მთავარი November 9 A Novel
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James William John
Ramayana and mahabarta
23 November 2020 (14:44)
Love love, it's a must read
28 March 2021 (22:18)
My favorite book in all history so far????
12 April 2021 (03:29)
A great story of love and forgiveness...
26 April 2021 (20:28)
i still cannot believe that this book is like my birthday's date wow!
04 June 2021 (21:17)
Wait @levii25 same.
The only reason why I want to read it; it's not my usual cup of tea.
The only reason why I want to read it; it's not my usual cup of tea.
08 June 2021 (03:20)
The best book I've ever read
08 June 2021 (07:23)
November 9 Also by Colleen Hoover Slammed Point of Retreat This Girl Hopeless Losing Hope Finding Cinderella Maybe Someday Ugly Love Maybe Not Confess First published in the USA by Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2015 This edition first published in Great Britain by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2015 A CBS COMPANY Copyright © Colleen Hoover, 2015 This book is copyright under the Berne Convention. No reproduction without permission. ® and © 1997 Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved. The right of Colleen Hoover to be identified as author of this work has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988. Simon & Schuster UK Ltd 1st Floor 222 Gray’s Inn Road London WC1X 8HB www.simonandschuster.co.uk Simon & Schuster Australia, Sydney Simon & Schuster India, New Delhi A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4711-5462-1 eBook ISBN: 978-1-4711-5463-8 This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental. Printed and bound by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CR0 4YY Simon & Schuster UK Ltd are committed to sourcing paper that is made from wood grown in sustainable forests and supports the Forest Stewardship Council, the leading international forest certification organisation. Our books displaying the FSC logo are printed on FSC certified paper. To Levi— You have great taste in music and your hugs are awkward. Never change. Contents First November 9th Fallon Ben Fallon Ben Fallon Second November 9th Ben Fallon Ben Fallon Third November 9th Fallon Ben Fallon Ben Fallon Ben Fourth November 9th Fallon Ben Fifth November 9th Fallon Ben Fallon Fallon Fallon Sixth November 9th Fallon Ben’s novel—CHAPTE; R ONE Fallon Ben’s novel—CHAPTER TWO Fallon Ben’s novel—CHAPTER THREE Fallon Ben’s novel—CHAPTER FOUR Fallon Last November 9th Ben First November 9th I am translucent, aquatic. Drifting, aimless. She is an anchor, sinking in my sea. —BENTON JAMES KESSLER Fallon I wonder what kind of sound it would make if I were to smash this glass against the side of his head. It’s a thick glass. His head is hard. The potential for a nice big THUD is there. I wonder if he would bleed. There are napkins on the table, but not the good kind that could soak up a lot of blood. “So, yeah. I’m a little shocked, but it’s happening,” he says. His voice causes my grip to tighten around the glass in hopes that it stays in my hand and doesn’t actually end up against the side of his skull. “Fallon?” He clears his throat and tries to soften his words, but they still come at me like knives. “Are you going to say anything?” I stab the hollow part of an ice cube with my straw, imagining that it’s his head. “What am I supposed to say?” I mumble, resembling a bratty child, rather than the eighteen-year-old adult that I am. “Do you want me to congratulate you?” My back meets the booth behind me and I fold my arms across my chest. I look at him and wonder if the regret I see in his eyes is a result of disappointing me or if he’s simply acting again. It’s only been five minutes since he sat down, and he’s already turned his side of the booth into his stage. And once again, I’m forced to be his audience. His fingers drum the sides of his coffee cup as he watches me silently for several beats. Taptaptap. Taptaptap. Taptaptap. He thinks I’ll eventually give in and tell him what he wants to hear, but he hasn’t been around me enough in the last two years to know that I’m not that girl anymore. When I refuse to acknowledge his performance, he eventually sighs and drops his elbows to the table. “Well, I thought you’d be happy for me.” I force a quick shake of my head. “Happy for you?” He can’t be serious. He shrugs, and a smug smile takes over his already irritating expression. “I didn’t know I had it in me to become a father again.” A loud burst of disbelieving laughter escapes my mouth. “Releasing sperm into the vagina of a twenty-four-year-old does not a father make,” I say, somewhat bitterly. His smug smile disappears, and he leans back and cocks his head to the side. The head-cock was always his go-to move when he wasn’t sure how to react onscreen. “Just look like you’re contemplating something deep and it’ll pass for almost any emotion. Sad, introspective, apologetic, sympathetic.” He must not recall that he was my acting coach for most of my life, and this look was one of the first he taught me. “You don’t think I have the right to call myself a father?” He sounds offended by my response. “What does that make me to you, then?” I treat his question as rhetorical and stab at another piece of ice. I skillfully slip it up my straw and then slide the piece of ice into my mouth. I bite into it with a loud, uncaring crunch. Surely he doesn’t expect me to answer that question. He hasn’t been a “father” since the night my acting career came to a standstill when I was just sixteen. And if I’m being honest with myself, I’m not even sure he was much of a father before that night, either. We were more like acting coach and student. One of his hands finds its way through the expensive implanted follicles of hair that line his forehead. “Why are you doing this?” He’s becoming increasingly annoyed with my attitude by the second. “Are you still pissed that I didn’t show up for your graduation? I already told you, I had a scheduling conflict.” “No,” I reply evenly. “I didn’t invite you to my graduation.” He pulls back, looking at me incredulously. “Why not?” “I only had four