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FATE BOOK EXCERPT

Fate.
Such a simple word, isn’t it? But there’s nothing simple about it. Not for me, anyway. Not when it comes to this man. I have no idea who the hell he is, where he came from, or what he wants, but his dangerous vibe tells me I should run away and never look back.

But I can’t.

Because as much as he scares the hell out of me, his sinfully dark gaze and what it does to me is ten times more powerful.

And I know I want something I shouldn’t. I should want my sanity. I should want college and parties and this dream I’ve waited for my whole life. I should want to keep that promise I made myself back in high school to make something of my life.

But now I’m looking at him, his powerful body, his predatory gaze, his sinfully shaped lips, and I know I’ll never be able to walk away. So I simply keep lying to myself about there being a reason for all this. I simply tell myself it must be fate.

CHAPTER ONE

Monday.

“This is your day, Dakota. Yours. And he will notice you,” I said, repeating my corny affirmation as I gazed confidently into the bathroom mirror and inspected my smooth, red hair one final time. Its glossy sheen was a definite improvement over my usual trademark frizz-fest. That straightening iron was worth every penny; although, it wasn’t my penny. My parents had invested a fortune in me lately, including professional teeth whitening after having my braces off, contacts to show off my big blues, a new wardrobe, and a shiny, red, super-fab eighteenth b-day gift.
Oh yeah. I am talking car. VW Bug. And it was all mine, mine, mine.

Now, if you’re thinking that this is the most spoiled, materialistic girl you’ve ever met, give me a chance to explain.

Ready? Here it is…

I’m a loser.

Big time.

What defines a loser? Well, I possess a certain lack of self-confidence and an undeniable social awkwardness, along with a love of all things geeky. Example: If I had to choose between watching Pretty Little Liars or a special about aliens and Egyptians, ninety-nine percent of the time I’d watch the aliens and DVR PLL. But I’d DVR the alien show, too, so I could watch it again. Ten times. I know, kind of geeky.
I’m also terminally unpopular—the bubonic plague’s got nothing on me—which is why I’ve had one and only one friend since the first grade: Mandy Giovanni. Lucky for Mandy, she’s not as socially revolting to the general population as I am, but that’s because Janice Jensen, head cheerleader, doesn’t consider her enemy numero uno. That privilege belongs to me. Why? Couldn’t tell you. But my hypothesis is that it’s like those chickens that gang up on the weakest hen and partake in communal pecking until loser chicken is left with zero feathers. Janice’s favorite way to remove my plumage is to tell me I smell like a dog because I work at an animal shelter on weekends, and, apparently, being kind to homeless pets is not cool in her book.

Yes. Janice and her cheer-posse are such peckers. Yes. I mean it both ways.

So that’s me. Loser chicken.

Well, I used to be, anyway. Because today, after the weeklong spring break, I would return to school as the new me. Eighteen, flat hair, and confident. All in preparation for an even bigger event: graduation. I absolutely couldn’t wait to enter that big, wonderful world waiting just for me. College, new friends, cute boys who might not throw up at the sight of me. Paradise. I’ve waited years for this.

But first, there is one thing I need to do: overcome my fear of Janice. I realize it sounds lame to someone sitting on the outside looking in, but imagine spending the rest of your life knowing that you let someone bully you, humiliate you, make you feel as big as a freckle on a flea’s ass, and you did nothing to stop her.

And I’m not talking about the occasional snide comment thrown my way. I’m talking having my panties stolen from my gym locker and hung on the flagpole while I swam laps, enduring a seven-day Tweet attack by “Jgirl,” who insisted I was once a boy, and food being thrown at me every day.

I was sick and tired of being the reigning Queen Loser of Los Pinos High, located in the glorious Bay Area burbs of sunny California, for four years in a row. And no way, no how was I about to end high school holding that title.

From this day forward, I would stand up for myself. I would conquer my fears. I would face Janice.

Hey. And who knew? Maybe even Dax, the yummiest guy in school, would notice me. A smile, eye contact, whatever. After pining from afar for four long years, nothing would make me happier or erase my self-imposed Queen Loser title faster.

Of course he’ll notice you. You’ve been doing your affirmations, right?

