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The Marriage Pact by Dinah McLeod – Sample

The Marriage Pact by Dinah McLeodChapter One

Sometimes I wondered if my life would have turned out differently if June 16, 1987 hadn’t been such a big day for me. I was ten going on twenty, according to my mother when my family moved to Georgia and into the three-bedroom house on Pickett Street.

“What kind of a name is that?” I’d asked, exasperated from the long car ride. I’d spent most of it with my legs cramped underneath me because we barely had enough space for the boxes.

“It’s a great name,” my father enthused. “You know, think white picket fences. That’s the American Dream, right?”

I rolled my eyes. Dads. Mine was so uncool sometimes. Like, who even cared about stuff like that, anyway?

By the time we’d pulled up in front of the house that would be our new home, my right leg was twitching with a charley horse, which made it much harder than I’d expected to walk to the front door.

“Hey, Shan, come back here! You need to help get these boxes in!”

“But my leg hurts!” I pronounced loudly without turning to face him.

“We’re all tired, honey. You have to carry your own weight. Now come get a box.”

I rolled my eyes again, my feet rooted to the walkway, halfway between the front door and the car.

“Now, please!”

I turned around and stalked back to the car, muttering under my breath about ‘carrying my own weight.’ What did that even mean? Was there a fifth grader alive who could carry almost seventy pounds? I didn’t think so.

“Thank you,” he said with forced politeness as he handed me a box to carry.

I grunted as I accepted it and trudged toward the house, making a mental note not to push Dad any further. He sounded about as exhausted as I felt, which meant his patience would be wearing thin. I knew from experience that if I kept pushing, I’d find myself spending the afternoon staring at the paint drying on the walls, without even my Nintendo to keep me company.

It took forever to unload all the boxes—or so it felt to me—but finally Dad pronounced us done and slammed the trunk closed. “Let’s go inside and get some lunch, huh, kiddo?” He reached out and tousled my hair, much to my annoyance.

I blew my breath out in a huff, sending my straight black bangs flying skyward. Still, I didn’t say anything. I really, really didn’t want to have to get by in a new town without so much as Pac Land to keep me company.

My mother smiled as we walked into the kitchen. “Hungry?”

“Sure are. Sugar, why don’t you fix us a couple of sandwiches?” He didn’t ask like most dads I knew. There was no presumption in his voice, but true consideration. If my mom didn’t want to make sandwiches, my father would load us back up and take us out to eat, no questions asked.

Still, my mother smiled her beautiful, wide smile and said, “I’ll see what I can come up with, honey.”

“We’ll make a grocery run after lunch,” my father said, bending to plant a kiss on my mother’s coppery head.

She smiled up at him, her eyes sparkling. My mother was a beautiful woman and I didn’t have a doubt in my mind that she and my father adored each other. It was kind of sweet; mostly gross, but kind of sweet at the same time.

My mom stuck her head in the fridge, but I didn’t have high hopes, unless the previous owners had left something behind. In which case, eww.

Just then, there was a knock at the door. It echoed loudly throughout the house, mostly because of the empty rooms, I figured. “Are we expecting someone?” Mom asked, turning to look at Dad and me.

“Might be the neighbors. Hope they brought a fruit basket,” he joked. “Shan, run and get the door, OK?”

I didn’t even bother wasting time on rolling my eyes. I swung my legs off the chair and jumped down, shooting toward the door the minute my sneakers made contact with the floor. I loved meeting new people. But when I swung the door wide open, the only person standing there was a boy about my age, with light brown hair spiked on top of his head and a gap-toothed smile.

“Hi. I’m Brody. My family lives next door.” His smile widened as he pointed to the candy pink-painted house.

“I’m Shana,” I told him, offering a smile of my own. “We just moved in.”

His expression said duh, but he politely didn’t say it aloud. “Yeah, I heard there was a new family moving in. I’d thought you’d be a boy, though,” he added, his mouth turning down in a disappointed frown.

“Why would you think that?” I asked, wrinkling my nose.

“‘Cause my mom heard there’d be a boy, that’s all.”

“Oh, you mean my brother.”

Brody’s eyes lit up and his smile reappeared. “Yeah? Great! Can he come out to play?”

