Yearning to Live (Finding the Strength #4)

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A self-proclaimed ordinary average girl meets the one larger than life person who will make her yearn for so much more.

Natalie Benton has nursed more than enough heartbreak in her twenty-one years. But she doesn’t like to complain, even though her parents’ marriage might be falling apart, and she’s still mourning her brother, who committed suicide five years ago. On top of that, she was recently ghosted by her lover, an emotionally detached tattoo artist who ran off to California. She’s ready to graduate college in a few months but not sure what her next steps will be. For now, she’ll take each day as it comes, which has become her mantra as an ordinary, average girl in Albee, Pennsylvania where nothing exciting ever happens.

But fate has other plans for Natalie, when a very not ordinary-average girl enters her life. It’s the larger-than-life Gem Grove, one of the most popular singers of the past decade. Gem’s been hiding out in Albee while she tries her best to take each day as it comes, but her addiction to bigger fame and fortune could lead to her downfall. The public may think she’s entitled and spoiled, but she’s ready to prove them all wrong. She’s more than just a singer who performs on demand. She wants to create art with her songs and gain the respect she’s always wanted. Natalie and Gem shouldn’t fit together, but they do. The ordinary-average girl and the larger-than-life diva might be destined for more, but only if they can achieve it together.



My tequila shot matched the one for my brother Conrad in front of the empty stool. Every year for the past five, I’ve ordered a tequila shot, which had been his favorite alcohol. I’d been more of a beer or boozy seltzer drinker since I turned twenty-one in May, but I’d swallow the pee-colored liquid and try not to gag like I usually did. I’d have to drink mine and his soon. Bask’s was getting busy, and someone would want the stool since it was Friday night and there was an hour left in happy hour.

I dipped my finger in the shot, swirling it to ready myself. Someone brushed past me, bumping my arm, making me almost knock the shot over. Part of me wished it had spilled, but then I’d have to order another one. If Conrad was here, he would have already downed it and asked for another. But he wasn’t. He hadn’t had any type of drink in yearsfive to be exact because he had committed suicide in his dorm room, the weekend before he started his final semester of college.

A hand came down on my head from behind the bar. I would have knocked it off, but it was Jesse, so I allowed it. I expected him to join me as we remembered my older brother, his best friend since kindergarten.

I tugged his hand down, and he held mine, squeezing gently. The man I’d known for my entire life leaned his muscular arms on the bar so he could move in closer.

“Hey.” He pushed away a curl from my forehead. A long time ago, I had a crush on Jesse, mainly because of his high cheekbones and tight blond curls. I always liked blonds, even though his were now on the darker side and in a buzz cut because his hair was thinning out. His eyes also had gold specs in them. My taste in men or rather my girlish crush on them ended as soon as I became a teenager and my attraction turned to other girls. But my blonde hair attraction remained. I ended up contradicting myself because my last failed relationship, if it could be called that, was with the wrong type of woman. A tattoo artist who was far from blonde, and loved adding neon highlights to her hair, even if they clashed with her indie rock style.

“Hey.” I indicated Conrad’s shot, and Jesse grabbed it. He tapped his to mine but waited for me to drink first. I swirled the liquid with my finger again. Once I drank the tequila, my memorial would end, and another year would begin without Conrad.

He set his glass down and clasped my hand in his. He should really have been helping the other bartenders since the place was packed, but he could take as many breaks as he wanted. He was the owner’s younger brother.

“This year is rougher than the last. Damn, where did the five years go?” He frowned at the stool next to me, as if Conrad was there. Whereas the usuals sat at the end of the bar, Conrad always liked sitting in the middle, on that exact stool. He even carved his initials under the seat. The CB was faded but still noticeable on the wood.

“I’m the same age Conrad was when he—” I withdrew my hand from his and wiped under my nose. The only time I’d cried today was when I woke up this morning. I hadn’t when Mom, Dad, and I went to Conrad’s favorite breakfast place, and not at the cemetery or at his grave. Mom broke down. Dad kept it together and held her and recited some prayers.

“I feel horrible for not coming with you guys to the cemetery,” Jesse said. “Especially since your mom asked me to, but I had to drive—”

“Don’t apologize.” I sucked on my finger, thirsty for more than tequila. Tonight would be a great night to get drunk. “You have important family stuff. My parents understand why you can’t drop everything to spend the day mourning with us.”

He lowered his head and tapped the bar. “Conrad was like a brother to me. The least I could do is visit his grave.” He lifted the shot to his mouth and swallowed it. After a few seconds, he cleared his throat and exhaled. “But I hate cemeteries. He did, too.”

“Maybe he should have left behind a letter saying he wanted to be cremated.” I downed the shot and breathed through my nose as my stomach churned. I really hated tequila, but I’d make the sacrifice to honor my brother. “I need a chaser now. Pour me two glasses of some type of sweet vodka drink.”

“Two?” He crossed his arms. “You can barely keep it together after one.” The door opened, and a group of people rushed in. Snow had been forecast for this weekend, but I hadn’t expected it to start tonight and fall so fast.

He shook his head. “Please tell me you didn’t walk here.”

I raised my empty shot glass. “I like walking. If the snow gets too bad, I’ll call a car.” I held out my glass to him. “Want to do another shot?”

He grabbed my glass and poured me a soda instead. “You’re cut off.” A bartender whistled and called his name. He nodded in their direction then sent me a hard stare. “Go home before your fifteen-minute walk ends up taking double that because of the snow.”

I lifted my thigh-high insulated boot on the seat of Conrad’s stool. “I’m dressed for the snow, so you don’t have to worry.” I tapped his nose with my finger. “Let’s compromise. How about you pour me a beer and then I’ll leave?”

He opened his mouth, but then his father called his name and waved him over. “Coming!” He shrugged at me. “Drink the soda and go home before you make me call your parents to pick you up.”

I rolled up my cocktail napkin to toss at his head, but then he did a shooing motion with his hands. As he turned away, I stuck out my tongue. I almost gave him the finger, but his dad waved at me and I returned the gesture.

I check out the packed room, not ready to leave. It wasn’t because I wanted to drink more. I liked being around people. That was why I always ended up here on Friday nights. I could lose myself in conversation with others and the happy atmosphere. I could pretend Conrad was still alive. I reached under his stool to trace his initials and closed my eyes to stop from crying and cursing him for leaving me.

“Excuse me, is this stool free?”

I opened my eyes to see a woman wearing a yellow Alpha Gamma Pi sweatshirt. She smiled as she waited for me to answer.

“Ah, sure.” I patted it, welcoming her to join me. She was vaguely familiar; perhaps I’d seen her on campus. Her auburn hair that looked real and not out of a box, unlike my nice deep-red shade that had faded over time.

“Thanks, Natalie!” She pulled the stool away from the bar. “We’re missing a stool at our table.” She motioned to a table of women, all wearing her sorority letter T-shirts or sweaters. “I volunteered to ask you since we have chemistry together.”

“Chemistry?” I snapped my fingers. “Oh yeah. Sorry if I didn’t recognize you, Maeve.” How embarrassing. She’d been in a few of my science classes since freshman year.

“No worries.” She smiled again and tossed her hair over her shoulder. “You can sit with me and the girls. We don’t bite.”

Was she flirting with me or wanting me to join her friends to convince me to pledge this semester? I wasn’t into Greek life, but it might do me good to surround myself with girls like the ones from Alpha Gamma Pi, who would help take away the pain of not just remembering Conrad but Addison’s rejection. But then a group of guys approached the girls.

“Um, thanks for the invite,” I said, “but I was actually leaving.”

She turned around and waved at one of the guys, who waved back. She gave me her attention again. “Next time, then? But if you’re leaving, can I have your stool for my boyfriend?”

My stomach dropped, and my eyes felt wet. Of course she had a boyfriend. I scooted off the stool and did a tah dah action with my hands. “It’s all yours.”

“I appreciate it.” She waved her boyfriend over to help her with the stools. I stood there watching them walk to their table. When they got there, they sat and shared a kiss. I faced the shelves of bottles and sighed.

As I tried to grab the attention of a bartender to close my tab, and perhaps ask for one last shot, my cell vibrated and pinged a text. I pulled it out of my pocket and snorted.

You’re cut off.

I glanced at the end of the bar where Jesse mouthed, go home. I saluted him with my cell and stepped back. Within seconds, my space was filled with others ordering drinks. As I zippered up my coat, I caught the eye of Maeve, who waved enthusiastically. One of her friends stared at me and then asked her something. Not wanting to appear nosy or needy, I spun around and walked to the door to leave.

People poured in even though the snow came down hard. Instead of pushing through them, I waited and was rewarded by a guy holding the door open for me. If I was in a better mood, I would have winked at him to make him smile, but I wasn’t. As soon as I was outside, it was quiet, the type of quiet the snow brought. If I was home, I would have lain in my bed, watching it fall outside my bedroom window. Instead, I was in the middle of a possible snowstorm with no ride home. I took out my cell, going back and forth whether I should order a car. I could always call Dad if I was desperate or even my best friend Israh, but he was working. Not wanting to bother them because the snow wasn’t that bad, I’d walk like I did a few hours earlier.

I drew my hood over my head, and, slipping my hands in my coat pockets to keep them warm because I forgot my mittens, I walked. Surprisingly, the sidewalk wasn’t too snowy or slippery, although the street had an inch or two of snow. If the snow continued at this rate, there would be closer to a foot, and I’d end up shoveling the driveway.

“I should have asked for a snow blower for Christmas.” I trudged along, questioning how long I’d walk before I—

A bright-red car zoomed by, making me wince because the speed racer might end up slipping and not be able to brake before it smashed another into car. But then, with a squeal, the car stopped hard. The driver’s side door opened and someone—a woman in the brightest sequined pink coat I’d ever seen screamed— “Oh no! I killed it.”

Killed what? I ran toward the sports car, glad my boots gave traction. At the front of the car, lying half under the bumper was a small scruffy terrier. Its head was on its paws, and it was shivering. I bent down and held out my hand. The dog lifted it’s head and sniffed my hand then licked my fingers.

“Is it okay? It’s not bleeding on my car?” the woman said in near hysterics.

I ran my hands over the dog. Noting how the woman appeared to be more worried about her car, I took a calming breath before I answered. “The dog looks okay. No bleeding. I don’t see any dents on the pup or on your car.”

“That’s a relief. Killing a dog and damaging my new car would have ended the perfectly shitty week I had.” Her knees bumped my back, and she moved in closer.

“I know the feeling about having a horrible week.” The dog let me picked it up, and, as I turned to face the woman, she sighed out an awwww and cooed at them.

I finally got a good look at the nervous driver and lurched back. Holy shit! It was Gem Grove, one of the biggest pop stars of my generation!

She made baby noises at the dog, who wagged their tail happily.

“This dog is too cute!” She lowered her face to the dog. “Are we a boy or a girl?”

“Ah, I…” I might have been tongue-tied for the first time in my life. I felt under the dog to find out their gender. A female. “She’s a she, I mean, the dog who’s a female is a girl.”

The woman who I believed to be Gem looked up at me and gave me a huge smile that showed her blinding-white teeth. I found myself running my tongue over my not-so-white teeth, more than uncomfortable because I’d never been this close to a celebrity before.

The woman I would call Gem in my head for now lost her smile. “You’re shivering. Is it the snow, or are you not telling me the truth about this baby?”

“What?” I snuggled the dog closer. “No, the dog seems fine. I work for a vet, so I’m not just somebody from the street who’s pretending to know what I’m talking about to impress you. I mean, to calm you.” If I had a free hand, I would have slapped my forehead.

Gem rested her hands on her chest, her long nails almost the color of her coat. “What do we do now? We can’t let the dog go, especially in this weather.”

“I can take her to our vet, I mean my parents’ practice. It’s a short walk. I can do a more thorough examination and keep her there overnight.” The dog drooped in my arms, and I couldn’t tell if it was because she was tired or had some damage from being hit.

“Screw that. I’ll drive.” She hurried to the driver’s side and waved me over.

“You drive?” I walked to the other side of the car, stunned I not only would sit in what was surely an expensive sports car, but Gem would drive.

She leaned into the car, and there was a clicking sound that caused the door on my side to open. “I haven’t had a drink in almost six months, and I’ll be very careful.”

“Unlike a few minutes ago?” I snuggled the dog closer to my chest.

“Get in, and we can talk more at the vet.” She got in and closed her door.

The dog whimpered, making the decision for me. Once I closed the door, Gem started driving.

I quickly clicked my seat belt. “You could have waited until I put on my seat belt and gave you directions.”

“I wanted to drive before other people saw me. You never know when the paps might pop up, even though there haven’t been any here since last summer.” She stopped short at a red light, making me wonder if she was still agitated or a bad driver in general.

“After the light, make a right on the next street, and then another right into a parking lot next to a brick building.” The falling snow wasn’t a blizzard yet, but it might make things difficult for Gem. I really didn’t want to be in the car for too long because her driving made me nervous.

She nodded and looked both ways and then behind us.

“I don’t think you have to worry about being followed. There are no cars around with these…paps, or whatever they are.”

The light changed to green, and she drove more carefully. “They’re better known as the paparazzi.” She made a right and then slowed down as I pointed to the building where my parents’ practice was.

She parked in the spot closest to the door. It was a handicapped spot, but since we were the only ones here, I wouldn’t make a big deal about it.

She came to my side and opened the door. “I’ll hold the dog while you get the keys ready. I don’t want to be out in the snow longer than I have to. This weather is doing a number on the hair I spent a car payment on to get cut and styled.”

I pressed my lips together and handed her the dog. She hurried up the steps. I closed the door, wondering if she was going to lock it, but then I heard a beep and the lights went out. Grabbing my keys from my bag, I walked up the steps and unlocked the door. The wind had picked up and blew the snow around. She walked inside and tried to open the interior door.

“It’s locked. I have to shut off the alarm.” I did and then unlocked the door.

She rushed in and glanced around while I turned on the lights. “Can we hurry? The dog is shivering. I think she might be frostbitten.” The dog lifted her head and Gem brushed her nose on the pup.

My animosity toward her disappeared. She really did appear concerned for the dog. I waved her over to the first examination room. “The dog isn’t frostbitten. Perhaps cold and shaken up but nowhere near frost bitten.”

“How do you know?” She gently placed the dog on the exam table. The dog started wagging her tail and let out a soft woof.

“She’s wagging her tail, which is a good sign, and she’s not lethargic.” I unzipped my coat and laid it on a chair. “I’ll examine her to make sure she’s not hurt.” I grabbed an ophthalmoscope and stethoscope from the cabinet to check the dog’s vitals. “Go ahead and take off your hat and coat. Make yourself comfortable.”

She unbuttoned her coat and pulled off her hat. Her hair fell like a cloud around her shoulders. I was dumbstruck, for lack of a better word because she had the lightest-blonde hair I’d ever seen on a woman. Pinkish highlights also framed her professionally made-up face. I found myself touching my cheek, which felt the opposite of smooth. Even though she wore a light-pink sweater and simple black jeans, she had an aura that made you want to stare at her.

“What?” She tossed her coat and hat on a chair behind her. “Please tell me I don’t have dog blood me.”

I coughed to hide a laugh. “No blood.” I lifted the dog’s face and checked her eyes with the light. “You really like the color pink.”

