Excerpt Dear Ava by Ilsa Madden-Mills
My long blonde hair covers my face and I shove it away, my heart kicking up and pounding in
my chest as I open my eyes. Cicadas sing nearby, their song deafening in the woods. A high
keening sound breaks into the night, and I jerk, realizing it’s me making that weird noise. I
stop, sucking in air as I attempt to sit up, but decide against it when my arms feel like jelly. I’m
lying in tall grass, and I breathe slowly, orienting myself as I stare up at the starry sky. The
moon is full and bright, illuminating the wooded area next to me. Twisting my head, I see the
embers of a low bonfire glowing several yards away in an open meadow.
I swallow, my hands clenching the grass and damp leaves underneath me. My head spins in
a repeating spiral of pain, and I close my eyes again to try to ward it off.
Where am I?
Bonfire party, the Friday night kegger after the football game on a dirt road off Ivy Lane. Right,
But…where is everyone?
My mind replays the beginning of the evening: Jolena and me getting ready for the party at
her place and my nervousness at being surrounded by the opulence of her huge mansion. I
remember arriving at the field party in her black Range Rover then walking to the bonfire area
and saying hi to everyone, the Fireball we’d taken shots of before we came not yet kicking in
to make me brave. These people weren’t like me, didn’t really know me. They’re the Sharks at
Camden, the rich and popular kids, a tightknit group who look down their noses at pretty
much everyone else.
My fingers press on my forehead, shifting through the memories of the bonfire. Knox
Grayson, the Camden quarterback and the leader of the Sharks, was the first person I saw
when we arrived, his arm curled around a pretty girl. Enigmatic and dangerous-looking, he
has a long, ugly scar down the right hollow of his cheek, slicing into his upper lip.
He watched me walk up with Jolena, an intimidating glint in his narrowed gaze. I brushed it off
and forgot about him because Chance appeared in front of me. Beautiful, sweet Chance. He’s
part of that inner circle too, but he likes me. I recall him twirling me around, kissing me on the
cheek, and asking me to sing. After much prompting and cajoling, I stood in the bed of
someone’s truck and belted out “Skyscraper” by Demi Lovato. Cheers rang out. I felt…elated.
And I had another drink.
And Chance? Did we kiss after all this time of him chasing me? I don’t know.
Things get even fuzzier after that.
Someone pushed a new drink into my hands.
Remorse flies at me, regret tugging. I…I drank too much, something I rarely do.
Faces from the party zoom in and out of my head, their features vague, funhouse images
playing out, a horrible carnival ride that’s supposed to be fun but isn’t.
I push myself up to sitting and gasp when I look down and see that my denim skirt is bunched
up around my legs, and my underwear are missing. I let out a strangled sound and my hands
flail uselessly over my skin as if the scrap of white material might magically appear. Craning
my neck, I take in small, purple-looking bruises on my inner thighs…and my body throbs…
there, in my tender places.
“Oh, God, oh, God…” I say as I struggle to stand up but immediately plop back down in the
grass with my head between my knees, waiting for my stomach to settle.
More memories—are they real?—slam into my mind. Me dancing with a guy…guys. Me
heading off to the line of trees to go…somewhere…the bathroom? Was Jolena with me? No. I
shake my head as an image of someone with dark hair pops up, looming over me, leading me
away from the party—
I touch my swollen mouth.
He kissed me hard. He yanked my hair and shoved me down to the ground…
That wailing sound comes from me again and my eyes move wildly to the nearby trees.
Clarity and realization take over the cloudy memories, cutting into the alcohol. I don’t
remember details, most of it totally blank, but something happened in those woods…
something terrible. Chilling.
Someone took what wasn’t his—and I was helpless.
I hear my best friend Piper’s voice in my head. Don’t trust them, Ava. You might be a
cheerleader today, but no one gets inside their group.
But…I’d just wanted to be close enough to be with Chance.
Where is he now?
Tears fall like raindrops down my face, and I don’t know how long I sit in the grass, my mind
playing back the night, grappling with what happened one second then crying again the next
as the reality of it settles around me.
I try to stand but fall back to the ground.
God, why did I drink so much?
Minutes pass, maybe an hour, until I feel like I can move, crawling slowly away from the trees
and across the open meadow toward the road.
I hear the soft rumble of a vehicle, and headlights flash in front of me, a car swinging into the
field. Part of me is glad someone is here, but that is soon overridden by fear that it’s the
My anxiety ratchets up, and my muscles burn as I attempt to crawl back the way I came. The
bright glow of the lights blinds me, and my head swings wildly around, looking for somewhere
Run, run, run…
But I can’t.
Shuffling sounds break the stillness, a car door slamming, a voice calling out.
Broad shoulders stand over me, and I blink up. I can’t see his face, the beam of lights in my
face and the darkness around him forcing me to close my eyes. He speaks in a soft voice as
strong arms come down and sweep me up. Shifting around in his embrace, I try to fight, but
there’s nothing left, no struggle, no girl from the inner city who knows how to fight. I’m empty,
my body unable to resist him putting me in his car, snapping the seat belt around me. He says
something, maybe my name, asking me questions, but I can’t think straight. I can’t do…
He pulls away from the field, the car moving fast, so fast, and my head lolls to the side on the
seat, my eyes wide and anxious, staring at my captor. Who is he? Do I know him? I squint,
catching a glint of chiseled jawline and furrowed brow. His head turns and his steely gaze
locks with mine. I think I see anger—and just when I think I know him, just when it’s on the tip
of my tongue, there’s nothing but darkness as I slip away and sink into oblivion.
The sun beats down on me as I get out of my dark green, older-model Jeep Wrangler.
There’s a dent on the side and the paint is rusted. I worked three summers waiting tables to
buy the thing, and it’s my sole possession in the world. It’s not pretty, but it’s mine.
Parked next to me is a sleek black Porsche, and on the other side is a red Maserati. I sigh.
Almost a year since I’ve been a student here, yet nothing changes. Welcome to Camden
Prep, a prestigious private school in the middle of Melrose, Tennessee, one of the richest
small towns in the US, home to senators, country music stars, and professional athletes.
Slinging my backpack over my arm, I sprint through the parking lot, carefully evading the cars.
