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Chapter One

Excerpt

ELISE

 

August 28, 2007


 

I GLANCE AROUND MY childhood bedroom. My sister is going to kill me for unleashing Hurricane Elise on her side of it.

In my defense, I decided to accept an offer from Purdue University about two weeks ago. I'd crashed in a motel room for three days, so I could finish freshman campus stuff without any of my things. There was absolutely no reason to keep pushing back my acceptance into the school. I’d kept my options open for reasons that no longer matter. Dad and my sister, Kat, kept telling me repeatedly not to procrastinate on things like choosing a college. I'd been accepted into schools all over the country. Even my boyfriend told me to make up my mind, and I wouldn't make up my mind.

Maybe it was because…

Nope.

Not today.

Nothing can distract me.

I’ve made my decision. It is final. Changing my mind is no longer an option.

I check the clock hanging on Kat's side of the bedroom over her computer desk. It's seven, and I haven't even gotten any shoes packed yet. Clothing has been tossed in every direction imaginable.

No one else is in the bedroom.

I still blush hard when I yank my underwear off the television.

 

I truly regret being so messy.

That isn't me.

My sister is going to kill me before my packing ever gets finished.

I only have four hours left to pack.

“You’re freaking kidding me.”

I whip around to see my sister standing in our bedroom doorway. Her honey brown hair is half up and half down. She has on a too-short skirt she must have snuck past our father with the night before when she went to spend a night with her new boyfriend, Ethan Willis.

“Kat, I can’t go into a big explanation right now—I have a lot of packing to do and—”

“Right, but you don’t have to leave our room a complete disaster area.” She grabs my arm, making me stop my sudden, frantic pacing. “Quit doing that. You’re going to make me woozy.”

“I…How did the online chat with Charlie go?”

Kat backs away from me faster than I can blink. “That’s none of your business. You obviously need help. I can only add a few things, but then I need to get ready for my shift at McDonald’s.”

Somewhere after my sister freaks out about the state of our room because I tried to take a pair of her jeans (I survived her wrath), and my brother hugging me because he doesn't think he can survive his freshman year of high school without me, I manage to halve the pile of clothing I want to take with me to college.

Kat added pumps, a slinky dress, and a pile of jewelry to my mess before she left for her shift at McDonald’s.

But that's the kind of thing you do when you're moving to another state for college, isn’t it? Pack up everything in your car since you can't make a ten-minute drive home for that shirt you can't sleep without. If you do forget your favorite shirt, you're screwed. Especially, when you have a father like mine, who said to never expect any care packages when he saw my orientation kit for the school.

Because moms do that, right?

Send care packages?

I wouldn't really know. My mother abandoned me and my sister when I was five. My parents are still legally married, and Robbie is my half-brother. Dad had a brief affair when I was four. I don't even remember the woman. Robbie's mother had full custody of him until Dad stepped in about six months ago when Robbie told him he wanted to move in. So now he's living here. By moving, I'm cutting down my time with my entire family. Everything in me wants to back out of going to this college, but if I don't go, I know I'll feel like a failure.

I can't second guess this.

Any of it.

I shake my head at myself, then throw more socks into my open suitcase.

I run through my notebook with a long checklist of things I need to do before I leave Kentucky.

Girl stuff?

Check.

Toothbrush and toothpaste?

Check.

My toothpaste is almost gone, but I can buy more once I settle into my new apartment.

Journals?

Check.

I pause and study the box crammed full of only journals. I love to collect them, even though I might not always write in them. Dad gave me one that I keep track of religiously since he handmade it. The rest of them are journals my Mamaw bought me, before she took off to live on a beach in California with my Grandpa.

I add six more checks, scratch out a few items I decide I don't need to bring with me, and kill a bottle of water.

Guitar.

I haven't placed it with my other things I'm taking with me yet. It's in my closet, neglected and unloved. Do I bring it? Or do I keep hesitating? Flip back and forth on bringing it, like I'm doing with everything else?

