Last week we announced that Anne Eliot’s Unmaking Hunter Kennedy is our Kids Corner Book of the Week and the sponsor of our student reviews and of thousands of great bargains in the Kids Book category:
After a car accident–an event he considers a prank gone bad–jaded pop star, Hunter Kennedy is forced to hide out with his aunt in small-town Colorado. He’s supposed to rest, heal his scars and attend high school in disguise until the press dies down. But he only wants to get back to work.
Worse, the girl who’s been assigned to make him over into a geek is a major geek herself. Vere Roth is a chattering pixie, a blushing tornado and a complete social disaster. He’s never met a girl who’s never-been-kissed, believes in romance and thinks Hunter’s a ‘nice’ guy.
Funny thing is…Hunter is nice around Vere because she’s his first real friend. He also can’t seem to stop sharing his secrets or keep her out of his heart. Knowing he’d never deserve a girl as sweet as Vere, he resigns himself to the friend zone, and helps his new bestie with her own makeover.
She tortures him daily for ridiculous guy advice on how to snag her life-long crush. A guy Hunter thinks is totally wrong for Vere, and sadly, one who has taken note of Vere’s stunning transformation.
When Vere asks her best friend for some kissing advice, Hunter can’t resist. And that’s when things get out of control…
First love. Sweet, teen romance.
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
1: shiny black casket
“Damn. She’s early.” Hunter Kennedy swallowed a lump of dread as he watched his mom’s limo snake along the outer grounds. He shoved his iPhone into his pocket and covered his unease with a forced smile to Barry, his therapist. “She’s never early.”
“This is good.” Barry smiled back. “Shows responsibility.”
“Shows she doesn’t want to miss the fun of dumping me off again. Plus if the woman came late, she’d have to take me home, right?”
Barry didn’t answer. He was also the owner of this fancy, fenced teen hospital. They both knew home was not an option. Instead, Hunter was heading for phase-two of his mom’s latest crap-Hollywood-parenting plan: kid misbehaves, pay for therapy, ignore him, then convince others to handle the dirty laundry.
As if six weeks locked up in this place hadn’t been enough.
His whole spine lit with goose bumps. He pulled on the hideous, white-and-silver hoodie she’d sent ahead for him to wear, making sure the sleeves were long enough to cover his wrists.
No need to remind Mom what got me here. Time to play along like I said I would. It’s not like there’s anywhere to run.
The limo had stopped at the ornate first gate. The gate that ‘kept up appearances’ because it featured no razor wire or guards with guns. The other two gates would take longer thanks to the vehicle search, ID checks, metal-x rays—all that resident safety junk this place featured so proudly.
It would be awhile.
As the gate swung open, a loud, mechanical buzzing increased, sucking up all of the air around him. It echoed off the wide flight of marble steps where they waited.
“Dude. That thing is dying.” Hunter winced, realizing the noise wasn’t just in his head. Its source was a bronze, sculpted sign above the portico that was supposed to read Falconer Hope Residential Solutions. Now, because of burned out bulbs, only part of the first word was lit.
It flashed: l-oner, l-oner, l-oner…
“Guess I waited too long to call someone to fix it.” Barry, as though happy to have something to do, hopped up into some terraced planters to take a look.
Hunter slouched against a marble pillar, annoyed that his whole outfit blinded him. When he’d pulled the all-white costume out of the bag, his skin had crawled at the thought of putting it on.
But the outfit had also come with a note written in his mom’s large scrawl: Hunter. Make sure you wear everything in this bag. Everything. Please.
So, because he was trying to prove he was a good boy, and because his mom rarely said please, Hunter had dutifully zipped himself into the too-tight white jeans, tapered in—as usual—from his calves to his ankles.
He’d layered on the silvery graphic-tee and added the humiliating long chain that boasted a dangling, fist-sized medieval sword. It hung down past the matching chainmail belt. The sword acted like a weighted, sharp-tipped pendulum. His mom had probably picked the thing on purpose because it punched his junk every time he moved. Hunter had even pulled out the top edge of the lame silver boxers to prove he’d worn everything.
Everything. As commanded by her.
Cherry on thewardrobe-hell-pie? White sneakers that rated worse than the boxers. Because they had girly, glitter soles! His band’s name, GuardeRobe, had been stitched into the heel and over the toes with silver thread. Not to be outdone by the amazing laces that featured his tiny initials painted top to bottom: HK, HK, HK, HK.
All in more shiny, sparkle shit.
So messed up. What had the designers been thinking?
Being dressed like an epic ass was nothing new for Hunter. Wardrobe choices were never his department. But wardrobe choices worn without a fight always kept the mom happy.
And today, that was Hunter’s goal.
Besides, the nightmare-suit gave Hunter a small shred of hope. Why else would he be dressed for work? The outfit was a good sign that his mom might have changed her mind.
Please. Please. Please.
Hunter sucked in a big breath. The cool night air shocked his lungs.
He’d forgotten to breathe again. If he’d learned anything good in this place, it was that he had to remember, no matter what, to simply breathe.
Barry slammed his hand into an electronic box behind the sign, succeeding in quieting the buzzing. As he climbed out of the planters he said, “That thing is going to cost a mint to fix.”
