I don’t think it’s fashionable to be late to anything, but I do enjoy walking into a party once it’s in full swing. By now, the Bailey family estate is jam-packed with college students. Tonight is the town’s annual Summer Burnout, and everyone’s here. Their frenzied energy is palpable even on the rooftop deck of Liam’s sprawling mansion where the five Royals of Pinecrest lounge on wicker sofas and stare out over their town like rulers surveying their kingdom.
It’s not a metaphor.
Liam Bailey, Oz Walsh, and me. We’re sons of the highest-ranking mafia families in this town. William Sterling and Wilder Adams are so high up in the hierarchy, they’re considered honorary royalty, even though their families aren’t part of the mob.
Overflow from the ballroom-turned-dance-floor spills onto the estate’s expansive lawn, groups of people converging and scattering randomly as the sun sets. At the edges of the property lies the border of the Silverash forest, delineated by row upon row of tall, dark green pines. They scent every breeze that comes our way, transforming the evening air into something fresh, crisp, and wild. Past the forest, nestled in the valley created by the mountains, lies Pinecrest. The town’s lights are just starting to turn on, twinkling yellow and orange as dusk descends early in that deep crevice.
Liam’s family estate has one of the best views in town, but it’s not nearly as impressive as my own family home. You don’t need an SUV to reach this mansion though, which makes it a far better venue than Dalton Manor.
Even with the music pounding far beneath us, it’s serene up here. Will and Oz aren’t chatting aimlessly and Wilder isn’t scrolling through his TikTok feed with the volume all the way up, annoying us with snippets of whatever music clips are trending. For once, Liam and I aren’t having a heated debate.
But the peace is as fleeting as the lull between lightning strikes in an electrical storm.
My phone vibrates in the pocket of my charcoal McQueen dress shirt. I take it out and grimace at the first line of the truncated text from Penny Adams, Wilder’s far-flung cousin I made the grave error of trying to hook up with a few weeks ago.
This isn’t over…
I’m willing to bet good money that right this second Penny is lurking somewhere below.
All because I lost control.
“Wilder,” I say as I slip my phone back into my pocket. “Remind me to never date anyone with the last name Adams.”
Wilder narrows his eyes at me. “I told you she was psycho.”
He also told me she was a freak in bed, and since Wilder is renowned for stretching the truth like motherfucking taffy, I was at best hoping for a slightly clingy date who wouldn’t yell “Red!” before I had her tied to the bed.
It was a gamble and I know the house always wins, but I was in a bad way and I needed the distraction.
The other Royals don’t know the full extent of what happened the night Penny was with me. The night that ended abruptly with a call to 911 and me being politely arrested and taken down to the sheriff’s office for some even more polite questions.
That’s when my father got involved. Dad bought Penny’s silence with an NDA and a few million dollars… and a none-too-subtle threat about what would happen if she forgot it was an offer she couldn’t refuse.
Penny didn’t press charges. Now it seems she’s decided to threaten me.
It’s a suicidal move on her part.
Why is it this fucking difficult to find a good lay?
Certainly, Pinecrest is a small town, but I have my pick of any girl I want.
Except… I don’t want just any girl.
“You’re overthinking it,” Liam says, like he’s reading my fucking mind and has to voice his opinion on my thoughts. He tugs out the slender length of leather cord he uses to keep his man-bun in place, rakes a hand through his dark hair, and ties it up again.
“I made a mistake,” I mutter, not liking the fact that I have to admit it—especially to Liam—but hoping he’ll drop the subject.
I should be so fucking lucky.
He slides an inch lower in his seat, his wide mouth curved in a faint smile. It’s the most relaxed I’ve seen him for months. Bailey usually walks around town like a marble statue of a long-gone dictator come to life—implacable, aloof, arrogant.
“You’re expecting perfection.” He takes a drag on a joint, blue-white smoke drifting upward on his exhale, his dark eyes turning heavenward. “Which is not only improbable, but highly impractical. No one’s perfect, and if they were, you wouldn’t want them.”
“I’ll happily settle for someone who isn’t a pain in my ass.” I say it under my breath with the hope that Liam will drop the fucking subject. The last thing I need is any of these guys taking a closer look at my love life—or lack thereof.