Tension and apprehension make my heart race the closer I get to the double doors of that ivycovered
main entrance, bookended by two castle-style gray turrets. The final bell for classes
hasn’t rung yet, but I have exactly five minutes to get to my locker and get to class. Arriving
late was my plan, hoping to avoid the peering eyes that will be waiting for me.
As I jog, I tug at my new school uniform, a mid-thigh red and gold plaid skirt, a new
requirement this year, something the administration instituted to blur the lines between the
haves and the have-nots. As if. Everyone already knows who the rich kids are and who are
the ones like me. Just look in the freaking parking lot.
I stop at the door, inhaling a deep breath. Dread, thick and ugly, eats at me, even though I
gave myself a hundred pep talks on the twenty-minute drive in from the Sisters of Charity
orphanage where I live in downtown Nashville.
I pat down my newly dyed dark hair, shoulder length with the front sides longer than the back,
a far cry from the super long wavy blonde hair I sported last year. Cutting and dying my hair
was…therapy. I did it for me, to show these assholes that I’m not going to be that nice little
scholarship girl anymore. Screw that. I gather my mental strength, pulling from my past,
reminding myself that I’ve seen shit they can’t even imagine. I’ve sat in a homeless shelter
holding a baby. I’ve watched my mom shoot needles in her arms, in between her toes,
wherever she could to get that high. I’ve watched her suck down a bottle of vodka for
These rich kids are fucking toddlers compared to me.
So why am I shaking all over?
I swing the doors open to a rush of cool air and brightly lit hallways. The outside may look as
if you’ve been tossed back a few centuries, but the inside is plush and modern.
Smells like money, I think as I stand for a second and take it all in.
Students milling around—girls in pleated skirts and white button-downs like mine, guys in
khakis and white shirts with red and gold ties—swivel their heads to see who’s coming in on
the first day of classes.
Fighting nervousness, I inhale a cleansing breath, part of me already regretting this decision,
urging me to turn around and run, but I hang tough, fighting nausea that’s been bubbling
since the moment I got in my car. Shit. I swallow down my emotions, carefully shuffling them
away, locking them up in that chest I keep in my mind, that special place where things I hate
go—and I fucking despise this place. I picture a chain and padlock on that box of memories
from last year.
I rove my eyes over them, not lingering too long on faces. Digging deep inside, I force a hard
expression on my face, one I’ve been practicing for weeks.
That’s right, Ava Harris, the bitch who went to the police after the party—although it didn’t do
any good—is back.
And I’m not going anywhere again. This school is my goal. All I need is this final year, and I
might be able to swing a full ride at a state school or even Vanderbilt.
I start walking down the hall and the crowd parts for me, more students seeing me and
pausing, their eyes widening, some gasping. The air around me practically bristles with
If I were a wicked witch, I’d cackle right now and really freak them out. My fists clench, barely
hanging on to my resolve.
You’re badass. You’re brave. You’re better than any of them.
But inside, my words of encouragement feel hollow.
Piper, my bestie since freshman year, rushes up to me and throws her arms around me.
“She’s back! My main girl is back! OMG, I HAVE MISSED YOU SO MUCH!”
Seeing her exuberant, welcoming face is exactly what I needed. Pretty with long strawberry
blonde hair pulled back with two butterfly clips, she’s been my friend since we had a chorus
class together. She can’t carry a tune for shit, and well, I love to sing. She’s a scholarship
student like me, and we stick together. Lines are carefully drawn here, demarcating who is
popular and who isn’t. She shoves at her neon pink cat-eye glasses and smiles widely. “I’m
so glad to see you.” She squeezes my hand. “Also, my parents are insisting you come to
dinner soon. They miss your smart mouth.”
I give her a wan smile, putting as much effort into it as I can. Her parents were the ones who
took me to the hospital last year. Nice people. Hardworking. What a real family looks like.
Damn, it’s been hard not seeing her every day like I used to.
But I don’t let on. A brave faceis my motto today.
She jumps when she hears her name over the intercom, talking fast as lightning. “Yikes! I
need to run. Can you believe I forgot my laptop on the first day? I’m such a ditz! See you in
class, ’kay? We have first period together, yes?” She gives me a quick hug. “One day at a
time, sister. You got this.”
But, do I?
I want to run away.
Then I think about my little brother Daniel and refocus. He needs me right now, and this
hellhole is perfect for him. Goals—I have them. Must stick to them.
Before I can get a word out—typical—she’s gone and bouncing down the hall like Tigger from
Winnie the Pooh. I miss her immediately, feeling the heat of everyone’s eyes on me.
I give myself a mental shake. It’s funny how no one really noticed me during my freshman and
sophomore year here. Nope. I was the girl who kept her head down and blended in as well as
I could, trying to keep my upbringing off the radar…until last year when I got it in my head to
be a cheerleader. I figured it would look good on my college applications, plus I assumed it
would take less time than soccer or tennis—which I really suck at. Also, part of me wanted to
be in Chance’s world, Friday night football games and parties with the in-crowd.
Yeah, we all know how that turned out.
The lockers seem a million miles away as I push past all the onlookers, my hands clenched
around the straps of my backpack. Whispers from the students rise and grow and spread like
a wave in the ocean.
And of course…
The Grayson brothers are the first Sharks I see, holding court with several girls as they lean
against the wall. Knox is my age and Dane is a year younger. It’s eerie how much they look
“She’s back,” I distinctly hear Dane say to Knox.
I flick my gaze in their direction, keeping my resting bitch face on, taking in the brothers, both
of them with muscular builds, tall with broad shoulders. They may look similar, but they’re like
night and day. Knox is the cold one, never smiling, his face full of disdane, accentuated by the
chilling scar that slices through his right cheek and into his upper lip, disrupting the curve of
his mouth and the perfection of his face. I swallow. Fuck him.
I refuse to spend this year afraid.
His lips twitch as if he reads my mind, that slash on his mouth curling up in a twisted
movement, and I glare at him. You don’t scare me, my face says.
Thick mahogany hair curls around his collar and his eyes are a piercing gray, sharp and
intense. His scrutiny doesn’t miss much and makes me antsy—has since freshman year
when I’d catch him looking at me, studying me as if I were a strange bug. And about that
scar…rumor is he doesn’t kiss girls on the lips when he fucks them, them apparently being
any girl he wants at Camden. Because no matter how bad that scar screws up his face, he’s
still the head Shark, and everyone wants to be in that group.