“The color is my signature.” She indicated a highlighted strand. “I always wear some shade of pink when I’m in public since I was twelve.”

“Unlike your brother who switched to black and gold?” I felt the dog’s belly for any bumps or contusions.

Gem lowered her face and a smile appeared. “So, you do know who I am.”

“I knew who you were the moment I picked up our friend here.” I concentrated more than I had to on the dog because my cheeks were warming, meaning I was blushing.

“Since you know who I am, why don’t you tell me your name?” She glanced up with an impish impression.

“Nat…Natalie.” I moved the dog onto her side and, as I checked her head, she licked my face.

“She likes you.” Gem lifted the dog’s paw. “You’re young to be a vet. Are you a prodigy or something?”

I did laugh then. “I’m a senior at Maison University, majoring in biology. But I’ve spent too many hours here watching my parents with their animal patients. I learned a lot from them since I was thirteen, like you when you had your first hit song.”

“Right.” She lost her smile and let go of the dog’s paw. “How’s our patient?”

I scratched the dog on her belly, and she licked me again. “She’s perfect. You didn’t hit her, so you don’t have to worry. I’ll have my mom check her again tomorrow when the office opens, as long as the snow tapers off and the roads are plowed.”

“Are you going to take her home with you?” She crossed her arms.

“She’ll stay here overnight. There are cages in the back where we keep other dogs and cats. I can show you the room if you want.” As I put the exam tools back, the dog let out a snore.

“She’s conked out.” She held out her hands for the dog but then tucked them to her chest. “She’ll be here all alone in the dark during a snowstorm?”

“No one is going to break in tonight.” I ran my fingers over her matted fur. “She may have an owner looking for her. She doesn’t have a collar or tags, so she might be a stray.” I was ready to suggest something that might put Gem more at ease in regard to where the dog would stay overnight. “Unless you want to take her home with you and then bring her back tomorrow?”

She lifted her hands and backed away. “I-I can’t. I’m not…I don’t want to hurt her more than I have.”

“You won’t hurt—”

“What about you?” She nodded as if it had been decided. “You have more experience with this type of thing.”

“Me?” I spoke louder than I should have, and the dog whimpered in her sleep. I lowered my voice. “I have a dog waiting for me at home who might get jealous, and—”

“Excuses. You don’t want to be inconvenienced, either.” She glared at me and pursed her lips.

I clenched my fists at my sides, something I rarely did. “Taking in a rescue would help with your PR, since it’s been in the toilet.”

Her eyes widened in shock and she gasped. Her shoulders drooped, and she fiddled with her silver necklace. I felt like the wind was knocked out of me because of what I just said. Not even with Addie—

A cell rang from her coat. She grabbed it from the pocket and answered, “What, Dick?”

The voice on the other end sounded male but I couldn’t make out what he was saying. She cursed, grabbed her coat, threw open the door, and marched out of the room. The door bounced back and shut, leaving me confused. I stood there waiting for her return. She left her white beanie hat behind. Who’d leave behind an expensive brand-name hat? Even if they were pissed and didn’t want to see or talk to the person—meaning me—who insulted them.

At the five-minute mark, I exited into the waiting area. No one was there. Outside, the snow was still falling but the wind had died down. Gem and her car were missing.

Well, shit on a brick. She left me and the dog here. Great. Just great.

 There was no way I’d walk home in this weather. I also had to think about the dog sleeping in the examination room.

I went back in, and the baby, as Gem had called her, sat up on the table, wagging her tail. I swore she smiled at me when I approached. I leaned down to let her lick me because I wanted some love. The probability Gem would come back to check on the dog or to retrieve her hat was most likely zero. I lifted the dog off the table and placed her on the floor. She checked out the room, sniffing while I sat and decided what my next step would be. I should call Mom or Dad to tell them what happened. Knowing I had found a dog was more than enough for one of them to drive here. But I hated bothering them because I shouldn’t have gone to Bask’s in the first place. I really should have stayed home this year. Dad would spend most of the night in Conrad’s bedroom or watching old home movies with Mom, especially the last video of Christmas where we all thought Conrad had been doing much better than he had been. He had tricked us all.

I drew my fingers through my hair, suddenly exhausted. The dog I had yet to name trotted over and rested her chin on my knee, as if she knew I was upset. I rubbed her head, not wanting to leave her here alone. I’d rather stay here with her overnight than go home. I could always crash on the couch in Mom or Dad’s office. I texted Mom to explain where I was and why I’d sleep here tonight.

Maybe Gem would come back and keep me company or, in my wildest dreams, want the dog and me to stay the night at her place, wherever it might be.

Silly me to think a popstar like Gem would be concerned about having run away, leaving me and the dog she thought she’d hit behind.

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Decide to Live (Finding the Strength #3)

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When it hurts too much to live, how does one find the strength to stay alive and find hope again?

Reiko Nakano has a charmed life. Not only does the twenty-three-old come from a life of luxury because of her celebrity parents and supermodel sister, she’s best friends with the biggest brother and sister pop duo in the world- Gio and Gem Grove. But what the public assumes is wrong different because of what Reiko suffers in private. She feels she’s an outcast in her own family because of her ptosis and her social anxiety. She then makes the biggest mistake of her life and tries to turn her lifelong crush on Gio into something more. His cruel rejection after she lets him take her virginity leaves her heartbroken.

Reiko hides in the least likely of places- the small town of Albee, Pennsylvania. There she enjoys her anonymity and enrolls in summer classes at Maison University. She hopes she can fit in as a student, but life continues to play tricks on her when she’s hit in the face by a football from one of the most popular boys on campus, Will Forest. But this accidental but memorial meeting will help heal her fragile emotions because Will shows her how special she is to those she meets, including him.

She isn’t sure what to make of Will. He’s too nice and sweet, and treats her like gold. She accepts his attempts at romance even though it’s only temporary. But as the summer flies by, she doesn’t want to give Will up, who doesn’t know the truth about her “vacation”. And when Gio arrives in town, and threatens to out Reiko, she has some hard choices to make. Does she come clean to Will so she can decide to finally live on her own terms and embrace the amazing woman Will thinks her to be?



The search for an awe-inspiring outfit was a bust. The Dashly Chic was a store I usually didn’t shop at because the dresses they sold were for women who wanted to show off their bodies in ways I couldn’t. I almost chose a strapless black dress but, trying it on, I found it plunged too low, showing off too much skin and boobage, even though my boobage barely filled out the bodice. I left, defeated, but headed down the street in search of another clothing store.

I didn’t get far. On a corner was a bookstore called Readers Opus, and Dad’s latest release stood out among the books in the window. It was pretty cool not only to see his book front and center, but for the store to promote a quantum mechanics title. It had been too long since I’d been inside a store, especially an indie one. To kill time in case I still couldn’t find anything to wear for tonight, I entered the store, loving the library decor and wooden stacks of books with signs above pointing out the genres. I spotted the non-fiction section, and went there to find Dad’s books.

Almost all of his books were there. I took out his first release and turned it over to check out his glamour shot, aka his headshot on the back. He looked so young but still dignified. This was the only picture of him smiling. Must have been his excitement at getting published. I snapped a picture of the book with my cell, and went to do the same with the rest to send to him, but then noticed the magazine section behind me. Aya stared at me on the cover of at least three fashion magazines in the front. I snapped a picture of those magazines but shook my head at the absurdity of it.

“Why would the magazine section be near the non-fiction section?” I said louder than I intended, but there was no one around to hear.

Or I had thought no one heard. A few feet away from me was Will, the football guy from Maison, sipping an iced-coffee-type drink and holding a hardcover book.

“I agree with you100 percent about the magazine and non-fiction section.” He spoke around his straw and then released it from his mouth.

“It’s you again,” I stated the obvious and mentally slapped my forehead.

“I’m surprised you recognized me with my shirt on and no football.” He strode toward me, giving me a good view of his Iron Steam concert shirt—OMG, he liked the same band I did!— and his vintage olive shorts that showed off his muscular thighs and calves. But what made me want to continue staring at him was the burgundy beanie on his head.

“I’m surprised I recognized you with the beanie,” I replied.

As he came closer, I lowered my eyes to the floor, not exactly from shyness but to catch my breath. He really was cute.

“I would recognize you anywhere with your awesome glasses. Also, we have the same taste in music. “I’m a big fan of theirs.”

My love for Iron Steam was well known, but I rarely wore their shirt out since it was my stay-at-home, step-above-wearing-my-pajamas . Now I was glad I’d worn it since it would give me something more to talk about with Will.

“I would have never thought you would be into pop punk. They just started getting popular on the West Coast the last couple of years.” I tugged on the hem of my yellow T-shirt, wishing it wasn’t so faded.

“Why? Because I’m some nerdy dude who accidently hits girls with footballs?” He zoned in on the area of my neck where I had been hit, making my face warm.

I pressed my palm to my shoulder. He thought he was nerdy? “I had a black and blue for a few days, but it’s gone now.”

He winced and, when he lifted his arm to his chest, I got a better look at his book. Dad’s latest release!

“I still feel awful hitting you—” He glanced from his book to me. “Speaking of nerdy, I enjoy the work of Kobe Nakano. Do you know him?”

I sputtered and cleared my throat to stop from releasing a laugh. If only he knew how well I was aware of the author and his work. He’d get a kick out of it for sure.

“You could say I know him.” I could have revealed my connection, but then Will’s reaction would have changed. There would be surprise and then compliments thrown my way because I was Nakano’s daughter. He would know about Aya and Mom, and possibility my connection to the Groves. My cover would be blown.

“You read quantum mechanics for fun?” I was tempted to ask him what he thought of the cover, since I’d created it.

“I first read Nakano in one of my high school physic classes. I’ve read all his books. He’s the reason I’m majoring in computer science. He beamed at the book. “I’m twenty, but I have a mind of a forty-year-old.”

I did laugh then, his humor adorable. And when he turned his smile to me, I almost leaned into the bookshelf to help with my balance. I’d never had a man look at me the way Will did. My eyes had to be playing tricks on me. It sometimes happened with my handicapped right eye.

“I’m twenty-three. I’m not sure what age I would say my mind is, but I have the sight of a sixty-year-old, especially in my funky right eye.” I would just get it out there now instead of ignoring it. Better to be blunt so if I ever did see Will again, I wouldn’t dance around the issue.

“I’m not a fan of wearing contacts.” He took his glasses off and blinked dramatically, making me snicker.

“Contacts irritate me, so I stick to glasses.” I straightened now that I felt steadier again. “I don’t think I ever had a conversation about wearing glasses and my bad eyesight before.”

“There’s a first time for everything.” Again with his engaging smile. “I’m glad I’m your first.”

I burst out laughing and then snorted, which made me cover my mouth in embarrassment. Will joined me, and I eventually controlled myself, but my eyes watered from laughing too hard.

“Here.” He gave me the napkin he’d had wrapped around his drink.

I blotted my eyes, wincing at the sting in my right one. For some reason whenever I cried, my right eye didn’t like it.

“Can I let you in on a secret?” He shifted in closer to me. “I was crossed-eyed until I had surgery around ten to fix it.”

“Is that your way of asking why I haven’t had surgery to correct my issue?” I caught Aya on a magazine cover, staring at me, daring me to be timid.

“It’s my way of wanting to get to know you better. But as much as I would love to keep talking with you, I have an appointment in a few minutes I can’t miss.” He held Dad’s book to his chest again, and, for the first time, his gaze fell to the floor. “Will you take my phone number?”

“You don’t want mine?” I took out my cell, ready to do what he asked.

“Sometimes I can be pushy, which can be a turn off when it comes to the ladies. If I give you my number, you can decide if you want to call or text me.”

Witnessing his vulnerability made me like him more. I hadn’t had many interactions with men who would open themselves up this way, especially with a woman they’d just met.

“Sure. I’ll take it.”

He looked at me, his cheeks glowing pink. As he told me his number, my body warmed all over. My face had to be as pink as his.

“You might not even have to call me because it’s a small town. We’ll bump into one another again, especially if you’re taking summer classes at Maison.” He tossed his empty cup in a garbage can. “If I don’t pay for this book and leave, I never will.”

“It was nice talking to you again and not having worry about getting hit with a football.” I reached out to shake. It was an odd move, but how else would I know what his hand felt like?

“You’re never going to let me live that down, are you?” He took my hand and squeezed, making me a little dizzy. I was tempted to give him my other one in order to feel that zip of energy up my other arm.

He took his time releasing me. When he did, he flexed his fingers. I lowered my arm to my side, letting my tingling hand go limp.

“That was… a nice handshake.” He backed away, still staring at me until he reached the end of the aisle. With a final wave, he left.

I almost texted him goodbye. Instead I found a wingback chair and sat, reviewing everything with Will before it became a memory that would fade away too soon.


Interesting in reading more? Click here for Wattpad for more about Decide to Live:

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Let Me Live (Finding the Strength #2)

(Gay- M/M New Adult Romance)

In Digital: $6.99

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Finding the Strength: Book Two

The one person he trusted destroyed everything. Trusting again won’t be easy.

Eighteen-year-old Marshall’s bright future shattered the day his once friend and lover opened fire on their campus, killing twelve and leaving Marshall with a shoulder wound and devastating guilt over the part he played in the massacre. The press may have dubbed him a hero, but Marshall has nowhere to turn, no one to help him through the anxiety and depression closing in on him.

Until he meets tattoo artist Benny Hayes.

Benny can’t solve all Marshall’s problems, but he can assure him that he’s not defined by his trauma. Marshall wants what Benny’s offering. He wants to live, to love again. But the secret he shares with the shooter casts a long shadow, and Marshall’s fear of it coming to light makes it hard to move forward.



I had studied the front of Benny’s shop many times, but now for some reason instead of seeing just two large windows and the too-bright red neon sign, it gave off a welcoming vibe. It wanted me to come inside. Maybe the change was because its owner had invited me in?

I scanned the area, expecting someone I knew to appear, much like Theo had. But other than a few people on the opposite side of the street, it was empty. No one would stop me or convince me not to go inside. I was on my own.

I opened the door and entered, an electronic ding announcing my arrival. The front room was bigger than I expected, very airy and open with pictures of tattoos on the wall and a few chairs and couches near them. There was a rectangular aquarium near the front desk.

Music and some type of buzzing came from behind a burgundy curtain, which I assumed was where people were given their tattoos. I walked to the front desk, ready to call out a hello, when I noticed a pudgy black cat sitting in the middle of the counter.

“A cat in a tattoo parlor?” I stared at the cat, waiting for it to open its eyes and acknowledge me.

“That’s Canvas. She’s a Bombay and Astral’s mascot.” A girl near my age with pink highlights and a tattoo of the moon with stars surrounding it on her right bicep appeared out of nowhere.

“Um… hi, I didn’t see you when I came in.” I started to fold my hands behind my back, but deciding it would make me look too stiff and weird, I left them at my sides. At least I’d dressed down for my trip here. I wore a pair of gym shorts and one of my old high school swimming T-shirts.

“I was in the supply closet when I heard the bell.” She raised her hand in hello. “I’m Addison, one of the owners.”

She smiled, the silver stud in the side of her nose catching my eye. She came up to my shoulders, and had a body that was thick—a term I’d heard used by some guys back at school. She wasn’t model thin, which wasn’t a fault because she wore her weight well. If I were straight, I would have been attracted to her.

