Chapter 1 1
THE WIND CLAWED AT MY limbs, delved mist-heavy fingers through my hair as it tried its best to pull me through the open window. We’d lost ourselves in the twists of trees and shadows along the Blue Ridge Parkway, leaving the lights of downtown Asheville far behind. Grey sat rigid in the driver’s seat, clenched and flexed his fingers on the steering wheel in nervous bursts as the ancient Forester lumbered around the turns—a steady, reliable contrast to the idea unfolding inside it.
“No way. Absolutely not.”
“What better way to get acquainted than to risk our lives together?” Connor’s eyes were lit in the glow of the dash lights over a bright, sharp smile. “Lane. Laaaaane, come on. How else will we establish trust?”
“I’m sure we’ll think of something,” I deadpanned. “Maybe once you’ve known me longer than a week.”
“Fair enough.” He leaned between the front seats, zeroed in on my antsy stepbrother. “Grey?”
“Dude, this is just a bad idea. The statistics alone—”
“Yeah, I get it. I don’t need your academia. Sadie …” Connor turned to his sister, found himself face-to-face with a death glare she’d almost definitely learned from him. He fell back to the seat beside me with a shrug. “Know what? I won’t bother asking.”
“I am not riding on the roof of a moving car, Connor Hall, and you should know better than to even think it up. This is not how you and I were raised.”
“I know. Isn’t it great?”
He didn’t climb out the window, not exactly—just slid his upper body through the space, fingers tight around the assist handle, leaned out backward as far as he could. He was all frayed hems and unbound laughter. His chain-and-leather wrist cuff caught the moonlight, winked at me from the shadows.
“Oh Lord, I don’t like this.” Sadie twisted around in the passenger seat, made a grab for her brother’s ankle. He kicked her hand away. “Lane, honey, help him. Get him back in here.”
“Like he’ll listen to me?”
“Well, grab his arms, or something. He’s about to go all over the road.”
I undid my seat belt and scooted into his vacant seat, rose onto my knees to the left of his, ignoring the plaintive buzzing in my jacket pocket. Jeremy’s bravado had apparently crumbled all the way to fucking dust in the few hours since I’d reiterated my desire to remain single for an undetermined stretch of eternity. A text or two on the heels of that talk was to be expected, but holy shit.
My tap on Connor’s wrist did nothing; my insistent tug on his sleeve did less, and then I was caught—his hand closed around my biceps and dragged me through the window, pulling until my hips hit the doorframe. My shriek was a thin, useless thing, lost in the rush of night around us. Swept away along with his answering laugh.
“What are you doing??” I yelped. “Get back in there.” He shook his head and leaned out farther—dangerously, heart-stoppingly farther. His grin formed words that never reached my ears. “What?”
He repeated himself, let go of my arm long enough to gesture at the sky.
Nothing about those instructions resembled a good plan. I did it anyway. I twisted my torso, clutched Connor’s sleeve with one hand and the roof rack with the other. Tipped my head backward in a mimic of his.
We fell into the stars.
They funneled out of the darkness and seeped into my senses, overlapping and infinite, distant and impossibly close. The wind blew my hair across my tearing eyes, turned the sky to a moonlit blur of shadow and sound. My hand ached with the force of my grip, every joint threatening to pull apart. Every nerve poised to unravel.
Sadie’s frantic taps on my knee pulled me back to earth. I snagged the shoulder of Connor’s jacket and dragged him back into the car, where we landed in a breathless, dizzy heap.
“Not a bad view, huh, Lane?”
“Wild,” I gasped. “We totally should get on the roof.”
“Now you’re talking. Sadie, tell your boy to slow it down till we’re settled, then when I give the signal, give it all he’s got.”
“You’re just a big old mess, Connor.” Sadie shook her head, scowling at Connor over the back of her seat. “Both of you are way too much for me.”
“You know you love this mess,” he cackled. “Don’t even act like you don’t.”
He snaked back out the window, leaned out again, shaking off my grip; Grey’s foot pressed heavy on the gas pedal, as Sadie’s apprehensive squawks slithered into my ears. I stretched out on the seat, tipped my head back, returned my eyes to the sky. Sought a second glimpse of Connor’s view, from a significantly safer place.