He’s wearing a fitted white button-up, his tie loose as if he’s already annoyed with it. He
spends a lot of time in the gym, I imagine, working on that muscular body, maintaining that
quarterback status. He holds my gaze for several seconds before dropping his cold eyes and
looking down at his phone—as if I’m no one, just another girl who isn’t worthy of his
Some things never change.
Dane is a near replica except his face is perfect, his hair longer and shoulder length, brushing
his shoulders. He’s the same height as Knox, about six three, but his jawline is more angular,
thinner. And his eyes? They’re road maps, bloodshot with a hint of wildness.
Yeah, they were both at the party.
Fear brushes across my spine and my body tenses as I recall that night. After the party,
someone (the person who picked me up, I assume) placed me on one of the couches on
Piper’s front porch. Then he’d rung the doorbell and left before Piper’s mom came to the door.
My feet stumble when I see who’s next to Knox: Chance Winston, my old crush, Mr. Boy Next
Door. I get a good look at how he pales, his blue eyes flaring as he shoves his hand into his
sandy-blond hair. It’s clear he had no clue I’d be showing up today.
That’s right, dickhead, here I am.Ava, version 2.0, and this time, I’m not holding back shit.
Gone is that girl who wanted to be part of his world.
Gone is the girl he begged to kiss.
Was it him?
His alibi was he left early with Brooklyn, another cheerleader.
Familiar shame rises up inside me, and I battle it down. What happened was not my fault.
Even though the drug test said I didn’t have any drugs in my system (only alcohol), I refuse to
believe it. Or maybe it was just the alcohol. I don’t know and it drives me insane.
I also had a rape kit performed—I cringe at that humiliating memory, the questions. Are you
sexually active?Yes, I’d had sex before. How long has it been since your last consensual
intercourse? Six months. Who was he?A guy from Sisters of Charity who is now living in
Texas. What kinds of medications do you take?None. They examined me from head to toe,
collecting evidence from my mouth to my lower body. They took photos of the bruises on my
thighs. They took my clothing and put it in a paper bag. They asked me details about what led
up to the assault, wanting me to tell them step by step what happened—and even though the
nurse was kind, so incredibly kind, I wept when I told her I couldn’t remember who it was or
what happened once he pushed me down.
And in the end…
There wasevidence I’d had sex, rough sex, but no semen or reliable DNA had been found.
Whoever he was, the motherfucker knew exactly what he was doing…
And Chance? His last text after I went to the police: Stop lying about the party. You aren’t
the person I thought you were. You’re just a slut.
God. Just the memory of that nasty word slices into my heart, cutting deep. I’m
notpromiscuous. I didn’t screw around at Camden; I was too busy studying and taking care of
my brother. Besides, it shouldn’t freaking matter if Ihadscrewed every guy here. Throwing that
label at me does not give anyone license to hurt me.
I must be insane because I stop in front of the three of them and study the lines of Chance’s
face, his square I’m-gonna-be-a-lawyer-someday chin, the dimples on either side of his
mouth, the ones that grow when he smiles.
There’s a frown there now.
Yes, I mentally whisper, my mouth tightening. I hope seeing me pisses you off.I’m not here for
you, jock. I’m here for me.
With that fake smile back in place, I move on. I’m almost to my locker, number 102, when two
girls appear in front of me, blocking my path.
Geeze. At least I’m getting it ALL over with at once.
A long exhalation leaves my chest as I take in Jolena and Brooklyn, my former cheer pals. My
lips twist. They were never reallymy friends, and we’d only cheered together for four games
before everything happened. Not once have they called or texted me in the past ten months.
And isn’t that enough to know exactly where they stand?
Jolena, the clear queen bee, is in red heels, her dark auburn hair twirled up in a high ponytail
that accentuates high cheekbones and ruby lips.
She left you at the partyruns through my head and my teeth grit.
“Well, well, well, if it isn’t Ava Harris. I can’t believe you have the nerve to show your face
here. Please tell me you aren’t going to try out for cheer.” The sly words are said with a
perfect fake smile.
I sigh. I’m not surprised she approached me right off the bat. It’s what I expected—anger and
resentment. By going to the police, I ratted on the popular kids and their kegger. To me the
party was a meaningless side note compared to what had happened, but to some here, I
committed an act of treason.
Plus, there’s the video of me dancing with her boyfriend—and several other football players—
at the party.
She’s shorter than me, even in her high heels, and I tower over her, thankful at least for my
five feet, eight inches. I’ve never met my dad—someone who got my mom pregnant, ran off to
work on an oil rig, and never came back—but I figure I get my height from him since my mom
“Move out of my way,” I say, keeping my voice low, laced with sharpness.
“Oh, it has claws. Make me.” She takes a step closer until I can smell the cloying scent of her
I put my hand on my hip, battling my jumpy stomach. “Trust me, I’ve known meaner girls than
you. Wanna try me, bitch?”
Her lips curl. “I’m so scared of the little orphan girl.”
My first gut reaction is to just…dart away and ignore her. It’s what I would have done if I’d had
an interaction with her in the past, because I just wanted to make things easy for myself here.
Blend in. Don’t make waves.
But today—today I’m stronger than I was ten months ago. I won’t let her intimidate me. I’M
STRONG. I am, goddammit. “I have nothing to lose, Jolena.” My finger pushes at her
shoulder as I shove past her and go to my locker.
I hear her muttering from behind me, calling out a juicy name, but I tune it out, focusing on
deep breathing. My hands tremble as I fumble with the locker combination I received in the
mail with my registration packet last week.
“You look different,” are the words I hear from my left. My eyes dart to the guy who said them,
taking in the clipped light brown hair on the sides, the top longer and swept back, the dark
brown eyes. About six foot and muscular with a hint of mischief in his gaze, he flashes a grin.
“You used to have light hair. The black is wicked cool. Saw you when you parked your car.”
His accent is obviously Bostonian, maybe Southie, with the R sound missing. Pakked your
He arches a brow, and the silver piercing there glints from the florescent lighting. “Name’s
Wyatt. I’m new since last January, but I heard all about you. I’ve seen your picture in the
yearbook. We’re locker neighbors.” Locka neigbahs. Another grin as he leans in closer to me.
