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Deep breath.

I was calm again, and I was reaching for the contents in the box.

The biting-lip friend knelt down, grabbing one of the picture frames. She lifted it up, pausing before handing it over. “Your mom?”

I swiped it from her, then hurried to grab the rest.

This was so embarrassing.

I’d literally been here less than two minutes and I’d already been knocked on my ass and snapped at by one of the mean girls. My worst nightmare come to life. Well, technically, I lived through my worst nightmare, hence the entire reason I was down here in the hella hot Texas heat, but you get my drift.

This. Not fun.

I didn’t answer the question, though this girl seemed nicer. She spoke in a soft voice, her hair a little darker blonde than mine and laying in huge ringlets around her face. And she was almost as pretty as the mean Greek Gazelle. Cornflower eyes, a smattering of freckles over her cheeks, and a heart-shaped chin. She wasn’t as tall as Gazelle, but as a guy stepped around the golden couple, he knelt down and helped grab the rest of my stuff from the floor. “Here, babe.”

He handed my transfer papers and my high school yearbook to the nice girl.

Don’t ask me why I had the diploma in that box. Random things had been grabbed and stuffed in a rush. And I’d only grabbed the box because I felt holding a backpack in front of me would’ve been a bit much, but seriously. I needed a shield between me and these people.

The girl sighed, handing over my stuff and then resting her palms on her legs. “You’re Dusty, aren’t you?”

My mom had a cousin named Dustin. He got in a lot of trouble, the kind that drank, crashed, and just kept on partying. The kind that got a tailgating ticket from a cop, because the cop was the one being tailgated.

Anyway, his kind of trouble got him dead young in life. He and my mom had had a special connection. They got into trouble together some of those times, and when I popped out of her, she said I had his gray eyes and I kept his dirty blond hair, so I became Dusty. Not Dustin. Dusty Gray. She always said I looked like him, too, though I was on the slender side and he’d not been. He’d been big, muscular, but those gray eyes were distinct. We had a kindred spirit. And he’d been handsome. My mom said I’d been pretty, long eyelashes, full lips, rosy cheeks, but since I never got a lot of male attention growing up, I was inclined to believe it’d been her love blinding her. She was a good mom. The best mom.

“Yeah. Hi.”

The gorgeous guy next to her stood up, helping her up with a gentle hand behind her elbow. I was assuming these two were together, but unlike the golden couple, who were still standing, still glaring (her) and staring (him), both were giving me friendly vibes.

I added, “Char rented out her room to me. We talked and everything.”

“Fucking hell!” The Gazelle threw her arms up, stalking off. “Fucking Char!”

I winced, literally.

Her golden bookend stayed, and his eyes grew a tad bit more interested, but he still only smirked. “Dude.” Then he left, tipping his chin up to the other guy.

“I’m Savannah.” Nice Girl was holding her hand out, tucking a ringlet behind her ears.

The guy gave me a lazy smile. “Noel.”

They even had beautiful names. Of course.

I was dust. Literally.

“Hi.” I tightened my grip on my box, now glancing around.

We were standing in the entryway that was between two rooms. One was a living room, a huge sixty-inch television hung up on the wall. Two couches in front of it. It looked almost like a theater room, and on the other end was another television. More couches. A few gamer chairs pulled up in front of the couches, and right then, a huge roar from somewhere close ripped through the air.


Four guys surged to their feet, fists in the air, drinks raised high, their heads tipped back from the howls. A few girls shrieked, clapping along with them. A couple others were slower, looking over from where they’d been talking.

Both televisions were on the same game. They were watching the local pro football team, the Kings, and if anyone was anyone, which everyone was someone, then they knew who they were cheering for.

“Yes!” A guy pumped his fist in the air, spraying his drink.

He didn’t care. The buddies he slapped hands with didn’t care.

One girl who got most of it sprayed on her, however, did care.

No one cared about that either.

“Fucking Stone Reeves. He is the man!”

Stone Reeves.