We parked at an overlook, though there was nothing to see but deep, vast darkness, mountain shadows spackled with the twinkle of far-off cities. I drifted out of reach of the headlights, leaned against the guardrail as Grey cranked the music loud, and Connor cranked it louder. Sadie tugged at her brother’s arms, begging him to dance even as he playfully smacked her hands away.
“Hey.” Grey’s drawl brushed my ear, rode the chills down my arms and back. I looked up and lost my way, drawn to him with that familiar sickening swoosh. A pitiful tide, held fast in the grip of the moon. “I’m glad you came out tonight.”
“Oh. Thank you. Sorry for—I mean, I know Skye made you—”
“Elaine.” That name, falling softly from his mouth. He was the only one who’d even think to use it. “Mom has nothing to do with it. We—I want you here, or you wouldn’t be here. You’re my sister now, right?” His grin faltered into uncertainty. “It still sounds weird, I know. But it’s true.”
“I guess it is.” And it was—one week and counting, legally speaking, it was true. Horribly, unfairly, devastatingly true.
“You heard their vows. We’re in this together. Always.”
“Where is everybody?” Sadie’s twang blew past me and circled Grey, tugging his eyes from mine. She’d paused her solo dance party long enough to realize the rest of us had disappeared. “Grey? Baby, where’d you go? I can’t see one single blessed thing out here.”
“Coming, babe.” He darted past me, and it took everything I had to blink back the burn as he swooped away and into the wash of headlights, caught Sadie around the waist, lifting her off her feet to spin with him.
How many years had I waited, hoping to hear those words from him? How many more years would I spend sending habitual smiles across tables and rooms, through gritted, aching teeth? How many nights would I lie awake, listening through the thin wall of my bedroom for the sleep-jagged edge of his breath? This boy, so long unreachable—the core of everything I’d wanted, mangled and reassembled into a cosmic joke.
One week into eternity, and I wanted to cry every time it crossed my mind. Because that’s a healthy and productive method of problem-solving.
Admittedly better than my usual methods, though—all good-looking and nice and boring and replaceable—all attempts to feel something, for literally any attractive, age-appropriate guy who was not Grey McIntyre. All of whom lay in ruins behind me—stitches dropped from the end of the needle. Tiny holes, ruining the finished piece.
God. I should absolutely never be a life coach, in any form.
Connor emerged from the night, a jigsaw of edges and shadows, startling his sister. She shrieked, then giggled, clinging to Grey.
“Oh, there you are.” She craned her neck, squinted past the headlights. “Where’s Lane? Lane? Are you out there?”
“I’m here,” I called, bolstered by my calm, tremor-free voice. Proud of my straight, solid spine and dry eyes, and the way my feet didn’t hesitate to carry me forward over Grey’s footprints. “I’m right here.”
Sadie. All spark plugs and Southern charm, laughter bursting from her throat and sliding like a dropped skirt off her cello-curved hips. The alphabet threw us together year after year, from grade school all the way to seventeen, and it was weird how I hadn’t really known her before now, when I’d spent my life sitting either next to or right behind her: Hall, just ahead of Jamison. Sunburst, just ahead of shade. Sadie is the girl you feel guilty for resenting, even when she’s wrapped around the boy you love. The girl who, when that boy officially introduces you as his new stepsister, hugs you right there in the hallway, vocally covets your vintage Docs and begs you to crochet her a scarf exactly like the one you’re wearing, only in pink. Admires your hair, the straight, dark brown monotony that’s made it to your hips without seeing a salon, much less followed hers in a trip around the color spectrum that ended in bright lavender and turquoise slashes, peeking out from the naturally blond top layer. All those things of mine so un-Sadie somehow made enviable through her enthusiastic eyes.