“People are staring at you like crazy. You’re like…a celebrity. Welcome back.” Welcome bakk.
I hadn’t expected anyone to be nice. I turn toward my silver locker, gripping the lock. The
combination doesn’t work, and he watches me try it a third time until it finally gives. I fling it
open, blocking his face. It’s not that I’m not open to making new friends, but my heart is made
of armor now, hard and steely, impervious to the politics here.
Wyatt shuts his locker and shuffles away in my peripheral vision. My eyes move down to a
sealed envelope on the bottom of my locker. I frown. How did this get here? I check the
outside and take in the small vents where someone must have pushed it through.
For Avais scrawled across the envelope, and chills ghost over my neck, imagining who would
have left it. Plus, how did someone find out my locker number? I chew on my lips and stuff my
lunchbox inside the space, tempted to just leave the letter there. What if it contains anthrax? I
roll my eyes at my own ridiculousness. I’m smart enough to know anthrax spores released
into the air could harm not only me but several people, including the person who delivered the
letter. Okay, fine, but I’m still not touching it. I’ll grab some gloves from the science lab later
and then toss it in the trash.
I’m putting my lock back on when I change my mind and fling the door open once again, pick
up the letter, and tear at the flap. What if it’s someone who knows about the keg party? What
if it’s from Piper?
Your eyes are the color of the Caribbean Sea… Shit. That’s stupid. What I really mean is…
you look at me and I feel something REAL. And that never happens.
It’s been ten months since you were here, but I can’t forget you.
I’ve missed seeing you walk down the hall.
I’ve missed you cheering at my football games.
I’ve missed the secret smile that curls your lips.
The truth is, I wanted you back then—but you had him.
And then everything fell apart that night.
If you need anything, I want to be there for you. Text me. Please. 105-555-9201
P.S. I’m a Shark, but I’d never hurt you.
P.P.S. I’ve tried to fight it with everything I have, but I want you. Still.
My heart pounds as I read the words, and I’m vaguely aware of a bell ringing and students
milling past me, getting to classes. I want to crumple the letter and set it on fire, but I hold
back. Who left this? Of course, I don’t believe it for a second. First of all, it’s from one of the
football players—a Shark—and they all despise me. It was theirparty and they were the ones
the police focused their interviews on, even though in the end, no one admitted to anything.
They all said the same thing: Ava Harris was drinking when she came. No one gave her a
drink. No one saw her go in the woods.
The late bell rings, startling me out of the past, and I stuff the letter inside my backpack, slam
my locker, and bolt for my first class.
I park my Mercedes-Benz G-Class in a spot and turn the ignition off.
“Fucking hot new ride,” Chance says from the back seat as he gets out, slinging his backpack
over his arm. His pale blue eyes crinkle in the corners; you can tell he’s spent months outside
in the sun for football. “You always get the best toys, Knox. Wish I had your money.” He huffs
out a laugh, and I shrug, knowing there’s no jealousy in the words. His family wealth doesn’t
rank up there with mine and Dane’s—our dad’s a real estate billionaire—but Chance’s dad
does well as a lawyer. We’ve been best friends since sixth grade when we both got selected
early to play on the JV football team at Camden, and nothing’s ever come between us.
I step out of the car and hit the clicker to lock the door. “Nothing but the best for the
Graysons.” There’s sarcasm in my tone, but he doesn’t seem to notice.
My brother Dane gets out of the passenger side and pats the hood of the car. “Yeah, dear old
Dad was feeling guilty for leaving us home all summer to hang out in Europe. Nice way to
appease us, don’t you think?” His tone is deadpan, his face expressionless, except for the
lines of tension around his lips. Worry crosses my mind. He’s fine, I tell myself, my eyes
following him as he walks around to join us.
Liam crawls out from the back seat. A six-four linebacker for our team, he’s our star defensive
player and on his way to a big college. ESPN has him ranked higher than anyone on the
team, including me. He needed a ride this morning but told me his dad is dropping something
off for him later—a new, sleek black Escalade. With a wicked grin, he smiles as he
straightens, stretches out his arms, and looks over at the school, taking in the stately
structure, the turrets on each side, the ivy that grows from the bottom, draping the gray stones
on either side of the entrance. “Are you getting chills like I am, boys? Senior year—it’s ours.
Except for you, Dane. You’ve got another year of this.” He cracks his knuckles and rubs his
hands together. “And I’m going to bang every girl I want. More than you assholes.”
“So you and Jolena are off again?” comes from Dane. “Guess I’m not surprised. You two are
a soap opera.” He rolls his eyes.
Liam shrugs his broad shoulders, running a hand through his side-swept, white-blond bangs
—old style Justin Bieber. “Too many girls in the world to be tied down to just one,” he adds,
Chance chuckles. “Careful there, Liam. I do recall you getting a rash on your dick this summer
from one of those college girls you picked up at the club we snuck into. Damn, she was hot—
but an STD? That doctor’s appointment had to be embarrassing.”
Liam’s face reddens. “It was curable, okay? Don’t be telling people that shit—it will kill my
I slap him on the back. “I’m going to make it the morning announcement. You know I have pull
in the office.”
Liam gives me a withering look. “Screw you, QB1. You try that and see what happens on the
I arch a brow, feigning nonchalance, but my hackles rise. Doesn’t seem to take much these
days. “It was a joke. Don’t worry, I’ll only tell Jolena and then we’ll see how she feels about it.”
His face flattens. “Still not amused, Knox.”
I laugh, satisfaction washing over me that I got to him. There’s weird competition between us.
Maybe it’s an offense-versus-defense kind of thing, but mostly it stems from me being in
charge of the team, coupled with the fact that I had Jolena sophomore year before him. I
tapped that fast and got out, and for all his blustering about not being serious with her, he
doesn’t want me anywhere near her.
Liam rolls his shoulders. “You’ve been acting weird as shit lately, Knox. Worried about
winning a state championship already?” He laughs. “Don’t worry, I’ll win those games for us.
You just throw some pretty passes and I’ll do all the hard work.”
“Fuck off,” I say softly, my eyes cold, twisting my lips into a twisted snarl that makes him give
me a double take then dart his eyes away.
