Edinburgh, September 2012
“Did you go food shopping yet? Is the food expensive? Do you understand what half of it is?”
I swallowed my laughter. “Mom, I’m in Scotland, not the Amazon.”
“I know but they eat things we wouldn’t dare eat.”
She sounded so horrified I couldn’t help my dry retort. “They’re not cannibals.”
A spray of soda shot past my eyeline and I twisted to see my best friend Claudia choking on Diet Coke as she listened to my side of the conversation. We were sitting in the kitchen of our student apartment, our butts on the comfortable, but still weird, waiting room chairs that had been supplied in our common room/kitchen. Our backs were to the wide floor-to-ceiling window that looked out over the courtyard of our building, the sun hitting the glass and prickling our skin with its heat. Everything about the room was clean, fresh, and hardwearing. The accommodation was basic but it was warm and safe and a million times better than I’d been led to believe it would be.
“So dramatic, Charley. I’m just saying, the food is a little different,” Mom continued. “I want to make sure you’re eating right.”
Whether I was in Edinburgh or back home in Indiana, my mom always wanted to make sure I was eating right. This was because I couldn’t cook. Delia Redford was an awesome cook and baker, as was her oldest daughter, Andrea, so she took the fact that her youngest (that would be me) couldn’t so much as boil pasta without screwing it up as a personal failure on her part. Luckily for me, I could read and work an oven so frozen dinners kept me from starvation.
“Mom, they eat pretty much what we eat mostly because … you know … they’re people.”
“Except their chocolate is better,” Claudia muttered, nibbling on a bar of Dairy Milk.
I frowned at her. “That’s a matter of opinion.”
“What’s a matter of opinion?” Mom asked curiously. “Is Claudia there? Is she eating right?”
My lips twitched. “Mom wants to know if you’re eating right?”
Claudia nodded and mumbled around a mouthful of chocolate. “Never better.” She waved her fingers and swallowed, “Hi, Delia Mom!”
Mom laughed. “Tell her I say hi back.”
“Mom says hi back.”
“Your father told me to tell you that the two of you have to check in every day.”
I grimaced. “You didn’t make Andie check in every day when she was in Dublin.”
“We didn’t have to make Andie check in every day. You, however, have always got so much going on it’s a wonder we hear from you at all.”
“Well, it’s not like I’m smoking crack, Mom. I’m studying and organizing sh—stuff.”
Her tone turned sharp. “Were you going to say shit?”
“Would I, a grown woman of twenty years old, dare to curse in front of my mother?”
I sighed. “Mom, we’re not calling you every day. It’s too expensive. And I don’t have time to Skype with you every day. I’ll send emails when I can during the week and we’ll set up a Skype once a week, okay?”
“You don’t have to make it sound like a chore.”
“Momma, I love you. It’s not a chore. I am going to miss you too … but I’ve been gone two days. Please give me a chance to miss you.”
At her soft chuckle, I relaxed. “I’m just worried. You’re my baby and Claud is my adopted baby.”
“We’ll be fine. But we’ve got to go. It’s induction week and Claudia and I have some things we need to do before classes start. I’ll email you soon.”
“But you didn’t answer my question about food.”
“We went food shopping. Our fridge, our freezer, and our cupboards are packed full.”
“What kind of food?”
I threw an exasperated “help me” look at Claudia and she instantly cried out in mock pain.
“What was that?”
“Got to go, Mom. Claudia is going into sugar shock.” I hung up and grinned at my laughing friend. “I should switch it off before she calls back.”
We jumped as the phone buzzed in my hand but when I looked down, it read, “Andie Calling.”
“I cannot catch a break. Hello,” I answered.
“Hello to you too,” Andie said. “You’ve been gone two days. You don’t write, you don’t call …”
“I just got off the phone with Mom two seconds ago.”
“Right. How’d that go? Did she give you the food chat?”
“Did you get that too?”
“When I did my study abroad? Yeah. I think she thinks non-Americans aren’t from Planet Earth and that they somehow subsist on weird alien food that our bodies can’t process.”
“Yeah, I’m getting that.”
“So? Do you like Edinburgh?”
“So far. It is weird being so far from home, but it’s a beautiful city.”
“Enjoying the chocolate.”
“It’s not as good as ours.”
“That’s what I said!”
“You’re both wrong,” Claudia interjected as she got up to put her chocolate wrappers in the trash. “Now can you tell your sister you’ll call her back? If we stay here any longer, I’m going to smash your phone.”
