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You are the best and I hadn't realized you have increased daily book download limit from 5 . What a miracle
30 November 2020 (12:21)
I’ve read tons of romance, but this is literally the best romance book ever written. 100% recommend it!!
03 February 2021 (21:46)
Sometimes conversations between main characters are quite cringy but overall i enjoyed the book
18 April 2021 (22:24)
I love book. Makes you laugh sometimes
30 April 2021 (04:47)
I love this book. I felt a lot of emotions all throughout ♥️
08 May 2021 (16:19)
High Lady Of The Night
The book is a roller-coaster ride if you are in for slow burn,passion and alot of sexual tension then this book is definitely for you..
10 May 2021 (12:48)
dunno if I should read it , low-key trying not to read smut lmao
26 July 2021 (20:38)
Not to be dramatic, but this book HURT! But it’s so good, my loves! It’s not as spicy as the other books in this series, but it’s chefs kiss. I will give a trigger warning that it has some instances of child $exu@l abuse that’ll really break you. Be right back, gotta go sob for a bit.
18 August 2021 (05:18)
Also, if you’re like me and fall in love with books and need someone to rant about the books to, please message me because same!
18 August 2021 (05:19)
You literally saved my life ...love the books
24 August 2021 (22:42)
Saya suka buki ini , menambah pengalaman,
27 August 2021 (15:31)
Angry God L.J. Shen Copyright © 2020 by L.J. Shen All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written consent of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotation embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. Resemblance to actual persons, things living or dead, locales, or events is entirely coincidental. For Ratula Roy, Marta Bor, and that sliver of hope peeking from every dark moment in our lives. Table of Contents Title Page Copyright Epigraph Music Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen Chapter Sixteen Chapter Seventeen Chapter Eighteen Chapter Nineteen Chapter Twenty Chapter Twenty-One Chapter Twenty-Two Chapter Twenty-Three Chapter Twenty-Four Chapter Twenty-Five Chapter Twenty-Six Chapter Twenty-Seven Chapter Twenty-Eight Epilogue Acknowledgements Connect with L.J. Shen Preview of The Kiss Thief “We never heard the devil’s side of the story. God wrote all the book.” —Anatole France “Saints”—Echos “Give You Hell”—The All-American Rejects “Dirty Little Secret”—The All-American Rejects “Handsome Devil”—The Smiths “Bad Guy”—Billie Eilish “My Own Worst Enemy”—Lit “Help I’m Alive”—Metric “Bandages”—Hot Hot Heat “Peace Sells”—Megadeth “Boyfriend”—Ariana Grande ft. Social Club Lenora, 12; Vaughn, 13 You didn’t see anything. He is not coming for you. He didn’t even see your face. Every bone in my body shivered as I tried to bleach the image I’d just seen from my brain. I squeezed my eyes shut and rocked back and forth, curled like a shrimp on the hard mattress. The rusty metal legs of the bed whined as they scraped against the floo; r. I’d always been a bit wary of Carlisle Castle, but up until ten minutes ago, I thought it was the ghosts that terrified me, not the students. Not a thirteen-year-old boy with a face like The Sleeping Faun sculpture—lazily beautiful, impossibly imperial. Not Vaughn Spencer. I grew up here and had yet to encounter anything as scary as that brash American boy. People said Carlisle was one of the most haunted castles in Britain. The 17th-century fort was supposedly the home of two ghosts. The first had been spotted by a footman who’d been locked in the cellar some decades ago. He swore he saw the ghost of Madame Tindall clawing at the walls, begging for water, claiming she’d been poisoned by her husband. The second ghost—that of said husband, Lord Tindall—had evidently been seen roaming the hallways at night, sometimes reaching to fix an off-kilter picture, though not moving it an inch. They said Madame Tindall had pierced Lord’s heart with a steak knife, twisting it for good measure, the moment she realized he’d poisoned her. According to the tale, he’d wanted to marry the young maid he’d impregnated after decades of childless marriage to Madame. The knife, people swore, could still be seen in the ghost’s chest, rattling whenever he laughed. We’d moved in when Papa had opened Carlisle Prep, a prestigious art school, a decade ago. He’d invited the most talented, gifted students in Europe. They all came. He was the Edgar Astalis, after all. The man whose life-sized sculpture of Napoleon, The Emperor, stood in the middle of the Champs-Élysées. But they were all scared of the rumored ghosts, too. Everything about this place was spooky. The castle loomed from a foggy Berkshire valley, its silhouette curling upward like tangled black swords. Ivy and wild rosebushes crawled across the stone exterior of the courtyard, hiding secret paths students often snuck through at night. The hallways were a labyrinth that seemed to circle back to the sculpting studio. The heart of the castle. Students strolled the foyers with straight backs, ruddy cheeks stung by the seemingly endless winter, and taut expressions. Carlisle Preparatory School for the Gifted frowned upon other public schools like Eton and Craigclowan. Papa said ordinary prep schools encouraged weak-minded, silver-spooned, middle-weighters, not true leaders. Our uniform consisted of black capes with Carlisle’s motto sewn in bright gold across the left breast pocket: Ars Longa, Vita Brevis. Art is long, life is short. The message was clear: the only way to immortality was through art. Mediocrity was profanity. It was a dog-eat-dog world, and we were leashed upon each other, hungry, desperate, and blindly idealistic. I was only twelve years old the day I saw what I shouldn’t have. I was the youngest student at the summer session Carlisle Prep had opened, followed by Vaughn Spencer. At first, I was jealous of the boy with the two slits of penetrating frosty stone instead of eyes. At thirteen, he already worked with marble. He would not wear his black cape, acted like he hadn’t the same mandate as other students, and breezed past the teachers without bowing—unheard of in this school. My father was the headmaster, and even I bowed. Come to think of it, I bent the lowest. We were told we were a cut above the rest, the future of artists all over the world. We had the talent, the status, the money, and the opportunity. But if we were silver, Vaughn Spencer was gold. If we were good, he was brilliant. And when we shone? He gleamed with the force of a thousand suns, charring everything around him. It was like God had carved him differently, paid extra attention to detail while creating him. His cheekbones were sharper than scalpel blades, his eyes the palest shade of blue in nature, his hair the inkiest black. He was so white I could see the veins under his skin, but his mouth was red as fresh blood—warm, alive, and deceiving. He fascinated and infuriated me. But just like everyone else, I kept my distance from him. He wasn’t here to make friends. He’d made that clear by never attending the food hall or any of the social functions. Another thing Vaughn had and I didn’t? My father’s admiration. I didn’t know why the great Edgar Astalis fawned over some boy from California, but he did, nonetheless. Papa said Vaughn was going to do something special. That one day, he would be Michelangelo big. I believed him. And so, I hated Vaughn. Actually, I’d hated Vaughn until exactly fifteen minutes ago, when I walked into the darkroom to develop the photos I’d taken yesterday. Photography was something I did as a hobby, not as art. My art focused on assemblage, making sculptures out of garbage. I liked to take ugly things and make them beautiful. To turn the flawed into something flawless. It gave me hope. I wanted it to give everything that wasn’t perfect hope. Anyway, I was supposed to wait for one of the tutors to accompany me into the darkroom. Those were the rules. But I had a feeling the pictures I’d taken were going to be horribly bland. I didn’t want anyone to see them before I’d had the chance to retake them. It was the middle of the night. No one was supposed to be there. And so, because I was acutely, achingly jealous of Vaughn Spencer, I’d walked in on something that made me feel confused and oddly furious with him. In bed, I smacked my forehead as I recalled my silly behavior in the darkroom. I’d mumbled “Pardon,” slammed the door, and run back to my room. I’d descended the stairs to the second floor, taking two at a time, bumped into a statue of a warrior, let out a yelp, and rounded the corridor to the girls’ dorms. All the doors looked alike, and my vision was too clouded by panic to find my room. I threw doors open, poking my head in to search for the familiar white quilt Mum had crocheted for me when I was a baby. By the time I got to my room, nearly every girl in the wing was cursing me for interrupting her sleep. I dove into my bed, and that’s where I stayed, hiding under my quilt. He can’t find you. He can’t enter the girls’ dorms. Papa would kick him out if he did, genius or not. Then the clank of smart shoes pacing the corridor made my heart jump to my throat. A guard whistled a lullaby in the dark. I heard a violent, loud thud. A guttural moan rose from the ground outside my room. I curled into a smaller ball, the air rattling in my lungs like a penny in an empty jar. My door creaked open. I felt a gust of wind from its direction, raising the hair on my arms wherever it touched. My body tensed like a piece of dried clay, hard but fragile. “Pale face. Black heart. Golden legacy.” That’s how I’d once heard Uncle Harry—also known as Professor Fairhurst inside these walls—describe Vaughn to one of his colleagues. There was no mistaking the energy Vaughn Spencer brought into a room, because it sucked up everything else like a Hoover. The air in my room was suddenly thick with danger. It was like trying to breathe under water. I felt my knees knocking together under my quilt as I pretended to be asleep. Summers in Carlisle Castle were unbearably humid, and I wore a tank top and shorts. He moved in the dark, but I couldn’t hear him, which scared me even more. The thought that he might kill me—actually, literally strangle me to death—crossed my mind. I had no doubt he’d knocked out the guard who walked our hall at night to make sure nobody broke curfew or made silly ghost-like noises to scare the other students. No fire was as big and burning as one born of humiliation, and what I’d witnessed tonight had embarrassed Vaughn. Even in my haste to leave, I’d seen it on his face. Vaughn was never uncomfortable. He wore his skin with arrogance, like a crown. I felt my quilt rolling down my body, from my shoulders to my ankles in one precise movement. My two Brussels sprouts of breasts—as my older sister Poppy called them—poked through my shirt without my sports bra, and he could see them. I squeezed my eyes tighter. God. Why did I have to open the bloody door? Why did I have to see him? Why did I have to put myself on the radar of one of the most gifted boys in the world? He was destined for greatness, and I was destined to whatever purpose he’d see fit for me. I felt his finger touching the side of my neck. It was cold and dry from sculpting. He brushed it down along my spine, standing over me, watching what we both pathetically pretended was my sleeping figure. But I was wide awake, and I felt everything—the threat wafting from his touch and his scent of shaved stone, rain, and the sweet, faint trail I’d find out later was a blunt. Through the narrow slit of my closed eyes, I could make out the way he tilted his head as he watched me. Please. I will never tell a soul. I wondered, if he was so formidable at thirteen, what he would be like as a grown man? I’d hoped to never find out, although chances were, this wouldn’t be our last encounter. There were only so many billionaire-spawns-to-famous-artists in this world, and our parents ran in the same social circles. I’d met Vaughn once even before he came to school, when he was vacationing in the South of France with his family one summer. My parents had hosted a wine-tasting event for charity, and Baron and Emilia Spencer had attended. I was nine; Vaughn was ten. Mum slathered me in sunscreen, put an ugly hat on me, and made me swear I wouldn’t get into the sea because I couldn’t swim. That’s how I’d ended up watching him on the beach under a canopy the entire vacation, in between flipping pages of the fantasy book I was reading. Vaughn broke waves with his scrawny body—running straight into them with the ferocity of a hungry warrior—and dragged jellyfish from the Mediterranean Sea back to shore, holding them by their tops, so they couldn’t