At eighteen, Felix Nickson was far more experienced at programming than talking to girls. His idea of a hot date involved attending an all-night demoscene party, showing off and impressing the elite of the computer art subculture. He pursued three coding languages, flirted with a fourth, and hooked up with gamers on weekends. He had the hots for fast processors and beautiful algorithms.
A lifestyle with little room for romance. He didn’t care. Plenty of time for that at uni when he’d finally meet his own kind. As it was, he had one true friend outside of the virtual realm.
Stevie, his tomboy neighbor, had been his best friend since forever—or at least since she and her sister had been fostered as kids next door. He still deflected leers, ignored murmurings that their friendship was the means to a sexually satisfying end. But Stevie was like the sister he didn’t have, and when they watched shoot ’em up films or went to the pub for a drink, the brother, too.
Still, girls in general—not Felix’s strong point.
Which made the note in his hand mildly terrifying.
It was from a girl. And that girl was Stevie’s younger sister.
As he trudged across the deserted oval to the edge of the high school property, he balled up the paper. Regan Case was sixteen and not afraid of anything. Boys, underage drinking, clubbing…he suspected worse. She hung out with the rebels and smokers, kids the teachers had given up on years ago, just as they’d given up on her.
Felix’s exam prep had been derailed by a kid passing him the note. Want to talk. Meet me at the edge. Regan.
Years ago, she’d hung out with him and Stevie. Quiet but interested, he’d summed her up as smart, a little sensitive, and stubborn enough to achieve anything she set her mind to. Including, as it turned out, delinquency.
He rounded the corner of the equipment shed to see the human smoke ring that was Regan and her friends.
“Fee.” She stood, passing a freshly-lit cigarette down to the guy next to her. Then she stretched, casual, lazy, drawing her shirt up to expose a slice of taut stomach and the sparkle of her belly piercing. Relaxing, she shot Felix a neutral smile. “You came.”
“Yeah.” He clenched the paper tighter, uncomfortable under everyone’s gaze. They were not his kind of people.
“It’s your last day today, right?” She came towards him, dyed black hair pulled into a sloppy ponytail. She was short, slender, and careless of school rules. Heavy eyeliner was only the beginning of her breach in uniform regulations. Skirt rolled high, black singlet visible beneath a half-unbuttoned white school shirt and tarnished silver jewelry on her wrists and fingers. Her knee-high socks gave the finger to regulation by being paired with buckled black boots.
“Yeah.” He shifted his weight, frowning. “Final exam starts at three.”
She stopped in front of him and tilted her head to the side. Her plush lips quirked, amused, along with a narrow brow. She’d always had the biggest brown eyes. Wide and silent as a child, now oddly innocent rimmed in black.
“God, you’re adorable,” she said, reaching out to tweak his collar. “I love a man who does up all his buttons.”
Her friends snickered and Regan glanced at them with a smile. Then she turned on Felix, moving in so close, so quickly, she had him backed against the shed wall before he could think to step aside.
Alarmed, his face grew hot. It was no secret she set her sights on the older boys. And always got them—for obvious reasons, including those exposed by her low neckline. She’d grown up fast a few years back. Less of a bloom into womanhood and more of a break in, suddenly in possession of things she’d never had before and using them as if to prove they were really hers. Stevie had tried to talk to her, but it seemed Regan had stolen belligerence along with sexual maturity. Not that she tended to target focused students like Felix. Studiousness was hardly the new sexy and she was astute enough to know that nothing about this appealed to him.
“Regan, I don’t know what makes you think—”
“Shush, sweetheart, I have something to tell you.”
Regan had her palms flat on the wall either side of his waist. She was a good head shorter than him, but stared into his eyes as if she owned him.
He set his teeth together, irritated, uncomfortable, as her friends resumed their indolent chitchat.
“Stop it.” He turned his face aside. “Someone might see.” Someone might see his best friend’s little sister cracking onto him, and no one could mistake his body language in the face of hers. “Don’t you care what people think?”
“When people start thinking the truth, I’ll start caring.”
He frowned and she didn’t back away. She hadn’t always been like this. The old Regan would have cared. She’d always responded to how people felt about her. She’d always wanted to do right. But doing right had clearly suffocated her, because now she spun with arms outstretched in fields of recklessness.
He shifted. “What do you want?”
“Two things. First, Stevie told me you’re running away,” she said, hushed now. Her voice had lost all trace of mockery. “And I want to help.”
Felix’s skin went cold. Playing it cool, he looked down at her boots and pretended to adjust his glasses. When he looked back up, he didn’t quite meet her eyes. “She said she wouldn’t tell anyone.”
“Yeah, well, she’s worried. Doesn’t think you have any money, but doesn’t want to ask. She probably thought her derelict sister wouldn’t give a damn.”
He tried to smother his next question. But he had to know. “Did she tell you why?”
“No. But it’s not hard to guess.” Her voice softened. “Your dad doesn’t deserve you.”
He blanched as his pride split apart.
