come in and wait or…?” “Just come over to my place when you’re ready,” she says and then adds for clarification, “It’s that one.” She points to the house across the street. Before heading back over, she politely asks me to hurry up. It takes me thirty minutes to get ready. I skip breakfast, spend six minutes in the shower, pull on an outfit similar to hers, leave my hair down, and apply a light layer of makeup. Nothing too complicated and nothing too time-consuming. “I’m going out now,” I tell Dad as I stick my head around the kitchen archway, following the sound of his voice. He stops midconversation with Ella. “Be careful and don’t stay out late. Where are you going?” I shrug. “Somewhere called a promenade or something like that, I think.” “Oh! Tyler’s at the promenade too,” Ella comments. I’d forgotten about that moron until now. Dad automatically turns to fix his eyes on her. “Isn’t he grounded?” he asks, his tone a little harsh. It seems he can’t stand the guy either, and I really can’t blame him. Tyler isn’t the warmest of people. “Stop cutting him so much slack. You need to stop backing down.” “Have fun,” Ella says to me and smiles, completely ignoring my dad’s fuming expression. It’s like his words completely bypass her mind. The awkwardness grows and I get out of there as fast as I can. I don’t want to keep Rachael waiting. Pissing off my new friend on the second day of knowing her isn’t something I particularly want to do. Thankfully, when I arrive on Rachael’s driveway at 10:37 a.m. she doesn’t seem annoyed, despite clearly having been waiting for me—no one rushes out of a house this early for no reason. “It’s gonna be hot today,” Rachael says. She throws her head back to the sky as she exhales. Admittedly, yes, the weather is much hotter than it was yesterday. And it’s not even 11:00 a.m. yet. “Alright, let’s go.” There’s a red Bug parked by us on the drive, and she pulls out a set of keys and unlocks it. I’m a little skeptical before getting in. “When did you pass the test?” Rachael arches a brow and sighs as I unintentionally stall her journey to the promenade. “November,” she answers. I stare at her. “I know what you’re thinking: it hasn’t been twelve months yet. But around here no one follows all those bullshit restrictions, so come on and get in.” Ignoring that it’s illegal for me to get in the car with her, since I’m not twenty, I settle into the passenger seat. I take extra care to ensure my seat belt is secure. “So you’re seventeen?” I guess. Rachael backs out onto the road. “Yeah, I’m about to be a senior,” she says, but her attention is clearly focused on the street ahead as we pull away ridiculously fast. “Same age as Tyler. We go to school together. You?” “Junior.” Only two years left of high school before I hopefully get to pack up and head for the University of Chicago. The wait is taking forever, and I’ve already started filling out my early action application, because I’m just that desperate to get in. My heart has been set on Chicago ever since freshman year, and although Mom would much rather I applied for Portland State University, I feel Chicago has the better psychology program, and psychology is all I’ve ever been interested in. I’m curious about people. “Junior year is the worst,” is the advice Rachael gives me. “You’re gonna hate it!” She switches on the radio then, and it blasts to life in a way that’s almost deafening as we hurl along Deidre Avenue and turn left. Rachael sings along. As we drive for five minutes, I can’t figure out if I feel nauseous because of Rachael’s terrible driving or because we’re heading to a social spot with hordes of people. Hordes that include Tyler. “Meghan’s coming too, by the way,” says Rachael as she lowers the volume of the music. She pulls up by a pale brick house on the corner of the street and honks her horn. I play anxiously with my fingers. A few moments later, an Asian American girl with glossy, dark hair half jogs over to the vehicle. She slides into the backseat behind Rachael, saying, “Hey, guys!” in a soft voice. Rachael starts up the engine. “Hey, Meg. This is Eden, Tyler’s sister.” “Stepsister,” I correct. I tilt my head over my shoulder to meet her eyes. “Nice to meet you.” “You too,” Meghan says, offering me a wide smile as she pulls on her seat belt. “You’re here for the summer, right?” “Yeah.” The music blows up again, leaving no room for conversation, and I’m grateful. We soon emerge from the residential side of the city and head into the more industrial area, passing motels and cafés and office buildings. Soon we’re crawling through traffic. “I hate trying to find a spot to park,” Rachael complains, despite pulling into a parking structure, accelerating up three levels, and then pulling into a free spot—diagonally. “Now let’s hit the stores!” I still don’t know what a promenade is. We make our way back down to the ground while I trail slightly behind. Rachael and Meghan are walking way too fast, and I’m quite happy with walking slow to take in my surroundings. I follow them around the corner and onto the next street. And it’s then that I discover what a promenade is—it’s a huge pedestrian-only street cluttered with designer stores and expensive restaurants and flashy movie theaters—the kind of overrated entertainment complex that I usually hate. “Eden, meet Third Street Promenade!” Rachael says, and I cringe. “My favorite place in the whole city of Los Angeles. You can’t beat it.” “Same,” Meghan adds. They must both be either insane or just extremely mainstream and cliché. Of course they love this wonderful, fantastic promenade, because they are girls. Pretty girls. It’s only natural for them to grow attached to a place like this, for it to become their safe haven. “This is so cool,” I say. My voice is so dry that it’s blatantly obvious I’m lying. I attempt to chirp up, so I clear my throat and keep going. “How far does this place stretch?” “Three blocks!” Rachael glances at her watch and then waves her hands around erratically. “Now come on, we’re wasting shopping