tickets.” “And?” he says. “I’m your father. Why the hell wouldn’t you invite me to your high school graduation?” “You wouldn’t have come.” “You don’t know that,” he fires back. “You didn’t come.” He rolls his eyes. “Well of course I didn’t, Fallon. I wasn’t invited.” I sigh heavily. “You’re impossible. Now I understand why Mom left you.” He gives his head a slight shake. “Your mother left me because I slept with her best friend. My personality had nothing to do with it.” I don’t even know what to say to that. The man has absolutely zero remorse. I both hate and envy it. In a way, I wish I were more like him and less like my mother. He’s oblivious to his many flaws, whereas mine are the focal point of my life. My flaws are what wake me up in the morning and what keep me awake every night. “Who had the salmon?” the waiter asks. Impeccable timing. I lift my hand, and he sets my plate in front of me. I don’t even have an appetite anymore, so I scoot the rice around with my fork. “Hey, wait a second.” I look up at the waiter, but he isn’t addressing his comment at me. He’s staring intently at my father. “Are you . . .” Oh, God. Here we go. The waiter slaps his hand on the table and I flinch. “You are! You’re Donovan O’Neil! You played Max Epcott!” My father shrugs modestly, but I know there isn’t a modest thing about this man. Even though he hasn’t played the role of Max Epcott since the show went off the air ten years ago, he still acts like it’s the biggest thing on television. And people who recognize him are the reason he still responds this way. They act like they’ve never seen an actor in real life before. This is L.A., for Christ’s sake! Everyone here is an actor! My stabbing mood continues as I spear at my salmon with my fork, but then the waiter interrupts to ask if I’ll take a picture of the two of them. Sigh. I begrudgingly slide out of the booth. He tries to hand me his phone for the picture, but I hold up my hand in protest and proceed to walk around him. “I need to use the restroom,” I mutter, walking away from the booth. “Just take a selfie with him. He loves selfies.” I rush toward the restroom to find a moment of reprieve from my father. I don’t know why I asked him to meet me today. It could be because I’m moving and I won’t see him for God knows how long, but that’s not even a good enough excuse to put myself through this. I swing open the door to the first stall. I lock it behind me and pull a protective seat cover out of the dispenser and place it over the toilet seat. I read a study on bacteria in public restrooms once. The first stall in every bathroom studied was found to have the least amount of bacteria. People assume the first stall is the most utilized, so most people skip over it. Not me. It’s the only one I’ll use. I haven’t always been a germaphobe, but spending two months in the hospital when I was sixteen left me a bit obsessive-compulsive when it comes to hygiene. Once I’m finished using the restroom, I take at least a full minute to wash my hands. I stare down at them the entire time, refusing to look in the mirror. Avoiding my reflection becomes easier by the day, but I still catch a glimpse of myself while reaching for a paper towel. No matter how many times I’ve looked in a mirror, I still haven’t grown used to what I see. I bring my left hand up and touch the scars that run across the left side of my face, over my jaw and down my neck. They disappear beneath the collar of my shirt, but underneath my clothing, the scars run down the entire left side of my torso, stopping just below my waistline. I run my fingers over the areas of skin that now resemble puckered leather. Scars that constantly remind me that the fire was real and not just a nightmare I can force myself awake from with a pinch on the arm. I was bandaged up for months after the fire, unable to touch most of my body. Now that the burns are healed and I’m left with the scars, I catch myself touching them obsessively. The scars feel like stretched velvet, and it would be normal to be as revolted by their feel as I am by their appearance. But instead, I actually like the way they feel. I’m always absentmindedly running my fingers up and down my neck or arm, reading the braille on my skin, until I realize what I’m doing and stop. I shouldn’t like any aspect of the one thing that ripped my life out from under me, even if it is simply the way it feels beneath my fingertips. The way it looks is something else. Like each of my flaws has been blanketed in pink highlights, put on display for the entire world to see. No matter how hard I try to hide them with my hair and clothes, they’re there. They’ll always be there. A permanent reminder of the night that destroyed all the best parts of me. I’m not one to really focus on dates or anniversaries, but when I woke up this morning, today’s date was the first thought that popped into my head. Probably because it was the last thought I had before falling asleep last night. It’s been two years to the day since my father’s home was engulfed by the fire that almost claimed my life. Maybe that’s why I wanted to see my father today. Maybe I hoped he would remember—say something to comfort me. I know he’s apologized enough, but how much can I actually forgive him for forgetting about me? I only stayed at his house once a week on average. But I had texted him that morning to let him know I would be staying the night. So one would think that when my father accidentally catches his own house on fire, he would come rescue me from my sleep. But not only did that not happen—he forgot I was there. No one knew anyone was in the house until they heard me scream from the second floor. I know he holds a lot of guilt for that. He apologized every time he saw me for weeks, but the apologies became as scarce as his visits and phone calls. The resentment I hold is still very much there, even though I wish it wasn’t. The fire was an accident. I survived. Those are the two things I try to focus on, but it’s hard when I think about it every time I look at myself. I think about it every time someone else looks at me. The bathroom door swings