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Chapter 1

 

       Coastal party, alcoholic coma, repeat.

       It took five days and seven pre-game lattes to realize this was the practiced, yet unspoken mantra of the season for every rich kid here in Corona Del Mar who didn’t spend their summer abroad. 

      Today being party day means tomorrow’s schedule is already pencilled in, and it will be an eventful ‘do nothing but rot in front of a giant television while feeding each other pain pills and swearing to never drink again.’ And let’s not forget the late-night dinner that is guaranteed to follow, which will more than likely end with someone screaming at their boyfriend for flirting with the waitress of the hour. Poor waitresses.

      

       And my parents said life would be less predictable here.

     

       I wonder if they can feel how hard my eye roll is from across the globe? 

 

      No matter how much they like to pretend they’re not teetering at the tip of the dreaded hill every bad birthday card teases past the age of twenty-nine, they have no idea what being on the edge of eighteen looks like.

 

      They’re clueless, and to be honest, they like it that way. As if the dominating defense duo of Filano Law would bother themselves with meaningless matters such as wannabe boyfriends and zany-addicted daughters. Not that this is me acknowledging either of those issues, but are they calling me every night to make sure their ticket is well-punched and properly publicized? That’s a hard no. 

 

      I’m not sure what’s worse, that they don’t check-in or the fact they are aware they don’t have to. 

 

     Thou shall not disappoint thy parents; words equivalent to downright dullness if you ask my peers, but I don’t share their sentiment and they don’t follow it. 

 

      Am I good at pissing my parents off? Yes, but where they do as they wish and bet on forgiveness later, I tread carefully at the start. Like an acrobat on a tightrope, I balance like a pro, never allowing myself to fall over the dreaded ‘did you hear about the Filano’s daughter line

 

     My sister, on the other hand, leaps without looking, unconcerned with the mess she makes on her way down. 

 

     If it were up to my parents, they’d have married her off to the former district attorney back in Naples when they learned he was asking questions they couldn’t afford him to find the answers to, the whole ‘keep your enemies close’ and all that. 

 

     Ambitious, young women marry seasoned, older men, my mother’s words echo in my ears.

I think she adapted such an idea after stepping into what, in many ways, was a man’s world. Not that it stopped her. 

 

     She’s the reigning queen and king of her profession.  

 

     My sister, of course, couldn’t stomach my mother’s desires and took things into her own hands by sleeping with the D.A.’s son instead. And then she told him about it. It was a shitshow, cost them a fortune to rectify, but at the end of the day, it was done.

 

      As for me, I find a contractual agreement airtight, and maybe this is because I don’t want the things my sister does, but even if I did, it wouldn’t matter. 

 

     My family requires something of me, and so they shall receive.

 

     Are they assholes, far from a long hug when faced with a heavy dose of teenage ‘the sky is falling’? Oh, hell yeah, but again ... dominant defense attorneys. They are built to be tough and take no shit. Highly respected and hardworking. They’ve spent my whole life building what we have, and the result is right in front of me—a hundred-eighty degree view of the Pacific Ocean. I’m sure the paycheck my mother received after my bio-dad’s suicide gave her a nice cushion, but nobody dares to say so out loud. 

 

     Regardless, it’s my job as a Filano to respect, protect, and secure a future for our name. So I will, the bonus is I get to avoid the mess people face between.

 

     It’s a win all around. 

 

    “Classic Jameson.”

 

     I snap out of my thoughts, turning to lean my back against the infinity pool’s edge and face my friend. 

 

     “Do you even realize how every party you manage to find the single spot nobody occupies and claim it as your own?” She smiles, offering me one of the two full champagne flutes she carries. “And always with empty hands.” Her tone is teasing, and she holds her glass out, tapping its edge to mine. “Now drink up. You are officially two bottles behind.”

   

     I take a small sip, spinning when she approaches the edge and peers out at the endless darkness the ocean before us provides. 

   

     “Thank god for pool heaters, right?” She dips lower to keep the breeze from hitting her wet skin. 

 

      “Right. Imagine the shrinkage in the package Jules would be getting served right about now without it.”

 

       We both sneak peeks to the far corner of the pool.

 

      Jules and her man are tucked away, pretending none of us realize they’re secretly grinding under the stone waterfall when everyone knows the truth.

 

      Cali and I look to each other and she giggles. 

 

     “What a travesty that would be.” She rolls her eyes. “Speaking of travesty, why are you not capitalizing on the open seat on Gentry’s lap?”

 

      “Which Gentry would you be referring to?” I glance her way.

 

      Cali bounces in the water. “I told Jules his brother was checking you out the other night! So spill.”

