Rival
An Excerpt From
Rival
RIVAL PLAYLIST

Music inspires the development of my characters and inspires my scenes. Enjoy!

“Far from Home”

Five Finger Death Punch

“All I Want Is You”

U2

“Numb”

Linkin Park

“Headstrong”

Trapt

“21 Guns”

Green Day

“Why Don’t You Get a Job?”

The Offspring

“La La”

Ashlee Simpson

“All I Need”

Method Man

“What I Got”

Sublime

“Whore”

In This Moment

“Say Something”

A Great Big World

“Schism”

Tool

“Rockstar”

Nickelback

“You’re Gonna Go Far, Kid”

The Offspring

“Sail”

AWOLNATION

“Inside the Fire”

Disturbed

“Team”

Lorde

“Silhouettes”

Smile Empty Soul

“Paradise City”

Guns N’ Roses


PROLOGUE

FALLON

There were people I liked and people I didn’t like. People I loved and people I hated.

But there was only one person I loved to hate.

“Why are you doing this?” I heard a whiny female voice ask as I rounded the hall to sophomore P.E.

I immediately halted, locking eyes on a red-faced Tatum Brandt as she faced off with my douchebag stepbrother, Madoc Caruthers, and his friend Jared Trent. They stood in the hallway next to the lockers with flat expressions, looking bored, while she clutched her backpack straps for security.

“You barked at me yesterday,” she continued, pinching her eyebrows together at Jared as Madoc smirked from behind him. “And then all of your friends followed along. It’s been forever, Jared. When are you going to stop? Why are you doing this?”

I sucked in a long breath and completed my usual awesome combination of eye-roll-head-shake.

I really hated turning corners. I hated closed doors. I hated not seeing the path ahead.

Corner #1: Your dad and I are getting divorced.

Corner #2: We’re moving. Again.

Corner #3: I’m getting married. Again.

Corner #952: I don’t really like you or my husband or his son, so I’m going to take fifteen vacations a year by myself!

Okay, my mom never really said that, but I’m damn good at interpreting shit. And corners sucked.

I hung back and stuck my hands into the pockets of my skinny jeans, waiting to see what this girl would do. Would she finally grow some balls, or at least take the little ones these idiots had? I kept hoping she would step up to the challenge, and she always disappointed me.

Tatum Brandt was a wimp.

I didn’t know much about her. Only that everyone called her Tate, except Madoc and Jared; she was a rocker on the outside, but played it safe on the inside; and she was pretty. Like cheerleader pretty.

Long blond hair? Totally.

Big blue eyes? Absolutely.

Long legs, full lips, and big boobs? Even at sixteen.

She was the perfect package, and if I were my stepbrother, I wouldn’t have any problem sticking my tongue into her mouth. Hell, I might do it anyway.

I chewed the corner of my lip, thinking about it. Yeah, I could be a lesbian. Maybe. If I wanted.

No, never mind.

The point is . . . why Madoc and Jared tormented her rather than tried to date her was a mystery to me.

But for some reason I was interested. From the start of freshman year, they had both bullied her. They spread rumors, harassed her, and did everything they could to make her unhappy. They pushed, and she retreated time and again. It was starting to piss me off so much that I was about to go knock their heads together to defend her.

Except I barely knew her. And Tatum didn’t know me at all. I stayed so far off the radar that sonar couldn’t pick me up.

“Why?” Jared answered her question with a question and jutted into her space with a cocky swagger. “Because you stink, Tatum.” He scrunched up his nose in mock disgust. “You smell . . . like a dog.”

Tate straightened immediately, and the tears in her eyes finally spilled over.

Kick him in the balls, bitch!

Exhaling a furious breath, I pushed my glasses back up the bridge of my nose. It’s what I did before I braced myself.

She shook her head. “You don’t even remember what today is, do you?” She folded her trembling lips between her teeth and looked down at the ground.

And without even seeing her eyes, I knew what was there. Despair. Loss. Loneliness.

Without looking at him again, she turned around and walked off.

It would’ve been easy to hit him. To toss an insult back at him. And while I despised her weakness, I understood one thing that I hadn’t before. Jared was an ass, but he was an ass who could hurt her.

She was in love with him.

Crossing my arms over my chest, I walked over to the lockers where Jared and Madoc stood staring after Tate.

Madoc spoke up behind him. “What did that mean? What’s today?”

Jared shrugged off the question. “I don’t know what she was talking about.”

“It’s April fourteenth,” I piped up over Madoc’s shoulder, causing him to spin around. “That mean anything to you, Shit-for-Brains?” I directed at Jared.

Madoc raised a dark blond eyebrow at me, a hint of a smile in his eyes. Jared twisted his head only enough so that I could see the side of his face.

“April fourteenth?” he whispered and then blinked long and hard. “Shit,” he murmured.

And Madoc reared back a hair as Jared slammed the palm of his hand into the nearest locker door.

“What the hell?” Madoc scowled.

Jared ran his hands down his face and then shook his head. “Nothing. Never mind,” he growled. “I’m going to Geometry.” Stuffing his fists into his pockets, he stalked off down the hall, leaving Madoc and me.