Barry looked tired. Hunter was sure the poor guy wasn’t used to being awake all hours like he was.
“I guess this is it, huh?” Hunter said, trying to distract both of them from the stress of waiting. “It’s been—interesting.”
Barry smiled. “I’m sorry we had to release you in the dark like this. It is not our normal procedure. But your mother said—”
“She’s right.” Hunter flicked another glance at the limo, watching the guards at gate two search the trunk. “The paparazzi would have been all over this place. I’m surprised none of your staff leaked I was here.”
“We’ve built our reputation on discretion. They are all screened and paid very well not to have seen you. It’s why parents all over the world choose us to help their kids. I wish you could have taken part in some of the group sessions. I know you would have liked them.”
“Yeah. Too, bad.” Hunter nodded as though he totally agreed. There was no point in hurting Barry’s feelings at this late date. Barry’s cry-and-hug sessions were not on Hunter’s wish list. “Maybe next time,” he added, shooting Barry a wry glance.
Barry gave him a look. “Let’s hope not. I’m going to miss you, Hunter. I really am. But I never want to see you again—if you know what I mean.”
Hunter smiled. “Yeah. Back at you, dude. And thanks for curing me.”
Barry gave him a small bro-hug that Hunter returned. “I’ve never said you were cured. Depression does not have an on-off switch. Don’t make me lecture you all over again here, because I will.”
“Work in progress. I know the speech.” Hunter pushed a hand through the mop of hair that hit his forehead now that it hadn’t been cut for so long. “Are you billing me for this extra therapy hour?”
“Of course I’m billing you. Double for after-hour charges if you’re keeping track.”
“I like that you never pretend things aren’t about the money.” Hunter yawned.
Barry frowned, placing a gentle hand on Hunter’s arm. “I get paid well because I’m good at what I do. Just like you get paid well to sing and play the guitar. Not everyone wants to use you, son. You need to change your views on that.”
Hunter shrugged. “If I come across real evidence of your theory, I’ll reconsider my ideas. But from where I sit, it’s the view I’ve been tracking forever.”
“That view is what your mom is trying to change by sending you to Colorado. Your reality is skewed. You need to get it back on track. This time is going to give you the chance to analyze your real feelings. Try to make honest friends. The kind with no strings attached.”
“Please. An impossible idea.” Hunter kicked his shoe against the steps. “Back on track, my ass! She wants me locked down. You should satellite-map the town of Monument. It’s in the middle of a bunch of trees. I bet everyone who lives there has a blade of grass stuck in their teeth. And it’s probably the kind of grass you can’t even smoke!”
Hunter paced the length of the portico. Barry followed.
“Living off the Hollywood grid is the only way you’ll be able to figure out what being normal feels like. You’ve never known anything different.”
“Forget normal! Everything could be over when I get back. Hell. No one seems to care about what I want. How could I ever be normal after the life I’ve lived? The life I plan to keep living as soon as I get Mom to stop being pissed off at me.”
“From what I can tell, you weren’t living much of any life. Just working.”
“I love to work. So what? It’s my solace.” Hunter shook his head. “And besides, I haven’t been to my Aunt Nan’s since I was eight. I think she must be like…seventy now? Does she even remember me—want me in her house?”
Barry nodded. “Seventy-two. She’s excited to have you for the school year. Your mom told me.”
“You’ve talked to her about this?” Hunter whispered as he felt his throat closing up. “When and why does she talk to you, but never to me?”
“She told me it’s too soon. She’s not ready.”
“And you bought that?” Hunter exploded. “You think Mom’s silent treatment is about the dumbass prank I pulled at home six weeks ago?”
“I thought we’d stopped referring to it as a prank.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Hunter glowered, changing the subject. “That woman hasn’t spoken to me about anything real since my bottom-feeder step-dad ran to Florida two years ago with the intern—or—personal assistant. Whatever she was.”
“You mentioned that. I know it causes you pain.”
“Well, not how you think.” Hunter blinked. “Mom got really pissed when she discovered the intern had also been personally assisting me in every way.” Hunter smiled at the look on Barry’s face.
“Yep.” Hunter nodded. “Like twice a week in our hot tub and all over the house. Mom stopped talking to me when I told her I missed the girl more than I missed having that guy around pretending to be my dad. Because I still miss her—or what she could do with her mouth, anyhow.”
“Holy shit.” Barry, who hardly ever looked shocked or surprised, now looked shocked and surprised. “Why didn’t you tell me about all this?”
Hunter shrugged. “I thought I’d keep my first girl to myself. I told you about the masses of girls after. How will one more twisted story about my sex life make my ‘mental-health-file’ any better? At least you get now that I can never be normal. Never make normal friends.”
“Yes, you can.” Barry threw his arms wide. “That girl should be in prison. The stuff was done to you, Hunter. Done to you. You were a kid two years ago. Hell, you’re still just seventeen.”
Hunter shrugged again and met Barry’s gaze. “I was old enough to willingly participate. Not gonna lie. I loved it. Thought I loved her,” he scoffed. “She was only seventeen herself. Wicked-step-daddy was smart enough to wait until she became legal before taking off with her. Totally bummed me out when she left like that, though. I had no idea.”