time!” God. Shopping is one of the worst pastimes to ever exist, unless it’s scouring the shelves of a bookstore. I don’t think Rachael and Meghan are into that type of shopping. This is confirmed when they pull me into American Apparel. “You’re basically a tourist,” Rachael says, “so you should probably knock yourself out. I need a new pair of pants, so I’m gonna go find some.” “I need a new bra,” Meghan comments. They both strut off without another word, leaving me alone in this huge store to do something I hate—shop. Admittedly, I could do with some new outfits for the summer, so I man up and begin rummaging and sifting through racks and rails of clothes. Eventually I find a cute skirt and an Aztec-print top that can both pass as acceptable. I decide to try them on for size, and I groan when I discover the line by the fitting rooms. “Eden,” Rachael says as she approaches out of nowhere. “Get outta this line.” I stare at her. “What?” “Because—” she says, but then stops when the woman in front of me turns around to look her up and down. Rachael grasps my elbow and pulls me away. “Because,” she says again, “there are fitting rooms at the back of the store that are closed, but we always use them anyway. Beats waiting in line. C’mon, I’ll show you.” With a pile of pants over her arm, she directs me through the store to the very back corner. “I need to finish looking, so just come find us when you’re done or whatever.” When she twirls off again, I find myself staring at a white door with a sign informing me that it is, indeed, closed to all customers. I don’t know if Rachael is playing a joke on me or something equally as cruel, but I glance all around to make sure the coast is clear before slipping inside. I feel scandalous. I’ll try the items on quickly and then get out of here as fast as I can, before I get caught. It’s quiet besides the sound of the lame store music, and I slip into the first cubicle I come to. My heart is racing and I have no idea why. Reaching for my shirt to pull it off, I hear a giggle from the cubicle next to mine, and my entire body freezes as my breath catches in my throat. “Stoooop,” the voice whisper-giggles. It’s so light and so quiet that it’s barely audible. It definitely belongs to a female. “Babe,” a male voice murmurs, low and firm. There’s the sound of lips smacking. Or skin and lips. I can’t tell the difference. “What is that you’re wearing?” the girl asks. More smacking noises. “Is that Montblanc? It smells like it.” “No, it’s Bentley,” the guy answers. I sniff. There is an amazing scent of cologne lingering in the air. “Come here.” Even more smacking. A body thuds against the wall of my cubicle, and I try not to exhale as my hands hover in midair. The girl laughs. “What are you doing?” “What?” “Whatever it is you’re doing right now. It feels nice.” “Of course it does.” My face contorts with disgust, and I press a hand to my mouth as I shake my head. This is the most awkward thing I’ve ever experienced. In fear of these people glancing down and seeing my feet through the opening at the bottom of the divider, I silently step up onto the chair. I’d try to leave without them ever knowing I was here, but the thought of me making a sound and them discovering my presence is keeping me glued to the spot. I tilt my head to the side and let my eyes fall to the floor. They may not be able to see my feet, but I can certainly see theirs. Sky-blue flats and brown boots. “Tyler,” the girl gasps as she pulls her lips away, “we’re not doing that here.” I don’t know what it is that they’re not doing here, but I do know that those brown boots and the voice and the name Tyler click in my mind all at once. Please, God, no. It’s then that I almost throw up, and it’s also then that I hear Rachael call, “Eden, are you still in here?” Without waiting a second longer, I snatch the clothes from the wall and leap off the chair, throwing open the curtain and fixing Rachael with a frantic stare. I make my way toward her, half jogging as I wave my hand around in an attempt to let her know that we need to get the hell out of here. “Shhh,” the girl says sharply, and then, louder, “Who’s here?” I try to push Rachael out the door, but she stops. “Tiffani?” “Rachael?” The curtain of the cubicle next to mine slides open, and a tall, platinum-blond girl takes a step out. Her cheeks flush with color and she bites her lip. Half the buttons on her blouse are undone. “Um, I didn’t know anyone was in here.” Clearly, I think. “What are you doing?” Rachael asks, raising her eyebrows suspiciously. “Tyler, are you there too?” We wait for a response. “Yeah, I’m here.” Tyler steps out around the curtain just as he’s pulling on a faded gray T-shirt, then he runs his hand through his hair. Admittedly, he looks a lot better than he did in the early hours of the morning. “Ever heard of privacy?” “Ever heard of not hooking up in the middle of American Apparel?” Rachael shoots back, her voice even, nose wrinkling. “That’s gross.” Tiffani’s eyes fall to the floor. Her brows are perfectly arched, her cheekbones high and her lips plump. At first she appears abashed at being discovered, but then her expression hardens as she quickly closes up the buttons on her blouse. I have to look away. “What the hell are you guys even doing here?” Tyler asks, locking his attention on me. His sharp eyes fix on me for several seconds, and a shiver surges down my spine as I worry about what he might say next. “Trying on clothes,” Rachael answers tersely, “which is a normal thing to do in fitting rooms.” Tiffani throws her a death glare before locking her eyes on me, clearly pissed off. She tilts her head. “And you are?” “Eden,” I murmur. I’m struggling to meet her eyes, partially because I feel so small and partially because the circumstances are awkward. I look to Tyler instead. “His stepsister.” “You have a stepsister?” Tiffani’s tone softens only briefly as her eyebrows knit together. She flashes her eyes at Tyler. He just shrugs. “Apparently.” She blinks at him for a few seconds, as though a stepsister