The Impossible Bet (FFM 1)

 

The Impossible Bet

Fall For Me, 1

 

Chapter 1

Jace

 

“You stole my one-nighter, dipshit. You’re the last person I’d put up on stage as Tristan.”

“Awww, c’mon, man!” I fake a pout but it turns into a grin as I return from the fridge in the adjoining kitchen. Tossing Lawrence a can of Dr. Pepper, I slump back onto the beanbag chair opposite him. “It was a mistake. I didn’t know you were trying to hook up with her.”

That’s not exactly the truth. I saw him talking his head off to impress the girl named Caroline in the red dress at my birthday party two weeks ago. The poor girl looked desperate enough to throw herself in front of a bus to find an escape. It was my absolute duty to save the cute damsel in distress. And maybe my birthday present to myself, too.

Stacking his feet on the low, birch-wood coffee table between us, he opens the can but slants me another loathing look through the ginger streaks of hair veiling his eyes. “And now you’re feeding me some stupid kiddie drink? Seriously? You don’t offer your friends beer anymore?”

Vincent and Cedric both got a Budweiser.

“I’d offer you a whole brewery in exchange for the role of Tristan.” My grin is wider than Broadway as I salute him and the other guys with my bottle. Vinnie and Rick drink with me, both laughing hard, but Lawrence… I swear the Irishman’s plotting my death in his brilliant screenwriter mind right now.

“Why the mean face, Lawrie?” I tease in a singsong voice, knowing full well how much he abhors that nickname. The only thing he hates more is when we shorten his last name, which, in fact, is Dickson.

“Call me that again, and you won’t even be playing a pawn in this piece.”

Ugh. His smart brows are knitted together so sternly, I better take his warning seriously. Not getting the lead in Tristan and Isolde when one of your best friends is on the committee picking the cast is bad with a capital B. But being denied even a supporting role, when there’s going to be one very important person in the audience come December, is a blow below the belt.

Rumor has it a talent scout’s going to be in attendance, and everyone at the San Francisco Arts Academy knows how that kind of visit opens the doors to truly awesome jobs in the film industry. Unlike Lawrence, who’s about to graduate at the end of the year and enter the real world, Vinnie, Rick, and I only started our sophomore year last week. Still, one can never set out early enough for a serious acting career.

With no air conditioning in this fourth-floor apartment, it tends to get fairly warm on a September afternoon, so I shove the sleeves of my black sweatshirt up to the elbows and take another sip from my beer. “Are you really going to hold it against me that the ladies love me?”

Lawrence grimaces. “They only fall at your feet, you bastard, because you always weave the right words to charm them.”

“What can I say?” I shrug, because he’s absolutely right. Talking to the fairer sex has always come easy for me. Unfortunately, not for Lawrence. Ever since I met him on campus about a year ago, I’ve watched him struggle to ask women out. He’s more relaxed once he’s in a relationship, which he was for most of last year. But the chick left him two months ago—for someone much older. It seemed fair, though, because she was seven years older than Lawrence anyway.

“But you’re getting your masters in screenwriting,” I argue, putting more severity into my voice now. “You’re a badass author. Words, of all things, should be your strength. Just use that brain of yours.”

“One would think so.” He makes a grumpy and rather disappointed face. “Only, words always seem to get lost on the short way from here”—he taps his right temple with the soda can in his hand, then he brings the can to his mouth and speaks into the opening before drinking—“to here whenever I look into the eyes of a cute chick.”

“Maybe you should start sending girls a WhatsApp first before actually talking to them, eh?” Vinnie chuckles and prods Lawrence with his elbow.

Lawrence nails him with a sharp look from the corner of his eyes. “Go back to Canada and tell your jokes there,” he growls, which makes Vinnie clutch his chest in a very dramatic fashion, as if his heart hurts. Then he bursts into another round of laughter.

“Or skip talking altogether,” I suggest, “and let your actions speak.”

“Like youd ever land a girl if you couldn’t woo her with your sweet talk,” Rick comes to Lawrence’s rescue, pointing at me with his bottle and one outstretched finger. He leans forward and props his elbows on his knees. “You’d be totally lost in the female world, dude.”

“Hah! You think?” Challenged, I mirror his posture and throw another short, taunting glance at Lawrence, who knows this is nothing but stupid Thursday afternoon banter between bros. We have nothing better to do. “I bet I’d score faster without speaking than Law could talking.”

“Yeah, that might be true,” Lawrence agrees with a hint of a smirk now. “Isn’t fate a bitch? Letting losers like me be the assholes who get to pick which lucky bastards get on stage? And let me tell you, it won’t be you, buddy.”

“Whoa, come on, no!” My complaint is smothered by the bottle at my lips. “Vinnie, tell him I’m his best choice!”

“Maybe I’m a better choice.” Our Canadian friend merrily knifes me in the chest. If that doesn’t make him friend of the month! “I could try out.”

My face sobers. “You’re a director. What would you do on stage?”

“Enchant the audience with my epic performance.”

“Yeah, sorry, that’s my job, dude.” I get to my feet and open the wide window in my living room then lean out and scan the street below for a certain red car. Killian’s supposed to be bringing more beer. My bottle’s almost empty, and I’m not in the mood for a Dr. Pepper—or worse, a glass of milk—because that’s all there is left in my fridge. I turn back to my friends and lean against the windowsill, crossing my ankles, my hopeful gaze fixed on Law. “You know how badly I want that role. So tell me how I can make up for the cock-block. Want me to charm you up another girl?”

Slyly, Lawrence leans back and laces his fingers behind his head. My teasing might have gone a step too far. His tongue draws a slow line across his bottom lip. “Since you’re so sure about your courting prowess,” he drawls, “how about a wager?”

“A wager?” Never one to bypass a good challenge, I fold my arms over my chest. “Shoot.”

“All right, here’s the deal. If you can make a girl fall for you before we cast in October, you get the role.”

While he lifts his brows suggestively, I draw mine down. “That sounds easy enough.” Too easy. Everyone in this room knows I can do that way before casting is announced. But I know Law, too. He hasn’t revealed everything about the challenge yet. My voice goes flat. “What’s the catch?”

“You’re not allowed to talk to her.” Lawrence pauses for added drama. “At. All.”

What?” The word explodes from my throat just like the laughter from Vinnie and Rick.