I considered him thoughtfully, tapping my finger against my chin. Suddenly, I was in a position of importance and I was going to enjoy every moment of it. “Sure,” I said, after making him sweat it. “You’ll have to come in though.”

“OK!” he enthused. He followed me in the house, barely sparing a glance for our sparsely furnished home.

I walked straight into the kitchen before pointing and declaring “Ta-da! My brother, Jonas.”

The look on Brody’s face was priceless. It was more than evident that he hadn’t expected to meet a two-year-old who was munching on Cheerios in a highchair. Brody’s eyes had gone wide in surprise and his mouth had drooped open a little. I couldn’t help but burst out laughing and when Brody heard, he turned his attention to me, scowling as he did so.

Before he could say anything, however, my father jumped in. “Who’s this now?”

He glowered at me, but smiled politely when he faced my father. “My name’s Brody, sir.”

“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Brody. Do your parents know you’re here?”

“Oh, yes, sir. They told me to invite your family to dinner, too.”

Dad turned to Mom, who was smiling faintly at the news. He arched an eyebrow as if to say, better than a fruit basket, huh? “We would be happy to join your family for dinner.”

What he really meant was that he’d be happy to put off grocery shopping for another day, I snickered to myself. With one last scrutinizing look my way, Brody thanked my parents and left without saying another word to me.

* * *

We’d enjoyed a nice meal of lasagna and garlic bread with Brody’s family, the Pattersons, and my mother insisted they come over to our house for wine and dessert. Brody had been glaring daggers at me throughout the entire meal, so I wasn’t exactly thrilled with this new development, but Mom and Dad were having too much fun socializing to notice. In fact, they were still sitting at the table long after everyone had finished dessert.

I’d left the table in favor of the couch, where I was sitting dejectedly staring at the TV. It was switched off and I wasn’t allowed to turn it on while company was over. Trouble was, it didn’t seem like they ever planned to leave.

“Hey.”

I looked up and saw Brody watching me. He looked as miserable as I felt. “Hey.”

“Can I sit?”

I shrugged a shoulder. “It’s a free country.”

He rolled his eyes, but pushed past my feet to plop down beside me on the couch. “Wanna turn on the TV?”

I cut my eyes at him. “Can’t. It’s a rule.”

“You serious?”

“You serious?” I mimicked, screwing up my face, which made my voice come out sounding whiney.

“Great,” he sighed loudly. “Look, I don’t know how long I’m gonna be stuck here, can we please try to be mature?”

I snorted in response. “Girls are always more mature than boys. Read a book, sheesh.”

“Is that what this is about?” he asked, sounding incredulous. “Look, I’m sorry I thought you would be a boy. Just, you know, girls aren’t that interesting.”

“Oh, yeah? ‘Cuz boys are so much better? All you do is scratch yourself and burp and tell fart jokes!” I smacked a hand over my mouth and glanced over toward the dining room to be sure my parents hadn’t heard; I hadn’t realized how shrill my voice had gotten. My mom didn’t approve of what she referred to as the ‘other F-word.’ Which made me wonder what other F-word she was talking about, but nobody would tell me.

“What do you do?” he sneered. “Play dress-up and have stuffed animal tea parties? God, at least if you were a boy you’d have a Nerf gun or a video game or something.”

I kept quiet as Brody sighed loudly, smirking behind my hand. “As a matter of fact,” I said, very smug and grown-up, “I have a Nintendo.”

His eyes widened in surprise. “You do?”

“Yup.”

“What’s your favorite game?” He asked it casually, but I saw through it immediately and identified it as the challenge it was.

“Pac-Man or Thunder Castle.”

“Please, they’re practically the same game!” He rolled his eyes, but after that he changed the subject to school, which I was dying to know all about.

Before he left, we’d played three rounds of Pac-Man—my parents thankfully didn’t say anything about the TV being on—and I bested him two out of three. He promised to introduce me to some kids if I would give him a rematch.

“Anytime.” I smiled sweetly, then added, “Sucker!”

Still, it hadn’t been a bad night and it felt nice to make a new friend. I went to bed that night looking differently at the stuffed panda I’d slept with every night since I was three. Was it really so bad to have stuffed animal tea parties? One thing I knew for certain was that I wouldn’t be telling Brody about Mr. Soft Paws anytime soon.