I took one last look in the mirror and smiled. “That’s right, Dakota. This is your day. This is your moment.” I turned and tripped over my purse on the floor.

CHAPTER TWO

Mandy waited in her usual spot under the overhang at the front of the school. Her big brown eyes lit up like disco balls when she saw me pull into the lot in my new red car. She immediately ran over to inspect it.

“Ohmygod, it’s amazing! And you look amazing,” she said as I slipped from the car. We hadn’t seen each other over spring break because she had gone to Florida to stay with her dad. I ended up at the Hamptons with my aunt, for the third year in a row, due to my dad being away on business and my mother having to work. At least this time I’d whittled the trip down to four days. I told my mom I’d rather be alone at home for my birthday than with her crazy sister.

“Wait. I love the outfit,” Mandy critiqued politely. “But I thought you said you got new clothes.”

“They’re new to me.”

She rolled her eyes. “If my parents gave me a thousand bucks to spend for my birthday, you wouldn’t see me going to a thrift store.”

It was true; I had a fetish for retro. Today I wore a 1950s-style pink blazer with three-quarter sleeves and giant pink buttons, along with a vintage Dior rhinestone necklace over a plain tee and jeans.

“I only spent half,” I explained. “I thought you could help me attack the mall after school?” I’d really only spent two hundred; three went to the animal shelter for food and new beds. The rest would go toward clothes for college.

Mandy clapped. “Yippy! That’s perfect because I got you a gift certificate for H&M!” She loved clothes, which was why she would be going to Parsons in the fall. I was happy for her, but New York City was really far away.

“I knew there was a reason you were my bestie.” She gave me a mock kiss on the cheek and trotted off to class.

“See you at lunch.” I grabbed my backpack and smiled. Check. First five minutes of school were a success. I hoped the next three hundred and eighty five minutes went just as well.

Everything will be great. The universe likes you. Dax will notice you. You are not afraid of Janice. Everything will be great. The universe likes you. Dax will notice you. You are not afraid of JanicexI wandered down the hallway, weaving between students. As my feet approached the homeroom doorway, I had to shift my focus from cheesy, unrealistic affirmations to panic attacks. As in, not having one. My trademark move involved stuttering and hyperventilating. But I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t go there.

Have faith, have faith, havex

My nemesis, Janice, was in my homeroom and had been every single, goddamned year. On a good day, she’d show up late and take a seat toward the front, leaving me alone. On a bad day, she’d arrive on time, sit next to me, and peck the feathers from my head. She was truly an evil, sadistic witch. With a b. Capitalized. Embossed on a hanky. With snot.

I stopped in the doorway and looked around, relieved beyond belief not to see Janice yet. I needed a few extra moments to call upon my Jedi bitch-repelling skills. There were several other faces I recognized, though. Greg, the tall swimmer guy. Karen, the all-around nice girl who seemed involved in every after-school activity possible—yearbook, fund-raising, dance committee, etc.—and a few other people who had no idea I existed, but didn’t pick on me either.

I slid into a seat toward the back and began biting my nails.

Mr. McGregor, my homeroom teacher, walked in, a vision of chaos: hair uncombed, khakis wrinkled, glasses slipping down his nose. He was my fave. He headed up the poetry club and theater. “Dakota,” he would always say, “I know high school can be rough, but trust me, things become infinitely better once you get out into the real world. Look at me—I’m happy and successful.”

I get that most people would say, “A high school English teacher? Successful? Eh-hem. Sure.” But he did what he loved, and it showed. So, yeah, he was successful. At least in my eyes.

“All right, everyone,” Mr. M addressed the class. “Welcome back from spring break—”

“Hey, y’all! Wassup?”

Jesus, no.

“Ms. Jensen, so nice of you to join us,” said Mr. M.

My heart and central nervous system protested violently at the sight of her. My hands began to sweat and tremble. The air in my lungs felt instantly polluted.

Maybe confronting Janice could wait for another day.

No! You have to do this, I told myself. You are officially a grown-up, and grown-ups don’t back down from bullies.

