Published by: Swoon Romance
Publication date: February 15th 2016
Genres: Contemporary, Romance, Young Adult
My name is Tierra Owens, and I like to kiss. A lot. It numbs the hollow ache in my chest and—for a few minutes—makes me forget how truly alone I am. My mother is an alcoholic. She hates me and insists I’m the reason she’s not married to my father, whom I have never met. My best friend, Kaylee, is the only person who knows the real me. Everyone else sees what I want them to: a happy, confident, popular girl who has the world at her feet.
I am a fraud.
Relationships are forbidden. I avoid them at all costs. Sex? Emotions? Those things make a person vulnerable, and vulnerability always leads to heartbreak. When my childhood crush, Mattie shows up at school my world tumbles off its axis. The shell I surround myself with feels more like a pathetic crutch than a protective barrier, and I find myself wanting things. Daydreaming about what it would be like to have a boyfriend, a relationship—love.
The sad fact is: I’ll never have any of those things. I am unworthy—trash. Which is why my mom abandoned me.
It was no secret to anyone that Monday mornings stunk. Monday mornings after a weekend filled with epic fail? Yeah, it took suckage to an unholy level.
I swiped away the condensation that had collected on the bathroom mirror during my shower with the edge of my towel and stared at my reflection.
Dark circles ringed my eyes despite the fact I didn’t get out of bed the day before. I looked like my mother after one of her marathon benders.
My empty stomach seized, my mouth so dry and tacky I could barely swallow. Why? Why did I allow myself to drink so much? I’d broken the number four commandment in my personal rules for living: thou shalt not become a drunken idiot like thy mother. Freaking drove a tank right over it and smashed it to smithereens.
I massaged my aching temple for a few seconds before reaching for my toothbrush. Why had I been so reckless? I knew the foolish things alcohol caused people to do and selfishly numbed myself with it anyway. My ridiculous attempt at forgetting my life for a brief time came with an aftermath I didn’t want to face. I’d shamed myself in front of Mattie. And Vivi.
Dear holy Lord. Vivi was going to eviscerate me at school today.
Puffs of sudsy white toothpaste swirled around the basin of my sink, the steady stream of water sweeping them down the drain with the same cosmic force that seemed to be doing its damndest to bring me down. The suds and I were the same, drowning under an onslaught of driving rain.
I chucked my toothbrush back into its holder and shut off the water. I didn’t have time for a pity party, no matter how much I wanted to wallow. School wouldn’t wait, and I couldn’t afford to miss. Not if I wanted out. And that was the ultimate goal: getting the hell out of Valencia Hills.
By the time I dressed and finished getting ready, I’d convinced myself that everything would be fine. Vivi’s torture wouldn’t last forever, and Mattie wouldn’t care what I did, or whom I did it with. We didn’t know each other anymore. There was, also, the small issue that he’d been sitting in the dark theater room with Vivi doing only God knows what.
Any guy that hooked up with Vivi at a party was not a guy I needed in my life. Even if it was Mattie Forrester.
Food was the absolute last thing on my mind, but if I planned on making it through the day, I needed to eat. Swinging my tote over my shoulder, I shuffled down the hallway into the kitchen, at once disappointed when I saw the empty coffee pot. Mom didn’t do much in the kitchen unless it involved a bottle, a glass, and some ice, but I could usually count on her making coffee every day before work—coffee I was in desperate need of, at the moment.
Yanking open the fridge, I grabbed a can of Diet Coke. I’d have to feed my caffeine habit that way. Stomach growling, I turned and set the silver can on the counter and reached for one of the bananas that hung from the metal stand.
That’s when I saw it.
Eyes narrowed, I lifted the scrap of paper with my mom’s chicken scratch scrawled across it.
Your grandma’s sick—pneumonia. Staying with her until she can take care of herself. Don’t know how long I’ll be away. Keep your ass in school and don’t do anything stupid.