Between my stepbrother and his friend, I respected his friend more. They were both Grade A assholes, but at least Jared didn’t care what people thought of him. He stalked around like a weird cross between a jock and a goth. Popular and foreboding. Dark but extremely coveted.

Madoc, on the other hand, cared what everyone thought. Our parents. The principal. And most of the student body. He loved being loved, and he hated his association with me.

As sophomores they were already starting to wield power that was going to be out of control by the time they reached senior year.

“Wow, your friend is a loser,” I teased, sliding my hands into the back pockets of my jeans.

Madoc zeroed in on me with his playful half-smile and relaxed eyes. “So are your frien—” he started, then stopped. “Oh, that’s right. You don’t have any friends.”

“Don’t need ’em,” I shot back. “I travel faster on my own. I’m going places. You know that.”

“Yeah, you’re going places. Just stop at the dry cleaners on your way, Fallon. I need my shirts picked up.” He smoothed an arrogant hand over his navy Abercrombie button-down. With his medium-wash boot-cut jeans, black Paracord bracelet, and styled dark blond hair, Madoc dressed to impress. Girls flocked to him because he looked good in clothes, could talk the ears off an elephant, and loved to play. For all intents and purposes, he was a fun guy.

And he always made me feel small.

I talked a lot of shit, but truth be told, it was more for my ears than anyone else’s. Madoc was designer. I was Target. He was Godiva. I was Snickers. And as far as he was concerned, he was entitled, and I was the freeloading daughter of the gold-digging whore who had snagged his father.

Madoc thought I was dirt under his shoe. Screw him.

I gave his outfit a condescending once-over. “Your shirts—which are super stylish, let me remind you. The gay community would be proud.”

“You could get nice things, too. My dad pays your mom enough for her services, after all.”

“Nice things? Like the miniskirts you date?” I challenged. Time to educate the little shit. “Most guys, Madoc, like something different. You know why you want to see me in ‘nice,’ skimpy things? Because the more I show, the less I’m hiding. I scare you.”

He shook his head. “Nada, little sister.”

Little . . . I was only two months younger than him. He said shit like that to piss me off.

“I’m not your little sister.” I took a step forward. “And I do have friends. And plenty of guys interested. They like how I look. I don’t subscribe to you and our snotty parents’ stand—”

“Wow, I’m bored,” he cut me off with a sigh. “Your life doesn’t interest me, Fallon. Holiday dinners and once in a while around the house. Those are the only times I want to run in to you.”

I tipped my chin up, trying not to give anything away. It didn’t hurt. Not his words or his opinion of me. There was no ache in my throat that dropped down into my stomach and twisted the ever-present knots tighter. What he said didn’t matter. I liked who I was. No one told me how to dress, how to behave, what clubs to join . . . I made my own decisions. Madoc was a puppet. A drone.

I’m free.

When I said nothing, he started walking backward away from me. “The parents are out for the night. I’m having a party. Stay out of the way. Maybe hide out in the servants’ quarters where you belong.”

I watched him go, knowing I wouldn’t listen.

I would wish that I had.

CHAPTER 1

MADOC

2 years later

“Seriously?” I exclaimed. “Could she move any slower?” I asked Jared as I sat in the backseat of his girlfriend’s G8 with my hands locked on top of my head.

Tate twisted around in the driver’s seat, her eyes sharp like she wanted to drive a knife right through my skull. “I’m heading around a sharp turn at nearly fifty miles an hour on an unstable dirt road!” she yelled. “This isn’t even a real race. It’s practice. I told you that already!” Every muscle in her face was tight as she chewed me out.

I dropped my head back and let out a sigh. Jared sat in front of me with his elbow on the door and his head in his hand.

It was Saturday afternoon, a week before Tate’s first real race at our local, makeshift track—the Loop—and we’d been on Route Five for the last three hours. Every time the little twerp downshifted too soon or didn’t hit the gas fast enough, Jared kept quiet—but not me.

He didn’t want to hurt his girlfriend’s feelings, but I didn’t care. Why tiptoe around her? I wasn’t trying to get in her pants.

Not anymore, anyway.

Tate and Jared had spent most of high school hating each other. Battling with words and antics in the longest-running game of foreplay I’d ever seen. Now they were all up in each other’s shit like Romeo and Juliet. The porno version.

Jared turned his head but not enough to meet my eyes. “Get out,” he ordered.

“What?” I blurted, my eyes widening. “But . . . but . . .” I stuttered, catching sight of Tate’s triumphant smile in the rearview mirror.

“But nothing,” Jared barked. “Go get your car. She can race you.”

The zing of adrenaline shot through me at the prospect of some real excitement. Tate could definitely race a chick who had no idea what she was doing, but she still had a lot to learn and some balls to grow.

Enter me. I wanted to smile, but I didn’t. Instead, I just rolled my eyes. “Well, that’ll be boring.”

“Oh, you’re so funny,” she mocked, gripping the steering wheel even tighter. “You make a great twelve-year-old girl when you whine.”

I opened the back door. “Speaking of whining . . . want to make a bet on who’ll be crying by the end of the day?”

“You will,” she answered.

“Not.”

She grabbed a package of travel tissues and threw them at me. “Here. Just in case.”

