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Authors: Rachel Hawthorne

Trouble from the Start

BOOK: Trouble from the Start
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Dedication

For every girl waiting for her first kiss,
her first boyfriend, her first love . . .

Contents
Chapter 1
AVERY

“You can't just stand here, Avery. You have to get out there and flaunt it.”

I wasn't quite sure what Kendall Jones, my best friend since forever, thought I had to flaunt.

“It seems a little late for all that,” I told her. “We only have a week left until we graduate.”

“Which is exactly why we're here,” she said, removing the clip from her red hair, retwisting the curling strands, and securing them back into place. “Jeremy and I had our pick of three parties tonight. I knew this one would have the most people.”

Because it was totally without chaperones. Scooter Gibson's parents were out of town and he had the key to his family's lake house so here we were, standing out by a magnificent pool, catching glimpses through towering
trees of the moonlight dancing across the calm lake waters. Laughter, screeches, the din of conversation, and raucous cheers as girls stripped before diving into the pool competed with music blasting from speakers on the patio.

“I feel like a party crasher,” I told her. “It's not like I was invited.”

“You're with us. It's cool.”

“I shouldn't have come.”

“You're never going to get a boyfriend if you just stay at home.”

I had been staying at home more since Kendall and Jeremy Swanson hooked up over spring break. They invited me to go almost everywhere with them, but I often simply felt out of place.

Kendall wrapped her hand around my upper arm. “Look, Avery, I want you to have what I have. But if that doesn't happen, you still need to go on a date. You can't start college never having been alone with a guy. You'll feel awkward.”

As though I could feel any more awkward than I did now, standing around, experiencing a rush of hope that I might find a boyfriend of my own every time a cute guy glanced my way, only to be disappointed when he turned back to his friends. I longed for some guy to think I was special enough to kiss.

At seventeen I wasn't kissless but my one kiss had
happened at band camp sophomore year. I still shuddered when I remembered the tuba player pressing his puckered, chapped lips to mine. We'd gotten trapped with a spin the bottle game. I'd thought I would be perceived as cool if I acted like I was up for anything. Instead I discovered that some things just aren't worth it.

“You just need to get out there,” Kendall continued. “Let guys know you're interested.”

How was I supposed to do that? Wish a flashing neon sign? Not that I thought it would make any difference. I knew these guys, and they knew me. If we hadn't clicked after twelve years of being in school together, what made Kendall think it would happen tonight?

Jeremy was the newest kid in town, and it had taken six months for him and Kendall to start dating, although I noticed the sparks between them way before that.

“Yeah, okay,” I said with far more enthusiasm than I felt. “I can put myself out there.”

She gave me a quick hug. “You deserve to be as happy as I am.”

“Here we go,” Jeremy announced, rejoining us and handing us each a plastic cup.

Jeremy's family had moved here in the fall when his dad got a job transfer. He'd been bummed about not graduating with his friends. He'd started hanging around with us, and the three of us grew close. One night when we
were all planning to go to a movie together, I'd faked being sick because I suspected he liked Kendall as more than a friend, and I was in the way. That night he'd kissed her, and the rest was history.

“Mmm,” Kendall sighed, snuggling against him. “This tastes like an orange dreamsicle.”

It did, but it also had a little kick to it. I had a feeling that it wasn't a melted ice cream bar. The two he'd brought each of us earlier had been strawberry something or other.

Jeremy slid his arm around her. He was tall enough that her head fit perfectly into the nook of his shoulder, like fate had made them to go together.

“Let's dance,” he said in a low voice near her ear.

She looked at me, one brow arched. “He could be out there.”

“Who?” Jeremy asked, clearly baffled.

“The right guy for Avery,” Kendall said.

“Oh, yeah, he could totally be out there.” Jeremy shifted his gaze to me. “Just avoid the house. It's make-out central in there. Don't want someone to get the wrong idea about what you're looking for.”

“I'm not even sure what I'm looking for,” I admitted.

“Someone nice like Jeremy,” Kendall said. “And you'll have a better chance of meeting him if we're not here. Have fun!”

