Dee knocked on her best friend’s door and distracted herself by counting the seconds it took him to answer. Nerves feasted on her stomach. She was about to make a move and risk seven months of friendship. For that she needed more than a distraction—she needed a sign.
Jed opened the door and she winced.
She didn’t believe in signs anyway.
“Dee.” He ran a hand through his hair, looking like her kind of night in. Casual in a loose windbreaker, with the threadbare hems of faded jeans spreading over socked feet. “What are you doing here?”
“The party sucked.” Because he hadn’t been there. “You’re home alone.” Because his mom was working night shift. “And I need help with my assignment.”
Because that was a lie.
“Okay, sure.” He spoke in his new adult rumble.
As delighted as she’d been by his cracked words, Dee was fully committed to the rumble. Truly, madly, deeply committed.
He stepped back. “Come in.”
“Are you taller?” she asked as she passed him. She swore he had some nocturnal growth thing going on. Every morning at her locker, she had to tilt her chin just that bit higher to meet the darkness of his eyes. Not that she minded. She loved the way he looked down at her, like he was a breath away from swooping in and kissing the crown of her head.
He’d yet to do any such thing.
“Probably,” he answered as she stopped in the kitchen. “Are you cuter?”
She tilted her head. “You noticed.”
He smiled and leaned against the cupboard, and Dee knew they had roughly three seconds before the moment got awkward.
Slightly panicked, she said, “Everyone thinks we’re hooking up tonight.”
His muscles bunched, instantly rigid. “What?”
Oh, nice one, Dee.
She edged her slimline glasses higher up her nose and avoided his eye. “I didn’t say anything.”
After a long silence, he moved to the bench beside her. Sketching paper and pencils covered the surface, and he gathered them stiffly. “Why would they think that?”
He leaned so close awareness caught her around the middle, an impatient hand tugging her towards him. In addition to being a good two feet taller than her, he grew ever broader at the shoulders and darker at the jaw. Sixteen and blooming bold, and she wanted every part of him, thorns and buds alike.
Dee hadn’t wanted a guy like this before; hadn’t felt the spreading heat, the urge between her thighs, the ache to rise up and press her mouth to his.
Sensing his tension, Dee fought the urge with everything she had.
“Girl leaves party early and unwisely tells everyone she’s going to Boy’s house,” she said, looking down. “Girl is wearing short skirt. Boy’s mother works late. Boy and Girl must therefore be hooking up.” Dee raised a shoulder. “Isn’t that the essence of high school logic?”
Jed paused to ask, “Is it the essence of yours?”
It was an opening. She could have said yes, short skirt excluded. She could have taken a chance, because sometimes when he smiled, his eyes held hers differently. A longer gaze, a gentler glow. In those moments, she knew he was interested. Knew he was trapped behind the walls of friendship, as she was. Other times, she knew it was all in her head.
Tonight, she was determined to find out which was true.
“No,” she answered softly, looking over at him.
He refused to meet her eyes, instead staring tight-jawed at the sketches, and as always, his profile charmed her. Dark brows. Straight nose. Smooth cheekbones and lips that could’ve been considered too plush had they not resembled the aftermath of a wild make out session. A mess of black hair, looping ever outward like ink in water. Some girls at school called it shaggy, heavenly, others called it untamed like the boy beneath.
Dee called it hers.
Jebediah Brown was just a friend. He’d moved to San Fran at the start of the school year, the new kid in a big school, and by a stroke of luck, he’d gravitated towards her. They took English, Art, and Media together. English had betrayed him as smart and a touch cynical and Art had revealed his talent with a brush, pen, palette knife—anything he picked up with creative intent.
Media was Dee’s domain, and when they’d been paired to write a screenplay, she’d taken over because she couldn’t help it and he’d sat back and watched her with a dark, steady gaze that had soon ruled her dreams at night.
They’d collaborated at her place in the evenings and it hadn’t taken him long to recognize she spent a lot of time home alone. Her surgeon parents, always working, were dedicated to a cause greater than their daughter. She could look after herself. Their patients weren’t as able.
“No brothers or sisters?” Jed had asked on the third day. Aside from their cone of light at the dining table, the house was unlit.
“Just little ol’ me.”
A beat of silence. “I know the feeling.”
“Gets lonely,” she’d said, tone easy as she wrote a line of dialogue. “But I’m used to it.”
“Want to get unused to it?”
She’d eyed him then, the boy who could have come from anywhere with his curious mangled accent. English vowels, French rolls, and the too fluid Australian rhythm. Born in Melbourne and raised all over. She could get used to his presence tangling up her insides. Too used to it.