“You’re Benny’s cousin? I’m Marshall. Here for a tattoo.” I smiled instead of wincing at my sad conversation skills. “I mean, of course I’m here for a tattoo, not just to see Benny.”

Two dimples appeared on her cheeks, and she bit her bottom lip to either show she was amused or flirting. She moved behind the counter and ran her hands along the cat’s back, which didn’t even move. “He’s popular, even with the kids.”

Was she calling me a kid? I bristled but chose my words carefully. “I’m nineteen and legal in this state to get a tattoo.”

She did her lip-biting thing again. “You’re the type who abides by the rules, so I know you have a legit reason to be here. Why don’t you take a load off and fill out this form?” She slid it over with a pen. “He’s finishing up with a client.”

Not even wearing a faded T-shirt and crappy shorts fooled her. I never had this problem in high school, pretending to be someone I wasn’t, even if it meant wearing certain types of clothes to fit in. I guess I wasn’t the type of customer who usually came in here. I wasn’t here to impress her. Benny, on the other hand, was another story. But my main goal was getting a tattoo whether he was the one to give it to me or not.

I nodded at her, not interested in the verbal ping-pong. I sat near the aquarium and filled out the form with my info. The phone rang and Addison answered. My attention turned to the fish, especially the guppies swimming in circles, leaving bubbles in their wake.

The music behind the curtain stopped, leaving Addison to fill in the silence while she talked on the phone. After a few seconds the sounds of male voices floated up front and then one shouted a “hells yeah.”

The curtain opened, and a guy in jeans, a white ribbed tank, and an impressive beard that nearly touched his chest came out with Benny behind him. The customer flexed his arm where, under a clear bandage, was inked a black dragon with a red tongue hanging out of its mouth. “You’re the best goddamn tattooist in the state.”

“Try the East Coast,” Addison inserted and then spoke again to whomever she talked to on the phone.

Being partially hidden because of the aquarium, I watched unnoticed. I blatantly checked out Benny, who wore jeans and a plain white T-shirt. Nothing fancy from him, which made me appreciate his look even more. The color of his tee for some reason set off the copper in his hair and beard.

“I may have one or two awards for my mad injection skills.” He locked his fingers around the guy’s wrist for a handshake.

For some reason my wrist tingled, as if he’d grabbed mine. I rubbed it, wondering what it would feel like to be embraced by him.

The friendly aggressive customer kept Benny’s hand in his grip, not that Benny seemed to mind as he set his hand on the guy’s shoulder. “When you’re ready for me to do the other arm, just call me.”

“I wish I could have the other arm done for tomorrow night’s party, but I need to save up the funds first.” He moved his newly tattooed arm from side to side, an awestruck ex stuck on his face.

“I’ll give you a discount since you sent me three referrals. Their tats helped pay off our mortgage this month.” Benny high-fived Addison, who had finally ended her call.

“Expect more, especially after tomorrow night. I’ll see you then, bro.” The dragon-tattooed guy clapped Benny on the back and, with a two-finger salute to Addison, left.

She petted the yawning Canvas. “Your next appointment is here.”

“Appointment? I don’t have one. I’m—” He turned in my direction and stopped midspeech. Within seconds recognition came into his gaze and he smiled. “My man Marshall.”

He probably called other guys the same, but hearing him say it to me gave me the confidence to rise and hold out my hand for him to shake. “You did say stop in anytime.”

“That I did.” He grasped my hand, giving it a slight pump. He didn’t release it, and I didn’t either. He nodded and squeezed. “Good to see you.”

“You too.” I squeezed him back, realizing this was of the longest handshakes I’d experienced. But I didn’t really mind.

Addison coughed, whether on purpose or not, I couldn’t say, and Benny let me go. He leaned against the counter and crossed his arms, giving me a clear view of his arm tattoos, especially the blackbird near his right wrist.

“Did Addison give you a warm welcome and offer you water or something else to drink?” He didn’t give his cousin a glance.

She tugged on his hair. He blinked in reaction. “I would take that as a no.”

“I’m fine.” I held up my hands, as if that was enough proof to show I wasn’t thirsty.

One of his eyebrows arched, as if he was questioning me. Or maybe I was just paranoid because I was locked in to his every movement. There was just something about him I couldn’t stop staring at.

“Let’s go to my office.” He went to the curtain and pulled it back.

“Your next appointment is at two.” Addison typed on the computer in front of her.

“Enough time for us to talk, and then lunch.” He motioned for me to go first.

She snapped her finger and turned around. “Before I forget, your mother called about Grandma Ruby’s birthday. Call her back.”

“Yeah, okay.” He didn’t sound too sure, but he didn’t give anything away on his face. He waved me to me again, and this time I obeyed.

The room wasn’t as large as the front, but still had enough space. There were three sections cordoned off with black stools and instruments I assumed were used for tattooing, including curtains for privacy. Near the far-left wall was a cubical with a desk and chairs.

“Take a seat in my office.” I followed him inside the cubical, expecting him to sit behind the desk. He sat in the chair next to me.

“I expected you to have a bigger office.” The space was the exact opposite of the front and even the area where people would get tattooed. It was very bland.

“I’m not in here too often. Just when I’m doing paperwork like invoices or billing.” He relaxed in his chair with his legs spread out and his hands folded on his stomach.

I was too nervous to mimic his pose, so I sat up straight. “You’ve got a great place here. Very animal friendly with the cat and the fish.”

He smiled in appreciation. “Addie and me found Canvas in our alley three years ago. We adopted her. You’ll be surprised how many people come in here wanting tats of their pets.”

I snuck a peek at his arms. “How about you? Any animal tats?”

“I have a jaguar one on my back. I’ll have to show you it sometime.”

Why not show me it now? I ran my tongue behind my front teeth instead of blurting that out. The innuendo in his statement wasn’t lost on me, but again I might be reading into something that wasn’t there. He could be this friendly with everybody.

“I don’t think I’ll be getting an animal tattoo. To be honest, I don’t know what I want.”

“I have a lot of people who come to me who want a tat, but they’re not sure what type.” He sat up and bent over his knees, bringing him in closer to me. “Let me ask you this—how much are you willing to spend?”

“Up to five hundred.” I was willing to invest in a tattoo because it would be a part of me forever, but if he said more, near the thousand-dollar range, I might have to rethink the idea.

“I can work with that, but it won’t be an arm sleeve or a full back one.”

“Oh no.” I shook my head. “I wouldn’t go that far like what you have. I’m interested in something that won’t be too glaring or make me have second thoughts in say ten or twenty years from now.”

He tugged on his bottom lip. “It’s probably best if you get it someplace on your body you can cover up. But it all depends on whether you want the world to see the art. You’re still young, but I have a feeling you know what you want to do with your life. Where do you see yourself by forty?”

There were two things I wanted for myself, both of which were impossible dreams. I wanted to be an Olympic swimmer like Michael Phelps, or if I wasn’t strong enough to move to politics, I could settle for being a teacher and a swimming coach. But I didn’t want to settle. Right now things might be undetermined, but I refused to back away from what wanted for so long. I wanted the best, and that would mean the ultimate prize.

I leaned forward slightly as if I was going to share a secret. “I want to be president of the United States.”

He tapped on his bottom lip with two fingers. He was so close I could reach out and feel… no, stroke his beard. If we were in a different situation and I knew for sure he was gay, I would have gone for it. But I kept my hands to myself.

“I remember your friend mentioning it at the fair. President by forty, eh? It’s going to take a lot of hard work on your part to accomplish that goal in the next twenty years.” Lines emerged in his forehead, as he appeared deep in thought or at least pretended to be. “You sure you want a tattoo? I can’t think of any president who had one or admitted they did.”

“Having a tattoo would be the least of my worries if I ran for a government position as high as president.” I pressed my palms together and folded my fingers on one another. “If I was elected as the leader of the free world, I would be the first openly gay president.”

He sat back in his chair, still tapping his bottom lip. I couldn’t say if his sudden need for space hurt, but it was enough to make me second-guess this conversation we were having.

“It’s good to have goals at such a young age.” He nodded with approval.

The young age comment stung. He made it sound like the seven-year age difference between us was a big deal. We were both consenting adults, and he was happy I stopped in. Maybe I had his signals all wrong, and he acted this way with anyone so they would become his customer.

“Based on what you told me, your goals are impressive. I don’t know many guys your age who own a business, and I can’t think of any openly gay tattoo artists off the top of my head.” I leaned back, acting more at ease than I felt. Although my words were congratulatory, their meaning was more antagonistic.

His hand dropped away from his face although his posture didn’t change. He was actually very still, his gaze direct and strong enough that it made me want to squirm in my seat and apologize for my words.

“When did you figure out you were gay?” His voice was much softer than before.

I didn’t expect him to answer with a question. Also no denial from him. I didn’t have anything to hide. “Ten. It was on my birthday, actually.”

“I think I always knew, but I told my mom when I was thirteen.”

The pressure on my shoulders vanished, and I almost laughed, not because I found what he said funny but because I was relieved. The last person I had asked was Jordan, who wasn’t as forthcoming as I was or how Benny admitted it just now. It felt good to get it out of the way, an unneeded obstacle that would have put some strain on this new relationship of ours.

Straight people never had this problem. I laughed then because I couldn’t imagine two straight people having this type of conversation.

“What’s so funny?” he asked.

“It’s not something I think is funny, but more of an observation—”

The phone on his desk rang. He sat up and also took out his cell. “I knew when I didn’t answer my cell and she told Addison to call her back, she would call here again.”

The phone stopped ringing, but he didn’t look relieved. The phone beeped as one of the lines glowed red. He picked up the receiver then. “Yeah? I had a feeling she’d call back. No… I’ll take her call. Thanks.”

I rose from my chair to give him privacy. “I’ll wait outside while you take your call.”

He laid his hand on my arm, keeping me in place. “No, stay. It’s just my mom wanting to know if I’m coming home for my grandma’s one hundredth birthday. I won’t be long.”

“Okay.” Maybe he wanted me to stay so his excuse would be more authentic when he told his mom he couldn’t talk for long.

“Cool.” He stood and turned the phone toward him. Leaning against the desk, he set the receiver to his ear and pressed the button to take it off hold.

“Hey, Ma.” He smiled, his expression pure happiness. He kept the receiver in the crook of his neck and cracked his knuckles.

“I’ll be there the day before the party.” His smile grew larger. “Yeah, my plane arrives pretty early, around seven…. Dad will pick me up? Cool, cool.” He nodded and then did a small fist pump. “You’ll make me huevos rancheros for breakfast? Awesome. Yeah… yeah I know it’s because you love me.”

He became silent while he listened to his mother. Every time he tried to speak, he would stop, and his mouth would stay slightly open. He rolled his eyes and rubbed the middle of his nose, making me laugh. Seeing him agitated gave me a different perception of the man, which was a nice change.

He straightened and waved his hand, as if his mother saw. “Ma, no don’t put Dad—hey Dad.” He rolled his eyes at me and mouthed help. I chuckled quietly, enjoying the show.

“I said I would be there, and yes, I’ll behave.” He picked up a blue stress ball and squeezed it. “I assume Aunt Lorena will be there also? Wanna place a bet she makes me go to church with her, Uncle Walt, and the rest of the kids?” He gave the ball another squeeze and then suddenly tossed it to me. “I don’t have a problem with Lorena, just her messed-up views. No, Dad… listen, I have an appointment waiting, gotta go. Love you and Mom.” He hung up and then exhaled hard.

“You hung up on your dad without saying goodbye?” I tossed the ball to him.

He compressed the ball in his grip. “Just with him. It’s a thing we do with . Sorry you heard that. My parents talk my ear off sometimes. And whenever they bring up my aunt, we get into heated conversations.”

“Sounds like me with my mom. I’m pretty cool with my aunts and uncles on both sides.”

He squeezed the ball a few more times and then set it on his desk. “My aunt can be a real piece of work. She loves to get on her pulpit and preach, but her skill at giving speeches and enthralling the audience helped her get to where she is today. Good thing she’s not on the Supreme Court. Then we might all be screwed, but then again, where she’s headed might be just as bad.”

He talked as if I understood what he meant. He must really not like his aunt. “Sorry, did I miss something? Should I know who your aunt is?”

He shot me a disbelieving look. “Shouldn’t you know the who’s who in Washington since you plan to work there?”

“Washington DC?” If I was supposed to put two and two together, I was failing.

He glanced at his phone and then stretched his arms over his head. “I have another two hours to kill until my next appointment. How about we get lunch, and we can talk more about the type of tattoo you want.”

“Why are you changing the conversation? Who’s your aunt?” I rose from my chair. “You want me to guess?”

“You’ll find out eventually.” He stepped toward the entrance of his cubical and paused. “My aunt Lorena is the first Spanish vice president of the United States, and a Jesus freak.” He held out his arm in the direction of the front of his shop. “Let’s go eat.”

This might end up being one of the most interesting lunches I would ever have.

Rage to Live (Finding the Strength #1)

Lesbian Young Adult/ New Adult Romance

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Can a young woman reveal her traumatic past to the woman who wants her to release the bubbling rage inside… her rage to live?

An act of violence tore Charlie’s existence, and her family, apart. In an effort to reclaim something like the life she enjoyed before, Charlie moves in with relatives in a different state. Charlie might be damaged, but she isn’t going down without a fight. With the help of her cousins, who attend the local college, she steels herself to repeat her final year of high school. On the university campus, she meets Arielle Forest, president of a popular sorority, daughter of the dean, and bisexual. Charlie is drawn to Arielle’s sunny outlook, but she can’t banish her doubts as romance blossoms. Does Arielle know what she’s getting into with Charlie and her unhealed wounds? Will she want to deal with the complications?

When Charlie’s past catches up to her, will she find the strength to keep fighting… or succumb to the call to escape all her pain for good?




Once the door closed, I leaned against it to catch my breath. My reactions to things and people, especially strangers, didn’t make any sense. I should be in a better place than this. But then again, I’d been a hermit for the past year, barely leaving the house unless it was to visit some lawyer’s office.

I shut my eyes and tried cooling off. Outside, I heard Nisha speaking and Tris responding, but their voices were muffled. After a few more minutes, I left the bathroom but didn’t go into Tris’s room. If I had some sort of pathetic panic attack now, I would never be able to show my face at AGP again.

Embarrassed by my stupid reaction, I walked down the hall. Maybe I would go downstairs and sit in the foyer. It was big enough that I would have space to breath and hopefully not freak out if I met more AGP sisters. After turning the corner, I spotted a door with an Exit sign above it, along with another sign with an arrow and Roof. My curiosity got the better of me, and I opened the door, showing the stairwell. When silence met me instead of an alarm system, I shut the door and took the stairs up another level until I met a metal door. If it was locked, I would go back down. I turned the doorknob, and it opened.

I walked out on the concrete roof, which was more smooth than rough. There was a ventilation system and some piping near the edge. The ledge came to my waist. I walked toward the back of the building where I had a great view of the surrounding streets, including many trees and tall buildings. The tallest building had an arch with a bell.

The air up here was much crisper and not as warm. I leaned forward, dropping my head over the side of the ledge. Dizzy, I closed my eyes, enjoying the feeling. When the blood rushing to my head became too much, I straightened, and the world tilted to one side. Giggling loudly because no one would hear me and make fun of my horrible hyena laugh, I turned around and spotted a large tarp off to the right a few feet away.