Dane grows still next to me and gives me a side-eye, which I refuse to acknowledge. Liam is
his best friend, and he knows when my hackles are up and wants to soothe them. Funny,
since I’m the one always worrying about him.
The moment passes as the four of us step onto the long sidewalk that leads to the entrance. I
open the door for them and they head inside. Trailing behind, I’m about to walk in when a
dark green Jeep whips into the lot and speeds past the sidewalk. I frown, my gut tensing up
when I see the profile of the girl driving. Ava.A tight feeling settles in my chest, and unease
mingled with…excitement washes over me as I watch her park and get out of her car. Yeah,
I’m a regular split personality. Part of me never wants to see her again, but the other side of
me…well, that’s the one I have to worry about.
Liam rushes off to the headmaster’s office to get his schedule figured out while Dane,
Chance, and I linger close to the door, checking out the incoming freshmen and waiting for
the friends we haven’t seen over the summer.
Dane leans his head against the wall and scrubs his face with hands that tremble.
“What’s up with you?” I ask.
He raises his head. “Stop hovering. I’m fine.” Gray eyes the same color as mine give me a
look. His pupils are dilated.
My jaw grinds, but I keep my lips zipped. The more I ride him, the more belligerent he gets,
and you can’t argue with—
She walks in.
It’s been months since she graced the hallowed halls of Camden with her long, lean legs and
big blue-green eyes…eyes that, when I ever had the chance to meet them, grabbed me for a
startling moment before brushing right past.
I still remember the day she showed up freshman year, that look of hope on her face, of
optimism that Camden was going to be a new beginning for her. She wasn’t my kind, a
scholarship girl, but something about her…makes me feel…off.
And I don’t like off. I like complete and utter control.
“She’s back,” Dane says, straightening up from the wall, an enigmatic smile on his face.
“Gotta give it to her—she’s got balls.”
“Hmmm,” I say, taking the few seconds while she isn’t looking to check her out. Gone is the
long blonde hair, replaced with jet-black. She looks…harder. Her mouth is frozen in a smirk,
bright red lipstick on her full lips, accentuating the sensual curves there, the paleness of her
perfect skin. Small freckles dot over her nose, same as before, but it’s the tense set of her jaw
that tells you she’s not the same. Her skirt is a hair too short by the school guidelines, the
hem hitting about three inches above her knee. Her red blazer with the Camden dragon crest
is draped over her arm, her white blouse snug around the fullness of her breasts. On her feet
are ragged black Converse.
“Why are you staring at her like that?” Chance hisses at me, standing on the other side.
“She’s the enemy.”
I take in that vulnerable bend in her shoulders, the one she keeps attempting to straighten as
she walks closer to us.
I shrug, keeping the movement cool and light. “She’s definitely a spark that just might ignite
and catch fire.”
“And burn us all down in the process,” Dane murmurs, giving me an arched brow.
Chance isn’t even listening to us, his jaw popping as he watches her walk closer to us. “I can’t
believe she’s back!” He looks at me. “Did you know?”
“Why would you think I’d know?” I ask.
“Because you always know shit.”
“True.” But I don’t answer his question.
Chance’s chest rises. “My father took my car away—because of her. When I did nothing
My gaze is still on her face, watching as she seems to lose some of her cool and stumbles in
front of us, staring at Chance.
He stiffens and pales. Nothing ruffles him like someone bringing up Ava to him these past
months, and seeing her for the first time since that night…he looks as if he’s seen a ghost. He
had it bad for her last year, pursuing her, flowers delivered to school, sitting with her at lunch.
He talked about her constantly, how he thought she might be the onefor him.
“Don’t you ever wonder if she was telling the truth?” I say the words, knowing they’re going to
push buttons, and they hang in the air between us like a dark cloud.
Chance’s face turns bright red. “There was zero proof. Her drug tests came back clean. She
was drunk and she had sex, but it wasn’t with me. I left that party early with Brooklyn because
Ava…” He stops, his lips thinning.
“You over her?” I stare at him hard.
Hmmm. Is he? Chance doesn’t chase after girls. They come to him.
But last year, he was totally lost in Ava. I saw it when he looked at her in class. I saw it when
he’d throw down his helmet after a game and dash over to pick her up and twirl her around.
He doesn’t do that with Brooklyn.
I stare down at my phone. “Speaking of drugs, date rape drugs wear off pretty fast, actually. I
looked it up. And she did have bruises on her legs…according to the police report.” Which my
dad easily obtained for Dane and me. That was a tense few days with my dad’s scrutiny
squarely on us for the first time in a while. Dane was one of the guys dancing with her in the
video that circulated and Dad was pissed. And then there was mypredicament after I talked to
the police. Yet once the police interview was over, Dad flew us to LA for a U2 concert as if
nothing had happened.
I take Dane in again. He’s still watching her, a low look in his eyes. I frown.
Is it just normal curiosity or something else?
Chance’s mouth opens. “What the hell, Knox? Are you on her side? She almost got every guy
at that party expelled.”
“Maybe we should have been,” I say.
He rears his head back. “You’re crazy.”
“If you didn’t do anything, there’s nothing to worry about, right?” I study my nails, wondering
why I’m goading my best friend. But I know why. It’s her. She brings out that dark well of
emotion in me that makes me want to poke and prod just to get a reaction.
Brooklyn appears next to Chance, batting her lashes up at him as she curls her arm around
his upper arm.
I had her too, under the bleachers after a big win.
And it’s just water to me, tasteless, meaningless, nothing but passing the time.
Chance barely notices she’s there. He’s still looking at me. “You’re a dick,” he finally says.
“So are you. You just hide it better.”
“What does that mean?”
I lift my shoulders. “Nothing.”
Yet I’m looking at everyone with fresh eyes since the Ava incident—even my best friend.
“We’re all dicks. We’re Sharks,” Dane says just as the bell rings.
Sharks. I don’t know where the name came from, this “club” we’re in, but it’s been around for
years. Our dad was one. Chance’s too. We stick together. We run this place.
We straighten, pick up our backpacks, and head down the hall, our shoulders milling through
the less fortunate, making our way to class.
I can’t stop my eyes from lingering on Ava’s back as she struggles with the combination on
her lock. Her head is tilted down, the graceful arch of her neck taut with tension.