“Oh, I see you keep a ready stock,” I retorted. “Because you cry so much, right?”

She jerked around. “Tais-toi! Je te détes—”

“What?” I interrupted her. “What was that? I’m hot, and you love me? Jared, did you know she had feelings—”

“Stop it!” he bellowed, shutting the both of us up. “Goddamn it, you two.” He threw his hands up in the air, looking between us like we were misbehaving children.

Tate and I were both silent for a moment. Then when she snorted, I couldn’t help but let out a laugh, too.

“Madoc?” Jared’s teeth were practically glued together. I could hear the tension in his voice. “Out. Now.”

I grabbed my cell off the seat and did as I was told, only because I knew my best friend had had enough.

I’d been trying to bait Tate all day by making jokes and distracting Jared. She was finally racing a real opponent, and even though Jared and I had been working with her, we knew things went wrong out there on the track. All the time. But Tate insisted that she could handle it.

And what Tate wants, Tate gets. Jared was whipped worse than cream when it came to that girl.

I walked back down the track to the driveway leading in to it. My silver GTO sat along the side of the road, and I dug in my jeans for my keys with one hand while I ran the back of my hand across my forehead with the other.

It was early June, and everything was already so miserable. The heat wasn’t bad, but the damn humidity made it worse. My mom had wanted me to come to New Orleans for the summer, and I gave her a big, fat hell-to-the-no.

Yeah, I love sweating my balls off while her new husband tries to teach me shrimping in the Gulf.

Nope.

I loved my mom, but the idea of having the house to myself all summer while my dad stayed at his apartment in Chicago was, no doubt, a much better prospect.

My hand tingled with a vibration, and I looked down at my phone.

Speak of the devil.

“Hey, what’s up?” I asked my dad as I came up on the side of my car.

“Madoc. Glad you answered. Are you home?” He sounded unusually concerned.

“No. I was about to head there soon, though. Why?”

My dad was hardly ever around. He kept an apartment in Chicago. since his big legal cases kept him working long hours. While often absent, he was easy to get along with.

I liked him. Didn’t love him, though.

My stepmom had been AWOL for a year. Traveling, visiting friends. I hated her.

And I had a stepsister . . . somewhere.

The only person I loved at home was Addie, our housekeeper. She made sure I ate my vegetables, and she signed my permission slips for school. She was my family.

“Addie called this morning,” he explained. “Fallon showed up today.” My breath lodged in my throat, and I nearly dropped my phone.

Fallon?

Putting my palm down on the hood of my car, I put my head down and tried to stop grinding my teeth.

My stepsister was home. Why? Why now?

“So?” I spat out. “What does that have to do with me?”

“Addie packed you a bag.” He ignored my question. “I talked to Jared’s mom, and you’re going to stay with them for a few weeks until my schedule frees up. I’ll come home then and get this sorted out.”

Excuse me? It felt like the phone would crack under my fingers as I clenched it.

“What? Why?” I yelled, breathing hard. “Why can’t I stay at my own house?”

Since when did she get the run of things? So she was home. Big deal! Send her on her way then. Why did I have to be sent away?

“You know why,” my dad answered, his deep tone threatening. “Don’t go home, Madoc.”

And he hung up.

I stayed planted where I stood, studying the reflection of the trees on the hood of my car. I had been told to go to Jared’s house, where Addie would bring me clothes, and not to go home until further notice.

And why?

I shut my eyes and shook my head. I knew why.

My stepsister was home, and our parents knew everything. Everything that happened two years ago.

But it wasn’t her home. It never was. It’s been my home for eighteen years. She lived there for a while after our parents got married and then disappeared a couple of years ago.

I’d woken up one morning, and she was gone. No good-bye, no note, and no communication since then. The parents knew where she was but not me. I wasn’t allowed to know her whereabouts.

Not that I fucking cared anyway.

But I damn well wanted to be in my own house for the summer.

• • •

Two hours later I was sitting in Jared’s living room with his half brother, Jax, biding my time until their mom stopped watching us like a hawk. The more I sat, the more anxious I got to go find some distractions. Jared had a ton of liquor up in his room that I’d brought over from my house, and it was time to start my Saturday night warm-up. Jax was slouched on the couch playing video games, and Jared had left to get tattooed.

“This is not how you handle it, Jason,” I heard Katherine Trent whisper-yell from the kitchen.

My eyebrows shot up. Jason? That was my father’s name.

She crossed the doorway as she paced, talking on the phone.

She calls my dad Jason? Not weird, I guess. That’s his name. It just seemed weird. Not many people got away with calling my father by his first name. It was usually “Mr. Caruthers” or “sir.”

Getting up, I inched into the dining room, which sat right off the kitchen.

“This is your son,” I heard her say. “You need to come home and deal with this.” I stuck my hands in my pockets and leaned back against the wall right by the door leading to the kitchen. She was quiet for a while except for the sounds of dishes clattering. She must’ve been unloading the dishwasher.

“No,” she answered. “One week. Tops. I love Madoc, but this is your family, and they need you. You’re not getting off the hook. I already have two teenage boys. You know what they do when I try to impose a curfew? They laugh at me.” I fought between smiling out of amusement and clenching my fists in irritation.