“Wow. I’m so sorry you went through that.”
Hunter grimaced. “She tried to keep things going with me. I turned her down. Back then I hated sharing my toys.”
“And so you share now?” Barry asked, ramping back to his calm-doctor voice, but the guy couldn’t hide his bugged-out eyes or horrified expression.
“No. I still hate sharing. I’ve simply stopped playing with dangerous toys. Mom paid them both tons to never contact me again. The assistant dumped the loser the day after the check cleared. Take some notes if you need to,” Hunter offered.
Barry shook his head. “You and your mom have been through so much. I know she’s also seeing her own therapist. She’ll speak to you when she gets herself straightened out, but probably not before.”
“Whatever.” Hunter glared at the limo, still holding at gate two. “If I’m forced to go to Colorado today, I’m done with her. And I’m not going to be sitting by the phone waiting for Mommy to call. I learned long ago not to believe that woman’s promises. My agent swears he’s going to get me out of the judge’s contract in a few weeks.”
“Luckily, your mom made sure the agreement is rock solid. Report to Colorado after we release you, or report to the nearest juvenile detention center. It’s for the whole school year whether your agent likes it or not.”
Hunter crossed his arms. “Martin is a strong force to be reckoned with. He’ll win for me. You’ll see.”
“Son, you need to rest. It’s critical.” Barry trapped his gaze. “I’d think twice about Martin’s intentions. Can’t you see he’s obviously in it for the money?”
Hunter sighed. “I know.” He flicked a glare at the limo. “But at least he keeps his promises. He’ll come through. And like I said, isn’t everyone in it for the money?” Hunter fronted, hiding his true panic about the situation. If Martin couldn’t convince his mom to change her mind soon, Hunter was stuck.
Stuck in Colorado.
His own mom had slapped huge vandalism charges on him. Between his totaled car, and the damage Hunter had done to the house, he’d wrecked about a million dollars worth of stuff.
$240K came from his pimped out Porsche 911 alone.
But it had been his Porsche!
His front door, his silk carpets, his stupid antique, Italian fountain. All paid for with money he’d earned! All things he’d offered to replace.
Sadly, none of that had mattered to the judge.
Every item Hunter had trashed was in his mom’s name. They’d screwed him to the wall with that one fact. The judge had also bought his mom’s sob story that her son might recover better while on a forced rest out of the public eye. And in another state!
Barry let out a long breath as they watched the third gate admit the limo into the inner driveway. “Well I’m happy you have no choice. For your sake, Hunter. Not for the money.”
Hunter didn’t respond. They both knew Barry had been paid $865 an hour to hang out with him all this time.
Her limo finally parked. It reminded Hunter of a wheeled, shiny, black casket.
For my funeral.
“You going to be okay?” Barry asked, as though he sensed Hunter’s heart couldn’t decide if it should slow down or stop beating all together.
“Wish I knew.”
Barry broke eye contact with Hunter and ran his hand through his sparse salt and pepper hair. His expression slipped to nervous. Hunter couldn’t blame the guy. His mom terrified the shit out of everyone.
“Take it one day at a time, son. One hour.” Barry was babbling now. “Call me if you need to talk. You need time. Time.”
“Yeah. Time to get my own set of lawyers.”
2: stupid dumb crush
“Seriously? This form makes me feel like a drug addict.” Vere Roth scrawled her full name across the signature line at the bottom of the Palmer Divide High—Zero Tolerance—Drug and Alcohol Contract. “I took headache medicine at my locker before coming in here. According to number seven, I think I should report myself to the police. Or…is it the principal?”
Vere glanced at her best friend, Jenna, before frowning back at the form. “Actually, now that I’ve told YOU about this ‘drug ingestion’ you must report it or face your own suspension!”
“If only I could be so lucky.” Jenna fluttered her lashes behind her black-frame hipster glasses. (Glasses boasting clear lenses and no prescription whatsoever, but that were very cute.)
Vere added a date, put the form aside and picked up the next one. “Year Book Order Form. Yay! We will finally get to have the bigger pictures! And we’ll get to be near the front of the book. I can’t wait for that! We. Are. Big-time. So awesome!”
“Big-time, yes. Insignificant, still. And why are you reading the stupid registration forms? Just fill them out and sign.”
Jenna was going through her pile of forms by bending the stack, scribbling her name on the bottom lines, and dating each without looking.
“Jenna, you’re missing half of the form information lines. Hello? It’s only Spirit Week and you are already failing.”
“I have a plan connected to this.” Jenna flipped her blonde braids behind her back and adjusted the Peter Pan collar on her back-to-school, red-checked, button down shirt. “I’m going to turn these forms in all jacked-up to see how long it takes someone to call me down to the office.”
Jenna beamed, her green eyes glittering with mischief. “Maybe I’ll get pulled out of some lame quiz next month. Maybe for a couple of days! And, FYI, there are no grades this week, you brown nosing, teacher-pleasing-missile.”
