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Brutal Royal: A Mafia Bully Romance by Tessa Morgan – Serialization (Part One)

Chapter One

Owen

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…

Christ.

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.

The music.

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.

Chapter Two

Evie

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.”

Shit.

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’s black.

It’s slinky.

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.

“Uh…”

“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?”

“What?”

“Looking so fucking uncomfortable.” Then she pats my shoulder. “Don’t worry. I’ve got more tequila in the car.”

Chapter Three

Evie

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.

“Ow.”

“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…

“Holy shit.”

“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.”

“Evie Larsen.”

“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.

Chapter Four

Evie

The bass kicks through my body in a heady, phantom pulse. I squint my eyes, letting in just enough of the flickering strobe lights so that I can keep sense of where I am on this packed dance floor.

And more important, where Kat is. Although I think I just lost her again.

My eyes sweep over the people jammed up against me as I search for her. Most have their eyes closed, lost to the music or their dance partners. A flash of blue catches my eye a second before Kat shoves her way in beside me. She’s holding a bottle of some muddy-colored energy drink. Her hair is starting to curl from the humidity on the dance floor.

She hands me the bottle, motions for me to drink some. I ignore the warning clench of my stomach and take a sip anyway. It’s alcohol of some sort, brandy maybe, along with the sweetness of an energy drink. I take another sip and hand it back.

Kat drinks, then turns and shoves the bottle against the side of a girl dancing beside us. She motions to her like she just did to me—pinkie and thumb held out, tipped back against her lips.

Drink.

The girl hesitates, and then puts the bottle to her lips and takes a deep swig. She turns and hands it to the guy she’s dancing with.

A second later, the bottle leaves my sight. When the girl turns and gives Kat a thumbs up, dread settles upon on my shoulders.

But in a second, Kat’s pressed against my side, her body forcing mine to move to the rhythm of the music. She smooths back my hair from my face, and I think she’s smiling but the mask blocks too much of her face for me to be sure.

I’m just starting to submerge into the beat when Kat grips my shoulders and turns me around. My eyes flutter open and fix on a group of guys up ahead. Despite my heels, I can see little more than the tops of their heads as the crowd moves around them.

One of them, the tallest of the men, with striking pitch-black hair, turns and looks at me. Or in my direction, anyway.

My stomach twists. I grab Kat’s wrist, digging my nails into her flesh. She ducks her head closer and I yell, “I feel sick!” into her ear.

She nods, turns, and drags me outside.

I’m hyper-aware of the cool night air sliding over my skin. I should be shivering, but some invisible buffer insulates me against the cold.

Probably whatever was in that sports drink.

A bonfire catches my eye, sparks leaping from the flames. Many of the people around here know Kat. They call out to her, asking her to join them. Some look over curiously at me, but I duck my head.

I can’t handle strangers right now. I can’t handle anything right now.

Kat says hi, but doesn’t stop to say more to them.

When I almost twist my ankle on the grass, Kat pauses just long enough to bend down and take off my shoes.

We emerge at a swimming pool that looks like it belongs in a five-star hotel. It has splash pools on both sides, and an island in the middle with a bar framed by a pair of palm trees. Girls in bikinis float around on illuminated water in plastic flamingos and unicorns. More than one couple are making out along the sides. When I realize just how many of the people inside the pool are naked, I finally figure out what’s about to happen.

I pull back on her hand. “Kat, no!”

She gives me a wicked grin as she hands me her mask. “Oh, yes, noob. Yes.” She walks right up to the side of the pool, pulls her dress up over her head, and dives in, the splash accompanied by a chorus of cat calls and wolf whistles.

Something tugs at my hair. I turn, staring at one of the guys who Kat pointed out in the crowd what seems like hours ago. He’s handsome in a roguish way, especially with the lopsided smile that spells out trouble for any girl in his vicinity.

“Your turn,” he says, dragging a hand through his mop of curly hair as he slides his gaze down my body. “Need a hand with your dress?”

A few other guys are heading my way now, their eyes crawling over my bare skin. Suddenly the music is too loud, the air is too hot, my clothes are too revealing. But I feel trapped inside my own body, my thoughts scattered.

“Evie!” I hear Kat call from the pool. “Get in!”

“Yeah, Evie,” the curly-haired guy says through a slick smile. He grabs the shoulder strap of my dress and shifts it down my arm. “Let’s get in the pool.”

It would be so easy to let him undress me. And I can imagine how cool and welcoming the water will be. Kat’s in there, and she’s waving at me, a happy grin plastered on her face.

Easy… but dangerous. My clothes protect me. When I’m wearing them, no one can see how fucked up I am.

“Come on, gorgeous.” Someone else comes to stand behind me, their fingers cool as they slide along my other strap. “We could all go for a swim. Don’t you want to go for a swim with the Royals?”

That does sound nice. The guy in front of me is incredibly handsome. I could do worse. I have done worse… so much worse.

My ex-boyfriend’s face flashes into my mind—twisted, manic, desperate.

“Hey! Leave her alone, you vultures!” Kat calls out.

Her voice is the signal my brain needs to finally snap out of it. I weakly slap away a hand trying to drag my strap past my elbow, turning away from those clutching fingers.

“Fuck you!” I drop Kat’s mask and stagger away.

Everyone in sight stares at me like I’ve lost my mind. I turn on my heel and force my legs into a run, trying to put those guys and their hypnotizing voices as far in my rear view as possible.

I don’t know how I find my way back to the mansion, let alone the room where I left my backpack. I remember bouncing off the wall more than once.

The whole way, I kept feeling as if someone was following me. A dark figure—menacing, sinister. But I make it to that room on the third floor without anyone stopping me and trying to take my clothes off again. Luck is on my side tonight… because if anyone tried again, I wouldn’t have been able to stop them.

The thought terrifies me.

I fumble under the bed with both hands, my chin propped on the edge of the mattress. My eyes are hooded, and nothing sounds better than closing them and drifting off.

It feels like I’ve been awake for a week. Like my body weighs the same as Kat’s Lambo. My eyes keep fluttering closed.

I’m an idiot. I knew that energy drink was spiked and I still drank it. Behind the mask of the drugs, I can feel anxiety growing, welling, about to burst.

I can’t handle a panic attack right now.

That’s why I need my pills. But I can’t fucking find them.

Pausing, I slump onto the carpet. I try to take off my mask, but the strings have gotten tangled in my hair.

Damn, this carpet feels good against my skin.

I should get up. Get my bag. Get the fuck out of here.

My eyes drift closed. The music becomes a primal drumming, and even lying on my back, I want to dance. Kat’s slinky Gucci dress slides down my thighs when I lift my knees and start shifting my legs from side to side. I run my hands all over the silky fabric as I squirm into the carpet.

My entire body comes alive, nerve endings humming with sensuality.

It all feels so good… running a hand over my hardened nipples, coasting my fingers down my belly, the dress gliding over my underwear as I squirm.

I don’t know how long I’m lying there on the floor, just feeling, but a bang on the door jars me out of my trance.

My hand is between my legs. I’m aching and throbbing, my underwear damp.

With a mortified gasp, I pluck my hand out from under my dress. The door opens, and I barely have enough time to roll under the bed before footsteps thud faintly into the carpet. I bump into my bag, and I clutch it with one hand, the other clapping over my mouth to stifle any sound I might make.

Morbid fascination draws my eyes to the pair of expensive-looking loafers stepping through the door. Did the guy from the pool follow me?

My heart beats hard and fast inside my chest. Anxiety buzzes through me like a saw, putting me on a razor’s edge.

“There’s no point hiding.”

I’m not as relieved as I thought I would be when he speaks. It’s definitely not the same guy, but this guy sounds pissed off as hell. I follow him around the room as he tries to figure out where I am, threatening me if I don’t show myself.

Squeezing my eyes shut, I try to will down the terror building inside me. But I needn’t have bothered, because a second later I’m dragged out from under the bed by my hair, yelling breathlessly at the bright, stinging pain that flares over my scalp.

Chapter Five

Owen

I have to get the fuck out of here before I destroy something… or someone. I’ve had a joint and two bumps of coke, but it didn’t help. It never does. There’s only one thing that can relieve the pressure building inside me, but after what happened with Penny, I don’t dare.

My phone vibrates in my pocket.

Sterling: where r u? ur missing all the fun. Wilders getting girls 2 skinny dip.

I huff out a sour laugh. Sterling might be one of my closest friends, but we have vastly different definitions of the word fun. As I’m slipping my phone back into my pocket, I glimpse a figure further down the hall.

A black Gucci gown hugs a plump, curvy ass. The girl wearing it is wasted, ricocheting off the hallway wall every few steps.

My cock stirs when I realize she’s alone.

Hasn’t she heard? There’s a monster roaming these halls.

It’s not the dress that caught my attention though. It’s her hair. Platinum blonde, it hangs in soft waves to her shoulder blades, swaying over her bare skin as she totters from side to side.

I can’t help but follow like a wolf tracking the scent of a baby lamb.

She doesn’t seem to notice that I’m stalking her, but in her inebriated state I doubt she’d notice a bomb going off beside her.

The gentlemanly thing to do would be to take her into the kitchen, feed her some coffee, and tell her how lucky she is that a good guy found her while she waits for her cab.

But that would be a lie. I’m not a good guy. I don’t think I ever was.

The appetite I’ve been suppressing for what feels like fucking years has reached the tipping point. So I follow the poor little drunk girl deeper into Liam’s mansion, my cock growing harder with every step.

I’d love to know where she’s going. This area is off limits to general partygoers. Liam even has staff posted at the main staircase to turn away anyone wanting to come up here. But there are other ways to reach this floor. She must have been here before.

Gucci Girl stumbles around a corner, hits the wall, and almost topples over. She’s jarred enough that she turns to look in my direction. We lock gazes through our masks—hers a glittery version of my creepy Wendigo skull—but she’s too far gone to sense danger. She merely pushes a lock of white hair out of her face and keeps stumbling down the hall.

I’ve seen a few girls with white hair, most of them with darker roots showing. But either this girl just dyed her hair, or she’s a natural blonde.

The thought excites me. There’s a memory trapped in my head of a girl with white hair that looked as natural as the curves of her body.

She was bound, panting and moaning while someone fucked her from behind.

I turn the corner and stop to stare as the girl lets herself into Liam’s bedroom.

What the fuck?

My phone vibrates. Sterling speaks as soon as I accept the call. “Where’d you disappear to, bro?”

I almost think he’s referring to the mystery girl in Liam’s bedroom. But I doubt Liam’s told them that this is how he plans to even the score between him and his fiancée, if that’s even the case.

“I’m busy,” I tell him, keeping an eye on the door so I’ll know if the girl slips out while I’m talking to him.

“You can jerk off after you’ve turned down every girl at this rager. But for you to turn them down, you kinda have to meet them first. And I’ve got some fine specimens for you to—”

“Where’s Liam?”

Sterling laughs. “You’re hurting my feelings, bro. Here I am, diligently hunting down some strange for my friend, and you—”

“Is he there with you?”

“Fuck, Owen. Yeah, he’s here. Wanna talk to him?” Sterling sounds sarcastic, but I know I’ve pissed him off. I’ll have to make it up to him, but right now I have to figure out what the fuck this girl is doing up here in the middle of the Summer Burnout.

“I saw a girl go into his room. Is he expecting visitors?”

Sterling mutters something about this being a fucking party, and I’m treated to a minute of rustling fabric, snatches of conversation, and the distant thump of music until he yells out for Bailey.

“Hey, Liam, there’s some chick in your room. Want Owen to kick her out?”

I can’t hear Liam’s response, but Sterling comes back on the line with a chuckle. “He’s so fucking wasted, I doubt he could even get it up if he tried. Toss the groupie and get your ass over to the pool house.”

I shove my phone back in my pocket, my mouth curving into a cold smile. I’m not the only one with restraining orders out on girls who couldn’t get the message. Liam has three. Could one of them really have snuck up here to lay in wait? If they did, I doubt it would be to sleep with him.

