Five years ago…
The bottle slips from my fingers, clinking as it lands on top of the small pile of empty beer bottles already gathering underneath the hammock I’m relaxing on.
“It’s your turn to get beers.”
Drowsily, Marcus closes his eyes. “I’ll go get some in a minute.”
I melt into my own hammock and sigh sleepily.
“This was the best idea you’ve ever had. I’m going to park my ass right here the entire weekend.”
During the week, Marcus came home with five hammocks. So far we’ve only put up two of them, which was an accomplishment in itself, if you ask me. The three leftover hammocks are still lying in the living room.
“Do you think you’ll be able to fuck while keeping your balance on this thing?” I ask, without opening my eyes.
Damn, this is the life. Me and Marcus, all the beer we want, and the sun all fucking day long.
“Don’t know. You can try it out sometime and let me know. It takes ten minutes just to get my ass settled in this thing,” Marcus murmurs.
Yeah, it’s only a matter of minutes before he’ll be fast asleep. Come to think of it, an afternoon nap isn’t such a bad idea. It will give me more energy for the party we’re having tonight.
I glance over at my best friend and grin. He’s lying with both legs hanging off on either side of the hammock.
“Dude, you look uncomfortable, lying like that,” I laugh.
He doesn’t answer at once, and I’m starting to think he’s asleep when he mumbles, “Free-Fucking-Balling. There’s a nice breeze on my balls.”
“Cool,” I grin, as I move slowly so I don’t tip the damn hammock. When I have my legs hanging off the sides, my grin grows. “Fuck, you’re right.”
Marcus laughs lazily. “The wind’s blowing us, dude.”
Everything is about sex when it comes to my best friend. Not like I’m one to talk. It’s as if our minds have a direct link to the gutter.
We’ve been friends since diapers. Our moms were best friends as well. At least, they were until Mr. Reed killed Mrs. Reed. That was one fucked-up day. Marcus was only ten and his sister, Summer, had just turned six the previous month. To this day, no one knows the reason Marcus’ dad lost his shit and shot his wife, daughter, and son, before turning the gun on himself.
Fortunately, the bullet missed Marcus’ heart by a ball hair. Summer and Mrs. Reed died instantly. It happened during our summer vacation so luckily, I could stay with him every day until he got released into Mom’s custody. He had no other family and besides, she was his godmother.
Logan might be my twin, but after the shooting, Marcus and I became inseparable. We might have been close before he lost his family, but during his stay in the hospital, it was as if I became everything in his life.
Those first few weeks he wouldn’t talk to anyone but me. Mom made him see a psychologist, but that didn’t help much either. He became detached from everyone and everything. I was the only one allowed to see behind the walls. I was the only one he didn’t pretend with. I comforted his broken heart suffering from the loss of his mom and sister. I held him as he cried because he didn’t understand what had happened. I took the blows when he was overcome with anger at his father. I took it all – the good, the bad, the broken – without fail. I took it all, so he didn’t have to carry the full weight of his fucked-up past alone.
After the shooting, Mom changed as well. The horror that took place in the Reed’s home rocked the whole community, but after a while, things slowly returned to normal, and people stopped talking about it. Where Marcus turned into himself, Mom seemed to be all over the place, as if she lost her balance in life. The friendship between her and Mrs. Reed reminded me a lot of what Marcus and I had. After Mrs. Reed died, Mom unraveled right before our eyes. She’d gone from mother-of-the-year to fucked-up mess at breakneck speed.
At first, it was little things. She’d spent entire nights sitting outside while finishing a bottle of wine or three. She grew impatient with us, her once loving demeanor being replaced by a snapping tone and cold glare.
It got worse after our thirteenth birthday. I was the first one to go through a growth spurt. Knowing I couldn’t go to Mom about the hair making its appearance on my face, I went to Mr. Hayes. He was the only father any of us had. Even though he worked his ass off, he always had time for us. Honestly, we spent more time at Carter’s house, than anywhere else.
Mr. Hayes was amazing. I mean, fucking amazing. He was never too busy for us. He’d go out of his way to show every single one of us how much he cared. He never missed any of our firsts. The first day of school, first games, first driving lessons—he was there for everything. He was the only solid in our constantly changing lives.
