Flags of blue and gold flapped in the light breeze, doing nothing to cool me from the June heat simmering under my gown. The sticky humidity plastered the dress to my skin. The sun was slowly setting, but it only intensified the temperature on the stands set in the middle of the football field. “Congratulations” signs to our class were plastered everywhere, and our principal, Victoria Matlin, dressed in a dark skirt suit with nylons, which had to be unbearable, addressed the crowd.
I stopped listening after I got my diploma, lost in thought, and the need to be done with this school. This entire year.
Shading my eyes, I spotted my sister standing on my father’s legs, screaming my name. “Jay-Jay!” She waved one of my old gold-and-blue cheerleading pom-poms. Smiling, I waved back, my gaze falling over Mom, Dad, Grandma Nessa and Grandpa T, Grandma Penny, and then my best friend, Stevie. Today her hair was tinted gold and blue beneath her white-blonde locks, in honor of my graduation. She sat next to my mom on the bleachers, putting a finger to her head, mimicking shooting herself, making me laugh. I told her she didn’t have to come, but she insisted she wanted to be here for me.
“You need at least one friend out there. Not like you have any left at that awful school,” Stevie had said the night before while out for dinner.
“Wow, thanks.” The truth still hurt.
“I’m sorry, but do you have any other friends?”
“No.” I groaned laying my head on the table, pizza steaming between us. I had gone from one of the most popular girls to a complete and total outcast.
“Wait, that’s not true.” I sat back. “I do. Chris, Jones, Doug, and Megan… Can I count Megan?”
“No.” Stevie shook her head with a dramatic sigh. “She doesn’t like you. She’s Krista’s best friend. And none of them will be there anyway. Just sad, Whiskey… tragic, really.”
“Stop, please. I feel overwhelmed with warm fuzzies.”
“You know I must love you. I have not stepped foot on campus since the day I graduated. I even dyed my hair in your honor. This is epic love, I’m telling you.” She slid a slice onto her plate, then licked her fingers.
“When was what? Fifteen- twenty years ago you graduated from there?” I tried to fight back my grin, sipping my soda. It was barely five. “And you’re still here… tragic, really… Maybe you and Doug could room together like the Golden Girls. Reminisce about your peak years.”
“Careful, you’re precariously close to having no friends.” She had glared at me, taking a bite of pizza. I couldn’t contain a laugh. We both knew this friendship was for life; our bond and love went way too deep.
This year had been excruciating, both physically and mentally. If I hadn’t almost died and wound up temporarily paralyzed, I’d have been a lot more upset about losing all my “supposed” friends. After months, their torment in person and on social media had only slightly waned. It seemed as though the only way they could get through the day was to make mine hell. I was looking forward to moving on. From school and from this town, which kept me in a time capsule. I could never break from the tragedy that colored everyone’s view of me, but I was tired of fighting their judgment, pity, and disgust.
“I’ve been here a long time.” Principal Matlin glanced back at the students in the stands, bringing me back to the present. “And this class will always be one that stays in my heart. The tragic loss of Colton Harris was far, far too great of a price. And we nearly lost two others.”
I could feel everyone’s regard turn to me, sizzling my already scorching skin. Their sympathy was laced heavily with scorn; the scarlet letter branded into my chest, crucifying me. I could almost hear their thoughts: Why did she live while our golden boy, the local football hero, the one destined to bring this town glory, is dead?
Everyone treated Colton like a king in life and a saint in death. The perfect wholesome boy. But I knew the truth.
The mention of his name still made my stomach tighten with agony. I had come to peace with Colton, but his name still evoked emotions, memories, and the naive, simple world I had lived in before the accident. Sounds of his laughter and images of his easygoing smile mixed with tires squealing and the crunching of metal, pumped my heart into panic.
“He was a bright star whose light went out way too soon. Someone whose pure heart and soul were almost bigger than his talent in football.” I tipped my head down at Matlin’s statement, pressing my lips together. Pure? Colton was certainly far from that. “He should be here, sitting next to his peers, planning his future. It reminds me to tell you that while you should go out and celebrate this big step and achievement, I beg you to please be safe.”
Looking over at my ex-friends, Colton’s friends, I knew none of them would heed her warning. Most of the school would be at Jason’s house, a huge graduation party catered to our class, while Carrie and Dan provided alcohol and pot. The parties paused but didn’t really stop after the accident. It had been a full school year since Colton died, and their memory of his death faded like a faraway dream. Colton may have died, but it wouldn’t happen to them, right? They were invincible.