I bang open the door and scan Liam’s room. She’s nowhere to be seen, but she’s had more than enough time to find a good hiding spot. And the only reason she’d be hiding is if she was up to no fucking good.

“There’s no point hiding.”

Silence.

Where is she? In the closet with a knife? In the bathroom with a gun? Or under the bed with an axe?

“Come out, and I’ll consider not going to the cops.”

But this girl has balls of steel, because she doesn’t appear from her hiding place.

“Don’t piss me off, girl.” I walk around the room, flicking open the closet door, then peering into the en-suite bathroom. Both are empty, which leaves only one hiding spot…

When I stick my hand under the bed, I’m immediately met with thick, soft hair. I grab it in a fist and haul her out. Despite her curves, Gucci Girl doesn’t weigh much.

She lets out a frantic yell that sounds more angry than scared, grabbing my wrists and digging her nails into my skin. She’s still wearing her mask, but I catch a glimpse of blue eyes inside the skull’s deep sockets.

“Didn’t think this through, did you?”

She says nothing, and I can’t make out her expression through the fucking mask. When I rip it off her head, pulling out some of her hair where it tangled in the strings, she must finally realize just how much trouble she’s in, because she lets out a scream that has my ears ringing.

I clap a hand around her mouth, and drag her against me when she starts struggling.

“I’d stop doing that if I were you,” I murmur into her ear. When she doesn’t listen, I press my stiff cock to the curve of her ass. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

The girl stops, the only movement her heaving breasts as she fights for air.

I should be herding her downstairs, taking her to Liam so he can identify her.

That’s the rational part of me. The normal.

My monster wants to keep her here. To punish her until she’s wet and begging for my cock.

It’s just a stupid fantasy. In real life, girls don’t cream themselves when you bring out your toys. They call the fucking cops and try to get you arrested for assault.

“What’s your name?”

She mumbles something against my hand. I peel back two fingers, keeping a hard grip on her jaw so she can’t wriggle away.

“Fuck you!”

A chuckle rumbles out of me. “Which part of this is unclear? The fact that you’re trespassing, or the fact that you’re at my mercy?”

I guess she felt like changing the narrative, because that’s when she brings her heel down with full force on my foot. In my split second of surprise, she wrenches herself free and bolts for the door.

I’m right behind her. If it wasn’t for the unsightly backpack she’s dragging with her, she’d have gotten away.

So why the fuck does she hold on?

I yank back on the strap. Gucci Girl loses her balance, falling into me. I shove her forward, using her body to close the bedroom door before pinning her against it.

She yelps in pain, the bag thumping to the floor.

I sweep her hair away from her neck, wrapping it around my fist and using it to keep her face pressed to the door. My other hand reaches for her backpack. “So, you weren’t waiting for Liam,” I growl. “You were stealing from him.”

It’s the only thing that makes sense. Why she hid, why she held onto this bag, why I don’t recognize her. I know every girl Liam’s ever dated, especially the stalkers. It’s not by choice: every Royal got a dossier with their pictures on.

“Stealing?” She glares up at me with her blue eyes. “I wasn’t stealing.” Disgust drips from every word.

“Then you won’t mind if I take a look.” My voice is naturally deep, but I sound like a fucking psychopath right now. I can’t help it—it’s taking every ounce of my willpower not to push her onto the bed.

It’s the sweet, feminine scent of her hair. The way her throat moves when she swallows. Her quivering body so tight against mine.

Christ.

Just the sight of her has me salivating like a starving beast. But I was fooling myself into thinking I’d follow her in here and seduce her. I can’t have her any more than I can have Penny—or any other girl.

“You have no right to look in there.” Her voice wavers, then strengthens. Her glare sets off a chain reaction inside of me. My heart pounds, my jaw clenches, my cock aches.

“Show me what you took.”

“Nothing!”

I growl, bending to pick up her bag, but Gucci Girl decides she’s had enough of me pinning her to the door. She pushes against it, shoving into me so hard that I stagger back before I can catch my balance. She snatches up her bag and whips around, hesitating like she’s waiting for me to pounce on her again.

Huh.

We’ve only just met, but she already knows me. Already knows I can’t control myself. When I surge forward, I’m met with a ringing slap. My head jerks to the side, pain pulsing hotly through my cheek.

I let out a low, bitter laugh. “You have no fucking clue who I am, do you?”

Her glare says enough. She turns the door handle, moving carefully, anticipating more violence.

“You think I care?” Her words are laced with malice.

“If you had a shred of self-preservation, you would.”

There’s a glimmer in those bright blue eyes, but it’s not fear this time.

It’s anger.

“You think you’re the worst I’ve had to deal with?” she asks quietly, giving me a condescending scan. “You’re pathetic.”

The angry rumble that comes from deep in my chest makes the color drain from her face. She turns the handle, her movements frantic, but her gaze remains locked on me.

“I’m not done with you yet, girl.”

She turns and tries to slip out the door. I dart forward, aiming for her throat, but she slips out of my grasp. My fingers catch in her necklace, trapping her for a single breath. But the delicate chain snaps, and then she’s gone.

I’m left standing there scowling, with my dick tenting the front of my jeans, and the remnants of her flimsy necklace clutched in my fingers.

When I crush the necklace in my palm, something sharp bites into my flesh. I slowly uncurl my fingers and stare down at the tiny key.

I shove the charm into my pocket as I stare at the open door.

“Run, little lamb,” I grate out. “I’ve always enjoyed a good chase.”

Chapter Six

Evie

I burst out of the hallway and into the press of bodies at the edge of the dance floor. My heart is pounding harder than the bass line on the EDM track pumping through the speakers.

My hand flies to my neck, then down to my breastbone.

Shit!

My necklace is gone. I thought I’d only imagined it when it tightened around my neck. I should go back and fetch it… but I can still feel his fingers around my throat.

I’m a fucking coward.

Throwing a nervous glance over my shoulder, I scan the hallway and everyone coming onto the dance floor to make sure the guy with the terrifying concrete-gray eyes hasn’t followed me. I move through the mass of bodies at an uneven pace, looking backward every few steps as I head for the doors leading into the back yard. If he did follow me, hopefully I can lose him in the crowd.

As my panic starts to ebb, I finally register what the hell just happened.

He thinks I’m a thief?

My hand tightens on the strap of my backpack, the same hand I slapped him with.

The shock in his eyes… and then the outrage.

You have no idea who I am.

What have I done?

After finally battling my way through the press of bodies, I step into the cool night air and draw some deep breaths. Then I rummage in my bag and take out a bottle of prescription pills. I dry swallow one of them, hesitate, then force myself to take another.

Risking a final look back, I wrap my arms around myself and walk down the lawn. Drinking whatever was in that bottle had been a bad, bad idea. That encounter was scary enough, but the drugs confused the fuck out of me. Squaring off with that huge guy had my knees shaking, but my nipples tightening too. Every shift of movement made Kat’s dress rub over my skin in the most delicious way.

And when he pressed against me and I felt his cock?

There’s still a hard, sullen ache in my core. A dampness between my legs that has nothing to do with the fact that I was touching myself moments before he burst into that room. As I make my way over the lawn, the friction between my thighs makes my lower body tingle. When I realize I’m brushing my fingers down my neck, remembering the feel of him clutching my throat, I quickly clench my hand at my side.

I need to find Kat and get the hell out of here before I cross paths with that guy again.

Maybe when I’m far away from this place, I’ll finally be able to get the image of those brutal eyes out of my head?

God, he was so tall. So fucking strong. I knew he held me there with just a fraction of his strength. That he could have squeezed just a little harder… and I wouldn’t be alive right now.

It’s a horrific thought, but that doesn’t explain why my panties are so wet.

It must be the drugs.

I swerve around a bonfire, my backpack thumping against my hip, and I realize my phone’s vibrating inside. When I stop to take it out, my body lurches forward a step before I can come to a complete stop. My balance is nonexistent, and I end up on all fours with a reeling head before I can regain my footing.

Scrambling onto my ass, I sit down hard, staring around me as my face heats to the temperature of the sun. But I might as well be invisible. No one laughs. No one even turns to stare.

I pluck out my phone and stare at the name on the screen with blurry eyes.

Wild Kat

Good God, now I’m hallucinating?

“Hello?”

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Kat snaps in my ear. “I’ve been calling for hours.”

“Hours?” I manage, shaking my head. It felt like time slowed in that room, but surely—

“Where the hell are you, noob?”

“Uh… by the bonfire?”

I’m not sure if it’s my imagination, or if I can really hear Kat’s frustrated hiss. “Which one?”

“Closest to the house.” My gaze drifts up. That’s not a fucking house. “Mansion?”

“You stay right the fuck there. I’m coming.”

“Okay. Thank you.”

Kat huffs in my ear before ending the call. I stare at the screen, shake my head, and put my phone away. While my hand is inside the backpack, it brushes against a bundle of soft fabric wrapped around something hard and square. I grip it, breathing in deep, and then slowly force myself to let go before zipping up my bag.

I still can’t believe that guy thought I was a thief. Or that I was supposed to know who he was.

Wait…

That pitch-black hair. Those cold gray eyes.

I can’t be sure, but I think he might have been one of the guys Kat pointed out on the dance floor earlier.

What the hell happened up there? I don’t have a death wish, but if I’m not suicidal then why in the hell did I keep pushing him? Why the fuck didn’t I just show him what’s in my bag?

It was a stupid question, really. Not only would he have found the pills, but he’d have found my awful past too, neatly tied up in a bow.

He can’t know what happened. No one can.

The thought sends a rush of acid up my throat. I swallow hard, pressing my hands against my eyes until I see stars.

What the fuck are you thinking? You shouldn’t be here.

I promised my dad I wouldn’t leave campus. I swore that I would behave myself… and the first thing I do is go to a fucking rager, take drugs, and antagonize some dude on a power trip?

“You’re grounded, young lady.”

I turn and stare at Kat’s knees for a second before tipping back my head to look up. “Hello.”

“Don’t you ‘hello’ me.” She puts her hands on the hips of her yellow dress. Her hair hangs in wet, navy ringlets down her chest. “What do you think the school board will do to me if I let my roommate OD on her first day of college?”

“Reprimand you?”

She shrugs, turning to stare at the people around us. “Yeah, I guess.” Then she plops down beside me on the grass. “Oh, God.” She grimaces at my bag. “Did this nightmare audition for It Follows?”

“How did you get my number?”

Pushing her mask onto the top of her head, Kat rummages inside her glittery clutch purse and pulls out a joint. After lighting it, she takes a few quick drags before handing it to me. I probably shouldn’t, but maybe the weed will chill me the fuck out.

“Someone kept calling while you were taking a catnap in my car,” she says, her voice tight as she keeps the smoke in her lungs.

I take a puff of the joint, coughing when the acrid smoke hits my lungs. The second hit is a bit better, but I hand it back to Kat before I can smoke too much. “You answered my phone?”

“Oh, yeah, almost forgot, your dad says hi. Sweet guy. What’s that accent he’s got?”

“He’s from Finland.” I narrow my eyes as I shake my head in confusion. “Wait, you spoke to my dad?”

“Yeah.” Kat studies the joint. “He wanted to know how his little nappula was doing.”

“He’s never called me that.”

“Well, he was worried.” She presses her fingers to her chest. “I alleviated his fears that you’d been kidnapped and sold to a sex trafficking ring. You’re welcome.”

I shake my head, turning to watch the bonfire’s crackling flames. With Kat beside me, I don’t feel like prey anymore, but I also don’t feel like partying. Now that the adrenaline has worn off, my eyelids are suddenly heavy, and passing out right here by the fire is becoming a real possibility.

“So, we’ve got two options, noob,” Kat says.

My eyes fly open, my heart giving a kick.

People aren’t standing where they were when I closed my eyes. Did I nod off?