Yeah. She walked in here like she owns the place, but she doesn’t.
The very air around her seems lit with an aura of…expectancy.
Emotion, something unnamed I can’t put my finger on, rare and beautiful, brushes down my
spine. The truth is…Ava is…different.
And fuck, I dig different.
Stay away from her, Knox.
I’m so freaking late. I’m practically running when I dash into my History of Film class. The
teacher, an older lady with bobbed hair who I recognize from last year as Mrs. White, lifts her
head when I come to a stop, my shoes squeaking on the slick tile. Everyone already has a
seat, and it’s clear from the seating chart on the whiteboard that she doesn’t have my name
down. I frown. That’s what late registration gets me. It’s going to be like this all day, me
showing up and not being on the roll.
She stops talking and motions me forward. Great. Everyone cranes their neck to get a look at
me as I walk up to her desk, maneuvering through the small desk tables, each one seating
two students each. Shit. I’m going to have to actually sit next to someone. I send a prayer up
that it’s not one of the Sharks but a regular student like me. I pass by Piper, whose eyes are
wide. I grimace when I see she’s been placed next to Dane. She sticks out her tongue at me
and rolls her eyes, and I bite back a grin.
“Sorry I’m late, Mrs. White. It won’t happen again.”
“Snitch,” a male voice coughs out, and her gaze goes behind me, searching the class.
“That’s enough,” she says to them before looking back at me. “It’s fine, Ava. First day we give
some leeway.” Her smile is small, pity on her face. She messes with some papers on her
podium, shuffling them around, her finger going down a list. “I don’t have you on my roll, and
honestly this class is so popular with juniors and seniors, almost every seat is filled.”
“I registered late. Sorry.” I keep my spine straight, feeling every pair of eyes in the room on
me. “Just put me in a chair in the back. I don’t even need a table.” I try to smile, but I’m not
feeling it. Nervously, I tug at my skirt.
A deep male voice comes from my left. “I have an empty seat, Mrs. White. Liam dropped.”
Her head lifts, and I follow her gaze, my gut churning, recognizing that voice.
My eyes find Knox Grayson’s. Again, there’s no expression on his face, just that superior,
disdainful, messed-up smile he always wears.
Mrs. White’s eyebrows hit the roof, and I guess she’s just as surprised as I am that one of the
Sharks has offered to let me sit with him.
I tear my eyes off Knox’s face.
“I’d prefer the seat in the back,” I tell Mrs. White quietly, leaning in, but unfortunately my
words must carry because someone giggles and I hear the silky voice of Jolena.
“Wow, a girl who doesn’t want to be next to Knox—priceless.”
She puts her elbows on the podium and leans in until our faces are close and there’s no
chance anyone will hear. “I’m good with whatever you want. I can put you in the back, but
honestly, it’s only going to isolate you from everyone. You could take the seat up front with
Knox, and if you have any issues at any time, come to me and I’ll take care of it.” Her voice is
soft, her demeanor kind. “It’s up to you though, Ava. Whichever you want.”
Sit in the back or sit next to the head Shark?
My throat grows tight as I ponder my options, but I already know what I needto do. Establish
myself as fearless.
Swallowing hard, I give her a tight nod, pivot, and walk to Knox’s desk.
I can do this. I can.
Knox’s eyes are low as he sits back in his chair, never shifting his gaze as I slide into the seat
next to his. He takes me in, cocking an eyebrow, as if he’s surprised.
He’s a foot away from me, but I swear I can feel the heat from his body looming close. I scoot
my chair a few inches farther from his, making a horrid scraping noise on the tile. He huffs out
a laugh and scoots away from me until his chair is next to the wall, putting even more
distance between us. Good, it’s like that then.
Never liked you from the get-go, even before that party, my face says as I shoot him a glare.
“Ava,” he says in acknowledgment, his voice husky, laced with darkness. Since freshman
year, I’ve avoided him, something about him unnerving. It’s not the scar, because things like
that don’t bother me. I’ve lived with kids with scars and burns on their faces—sometimes on
their entire body—from abuse. Luka, my first love and the guy I gave my virginity to, had
cigarette burns up and down both forearms.
“Mr. Cold and Evil. We meet again.”
Although I don’t think we’ve ever actually spoken to each other one on one. It’s weird. Even
when I was cheering those first few games and was welcome in their group, he always went
out of his way to avoid me.
“Nice,” he whispers as Mrs. White begins her lecture. “Didn’t know you’d given me a
nickname. Guess this means you’ve been thinking about me.” He pauses. “I kind of like it. Fits
me. Truthfully, I’d prefer Hot as Fuck, but you do you.”
I glance at his face, taking in the long patrician nose, the sculpted cheekbones, the way his
dark hair curls around his face, slightly softening his scar. He’s rolled up the sleeves on his
button-down, the muscles of his forearms tightly roped and defined. His upper arms are bulky,
his shirt tight against them.
I tear my eyes off him and stare down at my laptop, shuffling around to get my things
together. I slam down my notebook and pen.
What if he was the one? jumps into my head.
Yet, I doremember him leaving the party early with Tawny. I do. His hand was tucked into the
back pocket of her jeans as they walked away from the bonfire and got into his car.
Did he kiss her?
Why doesn’t he kiss?
WHO CARES? Right.
“We’re going to be working on a movie project for the next few weeks, so where you’re sitting
today is your permanent seat for a while.”
“Great,” I mutter.
Knox gives me a dark look. “My sentiments exactly.”
Mrs. White continues. “We’re going to focus on movies at least twenty years old. Some
perhaps you’ve heard of. Some are iconic, some suck, and I can’t wait to get your thoughts on
the issues they cover, which you’ll put in a five-thousand-word essay.”
“What kind of movies, Mrs. White? My dad doesn’t let me watch sexy films, so I hope they’re
all G-rated.” It’s Dane, his voice lazy as he sits next to Piper.
A few people snigger until Mrs. White gives them a pointed glare. “I’ll make sure you get
Charlotte’s Web, Dane. Too bad, really, especially with so many good movies on the list I
have, like The Godfather, for one. Guess I’ll pass that one to someone else.”
He deflates. “Please don’t give me Charlotte’s Web. The spider dies and all that crap. And
Wilbur is whiny.”