sting him. One day he’d poked ice lolly sticks into them until he was sure they were dead and then cut them, mumbling to himself that jellyfish always cut into perfect halves, no matter which way you sliced. He was odd. Cruel and different. I’d had no intention of talking to him. Then, during one of the many grand events that week, he’d snuck behind the fountain I sat leaning against, reading a book, and split a chocolate brownie he must’ve stolen before dinner. He handed me half, unsmiling. I’d groaned as I accepted it, because I had the silly notion that now I owed him something. “Mummy will have a heart attack if she finds out,” I told him. “She never lets me eat sugar.” I’d then shoved the entire thing into my mouth, fighting the sticky goo on my tongue, the rich nougat coating my teeth. His mouth, a slash of disapproval, had cut his otherwise stoic features. “Your mom sucks.” “My mum is the best!” I exclaimed hotly. “Besides, I saw you poking sticks at jellyfish. You don’t know anything. You’re nothing but a bad boy.” “Jellyfish don’t have hearts,” he drawled, as if that made it okay. “Just like you.” I’d been unable to stop myself from licking my fingers, eyeing the untouched brownie half in his hand. He’d scowled, but for some reason, he didn’t seem upset by my insult. “They also don’t have brains. Just like you.” I stared ahead, ignoring him. I didn’t want to argue and make a scene. Papa would be mad if I raised my voice. Mum would be disappointed, which was somehow even worse. “Such a good girl,” Vaughn had taunted, his eyes gleaming with mischief. Instead of taking a bite of his brownie, he’d passed the second piece to me. I took it, hating myself for caving in. “Such a good, proper, boring girl.” “You’re ugly.” I shrugged. He wasn’t, really. But I wanted him to be. “Ugly or not, I could still kiss you if I wanted to, and you’d let me.” I choked on the rich cocoa in my mouth, my book dropping to the ground and closing without a bookmark. Shoot. “Why would you ever think that?” I’d turned to him, scandalized. He’d leaned close, one flat chest to another. He’d smelled of something foreign and dangerous and wild. Of golden California beaches, maybe. “Because my dad told me good girls like bad boys, and I’m bad. Really bad.” And now, here we were. Facing off again. He was, tragically, nowhere near ugly, and he seemed to be contemplating what to do with our newly shared secret. “Kill you? Hurt you? Scare you off?” he pondered, exuding ruthless power. My throat worked around a lump that refused to wash down. “What should I do with you, Good Girl?” He remembered my pet name from that day at the beach. It made everything worse, somehow. Up until now, we’d acted like we didn’t know each other at all. Vaughn lowered himself so his face was aligned with mine. I could feel his hot breath—the only thing warm about him—sliding against my neck. My throat went dry, each breath passing through it like a blade. Still, I kept up the charade. Maybe if he thought I was dream-walking, he would spare me his wrath. “How good are you at keeping secrets, Lenora Astalis?” His voice wrapped around my neck like a noose. I wanted to cough. I needed to cough. He terrified me. I hated him with the heat and passion of a thousand blazing suns. He made me feel like a scaredy cat and a snitch. “Oh, yes. If you’re coward enough to pretend you’re asleep, you’re good enough to keep a secret. That’s the thing about you, Astalis. I can smash you into dust and watch your grains dance at my feet. My little circus monkey.” I might’ve hated Vaughn, but I hated myself more for not standing up to him. For not opening my eyes and spitting in his face. Clawing his unnaturally blue eyes out. Taunting him back for all the times he’d taunted all of us at Carlisle Prep. “By the way, your eyelids are moving,” he said drily, chuckling. He straightened up, his finger making a brief stop at the base of my spine. He snapped his fingers, making a breaking sound, and I nearly jumped out of my skin, letting out a gasp. I squeezed my eyes tighter, still pretending to sleep. He laughed. The bastard laughed. Was he sparing me for the time being? Was he going to check in on me from now on? Retaliate if I opened my mouth? He was so unpredictable. I wasn’t sure what my life would look like in the morning. That’s when I realized I might be a good girl, but Vaughn had underestimated himself three years ago. He wasn’t a boy at all. He was a deity. Shortly after what happened during summer session at Carlisle Castle, I lost Mum. The woman who was so scared of me ever getting a sunburn or scraping my knee went to sleep and never woke up. Cardiac arrest. We found her lying in bed like a cursed Disney princess, her eyes closed, the smile on her face still small and pink and full of plans for the morning. We were supposed to board a yacht to Thessaloniki that day, a trip chasing historical treasures that never came. That was the second time I’d wanted to pretend I was asleep while my life took a terrible turn for the worse—for no other reason than because it could. Diving headfirst into self-pity was tempting as hell, but I held back. I had two options: break or build a stronger version of myself. I chose the latter. By the time Papa took a job in Todos Santos a couple years later, I wasn’t the same girl who’d pretended to be asleep when confronted. Poppy, my older sister, joined him in California, but I asked him to let me stay at Carlisle. I stayed where my art was and avoided Vaughn Spencer, who attended All Saints High across the ocean. Win-win, right? But now, Papa was insisting I spend my senior year with him and Poppy in Southern California. Thing was, the new Lenny didn’t turn a blind eye to Vaughn Spencer. I was no longer fearful. I’d suffered the greatest loss and survived it. Nothing scared me anymore. Not even an angry god. Lenora, 17; Vaughn, 18 I was born with an insatiable appetite for destruction. It had nothing to do with what happened to me. With my life story. With my parents. With the fucking universe. I was wired in messy-ass knots. Made out of metal cords instead of veins. An empty black box instead of a heart. A laser-focused vision to detect weaknesses instead of pupils. Even when I smiled as a kid, my cheeks and eyes hurt. It felt unnatural, daunting. I stopped smiling early on. And judging by the way my senior year of high school had started, smiling was not in the goddamn cards for me in the future, either. “Take ten deep, cleansing breaths,” I could practically hear my mother pleading in her calm, sweet voice in my head. For once in my miserable existence, I listened. Driving my fist through every locker in the hallway was probably the dumbest way in the world to get kicked out of school and simultaneously break every bone in my left hand, killing my career in the process. Not that I was here for the sharp minds of my educators—or worse, the bullshit diploma. But unlike my shit-for-brains best friend, Knight Cole, I didn’t have a red, shiny self-destruction button I was eager to push. One. Two. Three. F…uck this shit. No. Lenora Astalis was here in the flesh. Alive, kicking, and in my zip code. In my realm. I’d shoved her existence into a drawer in my brain I usually reserved for unsatisfying porn and mindless small talk with girls before they lowered their heads to suck my cock. But I remembered her. You bet your fucking ass, I did. My little dancing monkey. So agreeable you could get her to deep-throat a baseball bat if you asked, and not even nicely. Supposedly this was a favorable trait in the fairer sex, but Good Girl was too submissive and pure even for my taste. Back then, she’d had yellow hair like spun gold, shiny loafers, and a terrified, please-don’t-hurt-me expression. The Carlisle cape had made her look like Hermione Granger’s geekier friend. Voted Most Likely to be Wedgied to Death, Lenora Astalis had the annoying quality of looking perpetually prim, proper, and pathetically righteous. Now? Now she looked…different. I wasn’t impressed with the black shit she’d smeared on her eyes and the Goth clothes. They were just camouflage for the fact that she had zero spine and would shit her pants the minute someone dropped the F-bomb near her. Good Girl was standing by her new locker, her hair now jet-black. She was applying an extra layer of eyeliner (she needed that like I needed more reasons to hate the world) while staring at a pocket mirror glued to the inside of her locker door. She had on an OBEY beanie, but had corrected it with a Sharpie so the word was now Disobey. What a fucking rebel. Someone should notify the authorities before she did something really crazy, like eat non-organic blueberries in the cafeteria. “Yo, SourAss Kid, what’s good?” Knight, my best friend, neighbor, cousin, and full-time douche canoe, clapped my shoulder from behind and gave me a bro-hug. I trained my eyes on an invisible spot ahead, ignoring both him and Astalis. With all due respect to Lenora—and I had absolutely none—she hadn’t earned my attention. I made a mental note to remind her where she stood. Or, in her case, kneeled. I still remembered how she’d reacted when I slid into her room that night. The way she’d shivered under my finger, brittle like a china doll, practically begging to be shattered. Crushing her wasn’t even going to give me the usual high. It was like taking candy from a baby. There was no kindness behind my decision to spare her. I was naturally pragmatic. I had an end game. She wasn’t going to stand in the way of it. Risk. Reward. Return. Hurting her would have been redundant. Astalis had kept her little pink mouth shut all these years—clearly intimidated. I knew she hadn’t blabbed, because I’d checked. I had eyes and ears everywhere. She’d kept my name out of her mouth, and when her sister came to live here sophomore year, she’d stayed back in England, probably piss-scared of me and what I was going to do to her. Good. Worked fine for me. But that fragile trust had been broken the minute I saw her here. In my kingdom. A Trojan horse with a belly full of bad memories and bullshit. “Your Cuntness has that extra shine today,” Knight observed, looking me over as he glided his fingers through his shampoo-commercial hair, the color of buttered toast. He was the star quarterback, the prom king, and the most popular guy in school. Hey, whatever helped him sleep better at night and pacified his adopted-kid complex. “I’m surprised you can see anything through the mist of your own self-righteous farts,” I sneered, stopping at my locker and throwing it open. Just six lockers away from Astalis, I noticed. Karma really was a piece of fucking work. Knight propped an elbow on a nearby locker, studying me intently. He unintentionally blocked my view of Lenora. Just as well. Her Robert Smith custom didn’t exactly add sex appeal to her already bland appearance. “You coming to Arabella’s back-to-school party tonight?” “I’d rather have my dick sucked by a hungry shark.” Arabella Garofalo reminded me of tiny, inbred dogs with diamond-studded pink collars and squeaky barks, who occasionally bit your ass and pissed themselves when excited. She was mean, desperate, mouthy, and perhaps worst of all—entirely too eager to offer me blowies. “Why don’t you get your dick sucked by Hazel? She just got old-school braces, so it’s practically the same,” Knight suggested cordially, fishing his Alkaline water bottle out of a designer leather backpack and taking a swig. I knew there was vodka in there. He’d probably popped a few Oxies before getting here, too. Asshole made Hunter S. Thompson look like a fucking Boy Scout. “Booze before ten a.m.?” I twisted my lips in a lazy smirk. Love letters and nude Polaroids spilled from my locker in a river of teenage desperation. No girl had the guts to actually come talk to me. I collected and tossed them into a trash can nearby, never breaking eye contact with Knight. “I thought being a virgin at eighteen covered your pathetic quota for senior year.” “Eat shit, Spencer.” He took another swig. “If I did, would you go the fuck away? ’Cause in that case, I’m tempted.” I slammed my locker shut. Knight didn’t know about Lenora Astalis. Bringing attention to her wasn’t on my agenda. Right now, she was a Goth freak with zero reputation or social status to speak of, and that’s how she was going to remain in these hallways, unless I showed any trace of emotion toward her. Which—spoiler alert—I didn’t have. “Don’t be fresh, Spence.” “I’m stale as a five-day-old shit.” I threw my backpack over one shoulder. Ain’t that the truth. “Gross, man. Having Luna, Daria, and me as friends didn’t really humanize you as much as your parents had hoped. It’s like putting a little hat on a hamster. Cute, but useless.” I stared at him blankly. “Are