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Flirting with Fire by Piper Rayne (1)

Prologue

Nine years ago…Highschool—AKA Hell

Madison

I don’t want to go,” I whine for the hundredth time tonight.

“Get out of the car.” Lauren stands on the driver’s side of my dad’s beat up Wrangler that he gave me last week for my sixteenth birthday.

I push up my glasses. “It’s a senior party. I’ll let you pick the movie if we can please go back to my house. I’ll even let you sneak into my dad’s liquor cabinet.”

Since this is my dad’s weekend, I get a tad more freedom with the newfound single life he’s embracing. It’s meant either late night or early morning arrivals back home depending on how easy the women are.

Lauren grabs my hand, yanking me out of the truck. “I’m not sitting around watching some dumbass romantic comedy again.”

I stumble out, my feet landing right in a puddle. My white trainers are now caked with brown mud. “Great. My mom’s going to kill me.”

“It’s fine.” Lauren looks cool as usual. Lucky for her, the style of baggy pants and t-shirts are in, although she’s sported the same look since we were in kindergarten. Tonight, when her mom dropped her off, I knew there was trouble on the agenda when I noticed she had on a sheer layer of lip gloss.

“Says you, who won’t be spending the next couple hours with her soaked socks squishing in her shoes.”

She rolls her eyes. “If you would have let me dress you,” she singsongs.

“Yeah, well my stomach doesn’t look like that in a tight t-shirt.” I point to her lean waist. “My back fat would be squeezing out the sides.”

Lauren and I have been friends forever, but we’re completely different. After school, Lauren’s day is filled with soccer, softball or volleyball depending on the season. Mine is spent at home with the exception of the theater club where I’m a set designer. Did you think I have the leading role? Think again. Girls like me don’t get center stage.

“Shut up. You’re perfect.” She swats at my shoulder like she usually does.

I let the topic go because I don’t want to be the friend who brings other people down.

The bonfire is roaring and a bunch of kids from our high school are sitting around on logs. Fall came early to Illinois this year.

Some couples are making out and I glance away quickly. Other kids are enthralled in Keeten Berkshire’s telling of some urban myth about a girl who ventured into the woods years ago and was found cut up in pieces the next morning. We’ve all heard it a million times, but he adds his own spin to the story about how no one missed her because she was such an ugly loser.

My stomach rumbles with nerves. I don’t belong here. Hell, Lauren only half belongs herself. The seniors from her soccer team invited her after she made the winning goal last week in a clincher. At least she actually talks to some of these people. Me, on the other hand, I’m way out of my comfort zone.

“Let’s grab a beer first.” Lauren drags me the opposite way of the bonfire and part of me suspects she heard Keeten telling the story and she’s worried I’m going to run off scared and be the one found cut up into little pieces tomorrow morning.

All the liquor is stashed in the woods so that if the cops come to break up the party, they won’t find any evidence of underage drinking.

Sometimes I wonder about the intelligence of the police force. Don’t get me wrong, my classmates go to great lengths to cover it up. There’s a garbage can spray painted in camouflage that covers the keg. Different liquor bottles are set on opposite sides of the log with a green and brown tarp that someone took the time to sew together. But if I know this, how do the cops not?

“I’m driving,” I say.

She stops at the back of the line for the keg. Intrigued eyes scan over the two of us, probably wondering why the hell I’m here.

“Oh yeah, well, hold a cup to look like you’re drinking.” She tosses me a red Solo cup.

I hold it in my hands.

“Not upside down.” She snatches it away and turns it over, shoving it back into my hand.

“Jeez, calm down,” I grumble.

I push my lips out over my braces because they’ve been more irritating than usual lately. I kind of wish I had that wax stuff so I won’t cut my lip again. Another six months and I’ll be free of these train tracks.

My cheap-ass dad refused to get them for me when I was in middle school. His lame excuse was that I wasn’t responsible enough. Maybe he should be the one to visit the bonfire tonight and feel like an outcast compared to the others my age.