* * *

Brody came over the next day and we spent an entire Saturday riding bikes while he gave me a tour of the neighborhood. We even stopped by a game of kickball that was going on in a neighboring yard.

“This is the new kid,” Brody had announced to the yard at large. “Shana. She’s cool.”

Those two words were all it took to get me an instant in with the neighborhood kids. As I answered animated questions about myself, I beamed at Brody. I guessed I could forgive him for wishing I was a boy.

He and I were together all the time after that. If anyone thought it was unusual that a girl and a boy would be best friends, no one said so. Parents were less worried back then. We never did anything but simple kid stuff. We climbed treehouses and told ghost stories and tried to see who could hold their breath under water the longest—Brody—and who could catch the most frogs, a contest where I emerged the victor. In fact, for the first five years of our lives together, everything turned into a competition of sorts, a game where everyone kept score.

I couldn’t say when he’d stopped being my dorky friend and became someone I didn’t recognize. It happened so suddenly and caught me so much by surprise that years later, I still hadn’t recovered. Even if I didn’t know exactly when it happened, I could remember the moment when it hit me, like a full-blown punch to the gut, knocking the air from my lungs.

We’d just gotten done swimming in the lake, something we did often, especially in the summer. It was a warm, balmy night and the sun had just begun to go down. The crickets began chirping, my signal that it was time to get home. Even though I was fifteen, Dad still liked me to be home by the time the streetlights came on.

I swam to the shore and began to climb out of the water, hearing the sounds of Brody splashing right behind me. I was reaching for a towel when he dove forward, his hand shooting out and grabbing it first. I groaned inwardly, expecting an impromptu game of keep-away. Instead, he offered it to me with the easy grin I’d grown up with—as much as he stayed over, it was probably as familiar to my mother as my own.

“Thanks.” I reached out to take it, brushing my fingers along his hand. A strange tingling jolted through my body at that moment, making me hyper-aware of him. I forgot the towel, even with the breeze raising goose bumps on my skin, cradling my hand as it crackled with electricity.

“Here, let me help you,” he said as he climbed out of the water. The rays of fading sunlight shimmered on his body, illuminating the beads of water running along his bare skin.

For the first time since I’d laid eyes on him, the sight of him left me speechless. I watched, mesmerized by the vision he made, running his hands through his wet hair. When had he gotten so… good-looking? It was never a word I thought I’d use when describing Brody, but it fit him to a tee. I was ogling his trim, muscled stomach when he turned my way.

I couldn’t look him in the eye—one look at my blush and he’d know what I’d been doing. I felt so embarrassed and ashamed of myself and yet, I wanted so badly to sneak one more peek. Maybe I’d imagined it. Maybe when I looked back over, he’d be the same old goofy Brody I hated to love and loved to hate. We were like… brother and sister.

Unable to take it anymore, I looked back over. Yep, same abs. Same broad shoulders. Crap. The feelings consuming me were definitely not sisterly.

Brody seemed oblivious to the turmoil raging inside me as he took the towel and unfolded it. I could feel him behind me and the next thing I knew, I felt the warmth of the towel combined with the heat from his arms coming around me.

“What?” I gasped, tilting my head up to look at him. When had he gotten so much taller than me? How could I not have noticed before now?

He leaned down and brushed his lips across my cheek, gentle as a whisper. “You have the prettiest nose.”

My skin was tingling where his lips had touched and I was staring at him with a mix of excitement and astonishment. Did that just happen? Had he kissed me? In fact, it looked like he might do it again, but as his words penetrated the fog my brain was in, I threw my head back and laughed. “I have the prettiest what?”

His brow furrowed. “What? What’d I say?”

“Brody, seriously. Nogirl wants to hear you like her nose! That’s just… well, it’s weird!”

“Well, it’s true, I don’t care if it’s weird. You do have a cute nose. It’s like a button or something.”

“Uh, yeah, because people with buttons for noses wouldn’t look the least bit like the X-men?”

“Dude, do you even watch that show, seriously? Every time you bring it up I get the feeling you just change the channel.”

“Fine, come by next Saturday. We’ll watch it together.”