you even talking in English right now? Get your ass something greasy and a bottle of water before everyone gets secondhand alcohol poisoning from your breath.” “Suit yourself. More prime English meat for me.” Knight waved me off, a spring in his step. I shook my head as I followed. As if he’d ever do something about said meat. For all intents and purposes, the guy was a fucking pussy-vegan, more virginal than olive oil. He wanted to dip his dick into one hole, and one hole only. It was attached to Luna Rexroth, his childhood crush, who was in college, miles away—hopefully being less pathetic than him and getting laid. However, there was no doubt the English meat Knight had poetically referred to was Lenora, which meant her presence at All Saints High had already drawn attention. I could see why her older sister, what’s-her-face Astalis, was a hit with the dudebros. I’d seen her around. She looked like the kind of attention-seeking, bubbly, mass-made blondie who’d traded her soul for a pair of red-soled heels. “The only English chick I’m interested in meeting is Margaret Thatcher.” I popped a mint gum into my mouth, shoving another one into Knight’s without his consent. His Mel Gibson breath was so flammable he could torch the motherfucking school if he lit a joint. “She is dead, bro.” He chewed obediently, frowning. “Exactly,” I quipped, hauling the strap of my backpack to my other shoulder just to do something with my hands. It was only nine-thirty, and already today excelled at sucking all the hairy balls in the universe. When Knight remained glued to my side, despite not having the same first-period class as me, I stopped walking. “You’re still here. Why?” “Lenora.” He unscrewed his “water” bottle again, taking another generous sip. “Throwing random names in the air is not conversation, Knighty-boy. Let’s start with an entire sentence. Repeat after me: I. Need. Rehab. And. A. Good. Fuck.” “Poppy Astalis’ hotter-than-Wasabi sister.” Knight ignored my jab. “She’s a senior, like us. Gives good-girl vibes.” He let loose a devilish smirk, turning around and running his eyes over her black-clad figure. She was only a few feet away, but didn’t seem to hear us, with the hustle and bustle. “But I can see her pointy fangs. She’s a natural born killer, that one.” Poppy. That’s what’s-her-face’s name. Eh, I was close. Lenora was a year younger than me, and if she was a senior now, that meant she’d skipped a grade. Goddamn nerd. No surprises there. Knight continued his TMZ report. “Their dad is this hotshot artist dude—runs that snooty art institute downtown. Honestly? I’m boring myself into a coma by repeating this information to you, so let’s just cut to the tea—the black sheep of the family is here for the year, and everyone wants a piece of that lamb.” The meat metaphors were getting creepier by the nanosecond. Besides, I knew very well who Edgar Astalis was. “I’m guessing this is the part where I should feign some kind of interest.” My jaw ticked, my teeth slamming together. He was lying. There was no way anyone wanted to touch Lenora. She strayed too far from the conventional hot-girl look. The black rags. The eyeliner. The lip piercing. Why not jerk off to a Marilyn Manson poster and save the condom? Knight rolled his eyes theatrically. “Man, you are really forcing me to spell it out. I saw your ass swallowing Girl, Interrupted with your eyes.” He clapped my shoulder like some kind of old, wise mentor. “You’ll be lucky if she ain’t pregnant after that eye-fucking sesh.” “She looked familiar, that’s all.” She did, because I’d been expecting her to show the fuck up since the minute her sister and dad crashed this town. At school. The gym. Parties. It didn’t even make sense, but I still looked—even at my own parties, where uninvited guests weren’t welcome. She was a dark shadow following me everywhere, and I always tried to maintain the upper hand in our imaginary relationship. Fuck, I even rummaged her stupid-ass Instagram and found out what she watched and listened to just so I could understand her cultural world better and crack her, should the occasion occur. And, well, it fucking had. I decided on the spot that, despite Knight’s status as my closest friend, I wasn’t going to tell him I knew her. It would only complicate things, pushing my secret one more inch toward the light. As it was, the truth was clawing at me, leaving welts of uncomfortable reality. Sometimes, on bad nights, I was tempted to tell my parents what had happened to me. They were decent parents, even my dipshit self had to admit. But ultimately, it boiled down to this: no one could take my pain away. No one. Not even my damn-near-perfect, loving, caring, powerful, billionaire parents. We come into this world alone, and we die alone. If we get sick, we fight it alone. Our parents are not there to go through chemo treatments for us. They’re not the ones losing their hair, puking buckets, or getting their asses kicked at school. If we’re involved in an accident, they’re not the ones losing blood, fighting for their lives on the operating table, losing a limb. “I’m here for you” is the dumbest sentence I’d ever heard anyone say. They were not there for me. They tried. And they failed. If you want to look at your fiercest protector, at the one person you can always count on, take a good look in the mirror. I was in the business of avenging my own pain, and there was a debt to collect. I was going to get it. Soon. As for my parents, they loved me, were concerned about me, would die for me, blah blah fucking blah. If my mother knew what went through my head, what had really happened that day at the Parisian gallery auction, she would commit coldhearted murder. But that was my job. And I was going to enjoy it. “So you’re telling me you don’t think Lenora Astalis is hot?” Knight wiggled his brows, pushing off the lockers and matching my stride. I eyeballed her again. She balanced her textbooks on her hip as she walked toward the lab, not hugging them to her chest like the rest of the preppy damsels of All Saints High. She wore a black denim mini skirt much shorter than my fuse, fishnet stockings ripped at the knees and ass, and army boots that looked more haggard than mine. Even septum and lip rings couldn’t taint her shy appearance. She popped her pink gum, staring ahead, either ignoring my existence or not noticing me as she brushed past. Her beauty—if you could call it that—reminded me of a child’s. Small, button-like nose, big blue eyes dotted green and gold, and narrow pink lips. There was nothing wrong with her face, but nothing overtly attractive about her, either. In the sea of Californian, shiny-haired, tan-skinned girls, with bodies made of glitter, muscle, and curves, I knew she wouldn’t stand out—positively, anyway. I arched an eyebrow, shouldering past him to class. Knight followed me. “Are you asking if I’d let her suck my cock? Possibly, depending on my mood and level of intoxication.” “How fucking charitable of you. Actually, I wasn’t asking that at all. I wanted to tell you Lenora, like her sister, is off-limits for you.” “Oh, yeah?” I threw him a bone, keeping him humored. Hell would freeze over before I took an order from Knight Cole. Or anyone else, for that matter. “You can’t break any of the Astalis girls’ hearts. Their mom died a few years ago. They’ve had it rough, and they don’t need your nasty-ass self shitting on their parade. Which happens to be your favorite pastime. So this is me telling you I’ll fuck you up if you touch them. Specifically, the morbid-looking one. You feeling me here?” Lenora’s mother died? How had I not heard about it when Poppy moved here? Oh, that’s right. I cared about her existence a little less than I did about Arabella’s stupid parties. I knew the mother never moved with Edgar and Poppy, but I’d guessed they either got divorced or she stayed with the talented kid in England. Mothers were a touchy subject for Knight for more reasons than I could count. I knew he’d take it as a personal offense if I deliberately smashed Good Girl’s little heart. Lucky for him, I had very little interest in that organ, or the girl who carried it around in her chest. “Don’t worry, Captain Save-a-Ho. I won’t fuck them.” I pushed the door to my class open and blazed inside without sparing Knight another look. Easiest promise I ever had to make. When I plopped down and glanced toward the door, I saw him through the window, running his thumb across his throat, threatening to kill me if I broke my word. My father was a lawyer, and semantics were his playground. I said I wouldn’t fuck her. I never said I wouldn’t fuck with her. If Lenora deserved a public spanking to make sure she stayed in line, her ass was going to be red. And most definitely mine. The opportunity to corner Lenora Astalis presented itself three days later. I’d skipped Arabella’s party, and wasn’t surprised to hear Lenora hadn’t showed up, either. But her sister, Poppy, was there—dancing, drinking, mingling, even helping Arabella and Alice clean up puke and cum stains afterwards. Lenora didn’t strike me as a party girl. She had the strange gene, the one that made her stick out like a sore thumb wherever she went, even without the Maleficent wardrobe. I could tell because I had it, too. We were weeds, rising from the concrete, ruining the generic landscape of this yacht club town. The first day, I’d ditched my last class and tailed her car after school to see where she lived. She drove a black Lister Storm—a far cry from her sister’s Mini Cooper—and got honked at five different times for failing to take a right turn on a red light. Twice she flipped the other driver the bird. Once she actually double-parked to rummage through her bag and hand a homeless person some change. By the end of the journey, I couldn’t help but smirk to myself. Edgar Astalis had put his girls in a castle by the ocean, with high, white-picket fences and drapes firmly shut. Nice. Predictable. Safe. Just like his useless little daughters. I made a U-turn and drove back to school, where I found Poppy at a marching band rehearsal with her lame-ass accordion, her Prada bag hanging lazily on the back of her chair while her back was to me. I fished out her house key, went downtown, made a copy, and returned just in time to slip it back in before she scooped up her bag and went for milkshakes with the band. The following day I shadowed Lenora, making a note to see if anyone else was there. Poppy took every extracurricular activity available, including band, peer tutoring, English club, and hiking. (She was exactly the kind of teenybopper to make a big fucking deal out of everything she did, including walking.) Edgar Astalis was busting his ass at that art institution he’d co-founded, sunrise till sundown, and was nowhere in sight. The black sheep, the sweet lamb, was all alone in the afternoons, waiting to be eaten by the wolf. On the third day—today—I went for the kill. I knew Lenora’s routine by now, and I allowed her forty minutes of basking in her own ignorance while I sat in my banged-up truck, my army boots crossed at the ankles on the dashboard, as she went about her afternoon. I sketched a sculpture on my sketchpad in long, round strokes, a half-smoked joint hanging from the side of my mouth. When the clock hit four and my alarm buzzed, I got out of the truck and made my way onto the Astalis property, unlocking the door and waltzing in like I owned the place. I strolled through the entrance, past the living room with the marble-on-crème accents and antique furniture, and toward the double glass doors. Sliding them open, I glanced down at the kidney-shaped pool, spotting Good Girl. She was doing laps underwater, moving in small, graceful strokes. I moved to the edge of the pool, lighting up the rest of my half-joint and squatting down in my torn, black skinny jeans and frayed, black-turned-gray shirt my mother hated so much. I loathed being rich by proxy, but that was another story Lenora was never going to hear, because today was where our communication would end. Next time I had to make a point, it would be with actions, not words. Sending a cloud of smoke upward, I watched as Lenora’s head popped out of the water, appearing in front of me for the first time since I walked in. She hadn’t taken a breath the entire time, I realized. She was no longer that kid in the South of France who didn’t know how to swim. She’d learned. And she was completely naked. Her lashes were curtained with fat water drops that cascaded down her cheeks. She parked her elbows on the edge of the pool, checking the time on her Polar watch. That’s when she noticed in her periphery that something—someone—was blocking the sun. She squinted up, using one hand as a visor. “What in the bloody hell are you