As for Connor—well, I’d never actually met him before, but I knew him. Everyone knew Connor Hall, former lifelong anchor of the youth group set. Everyone knew he’d been exiled from his family at sixteen, disappeared from school and life, devastated his parents and more than a few good Christian girls when he came out. Everyone knew he’d faded into the streets of Asheville, emerged years later as a furious collection of hollows and angles before moving into his boyfriend’s riverfront warehouse-turned-studio, where he wrested art from metal and fire and knives. Connor, once as healthy and solid as his little sister, now gone to bone. Now skeleton and sinew, bound with bitter thread, his messy hair and eyebrow ring and pretty, troublesome mouth the antithesis to the scrubbed-wholesome gleam of the boy he’d been.
I’d always recognized them best as the kids from the television, before—the Hall siblings and their bowed heads, combed shiny for the public-access cameras. Numbed to their father’s brimstone shouts and flailing arms. Sadie and Connor. Two stubborn ends of the same short stick.
There was a reason I tied myself to no one—there was a reason I focused on schoolwork, stayed busy with our stall at the farmers’ market, threw myself into knitting more inventory at the first hint of a spare moment. Sweet, book-smart, oblivious Grey. He’d occupied my heart for years, long before he’d occupied the bedroom next to mine.
Seriously. Kill me.
Sadie turned her focus back to the music, let her head drop back onto Grey’s shoulder as she swayed them both to the beat. They moved together, pressed close, cheek to cheek and all the way down. Her hand was a fluttering wild thing beckoning us closer as they danced our way, Grey’s promise ring a violet glint on her finger. Amethyst, of all the options on the face of the earth—the stone of Saint Valentine. The symbol of fidelity and commitment and deep spiritual connection. His smile lit the world, slipped a sharp shard of glass through the soft space below my sternum.
“Not your thing either, huh?”
The voice appeared at my side, out of nowhere. I looked up into Connor’s smirk.
“Not in any sense,” I sighed. “Unless I’m very drunk.”
“Right there with you. It’s hilarious, though, huh? My fundamentalist baby sister, all but engaged to your wizard brother. An end-to-end clusterfuck in the making.”
“He’s Wiccan, not a ‘wizard.’ And he’s not my brother.”
“He’s the poor man’s Harry Potter. Their kids will fuck something up—break a dish, set fire to the curtains—and won’t know whether to wave their wands or pray to Jesus.”
My head ached with the images conjured by his words: a sweet-faced, chubby girl, all rosy cheeks and striking green eyes, surrounded by shards of crockery; a boy, Grey in miniature with Sadie’s chin, clutching a matchbook in dimpled, guilty hands. The endgame of everything they were: together. In love. Committed against all odds since freshman year, despite the initial blowback—the brainy pagan and the busty preacher’s daughter, a joke on a silver platter for the boys who’d spent our early years drawing devil horns on his notebooks. Who’d called her prissy and frigid, and every mean version of fat, until they finally caught on she didn’t care. The same boys who now couldn’t help but look as she swung past, stepping on their girlfriends’ slender shadows to wrap herself in Grey’s open arms.
It wasn’t fair.
I was too distraught to stifle a yelp as my phone buzzed again—for the first time, I realized, since I’d gone out the car window. We must have hit a dead zone on the mountainside, or maybe Jeremy had taken a dinner break. Either way, judging from the string of missed calls and the renewed cascade of bullshit texts overlapping on the already full screen, he appeared to have picked up his tantrum right where he’d left off.
Answer the phone, Lane.
I knew you’d do this.
ANSWER ME, YOU UNGRATEFUL BITCH
“I think the word you’re looking for is ‘unsubscribe.’?”
I blinked up at Connor. He peered over my shoulder, eyebrows lifting as a collection of similarly caustic messages assaulted my phone.
“Yeah, it’s this guy I used to know from school. He’s got his feelings all in a bunch.”
“God no. Summer thing. End of summer, really.”
“And yet here we are on the cusp of fall. Which, I take it, is the problem?” He nodded knowingly at my sigh. “He’s not giving you shit at school, is he?”
“No. He graduated last year. He shopped at our booth a couple months ago, and—well, behold the results of that chance reunion.”
He watched my thumbs fly across the screen, as Jeremy’s onslaught continued to vindicate my life choices. For once.