is some sort of mythical creature that only exists in fairy tales. When she eventually comes to terms with it, she glances back over to me, her eyes narrowed. Her tone is sour. “Why were you in here? Were you spying on us?” “Chill, babe,” Tyler tells her, saving me from having to muster up an answer, and reaches for her arm. “It’s not even a big deal. Stop tripping out.” Tiffani’s eyes grow wide as she parts her lips, appalled at his lack of care. She folds her arms across her chest and sulks. “I’m just saying.” “Yeah, well, don’t,” he says. He presses his lips together, shrugs again. “She doesn’t care. Let’s just go. I need to go to Levi’s.” He throws his arm impatiently over her shoulders and pulls her against his body, but she heaves a sigh and stands her ground, pausing to meet Rachael’s eyes. “I’ll see you on Tuesday,” she tells her. “You’re still coming to the beach, right?” “Yeah,” Rachael says, glancing at me. In that second I know exactly what she’s thinking, and I pray she doesn’t say it out loud. But, of course, she does. “Eden can come too, right?” Ugh. Tiffani’s features harden again as she exhales slowly, evidently having a mock debate with herself on whether or not she should allow the intruder to invade her beach plans. Eventually, she murmurs, “I guess.” She allows Tyler to pull her away, his arm slung around the back of her neck. She’s semi-mortified and semi-irritated. It’ll probably take several hours before the rose tint fades from her cheeks. I stare at Rachael in the new silence that appears once they leave, arching a brow in curiosity. “Girlfriend,” she tells me. “They’ve been dating since freshman year. You’re probably scarred for life.” I shake my head and breathe for the first time in ten minutes. “He’s such an asshole.” “He’s Tyler Bruce,” Rachael says. “He’s always an asshole.” Chapter 5 In all honesty, my afternoon at the promenade with Rachael and Meghan wasn’t that bad. They didn’t spend too long in the same store, they didn’t blow their entire allowances on shoes, and surprisingly they both love coffee, which I discovered when we stopped at a small, minimalist coffee shop just around the corner on Santa Monica Boulevard. It was called the Refinery, and it served the best latte I’ve had in a long time. “Are you sure you’re not coming?” Dad asks for the eighth time now as he pops his head around my door. I’m in the process of painting my toes a bright sapphire, but I pause to glance over my shoulder to the irritating human being behind me. “I’m sure,” I say. “I still don’t feel too great.” I return to my nails and keep my face down. I’m an awful liar, and back when I was younger, Dad used to know whenever I was lying just by looking at me. Hopefully it’s not that noticeable anymore. “There’s food in the refrigerator if you get hungry.” “Okay,” I say, and he leaves the room. Perhaps avoiding a family meal is an unsociable thing to do, but just the thought of spending Saturday evening with my reconstituted family is enough to give me a migraine. In the two hours that I’ve been home from the promenade, Dad has done nothing but pester me about attending this horrendous event. I am consistently rejecting the offer. Finishing off my nails and tidying up after myself, I prance around my room on the balls of my feet and then head out onto the landing when Ella calls up the staircase that they’re about to leave. I’ve barely begun to descend the stairs when Tyler emerges from his room. His eyes narrow the second he sees me, and for a long moment, he just glares at me. Me and my sweatpants. “Aren’t you going?” “Aren’t you?” I shoot back. He’s wearing a navy hoodie with the hood pulled up. There’s an earphone dangling from one ear. “Grounded.” He snorts and rubs his temple. “What’s your excuse?” “Sick,” I lie. I turn around and make my way downstairs to the hall, but I feel him close behind me. “And that’s weird: being grounded didn’t stop you from going to American Apparel,” I throw over my shoulder in a hushed voice. “Shut the hell up,” he hisses. When we reach the hall, Dad is waiting by the front door with Ella by his side. Jamie and Chase look bored as hell. Being younger, it must be harder for them to get out of these sorts of atrocious social events. “We won’t be too late,” Ella says. She fixes Tyler with a firm look. It’s almost as though she’s worried to leave him alone. She should be. “Don’t even think about leaving.” “Mom, I wouldn’t dare,” he says, but the sarcasm is dripping from his voice. He leans against the wall and folds his arms across his chest. “Can we go now?” Chase asks. I’m thankful I don’t have to go through what he’s about to. “I’m hungry.” “Yes, yes, let’s go,” Dad says. He opens up the door, tells Chase and Jamie to go to the car, and throws me a sympathetic glance. “I hope you feel better, Eden.” I just smile. “Bye.” “Behave yourselves,” Ella warns. She still looks apprehensive, but they all leave nonetheless. When they shut the door behind them and the house falls into an odd silence, it occurs to me then that I’m left alone with the moron next to me. For the entire evening. I turn to face him. His eyes are already on me. “Um,” I say. “Um,” he mimics in a voice that sounds absolutely nothing like mine. “Um,” I say again. “I’m gonna grab a shower,” he tells me. “That’s if you’d get out of my way.” I step to the side of the staircase, and he barges past me, the same way he shoved past yesterday, like I’m merely an obstacle in his path. “Rude,” I mutter under my breath. In the forty-eight hours I’ve been here, he hasn’t said one nice word to me. He doesn’t appear to have any manners either. I’m thankful I won’t have to talk to him for at least five minutes. Bored already, I head for the living room and get comfortable on the couch. The truth is, when you’re new to a city and have zero friends, you end up spending your Saturday night alone in your stepfamily’s immaculate living room watching reruns of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, because the only thing to do when your life sucks is to