Relief coursed through my veins. A mini-vacation from my mom’s blatant hatred of me was exactly what I needed. Maybe I’d luck out and she’d be gone for more than just a few days. It would be nice to go a solid week without being told I was trash with pretty packaging.
Kaylee was here. I folded the note in half and shoved it into the zip pocket of my bag. Swiping my soda and banana from the counter, I headed for the door with a sigh. Freedom from my mom was great, yes, But sleeping in the house all by myself? That part sucked. Big time. I’d never slept well when my mom wasn’t home, which, due to her high volume of boyfriends, unfortunately was more often than I’d like. A fat round of insomnia was definitely in my near future.
“Nice outfit,” Kaylee said with a smile as I slid into the passenger seat.
I glanced down at my skinny jeans, white button-down, and peach cardi and smiled. “Thanks. I think everything but the button-down came from you.”
Lowering her Aviators back over her eyes, she hit the gas and we were on our way. “So … How was the rest of the party?”
I hadn’t spoken to her since she’d bolted out of Dallas’s kitchen. “It sucked. Zach tried to sober me up so he could take me home and I ended up puking all over his feet in front of Vivi.”
Kaylee sucked in a loud gasp. “No! You didn’t!”
The back of my head hit the headrest, and I closed my eyes and uttered a loud sigh. “I so totally did. Vivi is going to crucify me at lunch.”
She shook her head and let out a small giggle. “I’m sorry, T. I know how embarrassed you must feel, but it is a little funny. No wonder you didn’t call me yesterday. You were still riding out your shame.”
She had no idea. “I’m surprised there isn’t a viral video of my unfortunate regurgitation. I mean, this is Vivi we’re talking about. She lives to humiliate people. Me especially.”
Kaylee gave a quick nod in agreement then shrugged once. “That’s no joke. I’m guessing she’s a bit preoccupied over the new guy she met. I got a text saying she’s gaga over some hottie she messed around with.”
My stomach churned. I didn’t want to think about Vivi and Mattie. Especially not after my embarrassing display of liquid pyrotechnics. I drew in a slow breath, the action doing little to ease the ache inside my chest. God! I’d made a complete ass of myself in front of Mattie. Upchucked all over Zach’s shoes like a weak, pitiful loser—like my mom. I’d worked so hard over the past three years to make sure no one saw me as anything but perfectly put together. In one fell swoop, I’d managed to tear down my carefully crafted facade and shame myself in front of the only boy I’d every truly cared for.
I swallowed back the giant lump in my throat. I couldn’t think about the way things used to be with Mattie. Our old friendship was over. He’d grown up, changed. We both had. The sad reality was, he probably didn’t care enough about me anymore to be shocked by my wretched behavior. Or if he had cared, my refusal to say “hello” and reconnect with him at the party combined with my drunken puke-fest had probably scared him away.
A hollow ache filled my belly, and a large part of me wanted to confide in Kaylee. I knew how she felt about my kiss boyfriends: she hated them. She’d begged me more than once to open up to someone other than her, insisted there was someone for everyone, and that I needed to be more trusting and open myself up to the possibility of love.
There had been several times I’d almost told her about Mattie. The words, though… They just never came. The paralyzing emptiness I’d felt when he moved away choked the breath from my lungs until I stuffed the memories down to a place inside where they couldn’t hurt me anymore. Hell, thinking of him now sent me into an emotional tailspin. The ache in my chest … Thoughts of Mattie … It all felt like too much. Talking seemed impossible.
I reached out and turned the volume up on the stereo. “I like this song.”
“Me too,” Kaylee said, and did a little dance in her seat as we sailed through a crowded intersection toward school.
In truth, I couldn’t have told you what song was playing. The hold I had over my emotions was tenuous at best, and Kaylee was perceptive. I couldn’t chance her picking up on the distress brewing just under the surface of my mask. Everything was too fresh, my feelings too raw.