She handed me her drink and they wandered off.
Self-consciously I glanced around. Everyone else was already separated into groups, based on common interests—which usually involved gossiping about someone
not
in the circle. I didn't really feel like barging in. But I also didn't want to stand here alone like a total loser.

I ambled over to the nearest group of girls. They were giggling hysterically. While I'd missed the joke, I laughed, too, and tried to look like I was part of their gab-fest. Melody Long stopped laughing, which caused the others to stop as well, because she was the alpha in the group. Flicking her long blond hair, she turned ever so slightly and looked at me as though she was considering tossing me in the pool.

“Hi, Melody,” I said, plowing ahead, even knowing that I was about to ram into a brick wall. “Isn't this a fun party?”

She narrowed her eyes. “Are you wired?”

“You mean feverishly excited about being here?” I smiled brightly, refusing to let on how much her barb had hurt. It wasn't the first time someone had hinted that I might be a narc. “You bet.”

Blinking, she stared at me blankly. It was the same look she wore when we had a pop quiz in history.

“One of the definitions for wired is feverishly excited,” I explained, realizing too late that I was making the situation worse, doing my Merriam-Webster's impersonation.
After drinking two fruity somethings-or-other I was finding that my mouth could work without any social filter.

Jade Johnson stepped in front of her. “She means wired like recording stuff for the cops.”

“Why would I do that?” I asked, knowing exactly why they thought that and hating that they distrusted the police, that they distrusted me.

As Jade moved in, reminding me a little of a pit bull, she brought with her the fragrance of recently smoked weed, which explained why they were so paranoid. “Because your dad's a cop,” Jade said, as though I didn't know what he did for a living. “I think you need to strip down so we know you're cool.”

“Yeah,” Melody said, brightening as though she'd finally figured out an answer on the pop quiz. “You need to show us you're not wearing a wire.”

I thought about pointing out that my clothes—white shorts and a snug red top—weren't designed to hide much of anything. Instead, I just said, “Not going to happen.”

Spinning on my heel, I walked away, their laughter following me, and this time I was pretty sure I was the joke.

I passed a group of three couples, but I wanted to avoid twosomes since I would stand out as someone no guy was interested in being with. I spotted two girls and a guy talking. They seemed harmless, but as I neared they began wandering off toward the house. Following after them
would have made me appear desperate to be included.

Then I spied Brian Saunders leaning against a wooden beam that supported one corner of a cedar-slatted canopy. He was alone. I created a zigzag path to get to him because I didn't want it to seem obvious I was beelining for him in case he walked away before I got there. When I was three steps away, he was still there, drinking a beer. I noticed a few empty bottles at his feet and it occurred to me that he was still standing there because he was too unsteady to move away. But I was here now.

“Hey,” I said brightly, moving in front of him so he blocked the view of the kissing couple stretched out on the lounge chair beneath the canopy.

For a moment he furrowed his brow, blinked, and I was afraid he didn't recognize me.

He blinked again, scowled. “I'll get to the problems tomorrow.”

What was he talking about? Then I remembered that I'd given him an extra assignment to work on the last time I tutored him. “Oh, I don't care about that.”

He brightened. “So I don't have to do them?”

“They're always optional, but if you work them out then you're more likely to learn the material—God, could I sound any more geekish? I'm sorry. I didn't come over here to talk algebra.” Please don't ask me why I came over.
Eager to look like I belonged
wasn't a much better reason.

But he seemed to have forgotten I was even there as he took another sip and shifted his attention away from me. “Do you think Ladasha likes Kirk?” he asked.

I turned in the direction he was looking. I was hardly the one to tutor him in love, although his question seemed to be a no-brainer. Ladasha—who actually spelled her name La-A—always got the leads in the school plays and was moving to New York after graduation to pursue acting. At that particular moment, though, she was in the pool with her legs wrapped around Kirk's waist like he was her life preserver. “Uh, probably,” I finally answered.

“She is so amazingly beautiful,” he said.