“I’m here,” she continued. “I want to help, but he needs you!” Her whispers were futile. It was impossible to try to order my father around and be quiet about it.

I shot a look to Jax and noticed that he’d stopped his video game and was watching me with a quirked eyebrow.

Shaking his head, he joked, “I haven’t obeyed a curfew in my entire life. She’s cute about it, though. I love that woman.”

Jax was Jared’s half-brother. They had the same father but different mothers, and Jax had spent most of his life either with their sadistic dad or in foster homes. Late last fall, my father had helped Katherine get Jax out of foster care and into her home. Jared and Jax’s father was in jail, and everyone wanted the brothers together.

Especially the brothers.

And now that Jared, who’d been my best friend all through high school, had found his soul mate and love of his life, he wasn’t around as much as he used to be. So Jax and I had grown closer.

“Come on.” I jerked my chin at him. “I’m grabbing a bottle from Jared’s room, and then we’re going out.”

• • •

“I want to see your biggest balls,” I ordered in the deepest voice I could muster. My eyes were narrowed, and I had to press my teeth together to not laugh.

Tate’s back straightened, and she slowly spun around with her chin down and eyes up. It reminded me of how my mother looked at me when I had pissed in the pool as a kid.

“Wow, I haven’t heard that one before.” She widened her eyes at me. “Well, sir, we have some quite heavy ones, but they all take two fingers and a thumb. Are you that skilled?” She had an expression on her face like we were talking about homework, but I could see the smile playing at the corner of her mouth.

“I’m so skilled,” I teased, my tongue suddenly too big for my mouth. “You’d be jealous of what I could do to that ball.”

She rolled her eyes and approached the counter. Tate had been working at the bowling alley since last fall. It was almost a court-ordered requirement that she get a job. Well, not quite. It probably would’ve been court-ordered if Jared had pressed charges. This five-foot-seven, one-hundred-twenty-pound bit of nothing had taken a crowbar to her boyfriend’s car in one of her famous violent fits. It was pretty nasty and pretty awesome. The video was on YouTube and had practically started a feminist movement. People did their own renditions of it and even put it to music. They titled it Who’s the Boss Now?, since Jared’s car was a Mustang Boss 302.

It was all a misunderstanding, though, and Tate paid for the damages. She grew up. Jared and I grew up. And we were all friends.

Of course, they were sleeping together. I got no such perks.

“Madoc, have you been drinking?” Tate put her palms on the counter and looked at me like a mom.

“What a stupid question.”

Of course I’ve been drinking. It’s like she didn’t even know me.

Jerking her head up, she looked over to the lanes behind me, and I was afraid her big blue eyes would actually fall out of her head.

“You got Jax drunk, too!” she accused, clearly pissed now.

I twisted around to see what she was looking at, stumbling when my foot got caught in the legs of the stool next to me. I let a holler rip from my throat.

“Whooooo!” I shouted, holding up the bottle of Jack Daniel’s in the air when I saw what Tate saw.

A crowd of people was gathered in front of one lane, laughing and watching Jax run and do slip and slides down a bowling path. “Hell, yeah!”

The bottle was torn out of my fingers, and I turned to see Tate stuff it under the counter, pressing her angry lips together and scowling.

“Why is the whiskey gone?!” I imitated Captain Jack Sparrow and pounded my fist on the counter.

Tate stomped down the aisle toward the door leading out to the lanes. “You’re in deep shit when I get over this counter,” she whisper-yelled at me.

“You love me. You know you do!” I laughed and sprinted away through the maze of tables and chairs around the concession stand to where Jax played. A couple of other guys had joined in and flew down the lanes, much to the delight of the Saturday night crowd. At this hour, there weren’t too many families out and about, and the only people not entertained were the single dudes who spent their older years lamenting their beer bellies and how lucky they were to escape marriage. They just watched and shook their heads.

“Fallon’s home. Don’t go home.”

I swallowed down the whiskey that kept creeping back up and threw my head back. “Woohoo!” I bellowed, before pounding down the light-colored hardwood floor, leaping onto the lane on my belly and sliding down the alleyway.

My heart pounded, and excitement bubbled in my chest. Holy shit! These lanes were crazy slippery, and I just laughed, not caring that Tate was pissed at me or that Jared’s fist would leave a permanent mark on my face for messing around at his girlfriend’s work. All I cared about was what got me from one moment to the next.

I can’t go home.

The crowd cheered and yelled behind me, some of them jumping up and down. The only way I could tell was because I felt the vibrations under me. And when I rolled to a stop, my legs dangling into the next lane, I just lay there, wondering. Not about Fallon. Not even about whether I was too drunk to drive home at this point.

I wondered out loud, “How the hell am I going to get up?”

These lanes were slippery. Duh. Couldn’t stand up, or I’d slip. Shit.

“Madoc! Get up!” I could hear Tate’s bark from somewhere near me.

Madoc. Get up. The sun’s up. You have to leave.

“Madoc. Get. Up!” Tate shouted again.

I snapped to. “It’s okay,” I grunted. “I’m sorry, Tate. You know I love you, right?” I jerked to a sitting position with a hiccup. Then I looked up to see her walking on the median between the lanes.