“I heard,” Andie said. I could practically hear her rolling her eyes. “I need to get to work anyway. It’s early here, remember. It’s early and the first thing I do is phone my baby sister to see how she is and it’s an expensive long-distance call but does she care?”
I laughed. “I care. I do. I just don’t have time to fully appreciate it. Claudia has an abnormal hatred for our perfectly nice apartment and I brought her back here for lunch. I’m pretty sure she’s going to break out in hives.”
“Well, we wouldn’t want that. Speak soon, Supergirl.”
“Later.” I switched off the phone and gave Claudia a look. “That was rude.”
“This,” she gestured to the room, “is not an apartment. It’s a common room with a hallway outside that leads to five identical rooms with fire doors that lock.”
“There’s also a bathroom that locks. I’d call that an improvement upon most student accommodations.”
“And you’re spoiled.”
Claudia narrowed her eyes. “I miss our apartment. It’s bright and airy. We have a balcony. Plus, there are only two of us living there.”
I’d heard this ever since Claudia laid eyes on the new place, so I ignored it and led her out of the kitchen, stopping at my bedroom door to make sure it was locked.
Back home we were juniors at Purdue in Indianapolis, and since Claudia’s parents were loaded, we lived in a nice apartment in West Lafayette, about a ten-minute drive from campus. There was no way I’d be able to afford anything like it if it weren’t for Claud. I joked that she was spoiled, but I only meant it in a material sense. Yeah, she was used to nice things but her life was a rich kid’s cliché—absentee parents who couldn’t give a crap what she did. They threw money at her instead of love and expected her to be grateful. Instead of letting it eat away at her, Claudia embraced the people who showed her real affection and offered fierce loyalty in return.
We’d met freshman year and hit it off. I liked her and not because of her money, and she liked me because she said I was the most honest person she’d ever met. When I took Claudia home for Thanksgiving, meeting my family cemented our friendship. My mom and dad treated her like their kid and fussed over her (which she secretly loved). Even Andie bestowed overbearing elder sisterly condescension upon her (which Claudia also secretly loved).
I didn’t come from money. We lived in a small town called Lanton, just a little over two hours northwest of Indianapolis. My dad owned the local garage and my mom owned a florist. We did okay. The only reason they could afford to send their daughters to good schools and even offer them a chance on a placement abroad was because of my mom’s aunt Cecilia. Cecilia had married a very wealthy pharmaceuticals guy and when he died, she got all his money. Now, Cecilia liked to spend that money, so by the time she died, she didn’t have a whole lot left. She had, however, always doted on Andie and me, and had put some cake away in a trust fund for our education.
As to Claudia’s grumbling over the apartment, I was guessing it was just a front for her nerves. We were excited but a little scared of being in a foreign country by ourselves for the school year, but where I admitted it and moved on, Claudia found something to bitch about so she didn’t have to think about her anxiety.
Because we were older students but would be taking some freshman classes, we were housed with three British students who were our age but only just starting college. Our roommates had met and bonded a full day before we arrived, so Claud and I would have to work a little bit harder to establish a friendship with them. Hopefully, we’d get around to that. For now, we were still trying to get organized before classes, determined to get to know the city as quickly as possible.
“It’ll get better once we’re settled and meet more people,” I promised Claudia as we stepped out of the apartment. “There are a couple of people from Purdue living across the courtyard. We could get to know them.”
“If we didn’t get to know them over there, why would we here?”
“Well, that’s a spiffy attitude.”
I laughed to myself as we walked down the stairs, but that laughter cut off abruptly as we hit the second floor. Claudia didn’t ask me what I was doing. In fact, there was utter silence behind me, so I guessed she was drooling too.
In the middle of the landing, sticking a photocopied poster high on the wall, stood a seriously hot guy. His shirt had ridden up as he raised his arms above his head, flashing us a glimpse of golden skin and great abs. The shirt encased the perfect V torso, and his ratty jeans encased the perfect ass. A hot tribal tattoo covered one roped forearm and as he caught sight of us out of the corner of his eye, I mentally sighed. His grin was awesome—slightly crooked, definitely flirtatious, and belly-whoosh-worthy. It was a great match to his beautiful light gray eyes, chiseled jawline covered in sexy scruff, and thick, messy, dark blond hair that was just dying for female fingers to get a hold of it.
“Hey, guys,” he greeted us in a rough voice, his American accent welcome and familiar.