open, and a woman walks in, glances at me and then quickly looks away as she heads toward the last stall. Should have picked the first one, lady. I look myself over one more time in the mirror. I used to wear my hair above the shoulders with edgy bangs, but it’s grown a lot in the last couple of years. And not without reason. I brush my fingers through the long, dark strands of hair that I’ve trained to cover most of the left side of my face. I pull the sleeve of my left arm down to my wrist and then pull the collar up to cover most of my neck. The scars are barely visible like this, and I can actually stomach looking at myself in the mirror. I used to think I was pretty. But hair and clothes can only cover up so much now. I hear a toilet flush, so I turn quickly and make my way to the door before the woman can exit the stall. I do what I can to avoid people most of the time, and not because I’m afraid they’ll stare at my scars. I avoid them because they don’t stare. The second people notice me, they look away just as fast, because they’re afraid to appear rude or judgmental. Just once it would be nice if someone looked me in the eyes and held my stare. It’s been so long since that’s happened. I hate to admit that I miss the attention I used to get, but I do. I exit the bathroom and head back toward the booth, disappointed to still see the back of my father’s head. I was hoping he would have had some kind of emergency and been required to leave while I was in the restroom. It’s sad that I’d rather be greeted by an empty booth than by my own father. The thought almost makes me frown, but I’m suddenly sidetracked by the guy seated in the booth I’m about to walk past. I don’t usually notice people, considering they do everything in their power to avoid eye contact with me. However, this guy’s eyes are intense, curious and staring straight at me. My first thought when I see him is, “If only this were two years ago.” I think that a lot when I come across guys I could possibly be attracted to. And this guy is definitely cute. Not in a typical Hollywood way, much like most of the guys who inhabit this city. Those guys all look the same, as if there’s a perfect mold for a successful actor and they’re all trying to fit it. This guy is the complete opposite. His five o’clock shadow isn’t a symmetrical, purposeful work of art. Instead, his stubble is splotchy and uneven, like he spent the night working late and actually didn’t have time to shave. His hair isn’t styled with gel to give him the messy, just-rolled-out-of-bed look. This guy’s hair actually is messy. Strands of chocolate hair sweep across his forehead, some of them erratic and wild. It’s like he woke up late for an appointment and was too hurried to bother with looking in a mirror. Such an unkempt appearance should be a turnoff, but that’s what I find so odd. Despite him looking like he doesn’t have one iota of self-absorption, he’s one of the most attractive guys I’ve ever seen. I think. This could just be a side effect of my obsession with cleanliness. Maybe I so desperately long for the kind of carelessness this guy exhibits that I’m mistaking jealousy for fascination. I also might think he’s cute simply because he’s one of the few people in the last two years who doesn’t immediately look away the moment my eyes meet his. I still have to pass his table in order to get to my booth behind him, and I can’t decide if I want to break out in a sprint in order to get his eyes off me, or if I should walk in slow motion so I can soak up the attention. His body shifts as I begin to pass him, and his stare becomes too much all of a sudden. Too invasive. I feel my cheeks flush and my skin tingle, so I look down at my feet and allow my hair to fall in front of my face. I even pull a strand of it into my mouth in order to block more of his view. I don’t know why his stare is making me uncomfortable, but it is. Just a few moments ago, I was thinking about how much I miss being stared at, but now that it’s happening, I just want him to look away. Right before he’s out of my peripheral vision, I cut my eyes in his direction and catch a ghost of a smile. He must not have noticed my scars. That’s the only reason a guy like him would have smiled at me. Ugh. It annoys me that I even think this way. I used to not be this girl. I used to be confident, but the fire melted away every ounce of my self-esteem. I’ve tried getting it back, but it’s hard to believe someone could ever find me attractive when I can’t even look at myself in the mirror. “That never gets old,” my father says as I slide back into the booth. I glance up at him, almost having forgotten he was here. “What never gets old?” He waves his fork toward the waiter, who is now standing at the cash register. “That,” he says. “Having fans.” He shoves a bite of food in his mouth and begins speaking with a mouthful. “So what did you want to talk to me about?” “What makes you think I wanted to talk to you about something in particular?” He gestures over the table. “We’re having lunch together. You obviously need to tell me something.” It’s sad that this is what our relationship has come to. Knowing that a simple lunch date has to be more than just a daughter wanting to see her father. “I’m moving to New York tomorrow. Well, tonight, actually. But my flight isn’t until late and I don’t officially land in New York until the 10th.” He grabs his napkin and covers a cough. At least I think it’s a cough. Surely that news didn’t make him choke on his food. “New York?” he sputters. And then . . . he laughs. Laughs. As if me living in New York is a joke. Stay calm, Fallon. Your father is an asshole. That’s old news. “What in the world? Why? What’s in New York?” His questions keep coming as he processes the information. “And please don’t tell me you met someone online.” My pulse is raging. Can’t he at least pretend to support one of my decisions? “I want a change of pace. I was thinking about auditioning for Broadway.” When I was seven, my father took me to see Cats on Broadway. It was the first time I had ever been to New York and it was one of the best trips of my