Jeremy, I said I was fine being friends if you could be cool about it, but it appears you’re not. So.
I KNEW you’d do this. Everyone knows how you are—they FUCKING WARNED ME. I KNEW IT.
You KNEW it because I TOLD you. I told you from day one this would never be a long-term thing, and you said it was fine. Lie much? Or are you just in denial?
You think you’re hot shit, don’t you. Think someone like you can do better than me? YOU CAN’T. NO ONE WILL LOVE YOU LIKE THIS EVER AGAIN.
Huh. Sounds like I’ll really be missing out.
Fuck you. FUCK YOU, LANE. Fucking BITCH. #SLUT
Nice hashtag, asshole. Bye.
WAIT. I’M SORRY. PLEASE DON’T DO THIS
Already done, guy. So very, VERY done.
LANE PLEASE I LOVE YOU
“Ah, high school.” Connor shook his head. “Why burn a bridge when you can carpet-bomb a whole fucking village?”
“He was nice enough at one point, believe it or not,” I sighed, shoving my mercifully silenced phone back in my pocket. “Most of them are.”
“Wow. So ‘abusive dick’ is your usual type?”
“I don’t really have a type.”
His answer was a muttered blur, losing itself in the shadows as my gaze wandered back to Grey. Sadie’s arms wrapped him like holiday ribbon, her laughter ringing loud and long and genuine. His answering smile was winter sunlight, white-bright and blinding, a match for hers, and it was no mystery at all, really. Of course he loved the girl behind that gleam of constant, unbound joy. What boy craved the threat of rain over a brilliant, cloudless sky?
Not Grey McIntyre. Not the boy who danced closer all at once, whose hand snaked out and snagged my wrist, dragging me into their sway. Not the boy who caught my waist and stole my breath, whirled and spun me inches from his grin, then reached past me to thread his fingers through Sadie’s as she shimmied closer. They enfolded and surrounded me, hugged me between them. My heart strained and cracked, fat at the seams with sorrow and laughter and a crazed, futile flare of hope.
We spun together, or the world spun around us, or maybe both and it didn’t matter. His breath was warm on my neck, his low laugh a flame sliding over the curve of my ear. His hands were around my wrists, puppeting my arms to mirror Sadie’s. His scent was a drug; his touch, an infection.
I looked to Connor, but he had moved to the edge of the light, an enviably safe distance from us. His profile flared orange as he lit a joint in his cupped hands, held his smoke and blew it into the sky, then glanced our way. My eyes slid shut against the drum-heavy blur of the night, and when I opened them, he was there, smirk in place, fingers closing around my sleeve.
“Oh, there you are! You have to dance, honey. I’m so—” Sadie’s eyes and exclamations lit up the world, then narrowed as she sniffed the air. “Are you smoking marijuana? Connor Hall, you know better than to—”
“Fuck off, Sadie,” he said, earning a smack on the shoulder. “I need to borrow Lane. That cool, Lane?”
“Of course,” I said, eyeing his too-wide gaze. “I’ll just be a minute, okay, Sadie?”
“Fine.” She flung her arms around me, squeezed me tight, winding threads of guilt around my heart. “I’m so glad you came with us tonight, Lane. Get back to me as soon as you can, okay?”
I followed Connor to the edge of the overlook and waited as he stretched and yawned, scratched his jaw, took another hit. Watched him compulsively push his golden-brown hair behind his ear, trying and failing to make it stay put.
Why I hadn’t thrown myself over the guardrail by that point was a fucking riddle.
“So. Was there really something?” No response. Not even a shrug. “Connor.”
“What? Oh. No, that was bullshit. You looked miserable as hell. Figured I’d give you a hand.” The corner of his mouth lifted, a half-curved commiseration with a wicked, sideways twist. “But while you’re here …”
I leaned toward him, took a long, deep hit off the proffered joint. Escaped into a lungful of smoke. He chuckled at the resulting cough, took another pointless swipe at his hair as I turned away, seeking Grey. Finding him on the cusp of the night, reaching once more for Sadie. Letting his silhouette melt into hers.
They spun together, out of the headlights’ reach, and they were lost to us.