“Either you do some coke with me, or I find you a nice little nest to burrow into until morning.”

“Morning?” My tongue feels thick, words slurring in my mouth. That weed obviously wasn’t a good idea.

Why the hell does Kat look so fucking alert? She had most of the joint… and it looks like she just lit a new one.

“No one leaves before dawn. That’s why it’s called the Burnout. But I know the guy who runs this gig, and he owes me a favor, so I’m sure I can persuade him to let you rest up in one of his guest rooms.”

I blink at that, giving her a weary smile. “You’d do that for me?”

“Jesus, my reputation as a cunt precedes me,” she mutters, the tip of the joint glowing a fierce orange as she pulls at it. “You look exhausted, Evie. And your dad said you should be taking it easy. You’ll tell me about all of it tomorrow, right?”

“All of what?”

She quirks up a carefully plucked eyebrow. “He was genuinely concerned about you. You were supposed to let him know you’d arrived.”

I was. Why didn’t I?

At the moment, the mere act of thinking is like using a spoon to grab a piece of spaghetti out of boiling water. After a few seconds, I give up. “Okay.”

“Yup, you just stopped being fun.”

Kat’s face glows as she stabs a number on her phone. She gives me a brief, warm smile when she sees me watching her, and then turns to watch the flames. “Yo, Bailey, what up?” She laughs. “You’re disgusting. Listen, I’m calling in that favor. Friend of mine needs a place to crash. Can I put her in that godawful blue room next to the stairs?” She laughs again. “Seriously, dude, I’ll pay you to have it redecorated.” Another laugh, this one huskier than the last. “Thanks. Yeah, yeah, awesome party. Can’t wait for the fireworks.”

She slips her phone back into her purse and watches me for a second. “Did you want to stay and watch?”

My eyes are starting to blink independent of each other. “Huh?”

“God, never mind. Come on. Up and at ‘em, noob. Let’s get you tucked in for the night.”

She hoists me up off the ground, snuggles me into her side, and leads me back to the house.

Mansion.

“We’re going to have to work on your party legs,” she says. “No roommate of Kat Oakes passes out before midnight. I’ll turn into a pumpkin.”

I laugh, and she does too, but within moments I’ve already forgotten the joke.

“Did you meet any cuties?” she asks, effortlessly maneuvering us between the people blocking our way to the mansion.

“Yeah,” I drawl, my hand tightening around my backpack. “Scary fucker. Tall. Gray eyes.” For some reason, I don’t think this is sufficient evidence. I elaborate with a bunch of choppy sentences. “He stole my necklace but I’m the thief? What the fuck. Like I’m supposed to know him. He doesn’t know me.”

Kat laughs. “God, noob, if I’d known you were such a lightweight, I’d never have given you drugs.”

“What’s his name?”

“Scary Fuck? How the hell would I know?”

“Oh, you know.” I wave my hands. “Everyone knows Mr. Bigshot.”

“Yeah, you’ll have to be more specific. Only thing we’ve got more of than heirlooms around here are bigshots.”

Kat opens the door and leads me inside the pitch-black room. She must know this place well, because she maneuvers us around the furniture like she has a map. We go up a staircase and then she props me up against the wall of the dimly lit hallway.

“For your sake, I hope you find him again.”

“Ugh,” is all I can get out.

“So I’m imagining how hard you’re crushing on him right now?”

“No fucking way,” I slur. “He’s a psycho. Don’t need a psycho.”

“How’d you know if you’ve never tried?”

“Already had one.” I slash the air with my hand. “Enough for a lifetime. No more.”

“Please. Have you even dated before?”

I tick off points with my fingers. “Dated. Fffucked.” I rally magnificently. “Got fucked. Ruined my life.”

“By the psycho?”

I point at her, eyes wide. “Exactly! No more. I’m done. Especially…” My thoughts trail off before I can herd them back. “Especially him.”

“The psycho?”

“No! Scary Fuck.”

“Okay, babes, you lost me. But it sounds like you know what you want, so who the fuck am I to argue?”

“‘Zactly…”

Kat opens a door, grimaces, and then herds me inside. There’s a faint light spilling in from a window, enough to illuminate the furniture in the small room. She leads me straight to the bed.

“Come on, let go,” she says, tugging on my backpack when I refuse to release it. “I’ll give it a proper burial, I promise.”

“Fffuck off…”

“Fine, you damn weirdo. Sleep with the thing for all I care.” She urges me down onto the bed and tucks me and my backpack in. “You two deserve each other.”

“Never!” My mind feels like it’s disintegrating, but there’s one thought I’m holding onto with all my might. “Fucking devil. Won’t give him my soul. What’s left of it.”

“Good God, why am I not recording this?” Kat says through a laugh. “Yes, fine, Evie. The scary fuck won’t have your soul.” Then she laughs. “And what the hell do you mean, what’s left of it? You’re a fucking angel.”

She leans down and presses a kiss to my forehead.

“If you wake up before I’m back, just wander down to the kitchen and get some food. The staff are used to feeding strays.”

I huff out a breath as my body sinks deeper into the mattress.

A stray? It’s true. That’s what I am now.

I’m a stranger here, which was kind of the point. Dad couldn’t possibly have chosen a more out-of-the-way town. He went to extraordinary lengths to hide me away… but just like me hiding under the bed, I guess I shouldn’t have bothered.

So, what was the point of hiding under the bed? Guys like Scary Fuck will always find me. Drag me out. Accuse me of being things I’m not.

Guess that’s why I slapped him.

But it doesn’t explain why I liked it.

Chapter Seven

Evie

Kat lied.

When I wander downstairs the next morning, the kitchen staff turn me away. Okay, to be fair to them, they don’t as much refuse to feed me as direct me to the patio where there’s apparently a buffet spread to graze on.

I pass a crew restoring the mansion to its former glory—people in overalls picking up trash, cleaning the floors, straightening artwork. When I make my way onto the lawn, I shield my eyes from the sun as I try to locate this supposed patio.

A hand claps on my shoulder and gives me a squeeze. “Do you have a name…?”

I turn to the guy behind me, scowling more in anticipation of his cheesy pickup line than at the growing intensity of the morning sun.

“Or can I just call you ‘mine’?”

I barely stifle a groan. It’s way too fucking early to be dealing with this shit. “You can just point me in the direction of the coffee, thanks.”

“Sure.” He points toward a circle of oak trees adjacent to the house and then sticks out a hand. “I’m Will Sterling. Call me anytime.”

I give his hand a disparaging glance before walking away. Whatever I took last night left me with a headache and a horrible, gnawing void in my stomach. I’m not sure if it’s hunger, but I have every intention of stuffing food down my gullet until I find out.

Will catches up with me a second later. “Hey… I know you from somewhere.”

I quirk up an eyebrow, silent as we walk toward the patio together.

“What?” he asks.

“I was waiting for the punchline.”

He laughs, and it’s a surprisingly genuine, disarming sound.

“I go to CA,” I tell him.

He narrows his eyes. “Second year?”

I shake my head. “Freshman.”

“See…but I swear I know you from somewhere. Did you go to Pinecrest High?”

“I’m not from around here.”

He doesn’t get a chance to interrogate me further, because that’s when the patio appears between the trees, and Kat happens to look up and see me. Despite it being only a few minutes past dawn, she’s already sunning herself on a lounge chair, wearing a white bikini with red cherries on it and a pair of ridiculously big sunglasses. There are a handful of students out here, but it seems the other ninety-nine percent of the party already left.

“Noob!” she yells, waving me over. “Over here!”

“Noob?” Will asks through a grin. “Is that your last name?”

I sigh. “My name’s Evie.”

A tall guy standing nearby with a tumbler in one hand and a cigar in the other glances over at us and calls, “Sterling!”

“Duty calls.” Will salutes me. “Nice meeting you, Evie Noob.”

I muster up what’s left of my strength and make my way over to Kat. There’s a splash pool here, two topless girls holding onto the rim as they bake in the morning sun. Since none of the guys standing around are leering at them, I guess this happens often. A long pergola stretches over large stone tiles, shading several sets of rattan armchairs, a freestanding bar, and potted palms.

There’s a buffet table under the pergola, a couple browsing through the vast selection of pastries, cereals, and cooked breakfast food on offer.

My eyes fix on the coffee station, but Kat grabs my wrist and pulls me down onto the lounge chair beside her before I can head in that direction.

“Comfy?” she asks, wearing a huge grin.

I pluck at the sweater—part of a set that was waiting at the foot of the bed when I woke up. “This was you?”

She nods. “My trunk’s full of go bags. Stick with me, noob, and you’ll never have to do the walk of shame in your old party clothes again.”

I laugh, shaking my head. “Can’t say I’m surprised.”

“You have sweet dreams?”

“Don’t remember.”

“Like to have some?” She extends her hand. I stare at the tiny square of paper on her palm. Unease rolls through me, and this time I listen to my intuition.

“No, thanks.”

She shrugs and the acid disappears into her mouth, swiftly hidden by a wide grin.

“Could I have some coffee?”

“Self-service, babe,” she says, pushing me off her chair. “Bring me a tequila, would you?”

I don’t even ask her if that’s a good idea. I’m sure she’s had a ton to drink since I went to bed, and judging from the three joint roaches beside her chair, she’s been smoking weed all night too.

How the hell can her body withstand so much punishment?

As I’m walking away, I feel a tug on my bag.

Kat quickly smooths a grimace from her face. “Leave that thing here.”

“I don’t—”

“Jesus, Evie, there’s no shame in toting some Xanax around,” she says. “This bag, however?”

“You looked through my bag?” My heart hardens into a heavy lump.

Kat lifts her sunglasses up so I can clearly see her rolling her eyes at me. “Your phone was ringing, remember?”

I drop the backpack to the tiles and push it under her chair with my bare foot, watching her carefully. She drops her sunglasses back onto her nose and shifts around on the lounger.

My stomach clenches at the thought of what else is in my bag… but I guess she wasn’t going through my things as much as hunting for my cellphone. I can only hope the pills are all she found.

The smells coming from the buffet table make my stomach growl. I grab a cup of coffee and a bear claw, juggling them in one hand while trying not to spill Kat’s requested shot of tequila.

Kat downs the alcohol and pats the side of her chair, shifting over so there’s more room for me. “So is Scary Fuck here?” she asks quietly, tipping down her sunglasses to give me a conspiratorial wink.

I shrug, nibbling on my bear claw as I scan the area through lowered lashes. I don’t see the guy with the slate-colored eyes, but I do see Sterling and the tall guy who called him over doing a line of coke on one of the coffee tables. The guy with the curly hair who’d been trying to get me to skinny dip with Kat is there too.

“Sweet Jesus, don’t tell me it’s one of them,” Kat says, making no effort to hide the fact that she’s staring right at the group of guys. “While I admire your bravery, as a friend, I’d have to warn you that there’s no coming back from dating one of those freaks.”

“Uh…” My mouth quirks up at the side in an awkward grimace. Scary Fuck isn’t there, and I guess Kat makes the connection even through the haze of drugs.

“Oh.” She shrugs and shimmies her shoulders against the lounger. “Well, good. The Royals are bad news, noob. You obviously couldn’t have known that, so I forgive you.”

“The Royals?” I take a sip of my coffee, willing the caffeine to wake me up so I can follow Kat’s erratic train of thought. Then I take another bite of the pastry, because oh my god it tastes so delicious, I swear they baked it fresh this morning.

She waves a dismissive hand. “That’s what they started calling themselves back in junior high, and no one could make them stop.”

I wince when she starts pointing out the different guys. One or two of them look our way, but they seem just as unfazed at being gawked at as the Big Five on a safari. “Liam Bailey. And that’s Oz Walsh. Then there’s Sterling and Adams as runner-ups. Last… certainly not least is Owen.” She looks around, shrugs. “Doesn’t look like he’s here. Probably got some sex kitten locked up somewhere.”