doing here, Spencer?” She pulled backward from the impact, like my existence had exploded in her face. “I’ve been asking myself the very same question, Astalis, since I saw your Good Gone Bland ass in my domain and figured you lost your way to the nearest faerie world you’re engrossed with.” It was peculiar how, although we hadn’t officially been reintroduced since she came here, we still remembered each other in all the ways that mattered. I knew she read fantasy books and listened to The Smiths and The Cure and thought Simon Pegg was a comic genius. She knew I was the type of asshole to break into her house and demand shit, and that I’d been watching her. This confirmed my initial suspicion. She had noticed me at school, just as I’d noticed her. Neither of us found it wise to acknowledge the other. Not in public. I puffed on my joint, taking a seat on the diving board and slowly lifting her towel robe with the tip of my finger, like it disgusted me. “Tsk-tsk.” I shook my head, watching the reflection of my evil smirk through her shiny, blue-green-gold-whatever-the-fuck-they-were, hypnotizing, Drusilla eyes. “Swimming naked? Good girls don’t give a shit about tan lines. It’s not like you’re going to get dicked in this school. That’s something I’m afraid I won’t permit.” “That’s something I won’t be asking your permission for,” she deadpanned, pretending to yawn. “Doesn’t work that way, Good Girl. When I say jump, they ask how high. And come tomorrow, everybody’s gonna know you’re damaged goods, so stock up on those batteries, because real dick is not in the cards for you.” “Fancy.” She slow-clapped, whistling sarcastically. “Top of the food chain now, right, Spence?” She used the nickname I hated so much. She’d heard about me at school, knew about my legion of followers. Good. I cocked my head. So what if she pretended not to give a shit about how popular I was? “Careful. You’re not even on the vegan menu, Lenora.” “Bite me anyway.” “Only to draw blood, baby.” “Dying in your hands would still beat talking to you, Spencer.” Lenora leaned forward, trying to snatch the robe from my finger, but I was too fast. I threw it behind my back and stood up, finishing my blunt and throwing it into her pool. She smelled of chlorine and cotton. Virginal, pure, and not loaded with teenage hormones and expensive perfume. I was sure Edgar Astalis, who owned half the galleries in London, Milan, and Paris, had a pool boy coming at least twice a week. Maybe the pool boy could give Good Girl the Vitamin D she wasn’t going to get at school. “What do you want?” she snarled, her lips thinning even more than their usual lackluster shape. Really, Lenora wasn’t anywhere near the realms of gorgeous. Take Daria, my neighbor, for example. She was a classic, beauty-pageant hottie. Or Luna, my childhood friend, who was mouthwateringly stunning. Lenora was merely pleasant to the eye—and even that, only from certain angles. Right now her eyeliner ran down her cheeks, making her look like It the clown. I smiled. “To catch up, silly billy. How art thou? Still collecting garbage?” “Assemblage.” She braced the edge of the pool, her skin turning whiter around the edges. A gust of wind breezed through the backyard, and the blond hair on her arms prickled. She was uncomfortable. So was fucking I. “I’m making art out of old, unwanted things. The only difference between you and me is that you use exclusively stone and marble, the things your heart is made of.” “And that I’m good.” I ran my tongue over my teeth, smacking my lips together. “Excuse me?” Her cheeks pinked, matching her already-red ears. It was the first time I’d seen Lenora Astalis blushing since she came to Todos Santos, and even this wasn’t from embarrassment, but anger. Maybe she had changed, but not enough to give me a decent fight. “You using garbage is not the only thing different about us. I’m also talented, and you’re…” I gathered the ash from my joint and poured it onto her towel. “A prissy nepotist who looks like Bellatrix Lestrange.” “Screw you,” she hissed. “Hard pass. I like my lays pretty.” “And airheads,” she snapped. “Yes, you are.” I shook my head. “But you still don’t stand a fucking chance with me.” It was a low blow, and I’d promised Knight I was going to keep it clean, but something about the situation made me want to go the extra mile. Her defiance, no doubt. I walked over to one of their many knitted, turquoise loungers, lying down with my hands tucked under my head, staring back at the sun. “Dayum. Getting windy out here, huh?” She was stuck in this pool until I decided to leave, or else I’d see her naked, and I was fully planning to outstay my welcome. I thought I heard her teeth chattering, but she didn’t cower or complain. “Get to the point, Spencer, before I call the police.” She swam to the other side of the pool so she could get a better angle of me. Splashes of water washed over the gray stone edges of the pool. “Please do. My family owns this entire town, including the boys in blue. In fact, I’m pretty sure your father is going to have a heart attack if you drag him onto my father’s shit list. Your uncle, too. How is Harry Fairhurst doing, anyway? Still sucking up to my parents so they’ll buy his below-average paintings?” I wasn’t exaggerating. My father, Baron “Vicious” Spencer, was the biggest asshole alive to anyone but my mother and me. He owned the mall in this town and ran an investments firm that turned a profit larger than the budget of an average-sized European country each quarter, so he was richer than God. He also employed a vast army of people from the neighboring towns, donated to local charities, and sent ludicrously generous gift cards to the law enforcers of our town each Christmas. There was no way the police were going to touch him or me. Even Lenora’s father, Edgar, and her uncle, Harry, were under my father’s thumb. But unlike her, I had no plans to use my family’s connections to get what I wanted. Of course, she didn’t know that about me. She didn’t know much of anything about me—other than the one crucial thing I wished we could both fucking forget. “I’m sorry to interrupt your little power trip, but could you spit out why you’re here and get it over with before I catch pneumonia?” she demanded in her posh, English accent, slamming her palm onto the patio. I let out a dark chuckle, still staring at the sun and ignoring the burn. I wished that giant fireball were as good at burning memories as it was burning retinas. “I thought the English prided themselves on having good manners.” “I thought the Americans were straight shooters,” she quipped. “We are.” “If you want to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.” The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. I was all three. I almost let a genuine smile grace my lips. Almost. Then I remembered who she was. What she knew. “About that incident you witnessed…” “Loosen your knickers, Vaughn. You’ve got them in a twist.” She had the nerve to cut me off mid-speech, her wet mouth moving fast. “I’ve never shared your secret and never will. It’s not my style, my business, or my information to tell. Believe it or not, my not moving to California when my dad and Poppy did had nothing to do with you. I love Carlisle Prep. It’s the best arts school in Europe. I wasn’t scared of you. As far as I’m concerned, we’ve never met before, and I know nothing about you, other than the obvious information that’s freely volunteered at All Saints High.” She waited for the question. Normally, I wouldn’t entertain this kind of behavior. But she amused me. Circus monkey—as I’ve said before. “Which is?” I leaned forward. “That you’re a miserable, sadistic arse who enjoys using girls and bullying people.” If she waited for a reaction to my reputation, she was sorely disappointed. I leaned forward, propping my elbows on my knees, narrowing my eyes at her face. “Why should I believe you?” She plastered her palm against the ledge of the pool and pulled herself up in one go, rising from the water until she stood in front of me. No bikini top. No bottoms. No nothing. Good Girl was completely naked, wet and bold, and perhaps she wasn’t so mediocre in that particular moment. Let’s just say if there ever was a mood in which I’d let her suck my cock and massage my balls, I was experiencing it now. Her tits were small, but round and perky, her nipples pointy, pink, and begging to be sucked. She had a curvy body, although she did a damn good job hiding all that silky, smooth flesh under the black fishnets and leather pants, and her pussy had a dusting of fair hair. Not a lot, but enough to show me she was a real, virginal blonde—not waxed, bleached, and groomed to death, waiting to give some douchebag the full Pornhub experience of a closely shaved cunt. There was also a tattoo on her inner thigh, but I couldn’t get a good look at what it said, and gawking was letting her win. Returning my eyes to her face, I decided maybe it wasn’t so bland after all. Everything about her was small—nose, lips, freckles, ears—but her eyes were huge and aqua. The mass of inky, long hair with the egg-yolk roots did nothing to hide the fact that she was who she was. Pure, pathetic, and partially insane. I stood tall, lifting my chin, knowing full fucking well my dick wasn’t going to swell in my pants unless I wanted it to. That was one of the best things about my screwed-up condition. I was able to fully control my libido, and I was hard on demand—my demand. Most teenage dicks were traitors, and they got my friends into a lot of shit that had nothing to do with anal. Not mine. Mine listened. And right now, I wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction of knowing I wanted to fuck her smart mouth. We were toe-to-toe. I was a head and a half taller, but somehow, with her chin tilted up in a dead stare and noticeably disobedient posture, she didn’t feel so small against me. She wasn’t the same shivering girl who’d pretended to be asleep and begged with her entire, silent body for me not to cut her throat that night. Similar, but different. Innocent, but no longer submissive. “You should believe me,” she announced, “because in order to destroy you, I need to acknowledge you first. See, in order to ruin a person’s life, you need to hate them. Be jealous of them. Feel some type of passionate response toward them. You stir nothing in me, Vaughn Spencer. Not even disgust. Not even pity, though I really should pity you. You’re the gum stuck to the bottom of my boots. You are a fleeting moment no one remembers—unremarkable, unnecessary, and utterly forgettable. You are the guy I once believed could kill me, so because of you—yes, because of you—I started on the road toward who I am today. Invincible. You can’t scare me anymore, Spencer. I am unbreakable. Try me.” I took a step back, still holding her gaze. I knew I would throttle her if I stayed close. Not because I didn’t believe she didn’t care about me, but because I did. Lenora Astalis really didn’t give a fuck. She knew I was in her school, and didn’t steal one glance at me. She didn’t talk about me. Think about me. Chase after me. And that was…new. People cared—whether they wanted to give me head, be my girlfriend, my friend, my lab partner, associate, peer, or pet. Whatever they wanted to be to me, they always tried to make it happen. They regarded me with unwavering fascination. And me? I fed the legend. I didn’t eat, sleep, or talk much publicly. The only human thing I did in front of an audience was let girls suck my dick at parties. Even that was me proving a point to myself, more than anyone else. I smirked, grabbing her jaw and jerking her to my body. She thought I’d retreated, when really, I just wanted another good look at that sweet ass before making it mine. “You know, Good Girl, we’re going to see a lot of each other the next few years.” “Years?” She let out an agitated laugh, not bothering to fold her arms and hide her tits from me. Which didn’t exactly work in my favor. I had full control of my cock, true, but the bastard didn’t deserve to be teased. “Hold off making the friendship bracelets, Spencer. I’ve no intention of staying here. I’m moving back to England next year.” “So am I,” I said evenly. This had been the plan from the beginning. Get back to England once I graduated and do what I needed to do before opening a studio somewhere in Europe. A fresh start. “You’re moving to England?” She blinked, deciphering the meaning of this. I wanted to dip a hand between her thighs and see what the news did to her. “Carlisle Prep,” I snarled. “They have a pre-college internship program.” “I know. I’m applying there, too.” She sucked in a breath, panic finally trickling into her system. Finally. My blood warmed at the sight of her face draining of color. Watching her react to me was like feeling the first rays of sun after a long winter. The internship was a six-month program, working alongside Edgar Astalis and Harry Fairhurst, on a piece of your choice. Astalis was dragging his haughty ass back from Cali exactly for that purpose. He loved Carlisle like it was his fucking baby. You’ll wish you’d kept an eye on your actual baby like you do your prep school, asshole. She wanted the internship at Carlisle Prep just as much as I did, but for very different reasons. She wanted it because she was born for it—a student at Carlisle since the age of six and bearer of her father’s legacy. Besides, the intern would get to exhibit their piece at Tate Modern at the end of the six-month term. It offered the kind of prestige that could buy your way to artistic stardom. And I wanted it because… Because I wanted to feel the taste of blood on my tongue. There were only two spots available per year, and rumor had it one was already going to Rafferty Pope, a genius, soon-to-be-alumni of Carlisle Prep who could paint an entire city landscape from memory. I’d heard Edgar was rocking the LAX-Heathrow route six to eight times a year to check up on his interns, not to mention disappearing in Europe for the summer. “Putting the cart before the horse, I see.” I took a rolling paper from my back pocket and poured crumbled weed into it, ignoring her nudity like it bored me. “Your chances of beating me at anything are tragically slim. Hope for your sake that you’re applying to other places.” “I’m not,” she informed me, her voice flat. “Well, fuck if it’s not going to suck when Daddy tells you you’re not good enough,” I chirped, tapping her nose with my unlit, rolled joint. “Says you.