Claudia pushed gently passed me and walked casually toward him. I smiled at the sway in her hips as she approached him. So did he, his eyes glued to that sway.
My friend was gorgeous. And gorgeous in that unbelievably classy, this-girl-is-used-to-the-finer-things-in-life way. A lot of guys back home were intimidated by her, and if they weren’t, they assumed she was something she wasn’t and treated her like a vapid socialite who’d be more impressed with the size of their trust fund than if they could make her laugh. So, unfortunately, despite being exceptionally pretty, Claudia was lonely in the romance department.
I watched hot, tattooed, rebel-without-a-cause eye her with appreciation. Claudia had long dark hair and exotic coloring inherited from her Portuguese mother, as well as the tiny waist, long legs, boobs, and ass. She was the kind of girl other girls loved to hate.
She wore designer skinny jeans, Lacoste tennis shoes, and a cute white Ralph Lauren blouse with capped sleeves and a nipped-in waist, and looked as though she was on the way to the country club. I saw immediately that our poster-hanging hottie found this amusing.
Claudia tilted her chin toward his handiwork. “There’s a party?”
“Yeah.” He smiled down at her and his grin widened as I neared. “I’m hanging these for a friend who lives here, next stairwell over. You guys should definitely come. I’m Beck, by the way.”
“Claudia.” She nodded at me. “This is my friend, Charley.”
“Hey, Charley.” Beck’s flirtatious grin remained fixed on his face as he perused me from top to bottom. Unlike Claudia, I was wearing clothes that would get me thrown out of the country club—my favorite, ass-hugging skinny jeans with the hole in the knee, the denim baby soft from having been run through the wash a million times, complemented by an oversized vest with “Library Nerd” scrawled across the chest. I’d dyed my long blond hair to platinum three years ago because I thought it made my hazel eyes more interesting. I had it pulled back into a messy ponytail and was wearing my usual plethora of silver—two long necklaces, three rings on one hand, two on the other, and a jangle of silver and leather bracelets on both wrists.
Claudia wanted to clean me up. I wanted to grunge her down.
I nodded back at him, my cheeks warming at the appreciative gleam in his eye. The guy was smoldering, and I was pretty sure if I licked my finger and pressed it to his skin, steam would rise with a satisfactory hiss. Still, I’d done the whole bad-boy thing in high school and I was definitely over it. I shot Claudia a look that mentally relayed she should go in for the kill.
She smirked and turned to look at the poster. I followed her gaze.
“Um,” Claudia turned to Beck, frowning, “does your friend know he misspelled ‘snacks’?”
Beck snorted. “Babe, it says ‘FREE BOOZE’ on the poster. Do you think anyone else will read the next fucking line?”
“He’s got you there,” I murmured.
She ignored me. “Don’t you care? You’re putting the posters up. If people see that, they’ll think you’re the moron who spelled ‘snacks’ wrong.”
Beck shrugged and stepped around us to head up to our floor. “Not a problem since I don’t give a fuck what people think.”
“Sounds enlightening,” Claudia turned on her heel, following him with a grin that would’ve melted a lesser man. “You want to teach me that kind of enlightenment? I’d make time.”
I watched as Beck faltered a little on the first step, as if surprised by her coquettish question. He quickly covered it by giving her another sexy once-over and then smiled into her eyes. “See you at the party, babe.”
“We’ll be there,” Claudia answered. She grabbed my hand, jerking me down the stairs with her. As soon as we burst out of the concrete stairwell and into the warm courtyard, Claudia leaned against a bike railing. “I think I could orgasm just looking at him,” she moaned, turning to stare longingly back up at the building.
I wrinkled my nose. “Oversharing again.”
“Come on. Dip that boy in a cold lake and he’ll turn it into a hot springs.”
“You are such a cheeseball,” I laughed, pulling on her wrist and dragging her out onto Guthrie Street. We lived just off the Cowgate, the east end of the Grassmarket, which we discovered with all its pubs and a club nearby was kind of a hotspot. Our bedrooms faced over the Cowgate, so both Claud and I had invested in foam earplugs so we could sleep at night.
Our accommodation was only a couple of streets away from the main campus, the landscape sloping up toward Edinburgh University. We headed that way, needing to collect our student ID cards from the information center. The ID was kind of important—you needed it to get in and out of the library, as well as the student union venues.
“I agree he’s hot but I don’t do bad boys anymore.” I ignored the familiar ache in my chest and locked my jaw in an effort to appear unaffected. “And I didn’t think you did bad boys ever?”