Walking toward it, I noticed bright colors and block wording, a welcome for the incoming freshman class. There were various doodles and interesting symbols; some were Greek letters. I bent down to get a closer look at the drawings, but the sound of the door opening and footsteps scraping made me jump up and twist around.

A girl a few years older than me held paints and other art supplies in her arms. She stared at me, unblinking, making me step back. There wasn’t any judgment from her, only curiosity. While Nisha had stunned me with her flirtation and exotic allure, this one was attractive in a more bubbly way. She was of some ethnicity I couldn’t identify, with an almost golden brown hue and an abundance of honey-toned curly hair brushing her shoulders. She also had luminous brown eyes and lush lashes.

I blinked a few times, thinking I’d imagined her. She stepped closer to me, slowly lowering her supplies to the ground and then rising. I blinked again. She was barefoot, with gold painted toenails and a silver flower toe ring. She wore black running shorts and a matching sports bra, showing off a flat stomach and silver hoop belly-button ring.

“Like what you see?” she asked, her voice higher pitched instead of the smoky timbre I’d expected.

“Yes, you look great,” I said without thinking, then winced. “I mean you’ve done a great job with the sign.”

She laughed and then snorted. The sound tickled the middle of my belly.

“I’ll accept your compliment, whoever you are.”

“I’m Charlotte—I mean Charlie.” I backed up again and pressed against the ledge.

“Charlotte aka Charlie, how did you get up on the roof?” she asked, a pleasant and nonthreatening expression still in place as she continued staring at me.

“I saw the sign for the roof and came up here. I’m visiting one of the sisters,” I said, trying not to become too defensive. She was probably an AGP sister who had the right to question a strange girl on her sorority house’s roof.

“Which sister, Miss Brontë ?” she asked, quirking her lips.

“Brontë? That’s not my last name.” What the hell is she talking about?

“You’re missing my attempt at humor. Charlotte Brontë wrote Jane Eyre,” she said with a more smug expression.

“Oh, yeah. I read it my junior year of high school.” Most of the girls in my class had loved the book, especially the character Rochester . He was a bigamist douche, but I kept that to myself, not even revealing my thoughts to Matilda, who reread Jane Eyre every few months for fun.

“So, you weren’t named after Charlotte Brontë?” The woman spread out her art supplies.

She must have thought I wasn’t dangerous, since she didn’t glare at me. But she did peer up under her long lashes.

“People think I’m named after Charlotte from Sex in the City .” I rolled my eyes. I was the total opposite of the proper and constantly optimistic daydreamer, Charlotte. I was more like Miranda.

“I’ve never seen the show.”

My jaw dropped. “Seriously? I swear every woman over the age of sixteen has seen the show. You haven’t caught at least one episode? Not even repeats?” I’d seen my share of Sex in the City episodes, mainly because Matilda was a big fan. She owned the complete series on DVD. We would spend hours discussing Carrie’ s dates and men in her life, especially her two loves—Mr. Big and Aidan .

She tapped the bristles of her paintbrush under her chin. “I’m not a big television watcher. I prefer to spend my time reading or painting and drawing.”

Oh, she was one of those snooty, pretentious students. I waited for her to start making fun of me and assuming I didn’t have any taste because I watched cheesy television shows, but she just sat back on her heels and concentrated on her banner instead of on me.

Okay, then. Talk about awkward. “The banner looks great. You did it all yourself?” I moved away from the edge.

“It’s quiet up here.” She revealed a smile that made me want to give her one in return.

“You’re an AGP sister, right?” I had moved close enough that my feet touched the side of the banner.

“Yes, I am.” She sat back, rolling her head across her shoulders and holding a hand to her forehead to block the sun as she stared up at me. “I’m Arielle, and no, not like the one from the The Little Mermaid .”

I jerked in surprise. “You’re the president of AGP.”

She nodded and leaned back on her palms. “Now that we’ve shared our names, why don’t you tell me—”

“Charlie, there you are!” Tris stood in the doorway. Jo peered over her shoulder.

“Wow, the view up here is totes!” Jo ran out to look over the edge.

“Hey, Tris,” Arielle threw over her shoulder.

Tris came toward us with way too much concern on her face, all of which was aimed at me. “You had me worried. What made you come up here?”

“Curiosity. You’re not upset, are you? I’m not going to jump,” I said.

She shook her head. “That’s not funny.”

Arielle rose to her feet. “We haven’t had any jumpers yet.”

“Arielle.” Tris glared at her sorority sister.

“Tris, stop it,” I whispered, suddenly feeling smothered even though I was outside. “You better tell Jo to move away from the edge before she slips and falls off. But that would be an accident and not deliberate, right?”

“Whoa, what am I missing here?” Arielle twisted her belly button ring.

Tris started to talk, but I cut her off by lifting my hand. “Tris doesn’t understand my humor.” I shrugged, and with a tight-lipped smile, marched away.

Tris yelled my name, but I didn’t acknowledge her. When I got to the door, I swung it open, catching Arielle watching me with a blank face. I didn’t bother to check Tris’s reaction as I shut the door.

I hurried down the steps, my pulse rushing in my ears and my heart slamming against my chest.


Leave the Pieces Behind

Young Adult Romance


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Bree Apollo is an average fifteen-year-old girl: she loves chocolate, baking cupcakes, and her neighbor, the hunky and all around popular seventeen-year-old Foster Quinn. Except Foster is clueless about her feelings for him, instead treating her like a kid sister and begging for her homemade desserts. As a fellow chocolate lover, he should be Bree’s for the taking, if it weren’t for his oh-so-perfect girlfriend.

After she overhears Foster making fun of her to his friends, she’s devastated. And not even chocolate can take away the pain. She intends to wallow in grief for a boy that was never hers to begin with, but Austen, her eccentric new neighbor has other ideas.

The strange boy down the street always wears a black fedora, walks barefoot, and focuses all his energy on building a treehouse in his backyard. For some reason, he’s elected Bree to help him. At first, she turns him down because he acts too awkward and takes everything she says literally. But after learning of his autism, she decides to help with his construction (forgiving him for not being a chocolate fan), even though she doesn’t know a think about power tools.

As Bree and Austen grow closer, Foster notices Bree no longer worships the ground he walks on. He wants her to go back to that doting version of Bree, but Austen has become more important to her than she’s ready to admit.

Austen may just be the one to help her move on from Foster.

Like two pieces of a puzzle, they fit together perfectly.



“You’re certain you never frosted cupcakes before?” I asked Austen, who completed the task I had given him with great results. Whereas I made a mess whenever I baked, he was extremely neat and tidy, dirtying only the spatula he used to frost the cupcakes that would top my cake.

“Mom and Aunt Lea don’t bake.” He set the spatula on a napkin then, grabbing a spoon to scoop some leftover cream cheese icing from the side of the bowl.

Seeing him lick his bowl made me do the same with mine. I used my finger to clean my bowl of chocolate frosting, licking away the residue.

“Good.” Finished with his bowl, he put it in the sink. I kept licking mine while I viewed the disaster in the kitchen I would have to clean up.

Even with the mess, the cupcakes we baked, including the three-layer vanilla buttercream cake, and some of the flowery decorations I created with fondant had come out pretty good for a first try. It had gone better than I had anticipated. Based on the winning cakes from past years, mine might have a good shot at making the top five.

Austen collected the utensils and other baking implements cluttering the kitchen island. I inspected my bowl one last time for any stray frosting, but then froze with my finger half in the bowl when Austen swiped my chin with his thumb. I peered up to him as he checked his thumb covered with the chocolate he collected from my face. His tongue slipped out of his mouth, and he licked his thumb.

“This is what chocolate tastes like.” He then stuck his thumb in his mouth and sucked.

dropped the bowl on the counter and ran my fingers over my chin, completely dumbfounded by his move.

“Y-you… My chin.” I looked at him as if seeing him for the first time. For some reason he had touched me without any problem today.

“Yes, you have a chin, like me.” He tapped his chin, not sounding robotic like usual.

“Are you stating a fact or being funny?” I shifted closer to him and bumped his hip. He stiffened but didn’t move away. He kept his gaze on the top of the counter and swallowed more than once. Did I make him nervous? He sure as hell made me feel something like that when he wiped the chocolate off my chin and licked it from his finger.

“What do you think of chocolate now that you’ve tried it?” I pressed my arm to his, testing him in a way I never had before. I wasn’t trying to be cruel, but I wanted to see how he would react.

He turned his face toward me but stared at my forehead. I was tempted to snap my fingers so he would finally look me in the eyes. But this was a baby step for both of us. I was about to find out how far I could go, and how sensitive he was when I invaded his space.

“If you had frosting or cupcake crumbs on your chin, would you let me wipe them away like you did to me?” I braced my arm on the counter as I leaned into him.

He exhaled hard enough his breath tickled the top of my head. It made me smile, knowing he was comfortable enough I could ask him such a question without him getting upset.

“I don’t know.” His finger brushed the side of my mouth.

I sucked on my bottom lip as the tip of his finger traced the corner of my mouth and traveled down.

I lifted my hand to join his finger but then the doorbell rang.

He jumped away and knocked one of the chairs near the kitchen table while I tried to understand what had just happened between us.


Interesting in reading more? Click here for Wattpad for more about Leave the Pieces Behind:







The Reaping


Young Adult Supernatural Horror

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The quaint village where Adela Jane lives is surrounded by fear. At night, a centuries old green mist covers the land and controls the animals within the forest. Lately, Adela feels someone or something is following her every move. Unbeknownst to her, the mist waits for the perfect moment to make her his. Adela feels trapped by her small town life and burdened by her love she keeps hidden for her best friend’s older brother, Nathan Alexander. But all that changes on her eighteenth birthday when Nathan admits his love and desire to marry her. Adela’s joy is cut short when the mist kidnaps her and takes her to his secret underground lair. Her nightmare has only just begun when the mist makes Adela his bride.

What if the Jabberwocky fell in love with Alice from Lewis Caroll’s Through the Looking Glass? That’s the question tackled in The Reaping. A Young Adult with an atmospheric Gothic feel, and elements from such classic novels, as Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera and John Fowles’ The Collector.

Check out these chapters of The Reaping on Wattpad:


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6


The Blackmail of Evelynn Faust


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Evelynn Faust suffers from horrible insomnia and paranoia. The summer before her senior year of high school should be one of the best summers of her life. But she’s tormented by guilt and an addiction that haunts her every waking moment. Evelynn is a drug dealer who also craves the drug she sells. The money and the popularity that come with it aren’t bad either. But when she’s caught dealing on school property by Eric Wagner, the respected and admired police chief’s son, the game is over.

He won’t snitch on her, unless she gives him whatever he wants her.

She’s being blackmailed.

Evelynn has no one to turn to for help. Not her parents who don’t understand her rebellious nature or her circle of friends who only care about partying and getting high. When Adam Tristen moves in across the street, and he wants to get to know her better, it all seems too good to be true.

She must make a pact with the devil.

Evelynn now looks over her shoulder wherever she goes, waiting for Eric to act on his threats. But Adam, the charming college sophomore, sees something special inside Evelynn, and he wants to help her fix mistakes. In order to do that she must confront a dark secret from her past that could destroy her family…her life…and her entire world as she knows it.

She’ll need to take a leap of faith.



Chapter One 

I’d always had a fear of dying of carbon monoxide poisoning. Dying in such a way would be virtually painless with some dizziness, a headache, and then unconsciousness. I’d end up in the great beyond in less than thirty minutes. But with my recent track record, I was on the road to Hell.

My morbid thoughts dissolved as a helicopter flying somewhere overhead, along with the buzz of the lamp across the street, aligned in a strange harmony. I sat in my rocking chair, watching the annoying lamp post cast a light into my bedroom every night for the past sixteen years. Not that I got much sleep. My bad case of insomnia had worsened after prom. I wouldn’t be surprised if I had a breakdown before senior year started in September.

The squeaking of the floorboards as I rocked made me drowsy, but I couldn’t fall asleep. The combination of a horrible chest cold and my guilt played a part. For the past week, I went to bed by midnight, would doze until three, and then remained wide awake afterward. I averaged a paltry three hours of sleep a night.

I couldn’t go on much longer like this. But I wouldn’t kill myself…yet.

Tugging my baby-blue Snuggie higher—a cheesy gift from my parents last Christmas I secretly adored—I tucked it under my chin. You’d think in July I wouldn’t be so cold. But, with my flu-like virus, shivers took over my body even though the temperature sat at a balmy seventy-something degrees. Even in my sick condition, I’d opened the windows, worried if I didn’t, invisible carbon monoxide fumes would get me. Such a stupid fear. Maybe it would be better to go out by phantom gas instead of the impending fate headed my way.

In less than three days, my blackmailer would return from his vacation and expect me to hand myself over to him. All because of my selfish and greedy actions a few months ago.

Coughing into my hand, phlegm-filled diseased droplets smeared my fingers, sticky and wet. I didn’t move to clean them off. Instead, I wiped them on my gray pajama bottoms I’d worn for almost a week.

I snuggled deeper under the blanket and checked the time. A few minutes after five. The sun would rise soon. Sniffing, I pushed away my tangled, unwashed hair I had chopped off last week. When he saw how short I cut my hair, he’d freak out—a small jab that gave me incredible joy.

Rocking again, I studied the blazing street lamp. The bright light caused black spots to appear in front of my eyes. Blinking them away, I ignored the sharp pressure building in my head as the humid breeze shifted my light-purple curtains to the side.

I would continue sitting here for another morning to come—one more day closer to my imminent doom.


A door opened, jolting me awake. I guess I’d fallen asleep. Instead, of the light from the street lamp, the glare of the sun poured through the windows, stinging my eyes. I yawned, still exhausted. Outside, male voices filtered through my window.

I rocked forward, noticing two, light-skinned black guys—one a little older than me, the other much older, probably in his thirties—carrying a couch up the front steps. A U-Haul van parked outside. Behind it, an SUV filled with three more guys in T-shirts and jeans and shorts, all of different races, got out. My cousin Jenn and friend Corrine would have approved of the eye candy. It didn’t make much of a difference to me…I had enough guy problems already.

Dad would know who moved in since he knew everything and everyone on the street. It wasn’t just nosiness on his part—he had major people skills as the longtime principal of Franklin Hills High, my school. The two guys, who looked like brothers, carried the couch into the house while the rest grabbed furniture from the van.

Stretching, I stood, rubbing my tongue over my teeth. The inside of my mouth tasted foul. Must be from of all the phlegm I’d been coughing up. A crusty stain dried on my pajama bottoms. These would go in the wash.

My alarm clock showed the time as a little after eight. I should be sleeping in, but I was wide awake even though my body ached with this crappy bug I had.

Shuffling to my bedroom door, I opened it. The sounds of the television downstairs reached my ears. My sister Olivia’s door remained closed. The only seven-year-old I knew who liked to sleep late and not up at the crack of dawn watching cartoons. She would be buzzing around soon enough to bother me. I had plans this morning which didn’t include her.

I went into the bathroom, my bladder full from all the orange juice I drank last night before bed. I craved Mountain Dew, my favorite beverage hands down, but since my insomnia, I’d cut myself off. At least the caffeine-withdrawal shakes had subsided last week. Getting off the Dew had been harder than breaking the pot habit. Smoking up wouldn’t be a good thing with my gasping and wheezing from my stupid cold.