life. Up until that moment, he had always pushed me to be an actress. But it wasn’t until I saw that live performance that I knew I had to be an actress. I never had the chance to pursue theater because my father dictated each step of my career and he’s more fond of film. But it’s been two years now since I’ve done anything with myself. I don’t know if I actually have the courage to audition anytime soon, but making the choice to move to New York is one of the most proactive things I’ve done since the fire. My father takes a drink and after he sets down his glass, his shoulders drop with a sigh. “Fallon, listen,” he says. “I know you miss acting, but don’t you think it’s time you pursue other options?” I’m so beyond caring about his motives now, I don’t even point out the pile of bullshit he just threw at me. My entire life, all he did was push me to follow in his footsteps. After the fire, his encouragement came to a complete halt. I’m not an idiot. I know he thinks I don’t have what it takes to be an actress anymore, and part of me knows he’s right. Looks are really important in Hollywood. Which is precisely why I want to move to New York. If I ever want to act again, theater may be my best hope. I wish he wasn’t so transparent. My mother was ecstatic when I told her I wanted to move. Since graduation and moving in with Amber, I rarely leave my apartment. Mom was sad to find out I would be moving away from her, but happy to see that I was willing to leave the confines of not only my apartment, but the entire state of California. I wish my father could see what a huge step this is for me. “What happened with that narrating job?” he asks. “I’m still with them. Audiobooks are recorded in studios. Studios exist in New York.” He rolls his eyes. “Unfortunately.” “What’s wrong with audiobooks?” He shoots me a look of disbelief. “Aside from the fact that narrating audiobooks is considered the cesspool of acting? You can do better, Fallon. Hell, go to college or something.” My heart sinks. Just when I thought he couldn’t be more self-absorbed. He stops chewing and looks straight at me when he realizes what he implied. He quickly wipes his mouth with his napkin and points at me. “You know that’s not what I meant. I’m not saying you’ve reduced yourself to audiobooks. What I’m saying is that you can find a better career to fall back on now that you can’t act anymore. There isn’t enough money in narration. Or Broadway, for that matter.” He says Broadway like it’s poison in his mouth. “For your information, there are a lot of respectable actors who also narrate audiobooks. And do you need me to name A-list actors on Broadway right now? I have all day.” He yields with a shake of his head, even though I know he doesn’t really agree with me. He just feels bad for insulting one of the few acting-related professions I’m able to pursue. He lifts his empty glass of water to his mouth and tilts his head back far enough to salvage a sip from the melting ice. “Water,” he says, shaking his glass in the air until the waiter nods and walks over to refill it. I stab at my salmon again, which is no longer warm. I hope he finishes his meal soon, because I’m not sure I can stomach much more of this visit. The only sense of relief I feel at this point is from knowing I’ll be on the opposite coast from him come this time tomorrow. Even if I am trading sunshine for snow. “Don’t make plans for mid-January,” he says, changing the subject. “I’ll need you to fly back to L.A. for a week.” “Why? What’s happening in January?” “Your old man is getting hitched.” I squeeze the back of my neck and look down at my lap. “Kill me now.” I feel a pang of guilt, because as much as I wish someone would actually kill me right now, I didn’t mean to say those words out loud. “Fallon, you can’t judge whether or not you’ll like her until you’ve met her.” “I don’t have to meet her to know I won’t like her,” I say. “She is marrying you, after all.” I try to disguise the truth in my words with a sarcastic smile, but I’m sure he knows I mean every word I say to him. “In case you’ve forgotten, your mother also chose to marry me, and you seem to like her just fine,” he says in retort. He has me there. “Touché. But in my defense, this makes your fifth proposal since I was ten.” “But only the third wife,” he clarifies. I finally sink my fork into the salmon and take a bite. “You make me want to swear off men forever,” I say with a mouthful. He laughs. “That shouldn’t be a problem. I’ve only known you to go on one date, and that was over two years ago.” I swallow the bite of salmon with a gulp. Seriously? Where was I when they were assigning decent fathers? Why did I have to get stuck with the obtuse asshole? I wonder how many times he’s put his foot in his mouth during lunch today. He better watch out or his gums are going to get athlete’s foot. He honestly has no idea what today is. If he did, he would never have said something so careless. I can see in the sudden furrow of his brow that he’s attempting to construct an apology for what he just said. I’m sure he didn’t mean it in the way I took it, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to retaliate with my own words. I reach up and tuck my hair behind my left ear, putting my scars on full display as I look him square in the eye. “Well, Dad. I don’t really get the same attention from guys that I used to get. You know, before this happened.” I wave my hand across my face, but I already regret the words that just slipped from my mouth. Why do I always stoop to his level? I’m better than this. His eyes fall to my cheek and then quickly drop to the table. He actually looks remorseful, and I contemplate laying off the bitterness and being a little nicer to him. However, before anything nice can come out of my mouth, the guy in the booth behind my father begins to stand up and my attention span is shot to hell. I try to pull my hair back in front of my face before he turns around, but it’s too late. He’s already staring at me again. The same smile he shot at me earlier is still affixed to his face, but this time I don’t look away from him. In fact, my