I wiggled on the bench. I knew if nothing had happened that fateful night, I’d still be sitting with them, next to Colton, ignoring the principal, and talking about the party that night. Colton would be hinting at getting laid. I could see it perfectly. But it was like watching a movie. Another girl. Another life. I certainly wasn’t the same person I had been last September.
That night I almost died, my world shattered, but instead of crippling me, I woke up. The bubble of my perfect life popped, and I realized I had been blind. I’d played a part, pleased others, and acted as the girl everyone liked, with no real clue to who I really was.
That girl was long gone.
“Congratulations, graduates!” The principal yelled into the mic and the entire football field and stands exploded in cheers and applause of excitement. Caps sailed into the air, along with hundreds of balloons.
It was bittersweet. I was glad to end this chapter in my life, but Colton’s loss still numbed the excitement I should have felt. No matter what he had done, I missed him so much. He had been my friend, my boyfriend. He should have been here… with his twin, whose seat was also vacant.
Throngs of people moved around, hugging and cheering, running to their friends. The elation in the atmosphere should have been contagious, but it only scraped against my nerves. Squeals pierced my ears as groups of girls jumped up and down, hugging each other. Guys bounced off each other’s chests in a display of amplified testosterone. I knew every single person here, but not one person from my class took notice of me, except for a quick glance and scowl.
The only group I might get a welcome from wasn’t even here.
“Whiskey!” A loud voice penetrated through the horde, cutting out all other noise like a scalpel. Stevie’s nickname for me was because not only did my name sound like a brand of whiskey, she also thought my hair was the color of it.
Actually, it was probably because she didn’t remember my name.
I turned to see Stevie trotting up to me, Reece holding her hand. My parents stood several yards behind. “Congrats, girl!” She hugged me as Reece bounced on her toes, shaking the pom-poms. Since she had discovered them in the back of my closet, she had procured them as hers and went from wanting to be a princess to a cheerleader. Made me miss the princess days.
“Con-gats, Jay-Jay,” she chanted, waving her arms around in a cheerleading move I showed her. I picked up my little sister and squeezed her body into mine. Despite our huge age gap—she was only six—we were exceptionally close. She was my shadow and my buddy. “I made up a cheer for you. Want to see?” She wriggled in my arms until I set her down.
“Of course.” I rubbed her head, pulling away the blue graduation gown from my sticky frame, the light breeze touching where my short black dress didn’t. I wore chucks instead of heels, going for comfort. I never liked heels, but after the accident, my injured leg ached in flat shoes, so I knew heels would have been torture.
As Reece did her little routine, consisting of a jump, twirl, and shake of the pom-poms, I clapped, which encouraged her to do it again.
“Another Holloway I will need to guide and shape.” Stevie grinned, shaking her head. “Get them young so it’s easier to train the horrible ideals out of them.”
“You mean you’ll corrupt her.”
“Tom-ay-to, tom-ah-to.” Stevie clapped along with me as Reece finished her dance again.
“Jay-Jay!” Mom and Dad moved closer, hugging me. “We are so proud of you.”
“Because I actually graduated?”
“Pretty much.” Dad curled an arm around me. “You were our first, so our expectations were low.”
“Shut up.” I laughed, knocking my hip into his, knowing the truth was exactly the opposite. They had laid a lot of pressure on my shoulders. They’d been young when they had me. I got the strict parents, while Reece gained the easygoing, fun parents. Dad and I had always been close, though it had been a bit rocky lately, our relationship going through some growing pains. The shift in my personality hadn’t been a smooth ride.
Dad laughed, kissing my temple, while girls and teachers openly gawked at him. At only thirty-nine, Noah Holloway was tall, handsome, and fit from his job as an assistant football coach, with tousled light brown hair and steel-blue eyes. I was always disturbed by the amount of attention he got from women of all ages, though he only had eyes for my mother and constantly said he “married up.” My mother, Amy Holloway, was equally a knockout, with her shoulder-length, wavy dark hair and brown eyes, her figure toned from all the biking she did. I couldn’t deny I came from excellent genes.
“My baby is a graduate… When did that happen?” Mom wrapped her arms around me, emotion moistening her eyes. She pulled away but kept her fingers on my face. “I am so proud of you.”
I knew her tears were for more than my graduation. It was pure luck I stood here at all, or that I wasn’t in a wheelchair. I spent months fighting to walk again, but I was still plagued with a limp. But by a slim chance, I had survived the accident, making this moment even more monumental.