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “Yes. The guy who deserves the internship. However, winner gets to choose an assistant from the applicants’ list. Which means…” I looked up from the joint, rubbing my thumb along my bottom lip. “You could be my bitch for those six months. I like the sound of that, Lenora. Your neck would look pretty with a leash.” “I’m not the one who’s going to be a prisoner if you come there,” she said softly. “Carlisle is my playground, remember?” She threatened. Me. I was about to burst out laughing when she continued. “Oh, and it’s Lenny now,” she hissed. “Lenora is an old person’s name.” It was the first crack in her façade, where signs of the flaming-golden-haired girl peeked from behind the Goth, pasty chick. “Hate to break it to you, but Lenny is a Gremlin’s name.” I stepped back, throwing the towel into her hands, finally showing an ounce of mercy. “Here. Cover up. I’m planning to eat sometime tonight. May I have my appetite back now?” She made no move to put the robe on, likely just to spite me. I shook my head, realizing I’d been here far longer than I’d anticipated. The Astalis girl wasn’t important enough to monopolize my time. I tucked my joint into the corner of my mouth and strolled toward the balcony doors, picking up her scattered clothes and throwing them over my shoulder, into the pool. She knew my secret. She had leverage on me, and we were competing for the same spot. Seemed like pissing all over my promise to Knight was in order. Lenora’s mother died, and that was tragic. But what happened to me was terrible, too. Only difference was, my tragedy was silent and embarrassing, and hers—loud and publicly acknowledged. I stopped at the glass doors, twisting my head around. “This could get really ugly, Astalis.” “Already is.” She flattened her lips, looking unnerved. “But if you look closely, you’ll find beauty in the ugliness, too.” I left without a word. Lenora was officially my business, and even though I wasn’t fond of complications, the thought of destroying her pierced me with euphoric desire. She made ugly things beautiful. I was going to show her my soul was marred beyond repair. My sister and I were having very different American high school experiences, and that put an invisible barrier between us. Poppy was head-over-heels in lust with her boyfriend, quarterback superstar Knight Cole. Knight was summer—golden, promising, and reckless, always burning on the edge of something. He led the pack, so she had a temporary seat on the throne next to the king. Which, I guess, made me the jester. I had the right to spend the time in the cool-kid kingdom’s court, but only as a source of entertainment. Poppy never did anything mean to me, but she was too obsessed with fitting in to stop, or even recognize, when I’d been taunted. For the most part, it didn’t matter, anyway. A snarky comment here, a Drusilla remark there. I could take it. It toughened me up, and a part of me began to feel elated, like I was above all the teenage bullshit. The main offenders were Arabella and Alice. Alice had a platinum pixie haircut, hazel eyes, and huge implants Arabella liked to refer to as “so very nineties.” Arabella was tan, with cyan blue eyes and long, coal black hair that dangled by the edge of her bum. They both hated me. Come to think of it, everyone hated me. My first semester as a senior at All Saints High proved to be the disaster I’d anticipated it to be. I’d spent most of my childhood and adolescence running with ghosts and chasing demons at Carlisle Prep. I had my best friend Rafferty Pope and other kids to play with. In England, I’d always felt welcome and cherished. Not so, here in California. The black camouflage I’d adapted to shoo Vaughn away and show him I was not scared made people call me a freak and an outcast. No one but Poppy publicly acknowledged me, unless it was to take a dig. Girls detested me for the way I dressed, the fact that I was always cradling a thick book in my hand, and that I answered Vaughn, Hunter, and Knight when they taunted me. Knight and Hunter as banter, Vaughn more viciously. They called me trash and weirdo for standing up for myself. Even though the first few weeks had brought with them mildly interested guys of the alternative and Goth variety, their attention died down once they realized Vaughn Spencer found me repulsive. Which was literally the word he’d used. Repulsive. It had happened in the cafeteria some weeks into the clusterfuck of my American high school experience. Normally I picked a bench and ate by myself with a book, but this time, Poppy had insisted I hang out with her. She did that sometimes—had a spurt of guilt and made me hang out with her mates. And I, driven by the same guilt as we grew apart, obliged. I had been sitting with her and her friends Hunter, Arabella, and Stacee—who did their best to ignore me—when Vaughn strolled in and took a seat right between Poppy and Knight, directly in front of me. Plastic utensils fell on trays with soft thuds and people whispered animatedly. Vaughn never came to the cafeteria. I’d heard all about his legendary antics. We mortals weren’t good enough to keep him company, if you didn’t count him letting a select cluster of girls suck his penis when he was feeling generous. Pretending I hadn’t noticed him, I flipped through a copy of The Night Circus, taking a bite of my pizza. I was the only student in the entire cafeteria to buy a slice of greasy pizza. In Todos Santos, people treated carbs as though they were war criminals and sugar like it was poison. I was all harsh lines to begin with, with very few hints of curve, so I didn’t quite care about losing my figure. Fine-looking things required maintenance, and I lacked the desire to be another pretty face. I didn’t understand the obsession with beauty. We all get old. We all get wrinkles. Life is short. Eat that pizza. Drink that wine. Shut down that bully eejit who tortures you. Words of wisdom you need to tell yourself, Lenny. “Vaughn! Why aren’t you eating?” my sister purred, fawning over Satan himself. I hadn’t confided in her about his visit to our house the other day. She was the exact opposite of me. If Mum’s death made me an angry, unapologetic teen, Poppy made it a point to become the nicest, most agreeable Mary Sue alive—as if being perfect and sweet would prevent people from leaving. From dying. Yeah, once upon a time I’d been a good girl. It had earned me an arch enemy. I should have bitten and kicked him when I had the chance, not let him set the tone of our dysfunctional relationship. “Here, take my Caesar salad. I’m so full from that green shake I had this morning.” Poppy slid her tray toward him. Even as I flipped a page and tried to concentrate on the book, I could tell he was looking at me. I didn’t get him. He’d come to my house—broke into it—and threatened me not to share his secret. I’d obliged without resistance. Even though I’d played it cool, I’d been mortified by him watching me stark naked. I hadn’t spoken to a soul at All Saints High. Not about his secret, not about our history, and not at all. He’d challenged me to a war I didn’t want, but I wasn’t going to avoid it at any cost. Vaughn didn’t answer Poppy. And Knight, who had the good sense not to bully me since he wanted to get into my sister’s knickers, elbowed his ribs with a frown. “Say thank you, Lord McCuntson. Poppy was being nice.” “I’m not hungry,” he said with his well-practiced icy boredom. My stomach twisted into deadly knots. I could feel the chill of his pale, cerulean eyes wherever they landed on me, and I suppressed the violent shivers prickling my skin. “How come?” Arabella drawled seductively, not reading the room. “I find certain things unappealing to a point of revulsion.” I saw his gaze from the corner of my eye, skating over my lips. He dug at the knee-hole in his black skinny jeans. His knee was slightly tan, with golden hair—different than the sickly, white-blue he’d been as a child. Smooth and muscular and unfairly perfect. That was the tragic thing about Vaughn Spencer. He was perfect. The cold shock of his beauty knocked the breath out of you like a supernova. With ruby, bee-stung lips and wild blue eyes, framed by thick, masculine eyebrows and cheekbones right out of the comic books. He was gorgeous, and I was not. He was popular, and I was an outcast. He was everything, and I was… Heat rose up my neck, but I kept my eyes trained on the same line of the same page I’d started before he approached the table. I thought about something I’d read not too long ago about how the world breaks everyone, but their broken places end up being stronger as a result. Ernest Hemingway said that, and I hoped it was true. I ignored it when the football team chuckled and bumped shoulders, pointing at me. Poppy glared at Vaughn, openmouthed, furious, but too ladylike to make a scene. “Vaughn finds life repulsive. Don’t take it personally.” Knight threw a French fry at Spencer, laughing to lighten the mood. I could feel Arabella’s eyes on me—assessing, taunting, waiting. She never could look at me without turning red. Sometimes she looked at Poppy the same way. I knew how territorial she was about Knight, Vaughn, and Hunter—the third amigo. She regarded them like some impossible prize. Them giving me attention rattled something deep inside her. “Yeah. You’re not repulsive in the slightest. I would fuck you, and not even just anal. I would gladly look at your face as I plunge into you.” Hunter snagged my can of Diet Coke and chugged it empty in one go. If Knight was a golden boy and Vaughn was a bad boy, Hunter was a mix of the two, with hair a rich hue of wheat and a cunning smile even his mother couldn’t trust. “I would look into your eyes while eating you like a Del Taco on a road trip. Nasty, but worth it,” one of the jocks exclaimed, shooting me a wink. “I raise you looking into her eyes and add an Atticus quote while I wreck her uterus. But that’s gonna cost you a cream pie,” a third tsksed in my direction, dipping his index and middle fingers into a cupcake on his tray suggestively. Vaughn sat back, an amused smirk on his face. I yawned, flipping another page without processing any of the text. Vaughn was pushing it. I was honoring my side of the deal between us and keeping my mouth shut, yet he deliberately antagonized me. None of it made sense. Vaughn wasn’t daft. He was cruel when messed with, but if you kept your distance, you were safe. Why wasn’t I safe? “Thanks for the riveting mental images, dipshits.” Vaughn stood up, glancing around. “Where’s Alice Hamlin? I could use a blowie right now.” Jesus Christ. “She’s with her new boyfriend.” Arabella tossed her hair, sucking her green shake’s straw unnecessarily hard. “Good. He can watch,” Vaughn clipped, pivoting and making a beeline to the doors. I’d almost taken a relieved breath—almost—when he paused and turned around, as if forgetting something. “Lenora.” My name felt like whiplash curling on his tongue. Poppy winced. I had no choice but to look up. I put a little