But as she took a seat toward the middle of the room, she flung her silky blond locks over her shoulder and flashed a wicked little smile my way. Whoever said an image is worth a thousand words was so right; that image just told me she wanted to make my life hell today. Show no fear, show no fear, you are Yodax

Then a tiny ray of sunlight burst through the dark, wet storm clouds hovering overhead.

DaxxI sighed as my mind took yummy-boy roll call. Light brown eyes trimmed with thick brown lashes.

Check.

Sandy-blond, shaggy hair, towel dried and left that way.

Check, check.

Heavenly broad shoulders, well-defined everything—arms, chest, legs—encased in low-slung faded jeans, and a snug tee?

MmmmxCheck.

My mind hit a speed bump and popped out of my little drool fest when I realized the only open seat was right behind me, and Dax was headed straight for it.

I straightened my spine and pasted on a smile as he walked by, smelling sweet and delicious andx

Nutty? I didn’t know Snickers made cologne. It totally worked for him.

While I inhaled deeply—guess I was kinda hungry—Dax took his seat, but no notice of me.

That’s okay, Dakota. It’s going to happen. It’s going to happenx

“Hey, Dakota,” I heard a voice whisper from behind.

I froze. Had I imagined it?

“Dakota?” he said again.

Yes. Not only had he spoken to me, but he also knew my name. Yes! Yes! Yes!

I slowly turned my head over my shoulder and tried not to tremble. Or drool. Or say something dorky. “What’s up?” Nailed it!

His brown eyes were even more magnificent up close.

“Do you have a pen? I forgot mine,” he whispered.

Pen. He wants a pen.

“Sure.” I pulled one from the front pocket of my backpack and handed it over. And then it happened. He smiled at me. Actually smiled. Even his little dimples made an appearance.

Freeze image in brain. Die happy now. I felt no shame—zero—admitting that I took this as an omen from the universe. Change was indeed comin’ round that mountain. My life was on its way to perfection.

I smiled back and turned toward the front of the class, knowing that I looked like a giant grinning moron, but I didn’t care. Dax Price had smiled at me and knew my name.

Still remaining on my high school bucket list was to face that horrible, evil cheer-cow the next time she messed with me. I didn’t know when it was coming, but it was coming.

***

“Do you like this one?” Mandy looked at the price tag and then held up a satin purple top with ribbons on the back. Her brown eyes twinkled with mischief. Or was that the smugness of victory? I was finally at the mall, letting her pick out clothes for me. A first.

“I’ll try it on.” Normally I didn’t wear purple—sorta looked weird with my red hair—but I was in a super great mood. After homeroom, Janice had taken off, and I didn’t see her the entire day.

“So, how was your dad’s?” I asked, shuffling through the black skirts a few racks away. I didn’t get how Mandy could become so excited about shopping in such a large, well-organized department store. Where was the victory in that? Going to a thrift store or even one of those small, funky boutiques was way more fun, like going on a treasure hunt.

“Okay.” She shrugged. “Like usual, he spent most of his time at work. I read. That was about it.”

“At least you got to see him every night. That’s good, right?”

“I guess,” she replied, with stark disappointment. But in all honesty, Mandy had it way better than I did. I was lucky to see my father once a year, although we did Skype a couple times a month. His photography and modeling agency kept him traveling constantly, hopping from one exotic location to the next and then back again to his main office in the UK, where he was originally from. He had his business before marrying my mother, an ER nurse. Ironically, they met while he was in San Francisco on a shoot after he really got shot. Wrong place at the wrong time, except that he ended up in the hospital and met my mother. I liked to think it was fate.

Not so fate-tastic was that every year since I could remember, he threatened to quit the on-location assignments or sell the company to his right hand man. But every year, he kept going. “We need the money,” he’d say. Or, “We’ll never be able to send you to college and retire.” After the age of twelve, I began to understand that he kept working because he wanted to. It wasn’t that he didn’t love me, but he loved his job more. When I became older, however, I felt sort of thankful he wasn’t around so much. Simply put, I loved him, but there were things about him that seriously pissed me off. Things I didn’t want to think about.

And how my mother got by? Who knows? I guess she was too busy to feel lonely since she spent her days at the hospital. And being a nurse meant she rarely made it home at a reasonable hour, which is why I spent more time than I should’ve with a nanny or at Mandy’s house while growing up.