“Mom, don’t.” I waggled my head.
“I’m sorry…” She sniffed. “I’m so happy we’re here. You’re here.” Her palm brushed down my long chestnut hair.
“I know.” I covered her hand with mine, keenly aware of the fragility of life, the possibility this could have been a memorial instead of a celebration.
“Okay, I want to congratulate my granddaughter.” Grandma Nessa bumped my mom away, her arms wrapping around me in a hasty hug. My dad’s mom was a dominating control freak. I loved her, but I wasn’t especially close to her or my Grandpa T, who hugged me stiffly. They were completely opposite of my Grandma Penny, Mom’s mother. After Grandpa Jaymerson died, she turned into a free spirit, always going on trips with her Bunco group, and doing things like skydiving and parasailing. She was my hero.
“So happy for you, my beautiful girl.” Grandma Penny hugged me to her soft, squishy frame, love and light whisking off her in thick strands. She held me close, whispering in my ear. “I know we have a little party for you at home before you go out with your friends.” I didn’t bother correcting her it was friend, not friends. “But before you get dragged away, I think there is someone here who would also like to congratulate you.” Without notice, she clutched my arms tighter than any sixty-five-year old should and pirouetted me around.
In a blink my entire universe centered on the silhouette hanging back, leaning on a tree near Colton’s memorial fountain, accelerating my heart and breath.
At six feet three with vibrant blue eyes visible under his cap, tattoos, scruff, broad shoulders, and a slight smirk dimpling his left cheek, Hunter Harris embodied everything sexy and dangerous I ever wanted in a guy. A recipe I had come to find out over the past nine months, I had no resistance to.
Wearing a gray T-shirt, dark jeans, and black riding boots as if the weather had no jurisdiction on him, he appeared cool and reserved.
Shit. How did I forget how unbelievably gorgeous he is?
“Go, girl. Seize life. And that handsome boy.” Grandma Penny shoved me forward, tearing the silly grad cap from my head. “Unless he would prefer an older woman? I need a new pool boy.”
“You don’t have a pool.”
“I could get one.”
I couldn’t help but laugh as I strode forward, my stomach spinning, my pulse pounding in my ears. Seeing him again made my legs wobble and drenched my skin with more heat.
My rapid steps slowed when I stepped under the canopy of trees. “Hey.” My voice came out softer than I intended, almost unsure.
“Hey.” Not moving from the tree, his gaze moved slowly over me, his deep voice tingling my body.
“You’re back.” My throat was so tight I could barely swallow.
“I am.” His eyes met mine, intense, but not giving anything away.
“How was Albuquerque?” Licking my lips, I stepped closer, out of habit, peering over my shoulder, searching for witnesses. As usual when it came to Hunter and me, eyes seemed to find us, like our connection announced itself with some sort of electrical impulse the moment we were near each other. I didn’t care about most people’s opinions, but I gulped nervously at my father’s glower.
Following my gaze, Hunter snorted, shaking his head. “I see my biggest fan is thrilled I’m back too.”
“Ignore him.” I took another step, stopping only a few feet from him, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear. “I watched you on TV. Congrats on your win.”
“Thanks.” A brief smile ghosted his mouth. True to Hunter, he didn’t elaborate or brag about his latest supercross championship win. He had pummeled the competition, and I knew the sponsors, agents, and press had to be swarming him after he came out of nowhere and beat some of the best riders.
“What are you doing back? I thought you were heading to Colorado next?”
“I am.” His attention ran down me again, creating a shiver up my spine. “But I have a few days in between.” For the past two months he had been on the supercross tour circuit, leaving school and me behind, obtaining a GED while touring the States.
“You told me you didn’t want to be anywhere near here on graduation.” With his twin brother’s memorial only feet away, I didn’t blame him. Graduation without Colton, standing there without your other half, would have been anything but celebratory. I lived every day with guilt for letting Colton drive that night; I couldn’t imagine Hunter’s. Hunter had never been a fan of high school, being the dark shadow on the edges of the campus, doing just enough to graduate and leave. Colton, on the other hand, had been the sun everyone revolved around. If anyone should have been here, it should have been him.
I had dated Colton but fell in love with Hunter long before I realized I had. Hunter and I drew close. Our feelings were encouraged by the hardship we’d been through, but we’d been discouraged by anyone with an opinion. The scandal of us being together seemed to disgust the whole town. I heard the gossip, by young and old, and the ruthless censure on my character, my behavior. I was called a “whore” and “brother fucker” by my peers and severely ridiculed by the elders. They no longer saw me as someone who went through a tragedy but as a “harlot.”