smile on my black-hued lips, just to make sure he knew I wasn’t impressed. “You’re a virgin, aren’t you?” He cocked his head, another one of his patronizing smirks tossed my way. “Duh, unless Lucifer was feeling desperate…” Arabella huffed, pretending to examine her hot pink nails. More laughter boomed across the cafeteria. “That’s enough,” Knight hissed, pushing his tray until it bumped against a smug jock’s abs. His swift mood change made me think Vaughn had hit a sensitive nerve. As if the Knight Cole even knew what virginity meant. He probably thought a virgin was a Virginia-state resident. “It’s fine, Knight. I appreciate you coming to my rescue, but I don’t need protection from toothless, ball-less dogs who bark, but can’t bite for shit,” I said serenely, making a point of tucking a bookmark between the pages of my book. “Whoa…” The guys at the table balled their fists, howling. I turned to Hunter and the jocks and swept a bored look over their athletic bodies. “Also, I appreciate the hospitality, but I’m rather adamant on sleeping with men, not immature twats who are only good for drinking, partying, and burning their parents’ hard-earned cash, desperate to forget that high school is the peak of their lives. Which says something, because you’re at an age when not wanking for a day seems like a herculean accomplishment.” Silence fell across the table. All eyes tried to penetrate the mask of indifference I was clinging to with bloodied fingernails. Were they expecting me to cry? Cower? Run away? To ask them why they did this? Stifling another fake yawn, I licked my finger and flipped a page in my book, taking the bookmark out. My heart searched for an escape route, thrashing against my ribcage. One thing I knew about men like Vaughn Spencer—they either broke you or you broke them. There was no middle ground. But I wasn’t going to be the one picking up the pieces when we were done with each other. “You should come and see how it’s done.” Vaughn ignored my comeback, his iron voice slicing the air between us. “Prep you for next year, Good Girl.” I looked up, despite my best intentions. “When you assist me, silly. I’m sure your father thinks it’s a great idea.” No, he doesn’t. But when was the last time I’d spoken to Papa about my art? About me? He was too busy, and I was too shy to demand his attention. He could think that. He could. “Never.” “Never is a very long time,” Vaughn mused, his voice sweet and faraway all of a sudden. “Pride comes before the fall.” “Don’t be so sure I’ll be the one doing the falling.” “Considering you can barely fucking walk without tripping over your own feet, I’m hardy shaking.” “Course not, Vaughn. The only things that scare you are feelings and little girls who walk into the wrong place at the wrong time.” I’d been busting my bum for years for this internship. I wasn’t going back to Carlisle Castle as an assistant to an intern. I was going to be the intern. Assisting a star intern was prestigious, and I’d have loved the opportunity, but not if the intern was Vaughn. Never the ocean-eyed god. I felt my nostrils flare as I stared back at him. I hated him with abandon, with passion that seared through my veins. Fury could be either a weapon or a liability, but in my case, it was both. There was nothing diabolical about him. No. The devil was red, hot, expressive, and desolate. Vaughn was the Night King—cold, blue, dead, and calculating. You couldn’t get to him, no matter how hard you tried. I thought wearing black clothes, eyeliner, and making up elaborate stories about my summer in Brazil for fellow students who didn’t care would show him how much I’d changed. But he kept challenging every syllable to come out of my mouth. It was time to fight back. “You know what? I think a lesson in oral is an excellent idea. And who could teach it better than the expert?” I shot to my feet, pushing my tray aside. I had actually been enjoying my pizza before he arrived, but I wasn’t hungry anymore. I also knew my calling him an expert was getting dangerously close to the truth about what had happened in the darkroom that day. “Shall I bring a notebook to take pointers? Perhaps an iPad?” I smiled, blinking angelically at him. “Just your smart ass.” If Vaughn was confused and taken aback, he didn’t show it. Poppy, however, shot up in an instant. “Lenny!” She slapped her heart. “Why would you ever—” “Go back to pretending you have a personality, soul, or prospects that do not include marrying a rich, fat asshole who’s going to cheat on you with his secretary and give you ugly-ass kids, Daffodil,” Vaughn barked at my sister, his icicle eyes still holding mine. “This is between me and your sister.” “It’s Poppy!” she exclaimed, Knight tugging her by the hem of her skirt to sit back down. “Because that was the entire fucking problem with what I just told you.” Vaughn’s mouth twitched in menace. I grabbed my Sprayground shark backpack and followed Vaughn out of the cafeteria, acutely aware that all eyes were pointed at our backs as we exited through the double doors. Knight’s voice rang behind me, gruff, low, and lazy. “Y’all gonna slow-dance to a Billy Joel song? If so, don’t forget to leave room for Jesus. And Moses. And Muhammad. And also Post Malone, because hey, he’s kind of a religion now, too.” As we filed into the buzzing hallway, I couldn’t help but notice how tall Vaughn had become. Whether he ate at school or not, the boy ate, all right. He filled his clothes nicely. He wasn’t beefy by any stretch of the imagination, but muscular, with sinewy dexterity and the grace of an archer. In fact, there was nothing boyish about him anymore. He was all man, and it was ironic that he reminded me so much of the iconic, imperial statues he carved. “What’s good, Good Girl? I mean, other than your untouched hymen,” he asked, gliding along the hall, looking for Alice. I found it hard to believe he’d be able to rip her from her boyfriend’s arms, but stranger things had happened where Vaughn Spencer was concerned. Plus, I knew Alice. She fancied Vaughn for all his eccentric, tyrannical behavior. “Spare me the bullshit, Vaughn. You hate me.” “Hate you?” he mused in Thinker pose, fist curled under his square chin. “No, that requires commitment. I find you embarrassingly disposable. Are you going to chicken out on me, Astalis?” “No,” I clipped. “You seem eager to show everyone your willy. You are aware fifty percent of the world population is male, right? Your cock is not a national treasure.” “Don’t slam it before you’ve tasted it.” His jaw twitched, and he seemed done with the conversation. I’d hit a nerve. Why was Vaughn so fond of having an audience when he was intimate with girls? And while we were on the subject—why did he choose the least intimate way to be intimate with girls? One that didn’t require him to touch, to caress, to reciprocate? A few seconds of silence passed before he rounded a corner and snapped his fingers, motioning for me to follow him. Alice. “You really think a girl who is with someone is going to suck you off? On school grounds? While people are watching?” I couldn’t help but blurt. “Yes.” “Is this a game to you?” “If it was, I’d be dealing you the fucking cards. Now shut up.” I’d heard all about Vaughn and public blow jobs. There wasn’t one person in this school—other than me—who hadn’t seen the shape and size of his (allegedly impressive) penis disappearing down a girl’s throat. Sometimes there were two of them, licking and taking turns. People said it was because he was handsome, unconventional, and the richest boy in town, that every girl secretly wanted to marry into the Spencer family, who were royalty by name, assets, and reputation. They were old money—railroads, prime realty, and hedge fund companies—and one of America’s top twenty-five richest families. His ancestors had built this town, and he was going to inherit most of it. But I thought there were other reasons girls gave Vaughn what he wanted. Essentially, deep down, we all liked to be sexually degraded, just a bit. The taboo aspect, the helplessness, the part where you’re at the complete mercy of someone else. We’re all a little sadomasochistic. Especially when young. And powerful. And beautiful. And rich. The numbness of a charmed life was easily taken away by shame, something Vaughn distributed in spades. He liked humiliating people. A lot. Vaughn stopped in front of a set of black and navy lockers. Alice was wearing a sweetheart-neckline flowery dress with puffy sleeves and a slit across the side. The guy next to her was a bit on the short side, and he looked moneyed to death, with an expensive haircut and a smart, navy blazer. He had kind, brown eyes and a quirky vibe. “Alice,” Vaughn hissed, ignoring the guy. “Oh, hey Spence.” She blew a lock of her short hair away from her eyes, her pink lips curling in delight. I wanted to throw up when she leaned forward to give him a peck on the cheek, shaking her boyfriend’s arm from her waist. “I can fit in a quick blow job in the next ten minutes. Rookie here needs to take pointers.” Vaughn threw a thumb behind him, toward me. Alice’s gaze collided with mine, and her eyes widened for a fraction of a second. You and me both, girl. “Ummm…” She glanced at the guy next to her, biting on the side of her fingernail. His eyes were widening slowly, shock seeping into his system. She was going to ditch him. The worst part about it, she wasn’t even considering telling Vaughn to bugger off. Her eyes said I’m sorry, not Would you mind? “Jason…” she started. I wanted to punch her on his behalf, bile rising in my throat like an overflowing saucepan. He stared at her, agony dripping from his expression, wordlessly pleading with her not to finish the sentence. “Practice makes perfect, though, right?” I interjected with a chirp, taking a step forward. “And since Alice is oh so kind as to demonstrate her flawless oral-giving technique on Vaughn, would you mind being my guinea pig, Jason?” I unzipped my leather jacket, shrugging out of it and flinging it over my shoulder. I offered him my hand for a shake. It was perfect, really—the look of horror on Alice’s face when Jason threw a look at Vaughn, whose jaw was ticking, and took my hand, shaking it limply. “Don’t worry. I’ll still be watching.” I patted Vaughn’s back, keeping my tone light as the four of us headed down the corridor to God knows where. “Although, I may have a few tricks up my sleeve.” I winked. Lies. I’d never given a blow job before, and up until a minute ago, had no immediate plans to perform the act on anyone but Alexander Skarsgard, who, unfortunately, I had no real prospects of ever meeting. But Vaughn was pushing me, and Jason was trying hard not to cry, even though his humiliation was bloated and hanging in the air, like fog. If I could recover some of Jason’s self-esteem, while shocking Vaughn into understanding that I was no pushover, maybe he’d finally back off. But Vaughn didn’t look shocked at all. He looked…pissed. His jaw was ticking so hard I thought it might snap out of his mouth and bite my face off. He tugged at my sleeve, jerking me forward, forcing me to keep up with his pace, a few feet ahead of Jason and Alice. “What the fuck are you trying to do? Prove a point?” He bared his teeth. “What point would that be? That I have a mouth?” I smiled serenely, taking weird pleasure in knowing he was irritated. “Maybe I want to get some action, too.” “With that fuckboy?” Vaughn snorted, his nostrils flaring. I matched his stride, desperate not to pant. “He wouldn’t know how to get you off with four dildos, a magic wand, a vibrator, and the entire football squad.” I would’ve laughed if I weren’t so nervous about what we were about to do. “Some like dark, tall, and handsome. I like fair, short, and…sane.” Vaughn yanked a door open and shoved me inside wordlessly, with a force that said he was royally pissed. The room was dark, cluttered, and stuffy. It smelled of dust and cleaning products. The janitor’s room, I figured. Enchanting. Alice and Jason joined us, and Vaughn shut the door behind them. He flicked the light on. Still frowning, he started working his belt in angry, jerky movements. “I can help you with that.” Alice licked her lips, waiting for his okay. Jason eyed me warily, expecting directions. What have I gotten myself into? “Jason, come here.” I waved him over awkwardly, gathering my tar-dyed hair and dropping it over one shoulder. He shuffled toward me, bumping his knee on a broomstick on his way. Vaughn’s hawk eyes followed us as Alice continued unbuckling him. The sound of the metal clicking made my heart jolt. Alice cupped Vaughn’s groin through his black briefs, but he was still looking at me. “Lenora.” His voice held a threatening edge, cruel and cutting, like broken glass. I knew a warning