“Deal.” He solemnly held out his hand and with a giggle, I reached out and shook it. This time, he wasn’t some cute guy who made my body act all hot and tingly. He was just my friend, the same one I’d had for the last five years.

I could look back now and realize that it never could have stayed that way. Even if we hadn’t done the obvious, expected thing and started dating, he would have started dating someone who wouldn’t like him hanging out with another girl in his down time. No matter what, we wouldn’t have been able to keep having sleepovers and seeing each other in swimsuits without it getting weird one way or another.

By the time that I realized what was happening, that something was changing inside me, kids in the halls had been calling us Bro-shan for so long it really did feel like we were joined at the hip. No one so much as batted an eye when we became a couple. Even my parents seemed relieved that my first boyfriend was someone they knew. When I’d told them, Mom had smiled a little while Dad said, “It could be worse, huh?”

In a lot of ways, it felt like nothing really changed. We still spent every free moment together—I just happened to occasionally notice how well he filled out a t-shirt with his drool-worthy abs. OK, so maybe it was more than occasionally, but what girl would blame me?

None, as it turned out. Even though Brody and I were one of the firsts to pair up and declare ourselves ‘going out,’ it didn’t stop girls from looking his way when they thought I wasn’t watching. One or two had openly propositioned him, but Brody just shrugged off all the attention with a laugh. “Sorry, but I’ve already got a girl,” he would say, slinging his arm around my shoulders and hugging me close.

In a small town like ours, it didn’t take long for even the new girls in town to get word pretty quick that he was taken. By the time I turned seventeen, people asked me more about whether or not Brody had popped the question than where I was applying to college. Even Mom and Dad had accepted Brody as an indisputable member of the family.

Maybe it was because everyone expected it to happen sooner or later that Brody proposed a week before graduation. Thankfully, it wasn’t a public display; we had been at home—our two houses had long since felt like ‘home’ no matter which one we were at. No matter how much time passed, the memory of that day often came rushing back at me without warning.

We were watching Casablanca—even if he’d never admit it to the boys on the basketball court, Brody was an old movie buff and he liked chick-flicks, so long as they were in black and white. Sunlight was streaming in the open window, accompanied by a light breeze and the humming of birdsong outside. It was a picturesque day, but just a normal Sunday afternoon in our small town that we often took for granted.

“I saw some beer in the fridge,” he said casually. “Want one?”

“What if we get caught?” I asked, wrinkling my nose at the word beer. He knew I could hardly stand the stuff. It seemed to smell like sweat and football, both of which I found distasteful. But there was a part of me that was still caught up in trying to impress him after all these years, so if he had one, he knew I would, too.

He chuckled and reached over to stroke my cheek fondly. “You’re so damn cute, you know that?”

The rich, deep sound of his laughter never failed to make me flush with pleasure. I batted my eyelashes at him just to hear him laugh again. “You really think so?”

“You know I do. And what are you worried about, anyway? You’ll be legal in three years. No big deal.”

I started to point out that three years was still a long way off, but in the end I shrugged. “OK. Sure.”

The movie was just getting started and Ingrid Bergman had just walked into the bar.

“Hurry up, Brody, or you’re going to miss it!” I called out. The first time Sam played ‘As Time Goes By’ was his favorite scene.

“I’m coming already!” he called back. He walked into the living room moments later and handed me a cold can of beer, watching me expectantly.

“You have horrible taste in beverages,” I commented before opening the can and taking small, timid swallows until I couldn’t stand it anymore. I winced as the liquid went down my throat. Neither of us was that into drinking, whatever else we might have said to our classmates, which was why I was surprised to see that Brody had already downed his can.

“But I have wonderful taste in women.” He winked.

“Flatterer!” I accused.

“Want another?” he asked, turning back toward the kitchen.

“Brody!” I exclaimed with a laugh. “What are you doing, trying to get me drunk?”

“Of course not. I just want you to be relaxed.”

“Come on, sit down.” I patted the couch invitingly. “You’re not even watching the movie.”

He shrugged, but it made me look at him closer. Normally, ‘watch a movie’ was code for make out. Usually, after the first five minutes we were on each other as hot and heavy as a frying pan that had been left on the stove too long. The only exception was his black-and-whites, which was why I was appraising him thoughtfully.