I put down my notebook with my list, then make my way to the open closet. Pushing some of Kat’s things over, I reach down once I find the case handle. Yanking hard, my firm grip does nothing. I huff, move more stuff to the side, and pull again. The case gives, things tumble off the top shelf, and I fall on my ass.

Guitar?

Check.

Something whacks me on my forehead.

"Shoot," I mutter under my breath. The guitar case feels heavy on my legs. My forehead screams in pain.

I reach for the thing that walloped me.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

Hardback. I think I've read this book at least ten times. The dust jacket isn't in the best shape. A rainbow of ink stains mar J.K. Rowling's name, since I busted more than one bottle of fountain ink in my backpack.

Thanks, Harry.

I reach for my list.

Harry Potter books—they don't deserve Kat's treatment.

I move the guitar off my lap, and then stand up. I've always loved the series more than my sister. She didn't like it when I tried to display any of my books out in the open, because they took up too much space. Kat isn't much of a reader to begin with. I carefully smooth out the dust jacket. I slide my thumb along the spine, and hug it for a second, because this book is a part of my childhood.

Part of moving out of my Dad's means I'll have a great bookshelf, on display, by the time the seventh book is released.

Harry Potter books?

Check.

Once that's done, I turn back to my guitar. I might barely be able to play a C-chord, or do anything more than a hammer-on that buzzes, but I love my Martin. It's more than just a guitar to me. It doesn't matter that I can't play it. I'll learn. Eventually.

It would be safer shoved in the bottom of the closet.

But I can't leave it here.

I already can't forgive myself.

I need the guitar.

That thought gives me pause. How do you know you've made the right decision? Especially, when you're eighteen?

I scrub my hand over my face.

I am not going down the path of self-pity.

Not today.

Not ever again.

There's no use in acting negative. It won't get me anywhere. My new life, in a new state, starts today. It can't start off with the overpowering sensation of negative thinking.

After I've given myself my pep talk, I go back to my list, checking things off, double-checking—no, triple-checking - to make sure everything is packed.

Out of habit, I play with the silver butterfly ring on my left hand, something I started a few days ago. Richie picked the ring up for me at a head shop. He originally wanted incense, since he didn't know the next time we could be back in Kentucky. Blue Grass Bay is his favorite place to get that kind of stuff. His incense obsession amuses me. The only kind I can stand is Dragon's Blood, so Richie bought a ton of it.

"Elise?"

Crap.

I gulp.

Trip over the Martin.

Nearly face-plant into my old dresser.

After stumbling and righting myself, I take my hair out of my ponytail, fluffing it. The person at my bedroom door struggles to open it past my pile of "no" clothing.

What the hell is wrong with me?

I pull my hair up into a haphazard bun.

"Um…Hold on…"

I'm killing whoever let him in.

Say goodbye to Brandon. But it's already crossed off my list, written in tiny, hard-to-read letters. Under the scratched out words in my notebook, I wrote ESCAPE HIM instead. I bolded it so much, my fountain pen left a large splotchy area on the page beneath the one with my list on it.

I make my way to the door to help him, because the last thing I need is for him to cause a huge scene in my house if I don't acknowledge him. I kick the discarded clothing further onto Kat's side, and open the door. I swallow back a gulp, staring at him. Brandon has the most intense chocolate eyes. They can swallow a person whole with one blink.

I was foolish to think I could escape Bourbonsville without Brandon Justice finding out.

He's the boy I bonded with on the bus, after he stood up for me when I was in fourth grade and he was in sixth. Only the kid picking on me wasn't a bully. It was Kat, since she didn't want to be seen with her little sister. Our parents became friends after that, when Brandon told on Kat. Brandon and his older sister, Gwen, laid into mine for being a crappy one. I sat with him on the bus every day after that.

Now he's a man at twenty-one. I noticed him as soon as he got his first car at sixteen, and really thought about what it would be like to be with him, even though I’d just barely turned fourteen. For years he had tried to maintain that I was like a little sister to him.