Like a boss.

She put her hands on her hips, a stern set to her eyebrows. “Madoc, I work here.”

I winced, not liking the disappointment in her voice. I always craved Tate’s respect.

“Sorry, babe.” I tried standing up, but I only slipped again, a deep ache settling on the side of my ass. “I already said sorry, didn’t I?”

She squatted down and wrapped her arms around one of mine, hauling me up. “What’s wrong with you? You never drink unless you’re at a party.”

I lodged one foot in the gutter and wobbled until Tate pulled me closer to her and I was able to set the other foot on the median.

“Nothing’s wrong with me.” I gave a half-smile. “I’m a joker, Tate. I’m . . .” I waved my hand in the air. “Just a . . . joke—a joker,” I rushed to add.

She continued to hold me, but I could feel her fingers ease up underneath the hem of my short-sleeved T-shirt.

“Madoc, you’re not a joke.” Her eyes were serious again but softer this time.

You don’t know what I am.

I held her eyes, wanting to tell her everything. Wanting my friend—someone—to see the real me. Jared and Jax were good friends, but guys didn’t want to hear that shit, and we weren’t that observant. Tate knew something was wrong, and I didn’t know how to tell her. I just wanted her to know that underneath it all, I wasn’t a good guy.

“I do stupid things, Tate. That’s what I do. I’m good at it.” I reached up slowly and tucked the few stray hairs from her ponytail behind her ear, lowering my voice to a near whisper. “My father knows it. She knows it.” I dropped my eyes and then looked back up. “You know it, too, don’t you?”

She didn’t answer. Only studied me, the wheels in her head turning.

My hand fell to her cheek, and I remembered all the times that she had reminded me of Fallon. I stroked Tate’s cheek with my thumb, wishing she’d yell at me. Wishing she didn’t care about me. How much easier it would be to know that I didn’t have anything real in my life.

I held her sweet, unknowing face and leaned in closer, smelling her barely-there perfume as I brought my lips closer.

“Madoc?” she asked, her voice confused as she watched me.

Tilting my head down, I planted a soft kiss on her forehead and then leaned back slowly.

Her eyebrows were pinched together in worry as she stared at me. “Are you okay?”

No.

Well, sometimes.

Okay, yes. Most of the time, I guess.

Just not at night.

“Wow.” I took a deep breath and smiled. “I hope you know that that didn’t mean anything,” I joked. “I mean, I love you. Just not like that. More like a sister.” I burst into laughter and hunched over, barely finishing the sentence as I closed my eyes and held onto my stomach.

“I don’t get the joke,” Tate scolded.

A high-pitched whistle pierced the air, and Tate and I looked up.

“What the hell’s going on?” Jared’s big and angry daddy voice ripped through the bowling alley, making my ears ache.

But as I turned around to face him, I accidentally stepped back onto the slippery lane.

“Oh, shit!” My breath caught as I slid, and I stupidly kept my weight on Tate, which was too much for her. Backward I fell and into my lap she stumbled. We slammed to the floor, hitting the wood hard. I’d probably bruised every damn inch of my ass, but Tate was cool. She landed on me. That was cool for me, too.

But when I looked over at my best friend standing at the start of the lane, looking at us with murder in his eyes, I pushed Tate off me in disgust.

“Dude, she slipped me whiskey and tried to date-rape me!” I pointed at Tate. “She keeps it under the counter. Go look!”

Tate growled and crawled back up to the median, her messy ponytail hanging by a prayer.

“Jax!” Jared yelled to the lane at my right where Jax was crawling back up the lane. “And you.” Jared’s eyes shot bullets at me. “Get in my car now.”

“Ooooh, I think he wants to give you a spanking,” I singsonged to Tate as she stomped down the median to her boyfriend.

“Shut up, doofus,” she spat back.

CHAPTER 2

FALLON

“Was that your first kiss?” he asks, pulling his head back to look at me. I keep my gaze down and clutch the kitchen counter behind me. This feels wrong. He’s pressing my back into the countertop, and I can’t move. It hurts.

Just look at him, I will myself. Look up, you idiot! Tell him to back off. He doesn’t see you. He’s a user. He makes you feel dirty.

“Come here.” He grabs for my face, and I cringe. “Let me show you how to use that tongue.”

This feels wrong.

“Fallon?” The soft, feathery voice broke through my dream. “Fallon, are you up?”

I heard a knock.

“I’m coming in,” she announced.

I opened my eyes, blinking away the fog of sleep from my brain. I couldn’t move. My head felt separated from my body, and my arms and legs were molded to the bed, as if a ten-ton weight sat on my back. My brain was active, but my body was still sound asleep.

“Fallon,” a voice sang out to me. “I made you poached eggs. Your favorite.”

I smiled, curling my toes and clenching my fists to wake them up. “With toast to dip?” I called from underneath my pillow.

“White toast, because multigrain is for pussies,” Addie deadpanned, and I remembered I’d told her those very same words about four years ago when my mom married Jason Caruthers and we came to live here.

I kicked the covers off my legs and sat up, laughing. “I missed you, girlfriend. You’re one of the only people in the world I don’t want to cut.”