When he sat down beside me, I moved until I was straddling his lap and cupped his face in my hands. “You don’t have to go to all this trouble to get laid. You know that.”

“Shan—”

“Shh.” I leaned over and inhaled the scent of his cologne right before I bit down gently on his neck. It was a move he was never able to resist and I often used that knowledge to my advantage.

“Shana. Wait a minute.” He pushed with gentle hands until I stopped. I sat back, staring at him in surprise. “I just want to talk.”

“Talk?” I laughed. “Sure, let’s talk.” I leaned forward and captured his mouth with mine, nibbling down on his bottom lip. I could feel his resistance, but damn, I was horny. I felt the exact moment when he gave in: when I slid my tongue in his mouth and his intertwined with mine, I knew whatever he had to say, he’d decided to save it for later.

“All right, if that’s how you want it,” he growled, his voice husky as he picked me up and deposited me back on the couch, towering over me.

“Brody, wait. Maybe we should—”

“Oh, no, don’t try to distract me. You have to finish what you started.” He leaned down and kissed me with so much pent-up passion that it stole my breath away.

“But—”

Another kiss silenced me and I gave up, giving into the sweet taste of him, the gentle but insistent pressure of his lips on mine. After we’d kissed until our lips were swollen, he pulled my t-shirt over my head and pitched it onto the floor. I was already unhooking my bra—my breasts spilled out, my nipples already hard and aching for his touch.

He obliged, immediately putting his lips on my left nipple and alternatingly kissing and suckling until I thought I would cream my panties then and there. He must have known it, too, because when he pulled back he gave me a lazy, boyish grin that never failed to turn my insides to mush.

I wished he’d at least let us take this party to the bedroom, but part of the thrill for Brody was the prospect of getting caught and I was too wound up with arousal to care very much about anything else just then.

“You’re so beautiful,” he whispered throatily as he pulled my pants and panties down with one hand while the other squeezed and fondled my right breast.

“Shut up and do me already,” I said with a grin. It was an inside joke between us, the same thing I’d said when Brody had been busy confessing his love while I’d been a horny virgin. It wasn’t very romantic, but it did make us laugh when remembering our first time.

Brody unzipped his fly—the sound of it never failed to make me shiver in anticipation—and wasted no time in plunging into my soaking wet pussy. He thrust in and out and I raised my hips to meet him every time. When I clenched my pelvic muscles around his cock, I heard his breath quicken. “God, Shan,” he ground out.

I couldn’t answer because I was lost in a sea of sensation. Pleasure flowed through my veins until I was practically shivering from the heat of it. I knew I was nearing my climax, but I was in no hurry to get there. I liked feeling him inside me, seeing his face as he tried to bring us both to the brink of ecstasy.

When he stopped and pulled out, it was a minute before I understood what was going on. “Brody?” I propped myself up on an elbow to look at him.

He gave me that same easy grin. “Your turn.”

“What?”

“Ride me, Shan.”

I could feel my thighs slick with moisture and my craving felt insatiable. I moved toward him and pushed him back onto the couch, rather forcefully, but he just laughed. I turned my attention to his hard cock, also shiny with my juices. I took it in my hand and moved up and down his length until I had him groaning. “A kiss for luck?” I suggested just before I took it in my mouth, tasting him.

“Shan,” he rasped out, but I kept going, moving my lips up and down until he was hard as a rock.

Only then did I straddle him and lower myself onto his waiting cock. I saw him grit his teeth and shut his eyes and I felt a heady rush at being able to make him feel this way. Is this how he felt when he made me orgasm? Spurred by the thought, I rode him hard and fast, enjoying the feel of my breasts bouncing up and down as I did.

Brody enjoyed it, too, if the expression on his face was anything to go by. When I felt his muscles go taut, I knew he was close. I reached down and cupped his balls, giving them a gentle squeeze to seal the deal. Our orgasms were almost simultaneous. Just as Brody was groaning his release, the first wave crested over me and my body rocked with the force of it. As the second wave was building, I collapsed on top of him, breathing heavily.

Brody pulled me to him, caressing my sweaty hair as I rode to the top of my summit. It would have been a hard road down, if he hadn’t been right there. We lay in silence for a few minutes, concentrating on inhaling and exhaling, which was all we could do right then.