 

      Her face lights up. “Did you bite?”

 

      My nose scrunches slightly. “He’s a little extra for my taste.”

     

      “Yeah, killing the music and gathering everyone into the gym for a dead-lift challenge in the middle of a party was pretty narcissistic of them.”

   

      “You think?”

 

       She laughs. “Still, the youngest Gentry wouldn’t be a bad way to pass the time. Gives you someone to fall back on for school events.”

 

     I press my lips together, tipping my glass toward her, entertaining the idea. “You might be right.”

 

     “Of course, I’m right.” She downs her drink and looks at me expectantly. I don’t inhale mine like she did, but I do follow her out of the water.

 

     We slip our robes over our bodies and step into the pool house so she can get her refill, but as we approach the long table, her skinny fingers latch on to my forearm, squeezing. 

 

      “Holy shit, they’re back. And here.” Her brows furrow. “When did they get here?”

 

      I spin to look, but her hands shoot up, catching my face and holding it still. 

 

      “Just scream we’re talking about them, why don’t you!” she hisses.

 

      Humor tugs at my lips as I pull her hands away. “How am I supposed to offer an answer if I can’t see who you’re talking about?”

 

      “You don’t know them. They’ve been gone all summer.” She subconsciously begins adjusting her stance—a little taller, a tad straighter, more staged than real. 

 

      “Maybe I do. I did live here all through elementary school.”

 

       “And they moved here in seventh grade, or at least two of them did. I think the other was here for sixth, but he was homeschooled or something.” She swipes her hand in the air, deeming the details insignificant.

 

      Her voice lowers even more. “Remember those guys I told you about, the ones who—” When I shift, she cuts off her words with a panicked frown. “What are you doing?”

 

      I step around the long, tall table so that I’m now facing her and able to snap my eyes around the room when I’m good and ready to do so.  

 

      She flicks her eyes to the ceiling.

 

      “You were saying?”

 

       “Stealth, girl. Stealth.” She pushes her hair over her shoulder and keeps going. “So, the story I told you about the guys who stole Ken Garrets parents’ safe at the end-of-the-year party—”

 

     “Says you.”

 

      “They were the only ones who showed up uninvited. Everyone else that was there had been there before, minus them, and one even screwed Ken’s girlfriend earlier that week.” She sips her drink with sass. “Ken kept her sorry ass, but still. It happened.”

 

      “That’s hardly motive to lift a safe.”

 

      “Ugh.” She sets her drink down beside her. “You are such a lawyer’s daughter.” 

 

      I roll my eyes. “If you’re worried about them stealing, tell them to kick rocks.”

 

      “And then those rocks end up through the side of the pool and over the fucking cliff everyone in it goes.” 

 

      Her dramatic spat has me pinching my lips as not to laugh at her. 

 

     She leans forward, speaking in an unexpectedly serious tone. “The safe issue was the last thing that happened, not the only. It’s always something with them. They’re psychotic. Unpredictable. Someone always gets fucked when they’re around, figuratively and, well, literally.” She takes a long drink. 

       I find myself trying to get closer, the need for some examples suddenly high, but before I can ask, or stop myself, my eyes snap over her shoulder, landing directly on the unfamiliar view not ten feet away.

       Minus my mandatory ‘hook the hunk’ exploits, I’ve spent the last two and a half months with the same group of people. Every couple of nights, there were a solid five to ten newcomers, but it’s at the point now where those who were gone for the summer have returned, so I’ve seen every face at least twice now.

 

        Had Cali not pointed out the strangers’ appearance tonight, I’d have spotted them eventually, and been fully aware this was the first party they graced with their presence. 

 

       And goddamn is grace not meant to be given.

 

      All freaking hail the trifecta of trouble straight ahead. 

 

      I start with the one on the end and slowly—very slowly—make my way along the others. 

 

      Hot, hot, and yep. Hotter

 

      No matter your flavor of choice, one is bound to hit your tastebuds just right. Probably linger along your tongue in favor of more. 

 

      I wonder if they’re too high in demand for ‘more’? 

 

      “Will you stop staring?!” Cali hides her lips against her glass.

 

        My gaze snaps to hers. “Girl, chill, they’re not paying any attention to us. They’re otherwise occupata.”
 

       “Occupied by who?” Her eyes narrow, her curiosity and impatience equally piqued.
 

        I lift a shoulder. “Guess you have to look to know for sure.” 

 

        Her frown tightens and it takes effort not to laugh. Cali puts her elbow on the tabletop, purposefully jerking and knocking a napkin to the floor so she has an excuse to glance behind her as if this isn’t her house and the right’s not completely hers.