“Then you’re definitely overreaching, Owen.” Liam huffs quietly, holding out an arm and counting off on his fingers. “Compatibility is measured by three things. Can you have a conversation with her? Can you have a meal with her? And do you come when you fuck her?”
I turn my attention back to the manicured lawn, trying to ignore the chuckles from Sterling and Wilder. Near the center, a band of fire dancers are setting up. There are bonfires out there too. Underlings are busy lighting them in preparation for night.
“Does Ada check all those boxes?” I ask dryly.
Liam smooths a hand down the front of his aqua Brioni jacket before tossing back the last of his thirty-year-old whiskey. “If you count her picking at a low-carb, gluten-free salad as eating, then yeah, Owen. She checks all the fucking boxes.”
“How’d you know?” Oz frowns through the shock of brown hair that’s fallen forward from his carefully styled fauxhawk. “You said you were waiting for your wedding night.”
“She’s not,” Sterling says through a chuckle as a rueful smile pulls at his mouth. “Rumor has it Mr. Kelly’s T.A. has been banging her the past two weeks.” He flicks his shaggy blond hair out of his eyes, puffing at his joint with the lungs of an experienced smoker.
There’s a hushed moment where we’re all waiting for Liam to react. Oz and Wilder visibly relax when he simply shrugs. “The wedding is six months away. Ada can install a revolving door in her cunt for all I care.”
He stands, cocks his head toward the lawn where the fire dancers have begun their first performance, and slides a stag skull mask over his head. It should look ridiculous, but somehow the empty eye sockets and sharp antlers add gravitas to his already somber expression.
The rest of us stand and don our own Wendigo masks.
It’s time for the Royals to descend from their thrones, and Liam for one seems eager to join the fray. He’s probably planning to even out the score between him and his betrothed, Ada Fairchild.
Everyone tries to find a little levity in the death throes of summer, the days before term begins and we’re all caught up in our mountain of college and personal responsibilities.
As host of the Summer Burnout this year, Liam leads the way, taking us downstairs through the hallways of his mansion and onto the dance floor, the thumping heart of the party.
Everyone else is masked now too, even the servants and performers. That’s what tonight is all about—anonymity. You can be anyone you want… even a Royal.
Walking across the dance floor feels like entering an alien world, the eclectic bouquet of sweat and deodorant and weed hanging in the air, thicker than the smoke billowing out from the fog machines. Erratic strobe lights splash garish brightness over the dreamy, intoxicated faces gathered all around them.
It’s an incessant thumping, like the primitive, animal pulse of some monstrous extraterrestrial being.
When I walk into this kind of chaos, the part of me that begs for order and control disintegrates… but only for a short while.
Sometimes, it comes back twice as strong.
The crowd parts for us, eyes widening behind their bone masks when they recognize us. Girls prefer daintier masks—cats or birds—and usually decorate them with glitter and metallic paint. But most of the guys are either wearing wolf or dragon skulls. Liam being the pretentious cunt that he is has someone monitoring the college kids that still want to enter. If their masks aren’t up to snuff, the coat check girl gives them a new one to wear.
As we pass, girls yell and grab at our clothes, begging us to dance with them—a sure sign that more than one GHB-spiked bottle has already done the rounds. Thankfully Liam’s mansion has several guest beds, else people might start fucking in the hallways.
I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened anyway.
The other Royals bask in the attention. Oz grabs whatever tits and ass come within reach, and Wilder pulls a girl to one side and starts grinding with her in time to the pounding beat.
I wish it was that easy for me. That I could wink at any of these girls, lead them to a bedroom upstairs, and indulge in any one of my many dark urges.
But my reputation can’t take another hit after what happened with Penny. Too many people in Pinecrest have started whispering behind my back, calling me a monster. I must make sure my mask is always on. Not this Halloween-esque Wendigo skull, but the serene expression I wear around campus and everywhere else I go. I let it drop for a second with Penny the other night, and it terrified her so much that she ran out of the room and called the police.
I won’t make the same mistake twice. I can’t.
So when my shirt is tugged for the hundredth time by a girl I know couldn’t endure the things I’d want to do to her, I’m done.
Turning on my heel, I push back the way I came, heading back into the bowels of the Bailey estate.