My coffee almost comes up through my nose. “Excuse me?”

She somehow misreads my look of abject shock for interest. “Oh, no, Evie. You’re way too innocent for the likes of him.” She digs a finger into my arm. “Promise me, if you ever see him, you’ll run the other way.”

“Don’t know what he looks like,” I mutter into my coffee.

She nods studiously for a moment. “True, true.” She holds up a finger. “I think I have a picture.”

Her glittery purse emerges, and she rummages around inside for her phone. “This guy, Evie. Oh, my God, this guy.” She pauses with her hand in her purse, sending me a wide-eyed look over the rim of her sunglasses. “He’s not a gentleman. He’s not even nice. No sense of humor. No sense of decency, either.” She lets out a low whistle. “But, girl, the things I’ve heard?” She glances at the Royals over her shoulder before leaning in closer to me. “He makes up for all of it in bed.”

I let out a nervous laugh. “He sounds awful.”

“He is. Awful, I mean… and hung like a horse.” She clicks her tongue as she pulls out her phone. “I have a photo of him at a fundraiser, all dressed up and shit. You’d swear you were looking at Satan himself, that’s how fucking beautiful he is. And you can look all you want, looking’s free, but don’t you dare so much as speak to him, hear me?”

I wait for the picture, my chest growing tighter with every word. Why does it sound like she’s describing the guy I slapped?

It can’t be.

Lady Luck can’t be that big of a bitch.

Kat’s nails tap against the phone screen for a second, then she sits bolt upright. “Shit!”

My heart leaps into my throat. “What?”

“Fuck.” She pushes her sunglasses up. “Am I hallucinating?” Judging from her massively dilated pupils, it’s possible. “What does that message say?”

I take her phone, hunching over so my shadow keeps off the sun’s glare as I read the message out loud. “There’s a problem with your dorm room. Please contact me as soon as you get this.” I hand her back the phone. “It’s from Willow.”

As soon as our eyes meet, the reality of what I read sinks in. “Wait… our dorm room?”

“Shit, shit, shit.” Kat taps on her phone and puts it to her ear. “I thought I left the hair iron on.”

“You burned down our dorm room?” My shrill voice makes everyone in the vicinity turn to look at me. I cup a hand against my face, shielding myself from those inquisitive eyes.

“Willow?” Kat swings her legs over the side of the lounger, but doesn’t stand. “What the hell’s going on?”

A shadow falls over me. I turn, squinting up at the outline of a tall, thin girl wearing a dazzling white cut-out one-piece and a disdainful smirk. “Who the fuck are you?” she drawls.

“Uh.” I briefly forget my name. “Evie. Evie Larsen.”

“I don’t know you,” she says, turning the statement into a dry condemnation. “What are you doing with Oakes?”

Thankfully, enough of my brain cells are in operation for me to remember that Oakes is Kat’s last name. “She’s my roommate.”

“That’s okay, I guess.” The girl’s drone is as flat as her black hair. “Oakes. Oakes!

Kat turns to squint up at the leggy brunette. “Yo, Ada, can’t you see I’m on the fucking phone, you miserly cunt?”

“That Willow?” Ada tilts her head to the side like she’s tired of carrying it around. “Because she was trying to get hold of you like all night.”

“Fuck, yes, it’s Willow. Now can you—” Kat turns away. “Flooded?

I rush to my feet. “Our dorm room flooded?”

The girl—I assume Ada—steps back like I’m a plague victim that might breathe in her direction.

Her glasses are bigger than Kat’s, shielding most of her face. The part I can see is a smooth alabaster mask with perfectly lined nude lips and a tiny beauty mark beside her mouth.

“Yeah.” Ada sighs and takes out a rose-gold cigarette case from the purse hanging at her side, lighting a slim black cigarette. At least, it looks like a cigarette, but when that smoke reaches me, all I smell is weed.

“So, like, some idiot flushed a tampon down the toilet again, and ended up flooding the entire second floor.” She takes a pull at her smoke, and I’m nearly blinded when the massive diamond on her ring finger catches the sun. “Now they have to relocate everyone.” She leans past me. “Oakes. Oakes!”

“Jesus Christ,” Kat spits, spinning to glare at Ada. “What?”

Ada’s voice drops back to its normal disinterested drone. “Where you staying, girl?”

“If you give me longer than a fucking second to speak to Willow, I’d tell you!”

I’m struck with a surreal image of these two as an old married couple. I giggle into my cup, earning a slit-eyed glance from Ada. She pushes her hip out to one side and studies me like I’m something she’s spotted at an art exhibition, and she isn’t sure if I’m an installation or a heap of trash someone left out.

“Larsen? You must be new.” She puffs out some smoke. “I think the university made a big mistake letting foreigners in.”

“I’m American.”

Ada’s mouth purses like she doesn’t believe me. “I meant city folk.”

It’s hilarious, because I thought coming from the city would give me some kind of street cred around here. But Ada’s looking at me like she’s hoping I’ll go back to the subway tunnel I just crawled out of.

“I hate politics,” she says through a sigh, sending another weed-scented cloud my way. “I preferred it when they only let people like us enroll.”

“Ada, play nice!” Kat steps over the lounger, grabbing the girl’s shoulder to steady herself. Strangely, Ada doesn’t pull away. I guess, despite all appearances, they’re friends. Or maybe they’ve just become so acquainted with each other that they couldn’t be bothered to fight. “Ignore her, Evie. Ada was born with a silver spoon up her ass, and refuses to have surgery to remove it.”

“Silver?” Ada scoffs dismissively. “So you’re officially homeless, Oakes.” She stretches out a hand and taps her finger on the cigarette to flick off the ash. “Years sooner than I expected. Congrats.”

“Shut your whore mouth,” Kat says, flipping her off but with her eyes on me. “Evie, we’ve got a problem.” Then she smiles. “But don’t worry, Ada McCunty is gonna fix it for us.” That smile solidifies as she turns back to Ada. “Aren’t you, doll?”

“Ugh.” Ada drops the other half of her cigarette, the pencil heel of her rose-gold stilettos crushing it out with a casual precision born of endless practice.

It feels weird, being the only person out here wearing sweats when everyone else is still in their party clothes or swimsuits. Then again, even the thought of standing next to Ada makes me feel like a troll, so fuck that. The less skin I’m showing, the better.

I’m suddenly regretting the bear claw I had for breakfast. In fact, I’m pretty sure I should have skipped my last ten meals or so.

“You can be glad you’re so fucking rich,” Ada says as she adjusts her sunglasses. “It’s literally the only reason I associate with you.”

“You wish,” Kat says, looping her arm through mine as she turns to follow Ada. “I’m the only person in Pinecrest who doesn’t need an antacid when they’re done talking to you. That’s why you love me.”

“Bitch,” Ada drawls, skimming her hair over her shoulder without looking back.

“Look at her,” Kat says with an affected resignation. “She walks like a runway model.”

I’m not jealous, but damn it, I know exactly what she means. I’m feeling all kinds of sour shit rising up my gullet. It should be biologically impossible for anyone to be that perfect.

“She was, for seven years, if I remember correctly. She’d be head cheerleader if her mom wasn’t convinced she’d injure herself and need plastic surgery.” Kat lurches to the side.

“Are you okay?” I grab hold of her, steadying her. “Kat?”

“I’m fine,” she says breezily. “But if you get a chance, could you chase away some of these ferrets? They’re looking at me funny.”

When she turns and sees my face, she slaps my arm and barks out a laugh. “I’m joking! Jesus, like I haven’t taken acid before. Relax, would you?”

Ada stops behind the rattan sofa where the guys had been snorting coke. Faint lines are still visible on the glass surface of the coffee table beside the drugs, a credit card, and a rolled-up Benjamin. My family isn’t poor by any means, but it seems a waste to shove a hundred-dollar bill up your nose. Then again, for all I know, the people in this mansion use it as toilet paper.

“Hey, baby,” Ada says, running her long fingernails over the back of Liam Bailey’s neck. “I need you to do something for me.”

There’s a moment’s silence where it seems everyone except Ada stops breathing. Then Liam turns slowly in his seat and presses a kiss to the inside of Ada’s wrist. “Anything, baby.”

Ada lifts an arm, her hand flopping back to point at Kat. “Oakes’s room was flooded.”

Liam’s mouth quirks into something unpleasant as he unfolds from his seat and turns to scan me and Kat.

Ada is tall—and in heels—but she barely meets him eye to eye. His man-bun adds an extra two inches he doesn’t need.

“And?”

He’s a behemoth of a guy, with a large, square jaw and broad shoulders. I have no way of knowing if he was at the party all night, but if I was to judge from the state of his clothes, I’d say he just got out of the shower and put them on. His green-blue jacket sets off the olive tone of his skin and his dark eyes and hair in a way that suggests it was carefully selected for exactly that purpose.

Ada tilts her head like she’s dealing with an infuriating toddler. “And… she needs a place to stay.” She clicks her fingers in the direction of the rest of the Royals. “We’ve got room.”

I have no idea what’s going on with the power dynamic of this group. At a glance, I’d say Liam was the alpha dog of the pack, but the fact that he’s not kicking Ada to the curb right now is mind boggling.

Unless…

“They’re engaged?” I whisper to Kat, burning with curiosity.

“Yeah, but it’s arranged,” she says, not bothering to lower her voice.

Liam turns his eyes on me. It’s a startling intense gaze, but it doesn’t hold a flame to Scary Fuck. “And you are?” Now he sounds just as bored as Ada.

“Kat’s roommate,” his fiancée offers. “And they’re staying with us until the dorm rooms are fixed.” She pushes out her chin, as if daring Liam to defy her, but he’s still looking at me. His eyes narrow, and he opens his mouth, but Ada speaks before he can. “She’s from the city.” She says it like it’s an instruction to end the conversation, and then turns and struts away.

“Sure you want to do this?” the guy with the curly hair asks, his gaze cutting over to me. “Someone will have to share a room if—”

“Then move out,” Liam growls, turning to face Wilder. “Problem solved.”

“Evie!” It’s only then that I realize Kat followed Ada, abandoning me with the Royals. I swallow hard. “Thank you,” I manage, heat springing onto my cheeks. “It’s… very kind of you.”

Will smiles back, but the others look like they’re already planning my staged suicide.

This was a horrible idea. What was Kat thinking?

“That doesn’t sound like us,” a voice behind me rumbles. “We’re not kind.”

Every muscle in my body locks up. My breath whooshes out of my lungs so fast, I’m left dizzy.

How did he find me?

Panic floods me with waves of hot and cold. Even my fingertips start tingling.

Scary Fuck brushes my hair away from my neck and runs a knuckle down the top of my spine. “I told you I’d find you.”

“Owen, this is Evie,” Sterling says. “She’s Kat’s roommate. They’re staying with us for a while.”

I still can’t breathe, my body seemingly frozen in place.

“That is kind of us,” Owen says. His voice nestles its way deep inside of me, turning a switch that pumps me full of adrenalin. But I just stand there, torn between running and fighting. He winds a lock of my hair around his finger, and uses it to turn me around to face him. “Evie.”

His tongue caresses my name like someone licking Nutella off a spoon. It’s the first time I’m seeing him without his mask, and the sight of him sends a throb of hedonistic urgency through my entire body. Is this what cavewomen back in the day felt like when they looked at the finest specimen in their tribe? Because despite the warning signals sounding in my rational mind, all I want is for this guy to fist my hair and drag me off to his cave. Or the closest bathroom stall.

I thought Liam was a behemoth, but I forgot just how big Owen was. I guess the freaky mask he’d had on last night threw everything out of proportion.

And if there’s one thing he’s got, it’s perfect proportions. Broad shoulders, a narrow waist, muscular thighs.

Then he smiles, and it’s like I’m falling forward without moving. When a dimple appears in his cheek, I can’t remember why I was so terrified of him.

He rakes his storm-gray eyes down my body as if he can see beneath the thick, fleecy fabric of my clothing. “I look forward to seeing more of you, Evie.”