“From now until casting day, you’re not to say a single word to her. Neither in the spoken language, nor letters or any other sort of message through third persons. Nothing. All you can use for doing the talking”—and now he sneers—“is your body.”

Damn, this bet just became impossible to win. I suck on my teeth, weighing how much I want the lead and if it’s really worth all this crap. The result is simple. “Can I at least nod and shake my head if she’s asking questions?” I whine.

“Not if her questions are about the wager. In fact, if she finds out about the bet, the deal’s off, and you lose.”

Jeez, I hate that smart-ass look. He thinks he just bested me, but if this is the only way to get the role of Tristan, I’m game. “So what if I fail?”

The sinister flicker in his green eyes makes me regret my question.

“If you fail, bro, you’re going to play Isolde.”

“What?” I snort. “That would ruin—”

“In just one scene,” Lawrence interrupts. He sneers again. “The bed scene. And you’ll be playing her in sexy women’s underwear.”

The room falls to complete silence, except for Vinnie’s astounded inhale through his clenched teeth.

“That’s a harsh punishment for stealing Caroline,” I say quietly.

Lawrence blinks twice, his face absolutely serious. “She had a pair of perfect, mile-long legs.”

A chuckle slips from my throat at the memory of them wrapped around my hips when I made out with her later in her dorm. “I know.”

His unwavering gaze spears me. “It’s Isolde in lace…or nothing at all.”

I lower my head and bite the inside of my cheek. In hindsight, that birthday-bang with Caroline might have been a mistake. “Okay…” I lift my chin and dare to ask my next question. “Do I at least get to choose the girl?”

Now, he blatantly laughs at me. “No way in hell! And it won’t be a girl you’ve talked to already. Someone completely new.” His lips are spreading wider as he snarls, “My pick.”

Yeah, shit. I was afraid he would say that.

“Hey…” Rick draws our attention and purses his lips, focusing on Lawrence as he blows a long blond strand of hair out of his right eye. “You said the deal’s off when the girl finds out about the bet. But isn’t it a given that she will, sooner or later? I mean, what girl wouldn’t wonder if she’s the only person a particular guy won’t talk to when he’s obviously showing an interest in her?”

“Fair point.” Using his right pinkie, Law scratches the small spot of beard in the valley under his bottom lip. “Then let’s say she must not discover the conditions of the wager or what is at stake.” He turns his head back to me. “And since I’m going easy on you there, here are the new rules: three kisses. All to be done in front of us, so we know it really happened. And all three of them”—he holds up one fucking sophisticated finger—“must be initiated by her.”

“Oh, please!” This is insane! “You know girls never kiss first!” My nails dig into stone as I grip the window ledge behind me with both hands. “One kiss initiated by her.”

Lawrence cocks his head to one side, mulling it over. “Two. The third can be done by you. And if she slaps you right after, you’re out.”

Tough rules but not impossible. “Agreed. But we skip the falling in love part.”

He takes another moment to consider when finally the intercom chimes on the wall next to the door. I walk over and press the blue button, then ask in a Darth Vader imitation, “What’s the password?”

Killian’s WTF-laugh drifts through the speaker. “I got the beer, dumb-ass. Now open up.”

Okay, that works just as well. I let him in, open the door to my apartment a crack so he won’t have to knock, and face the guys on my white leather couch once more. “Are we done negotiating? Three kisses, no slap, no talking, no love, and all before October eighth.” Which gives me a little less than two weeks.

“Sounds like the summary of an intriguing wager,” Vinnie says, raising his beer to seal the deal. Lawrence nods, and then we all clink our bottles, Law using his Dr. Pepper can.

“So, which girl do you have in mind?” I ask.

“I already told you, it can’t be anybody you know. I’ll have to think about it.”

Hell, this is like a kick to the nuts, except I’m still waiting for the pain. “Fine, just make sure she’s single. I’m not going to be a home wrecker for a role in the play.”

A second later, the door opens and Killian walks in, an amused smile on his face. “Have you met that chick moving in three doors down?” He rakes a hand through his hair, which is as dark as mine, but his is a few inches shorter and pressed flat to his head. “She’s weird.”

Someone’s moving into 403? That apartment’s been empty the whole summer. Then again, it’s the beginning of the semester and the school owns a few apartments in the building, including number 403. She must be studying at the Arts Academy, too. Perhaps a freshman.

Rick is the first to ask what’s definitely on each of our tongues. “Weird how?”

I take the six-pack of Bud Light out of Killian’s hand, throwing him an annoyed look. “Light beer?”

“They didn’t have the normal stuff,” he says with a shrug, then slumps down on my vacated beanbag while I carry the beer into the kitchen and put it away. “And she’s weird because…” I hear him answer Cedric. “Well, think Hello Kitty meets Abby Sciuto from NCIS. That would be her.”

Killian’s description creates a very bizarre picture in my mind. I shake my head as I walk back to the guys. Sounds like the type of girl who walks around graveyards in the dead of night—and then has a picnic there, with cupcakes.

Before I can even think this thought through to the end, Lawrence claps his hands once and jumps up, cheerfully pointing a finger at the door. “That’s your girl!”

“Uh-uh, no way!” I lift a hand to cut off his enthusiasm. “I’m not going to walk into this blind!” She could be a total freak, in which case I’d rather opt out of the wager and pass on the role of Tristan completely. “Let me do recon first. If she looks halfway dateable, the bet’s on. If she’s scary, you can put Vinnie on stage.”

The sadistic Irishman doubtlessly would have loved to send me into this without knowing what I was facing, but in the end, his reluctant nod gives me permission to catch a glimpse first. Taking a deep breath, I walk out into the hallway.

Number 403 is a few doors down on the other side of the carpeted corridor, its windows facing south, while mine overlook Grant Avenue. Towering piles of cartons surround something pink hunkered in the middle, rummaging around in one of them, looking for God knows what.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d have said it’s a unicorn there on the floor, not a girl, because all I can see is a shiny raspberry-colored ponytail—no, make that two—long and straight on the back of her head. I dare to shuffle a few steps closer, curious about what else might be hiding behind those cardboard boxes.

“Hah!” Her call breaks through the silent hall as she jumps up, and I stumble backward.

“Whoa!” As a reflex, I jerk both hands up in front of me, fending off whatever’s attacking.

Between thumb and forefinger, she’s holding up a single silver key, probably the reason she’s still outside her apartment, and it takes her another moment to notice me. “Oh, hi.” Her arm drops, but the corners of her mouth lift.