When my blood began to cool down, I turned to Brody and smiled. He looked sleepy and I knew I probably did, too. I reached out and stroked his cheek, grinning as my fingers caressed his stubble. His mom was always after him to shave more. In that moment, I thought things would always be as perfect as they were just then. I should have known better; things can never stay the same.

“We should get dressed,” I suggested as I sat up.

He smiled back and I looked at him expectantly, unable to see the train that was headed for me. He didn’t give me any clue; he didn’t drop to one knee or anything like that. Instead, he took my hands in his and rocked my world with a sentence. “I love you so much, Shana Rae. Willyoumarryme?”

It came out in a jumbled rush that took me a minute to decipher. But I’d been deciphering Brody for a long time and I knew that he always talked super-fast when he was nervous. When the words untangled themselves and their message reached my brain, I felt frozen in time, stuck in between knowing that what we had was precious and knowing it couldn’t last—wouldn’t last, once I broke his heart.

Once I thought about it, I found it strange that I didn’t feel excited, like I’d always pictured myself being when he popped the question. I wasn’t anything, I thought when I looked deeper. I felt numb, paralyzed by the staggering disappointment I alone knew was coming. I tried to keep my breathing even and my pulse steady.

“Shan?” He laughed nervously.

I forced myself to smile even as my heart was breaking. I looked at him, taking it all in while we were still in this moment, before the hope in his eyes evaporated. His light brown hair was still spiked a bit up top, no matter how many times he tried to brush it down. His brown eyes had specks of green in them that shone deep and dark as emeralds after we made love. Every time I saw the green glittering beneath the brown, my sex clenched even as my heart became light. He had sharp features and a high forehead—the face of a man meshed with the face of a boy who was still growing into his natural good looks. My eyes lingered to his lips—those soft, pink kissable lips. On impulse, I leaned forward and brushed my lips over his. I sighed when I pulled away—it was now or never.

Before I could say anything, he beat me to it, reading my thoughts as he’d been doing for years. “That didn’t feel like a yes.” He sounded as stunned and numb as his proposal had left me.

“I’m sorry.” Hopelessly inadequate words that were swept away with the wind as soon as they left my mouth.

“Why?”

The anguish on his face was almost enough to make me change my mind. Almost. “Because our lives are just starting. We can’t… we’ve never even dated anyone else, Brody.”

“I don’t want to date anyone else, don’t you get it? I just want you. It’s always been you.”

“You feel that way now, but if we got married you’d… you’d realize, sooner or later, that it was a mistake.”

“I wouldn’t!” he burst out. “What are you even talking about? This is crazy. I thought you wanted the same things I did. Why have you even been with me if you didn’t want to be together long term?”

How could I answer a question like that? I worried my lip between my teeth as I considered him. How could I make him understand that I couldn’t bear to be without him when at the same time I had to do what was best for both of our futures? I knew how this would play out. In a year or two, we’d have a baby, then maybe another. Before we were five years in, I’d have stretch marks and dark circles under my eyes and we’d both wonder where all our dreams had gone.

“It’s complicated,” I pleaded with him to understand. “You know I want to go to Brown and—”

“I know,” he replied glumly, turning his back to me. “I would go with you, you know. Just because you’re going to college doesn’t mean we have to be over.”

How could I take him alongside my carry-on? It didn’t work that way and he knew it, no matter how hard he tried to pretend. Truth was, I was sure if I probed long enough he’d admit that he’d thought a marriage would persuade me to stay in town and go to community college. I wanted more than that for myself and I’d worked long and hard to get it.

Besides which, what I’d said was true. We’d only ever been with each other. Brody might have thought I was the best thing since sliced bread, but how could you know something like that for certain when you’d never tried cheese? I knew I wouldn’t be able to make him understand, so I didn’t try. I lay back down against the pillows, staring at the ceiling as I waited for the explosion I knew was brewing.

“Is this about college boys? It is, isn’t it?! You want to go three states away and not have to worry about your high school boyfriend,” he snarled, hurling the words at me like weapons.

Each one made its impact and I winced from the blow. “You were never just—”

“Save it,” he snapped. “I had you figured all wrong.”