Too bad I gave my stash to Jenn last month. What I wouldn’t give for one puff.

After flushing, I washed my hands. I may not be up to showering just yet, but washing my hands after using the toilet was mandatory.

My reflection in the vanity mirror almost made me cry. I’d blamed my wacky emotions on the antibiotics I took. I opened the mirrored door, grabbed the script bottle, and swallowed two pills without drinking any water, a skill I had mastered. I then blew my nose. Opening the used tissue, I found the mixture of snot and blood. Nice.

I slam-dunked the tissue into the plastic beige garbage can matching the bathroom wallpaper. My head felt like a hot-air balloon because of my constant blowing and my stuffed up sinuses.

The dark circles under my eyes and my pale face didn’t help my mood. No noticeable acne at all—thank you, Baby Jesus. The freckles on my nose had faded due to lack of sun. My hair, once shoulder length, hung in a shaggy mop of brown-and-blonde highlights. It needed major washing and styling, but with no real motivation, I didn’t care what I looked like.

I opened the bathroom door and snuck down the stairs because I didn’t want to wake the brat. When I reached the bottom, I bypassed the dining room and headed to the kitchen, not remodeled since the 1960s. Oh yeah, we had ancient wooden cabinets and bright-yellow counters. Our stainless-steel appliances were so out of place in the pukey kitchen.

Mom sat at the table smoking a cigarette while she watched some morning news show on the small television on the counter. I yawned and scratched my stomach. My belly-button ring caught on my black tank top.

“Is there enough milk for me to have a bowl of cereal?” I asked, twisting the hoop in my belly.

Mom finished her cigarette and rubbed it out in the ashtray. Dad didn’t like her smoking in the house, but when he wasn’t around, she did it anyway.

“There should be enough. I’m going to the grocery store today after Olivia’s swim lesson.” She patted my cheek for some strange reason and opened the refrigerator door.

“I’m having a bowl, and then I’m jogging in the park. Maybe fresh air will unclog my lungs.”

She handed over the milk and I grabbed a box of Cheerios from the cabinet. I loved Cheerios with a passion. I used to eat a bowl with a can of Mountain Dew for breakfast. This morning it would have to be orange juice. Bleck.

“You must be feeling better if you have an appetite again and you want to exercise. But I don’t think you should run just yet. Your lungs still need to get rid of all the nasty mucus.”

Mom worked as the nurse at my school and also taught nutrition classes. The irony wasn’t lost on me that she smoked half a pack a day.

“I know, Mom. I’ll be careful. I’m just tired of feeling this way. If I haven’t hacked up a lung by this point, I won’t.” I poured the cereal and milk in a bowl and ate standing up.

She filled two glasses with orange juice and drank hers. “When’s Eric returning from his cruise?”

I stopped from choking on a soggy Cheerio. “I think Monday. Why?”

“Invite him to dinner one night this week. We can barbeque.”

Hell would freeze over before I invited him to dinner. I chugged my juice. “Why? He isn’t a friend.”

Mom crossed her arms. “The facts tell me otherwise. You went to prom with him, and he’s driven you home from school.” She sent me an arrogant grin. “I know you two are serious.”

I set down my glass. “No, we’re not. I can’t help it if the guy likes me. I went to prom with him because he all but got down on his knees in front of the whole school to ask. He can be pretty annoying.”

She tapped her pink acrylic nails on her glass, her eyes blazing in annoyance. “Evelynn, what’s going on with you? I know you’re sick, but the last few weeks you’ve been less than ideal to be around. You cut off your beautiful hair, leaving a rat’s nest on your head, which for the life of me I can’t understand why. You treat your sister, who adores you, like she’s nothing, and for no reason I can think of, you can’t stand one of the sweetest and most attractive boys at your school. I don’t know what to do with you! All you care about is jogging and nothing else. Something’s got to give here.”

Dragging my hand through my short strands, I swallowed the urge to scream. “You forgot about my strange taste in music.”


“You’ve told me countless times how disappointing I am, especially because I won’t go out of my way to be kinder to the police chief’s son. I think you’re using me to get Daddy into a cushier position with more money.”

When she pinched her lips together, I knew I’d gone too far. “I’m done speaking with you. Go wake up your sister. You should be thrilled someone like Eric wants to date you because, honestly, I don’t know what other guy would with your piss-poor attitude and how you dress like a hobo sometimes.” She waved me away. “Get out of my sight before we both say something else we’ll regret.”

I stomped up the stairs. My mother wanted me to be a virginal sacrifice for the good of our family.

The joke was on her because I wasn’t virgin. I’d stopped being a sacrifice way before the night Eric coerced me into having sex with him in order to save myself.


Chapter Two

I banged on my sister’s bedroom door then went in my room, leaving the door open. I chose clean underwear, a sports bra, shorts, a T-shirt, and socks. As I rolled deodorant under my arms, Olivia’s door opened. She strolled over my threshold, wearing her bright-aqua nightgown with some Disney princess on it.

“Evie!” She ran to hug me.

I held out my hands to stop her. “Nuh-uh, Liv. Remember I’m sick?” I placed my hands on my hips, standing in all my naked glory for her to see.

She gave me an adorable pout. I longed to comb her blonde, bedhead curls. Instead, I hopped on one foot, pulling on my underwear.

She zoned in on my chest.

“What?” I asked, putting on my bra.

“Will my nippies jiggle like yours soon?” She poked to her own microscopic ones.

I gulped down a laugh and started coughing. “Go downstairs for breakfast. But be careful because Mom isn’t in a good mood.”

“Why’s Mommy mad?” She rubbed the bottom of her foot on top of her other one.

“She just is. Go.” I gave her a small push.

“After swim class, you wanna play Barbies with me?” She stood in the hallway while I sat on my bed, tying my running shoes. Her bottom lip quivered, as if she knew I would say no. The last time I said no, she cried and ran to Mom, who gave me shit for it.

“Let me see how I’m feeling, okay?”

Her whole face brightened, and she nodded. “Can we go to the park also?”

I did some stretching exercises. “Don’t push it Pee-Wee. Go play or something.”

She giggled and ran downstairs. Olivia was the only one in my family who acted like she loved me. It had been too long since I’d seen the expression in my parents’ eyes. I wasn’t sure if I even cared whether they loved me or not. It had been so long since we said “I love you” to one another.


I walked down my front steps, my iPod on pause and my earbuds in my ears. I did a few more stretches. No one came out of the house across the street. Some sort of salsa-sounding music played inside, the music filtering through the open windows and front door. I guess the guys had taken a break.

No longer a concern, I speed walked down the sidewalk, listening to Jamiroquai’s Greatest Hits album, my pre-run jam. I stared ahead through my sunglasses, striding along the streets I knew so well even with my eyes closed.

When I walked or ran, I took the three-mile trek around the neighborhood. I’d then run around the million-dollar track in the park near my house. The urgency to run, to kick back my legs and let my mind wander was all the motivation I needed.

Now enveloped in the sounds of Amy Winehouse, I strode into the park. People walked their dogs, and too many kids to count ran crazy in the playground. A soccer game took place in the middle of the green, surrounded by the track. I enjoyed running on the oval asphalt. It helped me forget all the stupid drama in my life.

Bracing myself for some wicked burning in my lungs, I started jogging. I wanted to run the New York City Marathon before I graduated high school, but I still needed more training. I hoped to increase my time and commitment when school started again.

My senior year would be different from my junior year. But even after my big mistake, I had bought three-hundred-dollar running shoes—the best investment of my life so far. They made my feet light on the track. When I completed my twentieth turn, a stitch jabbed my side. I slowed to a gait, drenched to the skin with sweat. Bending over, I coughed up more mucky mucus. My lungs were on fire, and my head spun. I moved off to the side. Taking some deep breaths, I spit on the grass—greenish-colored snot with some blood mixed in.

“Gross.” I shook my head to relieve the pounding pressure there.

“You’re sweaty as hell, but I still find you very sexy.”

I froze at the familiar voice responsible for my insomnia. Closing my eyes, I turned down Bessie Smith’s “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” playing in my ears. Crap on a stick. He wasn’t supposed to be home for another three days.

“Hey, Eric.” I waved instead of running in the opposite direction.

He leaned on the other side of the fence. Crooking a finger, he beckoned me closer. I didn’t obey.

“I thought you were coming home on Monday.”

He smirked. Eric did it a lot. I wonder how he would react if he knew I called him Smirky McSmirkson behind his back.

“Oh? I thought I told you I’d be home yesterday evening? Oops, my bad. You look like you’re going to pass out. You should quit running for the rest of the day.”

I pulled my sunglasses down low on my nose, betraying nothing.

“Nice haircut.” He scanned my face with his judging eyes. “A way to stick it to me?”

“It’s not always about you.”

“You sure? We have a difference of opinion, then.” He crossed his arms. He wore a dark-blue T-shirt with the Franklin Hills police logo in the middle. His jeans were also a dark color, which he filled out pretty well. We were total opposites in appearance and personality. His jet-black hair and tanned skin contrasted my bland-a-a-auburn tresses and pale skin which only got color when sunburned. He had tight muscles and a flat stomach with cut abs, while I had my share of dimples and cellulite, although I wasn’t “fat” in the technical sense. I was pretty average, with the exception of my legs, and my thighs because of my years of track and field.

Any girl would be thrilled to have Eric Wagner’s attention. Not me.

“Let’s take a walk.” His far-too-broad smile allowed dimples in his cheeks to appear.

He hadn’t asked. He’d ordered and expected to be obeyed. Must be a personality trait handed down in the genes. His father, Chief Wagner, acted the same way. They probably thought it was a good way to get people to respect them.

I didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. When your blackmailer tells you to do something, you do it.


“Don’t touch me. I-I’m sticky with sweat and getting over a virus.”

Eric walked beside me, an arrogant smirk still on his face. “Sure, Evie.”

Only Olivia had the right to call me Evie. Not him. “I’m serious.” I let out a cough, not a fake one but a deep, chest-numbing painful one. “You can check my bloody snot I coughed up on the grass near the track as proof.”

He hung his arm around my shoulders, ignoring my comment. “I don’t mind a little sweat. Didn’t matter to me on prom night.”

I tried moving out from under his grip, but he held on too tight. I stopped from saying something stupid. Eric acted easygoing, but he had a temper. I’d seen it many times before. I had been on the end of it, starting a few months ago when he cornered me in the girls’ bathroom at school after prom. He didn’t like rejection, and he’d made a point to show it.

“I can’t stay out too long. It’s been days since I showered, and I promised Olivia I’d play with her.”

He squeezed my shoulder. “You’re the first one I wanted to see when I got home last night. I couldn’t sleep and woke up as the sun rose.”

Both of us couldn’t sleep—but for two very different reasons.

“Why don’t we sit on the bench?” I moved toward one near the baseball field in full sight of the players there.

“Let’s go over by the trees and the shade.”

Again, I didn’t have much of a choice. What Eric wanted, he got.

I light breeze blew under the big oaks I used to climb as a kid. Eric balanced his arm on a branch near my head, boxing me in. An inch or two over six feet to my five feet four inches, he loomed over me.

Tugging my sunglasses off my head, I set them on my nose again. “How was the cruise? One of those ten-days-at-sea excursions, right?” I asked politely, even though I didn’t give a rat’s ass about his cruise or what he’d done on the ship. Why couldn’t he have fallen overboard into the Atlantic?

“I had a great time. I sunbathed, went jet skiing and parasailing in Aruba. Staying in Miami Beach after the cruise rocked. I had a few special fruity drinks, if you know what I mean.” He waggled his eyebrows, trying to be cute.

“I bet you partied with a lot of hot girls.”

He moved in closer. “There were some hotties, but you don’t have to be jealous. I didn’t sleep with any of them.”

Ugh. Tilting my glasses down, I gave him a hard glare. “I don’t care either way if you slept with one girl or had two at the same time while you were there.”

“Why wouldn’t you? After our prom night, I’d never cheat on you.” His brows dipped, and he seemed confused.

I let out a deep exhale. “Eric, you’re not getting it. We’re not together as a couple. Just because we had sex for a few hours after prom doesn’t mean anything. You have my permission to see other girls and do whatever you want with them.”

I stepped back, but he grabbed my arm. I would’ve struggled, but I didn’t want him to think he repelled me.

“You can’t act like you don’t care.” He lowered his face to mine. “We were both virgins.”

He was so clueless. He wasn’t my first. “Whatever.” I shrugged. “The situation called for it.”

He gripped my upper arm harder. “What the hell are you talking about?”

I rolled my eyes and rubbed my nose. “You forced me to go to prom with you and expected me to have sex with you. I did those things, not because I wanted to, but because you blackmailed me. Did you really think after prom, I’d fall in love with you and want to be your girl?”

He moved away, his hands crossed behind his head—which he often did right before he lost his temper. But, I didn’t think he would hurt me in such a public place. He had a reputation to uphold because of his family name.

“Evi…Evelynn, I’ve wanted to be more than just friends since we were in middle school. I’m not blackmailing you. I’m protecting you because I love you.” Tears shone in his eyes.

He lived in fantasyland if he thought we were friends. In middle school, we would hang out every so often, usually with a group of people or at birthday parties. But by high school, my attention had moved elsewhere. He wanted to be the big man on campus, while I wanted to stay off to the side and observe and watch people walk by. We weren’t compatible at all.

“I don’t know what else to say to you.” I lifted my hands in the air, frustrated. “You’re not protecting me. If you were, you wouldn’t keep bothering me and making me do things I don’t want to do. A friend would ignore what they saw and never bring it up again.”

He seized my arms and pushed me against the tree. His icy stare made my stomach cramp.

“Are you saying you don’t smoke up anymore and you told your cousin to stop selling? I bet you haven’t. You’ll pick it up again because you need money to buy the things you want.”

I turned my face away to escape his harsh breath. His mouth brushed my cheek, and I flinched.

“I know your eight-dollar-an-hour babysitting job didn’t buy the running shoes you’re wearing. Whatever you think, Evie, I can’t let what you did at school slide. You broke the law. I can’t let you off without any consequences. This isn’t some petty crime. Dealing drugs on school property is a major offense.”

I glanced at him from the corner of my eye, trying not to cough. “Then turn me and my cousin in. I’ll live with the consequences.”

“What about your dad? Could you live with yourself, knowing your selfish actions lost him his cushy job?”

“You don’t know—”

“Yes, I do.” He nudged my chin with his fist. “It will happen if I tell my dad about you selling pot at school.”

He could be bluffing. But his father did have a lot of power and also sat on the school board. If I was arrested and thrown in jail for selling drugs, Dad would be mortified, maybe even let go from his job. I could never show my face in town again. But then, I may be locked away for thirty years.

Clearing my throat, I met his gaze and set my palms on his broad chest. “Okay, calm down. I need to think, and I can’t with you pressuring me. Why don’t we at least try and be friends and see what happens. Okay?”

He scrutinized my face, as if he saw through my lie. It made me want to duck my head. But then he gathered me in a tight embrace.

“You think you can manipulate me. Fine, take a few days, but the next time I see you, we will be on better terms. Got it?” he whispered his threat in my ear.