We pulled into the school parking lot five minutes before the first bell was due to ring. Gathering up our bags, we exited the car and quickly made our way to the front of the main building. Kaylee and I had economics first period. Luckily for us, Mr. Johnstone’s class sat at the front of the building on the first floor.
“Are you okay, T?” Frown lines creased Kaylee’s forehead as she studied me with narrowed eyes. “You’re unusually quiet this morning.”
The muscles in my jaw tightened and I fought to maintain a smile. “I’m just tired. My mom spent the rest of the weekend at Stephen’s and I don’t sleep well when she’s not home.”
Pacified by my answer—Kaylee knew I was a total scaredy-cat when it came to sleeping alone in my house—she gave me a nod and breezed into the classroom ahead of me. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized I hadn’t asked her how things were with Dallas. God, I was a crappy friend.
I’d just slid into my seat at the back of the class when the tingling started. It spread from my gut, up through my chest, and out into my arms and legs. Heat scorched my cheeks and my palms began to sweat, and though it wasn’t necessary—I knew the cause of my weird symptoms—I couldn’t help but look in his direction.
Dressed in a worn pair of jeans, a white T-shirt, and a black zip sweatshirt with the hood draped over his head, Mattie made his way across the front of the classroom toward the lone empty seat at the front of the last row, eyes glued on me.
To this day I dreamed about his eyes. Eyes that made you feel safe and accepted. Eyes that, once you looked into them, made you fall into a warm abyss from which you never wanted to return.
The edge of his lip curled up into a crooked smile, and damn if mine didn’t follow suit.
I quickly looked away, glancing down at the chips and scratch marks covering the aging wooden top of my desk. Mattie was dangerous. He made me want to let my guard down, and that was something I couldn’t allow. Not after my horrible display of weakness at Dallas’s party. Then, of course, there was the pang of jealousy I felt whenever I thought of what Mattie might have been doing in that dark room with Vivi. If I were smart, I’d stay away from him. Avoid rekindling our old friendship. Reject him before he had a chance to reject me. I’d already lost him once. Getting close, only to chance losing him again, was too big a risk.
I pinched my eyes closed, and shook my head, trying as hard as I could to drown out any and all thoughts of Mattie.
Just as the late bell rang, Mr. Johnstone strode into the classroom looking his usual, slightly disheveled self. “Good morning, class. Please open your books to page 257. Today we begin our unit on the stock market.” He situated himself on the edge of his desk and began taking roll while we lugged out our books.
“Ah! I see we have a new student with us. Class, please welcome Matthew Forrester.”
My fellow classmates seemed as happy to be in school as I was and mumbled a low, unexcited greeting in return.
“Coffee, people,” Mr. J barked with a frown. “A little caffeine in the morning will perk you right up.” He focused his gaze on Mattie again and lifted his hand. “You’ll have to remove your hood, son. You’re not allowed anything on your head accept for glasses during school hours.”
Mattie shifted in his seat, leaned forward, and removed his hood. His brown hair was short in the back, and stood up in a chaotic mess in the front, suggesting he’d slicked some product into his palms and proceeded to run them back and forth through his hair willy nilly. On anyone else, the style would look ridiculous. But Mattie … He made it work.
With his back to the class, Mr. J began scribbling stuff across the whiteboard and informed us our project for the next several weeks would be to create a mock stock portfolio.
I tried to pay attention as he spoke, but his deep, monotone voice, combined with my lack of sleep and emotional drag, quickly sucked my attention from the lecture to my own sorry state of affairs. How long did it take to recover from pneumonia? I’d seen my grandma only a handful of times over the years, but I remembered the wrinkles that lined her face and knew her life had been a hard one. A week. My mom would probably be gone a week. Maybe a day or two longer. I could handle sleeping alone in the house that long. This was a good thing. I would not spoil my newly found freedom with ridiculous fear.