watch someone else’s. Admittedly, Amelia would kill me if she knew I watched this show. It’s not that I actually like it or anything. Well, maybe a little, but I’d never tell her. During my time in front of the TV, I also bombard my mom with several texts containing nothing but complaints about Dad. She agrees with each one. I’m looking at my phone when a female voices calls “Hello?” from the hall. The front door clicks shut. I stop moving and pause the TV. Surely it’s not Ella. It’s only been thirty minutes and I doubt they’ve even eaten their appetizers yet. “Hello?” I call back. “Who the hell is that?” the voice explodes, startling me to the point where I retreat back into the couch. A figure swings open the living room door and enters with her lips pressed firmly together. It’s Tiffani. She breathes a sigh of relief when she sees me. “Sorry, I thought…” “You thought what?” I prompt as I stare back at her blankly. “Nothing,” she says quickly. “Where’s Tyler?” That is the moment when I become no longer interested. I turn back to the TV, taking it off pause and continuing with the episode. “I haven’t seen him since he went to take a shower.” “Thanks.” She leaves the living room, and I listen to the sound of her footsteps as she jogs up the staircase as though this were her own home. I slowly lower the volume of the TV and wait, admittedly attempting to eavesdrop. For a good three minutes I can’t hear anything, but then their voices grow louder as they head downstairs together. I press the back of my hand to my lips and stare at the door in curiosity. “Chill out,” Tyler says. “I was gonna head over in an hour, like you said.” “You could have at least answered my calls,” Tiffani says. “I couldn’t hear them over my music.” They both come to a halt in the hall, and I stare at them through the open door. Tyler notices. “Now what the hell is your problem?” “Jeez,” I say. Tiffani shakes her head disapprovingly at him. It makes me wonder how she puts up with him. “Shut up, Tyler.” “Whatever,” he mutters while turning his back to me, his face nothing but a rigid scowl. “Let’s just get outta here.” “Actually…” Tiffani’s voice tapers off and her bottom lip juts out as she glances up at him from beneath her eyelashes. Tyler doesn’t take her smug expression lightly. “What now?” Tiffani enters the living room and steps in front of the TV. I’d call her out on it, but I’m not quite yet in a comfortable enough position to be able to argue with these strangers. “New plan,” she says, and I notice how she begins glancing between both Tyler and me. I feel inclined to listen. Rightly so, because what she says next takes us both by surprise. “Austin’s throwing a last-minute party and we’re going. You too, Eden.” She fixes her eyes on me. “It’s Eden, right? You don’t really look like the partying type, but Rachael says I have to invite you along. So come.” “Back up a second,” Tyler orders, furrowing his eyebrows and marching over to her. In a hushed voice, he murmurs by her ear, “I thought we were going to your place. You know…” But it’s not hushed enough, and it’s clear what their intentions had been. “Reschedule that,” she whispers. Clasping her hands together, she steps around him and raises her voice again. “Okay, so you’re coming, Eden. And you too, Tyler. You’re coming and you’re not getting wasted for once.” “The fuck?” “Rachael and Megs are already at my place getting ready, so come on, let’s go!” She pulls a set of car keys from her back pocket and makes for the door, but I quickly call her back. “Wait, I need to get an outfit,” I blurt. I get to my feet and glance up at the ceiling. Maybe if I’m lucky it’ll collapse on me. “Give me five minutes to find something.” Right now I’m wondering why I keep finding myself in these awful situations, but for some reason, I just can’t seem to say no. Tiffani laughs, reaches for my arm, and pulls me toward her. When she talks again, her voice is laced with pity. “You can borrow something of mine. Now come on! We’re heading to the party in two hours.” Letting go of me, she twirls away and heads outside. Tyler shoves his way in front of me and also makes for the front door. “I thought you were grounded,” I say. Turning around, he stares back at me evenly, smirking in a way that is far from friendly. “And I thought you were sick.” That shuts me up. * * * The drive to Tiffani’s house is nothing but a journey full of anxiety. I can think about one thing and one thing only: I haven’t shaved my legs. This fact torments me for the entire ten minutes that I’m stuck in the sporty vehicle, crammed into the tiny backseat with my knees shoved into my chest because Tyler selfishly decides to push his chair as far back as it can go. Neither of them includes me in the conversation. Not that I care, anyway. They’re only talking about the latest drama and gossip in their high school. Apparently Evan Myers and Nicole Martinez broke up, whoever they are. Tiffani’s house is on the edge of the neighborhood on a large piece of land, and it’s made of the kind of marble that suggests she probably has a butler to wait on her. But when we pull up and get inside, there are no butlers and no servants. It’s just a regular house made of very expensive material. “Your mom’s still out, right?” Tyler asks. His previous intentions are even clearer now. “Yeah,” Tiffani says. “There’s beer in the kitchen. Kick back down here while we get ready, but take it easy.” She shoots him a warning glare. There’s music echoing loudly from upstairs. She grasps my hand and begins pulling me in the direction of it. We ascend the staircase—marble, of course. “We won’t be long!” Tiffani calls over the banister. “Tiff?” Rachael’s disembodied voice calls from the room at the end of the long hallway. The music dies at the same time. “Tiffani?” “I’m back!” Tiffani pushes open the closed door and waltzes in. I trail behind. “Eden!” Rachael immediately gets to her feet, despite being in the process of doing Meghan’s hair, waving the curling iron around in midair and grinning at me. “You came!” I