The line takes forever to move, mostly because of a few girls at the front complaining about how their beer has too much head and the guys joking about wanting head themselves.

I roll my eyes while Lauren interjects into their conversation with some crude comment of her own making them all laugh. The girl can fit in anywhere. It’s a constant reminder that I’m holding her back from being a ‘cool kid.’

The other kids disperse, heading back to the bonfire with their filled Solo cups. A few giggling cheerleaders stumble over some branches, but their strong football player boyfriends come to their rescue.

My heart aches to be one of those girls, but when babies in utero were handed the traits of a homecoming queen, I must’ve been missed.

Sure, my mom is always rambling on about how people peak at different times in their lives. I keep telling myself that I’m smart and I’m going to get into a good college. I just need to believe once my braces are off and I convince my dad that he’s not wasting money on contacts, things will improve.

Okay, and maybe get my act together by running with Lauren when she asks. Maybe then I won’t have to wait until my hormones finally wake up and let me peak.

“Maddie!” Lauren hollers and I’m dragged from my thoughts.

I stare down at my cup overflowing with beer under the tap. “Sorry.” I take my cup from her but stay in place.

Why is she filling my cup?

“The tap is fucked up and it won’t stop. No one wants to miss out, so move along.” Lauren motions with her hand and my brain finally processes the sighs behind me.

“Sorry,” I say, stepping out of the way, my beer sloshing over the side of the cup. I push my glasses up on my nose.

“Let’s head back to the fire.” Lauren slides her arm through mine, leading the way. Her athletic and coordinated stride means she doesn’t trip over a single branch in the dark but saves me from falling on my face twice.

The fire grows larger. I know this because I’ve been studying it for the past half hour since Lauren said she was going to head back to refill her cup and never returned. Not in the mood to risk my ankle again, I chose to stay in place.

The night is going fine. Lauren introduced me to her senior soccer teammates who smiled politely and carried on talking about the team they’re playing next week. I’m not standing alone and the other people around aren’t mean so I can’t complain.

Then Lauren asked if I wanted a refill. I’d dumped half my beer in the grass and pretended to sip on the rest.

“Nah, I’m good.”

“Well, I’ll be right back.” Lauren tightened her hand over my forearm to assure me she wouldn’t be long.

I took a spot across from the make-out couples. Somewhere between the mesmerizing orange and yellow flames I forgot where I was, letting my mind drift to a time in my life when I wouldn’t be the awkward loser. It was hard sometimes to believe that there ever would be such a time. Why wasn’t I born gorgeous? Why were my hips so wide and why didn’t the skinny gene run in my family? Having a cheap-ass father only added to my problems.

Something caught my eye and I glanced up over the flames. My heart leaped in my chest right before it lodged in my throat.

Mauro Bianco.

He’s staring back at me.

I look away but sneak a glance back a second later. That’s when I realize that he isn’t staring at me, he’s mesmerized by the fire as well.

I study his face. The way the fire reflects in his blue eyes transfixes me so that I don’t notice right away when liquid is pouring down my back.

“Ugh!” I stand up, grabbing the fabric from the back of my dress.

“Oh shit, sorry,” Kami whoever from my physics class says. “Good thing the dress is ugly as fuck.”

The other girls in her group all laugh, remarking how funny her comment is and confirming how ugly my dress is.

My shoulders slump and though I wish I could stand up to them, I only turn around. Mauro is gone.

I search the area for Lauren, but she’s nowhere in sight. At this point, I’m cutting my losses and leaving this bonfire with the hopes that she never drags me anywhere like this again. I’ve been meaning to read the hot new dystopian series everyone is raving about anyway.

Wandering around, I try to ignore the feeling that everyone is staring at me, whispering to their friends with wonderment as to why I’m here. Once I reach the treeline, I contemplate if I want to chance heading back by the drinks. Lauren’s been gone for forty-five minutes now and I’ve reached the conclusion that she’s lip-locked with a jock somewhere.