“I’d laugh at that comment if it weren’t so hot in this room. I need every drop of extra credit I can get. If only perfect forms could count for AP Biology.” Vere groaned and flexed her fingers before signing the last one in her stack using Jenna’s method. It was something about sports and after-school activities. A new head-injury safety plan for all students in sports, clubs or student council.
She and Jenna did Drama Club. Not so they could be in the spotlight or anything insane like that.
They did stage tech.
Sets, costumes, lights, sound, special effects and props—all while wearing the ‘invisible’ black outfits that came with the job. Lighting was her favorite.
Vere’s phone buzzed against the table.
“Who dares text you besides me?” Jenna wiggled her brows. “I mean, who e-ffingdares?”
“My mom.” Vere flashed the screen to Jenna so she could read: VERE—VERE ARE YOU THERE?
Jenna laughed. “And you can’t eff-ing ground your mom for texting you at school?”
Vere grimaced. “Jenna. I hate your new geek-street persona. You sound and look,” Vere paused, glancing at Jenna’s outfit with an affectionate grin. “Like a Hello Kitty hipster, crossed with some trash-mouthed prairie girl.”
Jenna grinned. “I know. I’m ahhmazing cute, huh? And yet I still hang out with a girl who’s sporting her dad’s jeans cut down to shorts from nineteen-eighty seven. AGAIN. Matched with her big brother’s monstrous, grubby hoodie. AGAIN. Plus the same brown, twisty bun? A look you’ve held on to since eighth grade. At least my whole outfit can be found in a magazine.”
“Please. You know you love my look. And, as someone who truly loves you, I claim the right to veto the fake-cursing thing.”
Jenna grinned. “Maybe you’re right. I’ll e-ffing re-think my e-ffing potty mouth. But it’s so e-ffing fun to feel like a bad-girl.”
“You’re not even close to bad if you can’t say the real word. E-ffing stop. It’s going to backfire and force us into an even lower social status.”
“Is there one lower than ours?” Jenna grinned.
Vere’s phone buzzed again. She pulled it under the table so she and Jenna could read the next text together: VERE? ARE YOU GETTING THESE? ARE YOU THERE?
Vere typed into her phone: Mom. Jeez. What’s up?
The phone buzzed a third time just as she hit send.
YOU AND CHARLIE COME STRAIGHT HOME. PROJECT TO DISCUSS. SOMEONE TO MEET. ALL WEEKEND. UP AT THE LAKE. MAKE NO PLANS. NONE. AND NO. TELL JENNA, SHE MAY NOT COME ALONG. SORRY HONEY. DON’T EVEN TRY. NO.
Jenna frowned. “Your mom’s psycho with the all-caps. Does she not know she’s constantly text-yelling? What does she mean by project? And why would she not want me to come? It’s a three-day weekend. That hurts where Band-Aids can’t touch.” Her frown turned into a pout as she added, “Your mom always wants me to come to the lake.” Jenna leaned her chin on a fist. “The last time she had ‘someone for you to meet’ you guys got that Ukrainian exchange dude for spring break. Remember?”
“How could anyone forget? Thank God that was only for two weeks.”
Their gazes met, and they both grinned and said, “Lexi. Not SEXY.”
They cracked up all over again.
“Her text sounds doomish,” Jenna added.
Vere tapped her pen on the desk. “UGH. I smell me and Charlie stuck at some church thing passing out cookies. Remember when she made us wear white gloves and stand around guarding hanging blankets for a whole weekend because of that quilting competition?” Vere shuddered.
Jenna gathered her papers into one crumpled pile but then dropped them with a short gasp. “Alert. Alert. The Wish. Entering our airspace.”
She’d glued her eyes to a spot just beyond Vere’s head.
Vere choked. All air sucked out of her lungs.
Jenna lowered her voice, speaking through a smile, “And the summer was good to him. YUM. ME. I love tans on boys. I love boys—and OMG! He’s with most of the football team. Varsity. Football. Team.”
Vere reached up to check her bun, straightened her back, but didn’t turn to look. “If you make a scene, I’ll kill you. How close is he and…ugh.” She put her hand over her racing heart. “Why are the seniors in here with us? I thought we were safe. I checked. They register from two to four.”
“Juniors and all sports are now.” She wiggled her brows. “I checked, too. They’ve got some sort of special info-assembly. He’s setting up camp on the next row of tables. You’re safe enough. He’ll never spot us in this sardine can.”
“Should I look? Is it worth it to turn around?”
Vere had seen Curtis yesterday on her very own front porch. Because the guy had been her brother’s best friend since kindergarten. He’d been riveting with his fresh, new hair cut. So riveting, she’d hidden in her room feeling sick for two hours.
Am I the only one in the whole world with a crush that makes me physically ill?
Jenna shrugged, flipped her long braids around again and gave her a pitying look. “I’ll let you know if he does anything worth turning colors and stuttering for, okay?”
“Thanks,” Vere said, trying unsuccessfully to find Curtis’s reflection in Jenna’s wide eyes, but even that activity had her stomach cramping and sent a warning tingle up the back of her neck.
No need to fire the cherry-bomb-cheeks for everyone’s entertainment. Stupid blushing.