I gave him a short nod. He released me and pinched my chin, his smug smile returning.

“I missed you so much,” he spoke under his breath, and then kissed me. I didn’t fight and kissed him. For the moment, I would let him think I was his.

My life sat on the line. I could come clean, bringing shame to my family, or protect them and let Eric use me how he wanted.

It would serve him right if he got my cold.


Chapter Three

The stitch in my side, along with smelling pretty rank from the sweat on my skin and clothes, made my stomach turn. My clogged-up nose wouldn’t stop running. I didn’t have a tissue. I was in such a piss-poor mood. On top of everything, with trying to keep Eric happy, the stress had piled up to near overwhelming.

After he kissed me with the promise to call me later, I wanted to lie down. At least I would be on my own for a few more hours before Mom and Olivia returned home to bother me. The alone time would give me the chance to call Jenn and not worry about Mom listening in.

My cousin needed a heads up about Eric. I needed to tell her and her drug-dealing boyfriend, Brody, things would soon become much more difficult.

As I turned the corner on my block, I noticed the U-Haul had gone. One of the guys sat on the front steps, drinking a can of soda. He stared right at me as I neared my house.

“Hey,” he shouted and held up his hand in hello.

I wasn’t in the mood to be all neighbor-like, but I waved. “Hey, yourself. You moving in or just part of the moving crew?”

He pressed the can to his forehead. “I’m moving in with my brother.”

My new neighbor smiled, as if he expected me to walk over to him or tell him my name. If I’d been in a better mood, I would have. He was cute with short black hair and nice big brown eyes. He skin reminded me of caramel. His teeth were also white, although his left front tooth jutted out slightly more than his right one. He also had nice arms and big hands. He looked older than me by a few years. I had a preference for older men, and this one was easy on the eyes.

“Welcome to the neighborhood.” I nodded in his direction and took out my keys to unlock my front door.

“Hold up! What’s your name?” Standing, he stretched his arms over his head. His green T-shirt road up, flashing some stomach.

It took me longer to respond because I had zoned in on the slice of skin. “It’s Evelynn.” After unlocking my door, I walked inside and shut it behind me, leaning against the cool wood and listening to the pounding of my heart.

Kind of rude of me not to wait and see if he would tell me his name. I shifted to gaze out the window. My new neighbor with the nice eyes and mouthwatering stomach gazed up at the sky, his hands on his hips. He tilted his head as if he heard something and went inside to his new house.

“At last, some nice eye candy on the street.” I wiped my forehead with my arm and sniffed as my oniony body odor hit my nose. “Shower first then the call.”

I climbed the stairs with thoughts of my cute neighbor replaying in my mind.


The overhead fan in my bedroom twirled the humid air around my room. I lay on my bed in an oversized gray tank top and my underwear. I fiddled with my belly-button ring as I held the portable phone over my chest. My impulse in catching another glimpse of my boy-man neighbor had become a big preoccupation.

Instead, I settled for some “up close and personal me time” before I made the important phone call. The last time I had sex was prom night. What a joke. Eric hadn’t had a clue what he’d been doing.

If I got myself off, then maybe I’d be able to sleep at night. The last few times I did, it helped. I didn’t even mind the way my blood rushed to my head and how my thighs sometime cramped up because I had a bad habit of stiffening too much before the mini-explosion down below.

With less than an hour to spare, I slid my hand into my underwear, rubbing a certain spot that made my legs tingle. My heartbeat sped up and then my entire body relaxed.

As I shut my eyes, the sudden ringing of my cell interrupted my happy time.

I cursed, ready to ignore the call but then recognized my cousin’s number. “Hello?”

“What’s up, cuz? Still sick? You sound like you have a sore throat.”

“I’m trying to get over this stupid cold. I just took a shower after I jogged in the park.”

“You’re crazy running in this heat, but you must be feeling better. Want to go to Tink’s tomorrow night?”

Jenn always had fun suggestions. Tink’s was a big teen hangout with pool tables and dart boards. Live music from rock to metal, and my absolute favorite—jazz played on Saturday nights.

“I’m up for Tink’s, but Mom is being such a bitch. She’s unhappy I won’t make Eric my boyfriend.” Shifting my fingers in farther, I moaned.

“What did you just say?”

“Nothing. Just a good stretch.” I raised my left leg and nudged my knuckles down, making me jerk from the pressure. “We should see if Brody wants to meet up, and soon. It’s about Eric. He knows.”

“Knows what?” she asked, her voice turning stony.

My libido deflated. “Remember when I stopped selling at school in April? Eric caught me dealing. He’s threatening to tell his dad. He knows about you and Brody also.”

“Shit, Ev! This isn’t good.” I held the phone away from my ear. Jenn’s screeching could make someone go deaf.

I rubbed myself one last time, which did nothing because I’d tensed up again. Frustrated, I got off the bed. I wanted something cold and strong to drink.

“You don’t think I know that?” I threw on my black mesh shorts and walked downstairs, glancing at the grandfather clock. I had thirty minutes to get my drink on.

“Shit. Shit. Shit. How much does he know?”

“Enough where we would all go away for a very long time. That’s why we need to come up with a game plan.”

“This is so not good.” Jenn moaned and cursed under her breath.

I took a beer from the fridge, popped it open, and chugged. I let out a loud burp and wiped my mouth. “Calm down. There’s a way to get out of it. But it all rests on my shoulders. Eric is the one blackmailing me.”

She let out a long sigh. “What? For sex? So screw him a few times and it will all be good.”

I chuckled sadly and gulped down more beer. “I wish it were so easy. He thinks he’s in love with me. He just doesn’t want sex. He wants to be my boyfriend.”


I finished the beer and held off another burp. “All you have to say is ‘oh’? I’m not going to be the scapegoat here.”

“You may have to—Damn. My brothers just got home from field-hockey practice. Let’s meet tomorrow night around eight at Tink’s.” She hung up before I could say anything else.

I almost threw the phone at the wall. I channeled my anger at the beer can and crushed it, slamming it in the recycling bin. And not a minute too soon. A car drove into the driveway. I took a chocolate Popsicle from the freezer then sat on the couch and turned on the television. The sliding door near the deck opened, and Mom came in with a brown paper bag and Olivia trailing behind her holding a gallon of milk.

“Help, please.” Mom walked to the kitchen.


“With the groceries,” she said in a terse voice.

I stopped from rolling my eyes and went outside with Olivia to get the rest.

Olivia skipped ahead. “Swimming was lots of fun! Mommy said I can have a sleepover at Tammy’s house on Monday!”

I had no idea who Tammy was and didn’t care, but since my little sister seemed excited about it, I acted the same way.

“That’s great, Liv.” I threw my Popsicle stick in the garbage can parked at the side of the house and collected the rest of the bags from the car. I handed Olivia a light one.

“After lunch, can we watch some Dora and play Barbie doctor?”

She loved to pretend Barbie and Ken worked in a hospital. Either she wanted to be a doctor when she grew up, or she’d been watching too much of Mom’s favorite prime-time medical drama.

“Sure. Let’s get this stuff inside before Mom has a shit-freak out.”

Olivia giggled. “Yeah, wouldn’t want Mommy to have a shifreak out.” She walked inside still jabbering.

I winced when I overheard her tell Mom not to have a shifreak.


After watching Dora the Explorer for two hours and playing Barbies for what felt like an eternity, Dad came home from work. Me and Liv were in her room playing yet another round of surgery on Ken—a life-or-death situation because his head had detached from his body.

We sat on her bedroom floor as Olivia performed the “prep” as she named it for this life-saving surgery.

“Liv, he doesn’t have a head. He’s not going to make it.”

She frowned at me in her cute little way. “Can so. Bugs Bunny did it.”

I rolled my eyes toward the ceiling.

“How are my two girls?”

“Daddy!” She ran to him. He picked her up and blew a raspberry in her neck. She giggled as she hugged him.

“Hey, Dad.” I stood and stretched. My foot had gone numb, and I pounded it against the floor.

“Foot asleep?” He watched me through his professional-looking glasses. His tie hung loose around his neck, and the top two buttons on his shirt had been unbuttoned.

“What gave you that idea?” I walked to him and Olivia after the pins and needles faded from my foot. We high-fived one another. The last time I hugged him I’d been near Olivia’s age.

“I’m going to wash up and grill some burgers. Your mother has sweet-potato fries in the oven.”

“I love sweet taters!” Olivia bounced and ran out of the room yelling for Mom.

“You’d think she’d be exhausted with swimming and not having a nap,” I explained.

“How about you? Cold’s better?” He flicked a piece of my hair. “I still can’t believe you cut your hair so short and ragged.”

“Please don’t start. I hear it from Mom all day long.” I walked out the room to go downstairs.

“Evelynn, just because I’m your father, don’t think I’m not aware when something is off. As of late…no, this has been going on for quite a while. You’re pale and always exhausted, and you snap at everyone. You never go out. When was the last time you even went clothes shopping?”

“You think something’s wrong ’cause I’m not spending money?” I snorted. “I made plans to hang out tomorrow night with Jenn. Okay?”

He grabbed his briefcase and walked toward his bedroom. “What about Eric? I talked to his father today.”

I froze mid-step. A shrill ringing in my ears cut out all other sounds, and my stomach dipped low.

“Let me change clothes, and I’ll tell you about it at dinner. It concerns next Friday.”

I let out a sigh of relief. It must not be too bad. “Sure. I better go help set the table.”

“Good idea. Oh, did you meet the new neighbors across the street?”

“Just the one. We said hello, but we didn’t share names. He’s around my age, maybe a bit older. Did you talk to them?” I acted as if I didn’t care either way.

“Not yet. I might stop over after dinner and welcome them to the neighborhood. You should come with me.” Dad disappeared inside his bedroom.

“Whatever, Dad,” I whispered, clutching the banister as a sharp pain dug right in the middle of my forehead. It had been too long. I needed a fix bad. Tomorrow wouldn’t come soon enough.




What If

What If quote

 Young Adult Mystery


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“A startling unique spin on Peter Pan with mystery and romance, and staying true to yourself.” – # 1 NY Times Bestselling author Jennifer L. Armentrout

“Real and honest, sweet and heartbreaking, WHAT IF is an excellent YA read.”- NY Times Bestselling author Monica Murphy

Sixteen-year-old Wendy Wyman is bereft over the death of her best friend, Peter Preiss, whose body has been found at the bottom of the town lake. She blames herself because she allowed him to go back to his family’s lakeside boathouse late at night where they had just made love for the first time. She wonders what she could have done differently to stop Pete from being killed, and thinks back to the beginning of the school year when her whole life changed forever.

Wendy will stop at nothing until she finds out the person responsible for killing Peter, who was bullied by most of the students in their junior class. She is in for even more of a shock when she finds out that not only did Pete keep dark secrets from her, but a few of her close friends are hiding ones as well. This also includes Dylan Mayone, the new popular boy at school, who wants her for his own, and may have had a hand in Pete’s death.




I fell to the floor with tears rolling down my face. I couldn’t catch my breath, and my heart rattled around in my chest. I banged the back of my head against the wall. What I did will haunt me for the rest of my life.

My best friend was dead. I’m the reason he died.

If only I’d gone with him to pick up his backpack he left at the boathouse. But he told me not to worry, to get ready for bed. He would return in less than twenty minutes.

“Wendy, nothing will happen to me. We live in one of the safest towns on the East Coast.” Pete caressed my cheek with the back of his hand, giving me a kiss that left me wanting more.

He climbed out my bedroom window, just like all the other times.

He waved as he turned the corner and again just before he ducked into his car to drive to the lake.

He left a few minutes after midnight. I did what he asked. I got ready for bed and waited for him to climb through my bedroom window again, where I’d lie in his arms all night long.

I fell asleep.

If I’d never fallen asleep, he might still be alive. He’d be in my arms, sharing kisses and dreams of his future.

Pete’s future was stamped out.

Twenty-four hours later, the police were at his house, explaining to his parents how they’d found his body at the bottom of the lake.

I was the last one to see him alive, to feel his touch, those warm lips of his against mine.

If only I’d made him forget about his backpack by kissing him, pulling him to bed, and continuing what we did at the lake.

My best friend, the one I loved most of all, was dead.

I had a tough decision to make. He would expect me to do the right thing.

I would walk out of my bedroom and down the steps to tell my parents what I knew. It would be the hardest thing I would ever have to do. I’d kept so many secrets from them already.

They would find out about last night and what we did together.

He’s gone, and it’s all my fault! If only….

No more if onlys. Now only, what if?

What if they were wrong and he was still alive?

What if I continued to lie?

What if I could go back in time to the end of the summer when things between me and Pete had changed forever.

Chapter One

 Five months ago….


“Move your ass, Wonder Woman,” Pete shouted, flying by me on his cherry-red bicycle.

“You’re a dead man, Preiss,” I yelled, wiping the sweat off my forehead as I huffed up one of the biggest hills in Brookview Park. Just another hot and sticky Monday—Labor Day to be exact—as we enjoyed the last few days of freedom before we began our junior year of high school. We’d biked at Brookview forever and did every free chance available. Soon, we’d only be able to bike together on the weekends because of school and Pete’s part-time job.

He shot down the hill with his arms spread open like he was on a roller coaster. It frightened me. I didn’t want him breaking his leg like he did when he was twelve.

“Be careful, Mr. Daredevil.” I took my time coming down. There was no way my leg would be bound in a cast during my first semester of junior year, with me limping down the hallways open for anyone to tease or try to trip me.

He spun his bike and kicked his legs in the air. He could be such a show-off sometimes. He bowed, walking his bike over instead of riding it, and I rolled my eyes. He would be crushed if he knew my true feelings.

Biking wasn’t really my thing. My idea of fun was reading magazines and watching television.

Such a teeny, itsy, bitsy lie.

I hit him hard on the shoulder. “You’re going to get yourself killed.”

“Hey, that hurt.” He winced, rubbing his arm.

“Suck it up, Pee Pee.”

“You know how much I hate that nickname.”

I moved my sweat-drenched hair away from my forehead. I could feel a zit forming, rising under the skin. Great. Knowing my luck, I’d have a huge tumor right smack in the middle of my forehead for the first day of school.

“You call me Wonder Woman. I call you Pee Pee. Deal with it,” I teased.

He took off his sunglasses and wiped them off with the bottom of his damp white T-shirt. He sweated more than any person I knew.

“Wendy, I can’t help it that your first and last name begins with the letter W. Think of Wonder Woman as a compliment. My nickname, on the other hand, is humiliating.”

He frowned, turning away from me. It was bad enough the jerks at our school made fun of him. Among the more derogatory names used were Pity Pete or Patchy because of the bad case of acne he suffered from. Most times he looked like he had a constant case of sunburn. His face was a curse. I could hear the sing-song phrase in my head, “It’s such a pity Petey Pee-Pee is a monkey”.

At least they’d stopped calling him Jew Boy.

“Sorry,” I grumbled. He’d been calling me Wonder Woman for as long as I could remember.

“It sure is hot out here.” He lifted his shirt, wiping his face with it. I was about to tell him how gross that was, but then I noticed his stomach. Wow. His abs weren’t all that bad.

“You’ve been working out?” I patted his stomach, hiding a grimace as his sweat moistened my palm. Before I could wipe it away, he grabbed my arm and twisted me around until he held me in a head lock. We grappled like that until I almost slipped out of his grip, but he was just too strong.