“So how about your spring break?” Mandy asked, trying to brush her dark hair out of her eyes while balancing a giant heap of clothes on her left arm.

“Other than listening to Aunt Rhonda lecture me ten times a day about the value of youth and how I’m spoiling it by buying into the media’s narrow perception of beauty and that she’d give anything to have my ass, rack, and skin? Oh! And being set up with her friends’ snobby sons who wanted nothing to do with me?” I shrugged. “I guess it was fine.”

“Oh, I bet you just loved that,” she said, referring to the fact that my aunt lived in the Hamptons and was obsessed with having a very social lifestyle. I didn’t necessarily look down on her, but I didn’t understand the need to live my life on the front of a tabloid. I wanted to have a career, travel, fall in love, live a quiet, happy life surrounded by people I loved.

“I went jogging on the beach every morning. That was nice,” I finally replied.

She laughed. “Yeah, I bet.”

“Well, next year, no Aunt Rhonda’s. My father promised to take me to Tokyo.”
Did I believe he’d actually take me this time? Maybe not, but it was time to start having faith that change was coming.
Mandy gave me a look as if she knew what I was thinking. “All right, let’s try these on.” She held out a pile of multicolored blouses and skirts.
I cringed.

“You promised,” she warned.

That I had. And I’d been stupid enough—likely still suffering from hormonal-bliss overload due to Dax—not to have given Mandy any boundaries like “thou shall not dress me in anything resembling rainbow barf.”

I took a deep breath. “I’m trusting you not to make me look like a clown.”

“Dakota, seriously? Would I ever do that to you? Besides, have you looked in the mirror lately? You’ve officially blossomed since Christmas. I could dress you in an orange muumuu and you’d look hot.”

Or like a pumpkin gone wrong. And I wouldn’t call finally getting boobs and growing an inch—making me a whopping five-five—at the age of eighteen “blossoming.” More like catching up. In any case, I appreciated the pep talk.

“Let’s get this over with. And stop kissing my ass!” I said.

She squealed with delight. “I’ve always wanted to dress you. This is going to be so much fun!”

I didn’t know about that, but at least this would make Mandy happy. That was something.

CHAPTER THREE

Tuesday.

The next morning, I arrived at school a little later than usual due to a recent alarm clock mishap (I’d “accidentally” shoved it off the nightstand and killed the contraption a few weeks ago. Poor thing.) But I digress. The real reason I’d overslept was that my mother had come home around midnight so I’d gotten up to eat a bowl of cereal and show her my new clothes. What always amazed me about her was that no matter how long her day was, she always had energy to talk and smile. Loved her. And she always looked amazing: her blond hair pulled back neatly into a bun, her face flawless and fresh—no makeup—and her blue eyes bright and alive, just like mine. Minus the bright and alive part.

“The secret, my dear, is being happy. Happiness keeps you young,” she always said.

That’s why when I saw Janice’s face light up with evil intent as I walked into homeroom that morning, and found the last seat was situated right between her and Dax, well, I didn’t let it get to me. Janice would be the ugliest troll on the planet by the time b-day number twenty hit; there was clearly no happiness in her life. Too bad for her because I wasx

Happy, happy, happy. And ready to stand up for myself.

“Hey, Dakota. Nice skirt,” she said nice and loud for everyone to hear. “Salvation Army’s finest?” She snickered along with a few other Janice fans in the room.

Actually, it was Neiman’s finest, but I wasn’t about to let her belittle my love of thrift. Right Macklemore?
I looked at her and stared with defiance.

Her big blue eyes were caked with way too much mascara—how the heck did she manage to blink?—and she had her blond hair pulled into a high ponytail. I wanted to rip it out.

Wow, this glaring back feels good! I was just warming up.

“You know it,” I finally replied. “In fact, it was hanging right next to that skanky nightmare of a skirt your grandmother donated. She said she never wore it because you bought it for her; she’s not into slutty, apparently. But who am I to judge? Especially when the look works so well for you.”

Okay. My comeback was wordy. Maybe a little lame, too. But it was the best I could do on the fly, given that being mean wasn’t in my box of tricks.