The memory of how he taught us to shave will always be one of my favorites.
It was early one morning after Mom had left for a well-deserved day at the spa after a night of heavy drinking. I was relieved to find that Mr. Hayes hadn’t left for the office yet. After I asked him if he could show me how to shave, he took off his tailored suit jacket and proceeded to roll up the sleeves of his expensive shirt. When he had the five of us standing in front of the mirror, he placed razors and shaving gel in front of us. He made sure to remove all the blades from the razors so we could practice first.
He started with Carter, spending time with each of us, making sure we knew what to do. I was last in line, for which I was grateful because it gave me time to watch as he showed the others. I still remember Mia sitting on the side of the tub, pulling her face as she watched us.
Rhett and Mia were the first to move in with Carter and Mr. Hayes after their parents died. That was a blow to us all. Rhett and Mia had the best parents, and their sudden death caused Marcus to have a setback as well. It was a reminder of what he had lost, opening up his scabbed over wounds.
Mom wasn’t close to Mr. and Mrs. Daniels. She didn’t have any sympathy for Rhett, who she always referred to as that friend.
I don’t like that friend of yours.
You’re spending too much time with that friend.
I don’t want that friend here. You’re all working on my last nerve.
That only led to Logan, Rhett, and Carter spending all their time at Carter’s place, and avoiding our house at all costs.
I was doing my best to help Marcus deal with the nightmares that had started again. He wasn’t confused and angry like he was at the age of ten. Hell no, he was bottling it all up, and I was scared what he’d do the day he exploded.
That’s when the verbal abuse started. I wasn’t sure why she targeted me. Maybe it was because I was the first one to show signs of becoming a man. I’m just thankful she hadn’t set her sights on Logan or Marcus. I never fought back out of fear that she would lay into them instead.
She walked in on me while I was shaving and the usual blank stare she gave me quickly turned to one of rage.
“You look just like him,” she whispered, her voice sounding as tight as a piece of string that was about to snap.
Logan and I weren’t identical twins. We had the same dirty blonde hair and brown eyes, but that was it. I was taller than him, and my features were harsher. Logan was the pretty one with the killer smile where I was abrasive and argumentative. Logan was the friendly, light-hearted brother, and I—I was the careless, cynical one.
That’s another reason why Marcus and I were such a great fit. Marcus was ruthless and at times downright derisive towards others. He was the oil to my fire.
“You’re the spitting image of your father.”
I’d gotten used to the cold and vacant look in her eyes, but I’ll never forget how her mouth pulled down that day. She looked at me with disgust.
“You think I don’t see it, but I do. You and Marcus are narcissists, just like your fathers. You’re poison. Your father killed me, and Robert killed Stella. It’s sickening to know there will be a day you will both do the same to some poor girl.”
The words didn’t hurt half as much as the gleam in her eyes. I’ve been on the receiving end of disappointed and angry looks, plenty of times in my life, but never the ‘I-wish-you-were-never-born’ glare. It felt like I stopped being her son that day.
After that, she took a swing at me every chance she got.
You’re just as spineless as that good-for-nothing father of yours.
I should’ve gotten rid of you when he left. Now I’m stuck looking at your face every day as a reminder that he left. One day you will leave too.
It’s weird how things played out after that.
I should’ve seen it coming, but hell, I had just discovered the magical effect a pair of tits had on my dick.
Mr. Hayes wanted to take us all to New York for the summer break. He was taking over a business there. I’ll be the first to say I was worried about it. If he decided to move, it would pretty much leave me, Marcus, and Logan screwed. It would tear the group in half.
He invited Mom over for dinner so he could discuss the trip with her. After dinner, they walked to the study so they could talk privately, while we went outside to swim. It was hot out already, and it was only the start of summer.
After spending some time in the pool, I needed to use the restroom. Mr. Hayes wouldn’t be too happy with me if he caught me watering the garden, so I dried off and ran inside the house.
I should’ve stayed outside. You never hear anything good when you eavesdrop. As I walked past the study, Mom started yelling.