“Do you surrender?”

“Never!” I decided to do something very low. I tickled him.

He released me, and I raised my arms in victory. Leaning against his bike, he rolled his eyes.

“Seriously, you have some major guns there.” I stretched my arms above my head.

“And your boobs are so big, now, they can crush soda cans. What are you now, a triple D?”

Only he could get away with saying something like that.

“Yeah, thanks for noticing. No push-up bra needed here.” I pushed my chest out for emphasis.

Suddenly, a silver convertible drove by with two guys.

“Hey, Patchy, where’s your bananas?” the driver shouted, and roared down the street with his radio blasting some air-splitting rock song.

I clenched my fists, wishing they would crash into a tree. “Pete—”

He fiddled with the handle bars of his bike. “I’m pretty wiped out. I should head home and shower before dinner.”

I glimpsed at my watch, surprised by the time. “Okay.”

He strode away with his bike. I came up beside him, bumping my shoulder into his. He did the same to me.

“Ignore that jerk. He’s jealous you’re with a big-boobed girl and he isn’t.”

He gave me a small smile but didn’t say anything. We walked in silence until we reached my house.

“Eleven’s okay?” he asked.

“Same time as always.”

He leaned over to give me a hug but ruffled my hair instead.

“Preiss,” I yelled.

He jumped on his bike and drove straight inside his garage, chuckling all the way. I felt too winded to chase after him.

I’d get him back. I always made sure I got the last laugh.


“Wendy, come help set the table,” Mom called from the kitchen. I sat on the couch in the living room, reading one of the entertainment magazines after I’d finished taking a shower.

I went to the kitchen. Mom grabbed plates out of the cabinet.

“Is Dad working late tonight?” I asked.

“No. He stopped at a store to get some doo-hickey for the lawn mower.”

My father had a strange obsession with our lawn. He would’ve been a better gardener than an insurance claims adjuster.

“Can I mash?” I asked as I took the milk and butter out of the refrigerator for the potatoes. I loved mashing potatoes. Yup, I was strange that way.

She pushed the ends of her strawberry-blonde hair behind her ears. “Thank you, pumpkin.” She squeezed my shoulder and handed over the items as she went to the oven to take out her homemade special meat loaf. What made it special, I couldn’t say. It was a brick of meat that stayed in your stomach long after you ate it.

“I’m no longer four. You need to stop calling me that.”

“You’ll never be too old to be my pumpkin head. Remember the Halloween you were five?”

“You made me dress up like a pumpkin. Oh, yeah. To this day I still get called, The Great Pumpkin.” I mashed the potatoes into pulp.

“You were so adorable. I had a blast making that costume.”

“A blast? Really, Marie?”

“Yes, a blast, Wendy Margaret. I try to keep up with the teen lingo.”

I covered a laugh and finished mashing. “Sure, Mom, sure. You’re one hip chick.”

She poured soda into a glass. “Like mother, like daughter. Why can’t I call you a cute nickname? You don’t seem to mind when Pete calls you one.”

I set the bowl of potatoes on the table. “Don’t remind me. It’s perfectly okay for him to call me some cutesy name, but whenever I try to call him something, he gets upset.” I scooped up some potatoes with a finger and slipped it into my mouth.

She gave me her I’m-not-amused mom look. “He calls you by a nickname because he likes you.”

“It’s because I’m his only friend.” I winced, wanting to kick myself for what I just said.

She placed a hand on my shoulder. “Pete’s such a sweet kid. I don’t understand why the other kids in your class can’t see the same thing we see.”

“They’re all stupid. But I don’t care. He’s my peep.”


“Yeah. It’s—”

“Hmm…what smells good?” Dad came in carrying a brown paper bag and reached for Mom, pressing his nose into the side of her neck.

She gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek. It didn’t bother me my parents were lovey dovey. They’d always been like that. It was pretty cool they still were affectionate after so many years of marriage.

“Hey, Dad.” I poured my own drink and then his.

“Hey, pumpkin.” He gave me a hug.

“Now, Greg, Wendy doesn’t want to be called that anymore.” Mom sat down at the table.

Dad pinched my cheek. “Why not? It takes me back to that Halloween—”

I sat down, rolling my eyes. “Been there, done that. The Great Pumpkin label will haunt me to the grave.”

He laughed and sat down across from me, winking.

I smiled.

When Dad started to say grace, Mom mouthed the word, pumpkin, and we burst out laughing. Dad shook his head and made me say the prayer instead.


I glanced over at my alarm clock. 10:50 p.m. Ten minutes until show time.

I lay on my back, watching the glow-in-the-dark star stickers on my ceiling and rubbing my stomach while it cramped. The meatloaf, as always, didn’t sit well. I’d pretended to enjoy eating it so as not to hurt Mom’s feelings. I lied. Parents lied to their children all the time. Why not their offspring? I still hadn’t forgiven my parents for fibbing about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. At least I’d kept the Tooth Fairy thing going until I was thirteen.

The whirl of the ceiling fan made me sleepy. I didn’t want Pete coming in while I dozed. I liked it better when we fell asleep together.

I turned on my side with my palm pressed against my stomach and continued rubbing it. Glancing at the window, I waited for him to make an appearance. My window was unlatched and opened halfway for him to climb in without any problem.

There was a scraping noise. Waving, Pete popped up in front of my window. I met him, giving him my hand to help him inside. He hopped down and set his backpack on the floor.

I opened my bedroom door and peeked down the hall. My parents’ bedroom door was closed—a good sign they were in bed. But I’d noticed the looks they gave each other at dinner, which led me to believe they weren’t going to sleep right away.

I shut my door and turned to see Pete lying on my bed with his arms behind his head. He wore black cotton boxers and a T-shirt with a faded picture of Spiderman on the front.

“I think my parents are having sex.” I sat next to him.

“Duh. It’s pretty much a given parents have sex.”

“I mean like now. They were making gooey faces with one another at dinner.” I lay down.

He cringed, and I covered a smile. “Please, can we not talk about your parents having sex? That’s just…gross.”

Turning on my side, I faced him. “Sometimes you can be such a girl.”

He rolled his head toward me. “You want me to tell you about the time I found my parents—”

I covered his mouth. “Let’s not go there.” I tried to get comfortable but couldn’t. My stomach wouldn’t stop bubbling.

Pete linked out fingers together. “What’s wrong?’

“Mom’s meatloaf.” I clutched my stomach and winced in pain.

“Oh.” He knew all too well about Mom’s killer meatloaf. He’d eaten it one too many times himself. “Come here. I’ll make you feel better.”

He moved his big, warm hand beneath mine. He was the only boy to ever touch me this way—skin to skin.

I yawned, the motion of his palm lulling me to sleep. “I can’t believe tomorrow is our last day of summer vacation.”

“Yeah. I can’t wait.” He sounded less than thrilled.

I rested my other fingers on top of his. “Don’t worry. We’re no longer the low men on the totem pole. Things will be better, you’ll see.”

I couldn’t see his expression in the dark. “I bet Brookeside High can’t wait for monkey boy. I wonder how many bananas I’ll find in my locker the first day.”

I lifted my palm to Pete’s face. He might look like a monkey with his big mouth, squashed, wide nose, and ears too big for his head, but none of that mattered. I found him to be perfect in every way. He was my best friend, and I loved him.

“You have me for backup. If anyone tries to mess with you, I’ll kick their ass.”

“With your humongous boobs as weapons?” he joked.

I flicked his nose with my finger. “Are boobs all you ever think about?”

He nestled me against his side and settled his palm on my stomach again. “I’m a guy. What do expect?”

“At least I know you’re not gay.”

He patted my head then kissed my forehead, and I began to drift off. “You don’t have to worry. I’m not gay.”

“Really, how?” I yawned loudly and closed my eyes.

“I dream of your boobs.”

I chuckled and kissed his collarbone. Soon after, I drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Two

The sun poured through the window, hitting me in my face. I groaned and rolled to the side, expecting to feel Pete up against my back. I lifted my head. My clock said nine fifty. He had left. Poor guy would work his last day of vacation until six tonight.

I blinked the sleep out of my eyes and climbed out of bed, yawning while I made my way to the bathroom. Before I could get there, the phone rang. The need to pee wasn’t as strong as it could’ve been, so I hurried downstairs and picked up the phone.


“I’m hungry. Let’s get some breakfast.” My other best friend, Pamela, whined for food.

“I could eat.” A sudden craving for pancakes hit me. “I need to buy school stuff for tomorrow.” I scratched my arm. Damn. I had a huge, ugly red mosquito bite on the inside of my elbow. That reminded me about my forehead. Damn again. I could feel a pimple growing there. “Shit.”

“What’s the matter? Must be something serious for you to say shit.”

“It’s life threatening. I have mosquito bites all over me and a zit that looks like a second head’s growing out of my forehead.”

“If you washed your face with more than just the cheap, generic crap, you wouldn’t have a problem.”

“You can be such a bitch.”

“You better believe it. Hurry up and get ready. Slap on some makeup, and do something presentable with your hair that won’t make me embarrassed to be seen with you. I’ll pick you up in less than thirty.”

“Okay. Later.” I hung up the phone and spotted a twenty-dollar bill poking out from under a piece of paper on the dining room table.



Here’s money for your school supplies.

Love, Mom


I snatched the cash and ran upstairs to take a quick shower. I took off my clothes in the bathroom and stuck my tongue out at my reflection in the mirror. The monster red zit had popped out of my forehead.

Why me?

It was going to be one of those days.


I gobbled down the last of my blueberry pancakes and finished my orange juice. Pam patted her mouth with a napkin like she was at some fancy restaurant instead of the local IHOP.

“Aw, you finished it all.” She pouted, eyeing my plate as if another pancake would suddenly appear.

“You’re always hungry. I don’t understand how you can eat like you do and not gain any weight.” I patted my full stomach.

“Must be the genes, baby. I’ll pay this time.” She gave me an air kiss.

Glancing outside the window, I expected to see steam rising up from the pavement. It was grosser than yesterday and would probably hit the upper nineties before noon.

“I hope the heat isn’t as muggy and hot tomorrow as it is today. I really hate this weather.” I fished an ice cube out of my water glass and sucked on it. Even in my light pink cami and khaki skirt I felt overheated.

Pam didn’t seem to mind the humidity in her white linen, sleeveless summer dress.

“The sexy weather guy on The Weather Channel said the heat should break by the weekend. We can always go for a dip in the lake.”

“You and your obsession with the weather. You really do want to be a meteorologist? I thought you just watched for the cute weather guys.”

She took out a few bills from her purse. “I watch for both.” She smiled and finished her coffee.

We stood. I stretched, feeling drowsy. She noticed my yawn and crossed her arms. “You just woke up! Come on, none of that. Let’s go to the bookstore.”

“We were just there last week.”

“Yeah, so? I want to visit Toby.”

“All right.” I scraped my feet across the faded-blue carpet.

She dragged me up to the front. After we paid the bill, we put on our sunglasses and strolled down the street. Quaint shops filled the center of Brookeside, as well as big brand name retailers and Williams’ Foods, the supermarket where Pete worked. There was a movie theater, a few other independent clothing stores, and the bookstore we planned on hitting up.

“I feel so gross from this heat,” I complained while we strolled toward the center of town.

“This is perfect to tan in.” She smiled up at the sweltering sun.

“That’s your opinion. More likely I’d melt into a pile of goo on the sidewalk.” We passed the supermarket, and I peered inside to see if I could spot Pete.

Pam touched my arm. “Can’t you go a day without seeing Pity?”

I stopped. “Don’t call him that. I hate when you do it.”

“Everyone does. It’s just a nickname.”

“It’s not just a nickname. It’s mean.”

She made a show of sighing loudly. “I really don’t see what’s great about Peter Preiss. I know you two have been best buds since you were kids, but he really ruins your mojo.”

“Mojo?” I asked when we stopped at the light.

“Yeah. Your mojo with the boys. The entire school thinks you two are an item.”

“We’re just friends. Like you and I are. But he doesn’t go out for pancakes with me. I make sure that’s our special thing.”

She grinned. “If I was a lesbo, I’d so be in love with you.”

I snapped my fingers. “Shucks. Too bad we aren’t.”

We giggled and crossed the street.

“Seriously though, you’re awesome, and everyone I know thinks so, but if you spend our whole junior year with Pity-Pete, you may find yourself ignored or not invited to any parties. You’ll never have a date for prom and end up staying at home like a loser.”

My temperature rose. It wasn’t because I was hot and cranky. “Pam, the whole being a part of the ‘in crowd’ doesn’t interest me at all. If I have to deal with assholes like Anthony Varela and Conner Bryce, I’m fine with the way things are.”

We reached the store, and I held open the door for her. Pam rooted through her purse. “What do you have against those two? They can be immature, but they’re cute. They’re always nice to me when they’re at Toby’s house playing video games.”

I waited inside the entrance for Pam to fix her face with blush and lipstick. I really didn’t want to get into it with her. “You know why. Those two jerks are the reason Pete’s treated like he has the plague or something.”

She finished beautifying herself and fluffed her hair. “You never did tell me—”

“Pammy,” Toby called out from behind the coffee counter.

Her whole face brightened, and she skipped over to her boyfriend. He welcomed her with a huge grin on his face. He stopped refilling the straws to give Pam a hug. No one stared. Except for a few tables with customers reading or typing away on laptops while they drank coffee or ate some cake or cookies, the café was nearly empty.

He gave me a wave. “Hey, Wendy. You’re going for the beach bunny look?”

I wondered if I should be insulted or not. Based on his snicker, I took it as so and stuck my tongue out at him. He responded by rubbing his cheek and giving me the finger.

“Oh, baby, you’re so funny.” Pam giggled and kissed his cheek.

Sometimes these two laid it on a bit thick.

“My break is in ten minutes. Can you wait?” he asked her.

She nodded. Great. It would be another half hour before I could get the things I needed for school.

“I’m gonna walk around.”

“Sure,” she said over her shoulder. She only had eyes for Toby.

I held back a gag and made my way over to the magazine racks. That killed about ten minutes. I then strolled over to the teen section to see if anything caught my eye. I picked up a current release about troubled teens at a boarding school, reading the description on the inside of the jacket cover and went over to a chair. Because my nose was literally in the book, I crashed into someone. I jerked away, and the book landed on the floor. The person bent down to pick up the book, giving me a smile that made me blink in stunned silence.

The guy, near my own age, held out the novel. “Are you okay?” He eyeballed the cover. “You’re into cheesy teenage soap opera?” Turning it over, he scanned the back cover. “Love triangle? Sounds pretty corny.”

His opinion of my reading material made me want to grind my teeth. Is he making fun of me or is this his lame attempt at flirting? I wish I could come up with a witty comeback, but my mind went blank. At least he was nice to look at. He reminded me of those Hollister models in the fashion magazines I read. He had a great muscular build, gorgeous blue eyes, and blond hair with natural highlights.

“Um, yeah, big fan here of corny teen drama.” I took the book from him. Oh God, I was probably blushing. My face seemed on fire.

He nodded and smiled. His teeth were also perfect. He kept staring at me, and I became even more frazzled. Oh no. What if he notices my volcanic zit?