Sterling shouts after me, then Oz, but neither follow. My friends know better. They should, after being on the receiving end of my temper so many times in the past.
I’m Owen Dalton. Pinecrest will belong to me one day… but only if I can convince this town that I’m not a monster with an insatiable appetite for violence and degradation like they think I am.
It’s a big fucking ask.
After standing spellbound before the ornate and imposing edifice of Pinecrest University’s main campus building not ten minutes ago, I was expecting a lot more from the girls’ dorm rooms. The wood paneled hallway with its moody, gold-framed renaissance paintings gave me hope, but so far all I’ve seen are bright, open plan interiors with IKEA-style furniture.
My guide, Willow, stops outside a closed door and gives me a timid smile. When I wasn’t peeking inside the rooms we passed, I was staring at her mousy-colored bun as it bobbed, wondering if I had to start dressing down so I wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb around here. Her faded yoga pants cling to anorexic legs and her big, baggy hoody hides whatever’s going on above her knock-knees.
Maybe wearing my newest jeggings and a freshly laundered blue blouse was a mistake.
“Ta-da!” She throws out her arms, but her enthusiasm quickly dwindles when all I can muster is a nod. “Thanks, Willow.”
“Tour’s not done, yet,” she says, nodding eagerly. “Go drop off your stuff, then I’ll show you—”
“No.” I’m suddenly clinging to my cardboard box. It’s not large, and neither is the backpack hanging from my shoulder, but it’s my stuff, and after everything that’s happened the past few weeks, I’m hesitant to let it out of my sight.
Willow’s eyes go round. “It’ll be safe.” She rummages around in her hoody’s pouch and pulls out a black keycard. “Just lock the door.”
“Yeah, I know, I just, I’d like to get settled in. It was a long drive.”
Longer than she’ll ever know. Pinecrest is a tiny town in the middle of fucking nowhere. Which is probably why my father thought this university would be a fresh start.
Willow can obviously sense some of the shitty thoughts floating around in my head, because her smile solidifies as she plops my keycard with its black-and-gold Pinecrest University lanyard on top of my box. “You’re smart. I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”
How would she know? Did she see my transcript?
I push away the sour thought. My father had to pull a lot of strings to get me in here. I did exceedingly well in high school… up until a few weeks before graduation.
That’s when all hell broke loose.
Thankfully, it seems Pinecrest University was willing to look past some truancy and a massive scandal. I’m sure the small fortune my father paid them had nothing to do with their decision.
Willow looks relieved as she starts to walk away. “If you have any questions, just ask your roommate.”
I’d almost forgotten about that. I wasn’t entirely happy to find out that I’d been matched up with a second-year. Then again, I’m not happy to be here to begin with.
As if summoned, someone plucks open the door and lets out a hoarse, “Jesus Christ! Is letting me get a fucking nap too much to ask?”
I turn back to the door and flinch at the pair of fierce green eyes glaring in my direction. “Hi.” I shift my box so I can stick out my hand. “I’m—”
“Evie.” The girl leans her hip against the doorjamb as she flicks the tail end of her bright blue braid over her shoulder. Paired with her neon-green leggings and pink tank, she makes me wish I was colorblind. “You’ll have to be a lot quieter if this thing is going to work.”
“Of course, yeah. Sorry.” My cheeks are already heating up, and the girl makes matters worse by scanning me like I’m an underage kid trying to get into a night club.
“Looks like I got my work cut out for me,” she mutters, dragging me inside by my sleeve. As soon as I take in the room, I wish I hadn’t done so much internal bitching about the rooms we passed. They, at least, had floors. Beds. Other pieces of furniture that weren’t covered in clothing.
I assume this place has a floor, but I’d need a shovel to find it.
“You’ll get used to it,” the girl says.
I’m so shocked, she manages to take my box out of my hands before I can stop her. She clears space on one of the beds with her elbow and unceremoniously drops my stuff onto the mattress before marching back to what I assume is her side of the room.
“You’re not wearing that to the Burnout,” she says. The chunky jewelry draped over her wrists clatters as I shake her hand. “Katiana Oakes, but everyone just calls me Kat.”
Kat starts digging around in her clothes. I was hoping she was sorting them out, perhaps making use of the dresser or the closet now that I’m here, but she seems content to hunt through the piles like a scavenging badger.