I could say other people’s opinions didn’t matter, but it was bullshit. Even the strongest person would crumble under the weight of so much cruelty, especially when many launched their attacks from the safety of their computer screens.
“I didn’t want to.” Hunter shoved off the tree, his height looming over my five-foot-four frame. “But…” He tapered off, his fingers reaching out, softly threading through my hair. “Congrats, Jayme,” he whispered hoarsely, dipping his head, his gaze dropping to my mouth, compelling me to lick them nervously. “You look pretty.”
What was it about him? The minute he came near me I was reduced to a puddle of lust. Nothing in my brain functioned.
“Hunter…” I nipped my bottom lip, glimpsing over my shoulder. “I haven’t seen you for over two months, barely heard from you, and you just show up here like nothing happened?”
That day in the rain, when I jumped out in front of his truck, my heart in my hands, was still the talk of the town. Everything in that moment had been perfect. A movie ending. But that wasn’t how life worked; it kept going, throwing more hurdles at you.
We had two days of bliss, our hands and lips never venturing far from each other, when Hunter got the call he had been anticipating for years. To participate in the Pro AMA Supercross Tour, starting in Las Vegas. A small but respected sponsor wanted him to wear their logo. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I could never begrudge him that. He left the next day with promises we’d talk every day. That lasted for about a week and a half before the calls dwindled. Between working to get my grades back up and his crazy schedule with press junkets and meetings, our communications grew fewer and further between. I ended up talking to Jones more than Hunter. Jones had gotten his GED as well and went on the road with Hunter, taking over as his and Chris’s manager. Chris, called Tarzan by Stevie, was called to be a sub if anything happened to a rider, and their lives became a whirlwind, slowly disappearing from ours.
Resentment at being left behind grew in me like a nasty mold. I was stuck listening to all the negative talk and taking the daily beatings online from ex-friends, witnessing my parents frowns when I spoke his name, and scrubbing my locker weekly of chalked-on insults.
My world was reduced to the size of Stevie and my family, and my concentration turned to getting my father to say yes to summer school abroad in Italy. The summer’s focus was on art history. My dream. With reluctance, my father finally agreed, and I was leaving in two weeks.
“I know.” Hunter inched in closer, the feel of him encasing me. His sexy familiar smell, something deeply manly and clean with hints of his soap lingering through, make me even stupider. “I’m so sorry. My schedule barely let me sleep, but if it makes you feel better, you were in my thoughts a lot… especially in the shower.”
I glanced to the side, blushing, and tried not to laugh, my head shaking, pretending as though he hadn’t been the star in mine as well. For two people whose clothes seemed to peel away in each other’s presence, we had yet to cross that line, not in real life anyway. Though in my mind we had countless times.
“Is Chris back with you?” I cleared my throat, trying to erase visions of naked Hunter dancing around in my head.
“Yeah.” Hunter’s gaze went over my head to Stevie. “But I’m not sure he will get a warm welcome.”
“No, he won’t,” I scoffed. Stevie and Chris were like the spider and a fly, both thinking they were the spider, only to get more tangled in the web.
Hunter’s heated gaze fell on me again, his voice dropping so low it was a rumble in his chest. “I’ve missed you.”
My lids squeezed together, my head dropping. “That’s not fair.”
“Never liked playing fair.”
“Don’t I know it.”
“I’m staying with Doug.” Somehow he got even closer to me, his fingers trailing up my arms. “I assume you’ll be with Stevie tonight. Chris will be at Doug’s too. Please come by.”
Folding my lips together, I tried to keep back the flood of emotion Hunter could inflict through me, my will caving like dry, thin crackers.
“Damn you,” I whispered, my shoulders sagging in defeat.
“Was that a yes?”
“Yes,” I grunted, rubbing my head.
“Thank you.” His hand skated over my jaw. “I have to go see Krista and Cody, but I’ll be back at the house around nine. See you then?”
I swallowed, only able to nod in agreement. Damn him.
“Happy graduation, again.” He stepped back.
“This is technically your graduation too.” I signaled to the celebration happening behind us.
“No.” He shook his head, his eyes going over toward Colton’s monument before they came back to mine, a sadness tinting them. “This is my brother’s day.”
He slipped back into the shadows, disappearing like only Hunter Harris could.