“How can you sit there, looking so calm as if it didn’t happen? Your wife and my husband ran away together, leaving us with the kids. I’ve spent the best years of my life raising those boys. I’m almost forty, and I have nothing to show for my life! I’m done sitting at home, watching as my life passes me by.”
I felt a weird mixture of shame and anger brewing in my chest. I was embarrassed that my mother was talking to Mr. Hayes like that, and I was pissed off that she was so selfish. Then the part of my father running off with Carter’s mother sunk in, making me feel sick.
I heard a chair scraping over the wooden floor, but no footsteps came towards the door, so I kept listening.
“Are you even listening to the words coming out of your mouth, Judy? You have two amazing sons. What about them?”
“I don’t care. Your wife ran off with my husband. If you had kept an eye on her, it wouldn’t have happened. I have my trust fund. You can keep your monthly allowance. I don’t need it. I’m done wasting away in this pathetic town.”
“You’re really going to abandon your sons? What about the promise you made to Stella that you’d always take care of Marcus?”
“She’s been dead for six years. I was a different person when I agreed to be his godmother. They’re sixteen, Christopher. You can either take them or they can take care of themselves. I’m done playing mother to those boys.”
I heard Mom’s high heels on the hardwood floor and ran for the restroom. Just as I slipped inside, the door to the study opened.
“I won’t stop you, Judy, but make it a clean cut. Walk away right now. I’ll keep the boys here tonight and take them home tomorrow to pack their stuff. I want you out of that house by the time I get there with them. I won’t make this harder for them than it already will be.”
“I’ll be gone first thing in the morning.” She didn’t storm off like I expected she would, but instead whispered, “You’re a good man, Christopher. They’ll be happy with you.”
I leaned my head back against the wall as I listened to her footsteps die away.
She left without saying goodbye.
The next day Mr. Hayes took us home to pack our stuff, after having told us that Mom was okay with us spending the summer with him.
I never told anyone about the things she said to me, not even Marcus. I wasn’t sad that she had chosen to leave us. Actually, it made it easier for me to hate her. It made it easier to pretend around Logan.
A few weeks later, Mr. Hayes sat us down and explained that our mother wouldn’t be coming home soon. She was taking some time to travel. He really did his best to break the news to us gently. Marcus and I got up and went to shoot some pool. To me, it was just another day.
Logan, on the other hand, took it hard. He looked like a zombie as he walked out of the office. Mia smiled when she saw him, took one look at his face and hugged him. I left Logan with Mia so she could comfort him.
It was during our senior year that I struggled to control my anger. I joined a gym so I could punch the shit out of a punching bag and lift weights until I was too tired to care.
That’s when Marcus started the Screw Crew list. He made it his mission to add as many names as he could to it.
So for the last few years, Marcus has been doing his best to fuck his demons away, while I’ve been trying to exercise mine away.
“Seriously! You do know what it means to take a break, right?” Willow watches me with her hands on her hips, her blonde hair piled on top of her head in a messy bun.
We could’ve been sisters, instead of best friends. We both have blonde hair and brown eyes. Willow is a head shorter than me and has a heart-shaped face which you can’t help but stop to admire. I’ve been told I’m pretty but being skinny and tall with an oval-shaped face, I’m not drop-dead gorgeous. Looks never bothered me, though, because I’ve always been a bookworm.
“I am taking a break,” I mumble while keeping my eyes on my laptop’s screen.
Saying I’m a bookworm might be scaling it down a bit. I’m addicted to the written word, although my passion lies with cardiac surgery. I inherited the obsession from my parents. Being the only child of two of the most admired cardiothoracic surgeons in the states, it was a given that I’d follow in their footsteps.
Willow plops down next to me and leans closer so she can see what I’m busy reading.
“You call this taking a break?” she asks, giving me a look that clearly says our definition of the term break is vastly different.
Willow’s the only person who’s been a constant in my life. I have an amazing relationship with my parents, but with their busy careers and my studying, we don’t get to spend a lot of time together. Willow keeps me grounded.