I leave her to get on with it, and head over to the dresser on my side of the room to unpack.
It should surprise me that there are a bunch of vodka and tequila bottles in the top drawer. But after meeting Kat, I’m more surprised there aren’t a few dime bags of weed and some pharmaceuticals in here too.
I clear out the bottles, stacking them on her side of the room, after pushing away her clothes with the toe of my ballet pump.
“Aw, Evie, don’t be like that,” Kat says right behind me, making me flinch.
Shit, my nerves are absolutely shot. So much for therapy.
Kat slithers past me to grab one of the bottles. “Here. What’s mine is yours!”
I open my mouth to argue, and rear back when Kat tries to stick the bottle of tequila between my lips. “What the hell?”
She takes a quick swig, then cocks a neatly plucked eyebrow at me. “Welcome to college?”
We stare at each other for a second. For some reason, when she bursts out laughing, I join her. It’s probably exhaustion. Maybe a touch of hysteria.
It’s been a challenging couple of weeks.
Rough as fucking sandpaper.
If it wasn’t for my father forcing us to pack up and leave, I’m not sure what mental state I’d be in right now. I was headed for a motherfucking deep canyon… and my brake lines had just been cut. Let’s hope this Pinecrest place is just the detour I need.
“I can do my own makeup,” I tell Kat, meeting her frown in the mirror with a scowl of my own.
“Uh-huh.” She arches an eyebrow. “You wearing any now?”
My expression drops. “Yes?”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.” She slaps a cosmetic bag down on the dressing table, turns, and gives me a ferocious smile. “Welcome to your first—and most important—class of the semester. Cosmetology: 101.”
My idea of makeup is a lick of mascara and a touch of lip gloss. And I usually don’t bother with the lip gloss because my lips are pink enough. Plus, it’s awkward when people stare at my mouth when I’m talking to them.
When Kat turns my chair and finally lets me see my reflection, my chest tightens. I think it might be anxiety, but there’s a chance it could be joy. I’m as flawless and dewy as an Instagram influencer. My blue eyes with their dark rings look huge and bright, my mouth a perfect pink pout. It’s a surprisingly natural look, especially taking into account how much fucking makeup I’m wearing. I lost count of how many layers of foundation and contouring Kat slathered on my skin.
“This is cute, but it’s gotta go,” Kat says, breathing tequila into my face when she leans in to add a last sweep of mascara to my lashes.
I clap a hand over the tiny key dangling from the chain around my neck. “Hell, no.”
Kat rolls her eyes. “Ugh, really?”
“It’s… a family heirloom.”
“Oh, God. You didn’t have to bring more—we’ve got plenty. You can’t throw away a cigarette butt around here without hitting like three heirlooms.” She scans my face, eyes narrowed, and then steps back and gives me a wide grin. “I’ll let it pass. People will be too busy looking at your eyes, anyway.”
I reach for my hair band so I can put my hair into a messy bun, but Kat slaps my wrist away. “A masterpiece like this must have a beautiful frame.” She stands behind me, fluffing out my mass of white-blonde hair, and then squares off in front of me with a spray bottle.
“Close your eyes and make a wish.”
A fine mist hits my face.
“Class dismissed,” Kat says, looking deeply satisfied with her work. “Now put on your Gucci, and let’s get the fuck out of here.”
Kat points dismissively to a dress hanging from the closet door.
It probably cost more than my first year’s tuition.
It’s not that I haven’t worn fancy dresses before. My father’s engineering firm sometimes had formal to-dos that I was forced to attend. But I was brought up to be careful with money. Expensive clothes—the kind you wear once a year—were rented, not owned.
“I… can’t wear that,” I croak.
“Exact same thought crossed my mind. But now that I’ve fixed your face, I honestly think you can pull it off.” She gives me an impish smile, rendering further bitching pointless.
I’m not even sure how Kat convinced me that I’m going to the Burnout with her. I think there was passive-aggressive blackmail involved, but after the fifth swig of tequila, things got a little blurry.
She squawks when I want to take my backpack with me. Sure, it’s not a Marc Jacobs or anything, but my dad literally gave me five minutes to pack my shit.
“My medicine’s inside,” I tell her. “I can’t go anywhere without it.”