“You’re angry now. If you’ll just—”

“Just go.”

“Brody, please, just let me—”

“I don’t have anything else to say to you!” he shouted. “Get out!”

With one last beseeching look, I stood on shaky legs and began rifling for my clothes. I found my shorts in a crumpled puddle. I could practically feel him seething with anger, every bit of it directed at me. Tears were stinging my eyes and clogging my throat—I couldn’t stay here a moment longer. I grabbed a shirt off the floor, not caring who it belonged to. I threw them on, bra and panties be damned.

By the time I managed to stumble outside, my legs were pumping and I was running as fast and as far as I could. What had I done? I ran until my legs gave out. When they did, I fell to the ground, arms wrapped around my stomach as I gasped in deep, burning gulps of air. I cried until I couldn’t cry anymore, and it was only when I was wiping my eyes that I realized he’d kicked me out of my own house.

* * *

Brody was long gone by the time I made my way back to the house. I locked myself in my bedroom and cried into Mr. Soft Paws, ignoring my mom’s knock at the door until she finally went away. I wasn’t hungry anyway.

Even long after I cried myself to rags, I couldn’t sleep. I tried, I really did, but it was no use. I tossed and turned and glared at my alarm clock. Finally, when it read 12:17 I decided this had gone on long enough. I exchanged my nightgown for a pair of faded sweats and quietly let myself out of my bedroom, tiptoeing gently down the hall. Thankfully, I didn’t see any lights, so it was a safe bet my parents were in bed. It was normally a safe bet at this hour, but you could never be too careful.

I moved slowly and softly through the darkness, feeling my way around the house until I made it to the back door. When my hand found the knob, I hesitated. What if he didn’t want to see me? What if he didn’t ever want to see me again? The thought was almost enough to make me dissolve into tears all over again.

Steeling myself and searching frantically for my resolve, I took a few deep breaths and let myself out the door. It was an easy walk next door, even in the dark; my feet had learned the path long ago, and there’d been more than one midnight rendezvous.

I knelt by his mother’s flowerbed and fished for pebbles. When my fingers closed around four small ones, I tested the weight of them in my hand before pocketing them. I walked around the house and pulled out a pebble. The moon was full tonight, which made it easy to see my target. I aimed and tossed the pebble, which bounced off with a harmless pink.

Come on, wake up, Brody, I thought as I tossed the second one. We’d started doing this when we were thirteen as a way to talk without waking our parents. I couldn’t remember when the last time was that I’d used it—nowadays, I just let myself in the side door. I tossed the third pebble and rubbed the fourth between my fingers, debating. Still nothing. Might as well go home and try to get some sleep.

I was turning around when I saw a flash in the window. When the sill opened and Brody peeked out, looking sexily sleepy with his hair rumpled, my heart froze in my chest. When he saw me, he scowled.

“What the hell are you doing here?” he hissed.

“I… I thought you might want to… talk.”

“Talk?” he echoed, his voice rising. “What’s there to talk about? Unless you’ve changed your mind.” He snorted without giving me a chance to answer. “But you never change your mind, do you?”

It wasn’t fair, but I wasn’t about to point it out when I hadn’t, in fact, changed my mind. I was sure I was doing what was best for the both of us.

“I’m not going to stay awake at one in the morning to ease your conscience. Run home, little girl.”

I could feel myself getting angry. I knew he was upset, but did he have to be such a jerk? When he turned to walk away, I took aim and tossed the pebble through the open window. My aim was always better when I was angry and this time was no exception: it hit him squarely in the back of the head.

When he whirled to face me, eyes blazing, any remorse I might have felt was extinguished. “What the hell’s the matter with you?” he demanded sharply. “First, you break my heart, now you throw things at me?”

“If you’d stop being such a jerk—”

“Better than being a heartless bitch, I guess.”

His words stunned me, paralyzing me for an instant. No matter how mad at me he got, he’d never called me that. I could see the anger fading, could see his expression softening as he looked at me, but I couldn’t speak. “Shan, listen, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”

I whirled around and jogged away, not wanting to hear what else he might say. Funny, I thought when I got back into my bed, hugging my knees to my chest. And I thought I couldn’t feel any worse.

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