Vere wasn’t a natural when it came to school. But she’d learned if she worked hard (sometimes really hard) she could make the grades and hit the goals she wanted. She’d taken that idea and applied it to her blushing problem. Only, the world (and her face) refused to cooperate.
What works in one area fails in others.
Where Curtis was concerned, Vere had studied, researched, and followed all the rules. But when he was near, she couldn’t shake her textbook cases of chronic shyness and social anxiety.
She knew these terms, because she’d looked herself up hundreds of times, searching for a cure that would help her. She’d tried textbooks and any psychology websites she could find.
For the most part, Vere had discovered she was a classic case.
A person who was simply shy and who turned red because of it. Not a major thing.
Vere had also pinpointed her shyness would ramp into what was called social anxiety when she was around boys—guys—she didn’t know very well. Also totally normal for her age. And, a condition that calmed down once she knew the guys better.
Again, all normal.
But what hit outside normal was how Vere’s social anxiety spiked to uncontrollable levels when she thought she had a crush on a guy.
Enter Curtis Wishford. Her forever crush.
The only guy Vere had ever cared about.
As though her crush could read her thoughts, Curtis’s shouting laugh fired off somewhere behind her. In response, Vere’s cheeks fired off the burning-red feeling all over again.
Stupid. Dumb. Crush.
She slouched into her lab stool as low as possible, turning away even more while she worked to cool down her red-hot ear tips in this two thousand degree room.
She would only have to survive forty minutes of this pain and then she could escape.
Please…please…let him NOT see me.
Before the crush, Vere, Curtis, Charlie and Jenna used to be inseparable. They were all neighbors. Their parents had been close friends before any of them had been born.
That meant there were whole photo books filled with photos of them all drooling at each other while in diapers.
From there, they’d moved on to sword fights, mud pies, dressing up in costumes, army battles, decorated hundreds of cookies, attended birthday parties, hung at the neighborhood pool and walked to school together on the first day—all that.
Every. Single. Year.
But all normal hanging out, normal conversations between Vere and Curtis had completely ended in middle school.
Died. Double died. In front of everyone.
This was thanks to two things:
1. Seventh grade and 2. The Incident.
Seventh grade was when Vere had decided that she had a real live crush on Curtis Wishford. In her classic style, she’d taken her crush to her usual high level of dedicated excitement and commitment. Her ‘hard work always pays off’ thing was out of control back then.
Worse, she’d upgraded her crush to include visions of grandeur. (A term she’d also learned off the online psychology websites.) People who did that were usually also flagged as crazy.
But everyone is crazy in seventh grade.
At the ancient age of twelve, Vere decided she was in love with Curtis. Major, huge, obsessive, seventh-grade mega-love.
She’d written his name on her binders, had countless journals filled with pages and pages of things like: Gwenivere Juliet Wishford, or Vere Juliet Wishford, or Mrs. Vere Wishford.
She’d made up the names of their kids (Claire and Mara).Planned their entire future lives, including their matching careers as world famous, cat and dog rescuing veterinarians.
Ugh. Middle school madness.
Vere felt the back of her neck heat up all over again, remembering how insane she’d been those years.
The evidence of those notebooks had been burned in the family fireplace on a sleep-over. A night spent bawling, because of thing number two. The famous ‘incident’.
Jenna still called it: The Incident That Can Not be Named.
As in, Vere’s personal Voldemort.
She and Charlie called it one, sad, out of control moment that no one would let her forget. If she had advice to pass on to other middle school girls heading for that ‘first love’, she’d say straight up: don’t knock out the boy you love in front of everyone —and their parents.
Ever since that day, her shyness around Curtis had grown steadily worse. The guy was also always around. Almost as inescapable as the snickers and snide comments that had followed Vere year after year.
Because of Charlie, Curtis was always in her very own house.
She had become so epic with her public blush-and-stutter tricks, no other boys seemed to look twice at her.
Maybe it was because she simply steered clear of them.
Which is just fine. Other boys don’t interest me.
I’m still in love with Curtis Wishford, so there!And it’s going well. Curtis and I…oh yeah…very well…
Vere put her head on her arms, trying to see if she could catch a glimpse of his feet under the tables. She had become a master at avoiding Curtis while admiring him from afar.
If he came over to hang out with Charlie, Vere could be found hiding in her room. Feeling queasy.
Queasy, but desperately gluing her ear to the door while listening for the sounds of Curtis’s voice to float up from the basement.
Vere had also perfected peeking through curtain cracks so she could watch Curtis walk up the front steps, stare at his truck engine or toss the football around the yard.
If they were in the kitchen or doing homework at the dining room table, she could listen to his voice perfectly by sitting on the stair landing, pretending to read on the window seat.
Curtis had the most beautiful baritone. Plus a loud, travelling laugh that separated him from all of Charlie’s other friends.
Curtis couldn’t be beat.
Not in her house vents, anyhow. And not in her heart. Ever.
She had no problem admitting her situation made her pathetic. And yes, fine. She’d reached some serious low points of possible stalking where Curtis was concerned.
But is it really stalking if the guy comes over to my house?
Hangs out in my front yard? Lounges around in my basement, eats dinner with my family, at my table?
