I gape. A mixture of shock and fear prick me at the sudden proclamation. Bad timing can’t even begin to describe tonight. I try to stand, but he grips my wrist so tight that when I jerk up, he brings me right back down.
Jonathan, frighteningly the only other person in the room, sets his whiskey on the glass end table “Is there a problem here?” he asks Aaron.
“Didn’t Lily tell you?” he says with a false smile. “We’re dating now.”
I shake my head quickly. “No we aren’t.”
Jonathan stares between us, reading my closed body language and Aaron’s aggressive movement. And then he says, “Get the f**k out of my sight, kid.”
“Excuse me?” Aaron jerks back in shock.
Jonathan stands and straightens his tie. “Lily.” He holds out his hand for me to take it, and I am momentarily struck by the change of events. Is Jonathan Hale really saving me from this douchebag right now?
I shouldn’t take his hand. I should spit at it and walk away. Lo would. But he’d also kill me if I didn’t leave Aaron when I had the chance. And I’m not an idiot. I want to be far, far away from him. So I stand, and this time, Aaron lets me disentangle from him. But I don’t touch Jonathan. I walk right on past him and head for the door, my exit in view.
Before I leave, I hear Aaron say, “She’s a slut, you know that, right?”
“And you think I don’t know what my son did to you? I helped him ruin you, you piece of shit,” he says.
Lo told his father about Aaron? About how he’d tormented him? I don’t question this. Because Lo’s relationship with his father was a taboo topic between us. It fluttered in and out of our conversations, and I was only allowed a glimmer. And I know, without a doubt, that Jonathan Hale would move mountains for Lo. He just needs to be in the right mood first.
“Like father, like son,” Aaron says.
I have to leave, but I’m glued next to the door. I glance back one last time, and Jonathan’s eyes briefly flicker to me. “That girl is practically my daughter-in-law.” He sets a firm hand on Aaron’s shoulder. “If I hear you did anything to her, you’ll wish all you had to deal with was my son. Now get out of my f**king face.”
I am so confused.
I don’t know who to root for anymore.
I don’t know what sides to take or who to praise or condemn.
All I know is that my family is royally f**ked up. And no amount of money or luxury can fix these problems. Maybe they even helped cause them.
I enter the grand ballroom where people wander, standing up and chatting as though it’s cocktail hour. Streamers and gold and black balloons lie on the carpet. I missed some sort of celebration. I kick them away and spot my mother by the stage.
What possesses me to approach her? I’m not quite sure. But as she talks to my father, I feel like I should just say something. Maybe help explain Rose’s feelings but in a softer, gentler manner. Maybe she’ll listen to me, I think. She never really has, but it’s a nice thought anyway.
I approach, and my father excuses himself to go mingle with some older corporate men. She looks a little stricken, her lips pinched and her hand a bit shaky. “What is it?” she asks, on edge.
“Are you okay?” Why do I start with this? Of course she’s not okay, and does she really deserve my sympathy after slapping Rose? No, not one bit. But I can’t take it back, and her domineering posture sucks my confidence dry.
“Fine,” she says, turning her back on me almost immediately. She waves to her friend and acts like I’m a piece of furniture that chose to bump into her leg.
I try again. “I think she’s just trying to express herself, but she doesn’t know how to do it without yelling…”
My mother continues to wave at her friend in the distance. She puts her hand on my shoulder, patting me once. “Sure, I have to go talk to Barbara. Find Aaron. He’ll keep you company.” With this, she drifts into the pack and wears the fakest smile. I watch her hug a bejeweled woman in a red bandage dress.
I feel like she just punched me in the gut.
Ryke suddenly sidles next to me. “There you are.” He hands me a glass of water, and I thankfully accept it with a smile. “You okay? Nothing happened did it…?” His brows furrow, and he glances behind me, probably looking around for Aaron who I’m sure has ceased and desisted. Jonathan Hale’s warning was strong enough to listen to. And Aaron isn’t that stupid.
“No,” I say, “nothing like that.” We both stare at the party that seems to relax—calm after the split tension. “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers begins playing. Couples grab their significant other, swaying to the lovely tune.
“Who was that guy anyway?”
“And old enemy,” I tell him, watching an elderly woman put her cheek on her husband’s shoulder.
Ryke stuffs a hand into his suit jacket and nods, as though fully understanding what it’s like to have enemies. I have no doubt that he has his fair share.
“My mother slapped my sister,” I say, completely detached from the words.
Ryke doesn’t even flinch. He just stares off at the dancers. “Funny, my mother did the same thing to me when I told her I was coming here.” He sips his own water.
“I think your father saved me tonight.”
Ryke stays quiet, letting this sink in.
We’re so f**ked up. That’s all I can think and process.
And another batch of balloons begins to fall at the end of the song. The ceiling flickers with soft-lit multicolored lights.