“I’m seriously making an exception for Beck.” Claudia’s eyes fluttered closed on another moan. “Beck. Even his freaking name is hot.”
“Well, my mother would hate him. He said ‘fuck’ twice within a matter of seconds.”
“I’d fuck him twice in a matter of seconds.”
Shocked laughter escaped my lips.
“I’m not kidding.”
And when I looked at her face, I realized she wasn’t. I instantly sobered. “Please do not do anything you’ll regret.”
She waved off my concern. “I’m not stupid. If he wants in my pants, he has to earn it.” She rubbed her hands together gleefully. “And I am going to have so much fun making him earn it.”
I didn’t particularly enjoy the idea of attending a party where I’d be left to socialize alone as my best friend attempted to wrap Beck around her finger. But … she was Claudia and I loved her and I’d never seen her so instantly excited over a guy before. I’d suck it up for her. “Then I guess we’re really going to that party tonight. Maybe we should invite our roomies?”
“What are their names again?”
I searched my brain, knowing the answers were in there somewhere. “Maggie, Gemma, and Lisa. Right?”
“I thought it was Maggie, Jemima and Lauren.”
“Jemima? I would remember if her name was Jemima.”
“We are awful roommates.”
“We are. I’m going to organize some kind of get-together for us all.”
Her eyes glittered. “Ooh, can we invite Beck?”
Crap. She was definitely a goner.
“Maybe I should’ve worn a dress,” Claudia muttered for the fiftieth time as we walked up stairwell one to apartment three. We could hear the music throbbing from within and we’d already passed a couple of drunken freshman out in the courtyard.
I sighed, squeezing back against the wall to let an annoyed-looking guy hurry down the stairs and outside. “I told you a dress would be too much. This is just like any other student party, Claud, not a formal.”
As soon as we hit floor one, she knew I was right. The door to apartment three was thrown open and there were students milling around outside drinking out of red plastic cups. A couple of girls smiled at us and the guys gave us “the nod” as we passed to wander inside. Everyone was dressed casual and I was glad I’d talked Claud into jeans and a tank top.
“This place is much bigger than ours,” I commented as we gazed around the crowded common room and kitchen.
“There are more rooms,” Claudia explained, pointing down the hall to our left. I noticed at the end it turned a corner. I counted five doors on the one side, and guessed Claud was right and that hidden corridor housed more.
“You came.” Beck appeared like magic in front of us, holding out two beers. “Nice to see you again, ladies.”
Looking much the same as he had that afternoon—except perhaps hotter—Beck’s presence seemed to paralyze us for a second as neither of us said a word.
He grinned cockily as if he knew what kind of reaction he elicited in the opposite sex and shook the beers at us. “You want?”
I reached for one of the bottles. “Thanks. Good showing.” I gestured to the busy party.
“I told you… put ‘free booze’ on a poster and voila.” He smiled at Claudia as she finally came out of her stupor to take the beer. His eyes flickered back to me and my chest. “Nice shirt.”
My vintage Pearl Jam T-shirt, faded, worn, a little snug, but as soon as I saw it in the thrift store, I had to have it. Thankfully, the fact that it was snug just made it hot. It wasn’t the first time a guy had complimented me on it and I still couldn’t decide if it was because it was vintage Pearl Jam or if it was because it was tight across my breasts.
Probably a little of the first and a lot of the second.
“Thanks,” I muttered and “accidentally” hit my elbow off Claudia’s arm as I looked around the room.
She took my hint.
“So, Beck,” she stepped closer to him, “you here on the study abroad program for the semester or the year like us?”
“The year,” I heard him say as I pretended to be more interested in the room at large than in the conversation between him and my best friend. “I came from Northwestern. What about you guys?”
“Not that far from you, actually. Purdue.”
“I think a couple of the guys who live here are from there. You know them? Alan and Joey? We met them first night here.”
I turned back now, taking another swig of my beer and shaking my head as Claudia answered, “Nope. Do you live here too?”
“Nah, I’m along the street at College Wynd with my buddy Jake.”
I instantly flinched at the name, my heart kicking up speed as it always did when I heard it. Thankfully, neither of the two of them noticed and as they chatted, I breathed slowly in and out, forcing myself to relax. It had been three and a half years and just the thought of him tightened my chest.
When I came back to myself, I noticed Claudia shooting me surreptitious “get lost” looks. I pointed the neck of my beer bottle behind them. “I’m going to go … see if I recognize anyone.”