eyes don’t leave his as he makes his way to our booth. Before I can react, he’s sliding into the seat with me. Holy shit. What is he doing? “Sorry I’m late, babe,” he says, wrapping his arm around my shoulders. He just called me babe. This random dude just put his arm around me and called me babe. What the hell is going on? I glance at my father, thinking he’s in on this somehow, but he’s looking at the stranger next to me with even more confusion than I probably am. I stiffen beneath the guy’s arm when I feel his lips press against the side of my head. “Damn L.A. traffic,” he mutters. Random Dude just put his lips in my hair. What. Is going. On. The guy reaches across the table for my father’s hand. “I’m Ben,” he says. “Benton James Kessler. Your daughter’s boyfriend.” Your daughter’s . . . what? My father returns the handshake. I’m pretty sure my mouth is hanging open, so I immediately clamp it shut. I don’t want my father to know I have no idea who this guy is. I also don’t want this Benton guy to think my jaw is touching the floor because I like his attention. I’m only looking at him like this because . . . well . . . because he’s obviously a lunatic. He releases my father’s hand and settles against the booth. He gives me a quick wink and leans toward me, bringing his mouth close enough to my ear to warrant being punched. “Just go with it,” he whispers. He pulls back, still smiling. Just go with it? What is this, his improv class assignment? And then it hits me. He overheard our entire conversation. He must be pretending to be my boyfriend as some weird way to stick it to my father. Huh. I think I like my new fake boyfriend. Now that I know he’s toying with my father, I smile at him affectionately. “I didn’t think you’d make it.” I lean into Ben and look at my father. “Babe, you know I’ve been wanting to meet your father. You hardly ever get to see him. No amount of traffic could have kept me from showing up today.” I shoot my new fake boyfriend a satisfied grin for that dig. Ben must have an asshole for a father, too, because he seems to know just what to say. “Oh, I’m sorry,” Ben says, focusing on my father again. “I didn’t catch your name.” My father is already eyeing Ben with disapproval. God, I love it. “Donovan O’Neil,” my father says. “You’ve probably heard the name before. I was the star of—” “Nope,” Ben interrupts. “Doesn’t ring a bell.” He turns to me and winks. “But Fallon here has told me a lot about you.” He pinches my chin and looks back at my father. “And speaking of our girl, what do you think of her moving all the way to New York?” He looks back down at me and frowns. “I don’t want my ladybug running off to another city, but if it means she’s following her dream, I’ll be the first to make sure she’s on her flight.” Ladybug? He better be glad he’s my fake boyfriend, because I feel like punching him in his fake nuts for that cheesy moniker. My dad clears his throat, obviously uncomfortable with our new lunch guest. “I can think of a few dreams an eighteen-year-old should follow, but Broadway isn’t one of them. Especially with the career she’s already had. Broadway is a step down, in my opinion.” Ben adjusts his position in his seat. He smells really good. I think. It’s been so long since I sat this close to a guy, he may smell completely normal. “Good thing she’s eighteen,” Ben says in response. “Parental opinions on what she does with her life don’t really matter much at this point.” I know he’s only putting on an act, but no one has ever taken up for me like this before. It’s making my lungs feel like they’re seizing up. Stupid lungs. “It’s not an opinion when it comes from an industry professional,” my father says. “It’s a fact. I’ve been in this business long enough to know when someone needs to bow out.” I snap my head toward my father at the same time Ben’s arm tenses around my shoulders. “Bow out?” Ben says. “Did you really just say—out loud—that your daughter needs to give up?” My father rolls his eyes and crosses both arms over his chest as he glares at Ben. Ben removes his arm from around my shoulders and mirrors my father’s movements, glaring right back at him. God, this is so uncomfortable. And so amazing. I’ve never seen my father act like this. I’ve never seen him dislike someone instantly. “Listen, Ben.” He says his name with a mouthful of distaste. “Fallon doesn’t need you filling her head with nonsense simply because you’re excited about the prospect of having a booty-call on the East Coast.” Oh, my God. Did my father just refer to me as this guy’s booty call? My mouth is agape as he continues. “My daughter is smart. She’s tough. She accepts that the career she worked her whole life for is out of the question now that . . .” He flicks his hand toward me. “Now that she . . .” He’s unable to finish his own sentence, and a look of regret washes over his face. I know exactly what he was about to say. He’s been saying everything but that for two years now. I was one of the fastest up-and-coming teen actresses just two years ago, and the moment the fire burned away my looks, the studio pulled my contract. I think he mourns the idea that he’s not the father of an actress more than he mourns almost losing his daughter to a fire that was caused by his carelessness. Once my contract was canceled, we never spoke about the possibility of me acting again. We never really speak at all anymore. He’s gone from being the father who spent his entire days on set with me for a year and a half, to the father whom I see maybe once a month. So I’ll be damned if he doesn’t finish what he was about to say. I’ve been waiting two years to hear him admit that my looks are why I no longer have a career. Until today, it’s always just been a silent assumption. We never talk about why I no longer act. We only talk about the fact that I don’t. And while he’s at it, it would also be nice to hear him admit that the fire also destroyed our relationship. He has absolutely no idea how to be a father to me now that he’s no longer my acting coach and manager. I narrow my eyes in his direction. “Finish your sentence, Dad.” He shakes his head, trying