I just stare, literally speechless. And not because of the bet.

Killian’s description was dead on, except he failed to mention the Pippi Longstocking aspect. Although her black dress falls three inches shy of being called conservative, there’s only a half inch of skin flashing naked beneath it, before the rest of her doubtlessly presentable legs are covered in black-and-pink striped over-knee socks.

“Ahmm…” She points a finger in my direction, turns to the elevator at the end of the hall as though she’s looking for someone, and then back to me. “Do you live in…there?” Her stormy gray eyes dart from my face to the door behind me.

Is it breaking the rules already if I say yes? I chew on the inside of my cheek then go for a safer nod.

“Oh, cool. Then you must be Jace.”

Must I? I raise both eyebrows.

“Your friend told me that two minutes ago.” She smiles. It looks lovely, except for the rhinestone piercing lying against her upper front teeth. That, in fact, looks weird, like she ate a pixie for lunch. “I’m Brinna McNeal.” Moving around some boxes, she comes forward, holding out her hand. “My friend and I are just moving in right—umm…” She turns around once more, cutting a glance to door 403, as if she needs to make sure it didn’t run away while she left it unoccupied for two seconds. “There.”

Taking her hand, I draw her full attention back to me. Her pigtails fly over her shoulder at the surprised jerk of her head. She’s petite. Or maybe she isn’t, but compared to my 6’1”, she’s an elf. I’d have to put her in high heels to make her nose reach my lips, which makes her kissing me first a hard task. And she’s obviously not the biggest fan of heels, because a pair of black pumps with buckles is sulking by the boxes while she stands here in her socks.

“So you’re going to the Arts Academy, too? Of course, you must,” Brinna McLongstocking answers herself, her forehead creasing while she muses, “since you’ve got an apartment up here. I was told the academy owns all the fourth-floor ones. Are you a freshman, too?”

I’m still holding her hand. Silently. It’s small and fragile, with nails as pink as her hair.

“No, wait, you’ve been living here a while, haven’t you? So, sophomore? Junior? Or are you a senior already?”

I don’t know why, but her babbling makes me smile as I search her stormy eyes again. They shine with the same excitement I felt when I moved here from Denver last year. Even though she dresses really odd, she’s definitely not a big-city girl. Probably from just outside it. Novato, perhaps.

“Hey, sweetcakes?” Rick’s voice drifts out of my apartment and cuts right between us. Of course. They can hear every word she says through the wide-open door.

For a moment, Brinna studies my face with curled lips, obviously trying to decide if the detached voice is addressing her or me. Tilting my head should give her the hint.

“Ahh…yes?” she finally calls back, narrowing her gaze at a spot behind me.

“Are you single?”

Jeez! Friends can be so embarrassing. I roll my eyes, but I’m curious how she’ll answer, too.

One, two, three, four, five confused blinks at me. Then she lifts her chin and calls again, “Yes. Are you?”

“Not quite. But Jace is!”

Yeah, I was waiting for that.

Slowly, her puzzled look wanders back to my face. “Aha.”

There’s only barking laughter inside my apartment now, but I suddenly wonder what it would be like to seduce a pink bubbly elf like this girl. Without saying a single word…

Pressing my lips tight, I smile wider and let go of her fragile hand. Then I turn, walk back into my flat, and bang the door shut. The morons on my couch look up at me, as expectant as kids on Christmas morning. This bet is clearly about to become their own personal drama show.

I fold my arms over my chest and present a smug grin. “Deal.”

 

Chapter 2

Brinna

 

Apparently not very chatty, this one. I grunt helplessly and stare at the door he just closed in my face. My toes curl against the floor. One of them is sprained. The right pinky. I’ve got this tremendous talent for walking into furniture. Since there was so much of it in the way the last two days, while my friend Chloe and I panic-packed everything in our apartment three blocks down the street, it was only natural for me to catch a few things with my toes.

It’s been just over two weeks since we moved to San Francisco, and already everything that can go wrong did. On the very first day, I forgot my books for History of Drama 101 in my room and had to drive all the way home to Grover Beach and back. A flat tire on the freeway was how my blue Camaro thanked me for the torture.

On the same day one week later, I had to drive home again because the school’s office needed my birth certificate to issue a student ID card. I got back, took two minutes to rest on the couch and—BANG, next thing I know, water’s dripping from the ceiling right on my face. A pipe burst in the ceiling above our apartment. Moving in one week, moving out the next. And now, we’re obviously stuck with weird neighbors on top of it all.

God, my luck would have you believe I broke a mirror while falling over a pitch-black cat that crossed my path under a ladder. I scratch my head. No black cats that I can remember. So what is it? Does San Francisco hate me?

Even if it does, that won’t drive me out of it. I’ve been a little homesick the past few nights, but I’m determined to give this city every chance it deserves. So each morning, right after I wake up, I promise myself this will be a fabulous day. And to be honest, I only have to think about the Arts Academy and my heart pirouettes like a ballerina inside my chest again.

It was interesting to find out the academy provides cheap apartments for students, so maybe the burst pipe was really a blessing in disguise. I like to think so because, even though Chloe’s parents cover most of the rent for our place, twenty percent—when you don’t have a job—is still a lot of money.

I pick up my shoes but don’t put them on, wanting to give my hurting toe some more recovery time, and unlock the door. It’s a fine, small apartment, just right for Chloe and me. We each have our own bedroom, with a small communal area. Bending down, I shove the boxes filled with our clothes, toiletries, and some decorating things over the threshold into our new home. Chloe’s still on the way with a couple of movers, who’ll bring up the couch we bought when we moved here and the TV my parents got us along with all the kitchen equipment. Aside from those things, the former inhabitant of this place left everything behind, so all we have to do to make ourselves at home is pull the white sheets off the furniture. I grab the first one to my right and yank.

Whoa! Coughing, I flap fiercely with my arms as a cloud of dust swirls up like ashes from a volcano. Better pull the next sheet off with a little more care and a lot less enthusiasm. I brush my black dress off and scratch my tickling nose. All the windows are still closed, and the air seems old as well as dusty. As I open two of them, a wonderfully fresh, if slightly humid, breeze wafts inside.

Three boxes are still waiting in the hallway. The biggest one isn’t the heaviest, thank God, but when I carry it inside, the bottom breaks and 572 pairs of shoes—or thereabouts—tumble to the floor.