I knew by the twitch of Beck’s lips that neither Claudia nor I had been subtle, but I wasn’t the one trying to impress him. I wandered through the throng, heading into the center of the room where a large table had been turned into a beer pong court, a tournament already underway. Mind-numbingly bored at the thought of it, I turned to head toward the kitchen where people were leaning on counters and chatting to one another. I squeezed past a short guy whose face was practically in my boobs.
“Nice shirt.” He grinned up at me.
What did I tell you? It was a magic shirt. I muttered a thank-you and headed toward the kitchen.
I blinked at the sound of my name being shrieked across the room and my eyes widened as I saw my roommate Maggie waving excitedly to me from the kitchen. Surprised by her exuberant reaction to my presence, I threw her a somewhat bewildered smile and headed over.
“You came, you wonderful girl, you. Come give me some love!” She threw her arms around me and I muffled an oof against her thick, red hair as we collided. She was pretty drunk and slurring a little, but that didn’t stop her English accent from beingawesome. She shoved me forcefully back. “Is Claudia here too?”
“Yeah, she’s talking to some guy we met this afternoon.”
Maggie nodded, her pretty eyes bloodshot. “I lost Gemma and Laura. I don’t know where they went but I met these guys.” She turned to a medium-built guy with curly blond hair and baby blue eyes. With him were a tall, skinny guy with cool rimless glasses, tattooed arms, and a lip ring, and a short, curvy girl with bright purple hair. “This is Matt, Lowe, and Rowena.”
I lifted my beer in greeting. “Hey, I’m Charley.”
Lowe, the tall, skinny guy, raised his beer and I noted his fingernails were covered in chipped black nail polish. “Cool shirt.”
“You’re American too?”
His gaze suddenly sharpened with deeper interest. As his eyes traveled up and down my body, I noticed rather belatedly that he wasn’t skinny. He was lean, but muscular … and he was cute. Really cute. “A Boilermaker. We’re practically neighbors.”Very, very cute.
He was also another bad-boy Beck. In fact, I’d bet they were friends. “If your neighbor has to travel a few hours to get to your house for Bundt cake, then sure, we’re neighbors.”
Lowe smiled as Matt and Rowena chuckled.
Maggie just looked confused. In an effort to change the subject, she asked, “Did you see the poster, then, for the party?”
“Yeah. And Beck invited us.”
Lowe scowled. “You met Beck?”
I looked back over my shoulder through the crowds and pointed to him. He and Claudia were still speaking but she seemed to be frowning at whatever he was saying. “He’s talking to my friend Claudia.”
My focus drifted as I moved to turn back to the group and I caught a profile in the crowd that made the blood rush in my ears. I froze, my eyes taking in the familiar jawline and straight Roman nose. Familiar lips kissed an unfamiliar forehead.
It couldn’t be him.
My heart sped up as I watched the profile turn. A more than familiar beautiful smile hit full force and winded me.
For what felt like forever, I drank in the sight of Jacob Caplin—the first boy I’d ever loved.
I hadn’t seen him in three and a half years.
And there he was, tall and built, looking more clean-cut than he used to in a long-sleeved thermal and black jeans. His dark hair was shorter than he used to wear it but it suited his handsome, angular face. I didn’t even want to look into his dark eyes because I knew it would only usher me into an even bigger world of pain than I already found myself in. That pain intensified as I followed the arm he had wrapped around a dark-haired girl buried into his side, her hand resting on his chest. I was tall at five eight; she was taller. Curvier. Much, much prettier. With her long, dark hair and olive skin, she looked perfect against him.
I hated her.
I hated him.
Three and a half years and it hadn’t stopped hurting.
“Charley! Hullo, Charley!” Maggie shrieked drunkenly and I watched as my name hit Jake’s ears. I noted the way he tensed, my fingers trembling around my beer bottle.
His eyes shot up from his group and tore through the crowd across the room. His chest jerked as his gaze collided with mine and his arm fell away from the girl cuddled into him. His lips parted as shock slackened his handsome features and I watched him mouth my name.
Everyone disappeared around me as we locked eyes for the first time in years. The music dulled to a throb, the conversation to a muffled buzz, and all I could hear was my heartbeat. I wanted to get out of there. I wanted to get as far from him as possible, but as he pushed past his questioning friends and headed toward me, I found myself glued to the spot, my cheeks flushing with emotion as he came to a stop before me.
“Jake,” Lowe uttered a warm greeting.