      She straightens, repositioning herself in front of me with a full-on stank face. 

 

      “Poor taste must be contagious,” she mutters under her breath. 

 

        Her annoyance has nothing to do with them and everything to do with the girl, I think her name is Sammie, who has placed herself in front of them. Two nights ago, we sat back while little Miss Thang stuck her tongue down Cali’s ex’s throat. 

 

       “I don’t know, she’s kind of hot,” I tease and Cali flips me off. “So who are these pretty party crashers?”

 

       “Ransom Rossi, Arsen Agular, and Beretta Keller, but pretty isn’t the word I’d use.”

 

       We turn to Scott Gentry as he steps up beside me, his attempt at a careless expression lacking in finesse.

 

      “And what word would you use?”

 

       “Trash,” he says unapologetically. 

 

        I squint, tipping my head. “I’m pretty sure one of them is wearing fall Givenchy.”

 

       “I’m not talking money.” He shrugs. “But while you are, they don’t come from it. Those assholes are going nowhere quick. They’re hardly passing, couldn’t even make the grades enough to stay on the team. They’re future felons, one already spent a summer in juvenile hall. They’re around fucking things up and pretending they don’t wish they were more like us, but then show for our parties and fuck with girls they have no business with. They’re wasted air around this place, doing who knows what to afford to stick around. I don’t know why anyone wastes their time with them.”

 

       “Maybe we should ask Ken’s girlfriend?” I joke.

 

        Cali laughs, choking on her drink. 

 

        He cuts her a quick glare. “Like I said, they fuck with girls they have no business with, playing their stupid games.”

 

       I keep my eyes on Scott. 

 

      So, he hates that they don’t care to be in the cool kids’ club. Noted.

 

       I shift, positioning myself in front of him and a smirk hints at the corner of his lips. He takes my move as invitation to slip closer, his drunken gaze falling to the opening of my robe as if he has plans to unravel it.

 

       As if he expects I’ll allow him to. 

 

       Scott Gentry is the picture of privilege.

 

      “What games?”

 

        His brows furrow slightly, but he shrugs. “People call it ‘blackout.’”

 

       “Blackout?”

 

       “They show up, the power goes out. Blackout,” he explains, half in the conversation, half perving on me, his tongue unabashedly gliding along his lips for all to see, then his eyes come back to mine.

 

       “The gist, the lights go out and shit happens but it’s not every time. Sometimes it’s nothing more than a need to be remembered upon exit and they get their little fifteen minutes where they matter.”

 

       Displeasure drips from his clipped tone. “Other times they fight, snag a girl to hook up—”

 

      “Steal,” Cali interrupts, full of sass, and pops an overly embellished brow.

 

       I bug my eyes at her playfully.

 

       “One time, the power didn’t even come back on.” Jules skips up, snagging the bottle from Cali’s grasp. “A flame lit up the place instead.” 

 

       “A flame?”

 

        She smiles. “They literally lit Kay Kerr’s parents’ prize Bonsai on fire, and Kay couldn’t even rat them out because she wasn’t supposed to be in town when it happened.” 

 

        My tongue slips between my teeth. “That’s a drag.”

 

       “Yep. Now let’s forget about the shadows in the back. Quit babysitting your drink, we went easy with champagne tonight.” She looks to my flute. “And you, my dear, are far too sober.”

 

       “All I know is, if they pull some shit tonight, make sure my casket’s amethyst and diamond encrusted.” Cali tops off her drink yet again. “We all know my mom will murder my ass if so much as a scarf is missing.” She tears away from the counter and heads into the den, leaving us to laugh at her expense. 

 

       The conversation shifts to the events of the last gathering, and we move along the groups. When everyone’s distracted enough, I break away once more, lowering myself onto the empty sofa near the open doors, and my bored-ass mind begins playing on an infinite loop, circling the party in search of some excitement that doesn’t involve a half-naked couple or a shattered bottle that’s slipped from a tipsy blonde’s fingers. 

 

      This place is exactly how I remember it. A tight-knit community who look down their noses at any and all who don’t fit the mold.

 

      Obsessive fathers and aggressive mothers pushing responsibilities and expectations onto their children one second, pretending we don’t exist the next. 

 

      It’s not something only myself and my sister deal with, but a standard across the board in communities like ours. 

 

      The extent of it depends on your parents’ position, and what they demand of you. 

 

      The Gentry boys, for example, they’re to be carbon copies of their father. The oldest is already an intern while Scott is expected to follow, go to an ivy league, and he will, as his father and grandfather did—his parents’ hefty donation will see to it. He’ll be frat house president, without a care, paying people off for assignments, and then take his place in his parents’ company when he’s done. 