I only brought five pairs to San Francisco. Black Alice-in-Wonderland pumps to team with my favorite striped stockings, knee-high rough-leather boots for going out, cherry-colored Doc Martens, pink Nikes with glitter for the gym, and white trainers—also with glitter—for any other occasion. Normally, I would have put them on today along with some practical jeans for moving, but I could only leave out one set of clothes last night that had to work for moving and class, and on Thursdays, Jeremy Ward is with me in movement. I needed to look good today.

From the first day at the academy and the first time we made eye contact, I’ve been trying to subtly communicate to Jeremy that I’m available. I like how his blue eyes stand out against his unruly light-brown hair, and he has the sweetest snub nose. He’s in my speech class, too, and from what I saw when I caught a glimpse at his schedule, we’re also in dance together. Too bad we haven’t had that one yet. The teacher’s returning late from a trip to Europe.

Daydreaming of nudging Jeremy’s cute nose with the tip of mine, I squat and gather all of Chloe’s shoes. They go back into the box, which I then drag across the floor into her room. I have no idea where she’s going to put them all.

Headed for the next box, my gaze lands on a door down the hall, where the guy with the dark hair and black sweatshirt appeared and disappeared a few minutes ago. The brass numbers 409 are stuck at the top. “Jaaace,” I drawl quietly. It’s a cute name. I’ve never met anyone called that before. Hmm. I purse my lips. What last name might go with it?

Like a kitty cat, I tiptoe over, because I know I won’t be able to sleep tonight if I don’t find out. Beneath the door bell, there’s a square sign, just like outside every other apartment on this floor, and it reads Jason Rhode. Nice. There’s also a peephole. A very tempting peephole. For the first time in my life, I wonder if those things work backward, too. Five-three is the optimal height—just not for peepholes. It forces me to stand on my toes to try to catch a glimpse through the tiny glass leading into Jason Rhode’s apartment.

Okay, the good news is that these holes actually do work both ways. The bad is that everything looks like it’s underwater on the other side. It’s hard to tell whether that’s a person there in the middle of the room or a coatrack. But it’s moving, so I guess it’s a guy.

A moment later, everything behind the glass gets even more blurry with movement and voices grow louder. I take a panicked leap backward and hit the opposite wall.

Great, Brinna, now what? Engage phantom mode and turn invisible? Damn!

The tiny click of the door opening triggers my instincts at last, and I dash down the hall, jumping over the box in the way. Unfortunately, I catch it with my left toe and land flat on my stomach just inside our apartment. Ugh.

Pain and lack of air disregarded, I scramble to my feet at lightning speed, right my dress, and walk back out into the hallway with my head held high and a confident smile. One of my pigtails still drapes over the top of my head, tickling my nose, but with a swift wave of my hand it’s gone. Then I jump again as the air draft between Jace’s apartment and mine slams my door shut.

Five boys walk past me as I lift the last box from the floor.

“Hi, Brinna,” the first one, Killian, says. He stopped to chat for two minutes when he came up earlier.

“Hi, Brinna,” follows in a foreign accent from the guy right behind him with thick, carrot-colored hair.

“Hey, Brinna,” chimes the third one, a tall blond, and I recognize his voice as the one asking me whether I was single.

“I hope you have your key hidden somewhere in that dress,” snickers the fourth, a young Liam Hemsworth lookalike, as he cuts a glance at the closed door. “Otherwise you might have a problem.”

And the fifth one in this single-file line says…nothing at all.

Jace only captures my gaze with a set of dark, hazelnut gems that sparkle mischievously in the light beam coming from the ceiling. I can’t look away, and he doesn’t either, even when that means his eyes roll to the very corners as he passes me. When the right side of his mouth lifts into a half smile, it gives me chills of the funny, uncomfortable kind.

Yup, weird neighbors. Totally.

Two seconds later, all five disappear around the corner, and their chatter quickly fades away as they descend the stairs.

Finally taking a real deep breath, an inaudible whine escapes me and my face scrunches up, because the fall into the apartment hurt quite a bit. I turn around to carry this stuff inside, only to walk right into the closed door. The box drops from my arms, landing on one of my non-hurt toes. Thank the Lord, this is the box with Dumbo, my stuffed elephant, and my pillow, so nothing gets broken, inside or out.

But the key Liam Hemsworth mentioned sits happily on a sheet-covered sideboard in the living room. I bang my head against the locked door of apartment 403.

 

*

 

It’s five minutes to midnight when we exit the elevator and Chloe lets us into our new home. Lonny and Matt, the two movers, insisted on taking us out for a drink after the final delivery, which was nice, only we didn’t drink. Nothing alcoholic anyway, because Chloe got in some trouble last year after she wrapped her car around a tree…drunk. Now she’s on probation, can’t leave the country, has to do random alcohol testing, and has temporarily lost her license. It’s lucky for me that she can’t leave the United States, though, because otherwise she’d be doing a semester abroad in England right now, and I’d be totally lost and alone here in San Francisco. In solidarity, I don’t drink either. To lessen her misery. But I don’t mind as much as she does, because my favorite drink is a strawberry milkshake anyway.

Chloe also has to see a therapist once a month. Including tomorrow, actually, which is why we left the bar early tonight. She has to catch a train home right after class tomorrow and still has to pack. And, frankly, I’m beat after our second move in two weeks, so I’m just happy to fall into my new bed, in my new room, in this new apartment in San Francisco—the farthest I’ve ever been from home.

I must have zonked out straightaway, because what feels like only seconds later, the foghorn of a steamer evicts me from my cozy bed. In the blink of an eye, I stand at alert in the middle of this strange room. Breathing hard, armed with my pillow, and protectively pulling my nightshirt down over my panties, I scan the room for the source of the disturbance. It takes me a moment to grasp where I am and make out my phone, lit up and blaring on the nightstand.

“Briiiiinn!” A muffled voice sounds through the wall separating my room from Chloe’s. “Turn it off!”

As a matter of fact, she’s the reason the alarm is set so loud in the first place, so I hold my phone against the wall for half a minute. Snickering, I finally turn it off.

My best friend is a great actress, a badass soccer player, and a white-chocolate aficionado, but she’s definitely not a morning person. That last part, I only found out these past two weeks that we’ve been living together. Banging on her door and calling her out of bed a million times before seven a.m. every day is getting old real quick. This alarm trick works a lot better, and I can’t be held accountable if I enjoy torturing her just a little bit.