Jake nodded his chin at him in a familiar way that caused another streak of pain to score across my chest. “Lowe.” His eyes quickly moved from his friend to me and the pain burst into a burning flame. I’d loved Jake’s eyes. A lush dark brown, they were so intelligent and warm, so deep, I thought I would happily spend the rest of my life getting lost in them.
I was young.
I was an idiot.
“Charley,” he breathed in his low, rich voice that could still send a delicious and very unwanted shiver down my spine. “I can’t believe it’s you.” He ran a shaky hand through his hair, waiting for me to say something. Anything.
I wanted to be cool. Unaffected. Indifferent.
Unfortunately, I was not any of those things. Instead I handed my beer to a confused Maggie and brushed past him without saying a word.
He still wore the same cologne, cologne I’d bought him. Cologne that smelled so great on him, I’d spent a good portion of our time together nuzzling my nose into his neck.
That memory hurt too.
Hurrying down the hall, I saw Claudia talking to some guy I hadn’t met. I didn’t have time to wonder what had happened to Beck because I heard Jake yell my name. Claudia looked up at the sound of it and her eyes widened when she saw my face.
“I’m leaving,” I told her tightly as I passed. She immediately fell into step behind me.
I raced down the stairs and across the courtyard, throwing myself into our stairwell and shutting it quickly behind Claud.
“What the hell is going on?” Her eyes were bright with concern as I pushed past her and ran up the stairs.
It wasn’t until we were in my bedroom with the door locked that I whirled around to face her, my whole body shaking as the pain I’d been trying to hold in exploded out of me. Claudia caught me, holding me tight and murmuring soothing words in my ear as I sobbed an explanation into her hair.
Indiana, September 2008
“We’re so going to get in trouble for this,” I muttered, staring around at the gathering of my class, their faces flickering in and out of the light cast by the bonfire I knew I’d have to keep a careful eye on.
I’d come home from spending the summer with my cousins in Florida to discover my friends Lacey and Rose had colluded with my ex-boyfriend Alex. They’d put together a welcome home party for me in the woods at the edge of Alex’s parents’ property on the outskirts of town. A huge old gazebo sat surrounded by crumbling concrete seats overwhelmed with weeds. Right now the gazebo was littered with underage drinkers, beer cans, firewood, and a music dock.
Lacey shoved me playfully. “Who cares? Let’s just enjoy it. I doubt they’ll bust us. Tomorrow’s Labor Day—they’re too preoccupied with the festival to care what we’re up to.” She handed me a beer.
“You didn’t need to do this.”
Rose nodded. “I suggested we throw a party before going back to school. It was Alex who suggested we make it your party.”
Lacey snorted. “Could he be more obvious?”
I followed her gaze to where Alex was standing with a sophomore girl, but he didn’t appear to be listening to her as he watched our little group. “He knows we’re not going there again. We dated for three months before summer and it didn’t work out.”
“Yeah for you.” Rose sighed sadly. “He’s still hung up on you. And he’s so cute, Charley. And he plays football. That’s hot.”
“Alex is nice and all, but he’s not for me.”
Alex was perfectly nice, in fact, but during the three months we dated, I kept waiting for that something to hit me. When we kissed, it was just … nice. And since kissing was nice but nothing more, I didn’t really want to do anything else with him, which made me seem frigid. Anyway, we were too different. He was all about football and keeping up appearances for his family. That was important for him, considering his mom was the mayor.
To be honest, I didn’t know what Alex saw in me. I’m sure his mother thought the same thing. My sister Andrea would’ve been perfect for him if they’d been the same age. She was prim and proper and immaculate from head to toe. I, on the other hand, always had my nose in some project, I was obsessed with music, I dressed where my mood took me, and I said it like it was.
The only thing Mayor Roster had ever found appropriate about me was my sister. I think it was the only thing that gave her hope—that maybe one day I’d suddenly transform into a mini version of Andie.
“Forget Alex.” Lacey turned to me, her eyes bright in the firelight. “I’ve decided Jake Caplin is perfect for you.”
“Ah, the mysterious Jake,” I chuckled.
All summer I’d been treated to excited phone calls from my friends. First they relayed the news that a new family had moved to Lanton. This was news because Mr. Caplin was opening a law office that had thrown Brackett & Sons, the already existing law office, into a tizzy. It was also news because the Caplins had two boys—Jacob, a junior, and Lukas, a freshman. Both, apparently, seriously cute.