didn’t really get the chance not to, I think. “Are you sure it’s okay for me to come?” I ask no one in particular. “I guess so,” Tiffani answers. It’s not very convincing. She heads over to her closet—which is merely an archway leading into a section of the room overflowing with clothing—and glances over her shoulder at me. “Rachael says you’re only here for the summer, right?” “Yeah.” “Right, so you’ve got to make the best of it, I suppose.” “She’s right,” Meghan says from her position on the floor, draped in a silk dressing gown with her hair only three-quarters curled. “We’ll make sure your summer doesn’t suck.” Too late, I think. It already does. “Come pick a dress!” Tiffani squeals, but the enthusiasm sounds fake. “I say go for black. Black or red. You’d suit that. And tight. Yeah. Wait, Meghan, you’re wearing red, aren’t you? Okay, tight and black. Let’s go for that.” Despite just asking me to come pick a dress, she hands me one before I even get the chance to look at it, but then she immediately draws it back. “Actually, this one might be too tight on you,” she murmurs as her eyes run up and down my body, and I can feel myself shrinking beneath her scrutiny. Did she just imply I’m chubby? I’d like to believe it wasn’t intentional, that she didn’t mean it in such a way, but it still hurts. I try my hardest to let it bypass my mind, but it’s already too late. It repeats itself over and over again, endlessly and agonizingly, even while Tiffani is piling new dresses into my arms and bubbling with more of that same forced enthusiasm. I try to breathe in. I try to deceive myself into believing that she’s wrong. With a stack of outfit options in my hands, all black dresses, she leaves me to get ready, and I start by letting my hair down and borrowing her hot iron to straighten it. Meghan offers to do my makeup for me. Tiffani finds a pair of platform heels that match the dress she’s given me, because fortunately we share the same shoe size. And when the time comes for me to actually put the dress on, I confide in Rachael about my unshaven leg hair. After a brief moment of laughter, she sends me into Tiffani’s grand and glorious bathroom to fix myself up, giving me clear instructions on where to find the disposable razors. I’m just finishing up and slipping into the dress—the very, very tight dress, which only makes me feel worse—when I hear Tyler enter Tiffani’s room. I step back into the room to find that all of us are now dressed and ready to leave. But even though Tiffani, Rachael, and Meghan’s dresses all look as tight as mine, I still feel awfully inappropriate. I can feel it clinging to every inch of my body. “Alright, can we head over there now?” Tyler asks, quite blatantly bored. He’s been waiting around for two hours with beer as his only companion, and this is evident in his unsteady balance. “Dean and Jake are already there.” “Do I look good?” Tiffani asks, twirling around in a slow circle to ensure he gets a good look at her body. Her dress is white, and despite its tightness and shortness, it creates an aura of elegance. “Baby, you look fine,” he slurs. He takes one final swig from the beer in his hand before setting it down on the dresser and stepping forward. “Real hot.” He clasps her waist and pulls her body toward him. And as though there aren’t three other people in the room, he rams his lips against hers in a way that looks almost painful, one hand grazing her ass and the other pressing against the small of her back. She doesn’t pull away. I throw Rachael a disgusted glance and she rolls her eyes. All I can hear is that horrendous smacking sound again. Tyler and Tiffani: the world’s worst couple when it comes to PDA. “Are they always like this?” I mutter in a hushed voice, because interrupting their intimate moment for a second time isn’t exactly something I want to do. Rachael just shakes her head. I think it’s in commiseration. “All the time.” I glance back over to the pair. They don’t seem to be stopping anytime soon, even when Meghan nudges them to the side so that she can step out into the hall. You’d think they hadn’t seen each other in three years. They’re that engaged in one another. And so Tyler may be irritating, and Tiffani may be obliviously rude, and I may be chubby. But at least my dress isn’t as clingy as those two. Chapter 6 Just after 8:00 p.m., Meghan takes us all over to this party that I’m dreading beyond words. I’m dreading it so much I wish I’d gone out to the family meal with Dad and Ella. Surely forcing overpriced food down my throat would be better than the bitter taste of cheap liquor. We pile into the silver Toyota Corolla as the darkness begins to filter through the setting sun in such a beautiful way that I find myself gazing down the street toward the horizon before Rachael calls shotgun and nudges me to the side. I unwillingly get in the backseat with Tyler seated in the middle between Tiffani and me, beer in his lap and vodka by my feet. There’s an overwhelming combination of body spray and perfume and Tyler’s cologne, not to mention the music that’s increasing in volume with each passing second. The car rolls down the street at, thankfully, a safe speed. Meghan drives with her body rigid and huddled over the wheel, and she doesn’t say a word. It’s like she’s terrified of getting distracted, so while she concentrates hard on the road, Rachael and Tiffani do enough talking to make up for her silence. “If Molly Jefferson is at this party, I swear to God, I’m leaving,” Rachael states without glancing up from her phone. She’s texting extremely quickly, her fingers moving so fast that I just watch in amazement. “Why would that loser be there?” Tiffani lets out a laugh as she adjusts her hair¸ running her fingers through it until she’s pleased with the way it’s sitting. “Austin’s a total creep, but at least he has standards. No losers.” For a moment, she leans forward an inch to peer at me over Tyler, but then she smiles and gets comfy again. As we travel across the city, I steal a glance to my left. Tyler’s arms