Squinting—as if that ever helped anyone see better in the dark—I peer through the trees, not seeing anyone. Not the keg, not the alcohol and not the line of kids. Could they have moved it?

Pulling out my phone, I shine it through the trees to see if my usual sense of direction is playing tricks on me.

“Mind not blinding me?” a deep voice asks, and I can only make out a large guy shielding his eyes as he walks out of the foliage.

“Sorry,” I mumble, feeling like an idiot.

The closer he gets the clearer the person becomes. His letterman jacket. The worn jeans that cover big brown boots. His backward baseball cap and the scruff along his face that a high school senior shouldn’t have.

“Hey.” He snaps his fingers and points to me, as if he’s trying to remember my name.

Of course, I’ve daydreamed about our wedding and he doesn’t even know my name.

“Maddie,” I say.

His hand lands on the tree behind my head and my stomach tingles with anticipation until the rancid smell of alcohol surrounds me when he breathes.

He’s drunk.

“Right. Maddie. Never seen you at one of these things.”

I push up my glasses for the millionth time. “Yeah, uh. Hopefully you didn’t rub against any toxicodendron radicans.” I point to the forest behind him as my face heats.

I finally get the chance to talk to him and this is what I come up with?

“What?” He shakes his head like he didn’t understand me. “I’m having a bad night. I don’t usually drink but…” His words trail off and I’m not sure if he lost his train of thought or is just choosing not to continue.

“It happens.” I nod at the woods. “Did you see anyone else in there?”

He looks back toward the woods like he doesn’t remember coming out of there.

“I try not to check out other people while they’re taking a piss.” He chuckles and his eyes light up in that aqua color that makes me tongue-tied.

“Oh, I thought the alcohol was back there.”

He chuckles a deep rumble and an energy charges between my thighs. The sensation is one I’m not familiar with.

“This is the piss stop, that’s the refill station.” He points to the other side of the woods past the bonfire.

Shit.

“Okay, thanks.” I head in the other direction to look for Lauren, praying to God he doesn’t remember this encounter tomorrow.

His hand grabs mine before I get far enough away, igniting a rush of goose bumps along my skin. “You seem sober.”

“And you could tell that how?”

One side of his lips tick up into a smirk. “Funny and smart, huh?”

“How do you know I’m smart?”

“Those two fancy words you said earlier. Why not just say poison ivy?”

I can’t help the smile that spreads across my face and I’m sure that if someone snapped a picture right now, I’d be looking up at him in adoration. “How do you know they mean poison ivy?”

His smirk grows and turns wildly attractive and has me involuntarily clenching my thighs. “What else could I rub against that would cause me harm in a forest? Not all jocks are dumb.”

My head snaps back in surprise. “I never said that.”

“You stereotype I’m sure.” His tone has done a one-eighty from moments before.

I stare down at his hand on my arm and he follows my vision, retracting it.

“Sorry.”

“I am sober, so what do you want?” I ask, happy to change the subject.

“A ride home? I need to sleep this shit off.”

In a car alone with my crush? I glance around for a camera crew to charge out of the woods and tell me I’m on Punk’d. Jocks only fall for the geeks in the movies. That’s not real life, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to say no. I didn’t get my 4.0 grade point average for nothing.

“Let me grab my friend and I can drive you.”

“Cool.” He walks alongside me toward the bonfire and I can’t help but wonder what everyone else here is going to think when they see us together.

I should’ve known things would not go as smoothly as I hoped.

After tracking Lauren down with Jay Hewitt, the captain of the varsity soccer team, it confirmed my earlier thought that I truly am holding her back. Even worse was that Jay said he’d drive her back to my house after the bonfire died down and Lauren agreed.

This leaves me alone with Mauro. I can’t be trusted not to make a complete ass of myself. I don’t know what it is about him. When he’s around, it’s like I’m incapable of forming a complete thought.