They’d also made quite a name for themselves over the summer. Or at least Jake had. He’d quickly found friends, seemingly able to move from group to group according to Lacey. He hung out with the musicians, the nerds, and the stoners, but also had a lot of fun with the jocks. And, more importantly, Lacey said, he’d already slept with a bunch of junior and senior girls. Rumor had it he’d also slept with Stacy Sullivan, a hot senior who worked at Hub’s, a popular diner on Main Street. This was news because Stacy only dated guys in college. Having sex with Stacy made Jake a bit of a legend among our classmates.
But all of it just made me question why the hell Lacey would want me to hook up with him.
“Oh my God, he’s here.” Lacey said breathlessly as if Batman had just walked into the party.
I twisted my head to follow her gaze and found myself staring past the fire and into the dark eyes of Jake Caplin.
I felt his look seize hold of me and I swear to God, my breath hitched in my throat.
He was beautiful.
I didn’t know how to describe him any other way. And as he moved through the crowd, eyes on me, my friends whispering in disbelief that he was coming over, I decided then that I didn’t care about rumor. There was something about the way his tall, built body moved—confident and strong but also somehow wild and untamed. I watched his mouth curl up at the corners in a half-smile and I read a million things in his expression. A million stories, a million jokes, a million dreams …
Deep down, I somehow knew that Jake Caplin would never, ever bore me. It sounded crazy—I know it did because we’d never even exchanged a word, but I just knew.
“So, you’re the mysterious girl who’s been gone all summer.” He stopped right in front of me, casual, beer in hand. I tipped my head back to meet his gaze, my body tingling. It suddenly occurred to me that someone as beautiful as Jake must have girls throwing themselves all over him all the time. I read it in his cocky confidence. I read it in the ease with which he spoke to me, a complete stranger, when there were guys I’d known my whole life who stuttered when they tried to flirt.
“And you’re the mysterious newbie,” I answered with a shrug.
He smiled at my response and held out a hand. “Jake.”
Reaching out tentatively, I let him take my hand, ignoring the curl of tension in my lower belly as our skin touched. “Charley.”
“I know. You’re famous. Supergirl.” He grinned wickedly and I shot my friends a dirty look. I couldn’t believe they’d told him that story.
No, in fact, I could believe it.
Two years ago I’d gone into town with Lacey and Rose. We were coming out of Hub’s when we heard my sister Andie shouting. It was so unlike her that we stopped to spectate. Andie was a senior at the time and she and her long-term boyfriend Pete had been having problems. That day those problems had escalated so much that my sister—who was the epitome of public decorum—started to shout at him in the town square. He’d shouted back as she walked away, and Andie had stupidly stopped in the middle of the street to turn and shout a response.
I saw Mr. Finnegan’s SUV come roaring around the corner, and I also noted he was too busy fiddling with something on his dashboard to notice my sister. I didn’t even think. I tore across the street and shoved her out of the way, just in time for Finnegan to realize what was happening and hit the brakes. Unfortunately, he found the brakes too late and he still hit me. The impact wasn’t hard enough to do serious, serious damage, but I ended up with concussion, a few fractured ribs, and a broken fibula.
I’d been laid up for a while. Enough time for the town to hail me as a local hero and everyone, including my sister, to affectionately nickname me “Supergirl.”
“I hate living in a small town,” I grumbled, taking another pull of my beer.
Jake laughed, a deep, rich sound that tugged my eyes instantly back to his. My heart started racing hard again as we stared at each other. “Don’t sweat it. If you’re going to adopt a nickname, I could think of worse ones, and definitely not a better reason to have one.”
“We’re going to get more beer,” Lacey announced cheerily and not so very subtly grabbed Rose’s hand and dragged her away, giving Jake and me privacy.
I grimaced at how obvious they were. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be.” Jake stepped a little closer. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.”
I tipped my head, my expression knowing. “Oh, I’ve heard you’ve met lots of people already.”
He fought a smile. “You shouldn’t listen to gossip.”
“Especially when it’s true?”
He laughed now, shaking his head. “I was just being friendly. Getting to know the new town. It’s not easy moving to such a small place after living in Chicago. Everything seems to move faster there and faster here causes shock.”
“Yeah, I can imagine it’s a huge change.” I frowned and leaned against the post behind me. “Why did you move here?”