Addie, the housekeeper and someone who’d acted more like a mother to me than my own, was also one of the only people that I didn’t have hang-ups about.

She walked into the room, carefully maneuvering a tray full of all the things I hadn’t eaten in years: poached eggs, croissants, freshly squeezed orange juice, a fruit salad with strawberries, blueberries and yogurt. And real butter!

Okay—so I hadn’t tasted it yet. But if I knew Addie, it was real.

As she set the tray over my legs, I tucked my hair behind my ears and grabbed my glasses off the bedside table.

“I thought you said you were too cool for hipster glasses,” she reminded me.

I dipped a wedge of toast in egg yolk. “Turns out I had a lot of opinions back then. Shit changes, Addie.” I smirked at her happily as I took a bite, salivating more as the warm saltiness of the yolk and butter hit my tongue. “But apparently not your cooking! Damn, girl. I missed this.”

Addie is far from a girl in looks but more so than anyone I know in personality. She’s not only a valuable housekeeper, but she proved to be the lady of the manor that Mr. Caruthers needed. She took care of things the way my mother didn’t. Of course, Addie and Mr. Caruthers weren’t sleeping together. She was a good twenty years older than him. But . . . she took care of everything. The house, the grounds, his social calendar outside of work. She anticipated his needs, and she was the only person he’d never fire. Seriously. She could call him a fuck-up, and he’d just roll his eyes. She made herself invaluable, and because of it, she called the shots in this house.

She also took care of Madoc. That’s why I needed her.

“And I missed you,” she replied, picking up my clothes from the floor.

I cut a piece of egg and put it on my toast. “Come on. Don’t do that. I’m a woman now. I can clean up after myself.”

I hadn’t been paying my own bills, but for all intents and purposes, I’d been taking care of myself completely for two years. My mother had deposited me at boarding school, and my dad didn’t micromanage. When I got sick, I dragged my ass to the doctor. When I needed clothes, I shopped. When it was laundry day, I studied next to the washing machines. No one told me which movies to see, how often to eat vegetables, or when to get my hair trimmed. I took care of it.

“You are a woman. A very beautiful one at that.” She smiled, and I felt a warm hum in my chest. “A few more tattoos, but you took the piercings out, I see. I liked the ones through your septum and lip.”

“Yeah, the school I went to didn’t. You gotta know when to fold ’em and know when to hold ’em.”

I wouldn’t exactly say I was going through a phase the last time Addie had seen me, but I’d definitely loaded up on multiple forms of self-expression. I had had a piercing through my septum—a small ring—and another through the side of my lip and a stud in my tongue. I hadn’t kept any of them, though. St. Joseph’s, my boarding school, didn’t allow “unorthodox” piercings, and they limited you to two in each ear. I also had five in my left ear—my industrial was one piercing, but it took two holes—and I had six in my right ear, counting my tragus, two in my lobe, and three going up the inside ridge of my ear. The school had ordered me to take those out, too.

But when Mom didn’t answer her phone to deal with their complaints, I finally told them to “fuck off.” When they called my dad, he gave them a hefty donation . . . and then told them to fuck off.

“You and Madoc have both grown up so . . .” She trailed off, and I stopped chewing. “I’m sorry,” she finished, looking away from me.

If someone had tried to take my heart right then, they would have needed both hands to hold it. I swallowed the heavy lump of food in my mouth, and took a deep breath.

“Why are you sorry?” I shrugged.

I knew why.

She knew why.

Madoc and I hadn’t been alone in this house after all. Everyone knew what had happened.

“You don’t have to worry,” she assured me, sitting on the edge of the bed. “Like I told you last night. He’s not here, and he won’t be back until your visit is over.”

No.

“You think I have a problem with Madoc, Addie?” I snickered. “Madoc and I are fine. I’m fine. We took our idiotic rivalry too far, but we were kids. I want to move on.” I kept my tone light, and my shoulders relaxed. Nothing in my body language was going to give me away.

“Well, Jason thinks it’s unsafe. He says you’re welcome to stay for as long as you like, though. Madoc won’t be here.”

This was why I needed Addie. I could talk her into getting Madoc home. I just couldn’t be too obvious about it.

“I’ll only be here for a week or so.” I took a sip of my juice and set it back down. “I’m going to Northwestern in the fall, but I’ll be staying with my dad in the city for the rest of the summer until school starts. Just wanted to visit before I start the next phase.”

She looked at me the way moms on TV looked at their daughters. The kind of look that makes you feel like you’ve got a thing or two to learn, because honey, you’re just a kid, and I’m smarter.

“You wanted to face him.” She nodded, her blue eyes locked with mine. “To resolve things.”

Resolve things? No. Face him? Yes.

“It’s cool.” I pushed the tray down the bed and climbed off. “I’m going for a run. Do they still keep that trail trimmed around the quarry?”

“As far as I know.”

I walked across the newly decorated room to the walk-in closet where I’d thrown my duffel bag yesterday when I got here.

“Fallon? Do you usually sleep in your underwear and a T-shirt too short to cover your ass?” Addie asked with a laugh in her voice.

“Yeah, why?”

