“Where do I put these large paper balls, and what the hell are these, anyway?”
Trisha, the only other female who’d managed to get one of my friends to tie the knot, glanced back at me from her perch on top of the ladder and laughed. “Put the box of lanterns on the table over there beside the flowers,” Trisha instructed me before turning back to tying ribbon from the ceiling.
When I’d agreed to help with this party for Marcus and Low, I’d thought that meant I was chipping in for the beer. Not carrying shit and hanging it up all day long. Trisha had demanded we all be here at eight this morning. She’d barely given us a break for lunch. The next time one of my dumbass friends got engaged, I wasn’t making the mistake of offering to help again.
“Five more boxes in the truck, Preston. What’re you standing around for?” Rock asked as he walked in behind me and dropped a box on the table.
“I’m trying to find a way to get the hell out of here.”
Rock chuckled. “Good luck with that. My woman ain’t letting anyone free until we’ve got this thing looking just the way she wants it.”
“A warning that Trisha was a party-decorating Nazi would have been nice.”
Rock slapped my back. “Nope. Then it’d just be me and Trisha. I wanted y’all to suffer through it with me.”
Fine. Five more boxes, and then I was finding a way to sneak out. I followed Rock back outside to the truck. A familiar little Mercedes coupe pulled into the drive. What the hell was Amanda doing here? She was supposed to be safely tucked away at college by now. I wouldn’t have come to the Hardys’ beach condo if I’d thought there was a chance she could be here. Damn it. The girl was driving me crazy. She’d started flirting with me heavily about three months ago. And she hadn’t let up. I wasn’t someone she needed to be flirting with. My life was too f**ked up for the likes of an innocent like Amanda.
Her car door swung open, and out came a very long tanned leg. I stopped. I was weak where she was concerned. After a very vivid dream about what she’d feel like and taste like, I’d been closing my eyes and pretending like every other woman I ended up f**king was Amanda. I was sorry scum for doing it, but . . . ah, hell . . .
Amanda stood up, and the tiny little red shorts she was wearing made those long legs that ended in a pair of red heels look endless. Fuck, I was going to get a boner. I’d been thinking about those legs wrapped around me for three months too long. If she’d treat me like the creep I was, then it would be easier to ignore, but she didn’t. She smiled and batted her long eyelashes and flipped her blond hair over her shoulder. Even the few nights she’d managed to get drunk at Live Bay, the local club, the innocence pouring off her was a major red flag.
“Get a box!” Rock yelled at me as he pulled out another one of the boxes from the truck. I didn’t make eye contact with her. I couldn’t. She’d smile, and I’d be an ass trying to get her to go away. Ignoring her worked better. I didn’t like to see that sweet little flirty gleam in her eyes suddenly turn to hurt when I opened my mouth and spewed lies. I’d seen it too many times this summer. I was staying the hell away from that. My heart couldn’t take it.
Grabbing a box, I headed back to her daddy’s condo. It was set directly on the beach, and a perfect spot for tonight’s party. The patio opened up to the condo’s pool—we had reserved it for a private party.
“Hello, Preston.” Amanda was beside me.
She was relentless. “Manda, aren’t you supposed to be off at college by now?” Please, God, let her be leaving and getting far away from my dirty mind.
“I’m staying here this year. I decided I wasn’t ready to leave home just yet.”
Well, f**k me. She was staying here? No! I needed her to leave before I did something stupid. Like hauling her ass into the nearest bedroom and stripping off them red shorts, then tasting every last inch of her.
“Gonna have to grow up sometime, Manda. Can’t stay at home with Mommy forever.” I was a prick.
I didn’t have to glance over to know Amanda had stopped walking beside me. I’d done it again. All I ever managed to do was say things to hurt her feelings. I needed to leave it like this, just go inside and pretend like we hadn’t even spoken. But I couldn’t.
I stopped and turned to look back at her. She was standing there with her hands clasped tightly in front of her, making her tits push together and—holy f**king shit! She wasn’t wearing a bra under that flimsy little shirt she had on. You could see her n**ples poking through the fabric. What was she doing? She didn’t need to dress like that.
“Manda, go put on a bra. I know your boobs aren’t that big, but that shirt requires a bra.”
Her big green eyes welled up with unshed tears. It was a punch to the gut. I hated that every word I said to her was cruel, but I needed her to stay away from me. She had no idea exactly who I was. No one did, really. I was many different things to many different people. Sometimes I didn’t even know who the hell I was anymore.