When I graduated school at thirteen, Willow was determined to stay friends with me even though I’m a year younger than her. During my first year at Boston, we kept contact by facetiming at least three times a week. What I love most about Willow is that she never treats me any different just because I have a high IQ. I still think if it weren’t for the fact that Willow and I were neighbors before I started at Boston, I never would’ve made a friend. Being privately tutored at home didn’t exactly give me many opportunities to interact with other kids, and there wasn’t any time to make friends once I started school. I did my best to try to break the record of becoming the youngest doctor in the US, but I missed it by two years. Now my heart is set on becoming the youngest cardiothoracic surgeon.
Dad and Mom forced me to take a six-month break before starting my six-year integrated cardiothoracic surgery residency program at USC. I’m only halfway through my forced vacation, and I’m already feeling antsy. The thought alone of starting my residency makes my heart race with excitement.
“I’m reading an article on postoperative physiotherapy. It’s interesting. It’s like when you read those fashion magazines you love so much.”
She slowly shakes her head, giving me a look that closely resembles pity.
“Only you would think boring medical articles can compete with the latest fashion trends. You, my friend, are in desperate need of fun.”
“But –” I glance from my laptop screen to her, then back to the really interesting article about a survey they did in Sweden rating the effectiveness of physiotherapy after cardiac surgery. “This is fun.”
She shakes her head again, and her facial expression clearly says my relaxation time is up.
“I’m afraid all the studying might have done permanent damage to the fun section of your brain.” She shakes her head, really getting into her role as the doctor. “You, Miss Baxter, are in dire need of a party. I prescribe a full forty-eight hours of drinking and dancing.”
I scrunch my nose, certainly not in the mood to go to parties the entire weekend. Before I can argue she holds up her pointer finger.
“No arguing. It’s of utmost importance that we immediately start with treatment, before the fun section of that genius brain of yours, shrivels and dies.”
I can’t help but grin at her. “You should’ve gone into medicine with me. You’d make a great doctor.”
She pulls a face, shaking her head.
“Hell no, I’d kill all my patients. Fashion is my passion. While we’re on the topic of fashion…”
Willow grabs the laptop and closes it before pulling me up along with her.
“Go shower and put on the dress I made you. Don’t you dare put up your hair in that god-awful bun. It makes you look like a nun who escaped from a convent.” She pulls a face as my eyes dart to the messy bun on top of her head. “I’ll curl it for tonight. You’re nineteen, not ninety.”
“You’re really going to make me go, aren’t you?”
She grins, a wicked gleam in her eyes which promises no sleep in my near future.
“I only have you for another three months before you start your residency. I get a feeling I won’t see you for the next six years. Hell, I’m taking full advantage of my time with you.”
Willow is right. I’ll be working my butt off over the next six years. I want to make a difference in this world, especially when it comes to heart transplants.
I go through the motions of showering and washing my hair. While I leave the conditioner in for a few minutes, I quickly shave. I can’t wear the gorgeous dress Willow made when my legs are so hairy. After rinsing the conditioner out, I grab a towel and pat my body dry before wrapping my hair in it. When I rub lotion all over my body, I inhale deeply. I’m addicted to the sweet, rich fragrance of jasmine.
Walking back into the bedroom I share with Willow, I’m not surprised to find her waiting.
“Let’s do your hair. I’ll shower while you’re putting on your makeup.”
There’s no use in arguing with her, so I take a seat at the vanity. Willow gets busy blow-drying layer by layer of my hair. As I sit and watch her hands move, I think about how lucky I am to have her as a friend.
She shares the apartment with two other girls. I’ve spent some time with Evie, whom I get along with. I can definitely see myself staying friends with Evie once I leave. I haven’t seen much of Della, but she seems nice.
When Willow is busy massaging styling wax into my hair so it won’t go frizzy, I ask, “You mentioned a party? Will Evie be going as well?”
Willow wipes her hands on the towel I had around my hair while admiring her handy work.
“Yeah, she’s already at Carter’s place. We’ll meet her there.”
“Carter? He’s friends with Rhett, right?” I’m still trying to remember names, never mind who fits in where in their social circle.
“Yep, you’ll meet all of Rhett’s friends tonight. Carter is an asshole, so just make sure you stay out of his way.”