Janice’s face turned a pissy shade of red. She hadn’t been expecting me to fight back since I never had. Not once in almost four years.
Her eye twitched. “You’re pathe—”

“Janice,” Dax cut her off, “don’t you have a hangnail to file or tiny animal to torture?”

“IxIx” Janice opted for shooting hateful thoughts in his general direction. I’m guessing that was because her shock was as big as mine. Dax had defended me. Me!

I flashed a “thank you smile” his way. He gave me a quick nod and turned his attention toward his book.

As for me? I gloated. Not because Dax had given Janice’s ego a big “fuck you,” but because I’d been left to fend for myself all these years with no one but Mandy—who was rarely around for the attacks—on my side. Having someone get my back feltxfrigging wonderful. Add Dax to that equation and frigging wonderful turned into frigging awesome.

My victory buzz was short-lived, however, because Mr. M gave us our assignment: a writing exercise. “You will write about three things you did this spring break and then read it to the class.”

A communal groan erupted.

“This should be easy for you, Dakota,” Janice said. “Since you just hung out with a bunch of dirty dogs. Was it fun picking up shit? How do you get it out from under your nails—oh! Wait. That’s what that smell isx”

I heard a few small “ewws” from the drama junkies listening in.

That’s when it happened. I snapped.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Everyone gets mad, especially when they’ve been picked on as relentlessly as I had, but this was different compared to all those other times Janice had belittled the things I loved. This time she was trying to steal more than my pride; she was trying to steal my hope. I’d really had it.

Rage filled my mind along with images of ripping out her hair. Yes, I would jump on her head and pluck out her golden feathers! Let’s see how she likes it!

But that’s not what happened.

What I chose to do instead would be far worse. The biggest mistake of my life. I lied. Yes. Lied. A big, hairy, Whopper with cheese of a lie. It was one of those moments that as the words poured from my mouth, I caught myself thinking, Why the hell am I saying this? Not even I would believe such a festering pile of crap! But once I started, I could not stop.

Why? Why? Why?

My lie would become my life, my prison, my punishment for everything I’d ever done wrong.

CHAPTER FOUR

“You?” Janice laughed. “You have a boyfriend? And you spent spring break with him, going to parties in the Hamptons?” she laughed so hard that tears popped from her eyes like fleas jumping off a dog in a bathtub. “Oh! Oh! That’s frigging hysterical.”

“Ms. Jensen, care to share what’s so funny?” Mr. M peered over the top of his glasses, giving her an annoyed look.

“Yes!” She chuckled. “Dakota says that—wait.” She looked at me. “Why don’t you tell everyone what you did during break?”

I slouched in my chair and tried to ignore Dax rolling his eyes as if I were the lamest creature on the planet. The rest of the class simply stared with the sort of interest one might have when passing by a car accident.

“Ms. Jensen,” Mr. M said, “I’ll see you in detention.” He made a little circular motion with his hand, indicating she should turn herself around and get to work.

“What?” Janice barked. “Buxbuxbut I have practice after school.”

Mr. M shrugged. “Correction. You had practice. Would you like to miss tomorrow as well?”

Dax chuckled under his breath, and Janice shot him a nasty look before turning her toxic gaze to me. “Let’s get to writing, shall we, Dakota?”
Crap. What would I do now? I had to write an essay about what I’d done over break, and if I didn’t retell the outrageous lie I’d just told, then Janice would have a field day. On the other hand, if I did write those lies and read them to the class, everyone would know I’d made them up. It was completely implausible for me to have a boyfriend.

Ugh. Where had those lies come from? What had possessed me to make up that garbage? I meanxreally! Idiot. You’re an idiot, Dakota.
Doing everything in my power not to look at Dax or anyone else, I got up and left.

***

After driving around for an hour and ignoring ten text messages from Mandy, asking what had happened, I finally landed at Starbucks in the next burb over. I couldn’t stand to face anyone I knew. What a moron! Wait. No. That was too good for me. Freak of nature. Yes, that fit. Again, I couldn’t understand what had come over me. I’d been possessed by the demon of obnoxious lies.

Now what would I do? Deny I’d said those things? After, like, ten people overheard me? I pulled out my notebook with the handmade leather jacket—the one my dad had sent me on my sixteenth birthday—and scribbled way. Sometimes writing down my thoughts helped me sort things out.