when I heard one. Ignoring him, my unstable fingers worked Jason’s buttoned trousers. Flashes of me in Carlisle Castle, shaking under Vaughn Spencer’s finger like a leaf, ran through the dark corridors of my brain. He thought I was such a naïve, weak girl. If I had to suck a stranger off to show him I, too, had a dangerous edge, I’d make the sacrifice and deal with the psychological damage later. Holding on to all that unchanneled hate would likely give me a heart attack, as it was. Even though I hadn’t intended for it to happen, Jason’s trousers slid down, the fabric pooling around his ankles with a soft thud. He was in his briefs now, and already hard. I watched the bulge of his penis, plastered to his stomach through the fabric—like a leech, long and swollen and frightening. Lenny, you daft cow, you really did it this time. No part of me wanted to do this. The right course of action had to be informing the educational staff and my father that Vaughn had been bullying me. Not that he did exactly that. He hadn’t forced me to do anything, but he challenged my every step, and made sure I remembered I didn’t belong. This wasn’t a movie, though. No one would find my actions heroic or acceptable if I came forward and complained. People were going to call me a snitch, turn against me, and seek me out, whereas now, most of them simply ignored me or called me names. All told, I had a little less than one year to endure here in California. I could suck it up. “Lenora,” Vaughn quipped again, his princely voice sharp as a blade. Swallowing, I put a tentative hand on Jason’s…member. It jumped. I jumped right along with it, letting out an involuntary yelp. “Are you okay?” A frown knit Jason’s brows as he shifted from foot to foot uncomfortably. He was obviously doing this for the same reason I was. Retaliation. Alice was mad to dump him for Vaughn. “All evidence points to that being the case,” I blabbed, releasing a nervous chuckle. “I’m grand, really. This is…lovely. I mean, not your penis.” Penises were not lovely, were they? “Not that I’m saying that your penis is not lovely. It’s just. Oh…never mind.” “Yup. A virgin,” Vaughn said from beside me, victorious satisfaction laced in his voice. He was laughing, just like he had when he’d caught my eyelids moving the night It happened. Lava boiled in the pit of my stomach, and with newly found rage, I dropped to my knees and looked at Vaughn. Alice quickly mimicked my movements, like it was a competition, getting down on her knees and trying to yank at Vaughn’s black briefs. He snatched her hand and kept them in place, not letting her pull them down, his eyes on mine. I curled my fingers around the edge of Jason’s briefs and pulled them down. I wasn’t going to admit my virginity here, in this room, for Vaughn to laugh at me for eternity. Jason’s penis sprang out, purple and angry, just inches from my face. I sucked in a shocked breath and reminded myself about the ghosts in Carlisle Castle. If I could handle sleeping in a haunted place all alone in a room, surely I could handle a penis, and not even a disproportionately huge one. “Len…” Vaughn’s voice trailed off. For the first time, he didn’t sound so darkly amused by me and my antics. I grabbed Jason’s penis, my entire body shaking with anger and adrenaline. I wanted to do this, to piss Vaughn off beyond repair. To hurt him. To hurt me. I leaned forward, screwing my eyes shut and thinking good thoughts… Home. Far away from here. Home. Chips with vinegar and ice-cold cider. Home. Running wildly in the fields behind my house, letting the grass slap my ankles. Home. Working in the studio again. Home. Making beautiful things out of ugly things. Home. Kissing boys. The right boys. Boys who don’t make me feel like dying. Home. Home. Home. “Fuck!” I felt myself jerked by the collar of my Metallica shirt to the other side of the room. Vaughn was now standing between me and Jason, as a buffer, while I was still on the floor. He pointed back at me, facing Jason. “What is wrong with you, you pile of oxygen-wasting shit? You could see she didn’t want it.” “Is this a joke? You just propositioned my girlfriend in front of me!” Jason shrieked, his face bright red and glistening with cold sweat. “Your girlfriend is not a virgin,” Vaughn yelled. “And that makes it cool for you to treat her like a cum-bag? Don’t spin this on me, Spencer. There’s only one twisted motherfucker in this room, and it’s the guy who just told my girl she should suck him off in front of his crush to make a point.” Vaughn threw his head back and laughed while Jason tucked his half-mast penis back into his briefs, pulling up his trousers. With every second that he became more dressed, I felt my heartbeat calming down. Vaughn mumbled the word crush like the idea was crazy. I was going to kick him in the bollocks. I even had a good angle from my spot on the floor. “Get the fuck out of here and don’t come near her again. Tell your douchebag, debate-club friends to do the same. They get near Lenora Astalis, they die. Everyone knows she is my property. And take her with you.” Vaughn shoved Alice in Jason’s direction, his face expressionless, and pushed them both out. He slammed the door shut just as the bell rang. I scrambled to my feet, lifting my chin. It was musky and entirely too small in here. I wanted to get out. Most of all, I didn’t want to look at Vaughn’s face after he’d seen me mortified by a human penis like it was a three-headed monster. “Your property?” I growled. “Screw you, Spencer. I’d Airbnb myself to sex-diseased gang members before letting you cop a feel.” “Shut up,” he clipped, turning his back to me again and bracing himself on the desk, clutching its edges with his fingers. He couldn’t even look at me, he was so angry. Just as well. I was done with him, too. “I have lab.” I started for the door. He grabbed my wrist, turning me to him. I looked up, expecting him to appear smug. Triumphant. Happy. Vaughn received blow jobs from anyone with a pulse in this part of the state, and I’d never touched a penis in my life. Today just confirmed that. How fantastic. To my surprise, his face was devoid of any emotion—the usual cold, unreadable air I couldn’t crack. A blank canvas. I guess he wasn’t so mocking when we were alone. Just quietly cruel. “You skipped a grade,” he said. What? I scowled, hoping my cheeks and ears weren’t as red as they felt. “When?” he pressed. “Ninth to tenth.” “Why?” I’d lost my mother and shut the world down. I focused on studying and making art and staring at my bedroom ceiling, perched in my bed, listening to “Last Night I Dreamt” by The Smiths on loop, smoking nasty clove cigarette butts I’d found behind the rosebushes of Carlisle Prep. I’d decided falling in love was pointless. We all die in the end. I’d even told Papa so—that I wanted to marry my art, like he did after Mum. Art never leaves. It never dies. It never ceases to wake up one morning. Ars Longa, Vita Brevis. Art is long, life is short. I tattooed it on my inner thigh the moment I turned seventeen—somewhere private and intimate, to remind myself all I wanted to give birth to was more beautiful, lifeless things. “Some of us have goals that don’t include catching STDs and getting high. I work hard for what I want.” “You stayed in England when your dad and sister moved here. Why?” Because of you. But that was only partly true. Going away felt like leaving Mum behind. I said nothing. “What made you come here? Why now?” Papa had twisted my arm. Besides, loneliness had nibbled at my insides, like cancer. I’d put on war paint, hoping it’d be enough to keep Vaughn away. As it turned out, he took this as an invitation to battle and geared up for combat. “What about boyfriends? Girlfriends? Social life?” His fingers around my wrist tightened into a bruising grip. I wanted to cry. Not because he was hurting me, but because I liked it. I liked that he wasn’t treating me with kid gloves because I’d lost my mother. I liked that he was experienced and unfazed by sex. I liked that he was stunning, cold and promising like Christmas morning, and I had his undivided attention, even if it was the wrong kind of attention. And I was absolutely horrified to find out a part of me wanted him to bend my wrist harder until the dull pain became a sharp one. I shook my head. My personal life was none of his business. “No social life.” He tsked. “Fine. How’s the internship project going? What are you handing over?” Why did he care? He’d just invited me to see someone sucking his cock. I looked the opposite way, at the wall, ignoring him. The less I responded, the more he’d grow tired and bored of me. “I started working on mine yesterday,” he informed me. “The composition was a bitch to figure out.” Was he making small talk? “There’s no way you’ll be able to turn it in on time,” I said. We had to hand in our submissions for the internship fairly soon. My project was done. I just had some fine-tuning to do. He shrugged. My heart began to race. This was good. This meant he was behind, and I had more of a chance to snag the spot. I swallowed, trying to hide my glee. “Don’t worry. Even quarter-finished, your father will choose my project over yours any day.” I said nothing to that, so he continued. “You know…” His cocky smirk reappeared just when I thought I was saved from it, and my blood boiled in my veins again, my eyes hooding with lust and irritation. “What I told you behind that fountain when we were kids still applies.” He leaned against the desk, jerking me into his long, hard body. I was flush against him now, and he felt like granite against my soft limbs. “I could kiss you, and you’d still let me. Because you’re still good, and I’m still bad. Nothing has changed. We’re still the same kids. Our game is just more dangerous now.” And my mother is no longer alive to warn me off sugar or boys like you, I thought bitterly. “I thought you weren’t dealing our cards just yet.” I arched an eyebrow. “I changed my mind. One little game won’t hurt. Me, anyway.” “Test it then,” I hissed. I wanted to make my first chip in him, so when he came to break me, I’d know where to aim. He stared at me for a moment, his gaze dipping from mine to my lip ring. He leaned down, almost in slow motion, going in for the kiss. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. What he was doing. The boy who hated me brought his lips to mine. But there was nothing romantic about it. It was a dare. A bet. Another challenge. A power play. When our lips touched, a shiver skated down my spine like a lit match. He traced his lips along the seam of mine patiently, his hot breath fanning my mouth. My heart accelerated to a dangerous speed, fireflies bursting forth as though escaping a Mason jar. Kissing him was like standing on the edge of a cliff. Nice view, but you knew it was deadly. Still, a stupid, irrational, dangerously alive part of you still wanted to hurl yourself down to meet your own demise. I felt his lips on more than just my lips. I felt them in my fingertips, all the way down to my toes. I felt them when my skin broke into goosebumps. He was actually doing it. Kissing me. The minute his mouth locked in on mine, I opened up and clamped my teeth around his lower lip, not stopping until I dug so hard, I could feel my teeth slamming against each other. Warm blood filled my mouth. He didn’t retreat, and I didn’t let go. I dug harder with my teeth as his hand moved between us, his thumb slipping into my lip piercing, tugging at it tauntingly, hurting me back. He smiled into our kiss. He liked it, I realized. Me hurting him. Making him bleed. It was only when he was about to yank the ring out of my lip that I finally pulled back. He dropped his hand completely. So this was the game, I thought. I hurt him, and he hurt me back, but only as much as I could tolerate. I ran my tongue along my teeth, savoring his warm, salty blood. When I looked at him again, he looked incredibly mortal all of a sudden. Boyish, even. With a red slash of blood smeared over his mouth, waiting for me to say something. To acknowledge he wasn’t the only screwed-up person in the room. “You were wrong. I didn’t want you to kiss me.” I licked the corner of my lips, mocking him. He smirked, leaning down and capturing the tip of my ear with his teeth, whispering. “You wanted it, you enjoyed it, and next time I touch you, Good Girl, I’m not only going to dirty you up. I’m going to make you filthy, like me.” Three things happened simultaneously from that day onward: 1. Vaughn began to monitor my interactions at school, especially with the lads. Guys stopped acknowledging my presence completely, in all grades and statuses, other than Knight and Hunter, who weren’t scared of their lunatic mate. Everyone else caught word that Lenny Astalis was Vaughn’s unwilling possession, and even though I had no interest in any of them, I still thought they were cowards for listening to Vaughn. Of course, I was the worst type of property—the neglected kind. Vaughn went even farther out of his way to make sure people knew I was nothing to him. There was a brief rumor about my catching chlamydia from a Brazilian male model I’d allegedly had sex with over the summer, but it died quickly when Vaughn said no one was desperate enough to fuck me. 2. The girls, who all heard different versions of what happened in the janitor’s room (exclusively from Alice and Arabella) and knew now without a shadow of a doubt that Vaughn had taken an unlikely interest in me, went from disliking me to actively despising me. Poppy often had to skip some of her after-school activities just to see me home and make sure no one was following or harassing me. Arabella and Alice continued to call me Vampire Girl because of my attire and fondness for all things black, and they nagged me about Vaughn whenever they came to visit Poppy. Their questions were met with silence. 