Oh, God, I think I just came a little!

Noob!” Kat’s voice jerks me out of whatever spell Owen cast.

I tug my hair free and step to the side, glaring at him. “You’d be so lucky,” I choke out. And then I throw one last strangled word for good measure. “Pig.”

His only response is a slight softening around his eyes.

Condescending fuck.

“And where’s my necklace?” I should probably have asked him that before I called him a pig, but hindsight’s always twenty-twenty, isn’t it?

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says, a twinkle in his eye.

“Really? The one you tore from my neck?” I whisper the last word.

Immediately, an expressionless mask slips over his face.

“Something wrong?” Liam asks.

“Evie lost something special to her,” Owen says, his handsome face entirely unreadable. “But I’m sure if she looks hard enough, she’ll find it.”

Chapter Eight

Evie

I storm away, my hands clenching so hard that my nails bite into my palms. Kat swoons a little when I draw near, and grabs onto my arm for support. “What the hell was that?” she asks.

“Nothing.”

“I know what a hallucination looks like, and that wasn’t it. So what the hell did I just see? I told you not to go near him.”

“He came up to me.

Ada turns to watch us with lidded eyes, looking bored out of her mind. “Are we getting out of here?”

“Yes,” Kat says. “And fast, before Dalton realizes just how good Evie will look tied up in his basement.”

Dalton?” Ada ducks her head, pulling down her sunglasses to look me in the eyes. Liquid brown irises rimmed with the sharpest eyeliner I’ve ever seen stare at me for a long moment. “No, Evie, sweetie. There’ll be nothing left of you.”

She slides her sunglasses back up her face. With a click of her fingers overhead like she’s summoning her servants, she announces, “Brunch!”

Every girl in the vicinity stops what she’s doing, even the blonde in the swimming pool making out with one of the guys. I almost don’t stand my ground when they head for us like an army.

Ada points at seven of them and then beckons them to follow.

“I can’t go looking like this,” I tell Kat.

“As if I’d let you,” she says through a chuckle. “Don’t worry, I have something in the trunk you could wear.”

“What don’t you have in your trunk?”

Kat turns to give me a serious look. “An umbrella. I keep meaning to pack one, but never do.” Then she turns to Ada. “I’m driving.”

Ada shakes her head. “Like hell you are. Last time I drove with you, I broke a nail. And that was when you were sober.

“Bitch.”

“Whore.”

“You know, Ada, you think you’re insulting me, but you’re really not.”

Ada turns to look at her and smiles coldly. “Samesies.”

When Ada said we’d be staying with the Royals, this wasn’t what I’d pictured. I was thinking of a floor in some crappy student housing or something… although I should have known better.

The Walsh House, a fifteen-minute golf cart drive from Pinecrest University’s main campus, is tall, narrow, and framed by the pine trees that infest the Devilknock Woods. A sense of foreboding creeps over me as I stare up at the Victorian-esque façade of the strange manor.

I have my box of things in my arms. It survived being drenched because it was still on the bed when the dorm rooms flooded. Kat had picked through the sodden heaps of clothes on the floor, made a disgusted sound, and left without bringing anything with her. From the comments the girls made at brunch though, replacing her entire wardrobe would hardly put a dent in her trust fund.

“Is that supposed to mean something?” I ask, nodding toward the door as Kat and Ada join me. Carved into the dark wood is a crest featuring a rearing stag and the words We Light The Fire.

Kat waves a limp hand. Her energy levels seem to be at an all-time low, which isn’t at all surprising: she’s been partying since I interrupted her nap almost twenty-four hours ago.

I’d be dead.

“That’s Pinecrest’s motto,” Ada says as she leads us through the doors. “I’m not going to bore myself telling you about it. Ask a history geek.”

Ada heads deeper into the manor. That’s really all I can think to call it. ‘Mansion’ doesn’t work—the place feels too cramped with all the dark wood paneling and damask wallpaper.

Maybe it’s supposed to be grand, but it just feels desperate to me, especially after the sprawling luxury of Liam’s house. This house seems to be begging me to take it seriously out here in the middle of nowhere, where it’s been abandoned for so long that dust motes shimmer as they dance through the shafts of light peeking through gaps in the thick velvet drapes.

It’s kind of sad. Kind of hopeless. But the romantic, sentimental part of me loves it. I can easily imagine a Victorian lady going around and having fainting spells as she fans herself and complains about how tight her corset is.

Willow bumps into me from behind. “Oops, sorry.”

I step aside, giving her a little more room. She’s carrying three duffel bags, and I think she crammed a box into the back of Ada’s Tesla too. I’m still not sure how she ended up coming with us. We met her in the hallway, the young woman standing alongside her bags looking sorry for herself. Kat had said something about taking in strays, and that at least Willow wasn’t a ferret, which led to Ada agreeing Willow needed a room at the Walsh House too.

A split staircase leads to a landing where two hallways branch off to the west and the east wings of the house. Wilder passes us with a box clutched in his arms. He brightens as soon as he sees us, but when he opens his mouth to speak, Ada holds up a hand and clicks her fingers. He closes his mouth again and keeps walking, heading silently into the east wing.

“Don’t speak to them,” Ada tells me. “They’ll try anything to get in your pants.”

“What if I want them in my pants?” I ask. It was meant to be a silly quip, but both and Kat and Ada turn to look at me like I just suggested we set our hair on fire.

“I’d suggest you take a cold shower,” Kat says with a sniff. “I told you they were trouble.”

“Oakes, you get Adams’s room,” Ada says in a bored drawl.

“The one that smells like old gym socks?” Kat complains, pinching her nose as she peeks her head inside the open door.

“As if you’ll notice with how much weed you smoke.” Ada clicks her fingers at a closed door a few yards away. “That’s yours, Evie.”

At least she calls me by my name. But considering she does it in a tone that almost makes it sound the same as ‘servant,’ I’m not sure it’s that much better than Kat calling me ‘noob.’

Stepping into the room Ada assigned, I purse my lips as I look the place over. It’s a narrow room, with enough space for a bed, a dresser, and a table… but that’s about it. A door leads off into a bathroom, which I realize I share with Kat when I go inside and see a second door opposite mine. I open it and watch Kat standing in the center of a room that looks almost as messy as her dorm room had been. Her hands are at her hips, a sullen pout on her face.

Wilder comes into my room, grabbing another box and muttering about how wrong it is that he was thrown out of his room for a bunch of women.

I close the bathroom door again and start unpacking my things. I keep feeling eyes on me, but when I turn to the doorway, the hall outside is empty. There’s a window outside my door on the other side of the hall, but all I can see out there are the dark shadows of the forest outside. In the distance, above the tree line, the spires of Pinecrest University can be seen.

Dropping my backpack onto the mattress, I stand still for a moment, staring out through the hallway window. Then I rush over to close my bedroom door, only to find there’s no key in the lock.

It’s not as if you need one. Nobody’s going to come inside without knocking, right?

I hurry back to my bed where I left my backpack and carefully slide my hand inside. As I look around the room, my fingers brush the hard, flat object wrapped inside a cashmere sweater. There are no good hiding places here, but I can’t leave something this important in my bag. As much as I’d like to, I can’t cart this embarrassment around everywhere I go either. Which means I’ll have to leave it behind at some point, and I can’t risk someone looking inside for valuables and finding… this.

After a moment’s indecision, I hide the bundle of cashmere in the lowest drawer of my dresser, behind my tennis shoes. As I’m standing, there’s a knock on my door.

As I’m closing the drawer, the door opens before I can answer.

I turn, expecting Kat or Ada… and my mouth dries when I see Owen Dalton filling the doorway. I haven’t opened my curtains yet, so the light from the window in the hallway behind him casts his face in shadow. That silhouette is unmistakable though.

Owen walks inside like he owns the place.

If what Kat told you over brunch is true, he kinda sorta does.

At least, his family does… and he’s the heir.

“I see you’re settling in,” Owen says. “How are you liking everything so far?”

Why does it seem like everything this guy says has a double meaning?

The way he’s looking at me, it’s like he’s asking how I feel about him standing a yard away, looking every inch the prince he supposedly is in his dark jeans and black sweater.

“Could be better. I need a key for my bedroom door.”

“We have an open-door policy.”

“All the better for peeping toms then?”

“More like in case someone ODs, gets attacked, or is aspirating on their vomit from alcohol poisoning.”

I swallow. “Oh.”

“We play hard, but we play safe.” He cocks his head. “Most of us, anyway.”

“Is this the royal we?” I ask dryly, and then realize my own statement has a double meaning.

Either way, he doesn’t bother replying. “You don’t belong here, Evie Larsen.”

It disturbs me that he knows my last name. I don’t know why—it’s not as if it’s a matter of national security—but I don’t want anything about me stuck in the mind of Owen Dalton.

“Luckily for you, I won’t be here that long.” I try to sound glib, but his comment hurts all the same. Which is dumb, when I think about it. It’s not as if I don’t already know that I’m so far out of my league, I’d need a telescope to spot it. I’m an ordinary, slightly overweight girl from a middle-class, recently single-parent family. Around here, everyone looks like Instagram models, both their parents are still around, and they have more zeros in their bank accounts than I can wrap my head around.

That’s what brings a swell of anger inside me, a hot swirl of righteous indignation. Maybe that’s why I step up to Owen like I can somehow intimidate him by showing him he doesn’t scare me. Although if what Kat told me is true, I probably should be scared.

Owen looks down at me, impassive but for a glimmer in his gaze. If it wasn’t him looking at me, I’d have thought the light in his eyes signified a man who was distinctly intrigued.

But just like Ada, this guy doesn’t seem to find anything very interesting.

I want a reaction from him, and it pisses me off that I don’t get one. So I poke him in the chest. It’s something I instantly regret, because now I’m fully aware of the warm, hard muscles hidden under his clothes. “But don’t think I’m leaving without my necklace. Where is it?”

His eyes shift from my face to my finger, then back again. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“The thing you tore off my neck last night.” I rub the side of my neck where I still have a faint red line. Owen’s gaze moves to where I’m touching, and then sticks there like glue.

Now I’m really not sure what the gleam in his eyes means. It’s become fierce, almost feral. His nostrils flare, then he looks away.

Pointedly.

“You mean this?” He slips a hand in his back pocket and pulls out my necklace. “I went back to look for it after you made such a big fuss. I found it on the floor. It must have fallen off when the clasp broke.”

I hold out my hand, and he drops the chain into my palm. My stomach turns over. “Where’s… where’s the key?”

“What key?”

I glare up at him. “You accuse me of being a thief, but you think it’s fine to steal my stuff?”

“This was all I found.”

The motherfucker is lying.

But he’s doing it with such a straight face that for a moment I question my own goddamn sanity. No, it was definitely on there. Why else would Kat tell me to take it off hours before?

It doesn’t matter. I don’t actually need the key. At least, that’s what I tell myself as I step away from Owen. I can’t stand being so close to him anymore, not with his seductively earthy, masculine scent hitting my nose, the warmth of his body radiating against mine. It’s stirring up a whole host of confusing feelings inside me… just like it did last night.

I blamed it on the drugs before…but I’m sober as fuck right now.

“I’m sure you’re used to getting away with all kinds of shit,” I say, sticking up my chin as I shove the chain into my pocket. “But I’m not charmed by you, Owen. You can only push me so far before I push back.”

There’s a flicker in his eyes when I say his name. I don’t like the way it feels on my tongue, either. So easy. So… familiar.

“And yet you haven’t thrown me out yet. Does that mean I haven’t pushed hard enough?” He takes a slow step backward, reaching out behind him.

I stand frozen as he closes my bedroom door.

“How about now, Evie?”

Fuck.

Chapter Nine

Owen

What the fuck are you doing in Evie’s room?