“Too late,” she says, already writing his and Piper’s names on the board.
I chance another glance over at their table, and Piper does a gagging motion at me as she
points to him. I grin. Dang, I’ve missed her.
The teacher goes down the list of pairs, assigning movie titles. Field of Dreams goes to
Chance and his partner, Brooklyn, and from the way she’s tracing her fingers over his hand
on the desk, she’s evidently happy to be next to him. I stare at him unabashedly, my eyes
lasers of hate, and he reddens.
I flip back around and face the front, my hands clenched in my lap.
“Not over him?” Knox drawls. “He’s dating her, you know. Might be serious.”
I ignore him.
“Nothing to say? I guess that means you’re still carrying the torch. Can’t blame you. He’s a
good guy most of the time.”
“Zip your lips, Cold and Evil, or I’ll punch you in the face.”
His head leans in close…too close. “I believe you, which is funny, because I always took you
for the quiet scholarly type, but underneath is a little hellcat.” He moves back, the air around
him shifting as I catch his cologne. He smells like the ocean, salt and sunshine and coconuts,
and my chest swells at the sensations and tingles that tiptoe down my spine. The scent is so
I turn my head and stare at him, facing off with those gunmetal gray eyes. “What kind of
cologne is that? Eau de fish? It reeks.”
His face is blank. “Nobody says that shit to me.”
“They’re pussies then.”
I swear I see his mouth twitch. He taps his pen against the desk. “It’s actually something my
mom picked up in Paris.”
“Ah, Paris. Nice. Beautiful place, Eiffel Tower and all. I shop there all the time.”
“Really? I wouldn’t have known from the state of your shoes. When’s the last time you had a
A fissure of anger mixed with…something makes me shiver. I chalk it up to missing the usual
breakfast at Sisters of Charity. The nuns put out eggs and toast most days, but I was too
queasy to eat this morning.
I give him a fake smile. “Maybe I like worn-out things. At least they’re original and not a
cookie-cutter leather loafer. Let me guess…” I tap my chin and take in his perfect footwear.
“Fresh from Italy, no doubt.”
“Man, it’s so nice being rich. What’s it like being poor?” His eyes glow at me.
He likes fucking with me. Why am I not surprised…
I bite my bottom lip on purpose, goading him, getting a thrill when his eyes dip to my mouth.
“Cold and Evil, do you get off on arguing with me?”
His voice is husky. “Tulip, you can get me off whenever you want. Wanna meet me under the
bleachers later? I don’t mind slumming.”
My breath whooshes out. “Who the fucktold you my middle name?” I hiss as Mrs. White talks
at another table, assigning another movie. It wasn’t Piper, because she knows how much my
middle name annoys me.
He laughs darkly. “I know things.”
“Did you rape me?” The words come out unplanned, but there they are, and I’m glad I said it
because his face goes from bored amusement to shuttering into a mask.
I watch him intently, cataloguing each little change, searching for the truth in the granite-cut
curves of his face. His jaw pops, betraying emotion, but when he looks at me straight in the
eyes, all I see is an arctic winter in those depths.
“I don’t have to take by force what is offered to me on a daily basis. I’ve never, evertouched a
girl unless she begged for it. You aren’t even on my radar, Tulip. I like them willing. But, hey,
the offer’s still open for a pity-fuck.”
Not on his radar. Good.
“But you were there.”
“Doesn’t mean it was me. And I left that party—with my very willing date. Fucked her at my
house then took her home.”
We’re facing each other now, our heads bent low, our voices hushed, mine angry, his taut
and firmly in control.
“You’re one of them, a Shark. I can’t believe a word you say,” I bite out. “You’re all liars.”
“We’re all liars. Sure,” he mocks. “I saw you drink Fireball like it was iced tea. I saw you
dancing in a circle of at least six guys.”
“Huh, I thought it was more. Did you count them? Funny, I didn’t see you in that video.”
“Because I don’t do that shit.”
“Why not? Am I too ugly for you?”
“I have a football career to think about,” he says, that unflappable control holding strong.
I’d give my right boob to see Knox Grayson lose his cool.
“Yeah, everyone knows you’re high and mighty. Everyone kisses your ass. Guess what—I
don’t. I think underneath that exterior is a guy who’s got some real problems. Mommy and
Daddy not love you enough as a baby? Is that why Dane is still snorting coke?” I pause at the
thunderous expression he now wears. “Oh, yeah, I know what it looks like. Grew up with an
alcohol and drug-addicted mom—did you know that about me too? And in case you didn’t
know, my mom is still around, only she dumped us years ago to take off to California. See, it’s
bad all over, right? No matter the social class we belong in, when it comes down to it, we’re
all just humans with the same fucking problems. Mine’s dealing with not remembering what
happened that night. Yours is…I don’t know. You’re just a cold sonofabitch.”
It was quite a speech and he blinks rapidly, his chest inflating as he flashes a look over my
shoulder to glance at Dane. He gazes back at me, eyes hard. “Leave my brother out of this.”
I can’t stop. “All I had that was mine—my body—was taken without my consent, by you or one
of your precious teammates. There’s nothing else you can do to me, Cold and Evil. Go tell
your little brat pack that today. Tell them I’m coming for them. I’m going to figure it out.
Something’s going to trigger my memory and when it does, I’m going to kill him with my bare
“I’ll kill himwith my bare hands.” His eyes flash like lightning.
My heart drops, confusion making me suck in a breath. What?
His face is inches from mine, and from the outside it might appear as if we’re having a
moment, but we both know the truth. He and I…we don’t mix.
I search for words. “Why…why would you say that?”
His gaze traces the lines of my face. “Maybe not everyone here is your enemy, Tulip. Think
on that. And while you’re at it, let it all out. Say everything you’ve obviously been holding back
He wants me to go off on him? WHY?
I swallow, caught between my need to lash out at a Shark—something I’ve dreamed about for
months—and my urge to ask him to explain why he’d kill the person who hurt me. Anger wins.
“Fine. I hate you and your Sharks. You ruined me last year, but I won’t let you take this year
from me or shape the person I’m meant to be. If you make my life hell, I’ll do the same to
His eyes lower, his long dark lashes closing briefly. “I don’t want to make your life hell. Maybe
you don’t know me at all, Tulip.”