My eyebrows almost dart into my hairline. The fact that Willow thinks the guy is an asshole says a lot. She’s the kindest person I know.
“Okay,” I agree, although I’m curious why she doesn’t like him.
“Come to think of it, just stick to my side tonight. I don’t want any of the Screw Crew getting their hands on you.”
“Why are we going then? If you don’t like any of them, we can do something else.”
Like, stay at home.
I can think of a couple of things I’d rather do than go to a party.
“We’re going because it will be fun. Besides, it’s not that I don’t like them. They’re just too wild and tactless for you. They’re fun to hang out with, but you seriously don’t want to end up in bed with one of them. Believe me when I say they will try. They have this thing going to see who can screw the most girls.”
Worry lines instantly cover my forehead.
“I really don’t think I should go. You know I have zero experience with guys. I wouldn’t know who’s being nice and who’s playing me even if my life depended on it.”
“You’ll be okay. We’ll stick together, and they won’t try anything with you as long as I’m by your side.”
Curious to find out more, I ask, “Have any of them tried to get you into bed?”
Willow scrunches her nose. “Only Marcus has tried. Ugh, he’s the worst of the group.”
I don’t miss the blush creeping up her neck as she quickly leaves to go shower. There’s definitely a story there.
We’ve been here twenty minutes, and I’m ready to go.
I can’t dance so I avoid the makeshift dance floor at all costs. The living room is packed with students, some drinking while others are already drunk, and most are in various stages of making out.
Suppressing a yawn, I decide to go outside for some fresh air. I avoid going near the pool which is surrounded by party-goers. The last thing I want is to be thrown in the pool. It would ruin the beautiful dress Willow made me. I smile as I look down at the pale green, silky fabric. She made me a shift dress which might be a little too short for my taste, but it fits perfectly otherwise.
I spot a table with drinks and make my way over to it. I’m surprised the table isn’t crowded with students. When we got here, we couldn’t even get into the kitchen where the drinks were.
When I notice only sodas on the table, I understand why it’s practically deserted. I pour coke in a red solo cup and watch as the tiny bubbles fizz to the top.
“You want ice?” a deep, gravelly voice says from behind me, which startles the hell out of me. I drop the cup, and it falls to the ground, causing soda to splash all over my legs and sandals.
“Damn it,” I groan as I step away from the mess at my feet. I bend to pick up the now empty cup, seeing as the contents are all over me when I hear the voice behind me again.
“And here I thought it would take some foreplay to get you wet.” From the laughter in his voice, it’s clear he thinks my accident is hilarious.
“You must be one of the assholes, thinking it’s funny that I messed all over myself,” I snap as I place the cup on the table and turn around, getting my first look at the guy.
I freeze like a deer in oncoming traffic as I take in the perfect specimen of everything that’s male, standing in front of me. Even though his smug smile makes my anger grow, I can’t help but drink in the sight of his dreamily carved, scruffy face. Don’t even get me started on his hair which is a few shades darker than mine, disheveled and sexy.
Ugh. Double shit.
“You must be one of those bitches, unable to take a joke,” he says as the smile around his full mouth curves into a wicked grin which only makes him hotter.
Damn it. Why does he have to be so incredibly attractive? It messes with my ability to think, which has never happened to me before.
“I can take a joke,” I say, clearing my throat.
“Could’ve fooled me.”
I watch as he pours soda into a cup. He holds it out to me, one eyebrow raised. Not even thinking, I take it from him and as our fingers touch briefly, a shiver races over my body.
To make matters worse, as I’m about to take a much-needed sip, he takes hold of the hem of his shirt and yanks it off his body in one smooth motion.
My mouth drops open as my eyes dart over his chest, wildly trying to drink in every inch of tanned skin and muscle. Damn, he might have a shitty attitude, but his body sure makes up for it.
He grabs a bottle of water which he pours out over my legs and feet. My brain is screaming at me to slap the smirk right off his gorgeous face, but my traitorous body won’t move a muscle.
“Sit,” he says. His voice a mixture of playful and raspy, making flutters erupt in my stomach.
Placing his hand on my shoulder, he pushes me lightly back, and my body, ever the traitor, goes where it’s being guided. The back of my knees hit the edge of a chair, and I sit down.