Cali will sit like a waiting duck and take her pick of the litter and slip right into the socialite role her mother laid breadcrumbs for.

 

      Jules, I don’t even know. Her mom wants her to go to college, but she hates school, hates everything her mom wants her to do, period, it seems. Maybe she just hates her mom? 

 

      Either way, our lives are a series of Hallmark cards, written—and sold, if I want to look at my situation for what it is—by someone else, yet a perfect play-by-play of our reality, and that’s pathetic.

 

      Wash, rinse, repeat.

 

       Boring, boring, boring. 

 

       Again, another reason why I’m eager for this year to come and go, because why not get right into what follows? At least some of the scenery will be different. 

 

      A heavy sigh leaves me, and I continue my people watching, and with each cycle of the room, I pause a little longer on the three who stand out above the others.

   

      Maybe it’s because they’re the only ones who still have their clothes on, whereas everyone else dons a swimsuit, or perhaps it’s the lax way in which they dangle the long neck of their beer bottles I’ve yet to see them drink from, rather than swirling scotch in a glass that costs more than summer highlights with their pinkies half in the air. 

 

          It could be the hardened glare that’s yet to leave the one with the deep mahogany shaded, tight cropped cut, even if it remains directed toward his drink.

 

        It might even be the backward cap on the dark-haired guy, and the fact he keeps adjusting it, a full side smile on his flirty face, one that falls flat the moment he looks away from his friends. 

Of course, not to be counted out is the ominous bronzy brunette with bone structure that could rival Colton Haynes on his worst day and how his sharp gaze continues to flick along the corners of the room. If I had to bet, I’d say he’s searching for nothing, but awareness is key when hearsay has the potential to bury you alive. 

 

        Ah, the joys of Orange County.

 

        A grin pulls at my lips at the refreshing sight before me. 

 

       The ripple in the rich little haven that is Corona Del Mar.

 

       No shorts that hit above the knee, or open, wind-blown cotton shirts. No Loewe deck, yacht club must-have slip-ons or gleam of overused tanning lotion. 

No, all three are wearing solid black, shoes included, giving you no insight as to the personalities within, assuming they’re not as hardened as their expressions lead you to believe. And I was right, I do spot a Givenchy coat.

 

       I’m far from surprised at how many girls have gravitated toward the three, a couple guys too, the need to stay with their happy endings of the night extreme, and even as these ‘blackout’ boys make their way from one space to the next, the others follow. Funny, though, while they stay within a few feet of the trio, they don’t approach them. 

 

      Maybe they’re hoping they’ll be the ones approached?

 

      I could almost laugh.

 

      These guys must know they beam as bright as a knockoff in a country club, but perhaps that’s how they want it?

 

       Cali says they’re crazy, yet these girls are practically foaming at the mouth for a split second of acknowledgment, their jerky movements and pursed lips telling the tale of how they’ve yet to receive their wish.

 

      Oh how the entitled hate to be ignored. 

 

       I chuckle to myself at the hypocrisy of it all. How those deep inside this world, the ones who live for it, feign disgust, annoyance or irritation. Put off the whole ‘we’re the only one in the room’ vibe, when really, every move they make is for the benefit of those they hope are watching. It’s a comical sight and playing out right in front of me right this second. 

 

       The age-old truth behind their masks, the one the fathers in our world likely hate the most but can’t deny.

 

       Every spoiled little rich girl craves herself a psycho, at least a time or ten. 

 

      “Girl, for real, you must have a death wish.”

 

       I shrug, turning to Jules. “I’m bored, what else is there to do but study new sights instead of the same ones we’ve seen for the last month?”

 

         “Boredom is what ends you, got it,” she jokes, taking the seat beside me. “You, my friend, are going to get murdered in your sleep.”

 

          Little does she know they haven’t so much as glanced my way all night. My game of Susie Stalker is safe and sound.

 

         “And you are going to get pregnant if you keep hopping on your man in the water,” I deflect, doing as she prefers and switch the conversation so it’s about her.

 

         She laughs into the cooled air above us. “Honey, I’m all for it. That boy gets me pregnant, I’ll be set for life. Besides, I love him, so win-win.”

 

         I shake my head, forcing a small smile, knowing she’s dead serious. If you’re not deemed ivy league status early, you’re a token your family will later cash in on. This is how it goes for a lot of us trust fund girls. Minus the love. 

     

        Love is not something anyone should chase in our world. 

 

        Convenience breeds confidence and keeps the daily dosage down. Love creates jealousy and doubt and mental instability. 

 

            Love kills. 