He decided he didn’t want to walk around the party with me on a wild goose chase, so I gave him directions to meet me at my Wrangler. I told myself it wasn’t because he didn’t want to be seen walking around with me, and that it’s probably just because he’s so drunk.

I’m still wondering if he’ll be there when I make it back to where I parked.

Hightailing it back the other way through the muddy grass area, I find Mauro leaning against the truck.

“It’s locked.” He wears the most bored expression on his face.

“Sorry.”

Since my Wrangler is old as hell, I have to actually insert the key into the passenger door before heading to my side.

“Don’t go thinking you’re getting lucky,” he jokes, sliding his large form into my car.

He sure takes up a lot more space than Lauren.

“Don’t worry, I won’t take advantage of you,” I say in response.

Wow! Did I just flirt with Mauro Bianco?

I start the car with shaking hands. Other than a shoulder brush near his locker that sent my heartbeat in a tailspin my freshman year, I’ve never been this close to him. I’m trying my best to concentrate on the road and not the fact that my entire body feels like I just ran a triathlon.

“Tell me about yourself.” He reaches down, grabbing the lever of the seat and adjusting it so he’s leaning farther back.

“There’s not much to say. I’m a sophomore.”

“You must know my brother then. Luca Bianco?”

Um…he can’t be that naive to think that the Bianco brothers aren’t known by every female between the ages of fourteen and eighteen within a fifty-mile radius. I mean they’re three attractive Italian brothers, each a year apart from each other. All of them accomplished athletes and gorgeous as hell.

“I think I have PE with him.” I think I pulled off a casual vibe with my response which is hard when almost every girl in school tries to get her schedule changed to have PE with any one of the brothers.

“He’s cocky and arrogant, right? We’re not all alike.” His voice is fading like he’s growing tired. “Take me, I’m going to graduate this year and have no clue what the fuck I want to do with my life. No football scholarship doesn’t leave me with a ton of options. I’m thinking about joining the army.”

I’m hoping he ignores the fact I’m driving to his house without any directions from him, but everyone knows where the Bianco brothers live.

“That’s very…heroic.” I’m sure my voice betrays my worry.

“You don’t make it sound that way. My mama is pissed. Like beat me with a frying pan pissed for even thinking about joining. Not that she’s against me serving my country, she worries about me not coming back. You know moms.” He runs his hand through his hair.

The thought of something happening to him overseas and not coming back sends a chill through me.

“What makes you want to join?”

A low stream of air flows out of his mouth and I’m reminded once again that he probably wouldn’t be speaking this freely with me if he weren’t drunk.

“All I know is I don’t want to run a sandwich shop when I’m older.” He shrugs.

The Sandwich Place is the Bianco family business and is located downtown across from the courthouse. I’m sure as the oldest son in an Italian family the pressure to take over the shop is immense, but he doesn’t seem like someone who would shave meat for a living.

“Nothing else has ever piqued your interest? No classes?” I put my blinker on to make a right-hand turn, looking in all directions before I finally push down on the gas pedal.

“I’ve lived through high school one party at a time. My future seemed like something so far off in the distance…like it would never actually come.” The melancholy in his voice suggests that thought haunts him. “What do you want to do?”

“Well, I have a little longer than you, but no way my dad won’t make me go to college. I’m not sure what I want to do with my life either. Does that make you feel any better?”

One corner of his lip tips up. “A little. I figured you’d spit out doctor or some shit where you’ll be in school for the next ten years.”

“So are you relieved that I’m as indecisive as you?”

He chuckles again, turning the radio up a notch. “Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol plays and Mauro sings softly along to the lyrics. “I know it’s selfish, but it does relieve me.”

I turn down Irving Park Road to head to his house.

“You’re easy to talk to.” His forearm flexes as he rolls down my window. The cool fall air flows into the car. “Sorry, I feel like I’m gonna puke.”

My fingers wrap around the steering wheel even tighter. “Tell me and I’ll pull over.”