are folded across his chest and he doesn’t quite look comfortable, his eyes fixed on the hand brake, his face tight. He must notice my eyes on him, because he quickly glances sideways at me and then looks away just as fast. So I angle my body to the side and train my eyes on the passing buildings outside the window instead, but it does little to help how awkward I feel. Every few minutes I can sense Tyler’s eyes on me again, but each time I look back over to catch him in the act, he’s already looking in the opposite direction. “What about that Sabine girl? Sabine…?” Rachael glances up from her phone and presses a finger to her lips as she thinks for a moment. She twirls around in the seat and squints at Tiffani through the gap in the headrest. “You know the one I’m talking about, right? The German exchange student?” “The girl who stole my seat in Spanish class? Sabine Baumann.” “Yes!” Rachael shrieks as she slumps back in the seat. “I hope she’s not there either. She’s always staring at Trevor.” “And you, Tyler,” Tiffani adds. Beside me, I feel Tyler shrug, but it’s obvious this Sabine girl isn’t her friend. She presses her lips together and scoots closer to him. The two of them discuss other potential party guests, with the rest of us offering little input: Meghan because she’s too busy trying not to kill us all; Tyler because he’s focusing so hard on staring at nothing in particular; and me because I honestly couldn’t care. So fifteen minutes and a lot of hair adjustments and bitchy remarks later, we arrive at the party, which appears to be in full swing. There are several people loitering in the front yard and more arriving, the music loud and echoing as we step out of the car, which Meghan has managed to awkwardly squeeze into a spot between a beat-up truck and a convertible. We grab the booze, and I end up carrying in a pack of Twisted Tea and a bottle of vodka, and suddenly I feel like an alcoholic. I bet the neighbors are peeking through their blinds with the cops on speed dial. It’s so obvious that we’re all minors. I have no idea where Tiffani, Rachael, and Meghan got any of this from or how they managed to get it, but like every other teenager in this country, they must have their ways. There are always ways. “Hey, Tyler!” a voice yells across the lawn. A shorter guy with a buzz cut and a Budweiser in his hand approaches him, and they greet each other with a fist bump. “Glad you could make it.” “Yeah,” Tyler says. He nods to the case of Bud Light under his arm. “Kitchen?” “Yeah,” the guy says, jabbing a finger out toward the house. “Dump it and come join us.” Tyler disappears inside, greeting a number of people on the way, his steps uneven. “Hey, Austin!” Tiffani says to the same guy—the host of the party. I tag along behind her, with Rachael and Meghan by my side, and I can’t help but feel entirely out of place. I don’t know any of these people, yet here I am, turning up at a party and praying that no one will notice the stranger among them. “Enjoy yourselves, girls,” Austin says, and there is so much lechery underlying his tone that it makes him repulsively gross. “Nice dresses.” “I know,” Tiffani says. She rolls her eyes over her shoulder and down to her ass, biting her lip. But I notice. “By the way, Eden’s here too.” “Eden?” Austin’s eyes drift past her, darting from Rachael to Meghan and then finally to me. “Crashing my party, Eden?” Before I can drop dead right there and then, Tiffani steps forward and presses her hand flat against his chest. She leans in close by his side, murmurs, “Eden is Tyler’s stepsister,” and then leans back to fix him with a hard look. “And you don’t want to get on the wrong side of him, so…” Austin’s expression immediately falters, and he takes a step back, replacing the smirk on his face with a wide smile. “Welcome to the party! Turn up or go home.” He raises his beer to the sky, whistles for a moment, and then walks away. “You heard him,” Rachael says. She unscrews the cap of a bottle of vodka she’s holding in her hand and takes one huge gulp, drinking it straight without her features even shifting. She must do this a lot. “Turn the hell up!” The sky darkens, and Tiffani leads the way inside, and I’ve figured by now that she’s the alpha female of the trio. The trio of friends plus me, the tagalong from Portland. And with being the tagalong come anxiety and nerves and the awareness that I’m not welcome here. The house is pretty much packed from one wall to the other, be it with bodies or cases of beer, and it is very, very hot. The music is loud, and the alcohol doesn’t seem to be in short supply. The majority of the people here are already tipsy, if not wasted, and there are only a few who are still standing steady. By the time we weave our way through to the kitchen, Tyler is already gone. His box of beer is lying among the overflowing collection of alcohol that covers the table and every countertop. Used shot glasses decorate the floor, and I carefully step around them before sliding the pack of Twisted Tea and the vodka onto the edge of the table. “S’cuse me, Rach,” a male voice says from behind us, and when I glance to my right, there is a guy moving Rachael to the side by guiding her with his hands around her waist. “I was wondering if you’d show up tonight.” “Trevor!” Excitedly, she throws herself into his arms and pecks his lips. Trevor moves around her and fetches himself a beer as she gazes at him the way a three-year-old gazes at a puppy. “Boyfriend?” I mouth to Meghan, but she shakes her head. “Catch up with you guys later!” Rachael yells, despite being right next to us all. “Have fun, Eden!” The two of them head out of the kitchen together, Trevor with a beer in his hand and Rachael with the vodka still in hers. “Rachael’s a total lightweight,” Tiffani says while lining up two new shot glasses, her back to us. “She’s been drinking cocktails since the second she turned up at my place.” True, Rachael did slip out to the kitchen every so often while we were getting ready. Until now, I thought she was just