He gazed back, raising a curious brow. “I could use a friend,” he murmured. “And I think you’re cool.”
“Don’t you move around a lot?”
“Until now. I’m done with that. My mum seems happy here.”
“Because if I get used to company,” she said, “I’ll stop knowing how to cope with being alone.”
“Sounds like a good thing.”
“Only if I don’t end up alone again.”
He’d turned back to their script with a tiny smile. “Guess I’d better stay.”
Seven months later, Jed was living up to his promise and Dee had abandoned the rules of friendship by falling head, heart, and soul in love with him. Purely platonic, she told her parents, even as the thought of him stripped her of appetite and sleep. They studied, talked, and watched indie films together. So many films, because she’d declared she wanted to be a screenwriter and he’d declared her dream wouldn’t fade from lack of inspiration. He cared like that. Made her feel important, made her laugh, and—unlike her girlfriends—wordlessly accepted her offbeat outfits. Sometimes, though, he’d look a little too long.
Friendship didn’t have a place in those looks, she was sure.
But just not sure enough.
Jed had spread his hands over the sketches, head lowered. “Don’t they know we’re only friends?”
Only. Her stomach plummeted. Feigning ease, she answered, “Some people don’t think boys can be just friends with girls.”
There was a moment where neither seemed to breathe. Then he half-turned towards her, gaze finding her lips.
Softly, she pushed, “Can you, Jed?”
Without answering, he backed away from the bench and started lugging out sandwich ingredients. She suspected it was an excuse to stand with his back to her, head deep in the fridge. Whatever the reason, it stung like a blistering rejection.
“I should go, shouldn’t I?” Dee kept the heartbreak from her voice. Secretly longing for her best friend had made rope of her ribs, and it knotted now, a painful tightening.
“No.” He remained partially in the fridge.
“Because you’re not looking at me. And you’ve only pulled out enough bread for one sandwich.”
“It’s for you.”
“The issue of eye contact remains.”
“I can’t find the pickles.”
Dee was crazy about pickles. “Well if you can’t find them, I’m definitely leaving.”
He slid her an amused glance as he withdrew the jar. Then he started assembling, silent and unreadable. Not a rejection then. Sensing a chance, Dee sat up on the bench beside him, trying and failing to tug her skirt down to a modest length. As she tugged, his gaze snagged on her legs, his hand stilling in the bread bag. Not slender legs, in keeping with the rest of her, but the look on his face didn’t hint at judgment. The pinch of his cheeks was more…desperate.
When he reached behind her for the cheese, his hip pushed against her knee. It stayed there.
They weren’t touchy-feely friends. Always a gap between them, no heads on shoulders or hugs goodbye. Touch mattered, meant something. Right now, it cupped her hope.
“It doesn’t matter what everyone thinks,” she said, holding courage by the scruff of its neck. “All that matters is that you and I think the same thing.”
“Dee.” Jed cut the cheese too thick. “You’re the only real friend I have here.”
The knife paused and Dee noticed his hand was shaking. “And I don’t make friends lightly. Or easily. Not anymore.”
She knew that, too.
“I don’t want to risk us on one rash decision.”
“It’s not rash.” Heart hammering, she edged closer.
With teeth clenched, she slid one leg between him and the bench, knee skimming uncharted territory before settling on his other side. His hips pressed against the inside of her thighs, and with her skirt riding high and her feet planted on the cupboard doors, the position was brash and unashamedly provocative.
Okay, she thought, nerve-bound into silence. I’m about to know for sure.
Jed put the knife down. Set his fingertips on the bench edge either side of her hips. His groin kept its distance from hers, but his steady gaze didn’t match his uneven breaths.
Quietly, deeply, he murmured, “You’re doing it again.”
She forced out a questioning sound.
Apparently Dee pushed people outside their comfort zones. Asked questions too bold, made statements too true. She’d lost friends because of it. Irritated her teachers and confused her parents. Since the day she’d met Jed, he’d simply pushed back.
“I don’t want to ruin this.” She inhaled and the familiarity of his smell, male and comforting and arousing, confirmed there was no choice. She’d go crazy if she didn’t try. “I know this could mess us up—that I might lose the best friend I’ve ever had. But I’m trapped otherwise and I can’t keep pretending.”
His stare was black. Pitch with desire. His grip shifted on the counter edge. “Is hooking up what you want?”
“I want all of it, Jed. A relationship, exclusivity. I’m completely gone on you.”
“I can’t promise that,” he said, a low rumble that set her trembling. His body was stiff and still. “I’ve never been in one place long enough to promise you that.”
“You told me you’d stay.”
“And I have.” A shadow lurked across his features. “But I can’t promise.”