More important, why the hell couldn’t I talk myself out of coming here? My room is down the hall on the east wing, and that’s where I should have stayed. But I heard Wilder bitching about the fact he has to move out, and knew Evie had arrived. The thought that she was here, so close, made it impossible to think about anything else.

Her flagrant show of disrespect at Liam’s house this morning is the reason I’m here.

What is it with this girl? Didn’t the others warn her about me? About my depraved predilections?

“Get out.” Her voice is much too calm for my liking.

“You’re in no position to give me orders,” I tell her, stepping closer. “And if you try it again, you’ll wish you’d never decided to go to this college in the first place.”

She sneers at me. “You think I’m here by choice? This shitty town is the last place I want to be.”

I’m close enough to catch a whiff of her scent, an intoxicating bouquet of shampoo and perfume that’s both sweet and citrusy.

She’s still not backing down. Still has no fucking clue how close I am to losing my shit. She should have turned and run like she did last night, but instead she’s staring me down like she thinks she stands a chance against me. Where is this newfound courage coming from?

My mind goes to the blue-haired mess Evie was hanging around with at the Burnout.

Does little Evie honestly think Kat is her friend? Oakes is as superficial as they come. The moment Evie becomes more work than play, Kat will drop her. And Ada? Ada doesn’t have friends—she has pawns. And she moves them around the board of life with as much care as she would a cheap plastic chess piece.

Evie tosses back her white hair. She’s wearing a black hoody, and deRylee leggings that cling to her curves like a second skin—courtesy of Oakes, judging from the big Pinecrest University logo embroidered on the front.

“I said, get out.” Her blue eyes narrow, and she points—fucking points—at the door like I’m some encyclopedia salesman who’s overstayed his welcome. “Now.”

There’s a tremor in her voice. It moves to her lips, which she parts as if she can hide the fact that she doesn’t have a clue what to do if I refuse to leave.

“I warned you.” There’s a grating note to my voice.

Her eyes go wide when I lunge at her. She tries to dart around me, but I grab the neck of her hoody and yank her back. She crashes into the dresser, a stifled yelp leaving her mouth. When I crush my body against hers, she goes limp.

Terrified eyes gaze up at me as I twist my fingers into her hair. She goes onto her toes with a gasp, her eyes watering at the pain.

My cock stirs behind my jeans. If I could collect my thoughts, I’d have realized it was a bad sign. That I had to listen to Evie and get the fuck out of her room before I did something I’d regret. But with the scent of her in my nose and her soft curves pressed against me, my mind becomes tangled with the sudden, urgent need for her to understand just how much she’s fucked up.

“No one tells me what to do, little lamb.”

“So that’s why you’re such a spoiled brat,” she says. “And here I thought it was just because your family owns this town.”

Spoiled?

She whimpers when I drag her away from the dresser, then digs in her heels when she sees I’m headed for the single bed pushed against the wall.

When I spin her around so her back is to me and push down on her head, bending her over, she blurts out, “What are you…?”

The words die in her throat when I yank down the back of her jeggings, baring her plump ass. Her sharp intake of breath warns me of an impending scream, but I move too fast. Before she can protest, I land a hard smack to her ass.

The sound of my palm meeting her flesh fills Evie’s small room. That impact seems to rattle her out of her shock, because she lets out an indignant gasp and tries to haul her pants back up her legs. I left her panties on, but watching her try to wriggle out of her punishment infuriates me too much to let her regain even a modicum of decency.

“This is what happens when you forget your place, lamb.” I bat away her hand and tear her underwear down her thighs too. “Now, take the next two like a good girl, or they’ll just keep coming.”

My first slap left a faint, blurred handprint on her skin. The second is much darker, much better defined. Evie lets out a soft, “Uh,” but because she doesn’t fight me, because she doesn’t yell or try to be a smartass again, I let it slide.

The third slap sends her jerking forward with a whimper, a sound that sends a pump of blood to my cock.

If I don’t control myself, I won’t be able to stop. And while Evie deserved every slap for being so fucking rude to me, I can’t allow this indulgence to continue.

I drag her upright by her throat, slide an arm around her waist, and pull her tight against me. “Feel that?” I rumble into her ear, grinding my erection against her. “Imagine how much it would hurt if I spread your cheeks and shoved this inside you.” I slide my hand between us, then force my fingers into the tight space between her ass cheeks. She bucks before I can touch her asshole, letting out a sound that’s both enraged and horrified.

“That’s it,” I murmur, giving her hair a last hard tug so her head tilts to the side and bares her neck. “The next time you think you can order me around, remember how humiliating this was.” My lips brush against the shell of her ear with every word, and she shudders violently against me, her hands clasped around my wrist where I’m fisting her hair. “The things I can do to you, the ways I can make you suffer, they’re only limited by my imagination.”

I shove her onto the bed before I lose all control and go ahead with my threat right here, right now. She lies still, her pants and underwear gathered just under the curve of her ass, my handprints an angry red against her pale skin.

Christ.

I have to draw on reserves of willpower I didn’t know I possessed to force myself to step back. To look away.

I’m almost at the door, almost out of her life for good, when she hisses out, “I won’t let you get away with this.”

Chapter Ten

Evie

Owen lets out a dark chuckle that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. “I already have, Evie.”

A surge of dread fills me.

He won’t get away with this? What in the hell are you thinking?

This is Owen Dalton, heir to the entire town of Pinecrest. He could commit murder and get away with it. He turns to look at me over his shoulder from his position at the door. There’s a jolt inside me when our eyes lock, but he quickly breaks that gaze to scour my body. I slowly draw up my pants and underwear, and just as slowly get to my feet.

I push up my chin, glaring at him. “I’ll make you pay.”

Owen tilts his head, watching me as he adjusts his cock in his pants. The arrogant gesture twists my insides, and I have to force my eyes away from the sight of him holding his dick through his pants.

Why is my body responding to him like this?

“How, Evie? Will you report me to the university? Tell your parents? Just try. Fuck it, tell everyone.” He leans forward a little, that cruel smile playing at his lips again. “I dare you.”

My chest is too tight to reply.

Owen watches me for a second, and then nods. “That’s what I thought.”

He leaves the door open behind him, but it takes at least a minute before I can relax enough to sit down. And the instant I do, I’m back on my feet with a hiss. I slide a hand over my ass, wincing at the sting, before trying to straighten out my underwear.

That’s when I feel how wet I am.

That’s when I realize just how fucked I am.

I swallow hard as I wrap my arms around my chest and try to force rational thought back into my mind.

He wasn’t bluffing. Which means I can’t allow myself near him, because I obviously have some kind of a fucking death wish. Why else would I keep setting him off like that?

How in the hell do I stay clear when I’m living a stone’s throw from him? Willow said it would take at least a week to fix the girls’ dorm rooms… a week of tiptoeing around this place in the hopes I don’t bump into Owen.

It’s simple. You’ll never leave your room.

“Do you need a minute?” Kat asks behind me.

I spin around, jerking my hand out of my pants where I’d been rubbing the warm, stinging handprint Owen left behind on my skin. “I… had a wedgie.”

Kat laughs, but she sounds tired. “Want to watch a movie with us?” She shimmies her shoulders. “Popcorn, cocoa, snuggles?”

Nothing in the world sounds more comforting to me right now… unless—

“Who’ll be there?”

“Just us girls. Sounds like the guys are going to play pool or something.”

“Just let me change into something comfier.” I need to get rid of all evidence that Owen was even here—such as my damp underwear. I don’t know how I’d suffer through a movie knowing he’d done that to me. I’m hoping a change of clothes will help me forget.

Kat gives me a onceover, and then shrugs. “We’re downstairs in the TV room.”

She leaves via the bathroom door, which I’m assuming will be the norm from now on. As soon as it closes behind her, I go over to my dresser and pull out a change of clothes.

I keep wincing as fabric touches my sore ass. I wonder if that was Owen’s intention? Leaving a mark on me that would hurt for a while—a constant reminder of my punishment for talking back to him.

The ways I can make you suffer are only limited by my imagination.

Nope. I’m not dwelling on that. I’ve come up with a plan, and it’ll work. I’m staying out of Owen’s way, and that means he won’t have a reason to come knocking on my door again.

Although I have the feeling that next time… he won’t knock.

The TV room holds everything Kat promised… and more.

“Pizza? Out here?” I lift the lid on one of the boxes piled on the coffee table beside a mug of steaming cocoa. Willow and Ada are here too, each curled up on an armchair. That means I’m sharing the sofa with Kat.

“Baby keeps a chef on staff.” Ada takes a small bite of her pizza before wrinkling her nose and dropping it back on her plate. “But he can’t make a low-carb crust for shit.”

I pull my hand away from the slice I was just about to take.

“Don’t worry, noob,” Kat says through a mouthful of pizza. “Ours is regular carbo-loaded deliciousness.” She points at the box closest to Ada. “That’s the one you don’t touch.”

“It’s edible,” Ada says through a sigh that suggests it’s anything but. “It’s just not the quality I’m used to.”

“Bitch, the quality of food you expect doesn’t exist.”

“Same goes for your men,” Ada says, arching an eyebrow at Kat as she picks an olive off her slice of pizza.

I smile at the two of them bickering, and turn to offer Willow a slice of pizza. She’s watching them with a glassy, wide-eyed stare, like a mouse that’s landed itself inside a snake’s terrarium and is hoping the serpent won’t notice it if it stays really still.

“Pizza?”

She gives me a double-take, and then a quick nod. I dish up a slice and hand her the plate. She takes it carefully, as if assuming I’ll pull it away at the last moment.

Looks like I’m not the only one feeling out of place.

Settling in beside Kat, I try to lose myself in the horror movie they put on, but the smallest shift immediately brings my thoughts keep returning to Owen.

And his strong arm.

My ass is throbbing now. It’s not painful as much as inconvenient. Especially because the last thing I want to do is sit here reminiscing about the spanking he just delivered.

Or why the hell it felt so good.

It wasn’t all good though. There was pain, obviously, and I don’t like pain. But I must have been in shock, because it wasn’t as sore as it should have been, even after the fact. My ass was already going numb by the second blow. By the third, all I felt was the thump of his hand meeting my flesh.

I’m more embarrassed about the way he had me bent over. Of all the things racing through my mind when he positioned me like that, getting a few slaps across my ass wasn’t even on the list.

And then he pulled me up against him like that and threatened to—?

Imagine how much it would hurt…

“—should we rather put on a rom-com or something?”

I snap out of my thoughts with a jolt, and then wince as I turn to face Kat too quickly and get a pulsing throb from my ass in repayment. “Huh?”

“From the look on your face, you’re rooting for the serial killer.” Kat crunches through a piece of crust as she watches me. “What’s up?”

“Just… uh… not sure what to expect.”

She frowns at me.

I take a deep breath. “Tomorrow, at school. First day and all.”

Kat nods. “It’ll be fine. Now that they’ve stopped all that shit with the hazing and everything, freshmen don’t walk in fear anymore.”

I try to smile, but all I can think about is the intense gleam in Owen’s eyes when he was standing at the door of my room.

Shoving the last bite of pizza into my mouth, I chew with stubborn resolve.

It’s not a possible hazing that’s got me worried. Somehow, I have to avoid Owen at school and at home. My temporary home, anyway. Which means I’ll have to be on guard twenty-four/seven.

Luckily for me, I’ve had practice doing just that. In the weeks before my father and I left the city, I was looking over my shoulder the whole time.

I’d hoped moving here would make a difference, but I guess I’m not done paying for my sins yet.

Chapter Eleven

Owen

I pace my room like a tiger at the zoo. There’s a tingle in my right hand that refuses to go away, a constant reminder of what just happened down the hall. The more I try to forget, the deeper the memory is imprinted on my mind. How she looked, how she sounded, what it felt like.

My balls are aching, but as a penance, I refuse to take a cold shower to relieve the pressure.

I brought this on myself. I should never have gone to Evie’s room, but I was too weak to stop myself. Whatever discomfort I’m experiencing, it’s the price I pay for being so damned stubborn, so damned weak.