Heat scorched the side of my face, and despite my better judgment, I turned my attention toward the source. A set of piercing blue eyes bore down on me with uncomfortable intensity. I was no stranger to boys gawking at me, but this was different. The expression on Mattie’s face was almost … tender. Was it possible? Had our long-ago friendship been as important to him as it had been to me? Was he willing to overlook my awful behavior over the weekend? Could I chance talking to him without completely losing composure?
“Why are you staring at the new guy?”
Kaylee’s voice yanked me out of my head and I scrunched up my nose. “Huh? Oh … I wasn’t. I was just … daydreaming. This stock stuff is totally boring.”
“Uh-huh,” she said, raising a brow. “There’s no reason to be embarrassed, T. The guy’s a major hottie, and—”
“Quiet in the back, please.” Mr. Johnstone’s voice held a hint of irritation, the stern expression on his face making it obvious he expected us to shut it pronto.
Having no desire to draw any kind of attention to myself, I turned my focus toward the front of the room and tuned everything else out. Well, I tried, anyway. By the time the bell rang I was a ball of nerves, complete with sweaty palms, a sore neck, and a headache from hell. Talking to anyone—much less Mattie—was a no go. I just couldn’t do it.
“My head’s killing me. I’m gonna go take something. I’ll see you at lunch,” I mumbled at Kaylee before hightailing it out of the room. I’d field the questions she was sure to have about my odd behavior at lunch. My desire to be alone, even if only for the four minutes it took to walk to my next class, overrode everything else.
To be honest, I was avoiding Mattie. And I was both pissed and embarrassed about it at the same time. He’d been my best friend for years. My safe place. The one person I counted on. So why, then, was I keeping my distance? Why wasn’t I running into his arms with a big smile? Why wasn’t I telling him how much I’d missed him?
The answer made me sick to my stomach: because I was a damn coward. I wanted to reconnect with him, but I wanted the moment to be perfect. The emotional meltdown I’d suffered over the weekend ensured any interaction I had with him today would be far from ideal. Once I pulled myself together, got a hold of my emotions, I’d approach him and say hello. Maybe.
Cool air bit into my skin as I pounded pavement to Styles of Theater. The drama room was located at the center of the school and was connected to both Ms. Gardinsky’s office and the theater. Ominous gray clouds peppered the sky, the roll of thunder in the distance hinting at the storm to come. I repositioned the tote on my shoulder and crossed my arms in front of my chest, wishing I’d remembered to bring a jacket.
The familiar scent of paint, wood, stale air, and wide-open space greeted me like an old friend as I filed into the drama room. I breathed in deeply, the tension in my neck and shoulders loosening as I soaked in and drew strength from my favorite place. Here, in this room, I didn’t have to be the pathetic girl whose parents didn’t love her. The girl who painted a fake smile on her face for show, while secretly feeling hopeless on the inside. The girl who was too chicken to renew her friendship with the boy she’d loved as a child. Here, in this room, I could reinvent myself. Be anyone I wanted—escape.
I breezed past one of the many storage closets that lined the enormous space and took a seat at the far end of one of the four giant tables that sat in the center of the room. Temples throbbing in time with my heartbeat, I closed my eyes and focused on my breathing. If I could somehow get rid of the tension in my shoulders and neck, the pounding in my head would stop and I could manage a complete thought.
Students slowly filed into the room, but it wasn’t until a warm, tugging sensation swirled in my gut that I opened my eyes. God, no. I didn’t have time to turn my head before Mattie slid into the seat beside me, all happy eyes and white teeth.
My physical response to him was as powerful as it ever was. My bones turned to mush, the air in my lungs to helium, and I was sure the only thing keeping my butt in my seat was the heavy amount of bling decorating the back pockets of my hand-me-down jeans.
“You’re a hard girl to keep up with, Freckles.” His voice was smooth and impossibly deep, and it sent a shiver down the length of my spine.