making excessive toilet trips. Closely, I watch as Tiffani fills the glasses with tequila. “Who’s that Trevor guy?” I ask. “Her party fling,” she answers in monotone, as though it’s no big deal at all. “They hook up at parties and that’s all it is. Okay, here.” She twirls around, her lips quirked up into a huge grin, and she hands me a glass of Cazadores tequila. I glance at Meghan for help, but she shrugs and holds up her car keys. I’ve tasted tequila a couple times before, back home in Portland with my limited group of acquaintances, but it didn’t do anything for me besides leave a sour, bitter taste in my mouth. “Oh,” I say as I study the glass. It’s filled to the brim. From the corner of my eye, I notice Tiffani licking the back of her hand. “Oh?” Meghan laughs softly and rolls her eyes as she reaches for the random saltshaker lying on its side on the countertop. She passes it to Tiffani. “Have you done this before?” “Tequila?” I ask. “Tequila done right,” she corrects, arching her brows. “You know, with the lime and all.” “Oh,” I say again. Back home, all we drink is beer and rum. “Our parties aren’t so…” “Cool?” Tiffani smirks. She pours some salt onto the back of her hand. “You can teach them this when you go back. Now lick the back of your hand between your thumb and forefinger.” I feel dumb all of a sudden. It’s like I’m in freshman year all over again, where I’m subject to scrutiny by the much older, much cooler students. But this isn’t high school and they aren’t other students. This is a party, and they know exactly what to do and what to say and how to fit in. I, on the other hand, have no clue. “Okay,” I say, and lick my hand. I feel ridiculous, and I’m beginning to wonder if Dad and Ella are home yet. “Salt.” Tiffani passes me the shaker, and I pour a small amount onto my skin, mimicking her. It sticks. “Okay, there’s gotta be limes somewhere.” “Tiff, they’re right there,” Meghan says and laughs as she points to the basket of limes that has clearly been provided for this exact purpose. I don’t even like limes. Tiffani presses her hand to her forehead and then sighs. “I haven’t even had one drink yet, and I’m already going blind. Alright, grab a slice. Eden, hold it in the hand with the salt.” I do as instructed, placing the lime slice between my thumb and forefinger and then staring back at her, waiting to hear what my next move should be. “Now?” “Salt, tequila, lime,” Meghan answers instead. She steps back to examine Tiffani and me, and when Tiffani nods, she cheers, “Go, go, go!” I panic but lick the salt anyway and throw my head back as I attempt to force the tequila down my throat. I fight the urge to gag. It’s so gross and so bitter. I remember the lime in my hand and bite into it, despite how screwed up my face is, but the juice only squirts all over my cheeks, and I make a dive for the kitchen sink, spluttering the drink all over it. When I get home, I am so dead. “You know what they say,” Tiffani says with a grin. I must look horrified, and she quickly passes me a can of beer, as though it’ll help clear the taste. “One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor.” Several people file into the kitchen to fill up their drinks, and she decides to seize this opportunity as her getaway. “I’m gonna go find Tyler. You guys have fun.” The music gets louder all of a sudden, bouncing from the walls and drilling into my ears. The intense beat drops are giving me a headache. Meghan reaches for my free hand and pulls me out of the kitchen and into a large—but cramped—living room. She talks to a couple people on our way, but thankfully none of them ask her why there’s a loser by her side. A bulky guy approaches us from the opposite side of the room, and Meghan instantly yells “Jake!” over the sound of the music. “Hey, Megs,” Jake says. He’s wearing a black T-shirt with a huge slogan scrawled across the front of it, which I don’t bother to read, and his blond hair is gelled messily in all directions. “Where are Tiff and Rach?” Jake, I discover, likes to cut names short. “Rachael’s with Trevor,” Meghan says, and she rolls her eyes, as does he. “And Tiffani’s looking for Tyler. Seen him?” I notice the way Jake’s expression hardens slightly. “Yeah,” he says a little stiffly. “Doing what he does.” Meghan glances sideways at me, bites her lip, and then moves the conversation on. “Where’s Dean?” “He was looking for you guys.” Jake laughs, his expression softening as he takes a sip of his beer. As he swallows it, he stares at me. “Who’s the new girl?” “Eden,” I answer before Meghan can. I already know which questions are coming next, so I go ahead and throw the answers out there before Jake can even ask. “I’m Tyler’s stepsister. I’m here for the summer.” There go his hardened features again. He shoots Meghan a glance, and she shrugs in return. “What?” “Um,” Meghan says. “I’m gonna go check on Rachael. Gotta make sure she doesn’t get knocked up.” “Want some rubbers to give ’em?” Jake smirks. He pats his pockets in a joking manner and then chuckles. Meghan giggles, adjusts her hair, and leaves. “So you’re Tyler Bruce’s stepsister?” I want to shake my head no, but that would be bullshit, so I murmur a quick “Yeah,” and change the subject as quickly as I can. I ask him the first thing that pops into my head. “Are you all seniors?” He tilts his head. “Aren’t you?” “Junior,” I say quietly. Yet another reason why I’m so out of place here. I’m a junior attending a senior party. There’s no way Amelia is going to believe this. In Portland, seniors refuse to associate with the rest of us. The guys are too cool for us, the girls too busy acting like adults. It’s almost as though they believe they’re a superior race. Kind of like New Yorkers. “Where did you say you were from again?” I reel my attention back to Jake. “Um, Portland.” “Portland, Maine?” “Portland, Oregon,” I correct. Jake takes another swig of his beer, and the silence and blunt conversation is making the entire thing awkward. “Sorry, where’d you say Tyler was again?” He stops drinking and raises a