What did you expect would happen? Did you honestly believe you’d be able to walk out of there without putting her in her place?

She could have been the meekest, most subservient girl on the planet, and I’d have found a reason to punish her.

I’ve been wanting to lay my hands on her ever since I saw her.

My lack of willpower is astonishing. I thought I’d become better at keeping my dark urges at bay, but meeting Evie opened the floodgates. Now I’ve been reduced to a starving wolf circling its prey.

But why this girl?

My hand clenches, the edges of the key she’d been wearing around her neck biting into my palm. I don’t care that she didn’t buy my story. I don’t want to hand over this trinket until I’ve figured out what it unlocks, because I’m sure that mystery is the reason I can’t get her out of my mind. This tiny—

“Hey, man, you coming to the jump-off game?”

I turn to Sterling where he’s leaning on his elbow against my doorframe. It’s the perfect opportunity for me to get the fuck out of here, clear my head, figure out how the hell I’m going to live with Evie just down the hall from me.

“Everyone’s going?”

Sterling nods. “Except the girls. They’re chilling downstairs.”

I wave him off. “I’ll join you in a few minutes.”

“Sure? We’re taking all the golf carts.”

“A walk never killed anyone.”

“Okay, man.” Sterling’s permanent half-smile brightens a little. “That new chick’s cute, huh? The one with the white hair?”

I shrug. “I guess.”

“Seems like she’s single…”

“Thinking of asking her out?” I clench my hand tighter around the key.

Sterling’s smile turns into a grin. “Maybe.”

“I wouldn’t.” I shrug again, drag my fingers through my hair. “She looks psycho.”

My friend laughs. “And what, you’re the only one allowed to date freaks?” He pushes away from the door. “See you at the game.”

He leaves without waiting for my response.

Jesus Christ, what the fuck is wrong with me?

I want Evie like I want a fucking fork in the eye. But it’s unacceptable for Sterling to hook up with her? I need to get my shit sorted out.

And this is the perfect time. If all the girls are downstairs and the guys on their way to the university’s football field…

I peer down the stairs, listening intently. Whatever movie the girls are watching sounds violent—a woman keeps screaming and begging for someone to help her. Ada must have put that on; Liam says she’s a horror film junkie. It’s probably the only thing I’ve ever heard him mention that he actually likes about his fiancée.

Walking fast, but silently, I head down the west hall. Evie’s door is second on the right.

It looks just like it did the last time I was here. Either she’s very neat, or she didn’t bring a lot of shit with her.

Fine by me. It’ll make uncovering her secrets that much easier.

I start at the nightstand. Then I move over to the study desk. Her closet. The dresser.

Christ, this girl has no personal effects whatsoever. What’s up with that? It’s like she got shipped out here with a change of clothes.

I hold up a pair of red panties. There’s a touch of lace around the edges, but it’s not exactly lingerie. And it doesn’t seem to have a matching bra.

Unless she’s wearing it.

The thought sends a surge of blood to my dick. I put the underwear back where I found it and go to open the bottom drawer. I see the toes of a pair of tennis shoes before the drumming of fingers against wood interrupts me.

“Lose something, Dalton?” Kat asks.

I straighten, closing the drawer with my foot. There’s no way I can lie myself out of this. Kat Oakes is many things, but stupid isn’t one of them.

“You’re not curious about Larsen?” I ask, turning and leaning my hip against the dresser. “The same day she arrives here, she becomes your BFF. Next thing, she’s living down the hall from us?”

Kat’s face doesn’t change. It’s one of the few times I’ve seen her without makeup. She looks surprisingly mature without her luminous eye shadow and heavy eyeliner. “I’m not in the mood for mind games. So, just tell me what the fuck you’ve got against Evie.”

“I smell a rat.”

“As in she’s planning to axe murder us all in our sleep?” She tilts her head to the side. I’m not sure if it’s the lack of makeup or the dark smudges under her eyes, but she looks paler than normal. It seems the weekend’s festivities wore her out.

Kat points a finger at me. “Evie’s a nice girl. Now, get the fuck out of here. And if I see you lurking around here again, that rat you’re smelling will be me.”

My hand clenches again, that small key reminding me why I’m here. I could bulldoze Kat without breaking a sweat, but I know she’d kick up a fuss. People would start asking questions. And Evie might just tell them about what happened in this room.

While something’s telling me Evie’s worth it, I have fuck-all to back it up with, except the feeling in my gut.

The last time I listened to my intuition, I almost got arrested.

No. This ends here.

“Fuck it,” I mutter, making a beeline for the door. Kat stands her ground, forcing me to push past her to get out.

“Forget about Evie,” Kat calls after me. “She’s too good for you.”

My mouth pulls into a sneer that lasts all the way back to my room. I nearly slam my door, but that would give Oakes the satisfaction of knowing that she’d gotten under my skin. I toss Evie’s key into my nightstand drawer and go to my window, staring out into the forest bordering the Walsh House, a war raging within me.

In the end, reason always wins.

Kat is right. Evie is too good for me. A sweet little lamb like her doesn’t deserve to be teased with these sharp teeth.

I know what’s best for me—and that’s pretending Evie doesn’t exist.

If I keep my distance, Larsen will simply become another damned memory.

Chapter Twelve

Evie

A toilet flushes nearby. I force open bleary eyes, blinking around in confusion at the gloomy space I’m in. When I tip my head back and see the thick maroon drapes hanging over the window, my mind finally turns over and starts revving.

Through the closed Jack and Jill bathroom door, I hear drawers opening, a closet slamming, bottles clinking.

And Kat’s voice, muttering something unintelligible.

I yawn, stretching against the cool sheets before my aching bladder forces me out of bed. Kat’s bathroom door is standing open, and when I go over to close it, she turns to look at me like a badger caught in the act of scavenging.

“Morning,” I mumble sleepily, closing the door so I can pee.

“Have you seen them?” Kat barks at me.

I’m still half-asleep, so the urgency in her voice doesn’t seem as important as my sloshing bladder. “Hang on!” I call back. “Have to pee.”

Kat either doesn’t hear, or doesn’t care. She throws open the bathroom door, ignoring my indignant squawk. “My pills. Where are they?”

Her blue hair is disheveled, her face pinched. The tank top she’s wearing looks like it belongs to a man, hanging way below her armpits. I never realized how scrawny she was, but with her ribs in plain sight, I’m suddenly worried if she eats enough.

“Your pills?” I flush the toilet, pushing past her when she steps inside to interrogate me so I can reach the basin.

“Yeah, Evie, my pills. They’re gone. Did you take them?”

“What the fuck?” I frown at her in the mirror. “Are you okay?”

“Do I look okay?” There’s a fierceness in her eyes I haven’t seen before. It’s disturbing… and for a moment I’m not sure if she’s going to attack me or start throwing things. Possibly both.

I turn to her, wiping my hands on the hem of the massive sleeping shirt I wore to bed last night. “Hey, back up. If you’ve lost something, I’ll help you look for it, okay?”

Kat turns her head, eyeballing me suspiciously. “You didn’t take them?”

“Why the fuck would I take your pills?”

“Because you ran out?”

My mind scrambles, and then I remember telling Kat about the medicine in my backpack. “No, Kat, I’ve still got mine.”

The light in her green eyes changes. Suddenly, she’s smiling, but on the spectrum of pleasant to creepy, the needle’s buried way past Joker levels.

“The good stuff?” she asks.

“Um…”

“Where?” She rushes into my room and immediately starts going through my things.

“Hey! What are you doing?”

“Where, Evie? Where?

“God, Kat, just”—I push her away from my dresser—“just wait.” I watch her from the corner of my eye as I head over to my nightstand drawer and take out my Xanax. “Here.”

She snatches it from me, cradling the orange prescription bottle to her chest as she squints to read the label. Then she throws back her head and lets out a groan. “Pain meds, Evie. I need pain meds.”

“I don’t have any.”

“Jesus fucking Christ,” she mutters, hurtling back into her room through our shared bathroom. She slams the door behind her so loudly my entire body jerks.

What the hell was that?

I run my hands over my hair, grimacing when I feel how messy it is. Then I go over to the windows and draw the drapes, inhaling a deep breath as I stare out over the forest. Bright sunlight hits my face, and my eyes drift closed as I try to will back the sleepy bliss I woke up with just a few minutes ago.

Then my eyes pop open.

The sun dances over the treetops like it’s taunting me.

Oh, my God.

“What time is it?” I snatch my phone off the nightstand and stare in horror at the display. “I’m late!”

I rush around my room in a frenzy, throwing on my school uniform as quickly as I can. I thought it was weird that a university had a uniform, but after finding out just how archaic the town of Pinecrest was, I’m not surprised. I have no idea what to do with the silver necktie, and I manage to ladder one of my white stockings in my haste to get ready, but no one can say I’m not fully dressed.

“Kat, we’re late!”

If she replies, it’s too low for me to hear. I rush into the bathroom, shoving a toothbrush in my mouth and trying to brush my hair and my teeth at the same time. I end up getting toothpaste all over my shirt, and the brush promptly tangles in my hair.

I spit out the toothpaste, rinse my mouth, and try to tug the brush out of my hair. “Kat!”

But there’s no reply from my roommate.

Holy shit, that’s tangled good and proper.

Am I seriously starting my first day at school with a fucking hairbrush stuck in my hair?

“Kat, we’re—” I burst into Kat’s room—and stop dead. It’s even more messy than it was yesterday, which I’m sure defies several laws of physics.

Kat is lying on her bed with her back to the room, her body curled into a ball.

She’s trembling.

“Kat?”

Silence.

I hurry over and grab her shoulder, giving her a gentle shake. “Kat, are you okay?”

There’s a whimper, and then a pathetic, “No.”

“Are you sick?”

Kat lets out a desiccated chuckle.

Her pills.

I need to find her pills. I stare around at her room, my shoulders slumping. I don’t even think I can find the floor, never mind a bottle of pills.

“Go,” Kat croaks. “I’ll be fine.”

“What? You’re anything but fine.”

“Roll me a joint.”

“I will not roll you a fucking joint,” I snap back. “Also, I don’t know how to roll one.” I’m pretty sure it’s not as easy as it looks.

“Vodka.”

“Oh, my God,” I mutter, dropping to my knees as I start hunting through the clothes on the floor. I’d love to know where Kat even got clothes from, but for all I know, she had them delivered. There are still a lot of guy’s clothes here. I’m guessing Wilder hasn’t moved out all his stuff yet.

I sit up.

Wilder.

Maybe he came and got some of his stuff, and accidentally took Kat’s pills?

“Stay put. I’m going to check something.” I hurry down the hall, but pause on the edge of the landing leading to the east wing of the manor.

Owen’s room is somewhere down there. I’d planned to knock on all the doors until I found Wilder, but what if I encounter Owen first?

Licking my lips, I straighten my spine and hurry to the first door, rapping sharply on it with my knuckles.

No answer.

I knock again, bite the inside of my lip, and slowly turn the handle.

The room is locked.

I laugh sourly to myself. I’m definitely demanding a key for my room. I can’t believe Owen fed me such a heap of steaming bullshit.

And you ate it with a smile.

No one answers the next door, but this one at least is unlocked. I step inside and almost immediately slam my bare foot into the side of a box.

“Fuck!” I hop on one foot, grimacing at the stab of pain from my little toe. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

“Keep it down,” comes a growly croak from the left side of the room.

I step deeper into the room, my eyes fixed on the floor in case of more box-shaped landmines. There are two beds in this room, one pushed against either wall, but only one dresser, desk, and chest of drawers. It looked like the room might have been tidy, but then someone came and dropped a bunch of clothes and half-filled boxes in the middle of the floor.

“Wilder?”

“What?” The curly-haired Royal props himself up on his elbows, baring a chiseled chest adorned with a snarling tiger tattoo. He blinks at me, and then a slow grin spreads over his face. “What can I do you for, sweetheart?”