Knew about the taunts and disgusted name-calling. The shoves in the chest, the slam of knuckles, all lessons in hardening up. Real men didn’t sit in front of screens all day and they sure as hell didn’t aspire to a career with a keyboard. They played sport. They hung around in testosterone-driven packs. They had sex and girlfriends. Felix was an embarrassment.
Shame coated his gut like sticky blood, and his insides roiled, sick with it. He dropped his gaze, silenced by humiliation.
Stevie had figured it out last year. Her demands that he walk out the door had reduced to a helpless begging, but his education stopped him. He’d maintained that if he ran away underage, his schooling would suffer, as would his future career, and he refused to hand his dad that victory. Now, with high school at a close, he planned to get out and never look back—tonight, after this last exam.
In response to his mortified silence, Regan didn’t apologize; didn’t offer pity or condolences. Instead, she unzipped the side pocket of her skirt and stuck a hand inside.
“Take this”—she pressed a paper bag into his hand—“and don’t tell Stevie.”
Shock overwhelmed his shame. Rectangular and flexible, there was no mistaking the stack of cash inside. Words strained, he said, “I can’t—”
“Where did you—”
“Don’t worry about that,” she snapped. “Take it and go.”
“But you don’t have this kind of—”
“Felix,” she interrupted fiercely. Her face was close to his; so close he could see the blonde strands of her eyebrows. Her warm, smoky breath puffed over his cheek. Nothing in her expression was playing games. “Do you have enough money to make this work?”
He stared back, not breathing. He’d focused so intently on his studies, desperate for a university scholarship, that he hadn’t had time for a job. He had to leave with nothing but physical possessions and the hope that fate would smile on him.
He clenched his teeth so hard his jaw throbbed. “No.”
“Then I need you to take this.”
The bag was crisp in his palm. She pushed it firmly into him.
“I’ll figure something out,” he said roughly, pressing against her, pride needing her to take it away.
“No, you won’t. You’re hoping for a miracle.” She rose onto her tiptoes and whispered, “That’s what this is, doofus.”
Felix inhaled, slow and deep, but his head spun. This hardly made sense. Regan was the fostered rebel of an otherwise reputable family; the girl who’d gone off the rails at thirteen and hadn’t responded to any form of discipline since. Skipping school, staying out all night, and sleeping with the kind of boys that would put a chill in any parent. Stevie said their foster parents were beside themselves, and just yesterday, she’d heard their older brother, birth son of their foster parents, suggest they kick Regan out.
Yet here she was, trying to help him. Persisting, insisting. “What do you care?”
She raised a shoulder, landing back on her heels. “Two birds, one stone.”
He frowned as she renewed the pressure on the bag. “Where’d you get this?”
“I said don’t worry about that.”
“That’s what makes me worried.”
She pouted. “Don’t trust me?”
“I—” He paused. “Don’t know.”
“I didn’t rob an innocent, if that’s what you think.”
“If it’s legit, why don’t you keep it?”
“I am,” she said, chin lifting. “This is only half.”
“It can’t be yours.” The bag was too thick to contain the earnings of her part-time, supermarket employment. He hated to say it, but, “You’ve stolen it.”
He’d expected anger. A blow up in his face and the withdrawal of the cash. That would have been better than the uncertainty that spilled across her face. Her lips puckered under the bite of her teeth, and for a moment she looked lost.
“It doesn’t feel wrong, though,” she whispered. “Not if it’s helping someone who deserves it.”
Unease spread like a shadow in his chest.
“You know what? God.” Fed up, she yanked the bag out of his hand. A moment later, she’d jammed the whole lot down the front of his briefs. He flinched, the paper scraping rough against sensitive skin. “There.” She patted the bulge in his trousers, smirking. “Nice healthy junk from pressing up against a pretty girl. Aren’t you lucky?”
More like horrified.
“You stick your hand down your pants to give it back,” she said, pointing a warning finger, “and I’ll call you a creep really loud.”
Dismayed, Felix felt the weight of cash against him. This wasn’t right. None of this was right. “Take it back.”
She raised her palms, feigning scandal. “Felix. You devil.”
“Tempting. I love it when a man begs.”
“That’s not funny.”
“Yeah, I know.” Her features suddenly locked hard. “But when everything sucks, a girl’s gotta play dirty. Here’s the deal. You’re going to take your last exam, and that money, and you’re going to get gone. You won’t tell anyone that I gave it to you. Rent some crappy place, get a job, and go to uni like you know you should, to hell with your dad. If Stevie asks, tell her you’ve been saving.”
The future glittering in those words blinded him. There was no fear, only freedom. He didn’t know how much the bag contained, but it could probably cover the bond for a cheap rental, something he wouldn’t be able to afford himself right now.
Felix stared at her, stricken.
She stared back and, slowly yet undeniably, he was invaded by opportunity. Her features relaxed when she saw she’d won.
Then she said, “You’re going to take Stevie with you.”