“Then don’t.” Boldly, and with no small accompanying panic attack, she inched forward. The vee of her thighs met a hard bulge and his ragged groan sent a shiver right to her core. “Just give me what you can.”
She’d hardly finished speaking before he was dragging her against him. His mouth met hers, lush and hot and flatteringly insistent. Dee let him lead, his tongue breaking through her lips, tasting, twisting, all the while his hands were firm at her hips, fingers curled tight around the waistband of her skirt. No resisting her now.
Desire engulfed her, a new feeling, heady and irresistible. She pressed closer, ankles hooking and holding firm, and then it was time to explore. The sweet soft loops of his hair. The tight rise of his butt under worn jeans. The flat plane of his stomach, hot as she abandoned restraint and pushed her hands beneath his windbreaker. And that bulge, holding steady, an unfamiliar weight that set heat radiating low in her belly.
As her palms travelled, Jed moved to take her hands, holding them between their chests. “Mouths only,” he murmured on a shaky breath.
She wrestled free. She ran her fingers down his back and along the band of his jeans. His mouth moved to her chin, kissing, slipping. “Don’t mess around, Dee.”
“I’m not messing. I’m discovering. I’ve been waiting months for you.”
She felt him smile. “How many months?”
“Oh, six, seven.”
“So it hasn’t just been me,” he said, blessed words.
“You must have known. Subtlety isn’t my strong point.”
“I’d hoped.” His smile grew. “Then really, we’ve already taken it slow.”
Now that was her kind of logic. They ended up in his bedroom, door closed, bedside lamp on. When his shirt came off, Dee weakened, and when his gaze dropped to her black and white striped top, nerves kicked up her pulse. He kissed her again, gently, and tucked her hair behind her ear. “This is good. We can just do this.”
“No.” She wanted more. It felt right. This was how it should be; her first time with someone she loved, who treated her like she mattered. So her top came next, a little awkwardly when he had trouble navigating it over her breasts and she laughed, a short burst, loving him all the more for it.
“Sorry.” His cheeks were pink. At his fumble or the sight of her bra, she wasn’t sure.
Her skirt hit the floor at the same time a bang sounded from the living area. The front door closing and footsteps moving from the door to the kitchen.
“Oh my God,” she whispered, alarm flooding her. Her heartbeat tore as her arms locked over her half-naked chest. “Is your mom home?”
Jed was frowning, listening. He kept a hand on her waist. “She must have left work early. Another migraine.”
“Oh my God.”
Ellie knew Dee and liked her, but there was a strict “no bedroom” rule which they were flouting pretty seriously.
“Damn it, sorry, Dee.” Jed snatched up his tee and pulled it back on, mussing his inky hair. “I don’t want to hide this, but she’ll ground me. You won’t be allowed to come over. I don’t want a ban on seeing you.” He grimaced. “How do you feel about using the fire escape?”
“Oh my God,” she said again, this time excited. “How rebellious.”
“It’s in Mum’s room.”
Ah. “Very rebellious.”
“I’ll go first and make sure the drop ladder works. Then I’ll come back and distract her while you go. Just…wait here.” And he slipped into the hall and closed the door behind him.
Dee stood by his bed, yanking her top on and wriggling her skirt over her hips. She jiggled her legs, anxious, a little guilty, but generally ecstatic. Their friendship wasn’t over—it was becoming something more.
Then a knock came from the front door, and moments later, she heard Ellie’s demand. “What are you doing here?”
Frowning, Dee tiptoed to the bedroom door. He couldn’t have made it down the fire escape and back up in the lift that quickly.
Ellie’s voice rose. “You have no right to be here! This is my home. How dare you follow me up here?”
Concern had Dee cracking the door open. Not Jed, then.
A man answered. “I’m sorry to startle you like this, Melissa.” A French accent beautified his words. “But we’re unconvinced that you left alone all those years ago.”
There was a long pause. “I’m Ellie now.” Jed’s mother’s words were cold.
“Ellie. You must understand that we need to confirm this. May I come in?”
“No, you may not.” But footsteps travelled from the door to the kitchen anyway and she didn’t protest further. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Of course I left alone.”
The man spoke again. “You’ve been moving constantly since then. Almost as if you don’t want to be found.”
“I like to travel.” Her words were dismissive.
Dee inched the door open further, frowning. She’d wondered about Jed’s past of constant moving. Ellie claimed she wanted her son to see the world, not tied to a single place his whole life. But Dee hadn’t believed her. Jed hated it. If it were all for him, Ellie would have settled years ago to make him happy.
“You’re running, Ellie. We know why.”