Ick.

“Did you take a bottle of pills from Kat’s room?”

Wilder scowls at me. “I didn’t steal anything.”

I sweep a hand over the messy floor. “Could I check?”

“I didn’t take any of her shit.” His eyes narrow to slits. “Do you know you have a brush in your hair?”

I reach up and tug absently at the handle. “I’m not saying you took it on purpose. Maybe you picked it up with—”

“Get the fuck out of my room,” Wilder growls.

Fuck.

I swallow down another plea and retreat, chewing at the inside of my lip.

When I get back to Kat’s room, she’s started rocking, making a soft keening sound. I scan the room again, and see her glittery purse—the one she took to the party. It’s the only thing of hers I can spot in this mess, so I might as well start there.

I open it, peek inside. There’s no pill bottle, but there are at least five pills lying loose in the bottom. I shake them into my hand and sift through them. I don’t recognize any of them, but I’m pretty sure the pink one with the heart stamped into it is a molly.

“Hey, Kat? I found something.”

Kat groans as she rolls onto her back, the hand she holds out quivering. “Give.”

I hand her the pills, and she stares at them blearily for a moment before tossing them all down her throat and dry swallowing them.

My mouth hangs open. “One of them was a molly.”

“Good job.” She gives me a thumbs up before rolling onto her side again and letting out a massive sigh.

“Uh… aren’t you going to school?”

“Fuck that,” she mutters.

“But… it’s orientation week.”

“I’m so orientated, you could use me for a fucking compass,” Kat mumbles. “Now be a dear and fuck off, would you?”

My chest squeezes at her harsh words, but she’s obviously in a lot of pain, so I tell myself that she doesn’t mean it. I grab my phone, shoving it in the pocket of my blazer, push back my shoulders, and head down the hall.

I’m almost done getting the brush out of my hair when I look up and see Owen speeding past on a golf cart.

Guess I’m not the only one who woke up late.

I could call out to him, catch a ride, but that would be the opposite of avoiding him. Surely there’s another golf cart parked in the shed. I’ve never driven one before, but it can’t be that difficult. Keeping perfectly still from my position at the front door of the Walsh House, I wait for Owen to pass so I can go to the shed.

But either he senses a disturbance in the force, or he can feel my eyes on him, because as he passes, he turns to look directly at me. Thankfully, he doesn’t stop.

My shoulders drop in relief, and I let out a soft sigh as I head for the shed.

In the distance, I hear a faint, “Fuck…”

The golf cart stops.

The golf cart reverses.

My cheeks are already several degrees warmer when Owen pulls up beside me. “Get in.”

“I’ll take my own.” I’m rather impressed with how steady my voice is, all things considered.

“This is the last one.” He sounds like he’s loath to admit it. “So, just get the fuck in.”

“I’ll walk.” I set off toward school, hoping he’ll go away.

Owen turns off the engine. “Jesus fucking Christ,” he mutters. “Do I need to pick you up and toss you in the back?”

I swing around, glaring at him. “I don’t need your help.”

His eyes move over me for a moment, and then he cocks his head. “Sure about that? Because unless you’re rocking a new look, you should take that brush out before you set foot on campus.” He holds up his hand in mock surrender. “But what do I know?”

I yank at the brush, the hot pain at my scalp making my eyes water, but this knot won’t come out because I willed it to happen. At least, with Owen driving, I should have enough time to untangle it.

Letting out an annoyed growl, I climb up onto the back of the golf cart. At least this way I don’t have to look at him.

He says nothing as he starts the engine, and the golf car rolling swiftly down the path again. But he’s driving so fast I end up having to brace myself, or risk falling off.

“Could you slow down?”

“We’re late.”

“Like that matters to you…”

There’s a bitter note to his laugh. “What matters isn’t up to me.”

It’s a weird comment, and I’m not sure I fully understand what he’s trying to say. Perhaps like everyone else in the Walsh House, he woke up with a hangover? Idle chitchat isn’t on the menu this morning, which is fine by me.

I have a fucking hairbrush to get out of my hair, toothpaste to scrape off my shirt, and I still have to figure out what the fuck I’m supposed to do with this thin strip of satin that almost looks like it could be a tie.

But none of it’s possible while I’m holding on to the cart for dear life. “Come on, slow down!”

Owen makes an annoyed sound in the back of his throat, then comes to a dead stop. I’m still busy rolling my eyes at him when he comes around to the back and motions for me to get in behind the wheel.

“You want me to drive?”

He makes as if to grab me and drag me into the front seat, but I hop off before he can touch me.

“I’ve never driven one of these—”

“Easier than it looks.”

“But—”

“Look, the longer you stand here and argue, the faster we have to go to get there on time.” His eyes are darker this morning, almost a gunmetal gray.

“Fine,” I snap. I slide into the driver’s seat and reluctantly turn on the engine. Owen sits beside me, showing me how to operate the golf cart before pointing me down the road like I’ve suddenly been struck blind.

I’m just about to take a corner when Owen tugs at the handle of the hairbrush, and I almost flip over the golf cart in shock.

“Jesus, watch the road!”

“Leave my hair alone.”

“Why the hell do you think I’m letting you drive?” he growls, tugging at my hair. “You arrive there looking like this, they’ll be calling you Hairbrush Girl until the day you fucking graduate.”

I stare at him for a moment, flabbergasted. I didn’t think he could be this nice, but he’s actually… looking out for me. In a way that’s bordering on sweet.

“Oh. Thanks.”

“This isn’t for your benefit. Think I want to be associated with Hairbrush Girl for the rest of the semester? Just drive.”

We both jolt back as I press the gas. I concentrate as hard as I can on the road, and not the fact that Owen Dalton—the guy who spanked me yesterday—is busy untangling a brush from my hair.

“How the fuck did this happen?” he mutters.

“My hair tangles easily.”

“No, this took effort.”

I suppress a smile. “Is it coming out?”

“I wouldn’t take a haircut off the table just yet.”

I peek to the side. Owen is in full uniform too, but he wears it like a second skin. It’s a perfectly tailored black and gold blazer, and a tie with the most immaculate Windsor knot I’ve ever seen.

He sees me looking, and gives my hair an extra-hard tug. “Eyes on the road.”

“Ow!”

“Christ, you didn’t make this much of a fuss when I spanked you.”

My cheeks start heating, and I’m desperate to change the subject. “So, uh, what… uh… what’s your favorite food?”

“Really?” he grumps. “That’s what you want to talk about?”

“Fine! Your favorite movie.”

“Hm.” This seems to please him. Or, at least, it doesn’t displease him. “Terminator.”

I bark out a laugh. “Oh, my God, really?”

“What? I like the idea that time isn’t linear.”

“Please.” I roll my eyes. “Lots of movies have time travel in them.”

“Fine. If you must know… I used to have a crush on Summer Glau.”

I try to suppress another laugh, but a small giggle still slips out. “Ow!” Now I know he’s doing it on purpose.

“You?”

“I love lots of movies.”

“You have to choose one.”

“Uh… The Matrix.”

He gives a dry laugh. “Really?”

“What?”

“I never took you as a sci-fi geek.”

“I’m not. I just…” I shrug, wincing when I jostle Owen’s hand. “I like the idea that this world is just a computer simulation. That it’s possible to warp it, if you know how, and that ultimately, nothing we do here really matters.”

There’s a beat of silence as Owen stops untangling the brush. “That’s fucking bleak,” he mutters.

“Yeah, well, you asked.”

I drive as fast as I dare, and a few minutes away from campus Owen finally gets the bristles extricated from my hair. As I turn to thank him, he throws the brush deep into the forest.

“Hey! Why’d you do that?”

“That thing wasn’t doing you any favors.”

I gape at him. “You can’t just go around throwing other people’s shit away.”

“The operative word here being shit.” He looks at my hair. “Buy a new one.”

“Oh, sure, I’ll just pop off to the closest Walmart and get myself a new brush. Thanks, Owen. You’re so fucking considerate.”

He grunts. “Jesus, fine, I’ll buy you a new fucking brush.”

“Yes, you will.” I swerve around a fallen branch blocking half of the roadway, and Owen grabs hold of the side of the roof, throwing me a wary look.

“You didn’t even thank me,” he says.

“For throwing away my brush?” I know I’m disproportionately pissed off, but seriously, this guy needs a massive attitude adjustment. And since everyone seems to walk on eggshells around him, I guess the burden lands on my shoulders.

“For making you presentable.”

I swipe away his hand when he reaches for my tie, but he still manages to tug it out from behind my collar. “The fuck?”

“I’m sorry, is that how you think your bow is supposed to look?” He drops the satiny strip of fabric to the seat between us. “Suit yourself.”

My mouth opens and closes a few times. “It’s… a bow?” I catch him rolling his eyes, and my jaw sets like stone. “I already hate this fucking school.”

“So, why the hell are you still here?”

“It’s not my choice.” My chest hitches when I realize this conversation is starting to veer down a road more dangerous than the one we’re currently careening down at what feels like fifty miles an hour.

“Then why accept it?” Owen’s voice is low and deep, a rough contrast to my much higher pitch when I blurt out, “Because I don’t want to hurt my father more than I already have.”

There’s a beat of silence between us before Owen speaks again. “That sounds about right.”

I glance at him, give him a double-take. He has a stormy look on his face, his jaw clenching, his eyes narrowed.

He looks every inch the spoiled kid I know he is. When I bark out a laugh, he turns those slitted eyes to me. “What?”

“Please.” I give him a dismissive wave. “I don’t know what your game is, but I’m not playing.”

His jaw clenches so hard I’m surprised I can’t hear his teeth grinding together.

“If this is some lame attempt to get laid… just a heads up, it’s not working.” I flip my head, sending my hair over my shoulder. “You don’t know what it’s like.”

His silence pulls at me like a black hole. I grip the steering wheel a little tighter, staring ahead like I can somehow will Pinecrest’s main campus building closer and be done with this awkward conversation.

“I bet you’ve never had an awful day in your life. If someone tries to do something bad to you, you just snap your fingers and it goes away.” I laugh bitterly. “Those people that dare. But I bet no one is that stupid. I mean, you walk on water, right?”

But still there’s no reaction from him.

I purse my lips, forcing myself not to say another word, but God, it’s difficult. I can feel him staring at me, and his attention creates this magnetic energy that’s taking every ounce of my willpower to resist.

But I won’t give him the satisfaction. He knows what I’m saying is true. Owen Dalton is untouchable. Me? Evie Larsen? No one thinks twice about walking over me. Using me.

Destroying me.

My chest grows tight. Anxiety setting in. This was the worst way to start the day. I should have stayed in bed. Walked to school. Never even have gotten in the cab that brought me to Pinecrest.

I did it for Dad. I owed him that much. But now that I’m here, it feels like a bad trade. Perhaps if I’d fought just a little bit harder, I wouldn’t have been forced to move halfway across the country, abandoning my mother, leaving my home, my friends.

Ha. Friends?

“Stop.”

For a moment, I think Owen can hear what I’m thinking and he’s ordering me to change my train of thought. I shove a lock of hair out of my face. “What?”

“Stop driving.”

“Oh.” I slow down so fast that we both jerk forward in our seats.

Owen sits for a moment before climbing out. If I thought my chest was tight before, now it feels like it’s trapped in a vise. Owen grabs the roof of the golf cart and leans in, his face set in that same expressionless mask as the night we met.

“The problem with people thinking you can walk on water, Evie, is that no one ever considers that you might be seconds away from drowning.”

I nibble on my lower lip as I watch him walk away. “Owen.” He ignores me. “Owen! Come on. You don’t have to walk. You can drive.”

He turns around, walking backward as he tilts his head to the side to study me. “And why the hell would I want to be seen with you?” he calls out. “I walk on water, remember? You don’t.”

That’s all until next week’s installment! If you’re aching to finish right now, though, just click below and buy the book!

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