Options:

Jump off bridge? No. Not my style.

Run away to an exotic island? No passport.

Witness protection program? Ugh. Would have to find a horrible crime to witness—not so easy.
I sighed. Maybe my parents would let me change schools? That would work, right? Except that the oth
er schools in the district were still in Janice territory since she and her cheer-demons belonged to the same cheer-demon club and practiced together. And there was no way my parents would let me change with only eight weeks to go.

Maybe it would all blow over and be forgotten tomorrow?

My phone buzzed again. Another text from Mandy.

Why didn’t you tell me you had a boyfriend who’s a model? And you’re training for the Olympics? I heard you broke the world record running to ur car!

Oh Lord. Now the lie had wings! And a tail! By morning, it would have antennae and, perhaps, a pair of snappy shoes!

Christ almighty. Haven’t I suffered enough? I thought, looking up at the industrial-style ceiling and trying to hold back tears.

Okay. Think this through. I’d said that everything happened in the Hamptons. That was way on the other side of the country, so it’s not like anyone could check the facts or anything. Maybe after a few days it would all die down.

My phone buzzed again, and I read the message. Dang it! No!

According to Mandy, who followed Janice’s “twitting,” Janice had posted a pic of me.

Oh no! What now? The picture loaded, and there wasn’t a gasp loud enough to capture my anguish. Her note said, and I quote, “Dakota’s new man and her Hampton friends.”

The picture was of a pack of grungy hyenas tearing at a piece of meat.

Why couldn’t she leave me alone? Why did she hate me so much? I swear, there was something wrong with that girl. It simply wasn’t natural to loathe someone as much as she loathed me for no goddamned reason.

Then I had an idea. A terrible idea. I scribbled it down and stared at the words, letting them infuse my mind while the world zoomed by in fast motion.

Don’t do it, Dakota. Don’t do it, said that little voice inside my head.

But I wasn’t listening.

Head spinning and heart pounding, I took a long sip of my mochaccino and then pulled my laptop from my backpack. What I did next is something I’m not proud of, and I won’t ever try to justify it, because there is no justification. I knew, even as I did it, regret would follow. Someday. But sometimes, you just reach your limit and stoop to a level you didn’t know existed inside you. You take a bad situation and make it worse. You give in to the other voice inside your head that tells you just this once, just this once you have to be bad in order to prove a point.
I am going to hell for this.

But I wasn’t hurting anyone, so would I really? I wasn’t stealing, or cheating on a test. I was simply going to lie about having a really, really hot boyfriend. One that would make Janice and her friends feel like they were dating my leftovers.

I frantically searched for the picture of the most gorgeous guy I could find. Bingo!

I sucked in a breath of worship and studied every masculine inch. Tall, perfect abs, sculpted chest, smooth olive skin, dark eyes, and slightly unkempt black hair falling about his face just so. He was the embodiment of my dream man: seductive, strong, confident, and mysterious. There was something about him that had me instantly fantasizing—who was he? Where was he from? What did his voice sound like?

And his eyes. There was an angry look about them.

Haunted. He’s haunted by something.

Ugh. You’re an idiot. He’s a model. He’s probably thinking about a sandwich. Or doing sit-ups.

Well, now he’s thinking about you. I saved the picture to my hard drive, created the new profile, and uploaded the image to Facebook.

CHAPTER FIVE

Wednesday.

The next morning, I rolled over in bed and groaned at the window. It was overcast, which always put me in a gloomy mood. It also made me want to stay in my bed where I felt safe and warm.

I lay there half-awake, half in a dream, staring blankly at my whitewashed antique desk in the corner, from which the blank screen of my laptop stared back, beckoning me to charge it.

Laptop!

I sprang from the bed. “No! Please, please, please tell me I didn’t do it!” That regret I’d been expecting came a little sooner than I’d hoped.
I fished my phone from my purse on the floor and tapped the app with the big F. As the little spinning doughnut danced on my screen, I made a small prayer to the gods of stupidity and asked for forgiveness.

I tapped my Friends page and waited for it to load.