The opportunity warped in his mind, trying and failing to accommodate this new stipulation. He blinked. “What?”
“Take her with you.”
“I can’t make her move out just because you’re sick of her trying to help you.”
“Take her.” Tension locked her jaw and her expression flickered. “She’s your best friend. It wouldn’t be that weird to move out together.”
“Uh, yeah, it would.”
“Well, too bad. It’s part of the deal.”
Resistance arced up inside him. Trust Regan to wait until she’d caught him before throwing Stevie into the equation. “I don’t think you realize the significance of what you’re—”
“I do.” She cut in. “That’s why I’m asking it. And don’t worry too much. By tomorrow, she’ll want to go with you. You just keep her safe.”
Foreboding cracked cold over his skull. “What’s really going on?”
Nonchalant, she said, “I’m saving us all.”
The cold sharpened. Something was wrong. Seriously wrong. And since his plans for the immediate future were already in a serious state of flux, he said, “Regan. Will you come with us?”
Surprise flashed wide in her eyes. “I—no.”
Felix hesitated. It wasn’t now or never. He’d talk to Stevie about it later and they’d figure something out. “Didn’t you want two things from me?”
“Oh, yeah.” At that, the rebel in Regan smiled slyly. “A kiss.”
Deflecting with sarcasm, he tried to ease her aside. “Sure, okay.”
“I mean it.” She didn’t budge. “As thanks.”
Not a chance. “You’re sixteen.”
“A sixteen-year-old who just gave you ten grand.”
His heart bulged as hope burst loose. Ten thousand dollars? That money would buy him an entire fresh start, from a roof over his head and furniture to text books and admin fees. He could land on his feet, with his best friend beside him. He could pursue the career that would make him happy. He could never bruise from his father’s fist again.
But that ten grand had belonged to someone else. His hope flickered out. “I can’t take that kind of money.”
“You can and you will. You deserve it a million times more—” She halted, pressing a finger to his bottom lip. “Stop arguing and kiss me.”
Apprehension gouged at his stomach. She’d always been stubborn. “Guys don’t kiss their best mate’s sisters.”
She leaned closer, attention dropping to his mouth. Her breath warmed his chin and his skin tightened, seeming to reach for her in response. “I won’t tell Stevie.”
He swallowed. “I’m not interested.”
Then how could she think it was a good idea? “You’re destructive.”
Hurt deepened her doe eyes, tightened her lips, before she smiled cynically. “That’s my problem, not yours.”
Certainly was, and not a small one.
Then her hands were on his shoulders, her toes on the tops of his school shoes, and her mouth landed open on his. Her lips were hot, her firm body pressed against him. Inexperience froze him, expecting something recklessly overblown to support her reputation. A shameless make-out session behind the shed, as easy as he wanted it, if the rumors had any substance.
Instead, she drew back. Slid her tongue slowly along his closed lips. Her hand gently imprinted itself on the side of his face, fingertips brushing his temple and thumb circling into the corner of his mouth. She tugged his bottom lip down and sought entrance with her tongue, and Felix granted it because he owed her. He owed her the curious tilt of his head, the full parting of his lips, the answering curl of his tongue around hers. That was the only reason he responded, he thought to himself, as her hand raked through his thick hair and sensation rippled through him.
The only reason.
She kissed like the sweetest thing, trapped beneath layers of lip gloss and smoke, and he wondered whether she knew this was his first. Her body relaxed, breasts on his ribs and stomach pressing into the cash at his groin. Heat flared beneath that pressure, a sudden needy thrill. God help him if he grew hard over his best friend’s little sister, and may He throw in forgiveness, too, because for that Felix would never forgive himself. Felix’s hand sought her waist and ended up on the rolled excess of her skirt. He left it there.
One of her friends wolf-whistled and then he tasted salt at the corner of her mouth. She pulled back, wiping her cheeks and keeping her back to her friends.
Felix frowned around a shaky breath. Tears from a girl who seemed built exclusively of smart words and defiance.
Voice low, he demanded, “What the hell is really going on?”
“I’m trying to save us all.” Sadness darkened her eyes. “Make this worth my while.”
“I owe you,” he said, because ten grand put him irrefutably in her debt.
“Yeah, well, if all goes according to plan, I’m not going to see you again. But if it makes you feel better, you can live life knowing that you owe me,” she added, the cut of her sarcasm softened by the sight of her tear-smudged eyeliner.
“I will.” He would.
She didn’t answer as she turned her back to return to her friends. He looked after her, the girl who had weighted his crotch with the means to survive, who caused Stevie endless anxiety; the girl who was going to get herself into serious trouble one day if she didn’t sort herself out.
“Please come with us,” he said suddenly.
She halted, back still turned. A few smokers glanced over, leaning back on their hands.
“I mean it.” He lowered his voice. “Let us help you.”
He watched her inhale. Tuck stray hair behind her ear. Then she glanced back at him and her mocking smile came too easily. “I don’t need your help, Fee. And I never will.”
End of Excerpt