Her mouth pulls into a rueful half-smile. “Only tonic I need is—”
“A G and T?” I cut in dryly.
She grins. “Look at us, already finishing each other’s sentences and shit.”
“Where are we going?” I ask as she locks our room behind us.
“The Summer Burnout.” She narrows her eyes at me as I follow her down the hall. “Like the Summer Burnout?” Then she stops walking. “You’re not from around here, are you?” Her head tilts. “Thank God. I thought I’d run out fresh souls to corrupt. This is going to be fun.”
Willow is showing another freshman to her room further down the hall. I stamp out a brief flare of jealousy when I peek in and see how tidy it is.
“Hey, nerd,” Kat says, slapping Willow on the ass as we pass.
Willow squeals in surprise and sends Kat a wide-eyed stare.
“See you at Bailey’s?” Kat asks.
“Thought so.” Kat turns her back on the girl, sending her curtain of blue hair over her shoulder with a dismissive flick of her hand. She’s in a yellow corset-dress with short, puffy sleeves and white thigh-high boots. It shouldn’t work, but somehow it does.
Kat digs her finger into my arm. “Everyone who’s someone goes to the Burnout. Those who don’t…” She stabs a thumb over her shoulder toward Willow. “They’re nobodies.”
“That’s kinda harsh.”
“That’s kinda Pinecrest,” she replies whiplash fast. “Get used to it, noob.” Her eyes glance over my outfit again. “And would you stop doing that?”
“Looking so fucking uncomfortable.” Then she pats my shoulder. “Don’t worry. I’ve got more tequila in the car.”
Somewhere along the scenic drive from the university to the Summer Burnout, I succumbed to my exhaustion and fell asleep, despite Kat’s driving. Saying Kat is a reckless driver is like saying water is damp. If there was ever someone who shouldn’t be allowed behind the wheel of a fast car, it’s my roommate.
My blissful nap is cut short when my head bangs against the window of Kat’s canary-yellow Lamborghini.
“Hey, how you feeling?”
“Fine, considering.” I make a point of rubbing my head. “Why?”
“You may have a concussion,” Kat says airily as she rummages around between my feet for something. “That’s like the tenth time you’ve hit your head. It’s amazing the amount of G-Force you can pick up around these hairpin bends.”
I push her away when it’s obvious she can’t find what she’s looking for. “I’ll get it,” I grumble. My eyes are burning from my rude awakening and, possibly, all the makeup. I shove my hands under the seat, and roll my eyes to her when my fingers brush cool glass.
She makes grabby hands at me. “Gimme.”
“I’m sure they have enough inside…” I pull out the bottle, and Kat snatches it from my unresisting fingers.
“They keep all the good shit locked up. Big, huh?” Her voice muffles at the last word as she tips the bottle of tequila to her lips.
We’ve joined a line of cars waiting to be let through a set of massive wrought-iron gates. The little I can see of the mansion beyond is…
“Wait until you see the inside.”
A guy wearing black shades and a stony face walks up to Kat’s window and raps on the glass with a knuckle.
“Put it away!” I hiss.
She waves me off dismissively, shoving the bottle between her thighs as she presses a button on her door to roll down the window.
“Hola,” she says, and then cocks her head in my direction. “She’s with me.”
The bodyguard ducks his head to stare at me. “Name.”
“She’s not on the list.”
“But I am,” Kat says, propping her arm on the leather-clad steering wheel of her Lamborghini and leaning to the side so the guard has no choice but to look at her, not me. “And unless you want to explain to Liam why you sent home the life of his fucking party, I suggest you let us in.”
The guard grunts unhappily, and then turns away to mutter something incoherent into his walkie-talkie. He receives an unintelligible response that’s mostly static, and then waves us through.
Kat revs her engine like she’s at the start of a quarter mile, earning her a sour look from the guard as he heads to the car behind us.
“You’d think they could afford better help.” She takes another sip from the bottle and holds it out to me.
That’s about the same time we crest a small rise and a large portion of the property comes into view.
I grab the bottle and take a gulp. Then another. Not so much because of the huge mansion, but because of all the cars. The luxury cars. There’s not a clunker or a beater anywhere in sight.
Students are streaming toward the mansion’s front door. The sun is already setting, the mansion lit up from inside against the steady approach of twilight. A distant thump of music permeates the air, nearly drowning out the crackles and pops of cicadas.