I’m fine with getting up early, as long as I have my yogurt with strawberries for breakfast—which I don’t today.

A yawning void is all that’s inside the fridge. Damn. In protest, my stomach gives a rumble as though it’s eating itself. “Get up, sleepyhead! There’s no breakfast!” I yell, dragging my fingers through my tangled hair. “We need to stop at the coffee shop on the way.”

Still a little disoriented in this new place, I pad to the bathroom and take a shower. A pink waterfall cascades down from my hair, because the color is still new. Most of junior and senior high, these long, straight strands were dyed a strawberry red. With the start of a new life, however, I changed it to my favorite color: pink.

Holy Madam Mim, if I’d had any clue how awesome it would look, I’d have done it years ago.

The crisscross patterns of pink on most of our white towels are the only downside. I blow-dry my hair and then search the giant closet in my new room. My clothes don’t even fill it up halfway. My swag for the day is a flaring plum-colored skirt and a gray snug-fit tee that has Bambi on it. If it isn’t pink, it has to be Disney.

I leave my room in time to see the Grinch disappearing into the bathroom. Fifteen minutes later, she reemerges, transformed into a beautiful Belle, her dark brown hair straightened and shiny. Paired with dark jeans, she’s wearing a long, white cashmere sweater cinched with a thin black belt. Only her smile competes with the brilliance of the fabric.

Yeah, that’s Chloe. Always pretty, always meticulously styled. In fact, she was the one who taught me how to perfectly apply make-up when we were twelve, though pink lip gloss and some purple eyeshadow is all I use now. I stopped wearing eyeliner and mascara when I started going out and learned they smear horribly when you cry at the movies. And I cry pretty often at the movies, whether the film has a happy or sad ending. On the other hand, I love to wear nail polish. Usually pink. With butterfly stickers on each of my ring fingernails.

We leave the apartment together. However, I have to head back up as soon as we step out of the elevator, because I forgot my key again and Chloe won’t be here when I get home from class. Borrowing hers to let myself in, I raid the chest of drawers in my room, only to remember a few minutes later that I slipped the key into an inside pocket of my backpack last night—so I wouldn’t forget it this morning! Hah. Clever me.

Because the elevator is currently somewhere between the first and second floors, I take the stairs as I fish for the butterfly hair clip in my backpack. At the bottom of the five-story building, I pull the door open, then hold the clip with my teeth for a moment while I wind up my hair with both hands, stepping out into the bright sun.

San Francisco in the morning is nothing like Grover Beach. It’s loud, it’s hectic, and it smells. People dressed to the nines walk by. Oh my God—one looks like Anna from Frozen! I love her! A limousine rounds the corner, and across the street, someone’s shouting that doom is near.

Yep, another chance at a day turning into the best one ever.

Spinning on the spot on the lookout for Chloe, I find her talking to a guy with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth. His blue eyes find mine, and he smiles. I know why. He’s one of our neighbor’s friends. Actually, he’s the one who checked if I was single. Smoke drifts out of his mouth as he says, “Hi.”

“Hey,” is all I can reply through my clenched jaw, trying not to drop the clip as I’m still twisting my hair up. As soon as it feels perfectly tight, I take the butterfly clip and fix it at the back of my head. That allows me to answer his smile with one of my own. “Do you live in this building, too?”

“No, one of the guys and I are renting a house two blocks away. Just waiting for Jace to come down.” Pushing himself away from the brick wall, he tilts his head up as if expecting to find our neighbor in one of the windows above. I crane my neck, too, but nobody’s there. He stubs out his cigarette on the sole of his shoe and throws the stump into the trash at the curb, blowing the last column of smoke out the side of his mouth. After he wipes his hand on his chest, he holds it out to me. “I’m Rick Anderson, by the way.”

I grab it firmly but then get a little distracted by the charades Chloe is avidly acting out behind him. Yikes! Thank God he can’t see as she licks her finger and mocks to touch him. Her mouth moves soundlessly, and I know she’s pretending to make that hissing noise. Then, pointing at the snake tattoo that emerges from under the sleeve of Rick’s white t-shirt and unfurls down his biceps, she rolls her eyes like she’s swooning and clutches her heart.

You’re so brainsick, sweetie, I want to throw at my mad drama queen of a friend, but I keep my tongue in check and focus on Rick. “Nice. Do all of you go to the academy then?”

He knows I’m referencing yesterday’s boy band. “Mm-hm. Sophomores. Except Lawrence.” With a tilt of his head, he narrows his eyes a little as if urging me to remember. “Tall guy, red hair?”

“The one with the accent?”

“Irish, yes. He’s a senior.”

Chloe comes around to stand beside me now. “Isn’t that exciting?” She looks back and forth between him and me. “Before you arrived, I was telling Rick we’re both freshmen.”

“Do you like it?” he asks both of us, but soon enough his intrigued gaze lingers on me alone as he shoves his hands into his jeans pockets. Looks like I’m getting a little more attention this morning than I actually want.

“It’s too early to report,” I lie, faking cool, when in fact I’m dying to start lessons today, because everything about drama school is just flipping awesome. “But it seems really…nice.”

For a single moment, he just stares at me. Then his face splits into a broad grin, and he nods in slow motion. “Rrright. Be honest—you love it!”

Okay, he totally figured me out. My cheeks cramp from smiling now as I frantically bob my head. Clasping the straps of my backpack, I rock up and down on my toes. “Isn’t it the best place you’ve ever been to in your life?”

“Not the best, but it’s definitely cool.”

“Hey, we could wait for your friend so we can all walk to the academy together,” Chloe suggests with a flirtatious blink that Rick doesn’t miss—or ignore.

Smiling, he shrugs. “Why not? Jace will be delighted.” And the final second of his smirk goes to me.

Exactly what am I missing?

“Um…yeah,” I say, scrutinizing him from the corner of my eye. “I don’t know why your friend would be so delighted, but I’m sorry, we can’t. I need my yogurt.” I cut Chloe an apologetic glance before catching a fistful of her sweater and pulling her away in spite of her reluctance to move. To Rick, I say over my shoulder, “I guess we’ll see you around.”

“Definitely!” He laughs, and I have no clue why.

“Why did you do that?” Chloe hisses as soon as we’re out of earshot and, thankfully, she’s picking up the pace next to me.