I touched my forehead, releasing a small groan at feeling the very noticeable blemish sticking out from under my skin for the world to see.

“Is something wrong?” He took a step closer. I caught a whiff of his woodsy, yet subtle, musky-smelling cologne.

“Ah, no. It’s just, um…are you wearing cologne?” I wanted to die.

The cute boy laughed. “Yeah. Calvin Klein.”

I bet he wore Calvin Klein underwear. No, better yet, boxer briefs. “Sorry, I’m such a dork. Blame it on the heat.”

“I can understand. It’s pretty hot out there but probably worse in Manhattan.” He pushed his hands into the back pockets of his tan-colored shorts. He wore dark-brown leather flip-flops. Even his feet were great.

“Manhattan?” I asked, confused.

The cutie flicked a few bangs away from his forehead. “That’s where I’m from. I used to live in the city.”

“Oh? You’re visiting here?”

“No, I’m the new member of the Brookeside population. Actually, my cousin works here.”

“Really? Who—?”

Toby and Pam approached us with their arms around one another.

“Here he comes now.” The cute boy glanced over at them and then back at me. He couldn’t stop staring—or maybe I tricked myself into thinking that.

“Hey, bro.” Toby and the hottie slapped hands.

Pam noticed the book and grimaced. “You are not getting that, are you?”

“Shut up,” I whispered.

The boys both turned, and I smiled at them.

“I see you’ve met my cousin,” Toby said.

“Yup. But we haven’t exchanged names,” I responded.

“Only our love for books,” Hottie said, shoving his hands in his pockets again.

I would nip this in the bud. I held out my hand for him to shake. “I’m Wendy Wyman.”

Hottie took mine in his and shook it. “I’m Dylan Mayone. Nice to meet you.”

“You, too.” I smiled. He did the same and didn’t let go until someone cleared his throat.

I pulled my hand out of Dylan’s first. I would’ve sworn it tingled.

Chapter Three

Pam and I sat together at a table in the café. She drank a frozen coffee while I sipped a soda. We didn’t have to pay for a thing. Dylan did. Score one for us!

He talked to Toby at the counter. Again, his hands were in his pockets. Every so often, he would turn our way and smile.

“Isn’t Dylan a sweetie?” Pam sucked down her drink.

“I’d say he’s more than that. Do all the boys look like that in New York? ‘Cause we don’t have any of those here.”

She bumped my arm. “You’re just not paying attention to the local eye-candy. But, you’re right. He’s different from the guys in Brookeside.”

She gazed at Dylan and sighed.

I rolled my eyes and finished my soda. “Okay, give me the details. Who is he, and why did he move here?”

“Dylan’s dad is some big television producer. His parents are divorced. His mom lives in Los Angeles. I think she’s some important vice president at some hot shot music label. He comes from big money.” She rubbed her fingers together.

“Brookeside is filled with big money. You’re the perfect example.”

She sniffed. “Think more, a lot more. Toby told me when he and Dylan were younger, his uncle would take them to Hollywood movie premieres and after-parties.”

I checked out Dylan again. He talked to one of the girls behind the counter. They both laughed, and the girl leaned forward, showing off a chest that was more impressive than mine.

“Someone is jealous,” Pam said in a teasing voice. “You should go talk to him.”

I didn’t correct her, although I wasn’t necessarily jealous, more like bothered over my reaction to Dylan. “Other than him making fun of my reading material, he doesn’t act too stuck up or like some rich daddy’s boy. It’s nice of him to buy us our drinks.”

“I think it’s great to have a new face around. If we’re cool with Dylan, and he counts us as his friends, we’ll be the most popular girls in the whole school.”

“Pammy, you’re already popular.”

“Then you will be too.” She patted my hand and finished her drink.

“Why do you think he moved to boring Brookeside when he was in the middle of all the excitement in LA or New York City?”

She shrugged. “Who cares? It’s our gain.”

Dylan stared right at me. I peeked at my watch. Shoot. It was past twelve thirty, and I still had to go buy my school supplies and see Pete.

I loved visiting Pete at work and keeping him company on his break. But a part of me wanted to hang here and keep my eye on Dylan, a.k.a. the hottie. I liked mysteries, and he was one I wanted to crack.

Pam had left me and stood up front talking to the two boys. I went over to the garbage can, threw out my empty cup, and made my way over to the trio, catching the tail end of the conversation.

“…the fun begins at three o’clock. Bring your bathing suits and whatever else you want. We’ll have a barbeque to welcome in the school year.”

“What’s going on?” I asked.

Pam hopped up and down. I think she had too much caffeine. “Dylan’s having a barbeque on Saturday afternoon. We’re all invited.”

“Really? Sounds like fun.” I hoped it wouldn’t be too hot.

“You’ll come?” Dylan rubbed my arm.

“Y-yes.” I pushed my bangs away from my eyes. Whoa, he’s the touchy-feely type.

“Great.” He gave me another one of those adorable smiles that showed off his dimples.

“We should go. I need to get some things for school.” I sent Pam a let’s go look.

“Yeah, before we forget.” She scuffed her foot against the floor. “I wish summer wasn’t over.”

Toby leaned over the counter. “Junior year is going to be awesome. Now with my man Dylan around, we’re going to have the time of our lives.”

Dylan snorted. He still had his hand on my arm. I moved away.

“Let’s get going. Great to see you, Toby.” I nodded at him and then at Dylan. “It’s nice to meet you, Dylan. I’ll probably see you tomorrow.”

“It’s a promise.” He winked at me.

My face grew hot. I pulled Pam away before we ended up staying and talking with Dylan some more.

“Bye, guys!” She waved and followed me out the front doors.

As we passed the huge window, I peeked inside. Dylan had his hands in his back pockets again. He bit his lip as if he held back a laugh. I groaned. He made a boo-boo lip look hot.

“What?” Pam asked.

“Nothing.” I hurried down the sidewalk.

It didn’t take me long to get what I needed at the drugstore. Pam went crazy buying makeup. She had a basketful while my own wasn’t even half filled. My mind kept wandering to Dylan. I couldn’t understand why I’d had such a strong reaction to him. He was cute and all, but there was something too perfect about him that irked me. Or maybe I made excuses because those dimples of his were to die for.

Shrugging the thought aside, I bought what I needed and headed down the sidewalk. Nearing Williams’ Foods, I slowed down. “I want to run in here for a second.”

She gave me a pout. “Can’t you do this later? I’m hot. I want to go to the lake.”

“Oh, come on! I want to say hi to Pete. It will only take a minute.”

She wrinkled her nose. “Don’t you see him enough as it is? I mean, you live across the street from the guy. Besides, it’s the perfect time of day to get some color,” she coaxed. “You need it more than I do.”

“Why, thanks.” I frowned, feeling insulted.

“You know what I mean.” She started to complain again but then someone covered my eyes.


“Hey, Pete,” I said, and his hands dropped.

“How’d you know it’s me?” He wore black pants and a white polo shirt with the market’s logo on the left pocket.

“She can smell you,” Pam said.

“Pam.” I gave her a warning and glanced over at Pete. “She’s just cranky because she’s hot.”

“It’s brutal out here.” He wiped his forehead. He had really bad sweat stains under his arms.

She gave me a grossed-out look. “I’m going to the car and turn on the air. You have five minutes, Wendy.” She marched off, swinging her hips.

“Miss Cheerleader U.S.A. not in her usually peppy mood?”

“Don’t go there.”

“Sorry.” He rubbed my arm. It was the same one Dylan had touched at the bookstore. This time no tingles, just a soothing touch.

“Eh, don’t be. Blame the sun. Pam and I are going to the lake for a swim.” I gave him a light punch on the shoulder. “You should join us if you get out early.”

He’d probably say no. He wasn’t a fan of swimming, especially in big crowds. We stopped going to the lake a few years ago after his father decided he was too busy to boat or fish with Pete like he used to when he was younger.

“I’m stuck here till six. I better get back in. I just wanted to say hi since I saw you standing out here.” He gave me a goofy smile.

“You’re such a good guy, Pee—” I winced, catching my mistake a bit too late.

He patted me on the shoulder before I could apologize. “Go swim. Show off your hot bod to all the horny thirteen-year-olds. I’ll see you later tonight.” He headed toward the store.

“Eleven?” I shouted.

“Same bat time.”

“Same bat channel,” I finished, and he gave me a wave.

I walked to Pam’s car, but I realized I’d forgotten to tell him about Dylan and the party on Saturday.

Chapter Four

A sudden summer storm helped alleviate the heat. Instead of turning on the central air, I opened all my windows. A nice breeze whipped around my bedroom while I brushed my hair. My arms and legs were still on fire—when Pam and I sunned at the lake, I’d forgotten to bring sunscreen. Stupid me didn’t think I’d get burned. I’d been wrong and now paid for it. Instead of having a nice tan, my face, arms, and legs were blotchy and red. My back was worse. I would look like a freak for the first day of school tomorrow.

I inspected my reflection in the closet door mirror. Yep. A freak. I stuck my tongue out and glanced over my shoulder as Pete climbed through my window.

“You’re early. I didn’t expect you for another thirty minutes.” I finished brushing my hair.

He dropped his backpack on the floor and toed off his flip-flops. “I had to get out of my house. Mom and Dad were arguing.”

His parents argued over something every week. “What’s it about this time?” I sat on the bed and bit my lip to stop from moaning out loud.

“What do you think it’s about? Not having enough money. Same old crap.” He sighed and sat down next to me. He stroked a finger down my arm. “Wow, you did a number on your skin.”

“Yeah. You could probably fry an egg on it. I’m so stupid. Just ‘cause Pam turns a nice golden brown, I think I can, too.”

He shook his head. “Did you put anything on to help with the burn?”

I grabbed the bottle of aloe from the bedside table. “I’d planned on covering myself with this gunk before you arrived.”

He held out his hand for the bottle. “Lie on your stomach. I’ll do your back.”

“It’s a good thing I wore a one piece. Can you imagine my burn if I’d worn a bikini?” I lay down, placing my head on my arms, and turned to check my clock. It was barely ten thirty, and already I felt beat.

Pete squeezed out the gel. He lifted my loose-fitting, gray tank top until it came under my chest and circled a finger in the middle of my back. He didn’t drop a huge puddle of aloe on my skin that would make me cringe from the cold. I could count on him being considerate like that.

He gently rubbed the aloe into my skin. I sighed in relief. “This feels nice. You give the best back rubs.”

He snorted. “Too bad you’re the only girl I’ve ever given a back rub to.”

“You could always become a masseuse. Then you can touch all the girls you want.”

“Knowing my luck, I’ll get all the fat, hairy old men.”

I let out a small laugh and closed my eyes. He moved down my arms. He straddled my butt as he slid his palms over my swollen, inflamed skin.

“Imagine if my mom or dad walked in right now. They would have a heart attack.”

He leaned down. “Your father would throw me out the window and then tell my parents,” he whispered in my ear. “Mom would make me join the synagogue and become a rabbi.”

“Rabbi Peter Preiss has a nice ring to it.”

He poked me in the side. “Behave.”

“Yes, sir,” I grumbled, and he continued his work.

He made his way down to my legs. When he dug his fingers deeply into my thighs, I covered a groan.

“You like this?” His voice sounded deeper. He moved down to my knee and my leg twitched. I was very ticklish there. He swiped his thumbs under my shorts, near my butt. I moaned. He stopped rubbing and coughed. His thumbs circled the inside of my thigh.

Um, this feels different. “I think I’m good now.”

Before he could continue, I rolled up and sat across from him. He rubbed his palms together and acted too involved in what he was doing.

“You okay?” I asked, clearing my voice when it came out higher than usual. He seemed off about something.

He started to wipe off his hands on his faded olive-colored T-shirt when I stopped him. “Don’t even think of it. Let me get a towel.”

I got up from my bed and limped over to my closet, grabbing one from the shelf. Pete leaned against my headboard. I gave him the towel, and he cleaned his hands. He wouldn’t meet my eyes.

I sat next to him and poked him in the chest. “Hey, what’s the problem? You’re too quiet.”

He threw the towel on the floor. “Just worried about tomorrow. One of the reasons my parents fought is because of me. Dad wants me to try out for some sports. If I join football or soccer, I won’t be such a loser. He thinks me writing all the time alone in my room isn’t a good thing. I guess I’m too antisocial.”

“You’ve got to be kidding! You’ve won more creative writing awards than any other person in our class. You’re going to be a great novelist someday.” I grinned and ran my finger up his arm. “Unless you become a world-renowned massage therapist first.”

I waggled my finger in front of his face. He captured my finger and pretended to bite it. I tried pulling away, but he kept my hand in his.

“Don’t worry what anyone says. You don’t need to be some dumb jock to be accepted. You have your writing, work, and…me.”

“Those are the three most important things I have in the world. You do know you are the most important thing in my life?” He tapped my chin with his thumb.

“Even more than your writing?” I joked.

He lifted our combined hands and rubbed his cheek against them. “Of course.”

The way he gazed at me made my stomach tighten. I let out a fake yawn and took my hand back. This moment we shared together had more going on than I wanted to admit.

“I’m beat. You probably are, too, with working all day and lifting those heavy boxes.” I shut off my lamp before stretching out on the bed. The glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling shone brightly, capturing my attention.

Shifting to his side, he hooked his arm around my waist. I pressed my shoulder against his.

“Are you busy after school?” he whispered in my ear.

“Nope. I have nothing planned.”

“Let’s go biking in the park.”

I groaned. “If I can move tomorrow. I have a feeling my burnt legs won’t let me do much exercise.”

He laid his other hand over my leg. A tingle ran up and down where his finger brushed softly.

“Hey, keep your hand to yourself. You’re giving me ideas.” I let out a real yawn this time.

He snuggled against me, and I kissed his cheek.

“I don’t want things to change between us,” he murmured.

“Why would things change? We don’t have to worry until senior year for anything like that.”

“I just have a bad feeling this year’s going to be worse than last year.”

I patted his arm in reassurance. “Nothing bad is going to happen. You’re not some new kid the upperclassmen jerks can throw into a locker.”

He snorted. “That hasn’t happened since seventh grade.”

“See, you worry too much. I promise you this year will be our best yet.”

He pressed his cheek against mine and let out a loud yawn. His breath smelled of mint. He always made sure to brush his teeth before he came over.

“I hope you don’t become too popular for me.”

“Peter, shut up and go to sleep. If that happens, I give you permission to smack me.”

“I’ll do more than that.”

I twisted my head and gave him a pointed look. “What would that be, Preiss?”

He didn’t respond and started to snore. I couldn’t tell whether he pretended or he really slept. I shrugged and snuggled deeper into his embrace and closed my eyes. I always slept well in his arms.



Who is Shirley Anne Edwards?

Shirley Anne Edwards is a Northeast girl who first found her love for books when she read Nancy Drew’s The Secret of the Old Clock Tower at thirteen. Shirley found her love for writing at a very young age, and since then has let her imagination run wild by creating quirky characters and vast worlds in her head.

Shirley lives in New Jersey and works in the entertainment industry in New York City.

In the immortal words of Mark Twain: “Life is short, Break the Rules. Forgive quickly, Kiss SLOWLY. Love truly. Laugh uncontrollably and never regret ANYTHING That makes you smile.”

You can contact Shirley at shirlwriteredwards at and find her at these other places:

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