I heard nothing for a few seconds as I bent over to get my bag. “Good thing Madoc’s not here after all then,” she mumbled in an amused tone and left me alone.

I got dressed, looking around my bedroom in the light of day. My old room with new décor.

When I’d gotten in yesterday, Addie had walked me up to my room, but the interior was very different than the way I’d left it. My skating posters were gone, my furniture had been replaced, and my red walls were now a cream color.

Cream? Yeah, gag.

I’d had a whole wall lined with bumper stickers. It now featured some impersonal mass-produced photographs of the Eiffel Tower and French cobblestone streets.

My bedding was a light pink, and my dressers and bed were now white.

My graphing table with my drawings, my shelves with my Lego robots, and my DVDs and CDs were gone. I can’t say I thought about any of that shit over the last two years, but I felt like I wanted to cry as soon as I entered the room yesterday. Maybe it was that I’d assumed they’d still be here, or maybe I was thrown off that my entire life could be thrown away so easily.

“Your mom redecorated shortly after you left,” Addie had explained.

Of course she did.

I allowed myself about two seconds to lament all of the hours I’d spent skating on boards that were now in a trash dump and building with precious Legos that were now rotting in the dirt somewhere.

And then I swallowed the ache in my throat and moved on. Screw it.

My room now was mature and even a little sexy. I still liked boys’ clothes and wild forms of expression, but my mom didn’t suck at decorating. There were no floral motifs anywhere, and the room was designed for a grown-up. The soft pink tones of the bedding and draperies, the innocence of the romantic furniture, and the black-and-white photographs in vivid frames made me feel like a woman.

I kind of liked it.

And I still kind of wanted to kill her for throwing away all of my stuff, too.

• • •

The best part about my mom marrying Jason Caruthers was that his house sat in the Seven Hills Valley, a huge gated community—if you considered it a “community” when your nearest neighbor was a half mile down the road in either direction.

Rich shits liked their country houses, their space, and their trophy wives. Even if they used none of them. When I thought of my stepfather, Richard Gere in Pretty Woman always came to mind. You know the dude who reserves the penthouse suite but can’t stand heights, so why the fuck did he reserve the penthouse suite?

Anyway, that was Jason Caruthers. He bought houses he didn’t live in, cars he didn’t use, and he married women he didn’t live with. Why?

I asked myself that all the time. Maybe he was bored. Maybe he was looking for something that he never seemed to find.

Or maybe he was just a rich shit.

To be fair, my mom was the same. Patricia Fallon married my father, Ciaran Pierce, eighteen years ago. Two days later, I was born. Four years later, they divorced, and my mother took me—her meal ticket—on all of her gold-digging adventures. She married an entrepreneur who lost his business and a police captain whose work turned out not to be glamorous enough for my mother.

But through him, she met her present husband and in him my mother found exactly what she was looking for: money and prestige.

Sure, my father had it, too. In certain circles. I had never truly wanted for anything. But my father lived outside of the law—far outside of the law—and to protect his family, he kept us hidden and quiet. Not really the glamorous life my mother was looking for.

But despite her selfish decisions, I liked where she ended up. I liked it here. I always had.

The estates all sat tucked away beyond large driveways and dense little neighborhoods of trees. I had loved running—or even walking—along the quiet, secluded roads, but what I anticipated more now was the way the community connected into the Mines of Spain recreational area that featured narrow woodsy trails and deep quarries. The sandstone all around, the greenery, and the perfect blue sky overhead made this the ideal place to get lost.

Sweat poured down my neck as I pounded the shit out of the dirt under my feet. Tool’s “Schism” played through my earbuds while I zoned out on the trail, and I had to remind myself to keep my eyes up. My father hated that I ran alone. He hated that I ran in quiet, unpopulated areas. I could hear his voice in my head: Keep your head up and protection on you!

He had ordered a crap-load of running shorts with gun holsters attached to the back, but I refused to wear them. If he wanted me to attract less attention, that was the wrong way to go about it.

If you run in your underwear, someone will get the wrong idea, he’d said. And then I have to hurt people. You know I like to do that as little as possible.

I didn’t run in my underwear. But some spandex running shorts and a sports bra? Fuck it, it was hot.

So we had compromised. He had a bracelet designed that featured a small pocket knife and some pepper spray. It looked like some sick, twisted charm bracelet, but it made him feel better to know I wore it whenever I went out running.

Scanning the trail ahead of me—because I listen to my daddy—I noticed a young woman, about my age, standing between the trail and the pond, looking out over the water. I saw her lips were turned down, and she sniffled. That’s when I noticed the shake to her chin. Slowing to a walk, I took a quick inventory. She was dressed like me, running shorts and sports bra, and from what I could see, she wasn’t hurt. There were no other runners or hikers. She just stood there, eyes narrowed, watching the soft ripple on the water.

“Nice tunes,” I yelled over the noise from the iPod strapped to her arm.

She jerked her head toward me and immediately wiped the corner of her eye. “What?” She pulled out her ear buds.

“I said ‘nice tunes,’” I repeated, hearing Guns N’ Roses’ “Paradise City” spitting out of her ear buds.