“I need some breakfast, and the guy’s taken. No need to ensnare him.”

“How do you know that?”

Ignoring her reproachful look and prickly voice, I check left and right before we cross the street. “Because he said so.” The blue neon sign of the coffee shop at the end of the block works like a beacon, making my pace double. “He was with the guys yesterday, and he mentioned it. I told you, they were all weird.”

Chloe nails me with a sideways stare. “I think he’s more cute than weird.”

“Yeah, whatever.” I’ve got other problems than discussing potential—or, in this case, impossible—boyfriends with her. Like the fact that it’s too early for this, and my stomach is empty.

Close to starving, I drag her inside the brightly lit shop with tall windows and round, metallic tables everywhere. The place is empty, except for a few customers at the very back. They lift their heads when the bell above the door chimes but don’t pay us any further attention. We head straight for the guy with tousled brown hair and a red apron wiping down the counter. He looks older than us, but not by much. “A strawberry yogurt parfait, please,” I order while fishing coins from my purse, chin lowered.

“To go?” His voice drags out, as if he’s still dreaming of his pillow.

It’s twenty minutes to the start of my first class. Lifting my head, I crinkle my nose. “More like to-run-and-trip, because I’m in a hurry and that’s what I’m best at.”

He doesn’t find that funny and just stares at me, waiting.

My smile drops as I shrink two inches. “Um, yes. To go, please.”

He hands me a cup with a lid and a white plastic spoon in exchange for two twenty. I toss his tip cup an extra fifty cents and a piece of strawberry gum. Maybe that will brighten up his stiff San Francisco humor.

 

Chapter 3

Jace

 

“Damn! What did I miss?” I demand as I step out of the building and see my funky new neighbor walking toward the crosswalk with her dark-haired roomie.

“Half a minute sooner, dude, and you could’ve escorted them to school,” Rick tells me.

“Okay.” I glance at my watch. Half past seven. Normally, I don’t leave this early in the morning, but my motorbike’s in the shop—the clutch needs changing. Without it, it takes me about twenty minutes to walk to school. “On Monday, I’ll be a little earlier.”

We start off after the girls. They walk pretty fast, like they’re afraid someone’s following them. Did you steal something? I’m tempted to shout after them. Except, my tongue’s a dead zone where the raspberry is concerned.

From fifty feet behind, I watch their hips sway neatly with their stride. Well, the right chick’s more than Brinna’s. Rick says her name’s Chloe. She does look like a Chloe from the back. Slim, tall, with long, dark-brown hair, and her butt plastered in jeans that allow you to check out the kind of undies she’s wearing. Not that I know many girls called Chloe, but this is how I’ve always imagined someone with that name would be.

On the other hand, I’ve never imagined someone named Brinna. The name is as rare as her crazy hair color. At least the knee-high boots she’s wearing today look a hell of a lot better than yesterday’s pink-and-black zebra stockings.

They take a sharp left and disappear into Mosby’s Coffee ’n Cake. That’s when we pass them and take the lead. “Wanna wait for them and walk together?” Rick asks, slowing down a bit.

“Nah. That would be weird.” I’m not going to ruin my chances with her the very first day by coming off as a mute stalker. “They go to the same school, right? It’s not that big a place. Won’t be too difficult to find her somewhere on campus later.”

He shrugs. “Fair point.”

From the pocket of my black jeans, I pull a pack of orange Tic Tacs, shake a couple into my palm, and toss them in my mouth. Apart from racing my bike through the Rockies whenever I’m home in Denver, Tic Tacs are my only other addiction.

As for Rick, with his bad habit of smoking, I don’t need to ask him if he wants some, too. I just hold out the pack. He tilts it and picks one tiny white Minion-shaped candy with thumb and index finger and shoves it between his teeth. “You got a plan?” he asks.

“For what? It’s Friday.” We always do the same thing on Fridays. “You guys are coming to play PS4 this afternoon, and later I’ve got to work.” Over the summer, I took a job as a mixologist in a stylish bar called Code Red. Once school started, working four nights a week became too much, but I liked it there—my boss is cool and the clientele is a nice change from the actor community I spend most of my time in—so I kept my three-hour shift on Thursdays and Fridays, eight to eleven.

“I know it’s PlayStation Friday.” The Tic Tac clicks against his teeth as he speaks. “I meant about the bet. Brinna. Did you think up a stragety during the night for seducing her?”

Not really. I’m more the spontaneous type. “First off, I have to get her attention, right?” I bite down on my Tic Tacs, enjoying the fresh taste, and cock a brow in his direction. “And the word is stra-te-gy.

“Yeah, ’course.” One side of his mouth lifts, and he jostles me with his shoulder. “Nobody likes a smart-ass, you know.”

I laugh hard as we cross the last street before school and head inside.

Rick sits next to me in Acting Technique 201, and afterward it’s improv with Vinnie and Killian. In between, I keep a trained eye on the corridors and the small green outside the two buildings that make up the academy, but the raspberry doesn’t roll up anywhere. Either she’s hiding from me, or we have classes in opposite buildings.

At the ten o’clock break, it’s my turn to buy four cappuccinos and one macchiato—Lawrence is always setting himself apart from the rest of us lowly actors. I pay with a twenty and leave the rest as a tip for the girl in the kiosk. Each of us has a different day of the week where we buy the whole group a round of coffee. Friday is mine.

Like wild horses chomping at the bit, the guys are waiting for their daily caffeine delivery at our regular table by the lawn, in the shade of one of the stately stone buildings of the school. I take a seat with them and enjoy my own beverage as they grab their cups, Vinnie and Rick reaching for the ones marked with extra sugar.

“Anything to report about the Hello Kitty conquest?” Lawrence chuckles as he wipes cinnamon foam from his upper lip. He never drinks from the spout in the lid. Either he’s watched one too many grotesque flicks, or he’s got a serious paranoid disorder, because he’s always saying he doesn’t want to accidentally eat or drink something some crazy vendor might have licked just for fun before selling it. Why a barista would lick a lid, I don’t know, and I don’t ask. “Have you already stolen the first kiss this morning?”

“If I had, you’d have seen it,” I joke right back at him. “Weren’t those the rules? Creating live porn for you to watch?”

“Shoot porn inside your bedroom as much as you like,” he retorts. “I’m fine with just the three simple kisses.”