to dismiss the subject entirely. I arch an eyebrow, daring him to continue. “Do you really want to do this right now?” He glances in the direction of Ben, hoping to use my pretend boyfriend as a buffer. “As a matter of fact, I do.” My father closes his eyes and sighs heavily. When he opens them again, he leans forward and folds his arms on the table. “You know I think you’re beautiful, Fallon. Stop twisting my words. It’s this business that has higher standards than a father does, and all we can do is accept it. In fact, I thought we had accepted it,” he says, cutting his eyes in Ben’s direction. I bite the inside of my cheek in order to refrain from saying something I’ll regret. I’ve always known the truth. When I saw myself in the mirror for the first time in the hospital, I knew everything was over. But hearing my father admit out loud that he also thinks I should stop following my dreams is more than I was prepared for. “Wow,” Ben mutters under his breath. “That was . . .” He looks at my father and shakes his head in disgust. “You’re her father.” If I didn’t know better, I would say the grimace on Ben’s face is genuine, and he isn’t just acting. “Exactly. I’m her father. Not her mother, who feeds her whatever bullshit she thinks will make her little girl feel better. New York and L.A. are filled with thousands of girls following the same dream Fallon has been following her entire life. Girls who are wildly talented. Exceptionally beautiful. Fallon knows I believe she’s got more talent than all of them put together, but she’s also realistic. Everyone has dreams, but unfortunately, she no longer has the tools it takes to achieve hers. She needs to accept that before she wastes money on a cross-country move that isn’t going to do a damn thing for her career.” I close my eyes. Whoever said the truth hurts was being an optimist. The truth is an excruciatingly painful son of a bitch. “Jesus,” Ben says. “You are unbelievable.” “And you’re unrealistic,” my father replies. I open my eyes and nudge Ben’s arm, letting him know I want out of the booth. I can’t do this anymore. Ben fails to move. Instead, he slides his hand under the table and grips my knee, urging me to stay seated. My leg stiffens beneath his touch, because my body is sending mixed signals to my brain. I’m pissed at my father right now. So pissed. But somehow I feel comforted by this complete stranger who is taking up for me for no apparent reason. I want to scream and I want to smile and I want to cry, but most of all, I just want something to eat. Because now I’m actually hungry and I wish I had warm salmon, dammit! I try to relax my leg so that Ben doesn’t feel how tense I am, but he’s the first guy in a long time to actually physically touch me. It’s a little weird if I’m being honest. “Let me ask you something, Mr. O’Neil,” Ben says. “Did Johnny Cash have a cleft palate?” My father is quiet. I’m quiet, too, hoping there’s an actual point to Ben’s random question. He was doing so well until he started talking about country singers. My father looks at Ben as if he’s crazy. “What in the hell does a country singer have to do with this conversation?” “Everything,” Ben quickly replies. “And no, he didn’t have one. However, the actor who portrayed him in Walk the Line has a very prominent scar on his face. Joaquin Phoenix was actually nominated for an Academy Award for that role.” My pulse quickens when I realize what he’s doing. “What about Idi Amin?” Ben asks. My father rolls his eyes, bored with this line of questioning. “What about him?” “He didn’t have a lazy eye. However, the actor who played him—Forest Whitaker—does. Another Academy Award nominee, funny enough. And winner.” This is the first time I’ve ever seen anyone put my father in his place. And even though this entire conversation is making me uncomfortable, I’m not too uncomfortable to enjoy this rare and beautiful moment. “Congratulations,” my father says to Ben, completely unimpressed. “You listed two successful examples out of millions of failures.” I try not to take my father’s words personally, but it’s hard not to. I know at this point it’s become more of a power struggle between the two of them, and less about him and me. It’s just really disappointing that he’d rather win an argument against a complete stranger than defend his own daughter. “If your daughter is as talented as you claim she is, wouldn’t you want to encourage her not to give up on her dreams? Why would you want her to see the world the way you do?” My father stiffens. “And how, exactly, do you think I see the world, Mr. Kessler?” Ben leans back in our booth without breaking eye contact with my father. “Through the closed eyes of an arrogant asshole.” The silence that follows is like the calm before the storm. I wait for one of them to throw the first punch, but instead, my father reaches into his pocket and pulls out his wallet. He tosses cash onto the table and then looks directly at me. “I may be honest to a fault, but if bullshit is what you prefer to hear, then this prick is perfect for you.” He slides out of the booth. “I bet your mother loves him,” he mutters. I wince at his words and want so badly to hurl an insult back at him. One so epic that it would wound his ego for days. The only problem with that is there’s nothing anyone could say that would wound a man who has absolutely no heart. Rather than scream something at him as he walks out the door, I simply sit in silence. With my fake boyfriend. This has got to be the most humiliating, awkward moment of my life. As soon as I feel the first tear begin to escape, I push against Ben’s arm. “I need out,” I whisper. “Please.” He slides out of the booth, and I keep my head down as I stand and walk past him. I don’t dare look back at him as I head toward the restroom again. The fact that he felt the need to pretend to be my boyfriend is embarrassing enough. But then I had to go and have the worst fight I’ve ever had with my father right in front of him. If I were Benton James Kessler, I would have fake-dumped me by now. Ben I hang my head in my hands and wait for her to return from the bathroom. I