All of that went to hell on his twenty-first birthday, with a private pub key and a bottle of whiskey.

My back is stiff. Hard. Stressed from packing and Brandon's impromptu visit. But I square my shoulders. I'll show him I'm strong. He can't bend or shake me. His words cannot break me. I'm an iron-jawed bitch.

I don't need him anymore.

He has a huge box of candy under his right arm.

"Elise—I—"

Motherfucker.

I try to slam the door in his face, but a platform heel thwarts my plan.

Frustrated, I give up. It's not going to stop him anyway. He can stand there and feel invisible while I pack. No issue there. I'll ignore him.

"I'm busy, Brandon," I grit out.

"You tried to shut me out!"

The level of his voice will wake up Dad if he keeps that up. I clench my fists. Ignoring him will make him go away, right? Send a clear message that I don't need him.

He's pissed. He has every right to be angry. We both are.

My back is turned to him. That way he will not see the expressions on my face, because I'm sure I look crazy. If I face him, I know how long I'll keep up this charade.

Refusing eye-contact will protect me.

I think.

No, I hope.

What happened to the iron-jawed bitch?

I swallow air.

"Who said I'd let you in?"

I feel him. Eye-contact isn't necessary to judge Brandon's proximity. We used to joke that I had a “Brandon-Radar” when we were younger, because I had memorized the sound of his first car’s engine. Once it hit Dad's gravel road, I’d always shoot outside to the front porch to wait for him and his classic Camaro. Even that is wonky today. We've gone too long without speaking to each other. I should have heard him coming down the road five minutes ago.

"Your brother."

Damn.

I can't be mad. Robbie is fourteen. I didn't tell him what was going on. He knows nothing about my relationship with Brandon, just that he's the cool guy training to be a mechanic with Dad. He hasn't lived here long enough to realize how much my entire world has exploded upside down. I won't burden Robbie with that.

Brandon gently grabs my arm to stop my packing frenzy.

"Look, Elise… It doesn't matter."

"Let me go," I say, tugging my arm back.

My voice sounds weak. Shaky. It's definitely not the voice of an iron-jawed bitch.

His touch feels too good. I've always loved Brandon's hands. They're warm. Like heaters. Dad's insistence that the air in the house should be fifty million degrees below zero Fahrenheit doesn't help.

Yes, I realize that doesn't make sense.

But. So. Freaking. What?

I'm in the middle of a crisis because my ex-best friend won't go away.

He's bringing me chocolates and acting sweet.

I want to lean into his touch.

Bad idea.

"Brandon," my voice is much firmer this time. "I said to let me go."

"You're shivering."

What the hell?

I must be certifiable.

Why else would I have one man's fifteen-dollar butterfly ring on my finger, but let another one cuddle up to me because he thinks I'm cold? It doesn't matter if I am freezing. I think something in my brain has broken.

A blast of hot air hits the nape of my neck. He's frustrated. We both are. I've spent more than a month and a half not talking to this man. It's the longest I've ever been angry with him. Even with all my posturing, I let him pull me to him.

"Please," he whispers into my ear. "Please talk to me? I was wrong. So wrong, Elise. I can't do this anymore. You're fucking killing me."

I purse my lips and close my eyes. Let him wrap his arm around my stomach and dig his nose into my hair.

I clear my throat. My voice can't break when I say this. I need to make a point, and I need to be firm. We need to stop hurting each other.

"I stopped talking to you because I started dating."

"You stopped talking to me because you were mad at me. I was a fuckwit."

His voice is soft; pained. Kind of like he ate a dozen ghost chili peppers. I'd rather put up with that than this.

He's right.

Brandon is a fuckwit.

His lips graze my ear.

I want to turn around and punch him in the nose, even though I could never hurt him.

If I yell, my brother and Dad will be here in three seconds flat.

But I don't.

Be firm, Elise.

"I love this guy," I say. "Richard loves me, too."

His hands are off me in an instant.

"Richard? Daniels? You started dating that motherfucker?"