“I don’t know what—”
“You got pregnant. You have a child, which makes them next in line—”
“No!” Dee jumped as Ellie shouted. “I do not. You’ve stalked me, invaded my privacy, and now you’re making wild assumptions. Get out.”
“So you are not a mother?”
She hesitated, then said, “No.”
Unease prickled Dee’s spine. Surely the only reason someone would lie about having a child would be to protect them. Was Jed in danger? Who was this man? She held her breath as he spoke again.
“You were home all of thirty seconds before I arrived.” His tone was calm, shrewd. “I wonder whose sandwich that could be?”
Sprung, Dee thought, wincing.
There was silence.
“I’ll leave,” the man said, “after I check the apartment.”
“Don’t you dare.” Footsteps started down the hall and Ellie shouted again. “Don’t you dare!”
Before Dee could do anything but back away from the door, it flew open. A man in a suit burst in, expression firm as his eyes adjusted to the dim room. Ellie appeared at his shoulder, her face white and horrified. Her startled gaze ran over Dee; no doubt taking in the messy hair, swollen lips, and reaching a very obvious conclusion.
“My daughter,” she said after a moment, holding Dee’s stare. “Not that it’s any of your damned business.”
The man took a step closer. Completely confounded, Dee turned her attention to him and watched his gaze search her features. After several seconds, he asked, “How old are you?”
A simple question that Dee imagined had a right and wrong answer. She darted a look at Jed’s mother. Ellie latched onto her gaze and mouthed fourteen.
“Fourteen,” Dee lied dutifully. “Who are you and why the hell are you in my bedroom?”
He gave her a long look, narrowed eyes burying across her face. Then he discarded her and turned his back. “She looks nothing like Oscar.”
Dee asked, “Who’s Oscar?”
“For good reason,” Ellie answered him flatly. “Get. Out.”
With a final frowned glance at Dee, the man left.
Shock held her to the spot. Judging by the way Ellie sagged against the door frame, the situation would have ended differently had that man found Jed. Was this why she stayed on-the-move? Constantly running to avoid getting caught in Oscar’s net.
Finding her voice, she asked, “Ellie, what was that—”
“Forget it, Dee.”
“What does he want with Jed?” Fear fed on her heart. “Is Oscar dangerous?”
“I think it’s time for you to leave.” The words were shaky but clipped. The color hadn’t returned to Ellie’s cheeks and she gripped the doorframe.
“But who was that guy?” She moved forward, feeling shaky herself. “Is everything okay?”
Jed’s mother ignored the questions. “Go on. You know you’re not allowed in here.”
“We were just—”
“I know what you were just doing. Out, get out now. I’m not in the mood.”
It mortified Dee that her eyes filled with tears. The night had almost been so perfect. Jed was probably wrestling with the drop down ladder, clueless that he’d return upstairs to an empty bedroom and furious mother. Dee had to stay, explain to him what had happened. “I’d prefer to stay to make sure—”
“No, Dee, you’re to go home right now.”
“Then just to say goodbye, Ellie, he’s only popped out for—”
“I’ll tell him you had to leave. Now go, before I tell your parents what was going on in here.” The words left no room for argument.
So with streaks on her cheeks, Dee slunk out of Jed’s bedroom, his apartment, and out of the building. Too late did she think to check the fire escape, and staring up, she saw a shadow slipping out of sight through Ellie’s window.
Upset, she drove home, music cranked up loud. Ellie would ground him on the spot. There would be no phone calls or hanging out this weekend. She’d have to wait for school on Monday to ask whether he and Ellie were okay—whether they were on the run. There’d always been something unsettled about them, something he wasn’t telling her. Well, he’d have to tell the truth because she was involved now.
She’d take his hand and kiss him, because finally, blissfully, she could. She’d be happy on Monday, and every day after that.
But Monday came and Jed wasn’t at school. No one picked up his home phone that evening, and she cursed Ellie for being so cruel. Tuesday morning, Dee skipped Art class to visit. When she turned up at his apartment block, she was halted by the security guard and his apologetic hand on her shoulder.
Jed and his mother had moved out on the weekend.
Flattened by the impact, Dee knelt on the lobby floor. She wanted to cry—loudly, ungracefully—but no tears came. His sudden abandonment had snatched away her emotions, leaving her hollow. Only shock remained, lining her skin.
She should have done something. Refused to leave the apartment. Called the police, reported a stalker. She could have stopped Ellie panicking and fleeing. Unless the man had returned and seen Jed? Ice froze over her gut at the thought. If Dee had been there, she could have prevented him from taking them away; she’d have screamed and fought and gone for the man’s soft spots.
She could have stopped it happening. Instead she’d done nothing. She was empty and alone.
And Jed was gone.
End of Excerpt