She choked out a laugh, her flushed face brightening a little. “I love the oldies.” She reached out her hand. “Hi, I’m Tate.”

“Fallon.” I reached out and shook her hand.

She nodded and looked away, trying to covertly wipe away the rest of the tears.

Tate. Wait . . . blond hair, long legs, big boobs . . .

“You’re Tatum Brandt,” I remembered. “Shelburne High?”

“Yeah.” She draped the cord to her ear buds around her neck. “I’m sorry. I don’t think I remember you.”

“It’s okay. I left at the end of sophomore year.”

“Oh, where’d you go?” She looked me straight in the eye as we spoke.

“Boarding school out east.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “Boarding school? How was that?”

“Catholic. Very Catholic.”

She shook her head and smiled as if she couldn’t believe what I’d told her. Or maybe she thought it was ludicrous. Didn’t people ship their unwanted kids off in her world? No? Weird.

The wind blew through the trail, causing the leaves to rustle, and the breeze was a welcome comfort to my hot and wet skin.

“So are you just back for the summer before college or for good?” she asked, sitting down on the ground and looking up at me. I took that as an invitation and sat down, too.

“Just a week or so. I’m heading to Chicago for school. You?”

She looked down, losing her smile. “I was supposed to go to Columbia. Not now, though.”

“Why?”

Columbia was a great school. I would’ve applied, but my father didn’t want me so close to Boston. The farther away from him the safer, he’d said.

“My dad is having some . . . issues.” I could see her damp lashes as she leaned back on her hands and continued to study the pond in front of us. “For a long time, apparently. I think it’s best to stick close to home.”

“It must be hard to give up Columbia,” I offered.

She stuck her bottom lip out and shook her head. “Nope. I didn’t think twice about it, actually. When someone you love needs you, you suck it up. I’m just upset that he didn’t tell me. He’s had two heart attacks, and I only found out through hospital bills I wasn’t supposed to see.”

She acted like it wasn’t even a choice. Like it was so easy. My dad is sick. I stay. I was jealous of her resolve.

“Wow, I’m sorry.” She smiled and sat up, dusting off her hands. “I bet you’re glad you stopped to say hi.”

“It’s okay. Where do you think you’ll go to school now?” I looked over at her and saw that she had a little tattoo on the back of her neck. Down at the curve where it met her shoulder. It wasn’t that big, but I could make out flames bursting out of a black lantern.

“Well, I got into Northwestern,” she offered. “It’s a good option for my degree, and it’s only about an hour from here. The more I think about it, the more excited I get.”

I nodded. “Well, that’s where I’m going.”

She raised her eyebrows, surprised. “Well, well . . . you like old-school GNR, you’re going to Northwestern, you’ve got some nice ink”—she motioned to the Out of Order tattoo I had written behind my ear at my hairline—“and you jog. Tell me you’re into science, and I may have found my hetero soul mate.”

“I’m majoring in Mechanical Engineering,” I singsonged, hoping that was close enough.

She put her fist out to bump me and smiled. “Close enough.”

Her smiles were a lot more frequent than the last time I’d seen her. She must’ve either gotten Thing 1 and Thing 2 to leave her alone, or she’d put them in their place.

“So,” she started, standing up and brushing off her butt. “My friend is having a party tomorrow night. You should come. He has no problem with pretty girls crashing. You may have to forfeit your underwear at the door, but I’ll protect you.”

I stood up, too. “He sounds like a hell-raiser.”

“He tries.” She shrugged, but I could see the proud little smile underneath the gesture. She grabbed my phone out of my hand and punched in some numbers. “Okay, I just called myself. Now you have my number, so text if you’re interested. I’ll shoot you the address and time.”

“Whose party is it?” I asked, taking my phone back.

“It’s at Madoc Caruthers’s house.”

I closed my mouth and swallowed at the mention of his name.

She continued. “He requires that you wear a bikini, but if you kick him in the balls, he’ll shut up.” She hooded her eyes in an apology. “He’s one of my best friends. It just takes some time getting used to him,” she explained.

Best friends? Huh?

My breathing turned shallow. Madoc was supposed to be having a party tomorrow night?

She backed away, getting ready to leave. “See you tomorrow, I hope!”

And then she was gone, while I stood there, shifting my gaze left to right, searching for I-don’t-know-what. Madoc was friends with Tatum Brandt?

How the hell did that happen?

• • •

“I like that metal in your mouth. I heard a tongue piercing can be all kinds of fun for things other than kissing.” He grips my hair, breathing into my mouth. “So are you really a bad girl or just playing at one? Show me.”

I’m not sure what woke me up first. The nausea rolling like thunder through my stomach or the high that was flooding my nerves with excitement.

Nausea and excitement. Sickness and thrill. Why did I feel both at the same time?

I knew the queasiness was from the dream.

But the excitement? The thrill?

And that’s when I noticed what had woken me up. The flow of air in the room had changed. It was now filtering out into the hall. My heart beat faster, and my belly tingled with butterflies. I tensed my muscles in response, because the elation flowing through them was too much.

My bedroom door was open!

I snapped my eyes open and bolted upright in bed, my heart lodging in my throat as I tried to take a breath.

Rival

Rival

A Fall Away Novel