I think not.
It wasn’t like Vere had plans to lurk around his locker. Nor did she drive by his house or deliberately try to be face-to-face with her crush like other girls did with theirs.
After the incident, Curtis had made things easy on her.
He’d mastered the art of politely ignoring his best friend’s little sister. He was never rude or harsh—just painfully and completely distant. There was also the part where the guy always had a fresh (swapped out like every two months) girlfriend by his side.
Yeah…that helps. Ouch. Helps so much.
At least he’s single this week. That’s something.
She sighed, dangling her foot under her chair, wishing she could at least hear his voice one more time above the increasing noise in the room.
Vere had been pretty good at keeping her feelings hidden for all these years—behind her constantly flaming cheeks, that is.
Only Jenna and Charlie knew her deepest secrets about her crush. How crippling her shyness and anxiety around Curtis had become. How much she simply longed for the guy to drink some magic forgetting potion and fall in love with her right back.
Vere didn’t care. The cards she’d been dealt in seventh grade had been played very badly by her. And in front of too many people. All she had left was awkwardness and her incurable crush. At least her chronic blushing meant she wasn’t dead.
It also meant she was still in love with the cutest boy in the whole school. The feeling of being in love was better than everything else, anyhow.
Even if he didn’t feel the same, no one could take away how she felt inside. Maybe, when Curtis went to college next year, her blushing would finally stop. But Vere secretly hoped she’d still get to have a few butterflies hanging around her heart when she thought about him.
Stupid, dumb crush.
3: black italian coffee
The limo’s passenger door swung open before the chauffeur could make it around the side, startling both Hunter and Barry.
His mother, a blur of lavender silk, shopping bags, and clicking heels barreled toward them.
“Hunter…oh my. You’ve lost a ton of weight. Oh, and that long hair…hmm. Might be a good thing.” She looked him up and down but kept her distance as though he were contagious.
“That’s all you can say to me? Really? Really?” Hunter tried to meet her gaze, but her eyes seemed glued to his shoes.
“You’ve got the outfit on perfectly.” She nodded.
Hunter tensed as he waited, wondering what her next line would be—hell—hoping for any next line.
As usual, she didn’t engage.
Without another word, she turned her wide, blue-laser eyes on Barry. “Barry. Darling,” she started.
Blink. Blink. Blink.
No one could resist his mother when she made the blinky-blinky face.
“I need a bathroom—one with a sink. What I need to do to Hunter could get messy.”
Barry’s expression changed from loyal golden retriever to nervous Yorkie. “I don’t have much staff at this hour. How messy?”
Hunter’s mom dug deep into a plastic bag marked SuperDrug Center. She pulled out a square, gold-foiled box with a head-shot of a beautiful woman on it and tossed it to Hunter, still not meeting his gaze.
Hunter read the gleaming gold words on the top of the box aloud: “Venus Permanent Hair Color: Black Italian Coffee. What the…?”
His mother had moved closer to Barry as though she were afraid Hunter might flip out. But Hunter wasn’t going to engage either. Not this time. Not ever again.
Two could play her game.
When Hunter’s obvious lack of response made the air thick and awkward between them, Hunter’s mom nodded nervously toward the box. With an odd catch in her voice, she finally spoke again to Barry, “Hunter’s never had dark hair before. He’s got to make it through the flight to Denver without getting spotted. We—Martin and I—” She paused, finally looking at Hunter’s face before continuing, “We’ve modified our plan.”
“In what way?” Barry asked.
“Hunter has to be in disguise. Starting now—well—at the airport, that is. Then he’s going to keep his disguise while in Colorado. We’re going to ‘unmake’ him. We’ve worked hard to ensure the press doesn’t find out where Hunter’s been, or where he’s going. What do you think?”
“Disguise? Good.Great!” Barry blinked at his mom as though he’d been hypnotized again. “It makes a lot of sense. Without press sniffing around, Hunter could have a chance to rest so much more. I love the idea.”
Hunter blinked at them both, feeling as though the concrete under his feet had just fallen away, but managed to keep his face straight and his mouth shut.
Holding his face completely impassive, Hunter glanced at his mom and realized he shouldn’t have bothered.
Her poker face was as good as his. She was dead-on mirroring his placid, calm expression.
Hell, she’d taught it to him after his real father had passed away when he was six years old and it had been up to him to support them.
“Never let them see you’re upset, Hunter. No matter what, keep your face very straight,” she used to say back when he was ten and had his first jobs working commercials. “You’ll get fired for even the slightest tantrum. We can’t afford it. We’d have to move back to the apartment. Do you understand, Hunter? Now that we don’t have Daddy anymore, it’s only you and me. Do you understand how serious this is?”
Hunter tried to crack her on a stare-down.
She didn’t even blink.
He’d inherited her same eyes, same pale skin with contrasting dark eyebrows and her same photogenic face. But unlike Hunter’s unruly hair, his mom wore her white-blond mane ironed straight and far below her shoulders. Right now, her zapping blue eyes made her appear every inch an evil ice queen.
One who’d never heard the word no from anyone. And one that would not budge even if Hunter broke down and bawled.