She ducked her head, and long blond hair fell over her shoulders. She crossed her arms over her chest and walked briskly past me and into the condo. I set the box down at the door, then turned and headed out to my Jeep. I couldn’t stay here. I needed to go beat the shit out of something before I lost it.
I was done. No more. I couldn’t continue to try to make Preston like me. He acted as if I was still his best friend’s kid sister and he hadn’t screwed my brains out behind a club. This was just hurting me more and more. It was past time I moved on. Let this one go. He’d just let me know how lacking my body was. I would just put the memory of how I lost my virginity away. Forget about it and never look back. Besides, it wasn’t like I could ever share the experience with anyone. It was humiliating enough just to know I’d sent him running. He hadn’t even kissed me. The idea of kissing me had repulsed him that much.
I didn’t need to face anyone just yet. I ran up the steps instead of going into the living room, where everyone was getting ready. Sadie White, my best friend, would be here tonight. I wouldn’t be alone in this crowd of people. Closing the door to my bedroom in my dad’s place, I pulled my phone out of my purse and called Sadie.
I hadn’t told her everything. She had no idea I’d given Preston my virginity in a storage unit like some cheap slut. I was too ashamed to tell her that part of the awful truth. But she did know he had flirted heavily with me and we’d gone out to his Jeep and made out a bit before he walked off and left me.
“Hello.” Sadie’s voice was happy and cheerful. Jax, her rock-star boyfriend was in town. She was always on cloud nine when he came to visit. He was here this time to pack her up and move her off to California. I was trying not to think about that.
“I know you and lover boy are packing you up and all, but I wanted to make sure you’re coming tonight.” I hadn’t been able to mask the hurt in my voice. She was going to pick up on it.
“Yes. What’s wrong, Amanda?” I could hear the concern in her voice.
Swallowing through the lump in my throat, I gripped the phone tightly and tried real hard to control my emotions. “I just didn’t want to be alone. With . . . everyone.”
Sadie sighed. “Is this about Preston? I swear I want to kick his butt.”
“No. It . . . okay, well, maybe it is. But it’s my fault. I should have stayed away from him. I knew he was like this.” Maybe I hadn’t known he would actually screw me and walk away, never to be nice to me again. But I had known he was a player. This was his brush-off.
“I’ll be there. You won’t be alone. In fact, you’ll have a date.”
I stopped blinking back tears and waited for an explanation of her last statement. What did she mean by “a date”? Was she sharing Jax? No . . . that made no sense.
Sadie cleared her throat, then covered the phone with her hand, and I heard her muffled voice. I waited patiently for her to stop her private conversation and clue me in.
“Okay. Here’s the thing. Jason, Jax’s brother, is here too. You met him about six months ago, remember? He was at the birthday party I threw for Jax at the beach house.”
“Of course I remember Jason. He’s hard to forget.” He looked a lot like Jax. He just had a quieter demeanor. I’d had to talk to him that night because he didn’t say a whole lot.
“Well, he’s been asking about you. I knew you were hung up on Preston, which I can’t really figure out. He’s cute and all, but he’s a man whore. Jason mentioned you again today.”
Jason Stone, younger brother to the world’s biggest teenage heartthrob, liked me? “Uh, well, um, okay. I think. I mean, really? Jason? He dates models and stuff. I saw him on Teen Heat last week with Kipley McKnowel. I can’t compete with that. I’ve seen her makeup commercial.”
Sadie laughed. “She’s airbrushed in that commercial. She’s really not that fabulous in real life. I met her. Trust me. Besides, he was with her that one time. He said she was missing intelligence. He wasn’t interested.”
“Jason Stone . . . really?” I was just having too hard a time comprehending this. I’d just recently gotten used to Jax Stone randomly showing up at my house on Sadie’s arm. Now to actually go on a date with his brother?
“Yes, really. I take it that you’re interested.” Sadie’s amused tone made me smile. Maybe this was what I needed to get over Preston. He didn’t want me. I needed to face that.
“Okay. Yeah, I mean, if he’s sure.”
“You are clueless, Amanda Hardy. Just because you can’t get the attention of a guy hell-bent on sleeping his way through the United States doesn’t mean you aren’t gorgeous and smart and extremely appealing to any guy with two eyes and a brain. Trust me. ’Kay?”
The heaviness in my chest eased some. The ache was still there, but the hope that I could move on and stop getting hurt by Preston was a relief. I still couldn’t believe it was going to be with Jason Stone. Tonight didn’t seem so bad anymore.
“I trust you. Now, what do I wear?”