I raised a brow. “I’m a busy girl.” My palms were suddenly slick with sweat and I rubbed them against my pants beneath the table. Control. I had to maintain control. Cool down, girl. Picture him kissing Vivi. No! I mentally slapped myself. That was the last thing I wanted to see, real or imagined.
His smile never let up, and he seemed perfectly content to invade my personal space and stare at me as though I were his favorite character in a movie. Too much. Everything about Mattie was just … too much. Too handsome. Too smart. Too talented. Too … perfect.
Though I’d suspected Mattie had feelings for me back in middle school, he’d never come out and admitted anything. Neither had I, for that matter. So getting worked up over something that may or may not have been seemed utterly stupid, especially since I hadn’t yet uttered more than four words to the guy. Total. Freaking. Wuss.
Frustrated, I reminded myself I didn’t do the relationship thing. The strange, squirrely sensation whirling inside my chest was nothing more than a memory of what I used to feel for him. I couldn’t. I swallowed hard. Locked down my emotions. I wouldn’t allow myself to be vulnerable to him again. The pain I’d endured when he moved away was too much. I refused to subject myself to the possibility of that type of pain again. And besides—the image of him standing next to Vivi in Dallas’s theater room flashed behind my eyes—I didn’t get involved with guys who’d been with Vivi. I wasn’t a fan of spoiled leftovers.
Body turned in his chair so that he faced me head on, Mattie gripped the back of my seat casually and cast me a warm smile that would have melted a lesser woman’s heart. “You look good, Tierra. How’ve you been?”
Well, wasn’t that a loaded question? For whatever reason, he seemed content to ignore my puke fest at Dallas’s party, and I, of course, was happy to let him. Thank heaven for small mercies.
Steeling myself against his swoon-worthy magnetism, I cast him what I hoped was a convincing smile. “Fabulous. And quit calling me Freckles. You know I don’t like it.”
That earned me a fat grin. He plucked a strand of my hair off my shoulder and gave it a tug, making my heart pound so hard against my ribs I thought I might stroke out. “I’ve missed your sass, little girl.”
And I’d missed him, everything about him, so much so I’d ached inside for a solid year. The memory of that pain bubbled up from deep inside me, dulling the bothersome needy sensation his presence created. He’d left me. Moved away from Long Beach with his family.
The bitterness I felt was ridiculous to me. In my head, I knew the truth: he was just a kid when his family had moved away, and he’d no choice but to go with them. But my heart. My heart didn’t care. He’d left me alone. Friendless, with a mother that hated my guts. Even worse was the fact we moved to Valencia Hills just a few months later. If he’d tried to contact me, write me, there was no way I’d ever know. He’d been lost to me. Forever.
The stone shield I surrounded myself in hardened a bit. “What are you doing here?”
And that was the million-dollar question, wasn’t it? After all this time, what was he doing here, in Valencia Hills? What had he been doing with Vivi at the party? And more specifically, in my Styles of Theater class? Mattie wasn’t a drama kid. His dream had always been to become the next big thing in music. The dude was a freaking genius—a damn savant I pictured in Julliard, or The Manhattan School of Music.—with Vivi.
He shrugged, his eyes darting off to the side for a quick moment before connecting with mine again. “Job transfer.”
I gave him a single nod. “And this class? When did you start liking drama?”
He leaned forward then, his minty-fresh breath warm against my cheek. “I used to know this girl, way back when. She had this thing about acting. Made it seem cool, fun. We lost touch, so I started taking classes to, you know, remind me of her.”
The walls surrounding me could have melted, and the whole world could have gone Inception on me, and I wouldn’t have been more surprised. My mask faltered. My lips parted, and every last breath in my lungs fizzled out in an agonizingly slow whoosh.
He certainly hadn’t lost his charm, that was for sure.
I was so wrapped up in Mattie, I didn’t notice when the bell rang, or when Ms. Gardinsky addressed the class.
“Owens! Front and center!”
Clenching my fists, I sucked in a quick breath and faced the front of the room.