I made it.
No guy touched me. I didn’t touch them. Sex was the last thing on my mind tonight.
Each day feels like an obstacle.
And a victory.
Three different pints of ice cream squeeze in between my thighs, the chill seeping into my Ms. Marvel pajama pants. Valentine’s Day sucks. Connor and Rose planned their date for the past week at some fancy restaurant, leaving me to gorge on Chunky Monkey, Half-Baked, and Cherry Garcia alone. I watch late-night cartoons on the high-def television, being transported back to my childhood years with Looney Tunes. With each “that’s all folks,” my heart thuds and I turn my head, about to mention how much I liked or hated the episode to Lo.
Who’s not here.
He hasn’t emailed yet. Fourteen days into the month, and I haven’t heard a peep from him, not even a mention that he’s alive and well. The last couple days of January, he sent me a bouquet of red roses. I think he meant for them to arrive today. At least I hope so—that way I’d know he still thinks about us and hasn’t planned to end our relationship for good.
My mother’s comment at the Fizzle event hasn’t calmed my worries either. If she thinks I need a “backup” plan, I wonder who else believes he’ll ditch me when he returns home.
That paranoia—it festers like a sore. I glance at the glass vase on my end table. The roses droop and wilt, but the card sits open. Remembering the words in Lo’s messy scrawl eases me a little.
These are real.
My chest swells. These are real.
3 YEARS AGO
Reality TV blares through my flat screen. Nothing beats faking sick on a school day and staying home in pajamas to watch trashy television. I lazily unwrap the individual chocolates from the heart-shaped Valentine’s box on my lap when a knock bangs on my door.
For a moment, I debate on hiding the sweets, but I go against it. Too much work, and really, what’s the probability that my mother is on the other side of the door? The last time she willfully entered my room was probably two years ago when our housekeeper accidentally shelved one of Daisy’s debutant dresses in my closet. I opened my door to find my mother hysterically screaming at the air—haphazardly flinging my clothes in wild distress and anger. When she found the maroon gown, she told me I should have realized the dress was misplaced. And then she stomped away.
Leaving me alone.
It’s safe to say the knock did not come from her.
My door slowly swings open without an invitation, and I immediately relax. Lo fills the archway, wearing his Dalton Academy uniform: black slacks, white button-down, and the skinny blue tie that has been loosened at his neck. It fits him well…maybe too well.
He scans me in a long once-over, and then his brows rise in accusation. “No runny nose, no clammy skin, cough or even a wad of tissues,” he says. “I must say, Lil, you are the worst at faking sick.”
“Good thing I’m not really trying.”
“Why didn’t you tell me you were going to skip?” he asks, still lingering by the door frame. Odd, but I try not to question it.
“I didn’t want you to feel obligated to skip with me.” I straighten up and lean against my headboard. The truth: pretending to be in a relationship with Lo consists of PDA. Lots of it. Since it’s Valentine’s Day, I didn’t want to be in class and have a candy gram delivered to me. Or be in the hallways trying to escalate the flirty looks and make out sessions just to show off our fake romance. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
His eyes land on my nightstand. Twenty-four red roses bloom in a crystal vase. The little card sticks out from the sea of petals. I already read it out loud this morning at Daisy’s request. Happy Valentine’s Day. With all my love, Lo.
“Nice touch,” I tell him after the moment of silence. “Daisy nearly died when she saw them, and I think my mom was really pleased.” We’re definitely selling our fake relationship well. Six months in and no one has questioned it thus far.
“Do you like them?” he wonders, undoing the rest of his tie.
I break away to look at the roses again. No boy has ever sent me flowers. On my birthday, the house will be overflowing with lilies to commemorate the occasion, but they’re usually from family or friends of my parents.
At first I thought these roses were another pretend gesture of our fake relationship. Now that Lo asks me if I like them, I’m not so sure anymore.
“They’re pretty and much better than lilies,” I admit.
“I’m the best fake boyfriend ever then,” he says with an easy smile. And my suspicions sputter out. Fake boyfriend. Of course. He finally closes the distance between us and plops down next to me. He tilts my box of chocolates with his finger and grimaces. “You’re nasty.”
“I don’t like the fillings.” All the chocolates are bitten in half and some have been spit back out into the box. I have yet to find one that isn’t revolting.
“Well, I can’t look at this.” He closes the box and sets it on the nightstand. He scoots nearer, leans a little closer and gently rests his palm on my forehead, successfully invading my space and causing my breath to whoosh from my lungs.
“You’re not warm,” he says softly and drops his hand to my neck and lightly presses. “Lymph nodes aren’t swollen.”
I narrow my eyes. “How do you know about lymph nodes?”
“I had the flu last year,” he reminds me. “Shhh, and let me finish my diagnosis.”