My dad would kill me if someone puked in my car.

He leans back again and as the song continues to play, his voice fades. I chance a look to find his eyes closed.

A few minutes later, I pull up to the curb of his bungalow. Three football helmet signs dot the yard with Bianco at the bottom and each of the siblings’ numbers.

The residential street is dark and vacant when I climb out of the Wrangler. I open the passenger side door and nudge Mauro.

His eyes snap open, wide and blue. “Shit. I’m sorry.” He bolts up.

“Hold on, be careful.” I step back.

“I’m good.” He gets out—a little wobbly, but able to walk. “Want to go to the park?”

He poses it as a question, but he’s already heading into the darkness, halfway across the street.

“I think you should probably go lay down.”

“Nah.” He waves me off. “Come on. Let your hair down a little.”

I follow him because when you’re a girl like me and a guy like Mauro invites you along, you go.

The park is barely lit with a yellow tint from the street lamps along the path.

“Remember the days when everything was so simple? The hardest decision was the slide or the swings.”

He bypasses the swings for the slide.

“I was a monkey bars girl.”

“Probably because you’re determined. I bet you worked forever to master those things.” He lifts his eyebrows.

For being drunk, he’s intuitive. Then again, I’ve never been drunk. Maybe that comes with the alcohol.

“A month. It was the first and last physical thing I ever beat Lauren at.”

He turns from climbing the ladder and points to me. “That’s why you look so familiar, you’re friends with Lauren Hunt.”

I mentally chastise myself. We already established he didn’t really know me.

“We’ve been best friends since kindergarten.”

“But you’re so different.”

Yeah, she’s hot and I’m homely looking.

“Yeah, she’s super athletic and I can’t run without tripping over my own feet,” I say instead.

He stops, sitting at the top of the slide, his long legs leaving him almost halfway down already. “I was going to say because Lauren is a ball buster and you’re…sweet.” He slides down the metal slide while my heart flips in my chest. “I was a slide guy. Anything to get me up high. I only did the swings if Cristian or Luca dared me they could jump farther.”

He skips over the part where he kind of complimented me, but I know it’s something I’ll never forget.

Wandering some more, he heads toward the outfield of the baseball field and collapses on his back.

“Lay with me.” He pats the spot next to him.

“I should really get home.” I wind my dress in my fingers until I realize that’s pulling my dress higher.

“Come on. We’re just getting to know one another.”

I sit down next to him and he grabs the back of my dress, pulling me down.

“You ever wonder the point of this is? Life. Why we’re here? Like we both go to Catholic school. Don’t you ever wonder about God’s plan for you?”

“Yeah.”

Suddenly, he leans on his side, holding his head up with his hand.

“I feel like I’m meant to do something meaningful. Not sit in an office, or worse, inventory and order sandwich meats. I want to live, knowing that tomorrow isn’t guaranteed so I don’t look back on my life and wonder what the hell I did with it, you know? I get how it is with my parents. They each came here for a better life and the sandwich place is their life.” He laughs. “And me, Cristian, and Luca. It makes them happy.”

“So you just want to be happy?” I continue to stare up at the sky, attempting to ignore the proximity of his body heat so close to me.

He’s just a boy, he’s just a boy.

I see him shrug from the corner of my eye. “That’s where I’m fucked up. I want it all. The family, the house, the career. I don’t want to settle, but no one gets the trifecta.”

A pinch in my heart has me turning my head to look at him. How can this jock, who I never really thought much of except for his hot body and beautiful face now, break off a piece of my heart?

“What about you? Do you believe in love?” he asks.

I look away, gazing back up at the stars and trying to keep my breathing even. “I used to, but after my parents’ divorce, I kind of agree with you. You can’t have it all, so I’d rather choose career and screw the family.”

“You don’t want to get hurt?” Mauro is much more intuitive than I would have thought.

“I suppose. Both my parents hurt after the divorce.” I press my lips together, remembering that time in my life.