I whip around, thankful my foot doesn't get caught on the guitar case.

"Yeah. Richard Daniels. He doesn't treat me like dirt."

I'm angry, my pointer finger wagging. I poke him in the chest with it. I hide my left hand behind my back. His nostrils flare, but he grabs my hand and laces his fingers with mine. He does everything he knows that will make me pause long enough to let him get under my skin.

"Elise, you need to stop lying to yourself…"

I see it coming before he does it. He dips his head toward mine. My instincts betray logic and my eyes close. Our lips almost touch.

I don't care about hiding my left hand anymore. With both hands, I shove him away from me.

"You can't do that!"

"Elise, I made a mistake. Shit, I even got you your favorite chocolate."

He's being clumsy about this. Neither one of us has ever been in a situation like this before. Maybe I'm acting too harsh. I just don't know how to deal with it anymore—to deal with him anymore.

"That's the problem! A box of chocolates isn't going to make everything okay. We aren't living inside the world of Forest Gump. You can't kiss me. I'm married."

Is it possible for the AC to cause frostbite?

I'm not sure if it's the air or his glare, but it feels like lines of ice pierce through my skin.

Brandon tries to say something, but words don't come out. He runs his hand through his hair, grabs the back of his head, and stumbles back a step. I'm not sure if it's because I shocked him or a box got in his way. I can't stand the expression on his face. How intense those damn eyes are.

I'm allowed to sniff once.

So I do, and turn back to trying to organize my messy suitcase.

"You—you married Dickie Daniels?"

"Yep. He's a great guy. I've got to be ready soon. We both got accepted into Purdue University in Indiana."

I try to close my suitcase, but the stupid thing won't zip. I think I overstuffed it, so I run my hands along the edges to make sure nothing is in the way of the zipper. It's not like I'm flying to Indiana and will have to pay an overweight charge on my luggage. I'd rather deal with fighting with the suitcase, than forget anything important, or see Brandon's reaction.

"What the hell do you mean, you got married?"

I roll my eyes and push some hair from my face.

I flash my butterfly ring at him and wiggle my fingers. I'm not sure if I'm adding insult to injury or validating what I just told him, but neither one feels right.

"He said he'll get me something better later. We applied for a marriage license last week after he asked me. It was kind of all on a whim, because everything has been so crazy with college starting. A courthouse wedding was the easiest way to do it. We'll have a bigger wedding after we graduate."

"What the hell."

I swallow back my retort. He's shouting again. His temper is terrible. I probably haven't helped by dropping this bomb on him.

"Is that why you weren't talking to me?"

"Don't yell. Don't make this hard. You should have taken the hint when I stopped talking to you, Brandon."

He stammers and fumbles over himself. I ignore him and go back to fighting with the zipper on my suitcase. I'm aware of his every movement, like I'm an inseparable part of his being, even when I get frustrated and climb on top of the suitcase to battle it shut.

"Well, damn," he says, after a few minutes.

That's all he can say?

Well, I guess I did just give him the shock of his life.

I hop off my suitcase. "Well?" I ask. "You can leave. Or something."

Iron-jawed bitch is back.

Sort of.

Why do I keep doing that?

Brandon clears his throat and scratches the back of his neck. Does a little pace, like he wants to leave, but he can't.

 

"Uh… I can't go like this. Not if you're moving. Can I…um…help you pack, or something?"

I scrutinize my room. Most everything I'm taking is pushed in a corner between my bed and dresser. I still have more to pack, like the new dishes my sister bought for me at Wal-Mart as a going away present. I haven't begun filling the large blue trunk Dad bought for me to protect important keepsakes, like my Harry Potter books, which are in a pile on my bed.

I almost tell him to start packing my books for me, when he yanks open my sister's dresser.

Various knick-knacks, perfume bottles, and jewelry rattle. He yanks my sister's jeans from the drawer and shoves them into an open duffle bag.

"That's Kat's stuff."

He pauses, mid-grab and shove.

"What?"

My happy news must have messed him up bad if he can't remember which side of the room is mine.