Vinnie cuts a smug look in my direction. “I don’t think there’s anything simple about them.”

“Yeah.” Killian laughs, scratching his neck. “You’re gonna have to slide right under her feet and make her fall on top of you for her lips to land on yours.”

“Hey, no helping!” Lawrence blusters, flinging a crumpled piece of paper at Killian’s forehead. “Rhode’s got to win this bet by himself.”

I roll my eyes. “Like I’d ever do that.” Or perhaps I should? Damn, what if it’s the only chance I have? It’s not like I’m going to be able to just sit down, purse my lips, and wait for her kiss to hit me. And where the heck is she, anyway? Everyone’s out for the break between our second and third classes, but Brinna and her friend obviously have better plans. Aren’t I lucky…

Leaning back, I sip my hot cappuccino and let my gaze sweep over the lawn. Nope, not a single pink strand of hair anywhere. She’s really making it hard for me. At this rate, I’ll need a GPS to track her down.

The next instant, I almost choke on my coffee as a fabulous idea smacks me upside the head. I jerk upright and cough, putting the cup down.

“Dude, everything okay?” Rick demands.

“Yeah, yeah. I’m fine. Just have to go. Gotta do something that can’t wait.” More precisely, I’ve got to get something. I jump to my feet, down the rest of my drink, and toss the cup in the trash can near the table.

All four guys look up at me in wonder, and Vinnie asks, “Where’re you going?”

“No time to explain.” I cut a glance at my watch. Fuck! Break’s almost over. “See you guys later!” Hauling my backpack over my shoulder, I dash across the green, straight into the building opposite, and run upstairs to the admin office.

“Good morning.” The small round woman behind the counter offers me a friendly smile when I practically fall through the door after a quick knock.

“Hello.”

She pushes the glasses attached to a thin gold chain around her neck higher up her nose and clears her throat while I try to catch my breath. “How may I help you?”

One arm braced on the milky glass of the chest-high counter between us, I look down at her, still panting a little too hard. “I need a student’s schedule. Her name’s Brinna McNeal. Could you please print it out for me?”

Angelica Delares—that’s what it says on the nameplate I’m fidgeting with right now—pushes a few sheets of paper together in a pile and scrutinizes me through her frameless glasses. “Schedules, as well as any other information about our students, are confidential, Mister…”

“McNeal,” I finish quickly. Then I lean forward a little and present a friendly smile. “See, Brinna’s my little sister, and she misplaced her schedule yesterday. She’s a freshman, so she’s totally lost right now. The poor kid’s outside crying and talking about flying home to Denver.” I grimace. “Mom’s going to kill me if I let that happen.”

Obviously, my lie does the trick. Angelica’s skeptical expression melts into soft sympathy. “Fine, I’ll make an exception then.” She puts the stack of papers down and turns to her computer to hack away at the keyboard. “When’s your sister’s birthday?”

Ugh. Chances are 365 to one that I get this right. I gulp, and then I laugh. She lifts her head and stares at me. “Do you really expect me to know my sister’s birthday? I can’t even remember my mom’s.” I reach into my back pocket for my phone. “But I can call her, if you really need it.” Already starting to open my contacts, I inwardly pray that she’ll buy my charade and let me off the hook. I have no idea who I’m going to call if she doesn’t.

The secretary sighs but concentrates on the computer again, her eyes switching back and forth between the screen and her keyboard. “It’s all right. I’ll find her by name.”

Hell, where’s my Oscar for this awesome performance?

“McNeal, you said. Is it E-I or E-A?”

“E-A,” I tell her, mentally hi-fiving myself for reading the nameplate on apartment 403 yesterday. Soon, the printer in the back corner of the office comes to life with a soft rattle. The woman gets to her feet, taking off her glasses. Ten seconds later, she hands me Brinna’s schedule across the counter, and I tell her goodbye with a grateful smile.

Right outside her office, as soon as the door falls shut, I jump up and pump my fist in the air, hissing, “Yesss!” through clenched teeth.

The curious stares of passing students don’t bother me. They can’t know what a great achievement I have in my hands. My gaze flies from the top to the bottom of each column on the sheet to find out when and where the little pink kitten is in this building. And yep, it’s just what I thought. Comparing her schedule to mine, it’s like we may as well be studying on different planets. We’re in opposite places for almost everything, except Monday morning, when she has speech right next to my writing class, and then Wednesday and Friday from two to three thirty, when she has Introduction to Dance Performance and I’m done for the day.

There’s a star with a footnote next to the dance class. Apparently, the course is only starting today due to the delay of a teacher’s arrival. It’s an elective at the academy that I took last year. This fall, I traded it for Stage Combat Techniques, which is next on my schedule right now and—damn—I’m going to be late, if I don’t get moving. With the treasured information secured in my back pocket, I hurry downstairs, deciding it just might be worth it to sneak a glimpse of her dance class later, before I leave campus.

Killian is waiting for me by the door to the gym. “What the hell bit you, man? You shot off like a rocket.” He snickers and claps a hand to my shoulder as we walk inside. “Unexpectedly start your period, princess?”

“Yeah, go fuck yourself, dipshit!” Laughing, I dump my backpack in the corner and then crouch to store Brinna’s timetable safely away. But not before granting Mister Oh-So-Funny a taunting look. “I had to get something from the office.” A confident grin pulls the corners of my mouth up. “And now I know where she is.”

His brows lifting in respect, Killian nods. “Smart move, dude.”

“Only problem is, it’s like we’re on opposite sides of the country most days. We don’t even share lunch breaks.”

“That’s tough.” He waits for me to stand up so we can walk to the benches and find a seat. “But she’s your neighbor. How hard can it be to catch her at home?”

That remains to be seen. I grimace. “It’s not enough. I’m not relying on sheer dumb luck to run into her.” Time is ticking, and I don’t have the faintest idea where to begin with this girl. Hanging my head, I rub my temples, thinking hard. “I need more quality time with her. A good place to make a little contact.”

And then an awesome thought hits me. Man, why haven’t I thought of this before? My head snaps up to Killian, who looks like he’s having the exact same idea in this moment.

“Vinnie!” we blurt out.

He and Rick are renting a house a few blocks away, and while Rick usually spends the weekends at his girlfriend’s place, Vinnie is the king of parties. It was in their house that stealing Lawrence’s potential one-time-shag got me into this damn heap of trouble in the first place. The dude knows enough party-obsessed people that setting something up for tomorrow night wouldn’t be a big thing. He can knock on Brinna’s door this afternoon and invite her, too.