Which he was not going to do. Ever. Not to her.
Hunter had thought he’d get to apologize, or at least she’d give him the chance to say something. But now, analyzing the grim determination on his mom’s face, he realized trying to get her to change her mind was futile.
This was a done deal.
Her voice rocketed through is head: Do you understand how serious this is?
Hunter looked away. He got it. He understood.
He let out a long breath of air and pulled in another. This situation was his fault. He’d really messed up. Taken things between him and his mom way, too far.
And then he’d taken them further.
Done some really stupid, scary stuff Even scared himself.
He pulled his hands deep into his sleeve cuffs.
His mom was obviously still pissed off. And he was not about to whine and cry, or ask her how much time would it take for her to forgive him. This made things pretty even, because Hunter couldn’t imagine forgiving her for sending him away. With dyed hair.
“Let’s get this going, then. Shall we?” she urged, when Hunter still wouldn’t—couldn’t—respond.
His head had started to pound. He wasn’t able to breathe because his lungs had turned to pure lead. He pulled at the neck of his white hoodie. The thing was choking the hell out of him.
His mom was already up the marble steps. The sliding hospital doors swooshed and held open, awaiting her entrance.
“I’m going to need some towels,” she said to Barry, who’d followed her up the steps like a devoted puppy.
Hunter didn’t blame the guy for switching sides.
His mom had serious magic. Brainwashed people with the blue blinks. Apparently, people said Hunter could to it, too. But he didn’t want to. He hated people who manipulated others like his mom did.
He just wanted to be left alone. Mostly…
Hunter turned the box of hair color over in his hands. It was curiously heavy. Its mysterious, loose contents shifting and bumping inside.
Did Martin really agree to this? Why?
It was a big deal to mess with the GuardeRobe branding. They’d need some sort of approval from corporate. Hunter was the token blond kid in the band.
You can’t just un-blond the blond kid! Can you?
Plus, this junk was from a drugstore! Shouldn’t his stylist be involved? Hunter zoned out like he always did when he was stressed. The brown-eyed girl on the box seemed to stare directly back at him.
She looked so alive. Friendly. Like someone he could talk to.
Black Italian Coffee…Black Italian Coffee…it’s a nice color.
Does the color refer to the coffee beans or to the brewed drink?
Either way, it’s dark as hell…almost black compared to blond…
The buzzing sound from the broken sign returned and filled his whole head. His body grew hot and shaky, and Hunter thought he might self-combust.
Black Italian Coffee. Colorado. This is all so messed up…
His legs started in automatic response to the sound of his mom’s voice. He moved up the steps, but his gaze remained riveted on the model. Her little half-smile…the kind, deep brown eyes.
He imagined her encouraging expression was just for him.
You can do this. You can.
It’s just like another costume change. You’ve had billions of those.
No big deal.
“Hurry up. That takes time to process and I refuse to be late to the airport.”
4: sexy chip eaters
Jenna let out a long, dreamy sigh. Her eyes were still locked over Vere’s shoulder. “How is it possible our whole football team is this hot? Even Charlie looked all sizzle this morning. Too bad he’s not in here.”
Vere sucked in a huge breath and elbowed Jenna’s arm. “OMG. Don’t joke about my brother. Makes me puke.”
Jenna laughed. “You know how I adore the jock look. Any boy in any uniform works.” She shrugged. “In the right light it even works for your brother.”
“Ew. Ew, and EW.”
Jenna laughed. “Let’s go back to staring at your Curtis. I swear the guy took hot vitamins this morning and they really worked.”
“Shut up! Someone’s going to hear you. And he’s not my anything. Not even close.” Vere choked on a giggle.
“Well, today he’s also in a brand new football jersey. Mmm. Mmm. Mmm. Number seven. As in, ‘lucky number seven’. And he is your Curtis. A little bit, anyhow. He just doesn’t know it. That’s why he’s so lucky.”
Vere’s phone vibrated on the desk again.
VERE. DID YOU GET MY LAST TEXT? THIS IS IMPORTANT. ACKNOWLEDGE YOU WILL COME STRAIGHT HOME.
The phone rapid-buzzed again: YOO-HOO.
And again: VERE. THIS PROJECT IS SERIOUS.
Vere text-yelled back: OK. GOT IT. STOP TEXTING ME AT SCHOOL. I DON’T WANT TROUBLE.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen yoo-hoo on a text screen.” Jenna propped her fake-glasses on her forehead. “Creepy. But I think I’m going use it. She better let me go to the cabin for Labor Day in two weeks. Can I? Will I? Me? Choose me.”
“Of course. That’s a given. You’ve never missed it since birth.”
“Tell that to your mom. She’s all but forgotten about me,” Jenna complained, re-reading Vere’s texts. “She sounds positively mental. I can’t wait for you to tell me about the project.”
“Maybe I’ll die from heat exhaustion before I ever have to find out.”
“Ohmywow. Maybe we’re already dead. Maybe we’re in heaven.” A wide grin of admiration spread across Jenna’s face as she was distracted again by the football guys. “How can boys make eating chips look like a slow-motion commercial of crunching-perfection? I wish I were brave enough to film this on my iPhone. Instant replay…would be so good.”