Oh no. Eight. Yesterday, I’d had seven friends—Mandy and a few other random people who I wouldn’t exactly call friends. More like people with common interests in saving dogs at kill shelters. But today there was one new name.

The bottom of my world fell out. Oh no. I did it.

Santiago Asturias II from Barcelona, Spain, officially tagged as “boyfriend.”

Had my mochaccino been roofied? What in the world made me think I could pull a gorgeous photo off the Internet and pass him off as my boyfriend?

I hit my forehead. “Hell is too good a place for me.” Couldn’t I have at least picked an ugly guy? Oh, but noooo. I picked the hottest man ever to exist. Yes! A man! And no way was he close to my age!

All would not have been so lost if I’d not also made my profile public and connected it to Twitter right before I posted @Jgirl Bite me, Janice Jensen.

I knew she’d see it. I knew she’d want to retaliate. I knew she’d go to my Facebook page and check out my friends.

I covered my face. Why, why, why did I get myself into this mess? Because, hand-on-Bible truth? This was so not me. Not. Me. I’d never been the sort of person to lie my way through an issue. Once, when I was seven, I took a sneak peek inside the big red box under the Christmas tree. It was a new dollhouse. When my mother asked me who’d opened the present, I lied. I’d felt so guilty that I wrote Santa a letter stating—one hundred times—that I would never lie again. Never lie again, never lie again, neverx

Sorry, Santa, I guess I broke that promise.

My cell vibrated. Another text from Mandy. Where r u?

I sighed. Dying on the inside.

What happened?

Janice, I replied.

She’s saying terrible things about you.

“Welcome her to the club,” I said as tweets rolled in. Apparently five other egg-faced people I’d never met were also saying “terrible things.” How odd.

I deserve it, I responded.

So, no supermodel boyfriend? she asked.

No.

Too bad. He’s way hot.

U saw him?

Everyone saw him. Janice tweets and Instagrams like a pro.

What do I do? I asked, once again feeling eternally grateful for Mandy’s friendship. Notice how she hadn’t judged me. And given her intelligence, she’d probably deduced the reason behind my ridiculous yet uncharacteristic behavior.

Several minutes passed without a reply, and thenx

People will forget. Eventually.

Eventually? Eventually? PfffxNot likely. This stupid move would follow me to the grave. This was not how I’d envisioned beginning the journey into adulthood!

I tapped my finger on the side of the phone. I had no choice but to face “people” and not let it break me. For sure, though, I’d learned one valuable lesson: I would never lie again. I was better than this.

I threw on a sweatshirt and jeans before trudging off to the bathroom. I wrangled my red curly mop into a sloppy ponytail, brushed my teeth, and glared at the girl staring back.

Loser.

I took off my clothes and crawled back into bed. If I couldn’t face myself, how could I face anyone else?

***

Thursday.

“Times up, Dakota!”

My mother pulled down the blanket and rolled me off the bed onto the floor with a thump.

“Ow!” I tried to return to my sanctuary of sadness, but she grabbed me by the earlobe and yanked me up.

“I know you’re not sick. You are going to school today, young lady.”

I tried to twist away, but the woman had a grip of iron. “I’m not going.”
She shuffled me toward my private bathroom. “I don’t know what’s going on, but you’re not spending the rest of your life in bed, hiding out. I didn’t raise a coward.”

She may not have raised me like that, but I’d ended up a coward anyway.

I looked at her out of the corner of my eye. “I screwed up.”

She let go. “Christ, Dakota. You’re pregnant? Why didn’t you tell me?” She lowered her head and covered her face with both hands. “I should’ve guessed.”

“What? No! Oh my God.”

Her eyes opened up like giant balloons. “Drugs! Damn it, Dakota! Haven’t you heard enough horror stories from me? And you’re eighteen now. Do you have any idea what’ll happen if they catch you? ”

“No, Mom, I’m not pregnant. I’m not on drugs. Although, I’d really love a very strong tranquilizerxfor you!”

Spite flickered in her eyes. “Then what? Why are you acting like this?”

I sighed. “I lied and everyone knows it.”

She stared at me. “Lied. To a teacher? Your principal?”