And when she comes, I’ll pocket my first kiss.

While in stage combat training, I can’t plot a whole damn lot because I’m busy blocking Killian’s fake punches. Performing a battle scene isn’t as easy as TV makes it look. But once we’re done and heading to our next class, I pull out my phone and dial Vinnie.

“Hey, man!” I say as soon as he picks up. “Can you set up a party for Saturday night?”

Tomorrow Saturday night?” he clarifies with surprise.

“Yep.”

His voice cools down. “Guess I can. Wait a sec.” It sounds like he’s pressing the phone to his chest while he talks to someone else. “Jace wants a party tomorrow. You good with that?” Three seconds later, he’s back on the line. “Rick says Liana’s out of town and a party’s not in the cards. He wants a quiet weekend.” I can practically hear him rolling his eyes.

Cursing under my breath, I pull my chest in and squeeze through a couple students who are on a collision course with me. Then I snap at Vinnie, “Let me talk to him.”

“He’s got a phone. Call him.”

Idiot. There isn’t time for childish games. “Give him the damn phone, dude.”

Vinnie laughs, but a moment later, Rick comes on the line. “Hey, loser.”

“Come on, pal. I need a party,” I press, waving at Killian, who takes a right turn to his next class while I head straight on. “This is urgent.”

“Why? Fingers worn out from too many handjobs?” He chuckles at his stupid joke. “Get a girlfriend, and it won’t be a problem anymore.”

My voice drops to a growl. “I don’t need to get laid. I need some time with Brinna.”

“In my house?”

Jeez, I didn’t see that laughing fit coming. “Know what? We’ll talk about this at lunch, when you’ve hopefully gotten a grip on yourself again.” Frustrated, I hang up, but all through Advanced Audition Technique, I try to think up ways to sway him. Why is it that your best friends always turn into fucking bastards just for a good laugh and the chance to see you writhe in humiliation?

After my fourth class, the guys and I meet in the cafeteria. Rick and Lawrence are waiting for me with hilarious expressions as they start eating their lunch. Unwrapping the snack I bought, I sit down with them and scoot one place to the right to leave a seat for Vinnie.

“Hey, Rhode. We said no help with the bet,” Law drawls around a bite of cheesy pizza. Of course Rick told him about my call.

“It’s just a party, man. I’m not asking you to tie the girl to a chair so I can make out with her.”

Rick opens a can of Coke and slurps the little that spilled over the edge. “If you don’t come up with a good plan real quick, that might be your only chance to win this wager.”

Before I take a bite of my BLT, I draw up a brow. “Are you sure your parents didn’t name you Brutus?”

“Sorry, man.” He chuckles and puts the Coke down. “But the prospect of seeing you play Isolde is really testing this friendship.”

“Okay, come on, guys,” Vinnie says, sitting down. He doesn’t look at any of us but desperately tries to find the beginning of the plastic wrap on his sandwich, turning the thing over and over. “A bet’s a bet, but we don’t have to make it extra hard for him. I think he’ll struggle enough as a mute over the next couple of weeks anyway.”

“Exactly! Thank you!” At least someone in this gang understands my dilemma.

“Fine, have your party then.” With a sneer, Lawrence shoves the last bit of pizza crust into his mouth. “If you find a way to invite her…without speaking and without sending messages through third parties or by phone.”

Expelling a relieved breath, I lean back, able to enjoy my meal at last. “Technically, I don’t have to. It’s Vinnie’s and Rick’s party. They can invite her, and it wouldn’t be breaking the rules.”

Even though I know he’d love to see me fail, Law nods in approval and toasts me with his bottle of Sprite. “Fair enough.”

“All right, we’ll throw the party and invite your girl. But now I have a condition,” Rick states, his eyes sparking with something scary. Damn it! “You’re going to play bartender at the party.”

My face scrunches up. “Mixing cocktails?”

“For the guests, yes. And”—he points one finger at me—“you’ll wear your work clothes to look serious.”

Wearing black jeans with the white dress shirt and gray vest isn’t the main problem in this scenario. Being busy is. “But if I’m tied to the bar, how am I supposed to get in touch with her?”

“That is your problem to figure out.”

“Dude, you better hope that you never, ever have to ask me for a favor in the future!” I laugh but finally agree with a nod. “Deal.”

And now I wonder if the social lives of all twenty-one-year-olds are as difficult as mine.

“Cool.” Vinnie’s face splits with a happy smile as he finally picks at the right end of the transparent layer and starts to unwrap his lunch. “I’ll send out the invitations then.”

 

*

 

After my last class of the day, I don’t walk toward the exit but stroll to the dance studio on the second floor. From what her schedule says, Brinna’s about to have her first dance class right now.

The break between sixth and seventh period is short, so it’s not unusual that the hallways clear fast. Classroom doors close to the left and right of me, and soon I’m walking alone down a silent corridor. Outside the dance wing, I wait a few more minutes, until the voices behind the heavy wooden door die out. The students must have proceeded to the studio by now, so I take a chance and slip through the door into the changing room.

Students have the opportunity to store their clothes and bags away in small lockers here. Some unused ones stand open, but others are shut and the keys are taken out. From around the corner that leads to the studio, Miss Millburn’s voice booms with her welcome speech. I had her as a teacher last year and liked her. She’s tough but fair, always pushing for an ounce more than you think you can give. And in most cases, she was right.

Carefully, I sneak a peek around the corner. Because Introduction to Dance Performance is a beginner’s course not tied to grades, it doesn’t surprise me to find freshmen as well as seniors, and everyone in between, sitting in a half circle on the floor, listening as their new teacher lays out the rules and explains what they should expect.

Which is some hip-hop and street dance, ballet, and—since dancing in movies is most often tied to romances and comedies—also lots of partner stuff. In short: the usual rubbish. I heard it all last year. Street dance was cool…ballet, not so much. But, come to think of it, those partner dances mean it would probably have served my current situation a lot better if I’d saved this course for sophomore year. Dancing with the right partner can create sparks. Chemistry. I experienced it firsthand with Melanie Foster last Christmas. Dancing with Brinna would be a good place to start.

Then again, if things turn out well for me, she’ll be at the party tomorrow. And who says I can’t dance with her there?

 

***

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