should leave, actually. I don’t want to leave, though. I feel like I trampled on her day with the stunt I just pulled with her dad. As smooth as I tried to be, I didn’t ease into this girl’s life with the discreet grace of a fox. I barged into it with the subtlety of a fifteen-thousand-pound elephant. Why did I feel the need to step in? Why did I think she wasn’t capable of handling her father on her own? She’s probably pissed at me right now, and we’ve only been fake-dating for half an hour. This is why I choose not to have real-life girlfriends. I can’t even pretend without starting a fight. But I did just order her a warm plate of salmon, so maybe that’ll make up for some of it? She finally exits the bathroom, but the second she sees me still seated on her side of the booth, she pauses. The confusion on her face makes it apparent she was sure I’d be gone by the time she returned to the table. I should have been gone. I should have left half an hour ago. Coulda, shoulda, woulda. I stand up and motion for her to sit. She eyes me suspiciously as she slides into her seat. I reach over to the other booth and collect my laptop, my plate of food and my drink. I set them all on her table and then I occupy the seat her asshole-father was just sitting in minutes before. She’s looking down at the table, probably wondering where her food went. “It got cold,” I tell her. “I told the waiter to bring you another plate.” Her eyes flick up to mine, but her head doesn’t move. She doesn’t crack a smile or say thank you. She just . . . stares. I take a bite of my burger and begin to chew. I know she isn’t shy. I could tell by the way she spoke to her father that she has sass, so I’m a little confused by her silence right now. I swallow my bite of food and take a drink of my soda, maintaining silent eye contact with her the whole time. I wish I could say I’m mentally preparing a brilliant apology, but I’m not. I seem to have a one-track mind, and that track leads straight to the two things I shouldn’t even be thinking about right now. Her boobs. Both of them. I know. I’m pathetic. But if we’re just going to sit here and stare at each other, it’d be nice if she were showing a little cleavage, instead of wearing this long-sleeved shirt that leaves everything to the imagination. It’s pushing eighty degrees outside. She should be in something a lot less . . . convent-inspired. A couple seated a few tables over stands up and begins to walk past us, toward the exit. I notice Fallon tilts her head away from them and lets her hair fall in front of her face like a protective shield. I don’t even think she realizes she’s doing it. It seems like such a natural reaction for her to try and cover up what she sees as flaws. That’s probably why she’s wearing the long-sleeved shirt. It shields everyone from seeing what’s beneath it. And of course, this thought leads me to her breasts again. Are they scarred, too? How much of her body is actually affected? I begin to mentally undress her, and not in a sexual way. I’m just curious. Really curious, because I can’t stop staring at her, and that’s not like me. My mother raised me with more tact than this, but what my mother failed to teach me is that there would be girls like this one who would test those manners merely by existing. A solid minute passes, maybe two. I eat most of my fries, watching her watch me. She doesn’t look angry. She doesn’t look scared. At this point, she’s not even trying to hide the scars she so desperately tries to cover from everyone else. Her eyes begin to make a slow descent until they stop at my shirt. She stares at it for a moment, and then moves her gaze over my arms, my shoulders, my face. She stops when she gets to my hair. “Where did you go this morning?” Her question is incredibly random and causes me to pause mid-chew. I figured the first question she would ask me would be why I took it upon myself to interfere with her personal life. I take a few seconds to swallow, take a drink, wipe my mouth, and then lean back in my booth. “What do you mean?” She motions to my hair. “Your hair is a mess.” She motions to my shirt. “You’re wearing the same shirt you wore yesterday.” Her eyes fall to my fingers. “Your nails are clean.” How does she know I’m wearing the same shirt I wore yesterday? “So why’d you leave wherever you woke up in such a hurry today?” she asks. I look down at my shirt and then at my nails. How in the hell does she know I left in a rush this morning? “People who don’t take care of themselves don’t have nails as clean as yours,” she says. “It contradicts the mustard stain on your shirt.” I look down at my shirt. At the mustard stain I hadn’t noticed until now. “Your burger has mayonnaise on it. And since mustard is hardly ever eaten for breakfast, and you’re inhaling your food like you haven’t eaten since yesterday, then the stain is more than likely from whatever you ate for dinner last night. And you obviously haven’t looked in a mirror today or you wouldn’t have walked out of your house with your hair looking like that. Did you take a shower and fall asleep without drying your hair?” She touches her long hair and flicks it between her fingers. “Because hair as thick as yours bends when you sleep on it wet. Makes it impossible to fix without rewashing it.” She leans forward and eyes me curiously. “How in the heck did the front of your hair get so jacked up? Do you sleep on your stomach or something?” What is she? A detective? “I . . .” I stare at her in disbelief. “Yeah. I sleep on my stomach. And I was late for class.” She nods like she somehow knew that already. The waiter appears with a fresh plate of food and refills her water. He opens his mouth like he wants to say something to her, but she’s not paying attention to him. She’s still staring at me, but she mutters a thank you at him. He looks like he’s about to walk away, but before he does, he pauses and turns back to face her. He wrings his hands together, obviously nervous to ask whatever question is about to leave his mouth. “So . . . um. Donovan O’Neil? Is he your father?” She looks up at the waiter with an unreadable