 

            The two of us look up when Cali walks over, officially swaying on her feet. “I’m starved. Who wants to help me order—”

 

           The lights go out.

 

         “Oh shit,” Cali hisses.

 

          People yell in drunken numbness, some squeal and scream. 

 

          I roll my eyes, my fingers falling against the expensive leather at my sides, only to be pulled from it seconds later.

 

           I frown, yanking my arms back.

 

          “Jules, back—”

 

          Something is slapped over my mouth as my hands are bound together. 

 

          What the hell?

 

          A cloth is thrown over my head next, the soft fabric forming to my nose as my breaths quicken.

I kick, but I’m barefoot. I attempt to shout, but to no avail, and then I’m lifted into the air, not by one set of hands, but several.

 

           I claw and scratch the muscles along the arm in reach, flexing as I do. When the cool night’s wind stings my skin, alerting me I’m no longer in the house, I wiggle every inch of my body in an attempt to set myself free, but all I get is a firmer grip on my upper thighs. My muscles clench beneath the rough palm, and a dark chuckle wafts over my chest.

 

           I squeeze my lids shut, a knot forming in my throat as my Barocco robe is torn from my arms, leaving me in nothing but a triangle top swimsuit and bottoms a decent parent would slay their daughter for wearing at a party—a gift from my mother.

 

           All I can think is I’m about to be raped, murdered, or kidnapped.

 

          The air around me grows chillier, my pulse kicks higher, and I’m five seconds from confessing all my sins. 

 

         Suddenly I’m dropped into a pile of sand, and not two seconds later, a wave threatens to carry me out to sea. 

 

            I push my palms into the thick, soft sand and drag myself to my feet before the water steals it from beneath me, running up and out as far as I can, only to trip over something, slamming onto the sand once more. 

 

            My chest rises and falls rapidly, and I wait for the assault. 

 

            For hands to bound around my neck or hips. 

 

            For something far worse I may never want to wake up from.

 

            But I get nothing. 

 

            The weep of the night’s waves echoes around me, not a hint of another’s presence with it.

 

            With shaky fingers, I slowly reach up, and once I have the covering in my grip, quickly tear it from my head. 

 

            I blink several times for my eyes to readjust, swiveling my body around in the damp sand to find I’m completely alone, nothing but the hint of taillights in the distance. The panic dwindles, my eyes snapping to my hands, and my shoulders fall. 

 

            A hair tie.

 

            My hair tie, stretched around my wrists.

 

            Pathetic, Jameson. 

 

           Teeth clenched, I angrily tear the tape from my mouth, surprised when it too slips off nice and easy, leaving behind a bit of a greasy residue. 

 

          With a heavy glare, I whip around, glaring up at the sea cliff, and what do you know, the power suddenly kicks back on in Cali’s house, the pool, once again, illuminated with LED lights, the music reaching my ears in the barest of tones. 

 

          A growl escapes me as I wrap my arms around myself, the coastal breeze freezing my saltwater covered ass, and start back up the hill. The wind chooses to blow a little with my every step taken, and the tape I tossed to the side rolls up, covering the back of my ankle. 

 

         I kick the thing away, only to pause when the gleam of the ocean hits it just right.

 

         My head tips slightly and I take a quick glance around before bending to pick it up. I shake off the excess sand and drag it closer, squinting at the floppy piece of shit. 

 

        Right across the front, written in big, bold, and, of course, red letters are two words that probably shouldn’t make me laugh, but one flies from me before I can stop it.

 

       With a shake of my head, I crumple their little love note in my palm and toss it in the bonfire on my way back to Cali’s house. 

     

        Inside, it’s as if nothing happened and nobody realized I was gone. They’re drinking and talking and laughing like normal. And there’s no point in making a scene or drawing attention to myself by calling everyone out on their lack of awareness, so I don’t.

 

         I’m the dumbass who let herself get dragged out of the party, carried down the hill, and tripped over a fucking log that Cali and I probably put there last night. 

 

       So, I pour myself that next round I was trying to avoid and bring the sweet treat of a drink to my lips. As I scan the room, I’m fully aware the three who popped in late were the first to leave.

 

        With me dangling from their hazardous hands.

 

        I scoff, watching the bubbles fight their way to the top of my glass, the words those guys felt the need to feed me dry on my tongue.  

 

       It’s ironic to serve me with a tip that plays like a boomerang, only able to head in my direction if it initiated from theirs. Or vice versa—the ‘who leapt first’ is unimportant when two people end up at the bottom of the Pacific. All that matters is the key fact that led them there. They both jumped.

 

      To be aware I was staring means one thing and one thing only. 

 

      They were staring, too.