“That’s cruel and you know it. Or…is it worth it to look?” Vere swallowed.
“Possibly. Curtis shared the bag. Now they’re ALL sexy-chip-eaters. This is an awesome day. I feel like I’m dreaming this! Which one should I be in love with this year? Can I have a crush on them all?”
“Stop. You know I can’t look. You also know you’d die if any of those football guys noticed you.”
Vere felt her own cheeks flush.
Jenna’s expression turned goofy. “Do you think we’ll be asked to prom this year? I mean senior prom?”
“Can you even imagine?” Vere smothered another giggle.
“If so…I’m having a prom party. Inviting the whole football team, and serving only chips. Corn, potato—heck—even pretzels! Football guys eating all kinds of chips, in tuxedos, at a party. It’s my new fantasy. This is so perfect. Vere, it’s totally worth it. Turn. LOOK!”
Vere turned, locating Curtis immediately in the middle of the laughing, relaxed group of guys draped in the school’s colors: orange and black.
Yep. Perfect. Number seven…and…sigh.
“Someone should give them all an A+ for chewing,” Vere whispered.
Everything flipped to one of Vere’s slow motion, imaginary moments.
How could it not?
With his sun-blond, curly hair, his angled cheekbones. God…and his square shoulders, square chin, square forehead. Ahh-boy-beauty.
And Jenna was right about the new jerseys. So cute.
So handsome. Again. Still. Always.
The guy was perfect.
Perfect torture. UGH.
And yep, insert cheeks of flame because I can’t erase the image of me twirling around and around in Curtis’s arms as his future prom date.
“Wow,” Vere whispered again when the butterflies surging in her throat allowed more words to escape. “Love it when he doesn’t shave. He’s got that manly, sandpaper hotness all over his chin today. He looks kind of like a biker dude and a jock combined. You know? All good-boy-bad-boy…and…”
And Curtis is a perfect dancer. No grinding. He’s pulled me close. Face-to-face. So he can run his cheek against my ear. He whispers how much he loves my dress. And me…
Then, he brushes a soft kiss on my lips.
I rest my head against his wide, warm shoulder. His arms wrap me tighter, and I feel safe…so happy. We dance and dance under the low lights until…
Jenna shoved her face into Vere’s line of vision.
“Intervention starts now. Don’t go closer to the light, little moth. You’ll get burned. I shouldn’t have told you to look. I’m the worst friend. I suck. HE SUCKS. Look at me, Vere, not at him. Okay? Come on. Train those big, brown peepers over here. On me. Right here.” She snapped her fingers and waved her hands in front of Vere’s face.
“No. He and I could still happen. Maybe,” Vere muttered, tearing her gaze away from Curtis. But she couldn’t stop imagining how it might feel to have his arms around her.
“Did I mention that I suck as a friend yet? I’m so sorry. We need to find another boy for you to have a crush on this year. We will.”
As the butterflies and dreams floated away, Vere’s heart felt as though it were made of wet clay. “I don’t want another crush. This one has almost killed me.” Fully dejected now, Vere met Jenna’s gaze. “Can you imagine, going to Senior Prom with him? It would be so awesome. If only I could.”
“No. It’s impossible dreaming. Reality check starts now. School dances are not for us. Especially prom. Not unless we both win one of those makeover contests where we become suddenly fabulous. Or, unless your brother ticks off your mom to the point where he’s forced to take us as his dates, that is.” Jenna scrunched her forehead thoughtfully. “Which might not be such a bad idea. Charlie could use some chaperones, don’t you think?”
“What? Jenna, that’s sick. Prom with my brother?” Vere glared into her friend’s bright, green eyes.
Jenna smiled, letting out a breath that sounded relieved. “That’s the girl I know. I knew that idea would have you snapping out of things. Almost lost you there.”
Vere rubbed her eyes with both hands. “Too late. I actually feel sick.”
“Sick from Curtis. You know it’s that. Forgive me for bringing him into focus?”
Vere nodded as her head started to spin. Every time she dreamed too much about Curtis this happened.
She needed a way to stop her crush. But how?
“You do look extra pale. Need some water? Air?” Jenna glanced around the room. “Why do they think starting school in the middle of August, with no air conditioning, in an all-glass school is a good idea? I should call news reporters about this.” She frowned at Vere’s outfit. “Why did you wear that huge hoodie?”
“It was cold this morning. And I’ve only got a thin undershirt on under here,” Vere moaned. “I can’t take it off.”
“No. I’m not the half-naked-at-school type. Give me your awesome shirt, and you walk around in your underwear. I swear, Jenna, my head is actually spinning in the opposite direction of the rest of my body.”
Vere sighed and laid her head on her hands, wishing for a breeze to blow through the long row of open windows. Not one branch, not one needle moved on the pine trees shading their lunch quad outside. Just looking at the motionless trees made her body temperature jump another ten degrees.
Jenna was right. The hoodie had to come off.
Because if it didn’t, she’d pass out in front of everyone. She’d get wheeled out of here on a stretcher.
And wouldn’t that be the perfect way for me, the infamous Vere Roth, to begin my junior year?