Jake blew out a breath between his lips and shrugged. “My mom and dad are from small towns, they missed it. My dad was pretty successful in Chicago and my mom liked her life there. However, my kid brother, Lukas, got mugged coming home from school one night when he missed the bus. They pulled a knife but didn’t hurt him. Still, it freaked my mom and dad out so much, they upped stakes.”
I nodded. “You know bad things happen everywhere.”
“You get a lot of muggings in Lanton, do you?”
“Only when things are slow. I like to shake things up a little.”
Jake threw his head back and laughed, his eyes glittering warmly. “Ski mask and all?”
I shook my head. “Bandit eye strip, a banana, and a black trash bag.”
He chuckled. “Let me guess—the banana works three-fold: a ‘gun,’ a snack to keep your mugger energy up, and then the slippery peel is a great tool in your escape.”
I widened my eyes in mock surprise. “Dude, you got this down. Want to be a bandit with me?” I didn’t mean it to sound flirtatious, but it totally did.
Jake’s gaze turned even warmer and he ducked his head a little to murmur, “Definitely.”
Flushing and unable to keep the smile off my face, I dropped my gaze from his, a little overwhelmed by the intensity of the spark between us.
“So you and Alex, huh?”
My eyes immediately shot up and I saw Jake looking over his shoulder to where Alex stood watching us, not appearing too happy at all. It definitely didn’t help that his best friend Brett Thomson was sneering at us and although I couldn’t hear what was being said it was apparent Brett was making comments about us that were upsetting Alex. I’d never understood why a nice guy like Alex was friends with Brett. Brett, unfortunately, hadn’t fallen far from the bad-apple tree. His dad, Trenton Thomas, was a car salesman. On the surface he was charming and self-effacing. Some people liked him. But a lot of people knew him for what he really was—a misogynist, a bully, and a petulant toddler all rolled into one. I’d witnessed the way the elder Thomas treated his son and wife when I’d been at Brett’s house while dating Alex. I wanted to punch him in the nuts. My mom and dad had gone to high school with him and said he’d always been an ass. Lucky Brett had inherited all those wonderful qualities from his dear papa.
I waited until I had Jake’s attention again before I replied softly, “He’s a good guy, but we broke up before the summer and that’s not going to change.”
“Well, by the look on his face right now, he wants it to change. We were kind of friends before this … I’m guessing by that death stare, just talking to you has changed that.”
I sighed, annoyed. “Sorry. His family is kind of a big deal, and Alex is a little territorial. He’ll move on.”
“I don’t know.” Jake’s expression grew serious. “Is it possible to move on from a girl like you?”
I laughed softly. “Nice line.”
Jake smiled, running a hand through his messy dark hair. “I’m not sure that was a line.”
“Oh, it was a line. So was that. You’re very good at the flirting thing. Very confident for your age.”
“I don’t know about that. I’ve never really had to wor—”
“Work at it,” I finished for him, quirking my eyebrow at him. “Confident or arrogant …”
His laughing eyes narrowed on me. “You think you’re pretty smart.”
“No. I know I’m pretty smart.”
“Now who’s arrogant?”
I chuckled but shrugged. “Well, I have reason to be. I’m awesome.”
“Fuck.” Jake was grinning again and he placed a hand above my head on the post and leaned in. “I really want to kiss you right now.”
Heat suffused me, the butterflies in my stomach going absolutely crazy at the thought of it, but I somehow managed to control myself. “I don’t know you well enough for that.”
“I disagree,” he leaned closer, his intent clear. “Five minutes with you and I feel like I’ve known you forever.”
He stopped, his expression changing at the sound of his name on my lips. I didn’t know what that expression meant, but it made me want to melt into him. I forced myself not to.
“I’m not going to kiss you.”
A spark of intensity lit up his gorgeous dark eyes. “Are you going to make me work for it?”
I nodded and straightened up from the post, bringing our bodies so close I could almost feel him against me. “If I don’t believe I’m worth the effort, why the hell would you?” With a small shrug, I slipped past him and headed toward my friends who were gaping at me, obviously eager to know what was going on. I didn’t get the chance to tell them because Jake fell quickly into step beside me.
We hung out with my friends for the rest of the night, exchanging barbs, enjoying the frisson of electricity that sparked and pulled between us. We enjoyed it, but we didn’t encourage it. Jake didn’t encourage it. There was no more talk of kissing me, but I knew as my dad arrived to bust up the party, dragging me and Lacey and Rose back to his car, that Jake Caplin was intending to make the effort.
I knew because as I walked away, he watched me the entire time. He watched me like he wanted to watch me forever.