I shook my head. “I wish.” I let out a long breath and sat on the bed. “I told everyone I am seeing this guy, but I’m not.”

She laughed.

“What?” I spat. Was it so hard to believe, even for my own mother?

“I’m relieved.”

“Nice,” I said.

“Think of it from my standpoint. You’ve been a model daughter. Good grades. No rebelling. Responsible. I kept wondering when my luck would run out. And now, you’re saying you lied to a few friends about a boy?”

“Mom! This is serious!”

“Right. You’re telling an ER nurse who watches mothers lose their kids to drunk drivers or drug ODs that this little issue is serious?”
Okay. When she put it like thatx

“Maybe I am being petty,” I admitted. “But you have no idea what I’ve been through. Those girls are complete, fucking bitches.”
“Dakota! Watch that tongue.”

“What? Like you don’t use those words?”

She smiled. “Of course I do. I’m a nurse. But I’d never use them with my mother. If she were alive.”

Touché. “Sorry.”

“Listen, baby. Whatever you did, you can’t run forever. Just treat it like a Band-Aid and rip that thing off. If that doesn’t go well, focus on the fact that it’s the end of the school year. You’ll be off to San Diego in the fall, studying pre-law, and high school will be nothing but a distant memory.”

As usual, she was right; my dream of going away to college was just around the corner, and I couldn’t wait. It had been my mental sanctuary for years, the Promised Land where I could be geeky and academic and finally start living my life. This immature high school world of drama and popularity contests would evaporate the moment the principal slapped that diploma in my hand. Bottom line, none of this stuff really mattered, except for the grades. That didn’t mean, however, that these final weeks weren’t going to suck monkey balls.
“Bring me a few gallons of ice cream tonight?” I asked.

She hugged me. “Sure. Now get your ass to school.”

***

When I pulled into the entrance of the parking lot, it was drizzling and four minutes to the bell.

“What? Come. On!” It looked like two jocks were fighting over something—the size of their tiny straps?—and the cars had stopped to watch, creating a giant logjam. Oh well. Not like I was in a hurry to face Janice.

I glanced toward the school’s overhang, relieved to see Mandy in her usual spot. She made a sympathetic little wave as if trying to assure me all would be okay. Earlier, I’d shot her a text, letting her know I was returning to hell school, ready to face the fiery inferno of my sins. She’d replied with a simple happy face, and now it was her real happy face providing me the fortitude I needed.

My heart raced, knowing that today would be the most humiliating day of my life, and there was no getting around it. Served me right. I’d stooped to Janice’s level, and now I’d pay the price.

“Finally,” I hissed. The cars moved, and I slipped into the first available spot toward the back of the lot. I turned off the engine and grabbed my bag, not bothering to check my hair or makeup. What was the point?

I locked the car and started the death march through the lot toward my fate. With each step, that witness protection program sounded better and better. Couldn’t be that hard to get in on a federal crime and turn informant, could it? Perhaps I would Google “snitch” on my lunch break if I wasn’t too busy dodging apple cores from the masses.

“Dakota! Watch out!” I heard Mandy yell, but by the time my brain caught up with my eyes, it was too late.
I screamed, but it wasn’t because a large blue pickup barreled down on me; it was because of whom I saw standing next to my best friend.
Smack!

“Dakota? Dakota? Ohmygod. Are you okay?” Mandy’s face was a pale blur against the backdrop of the gray rain clouds overhead. I felt the wind dust my face, chilling the drizzle collecting on my cheeks. “Don’t move. Okay? The ambulance will be here in a minute.”

Luckily, the hospital was exactly one block from school; however, a paramedic wasn’t what I needed. A psychiatrist was more like it.

Although I couldn’t make out the face clearly, the image hovering directly to my right looked eerily familiar.

“Santiago?” I mumbled.

I will never, ever forget the sound of his voice. Deep, strong, one hundred percent male.

Mesmerizing.

Something embedded in its timbre called out to millions of years of female evolution. It penetrated so deeply that even in my state of utter delirium, I could’ve sworn he’d latched onto my soul and wrapped it around his pinky.

“Dakota,” he responded, with a thick Spanish accent, “don’t move. Everything will be all right.”

That was the last thing I remember before I blacked out.