brow. “Why does it matter?” Because I want to go home and we just so happen to share the same one. “I’ve got to get a beer for him.” Sold. Jake hesitates for a long moment before finally saying, “He’s out back. Watch yourself.” “Thanks.” I take a quick sip of my own drink and head out into the hall, following it down toward the back of the house and through the mass of bodies. Bodies that do not include Tiffani and Rachael and Meghan. And right now, I could really do with having them with me. I’ve been abandoned among a crowd of strangers in a brand-new city, and it certainly doesn’t feel great. At the end of the hall, there’s a back door left open with people slipping in and out of the house, so I squeeze by and step outside into the yard, laying my beer down on the patio table. There’s a guy throwing up by the fence and a girl passed out on the lawn. I contemplate helping her, but my attention is immediately diverted to the eruption of laughter from the shed in the corner. The laughter sounds as though it belongs to a group of guys, so I build up some courage and head over there. If I don’t, I’ll be stuck at this party until some unearthly hour of the morning. As I get nearer, I notice the smoke in the air. There’s no window and the door is shut, so I reach for it and pull it open. Immediately I’m hit with the most overwhelming smell of weed, so overwhelming that as the smoke escapes into the night air all at once tears well in my eyes. I clasp a hand to my mouth and cough, squeezing my eyes shut and taking a step back. “Is that weed?” I blurt. “No, it’s cotton candy,” someone shoots back, and the shed rings with howls of laughter. But there’s nothing funny about this at all. I open my eyes again as the air clears, and I find four guys staring back at me. One of them is Tyler. There’s a joint in his hand and he’s attempting to hide it behind his leg, but it doesn’t make a difference. I can still see it, the same way I can see the panic and alarm crossing his features. “Are you serious?” I ask in disbelief. “Dude, get this chick outta here,” someone mutters. I don’t even know which one of the other three is talking. I don’t care about the others. My eyes are locked on Tyler. “Unless she wants to come in here and keep us company.” “Bro,” Tyler says, but it’s hard to ignore the shake in his voice as he swallows and forces a small laugh to escape his lips. His eyes are glazed, pupils wide. “You really want that kid in here?” There’s more laughter, but Tyler doesn’t join in with the combination of chuckling and coughing. He’s just gnawing on his lips and glancing between me and his friends, not quite sure of the best way to handle the situation. For starters, he should get rid of the joint that’s still in his hand. “Who the hell is she?” the same guy asks. More smoke wafts toward me as someone exhales, but I quickly wave it away from me. “Has no one taught her the rules?” I squint through the dispersing plume of smoke until I spot the pair of bloodshot eyes struggling to focus on me. The black guy that they belong to is grinning. “No interrupting, babe. Get the fuck out of here unless you’re here to ball with us.” He takes a step forward and holds up the glowing joint in his hand. It’s almost burned out, but he offers it to me nonetheless. As though I’d actually consider taking it from him, Tyler steps in between the joint and me. He licks his index finger and presses it to the cherry of his own joint, extinguishing it and then stuffing it into his pocket before straightening up and glowering at the guy in front of him. “What the hell are you doing?” he asks, nodding to the jay in his hand. “C’mon, Clayton, where’s your common sense?” Clayton moves the hovering joint back to his lips, drawing on it for a long moment before exhaling the smoke toward Tyler’s face. “Offering her a hit is common sense. It’s called good manners. It would be rude not to,” he says. He peers at me over Tyler’s shoulder. “Am I right, new girl?” The other two guys stifle a laugh again, but they’re not paying too much attention anymore. I think they’re too baked to even care. They’re just standing around at the back of the shed, laughing, grins wide. Tyler, on the other hand, is not so easily entertained. “Dude, take the damn hint,” he hisses. He takes a step backward, and his body nudges against mine, forcing me to back away too. “She doesn’t want it. Look at her.” He glances over his shoulder at my expression of revulsion, and he ends up staring at me for a moment longer than I feel comfortable with. Even when Clayton speaks again, Tyler’s just looking at me. “Alright, alright,” Clayton says. “Just get her outta here then. Why do we have some random kid in here anyway?” “I’m wondering the same thing,” Tyler murmurs. Suddenly he turns to face me. Completely disgusted by the smoking, I shake my head at him. I wonder if Ella knows about this. Is she aware that he’s out here spending his night getting high? Tyler takes a step toward me, but as he shifts, his curled-up fist knocks against something. His eyes fall to his right, and my stare follows until it lands on a small metallic table and the tiny lamp perched on the corner of it. I’m about to look away when I notice what’s on that table and beneath the light. There’s a stack of dollar bills and some credit cards scattered around, and, most importantly, a row of neat lines. White powder lines. “Oh my God,” I whisper, blinking as fast as I can, because I have no idea if the smoke I’ve just inhaled is having an effect on me or if I’m really seeing what is truly there. “Oh my God?” “Dude, seriously, I’m not kidding.” It’s Clayton. “Get her out of here before she calls the cops or something.” “Yeah, yeah, she’s leaving,” Tyler replies. At the same time he reaches for my elbow, gently pushing me away from the shed. I’m surprised he follows, pulling me across the yard until we’re away from everyone else and out of hearing range. “You’re unbelievable,” I hiss while I shake his hand off me. “Coke? Really, Tyler?” He appears helpless before me, lik