"Those are Kathleen's jeans. You should know that."

He clears his throat. We're doing a lot of that today. Throat clearing, stumbling over words, trying to keep our emotions under control. I don't even know why he's still here. If it's as hard on him as it is for me for the two of us to be in the same room, why should we torture ourselves?

"Uh…Oh."

"It's okay, Brandon. I don't need your help. I've got everything under control. You're really just getting in my way."

One jab.

Iron-jawed bitch: One. Brandon: Three.

The apology and the chocolates made the entire situation unfair. And the kiss? God, I want to kiss him, even now. Maybe a marriage annulment is an option I shouldn't cross out.

He doesn't respond. He clearly wants to help, and I don't have it in me to force him out the door. I don't have the physical strength, anyway.

Brandon helping me would make things go quicker. I realized halfway into packing that morning I needed help, but I didn't want to drive my family crazy. It's Dad's day off from the dealership. Kat misses her fiancé since he's out of town, visiting family in Tennessee. My brother would be an immature turd at the first sight of lacy underwear.

I point him to the box of new dinnerware and some clothes I planned on wrapping the plates in. They're the kind of plates and cups that don't come in an actual box at the store. The cheap, pretty kind. Brandon picks up the box and clutches it so hard that his knuckles turn white and the plates rattle. We stand next to each other while he carefully removes them and starts wrapping them. The two of us are in sync without speaking. I don't stop him when he pauses for a brief second to kiss the side of my head.

That's allowed. It always has been. And he does it so fast, that I wouldn't have had a chance to push him away anyway.

I will take any help I can get at this point. I can't make my husband wait past the time we're supposed to leave. We only have our U-Haul for so long. The trip to West Lafayette will take at least three hours. Longer, if Richie and I decide to make any stops.

"So…what?" Brandon asks, breaking our silence. He slams my box of tape on the table next to my bed. "You decided to jump in and marry the second guy you screwed?"

"What? No!" I gasp.

"Then what the actual fuck, Elise?"

I shove him, furious. He lands on my bed.

"You took my virginity then called it a mistake!" I scream. "I thought we made love, but no, it was a mistake you couldn't handle!"

"We were drunk! It was a mistake! It shouldn't have happened that way!"

He stands up. We're close. In each other's faces. Personal boundaries are null and void. He could kiss me and I would let him.

 

“It was a freaking birthday present,” I grind out, in a hushed whisper. “Because of reasons I’ve realized were stupid.”

I can't stand this.

“Call it what you want to, Elise. I still shouldn’t have crossed that line. And not in the pub. I should have made it special—”

No. He doesn’t get to do that. He doesn’t get to try to make me feel worse about how I chose to be with him for the first time. I’ve never been a super overly-romantic girl…or I've tried to hide it, anyway. Not when he keeps finding ways to make what we did sound cheap and speedy. He’s going on and on, and I can’t keep listening to his excuses.

"You told me you were getting ready to date that Sophie girl!"

He shuts up.

He tries to pull me closer, but I step back. I can’t stand being near him. I feel like Brandon has left a chasm where my heart belongs.

All my marriage is turning out to be is a triple-heart bypass with crappy stitches held together with a cheap butterfly ring. And I hate myself for doubting my decision to get married fast.

"You wanted a girlfriend."

"But I didn't want her, Elise. Christ. You would have known that if you would have answered the phone."

"Like a phone call would’ve helped when you made me feel like trash!"

"You're not trash—damn it, Elise." He bites his knuckles and rocks on his heels. "I tried. But Kat deleted my emails to you."

"My sister was protecting me. I was there when she did it."

"Kat needs to learn how to mind her own fucking business."

"It doesn't negate the fact that you made me feel like trash."

I wipe the tears from my face. I can't do this. I need to get out of here, and soon. I consider only taking the things that are packed and sending for the rest later. Dad will mail it to me if I send him money for the shipping. The guitar can go back into my closet.

"Elise—I—damn it."