3. Vaughn began to show up at my house nearly every day to work on his mysterious project with my father. Papa had taken a liking to Vaughn when he’d first witnessed his artistic greatness at summer session, and now that Vaughn had expressed interest in working closely with him, I guess Papa felt flattered. Even though Vaughn wasn’t aware of the fact that I was too starstruck to talk to my own father about my art, he knew he was hurting me by coming here. Every time I opened the door and he was on the other side with his sculpting equipment, he gave me a lopsided grin that reminded me he’d kissed me not too long ago, that no matter how disgusting I found him, I’d once had his blood in my mouth. His bottom lip was still bruised from my bite. “Given up on that internship yet?” he’d ask. “In your dreams,” I’d answer, and he’d laugh good-naturedly and shake his head, brushing past me. On the day Knight broke up with Poppy, I sat in her room, stroking her hair. The boy who’d warned guys off of her because he was so worried for her precious heart ended up stomping all over it like it was a dance floor. I kept busy trying to keep my sister from flinging herself off our roof. The rumor that Poppy had been prematurely disposed of for a college girl spread like wildfire in a hayfield at All Saints High. Her locker had been graffitied, and when she’d opened it today, she found a real human turd on top of her books with a Post-it note: Dumped! Knight had been nowhere in sight today, and Poppy had sworn off going back to school for the remainder of the year. I hugged and consoled her all evening. Poppy rightfully couldn’t trust her so-called best friends, Alice and Arabella, who had been the first to spread the rumor of her breakup down the corridors of the school. The queen bees of All Saints had turned against my sister, now that she was no longer under the protection of The Knight Cole. The year had been crappy with a side of shite to me, but Poppy actually liked it here before the whole Knight debacle. I’d made no friends, gone on no dates, and collected no memories. In a lot of ways, it felt like a long, excruciating night, with no dreams or even nightmares to occupy my mind—a big, fat nothing of staring at the ceiling that made me wonder if I really even existed. At least we were nearing graduation. I still hadn’t applied to any colleges, in Europe or elsewhere, praying for that internship. Wherever Vaughn went, even if it was to England with me, I’d be in my home field. He wouldn’t have so much power there. Anyway, he still wasn’t done with his piece, and who knows what he’d actually sent them when the internship application was due. It had been a month now, at least. But I had bigger fish to fry. Knight wasn’t a bad person, but as a boyfriend, he was rubbish, and I thought Poppy deserved a lot more than what he’d offered her. “Let it all go.” I stroked Poppy’s light hair, kissing the crown of her head while she nestled in my arms on her bed. She had a canopy-style princess bed, all baby pink and white, and a vanity desk the size of my entire room. I didn’t care about those sorts of things, but Poppy did. I didn’t fault her for that. We were who we were. She had to take care of me at school because I got into trouble all the time. Poppy blew her nose into the hem of my kilt, and I let her. “He is such an arsehole!” she exclaimed, bursting out in a fresh bout of tears. “A world-class one.” I nodded, rallying behind her statement. “He should be internationally recognized for the level of arseholeness he exhibits.” “But he’s so gorgeous.” “Sure, if you’re into that Shawn-Mendes-meets-Chase-Crawford look. But there are a lot of gorgeous guys, and you deserve one who will recognize just how special you are.” I gently removed the hair that stuck to her damp cheek, tucking it behind her ear. Poppy sat up, patting her eyes with a tattered tissue. “Am I, though?” She narrowed her puffy eyes at me. I plucked some fresh tissues from her nightstand and handed them to her, along with a bottle of water. “Are you what?” I asked. “Special. You are special, Lenny. With your art and quirky attitude and the way you pretend not to care when gorgeous, rich guys like Vaughn Spencer make you a walking target. But I’m not like that. I’m not talented or strong or particularly interesting. I don’t have any special looks or clothes or abilities. I’m not even book smart.” She sniffled, eyeing me with a suspicious frown now, like it was my fault she chose to wear mainstream, high-end brands and put highlights in her hair and have normal, popular “friends.” “You can be talented and completely horrible,” I said cautiously, thinking of Vaughn. “And you can also have not even one artistic bone in your body and still be the rarest thing in the universe. It’s in your actions. It’s your soul. You are special, Poppy, because you make people feel good. No one can take that away from you.” She sank into my arms, and we sat there for what seemed like forever, hugging and rocking back and forth, relishing the bittersweet agony of loving a boy who didn’t love her back—not that I knew anything about that. Heartbreak was a mystical, double-edged sword from where I was standing. And I had no desire to experience the full range of emotions in a car crash of feelings. Not ever going there. That day in the janitor’s closet had rattled me. Not that I’d found Jason’s…member appealing, but there was a thrill there. If I was being honest with myself, the thrill had more to do with biting Vaughn’s lip and watching as he licked his own blood with a little smirk, and less to do with Jason. I liked that Vaughn had pulled me away from Alice’s boyfriend, that he was possessive of me. And even though I’d heard of his antics since then—disappearing with girls into rooms during parties I wasn’t invited to—I also knew he wondered. He wondered who I was seeing. Who I was with, and what I was doing with them. I fed his curiosity and played his mind games. I was always on my phone at school. I texted Pope, my best friend from Carlisle Prep, and smiled at the phone. I put a hand to my cheek and pretended to blush. On nights I knew Vaughn would show up at my house—because my father was already in his studio, preparing his tools—I’d go out, even if just for a drive, and come back with my hair messy and my black lipstick purposely smeared. I drove him crazy, because he was driving me insane. I wanted to fight him, to hurt him for what he was doing to me. Bite him. Taste him. Feel him. I often snuck into the house as he was leaving, tired and dirty, his hair a disheveled mess. He would climb into his beat-up truck and frown at me silently, as if trying to squeeze answers out of me telepathically. “Lenora?” I heard a soft knock on Poppy’s door. Dad must’ve heard my voice coming from this room. “Come in, Papa.” Poppy quickly wiped the remainder of her tears with the tissue I’d given her and straightened her back, plastering a rather creepy smile on her face. She never wanted to upset our father. One of the many sacrifices she’d made since we’d lost Mum. Poppy was the epitome of a considerate daughter, while I wore morbid clothes and bit boys who pissed me off. My father stood in the doorway, his long, gray, curly hair spiraling atop his head like an eccentric Elton John hat, his beard almost reaching his round, Buddha belly. Papa looked like a Harry Potter character—a softhearted wizard professor who seemed big and intimidating, but wouldn’t hurt a fly. He loved Mum and us, I knew, but I always had the distinctive feeling we came right after his art. Mum hadn’t wanted him to open Carlisle Prep—he still did. Mum would kill him if she were alive to see that he’d ripped us from England to America for his project. He couldn’t resist a good challenge. Papa knew I never wanted a life outside of art, and he never pushed me for more—not to date boys, not to make friends who weren’t Rafferty, not to live life. The list went on, naturally. “What are you girls up to?” He glanced between us with an apologetic smile. That was the sort of relationship we had with Papa. A bit too formal for my liking. Again, he cared—didn’t miss one parent-teacher conference, and always made sure we were provided for and did something fantastic over the summer. He planned elaborate trips—admiring the wild architecture of Valencia, museums in Hong Kong, galleries in Florence, the pyramids of Egypt. Being a father, however, did not come as naturally to him as being an artist. It was the Vaughns of the world he found a common language with. “Oh, nothing much. Just gossiping. How are you, Papa?” Poppy sing-songed, springing to her feet and smoothing her pajamas. “You must be starving. Shall I put some leftover lasagna in the microwave for you?” I tried not to stare at her too bewilderedly. I wondered what it felt like to cut your feelings off with scissors, like a broken marionette. In trying to be so strong, she weakened herself. I hated to see her hurting. “That’d be grand, Pop. Cheers. Lenny, may I have a word with you?” He reached his giant, cracked palm in my direction. I took it and silently stood up. It was unlike Papa to initiate a serious conversation. Had Vaughn told him something? Did he snitch on me? Tell him I was seeing boys? Not that Papa would care. If anything, he would encourage it. What the hell was it? “In the studio.” Papa tugged my hand, leading me to the attic where he had a small studio—in addition to the one in our backyard where he kept some of his unfinished work. The attic was more intimate. I followed him, racking my brain for what was to come. My father and I chatted all the time during dinners and when we were watching the telly. We talked about the weather and school and Poppy’s busy schedule and his work. The only thing we didn’t talk about was me. Even when I’d given him my final piece for the internship assignment last month—a human-sized skull made solely from vintage tin cans—I’d quickly averted the conversation to something else, careful not to catch any disappointment or boredom he might be feeling toward my art. I was expecting the results about that any day now, but in the form of a formal letter. I knew better than to expect my father to bend the rules and break the news to me in person. We climbed up the narrow, spiraling stairs to the attic. The white wooden floor creaked under our weight as we entered the roof-shaped loft. The aroma of shaved stone, the coldness of the marble and granite giants, and clouds of dust did nothing to disguise the unique scent of Vaughn Spencer that immediately crawled into my nostrils—delicious, formidable, and full of danger. I tried to ignore it, and the shiver it brought along. He was here tonight. I had heard their voices drifting through the opened window of the attic only ten minutes ago. “Gentle with the chisel, now, lad. Do not cock this one up. It’s too precious for both of us.” “Put down the power drill. Slow strokes. Love this stone like it’s a person.” “Let’s call it a day. You’ve been battling this piece all night. You are not in sync with it. You are at war.” Vaughn was struggling with the piece, and I wasn’t at all sure he’d submitted any other project for the internship. That gave me hope. Maybe I did have a chance. At least I’d handed in my piece in a timely manner. “Sit down,” Papa instructed with a tired groan, pointing at a huge, untouched stone in the corner of the room. I brushed away Human Anatomy for Artists by Eliot Goldfinger, which sat atop it, and did as I was told, crossing my legs at the ankles. I ignored the huge horizontal piece covered by a large, white sheet standing in the corner of the studio. I knew how intimate an artist’s rel