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From the opposite end of the hallway, I’d seen Landon first. He’d grown a bit taller and a bit more self-confident, no longer staring at the floor as he had in middle school. The boy next to him was taller and bigger, his short red hair contrasting sharply with Landon’s dark in-need-of-a-haircut mane. Boyce looked like one of the seniors instead of a sophomore. Where Landon was quietly confident, Boyce was assertively so—his laugh deep and loud, his smile wide, his eyes, connecting with mine, sharp.
I was stunned by how quickly and surely he recognized me. We’d never had an actual conversation, had only spoken in passing, and not even that in over a year, since I was still in middle school. I’d seen him in town—at the grocery store, on the beach, driving past me and Mama in his loud black car. I knew he smoked. He had a tattoo on his arm (a Marine emblem—I googled it), which was illegal since he was still under eighteen (also googled).
Melody, staring down the hallway, said, “Ohh, there’s Landon… And ugh, Boyce is with him. Great, he’s looking right at me. Fuck.”
She was wrong. Boyce was looking at me. As we drew closer, his gaze didn’t waver. He said something to Landon, who glanced my way but whose eyes instantly shifted to Melody.
“Just ignore Boyce Wynn,” she’d said as the four of us drew closer, the students around us just blurs of color. “He’s a dickhead. I seriously can’t stand him. God, I have no idea why Landon and he are tight now. They had a vicious fight last year—remind me to tell you about it later. Boyce jumped him in the hallway. He’s also complete trash—his father is an alcoholic who runs a garage and they live in a trailer—total stereotype, right?”
Melody clearly didn’t understand the term stereotype. Nor did she know a thing about Boyce Wynn.
As we reached them, her face morphed into a honeyed smile. “Hi, Landon.”
“Hey, Melody,” he said.
I waited for Boyce to inadvertently remind Melody of our humiliating elementary school connection, but he acted as though she didn’t exist.
“Hey, Pearl,” he said, staring at me like I was a double chocolate cupcake.
“Hi, Boyce.” I felt the blush rise from my chest to my neck to my cheeks, and I turned my face away to conceal it. Nine years. Nine years, I’d waited for him to notice me that way, and now he had… when I was finally pretty.
Chapter Seven
There was something about Pearl that had belonged to me since the moment I dragged her out of the ocean and onto the sand, but I hadn’t understood the full scope of those feelings until I spotted her at the other end of the hallway at school—first day of September, tenth grade. My entire life flipped, narrowed, and focused when she came into view, and everyone else disappeared.
She was a mirage—all curvy little body and coils of dark hair pulled away from her face to uncover her big dark eyes and full lips. I’d been like one of those morons who couldn’t see the value of a classic super car unless it’d been overhauled and restored. A true car buff knows the worth of a wreck sitting in a junkyard, rusting and waiting for its parts to be stripped. Pearl hadn’t changed; I’d merely been blind and now I wasn’t. Clothes, hairstyle, makeup—these were minor modifications, none of which would matter if she was lying under me in my bed.
A rush of heat and blood and want hardened my dick as though it meant to part the crowd between us and claim her right then and there. “Down, boy,” I muttered.
“Huh?” Maxfield said, and I just shook my head, thankful for the mass of people and the strategically held notebook in my hands. He followed my gaze to Pearl and was immediately distracted by Rover Dover—thank God, because if he’d looked at Pearl that way, I probably would have shredded the fuck out of our friendship right there, without a second thought.
I’d been an idiot. A total fucking idiot.
• • • • • • • • • •
She was staring at my hands—the one loosely gripping the neck of a Shiner bottle, the other hooked in the front pocket of the only jeans I owned that weren’t marked with engine grease. Jesus, what I’d give to know what she was thinking. Was she lost in thought and staring aimlessly, or wondering if I remembered the feel of my palms and fingers skimming over her smooth, golden-brown skin?
My fingers curled against the denim near my groin, and her eyes skittered to the kitchen table, and then to the box in that damned chair—the label of which was clear as day: HUMAN REMAINS.
“Is that… your father?” she asked, pointing.
Goddamn. Even dead, he was fucking up my life.
I glanced over at the box as though I had to check to be sure what she was talking about. “Yep. I expected to get more satisfaction out of having him incinerated, even if that’s what he wanted. I suspect he knew he would be a pain in my ass a little longer that way. If I’da buried him, it would be done and done. Instead, I’ve got to figure out what to do with a creepy-ass dad-in-the-box.”
She choked a laugh, eyes dancing. “God, Boyce.” For some reason, she’d always found me funny. In high school, I would catch her smirking at some idiotic remark I’d made, trying to hide it while her best friend bitched and fumed and called me all sorts of names as though I gave a fat crap. Both of their reactions just egged me on, of course.
“I keep thinking he’s gonna pop up outta there like one of those damn windup clowns.”
She shook her head, smiling. “Maybe you could scatter him from the pier?”
I frowned. “Not gonna happen. I told him I wouldn’t be totin’ his dusty ass to the water or performing some pointless farewell ceremony. He’s gone, and I’m glad.”
She angled her head, sobering. “I know you are, and I don’t blame you one bit. But maybe dumping his ashes in the gulf would bring you some closure.”
“Ain’t no closure for me and him, Pearl.”
“I understand,” she said, and I hoped she didn’t.
“Besides,” I added, sliding back into the comfort of disrespectful humor, “I’m pretty sure he’d amount to pure-D marine pollution.”
She chewed her lip. “What about our sandbar? We could dig a hole, dump him in, and put a big, flat rock on top of him.”
Our sandbar. The one not quite the length of a football field from her backyard—if a football field was submerged under eight or nine feet of water. A couple of marshy, sea-grass-covered islands and a dozen or so sandbars—an extension of the nature preserve that ranged as wide as the town—stood between the wide-open bay and her neighborhood.