“Yes, she is.” She was probably the most beautiful girl in our graduating class.

“I'm going to tell her,” he said, and staggered away, leaving me feeling even more self-conscious, as though everyone would figure out that I couldn't hold a guy's attention for two minutes.

Sighing, I returned to the spot where Jeremy and Kendall had left me so that at least they could find me easily. No way I was going looking for them. I wasn't sure all they were doing was dancing. Their relationship had seemed to have gotten intense fast. I was happy for Kendall. She deserved a great guy like Jeremy. He was the one who got invited to the party, and he'd included his girlfriend's best friend. A lot of guys wouldn't be that
thoughtful. I'd come because senior year was supposed to be memorable, although at that precise moment I felt stupid and uncomfortable standing all alone while holding two plastic cups filled almost to the top. I chugged down Kendall's. Maybe with a little more alcohol, I wouldn't be bothered by the fact that since I'd spent way too much time studying and not enough partying, I didn't know any of these people well enough that they were going to include me in their little circles.

It had been that way for most of high school. I had so wanted to fall in love, or at least in like, before I graduated. Now I needed to admit that wasn't going to happen, but that was okay. The sea at college would contain a lot more fish, and no one there would know my dad was a cop. He wouldn't be coming to the university to hold assemblies with the theme “Dare to Say No.” I loved my dad, loved that he was one of the good guys, but my dating life sucked.

That would all change at college, I was sure. I'd meet someone fantastic and fall in love. That had always been my plan, what I'd dreamed of when no one invited me to dances. I was going to be a late bloomer but I was going to bloom spectacularly.

Glancing around, I spotted a trash can a couple of feet away. I crushed the cup and lobbed it—

Missed. For some reason it irritated me. I should be able to hit a trash can. I wandered over, bent down to pick
up the cup. The world spun and I staggered back a couple of steps.

“Whoa, brainiac. Careful.” A strong hand gripped my upper arm, steadied me, and managed to send a shiver of awareness through me.

I jerked my head up to find myself staring up at Fletcher Thomas. Staring
up
at him because, at six foot three, he was one of the few guys taller than I was. The lights from the Japanese lanterns circling the pool barely reached him. It was almost as though he hadn't quite escaped the darkness from which he'd emerged. His black-as-midnight hair was shaggy, long. His dark brown eyes were almost invisible in the night. Stubble shadowed his jaw, making him seem unreasonably dangerous, although his reputation managed to do that for him.

I was pretty sure that he would eventually end up in prison. When he bothered to make an appearance at school, he was usually sporting bruises or scrapes, grinning broadly as he said, “You should see the other guy.” He seemed to live for getting into trouble.

“Thanks, but I'm fine. I don't need help.” Irritated, I worked my arm free of his grasp. How dare he mock my intelligence, which I doubted he had much of? As a member of the honor society, I was obligated to tutor at the school a couple of nights a week. I'd spent many a night waiting for Fletcher Thomas to show up for a math tutorial.
He couldn't be bothered, so if he didn't graduate, he got what he deserved. “And there is nothing wrong with being smart. You should try it sometime.”

“Hey now, retract the claws. I was just trying to save you the embarrassment of a face-plant.”

“While insulting me at the same time. Or trying to. I'm actually quite proud of my academic record.” Could I sound any more like a snob? There went my mouth again, social cues disengaged.

He didn't seem the least bit offended. His eyes were twinkling like he found me humorous, and that irritated me even more. I took a long swallow of my drink, hoping he'd take the hint and go away.

“You know that drink is about three-fourths whipped cream vodka, right?” he asked.

I licked my lips, savoring the taste. “So?”

“So the reason it tastes like candy is to get girls drunk.”

“I'm not drunk.” I took another long swallow to prove my point, even though I realized I was way more relaxed than I should have been standing in the presence of a guy who had a reputation for showing girls a good time in the backseat of a car. Although I'd never figured out the car part, since he rode a motorcycle. Maybe he took them to the junkyard and found some beat-up vehicle there.

BOOK: Trouble from the Start
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