This time it was harsh and firm from me. “No.”

Displeasure flared in his eyes. “I own you, Marist. You want your independence with your car, then you will surrender a freedom to me in exchange. What I’m asking for is not challenging, and we both know how far you’re willing to go to get what you want.”

It was like he’d slapped me. His cruel, true words forced tears into my eyes, but I blinked them away.

His tone softened. “It’s just like we’ve done with chess. Play the game every night and earn what you want. I wouldn’t even be in the room.”

“That isn’t a game,” I spat out, “it’s extortion—not to mention—super fucked up.”

He crossed his arms over his chest. “That is my offer.”

I finally found freedom from the chair and stood so fast the legs scraped loudly across the hardwood. “My answer is no.”

“I told you that you weren’t ready.” He reached across the desk to collect the vibrator and put it back in the box. “Let me know when you are.”

The restaurant at the country club had ocean views and a great seafood menu, and they embraced the aquatic theme. It was maritime chic. The modern pendant lights over every table were designed to look like schools of white fish swimming with the current.

Sophia Alby was already seated when I arrived, and she brightened as soon as she spotted me.

Nerves rattled in my stomach as I made my approach. One off-handed comment from Royce to Sophia about how I was a nobody, and the next five years of my life had been irrevocably altered. Her whispered rumors were all-powerful and far-reaching.

But high school was over. Did she still have that kind of pull in her social circles?

I was banking on it.

“I was excited when you messaged,” she said, flipping her phone over so it was face down on the tabletop beside her menu.

I squeezed out a smile and tried to be the manufactured, Instagram version of myself as I sat across from her in the booth. “I’m glad this worked out. Thanks for meeting me.”

“Of course.” She leaned over the table that was uneven planks fashioned to look like a deck. “How’s your sister? I heard she’s in the hospital.”

Cape Hill was small, but it still amazed me how fast news could travel. It seemed like all roads of information flowed toward Sophia, though.

“She’s doing better,” I said. “They sent her home this morning.”

“Oh, good.” She took a sip of her water. “Nothing serious, then?”

At least she didn’t know why Emily had gone to the hospital. My sister had just started her second trimester, wasn’t showing yet, and wasn’t ready to announce her pregnancy. “No, nothing serious.”

The waiter came by, took our lunch orders, and once he was gone, Sophia couldn’t contain her curiosity another second. “What did you want to ask me?”

As she stared at me with her big doe eyes, perfectly sculpted nose, and gorgeous blonde hair, I couldn’t help but flash back to high school. She’d been Aphrodite. The most beautiful girl at Cape Hill Prep, queen of society and decider of who was popular and cool.

The girl I’d been five years ago was now pissed at what I was about to do, but it was necessary. Win at all costs.

“So,” I started, “this is kind of embarrassing. You might not remember much about me in high school.” It was likely the only thing she remembered was not to bother remembering a nobody like me. “But I wasn’t close with a lot of people. I’ve been so busy, I didn’t make many new friends at Etonsons either.” I paused, playing up my nerves, which wasn’t a stretch by any means. “At Royce’s party, you asked to take a picture and said . . . we were friends.”

Her smile froze and unease clouded her eyes. Did she think awkward Marist Northcott was going to ask to be her new best friend? I wanted to laugh when her gaze instinctively flicked toward the exit. She was thinking about running before I got clingy.

“Royce has a ton of friends,” I continued, “which means he’ll want a big bridal party.”

When it clicked, her gaze snapped back to me, and suddenly she very much wanted to be Marist Northcott’s new best friend. “Yeah,” she said enthusiastically, “he’s a great guy.”

I tried to keep my eye from twitching. “Right. So, I know it’s a lot to ask, but I’m hoping I can talk you into being one of my bridesmaids.”

Her eyes widened. “Oh, my God, yes! Of course, yes.” She pressed her palm flat to her chest like she’d just accepted an Academy Award. “I’m so honored, Marist.”

“Awesome.” It came out overly bright, not that she noticed.

Her excitement was so big, she nearly vibrated out of the booth. “I mean, it’s going to be the wedding of the century. The Northcotts and the Hales. Who do you think I’d be partnered with?” She gave me a hopeful look. “Tate?”


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