Yes. Even I knew who he was. I picked Texas C&B because it was known for its marine biology program, but it was also known to house the newly rising in popularity pro football team, and we were smack in the beginning of that season.

I’d walked right into a football party.

Eyeing Savannah, I asked, “You guys do these parties often?” My box was slipping, so I transferred it to my hip and hiked it up.

Before she could answer, Noel dipped his head to her ear, saying something. She nodded, smiling, and pulled away. “Later.”

He gave me a polite smile before heading over to one of the couches. The guys heralded him as if he’d been declared missing with posters and a local search and rescue. I thought it was all a bit much, but no one else blinked an eye. I was in the minority.

“I’ll show you your room, yeah?”

Savannah ducked her head down, indicating past the two living rooms and into what looked like the kitchen. I followed, holding my box still on my hip. I wanted to have a hand free. You never knew when you’d have to push another Mean Girl aside so she didn’t trample you.

A few more people were in the kitchen. The dining room adjacent. An attached patio from there.

She led the way past the people standing by the sink. One was a shorter girl with sleek brown hair, bright brown eyes, and a wide smile. She saw Savannah, the smile remained, then her eyes tracked to me, to the box, to my backpack, and the smile dimmed. Dramatically. It was damn near gone as Savannah walked past her, reaching out, a hand tapping the girl’s arm in hello. The girl had been talking to another guy, another meathead-type. He had on khaki shorts, a polo shirt, and a beer in hand. He reached forward, touching the girl’s waist, but she stiffened. And hissing, she stormed past us, those frosty eyes on me. She almost clipped me at the shoulder, but I was ready. Free hand and all. It was a good thing she swung out of the way at the last minute, or I would’ve shoved her right into her guy.

Savannah turned toward what looked like the garage door.

My room was in the garage? For real?

She motioned to me, her smile now forced and pasted on. “Down here.”

Down here was a door that went to the basement, and once we were down there, it was a lot quieter. I almost sagged in relief.

She noticed, her eyes crinkling. “Not one for parties?”

“Not one for people who don’t want me here.”

Had I… Oh shit. I had.

I clamped that free hand—see, I knew there was a practical use for it—over my mouth. I was blaming the lack of sleep and sheer will that had me driving across five states in two days. “I’m sorry,” I said with my hand still over my mouth, so it was awkwardly moving with my lips. “I didn’t mean that.”

She snorted, turning to the right. “Why not? I would’ve said worse.” She motioned ahead. “Come on. I’ll show you your room.”

She went through what looked like a section of the basement that had been turned into an apartment. There was a kitchenette area. A medium-sized fridge. A tiny sink. A tiny oven that my grandma might’ve used in the ’30s. There were two tables. One was decked out with a red plaid plastic tablecloth, and another that was simply a brown round table. A few chairs around each. She motioned to a room attached to the kitchen, to the left of the stairs. “That’s Lisa’s room.” Her eyes flicked upwards. “The one we just passed by.”



We’d braid each other’s hair and exchange best friend beads, that much I was sure of.

Then Savannah was continuing on, going through the kitchen and into another room. It wasn’t separated by a door, just a half-wall partition, and this room was obviously a game room. An old pool table. A foosball table. Even a bar tucked in the corner.

She kept straight, continuing on to a door on the other side of the room.

Dread lined my insides and she opened the door and stepped inside.

There was no more house to go.

I couldn’t be in that room. It was literally right next to a party room. There was a bar, for fuck’s sake.

But I stepped to the doorway and peeked in.

The room was bare. A bed in the corner. An empty nightstand.

“Come in.”

I did, and she shut the door.

A desk was built into the wall behind the door with shelves above that. A dresser was beside it.

Another door was attached on the far end of the room. I assumed it was the closet.

It wasn’t.

She opened it and stepped through. “Okay. So. I know this room sucks. I do. Char left and everyone shifted rooms. You got stuck with this one. And I’d like to say we never use that room, but we do. And I know I didn’t answer your question above, but we do. Often. We’re big into football.” She seemed to hesitate, biting her lip, before rushing on. “But here’s the upside of this room.”