Ms. Gardinsky sat on the edge of her desk with her arms crossed in front of her, her booted foot tapping the ground as she eyed me with mild irritation. The long paisley headband she wore matched her maxi skirt, silver hoop earrings rounding out her boho-chic outfit nicely. “Care to introduce the rest of the class to our new student? I assume, after your intense conversation, you at least know one another’s name?”
My eyes widened, and I flashed Mattie an apologetic glance before clearing my throat. “Sorry, Ms. G.” I hooked a thumb over my shoulder. “This is Matthew Forrester.”
A spark of something, recognition possibly, passed behind her eyes and she gave a single nod before turning her attention to him and barking out a very loud, “Nice to have you in our class, Matthew.”
I narrowed my eyes. Why was she shouting?
Mattie exhaled a low groan and slouched back into his seat with a breathy “Pssh.”
I didn’t have time to think on it as Ms. G clapped her palms together and began rubbing them back and forth excitedly. “I’m beyond pleased to announce we’ll begin set construction for our annual spring production.” She cast a sideways glance toward my table, more specifically Mattie, then turned and scrawled the words “Spring Musical: Grease” onto the blackboard.
I sat bolt upright in my seat. A musical? The spring production was going to be a musical? My heart sank. For the past three years, the annual performance had been a play. A play I’d earned the starring role in the past two years. A play I wouldn’t be a part of this year because it had been switched to a freaking musical and I didn’t sing. Well, at least not in front of anyone.
My heart sank down into my butt.
“As with each of our previous productions, this class will be responsible for backgrounds, set decorations, costumes, and the like.” She lifted a thick black binder off the edge of her desk and raised it up high. “You know the drill, class. We start with act one, scene one, and work from there. Table leaders: come to the front and get your group assignments.”
She set the binder down and rounded her large desk as students began filing toward the front of the class. “Auditions are next Wednesday. I expect all of you”—she cast me a sidelong glance and smiled—“to try for a part.”
I cast her a bright smile, hiding the disappointment that gnawed away on my insides. I sang my heart out in the shower daily, but I wasn’t entirely confident I could do the same in front of an audience. My acting skills were strong, and I felt sure about them. My singing, not so much. My dream of ending my high school drama career with another lead role in a production died a quick and painful death right before my eyes.
Ms. Gardinsky sidled up alongside Mattie and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Okay, Mr. Forrester. Since you missed the unit on how to safely operate the power tools, you’ll need to head over to woodshop and take a crash course with Mr. Green.” Her voice was noticeably louder than it usually was, and she spoke slowly, making sure to enunciate each word.
What was up with her? The way she was acting, you would have thought Mattie didn’t speak English or something.
Every bit the good-natured guy he was back when we were younger, he beamed Ms. G with a soft smile and nodded. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” he asked before sliding out of his seat.
Ms. G barked out a loud “of course,” and the two shuffled over toward the front of the class.
Puzzled by Ms. G’s odd behavior but thankful for the reprieve, I was able to ride out the rest of class without having to keep my guard up around Mattie. He’d shocked me with his flirty admission that he took drama because it reminded him of me. I couldn’t think about that right now.
ELISA DANE is a self-proclaimed book junkie. A lover of handbags, chocolate, and reality television, she's a proud mother to three All- Star cheerleaders. Writing is her absolute passion, and it's her mission to create stories that will not only take you on a romantic journey that will warm your heart, but help you find a new respect and interest in the sport of All-Star cheerleading.
Elisa is no stranger to the publishing world. She writes steamy paranormal romance under her real name, Lisa Sanchez. Her adult works include the Hanford Park series (Eve Of Samhain, Pleasures Untold, and Faythe Reclaimed), Obsessed (an erotic suspense), and a paranormal novella, Cursing Athena. Elisa lives in Northern California with her husband, three daughters, and a feisty Chihuahua who stubbornly believes she's human.
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