I want to say something clever that will put him in his place, but my mind has clearly taken a hiatus, leaving my hormones in control of this situation.
He reaches for my left leg, and slipping the sandal from my foot, he starts to dry my leg with his shirt.
I can’t stop myself from staring at his well-toned back and broad shoulders, fascinated by each muscle rippling when he moves. When he’s done with my left leg, he repeats his actions with my right leg. Only, this time his left hand slips up until it reaches the back of my knee while he keeps drying my already dry leg.
I clear my throat to get his attention. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get my voice back with all the tingles zapping upwards to my lady parts, from where he’s touching me.
“There you go, all dry,” he says as he stands up. He looks down at me as he throws the shirt over his shoulder. “Run along now, your mother must be worried.”
“Huh?” I grunt as if my IQ dropped to a miserable zero.
“Pretty little things like you shouldn’t hang out at parties. Isn’t it past your bedtime?”
Finally, a flicker of my intelligence returns along with my temper. I push myself up from the chair, not that it helps as I barely reach his shoulder.
He flashes me a confident grin, his eyes dropping to my feet before slowly making their way up my body. I don’t miss how they rest on my hips and breasts for a few seconds too long before they settle on my face.
I’ve never been so blatantly checked out in my life before, and it makes a dreaded blush creep over my cheeks.
“That’s right, my eyes are up here,” I say so he’ll know that I know he was ogling me. “Not that it’s any of your business, but I’m nineteen. I’ve practically been living on my own since I was thirteen. Also, I do not appreciate you calling me a pretty little thing. Women aren’t things.”
Feeling proud of my ability to string a few sentences together, I smile triumphantly.
“Jax, stop harassing my friend,” Evie suddenly says behind me, which makes me swing around from surprise. I recognize Rhett, but I haven’t met the other guy with them.
“Your friend?” Mr. Too-hot-to-have-a-personality asks. Thanks to Evie, I now know his name is Jax.
I feel him move behind me and I hate that my body is aware of him. His arm presses against my shoulder and my sandals appear in my line of vision.
I do my best to ignore the fact that I almost forgot them, and snatch them from his hand. I drop them to the floor and quickly slip them onto my feet.
“Yeah, my friend, which means she’s off limits.” Evie hooks her arm through mine and pulls me closer to where Rhett’s standing. “You’ve met Rhett, and this is Carter Hayes. They live here.”
Smiling, I reach out a hand to Carter. “Leigh Baxter. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
We shake hands as Willow joins us, followed by another guy who looks like he’s about to kill someone.
“Sorry, I leave you alone for ten minutes and the wolves descend.”
“Wolves?” Rhett asks with a playful smile on his face.
“Yeah, wolves. Leigh’s parents would kill me if any of you corrupted their daughter.”
“You’re carrying on as if the pretty little thing is fucking royalty?” Jax says from behind me, sounding a little offended. I also don’t miss how he accentuated ‘pretty little thing’ as if he’s already caught onto the fact that I hate it whenever he says it.
“You could say that,” Evie says. She looks to Carter. “Dr. Baxter, your dad’s heart specialist, is her father.”
Instantly, a cloud moves over Carter’s face as if Evie just spat at him instead of introducing me.
“In that case, she’s off limits,” Carter bites out. He grabs my hand and starts to pull me away from the growing crowd gathering around us. “I’ll take her back to the apartment. Willow, are you coming?” It doesn’t sound like a question but more like an order.
More common sense seems to return to my frazzled mind, and I yank my hand free from his grip.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I seethe as my anger quickly burns through my body now that my focus is no longer on Jax.
“You shouldn’t be here, Leigh. Your father will kill me. I’ve heard him talk about his little girl. I’m not pissing off the man who might have his hands inside my dad’s chest one of these days.”
I throw my hands in the air, actually dumbfounded by how quickly the night went downhill.
“You know what,” I say as I start to walk towards the side of the house, “I don’t want to be here. Why the hell I’m torturing myself like this is beyond me.”
I keep walking, not looking back to see if Willow is coming. I’d rather sit outside the apartment for the entire night than spend another second here.