Kat makes a puking sound when I slip my backpack over one shoulder. “Babe, please. For the love of God, leave that thing behind.”
I’m being ridiculous, I know, but this grubby backpack is the only thing anchoring me to reality right now. The makeup, the dress, the car… Kat? This must be how Alice felt when she fell down the rabbit hole.
Honestly? That girl kept her shit a lot better than I would have.
Which is ironic, because a few months ago, I was the life of the party. But now I’m the half-empty bottle of flat beer with a cigarette floating in it.
“I need it.”
Kat rolls her eyes. “They’re gonna think you’ve got a bomb in there.”
“All my stuff’s in here.”
I expect her to argue, but there’s a touch of something in her eyes that’s not quite sympathy.
“Yeah, fine.” She shrugs her shoulders and stares off toward the mansion with narrowed eyes. “But if they find a gun on you, I don’t know you.”
I huff out a laugh, and Kat takes a last swig from the bottle before tossing it onto the passenger seat. She grabs a glittery clutch purse and slips her key fob inside. “Let’s get this party started.”
We get through the front door without problems, although the guards stationed on either side subject me and my backpack to a very thorough search with a hand-held metal detector before I’m allowed through.
Just inside the doorway is a long table covered with masks. I’d noticed some people wearing them on the way in, but I didn’t realize they were compulsory.
There’s a girl perched on a stool behind the table, guarding a large coat room.
She waggles her finger at me and lets out a snooty, “Uh-uh.”
“Relax, bitch, she’s with me.” Kat turns up her nose. “The backpack isn’t.”
The coat check girl holds out a slim arm. “I’ll check it in for you.”
“No.” I tighten my grip on the straps until my hands start tingling.
“I wasn’t asking,” the girl says.
“Jesus Christ,” Kat whines. “I’m too fucking sober for this.” She clicks her fingers at the coat check girl. “We’ll take some masks, and then we’ll find a place to dump the backpack. Scout’s honor.”
The girl hesitates, but the line forming behind us crumbles her resolve. She hands us two masks—a cat skull for my roommate, and a slightly bulkier deer skull for me. Then she leans to the side to make eye contact with the people behind us, dismissing me and my ugly backpack.
Kat grabs my elbow, herding me to the side and staring at me insistently until I put my mask on. It’s pretty enough with its glitter and stuff, but I know I’m going to be bumping all sorts of things with these antlers.
Kat visibly relaxes once my mask is on. “Thank God. You were starting to put my street cred at risk, noob.”
“I have a name.”
“And it’s noob until you’ve proved yourself worthy,” she mutters in return, sliding her mask in place as she starts looking around. “Now, move it. We need to find a shallow grave for that monstrosity you’re lugging around.”
Waiters in black appear when we exit the entrance hall, and Kat grabs absently at a glass as a tray of champagne comes past. I try the same and somehow manage to knock over two glasses and spill half of the one I wrestle off the tray.
The waitress sends me a foul look. I bend to help her pick up the broken glass, but Kat clucks her tongue at me and drags me down the hall by the hem of my skirt.
“Why am I being punished?” she says. “Follow me.”
As if I have a choice. I snatch my dress out of her grip and smooth it down my legs. Most of the people flowing around us are heading toward the pounding music, but a few make their way down the hallway with us.
We take so many twists and turns and staircases that I’m completely lost.
“This’ll do,” Kat says, pushing open a door and stepping aside. “Just shove it under the bed or something. No one will come in here.”
The room smells like men’s cologne. I hurry over to the king-sized bed and bend to slide my backpack under it.
Kat is drumming her fingers on the doorjamb, her mask on top of her head. She drains the rest of her champagne with a pointed stare when I join her in the hallway.
“Right. Are you ready?”
I shrug. “I guess.”
“I said, are you ready?” She barks this out like a drill sergeant.
“Sir, yes, Sir!” I give her a sarcastic salute.
She pulls down her mask, and I follow suit. “Then it’s time I introduced you to this wonderful town called Pinecrest.” She holds out her arm, and I loop mine through hers as she leads us down the hallway. I throw a last stare to the closed door just before it’s out of sight.
Guess I’m well and truly down the rabbit hole now.