His hands are on my face, wiping away the tears. I’ve needed him since that night and spent so long trying to forget it happened. But Brandon is here now. Hugging me. Getting in my personal space. Arguing with me. I clench my fists at my sides. I can't give in and return his hug, or I'll break.

I push him away.

"I had no reason to answer those calls. I have no reason to talk to you now! You hurt me."

"I know, I know I did, sweetie—"

"Don't call me that!" I screech.

"Elise, I'm in—"

I shove him again.

"Get out! You didn't let me make any decisions for myself. You never told me you were getting serious about Sophie." I'm sobbing now. "I trusted you. I fucking love you, but you acted like sleeping with me was the worst mistake you ever made in your entire life, because you were about to ask another damn woman to be your girlfriend!"

"No—I—Elise—"

"Stop stuttering," I hiss at him. "What? Brandon, do you have an explanation? A reason I should have talked to you?"

"I know I messed up."

"Good. Still doesn't fix anything. I started dating Richard. He loves me. He won't hurt me like you did, so I married him. For fuck's sake, I'm packing for college, Brandon!"

Dig, dig, dig.

I'm dirt.

"Yeah, I have a damn reason, if you'd let me get two words in!"

"Well, fine, go ahead," I say, waving my hand flippantly. Tears still run down my face. I let them. Crying is a release I didn't realize I needed.

"We're adults now, Elise. I'm starting a business. You always had plans to go to college. I didn't figure you'd go to Purdue, though. I figured you'd go to UK or EKU. But you didn't try, Elise. You didn't wait for me to realize I was being an idiot—and I was. Sophie and I have always been casual. She's one of my closest friends, and yeah, we've dated a couple times, but it's never been serious. You didn't just date someone. You married him."

I clutch the edge of my bed. It's the only thing that keeps me standing.

"You know what? Fuck this. I'm glad we never went farther than having sex on my birthday," he continues. He gets back into my personal space. Breathes on my neck, backs my knees against my bed. "I had no idea your standards were so low. It's better we never talked about getting into a relationship. I want to be with someone who knows how wonderful she is, not someone who settles for the first piece of trash who walks by. The first one who can sweet-talk his way into her panties. Isolate her away from her damn family and friends."

"That's not what happened."

"Sure as hell looks like it."

The iron-jawed bitch has nothing.

I stare at him. My fingers ache to reach for him. To tell him I'm sorry. To beg him to give me a chance to sort out this mess I've made.

But he's right.

We're adults now.

I made a decision. I took vows. Vows I intend to keep.

"Your invasion of my space could be reported as harassment."

Hot air blasts my face. His eyes are wide. He looks like a caged bull about to lash out, but he steps away.

"Whatever. I'm out of here. I'd rather deal with Gwen and her fucking drama with Jay, than deal with this crap."

I stay frozen, my legs pressed against the edge of my bed, trying to control my breathing once he's gone. The front door slams and my Dad yells at Brandon to make sure he's at work at eight in the morning tomorrow.

My hands shake. Every bone in my body, every muscle, wants to go after Brandon. To tell him I made a mistake. I'll annul my marriage. Make love to him again. And this time, I’ll let him make it special.

But it's pointless.

I took vows.

I collapse to the floor, in tears.

"Elise?" Kat asks, as she comes into our room. Her shirt is loose and her McDonald's hat is shoved in her purse, but hanging out. There’s ketchup on her pants. "Why did Brandon just take off out of here like a bat out of hell?"

"Kathleen," I sob.

She's on the floor next to me in an instant, hugging me.

"What's wrong, sweetie?" she asks.

"I fucked up."

"Elise? Are you okay?"

I get up and slam the door in my little brother's face. He must have followed Kat up here. "Don't you ever let that jerk in the house again when I'm here, Robbie!"

"Elise!" Kat pulls me away. "Stop."

I push her. Wipe my bangs from my face. Sniff.

The iron-jawed bitch is back.

"Either help me pack my things, or leave me the hell alone."

Brandon Justice will never break my heart again.

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