“You’re their leader,” I grind out. “I’d like to see you walk in my shoes.”
His gaze goes down to my Converse. “No thanks.”
“Asshole,” I say, my jaw tight.
“Major asshole. Like the biggest dick at this school, and I don’t mean size-wise. I mean,
douchebag of major proportions. I can’t believe girls actually want you. You’re disgusting.”
“And the truth is, you’ve probably peaked as a quarterback in high school. Someday you’re
going to be a lonely, middle-aged man with deep-seated commitment issues. You’ll be in AA,
hooked on porn, and crying a lot—”
His hand scrubs his mouth, and at first I think he’s pissed; then I realize his shoulders are
“What’s so funny?” I snap.
His eyes spear mine, amusement laced with…excitement. “You.”
I recall the way he used to look at me when I walked the halls, how he’d glance away quickly,
but something about me…
I reach out and ruffle his hair. It’s silky under my fingers, and I flinch back, feeling branded.
Shit, I never got this close to him in three years, and I justtouchedhim.
What is wrong with me?
It’s this place. It’s the new ME.
He freezes at my touch and jerks away as if I shocked him.
His lips part, his chest heaving. “Don’t ever do that.”
I will my pounding heart to slow down. “Oh, I think you do like slumming. Very much.”
Mrs. White clears her throat as she approaches our table. “Well, I’m glad to see you two
getting along. I’ve got some movie choices for you. You’ll need to watch it together and work
on the essay. Is that going to be a problem?”
“No,” Knox says tersely.
I flutter my lashes. “Oh, I can’t wait to work with Knox. He’s very…solicitous. What do you
have for us?”
She smiles, clueless. “Ah, well, I have two here, either Star Trek Vor Dirty Dancing. Which
“Dirty Dancing,” we both say at the same time and then dart looks at each other.
She grins. “Excellent. I’ll leave it up to you to decide on the topic, but might I suggest how the
movie portrays societal differences and overcomes them by bringing two groups together, or
perhaps a discussion of how the romance in the movie has managed to capture the hearts of
“Societal differences,” I say.
“Romantic aspect,” Knox says over me.
We glare at each other.
Are you for real, my eyes say.
Oh, yeah, his say back. And this—fucking with you—is going to be so much fun.
She laughs. “Whichever you want. Maybe you can come up with something more original.
You need to have it watched and notes turned in two weeks from now.”
She walks off, and Knox and I sit in silence.
Finally, I’m the one to break the tension. “Romantic aspect? Seriously? What is wrong with
“What? Patrick Swayze was my mom’s favorite actor and Ghost was the one movie she’d
watch over and over.”
He seems to take a deep breath and I think he might explain, but then he clamps his lips tight.
I narrow my eyes at him. Oh, it’s definitely something. Truthfully, I barely know a thing about
him. Man of mystery, indeed. Kinda like James Bond. I laugh a little at that image and my
randomness. James Bond is sort of a hero, albeit a dark one, and Knox is no hero.
I pick up my pen and twirl it around. “Keep your secrets then. I don’t care.”
He gives me a careful look, and I think I see banked emotion there. His throat moves as he
swallows. “My mom died when I was thirteen.”
He rubs his hand over his messed-up mouth, as if he’s surprised the words came out.
I blink rapidly, trying to realign what I thought I knew about the inscrutable Knox Grayson.
How did I not know this?
It’s as if he reads my mind. “Happened before you came to Camden.”
Okay, so he lost his mom. Don’t feel sorry for him, Ava.Fuck that. He’s Knox, a Shark, and he
doesn’t deserve my—
He gives me a tight nod. “People die. In fact, do you know that from the moment we’re born,
we’re actually dying, our bodies decaying? It’s the circle of life. Life is tenuous, and we get no
clue as to when it’s going to be over.”
I chance a look at him and his mouth is compressed, tight and drawn.
Without thinking, I give him an answering nod. “I get it. We don’t know when our time is up,
which is why I’m not in a million years letting anyone at this place ever get to me again. My
life isn’t over because of what a Shark did to me.”
He exhales. “Right. I imagine you don’t want to spend any time with me that you don’t have
to. We’re just going to pretend to watch Dirty Dancing together.”
I nod. “I can’t imagine being alone with you.”
He doesn’t answer, and I turn to look at him. He’s toying with his laptop, rubbing his fingers
absently across the silver keyboard, looking at nothing. Suddenly, he frowns. “Because you’re
afraid of me? It wasn’t me.”
I think about it, studying the wavy dark hair, the silkiness of it. The guy who raped me had
dark hair…I think. The night was dark, so maybe I’m wrong, and I can’t trust those memories.
I say quietly, “I just don’t like you.”
He jerks out a piece of paper from his notebook, scribbles a number, and passes it over to
me. “Here’s my cell. Don’t share it, okay? Maybe we can watch on the same night and talk
about what topic we want to pick when it’s fresh.”
Knox Grayson never gives out his number. I know because every girl since freshman year
has tried to get it, to sext him or whatever. I wasn’t one of those. Rumor is he’s warned all his
buddies if they share it, they’ll be sorry.
I take the scrap of paper, instantly recognizing that the number isn’t the same one in the letter
that’s been lingering in the back of my mind since I found it. Well, at least my “secret admirer”
isn’t him. It was probably from Jolena or one of her minions.
“No problem. One night this week? Watch around nine and chat at eleven?” I exhale. “I could
do earlier but the younger kids get the TV after dinner, and I have to wait for them to go to
bed. I don’t have one in my room.”
“Younger kids? I thought you only had one brother.”
How does he know about Daniel?
“I live at Sisters of Charity. I only have one blood brother—actually he’s my half-brother—but
there are twenty little ones there and then the older kids.”
He scowls. “You’re still there? I thought you’d—”
I give him a glare. “Where else would I be? I just turned eighteen, but they’re letting me stay
until I graduate. I wanted to get a dorm here, but I don’t know if that will work out…” My voice
trails off and I shrug. I’m sure he doesn’t want to hear the details about me coming back to
He frowns, his brow wrinkling as if he’s in deep thought. “I see. Fine. Just text me when you
want to watch it. Whatever.”
I look away from him and back at the teacher. Fine. I just want this first day to be over.
—END OF EXCERPT—