“My parents fight like crazy, but usually their bedroom door is shut hours later. My brothers and I flee the house while they’re making up.”

He slides his hand down between us, running his fingers up and down my arm.

“Will you look at me?” he asks in a gentle voice.

I turn my head and lock gazes with him. His hand is suddenly on my cheek, and he’s leaning over.

I squeal inside when his eyes fixate on my lips.

“Can I kiss you?”

“Okay,” I practically whisper.

Lame, Maddie. Lame.

“Relax and close your eyes.”

Does he know this is my first time being kissed? Is that why he asked permission and is directing my body how to respond?

As my mind is swimming with a million simultaneous thoughts, he presses his lips to mine and all those worries vanish as his tongue slowly slides into my mouth.

I’ve long imagined what it would feel like to be kissed at all, but the fact that my first kiss is from Mauro Bianco feels like I’m in a movie or something.

Every nerve in my body fires and he moans softly, his body weight starting to press into me as he deepens the kiss. My breasts press against his chest now and though the sensation is new and unfamiliar, I understand now why girls want to do this. I open my mouth some more, loving the sensation of our tongues brushing together.

“Shit.” He pulls back, sitting up and pressing his hand to his lips. “Your braces.”

Blood leaks from his lip.

“I’m sorry.” My eyes are wide and my heart races as my cheeks heat.

He picks up his t-shirt, blotting his lip. “It’s okay.” He stands up, working to find his balance for a second. “Want to ride the slide?”

Just like that, the kiss is forgotten and he’s wandering away.

“Mauro, what the fuck are you doing?” someone yells as they cross the street. “Fuck. Ma’s going to kill you.”

“Cris, I might have had too many, but I got a ride. Do you know….?” He glances back to where I’m unceremoniously getting myself up off the grass, his arm stretched out toward me.

I step out of the darkness and Cristian’s eyes widen for a second.

“Hey, Maddie.” He disregards his brother beelining it over to me. “Everything okay?”

“Um…yeah. I just gave your brother a ride.”

The blood on Mauro’s lip is pooling now but isn’t streaming down.

“Nothing else?” Cristian dips down to see my eyes. I can barely form a coherent sentence, let alone assure him I’m good.

I just had my first kiss with the boy of my dreams and my braces cut his lip. I do live in a movie, but not a romance, rather a horror film.

“Yeah, everything’s good. You can make sure he gets inside?”

“Yeah.” Cristian heads over to his brother, hooking his arm over his shoulder. “Thanks a lot, Maddie.”

“MADDIE!” Mauro starts singing the Barry Manilow song using my name.

“The song says Mandy, fucktard,” Cristian says.

Mauro laughs for a second before dead silence fills the air. “I’m gonna puke.”

I hop in my Wrangler and glance over to the park where I see Mauro’s head in the trashcan and Cristian waving goodbye to me.

My phone rings in the center console and I pick it up.

“Where the hell are you?” Lauren screams when I answer.

“Sorry, I got lost,” I lie and start my truck, getting the hell away from the Bianco house.

The rest of the weekend felt like it crawled by. I played our kiss over and over again in my head—both the amazing part and the embarrassment of his bleeding lip.

Even still by the time Monday rolled around I can’t help that hope that blooms inside me like a fragile flower. It’s right before homeroom that I first spot him walking down the hallway.

I feel half nauseous, half excited and more than anything anxious to get speaking to each other at school over with.

I pause as he approaches and smile wide at him so he’ll know that it’s okay to say hello. Instead, he walks right by me with nothing but a polite smile.

Mortification is swift and complete, even if no one else is the wiser.

I run to the girl’s bathroom, passing Lauren on the way and hearing her call my name, but I ignore her. I don’t want to be near anyone right now.

When I reach the bathroom, I race into the stall and let the waterworks loose.

I can’t believe that I actually believed, even for a second, that he could have feelings for me. What a joke.

I should have known I was the only one who felt something that night.