expression. “Yes,” she says flatly. The waiter smiles and relaxes with her response. “Wow,” he says, shaking his head in fascination. “How awesome is that? To have the Max Epcott for a father?” She doesn’t smile or flinch. Nothing on her face indicates that this is a question she’s heard a million times before. I wait for her sarcastic reply, because based on the way she responded to her father’s senseless comments, there’s no way this poor waiter is leaving here unscathed. Just when I think she’s about to roll her eyes, she releases a pent-up breath and smiles. “It was absolutely surreal. I’m the luckiest daughter in the world.” The waiter grins. “That’s really cool.” When he turns and walks away, she faces me again. “What kind of class?” she asks. It takes me a moment to process her question because I’m still trying to process the bullshit answer she just fed the waiter. I almost inquire about it, but think better of it. I’m sure it’s easier for her to give people the answers they hope to hear, rather than an earful of the truth. That, and she’s probably the most loyal person I’ve ever met, because I’m not sure I could say those things about that man if he were my father. “Creative writing.” She smiles thoughtfully and picks up her fork. “I knew you weren’t an actor.” She takes a bite of her salmon, and before she swallows the first bite, she’s already cutting into it again. The next several minutes are spent in complete silence while we both finish eating. I clean my entire plate, but she pushes hers away before she even finishes half of it. “So tell me something,” she says, leaning forward. “Why’d you think I needed you to come to my rescue with that fake boyfriend crap?” And there it is. She’s upset with me. I kind of thought she might be. “I didn’t think you needed rescuing. I just sometimes find it difficult to control my indignation in the presence of absurdity.” She raises an eyebrow. “You’re definitely a writer, because who the hell talks like that?” I laugh. “Sorry. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I can be a temperamental idiot and I should have minded my own business.” She pulls the napkin from her lap and sets it on her plate. One of her shoulders rises with a little half-shrug. “I didn’t mind,” she says with a smile. “It was kind of fun seeing my father so flustered. And I’ve never had a fake boyfriend before.” “I’ve never had a real boyfriend before,” I reply. Her eyes shift to my hair. “Believe me, that’s obvious. No gay man I know would have left the house looking like you do right now.” I kind of get the feeling she doesn’t mind the way I look nearly as much as she’s letting on. I’m sure she receives her fair share of physical discrimination, so I find it hard to believe she would be the type to list physical appearance high on her list of priorities in a guy. But it’s not lost on me that she’s teasing me. If I didn’t know better, I’d say she was flirting. Yep. Definitely should have walked out of this restaurant a long time ago, but this is one of the few moments I’m actually thankful for the plethora of bad decisions I tend to make. The waiter brings the check, but before I can pay it, Fallon scoops up the wad of cash her father threw on the table and hands it to him. “You need change?” he asks. She waves it off. “Keep it.” The waiter clears off the table and when he steps away, there’s nothing left between us. The imminent end to the meal leaves me feeling a little unsettled, because I’m not sure what to say to keep her here longer. The girl is moving to New York and chances are, I’ll never see her again. I don’t know why the thought of that makes me anxious. “So,” she says. “Should we break up now?” I laugh, even though I’m still attempting to discern if she’s got an incredible deadpan wit, or absolutely no personality at all. There’s a fine line between the two, but I’m betting it’s the former. Hoping it is, anyway. “We haven’t even been dating an hour yet and you already want to dump me? Am I not very good at this boyfriend thing?” She smiles. “A little too good. It’s weirding me out, to be honest. Is this the moment you break the ultimate boyfriend illusion and tell me you knocked up my cousin while we were on a break?” I can’t help but laugh again. Definitely deadpan wit. “I didn’t knock her up. She was already seven months pregnant when I slept with her.” An infectious burst of laughter meets my ears, and I’ve never been more thankful to have a semi-decent sense of humor. I’m not allowing this girl to leave my sight until I get at least three or four more of those laughs out of her. Her laughter fades, followed by the smile on her face. She glances toward the door. “Is your name really Ben?” she asks, bringing her eyes back to mine. I nod. “What’s your biggest regret in life, Ben?” An odd question, but I go with it. Odd seems completely normal with this girl, and never mind the fact that I’d never tell anyone my biggest regret. “I don’t think I’ve lived through it yet,” I lie. She stares at me thoughtfully. “So you’re a decent human being? You’ve never killed anyone?” “So far.” She holds back a smile. “So if we spend more time together today, you aren’t going to murder me?” “Only if it’s in self-defense.” She laughs and then reaches for her purse. She wraps it over her shoulder and stands up. “That’s a relief. Let’s go to Pinkberry and we can break up over dessert.” I hate ice cream. I hate yogurt. I especially hate yogurt pretending to be ice cream. But I’ll be damned if I don’t grab my laptop and my keys and follow her wherever the hell she’s willing to lead me. • • • “How have you lived in Los Angeles since you were fourteen without ever stepping foot inside Pinkberry?” She almost sounds offended. She turns away from me to study the choice of toppings again. “Have you at least heard of Starbucks?” I laugh and point to the gummy bears. The server scoops a spoonful into my container. “I practically live in Starbucks. I’m a writer. It’s a rite of passage.” She’s standing in front of me in line, waiting for our turn to pay, but she’s looking at my container with disgust. “Oh, my God,” she says. “You can’t come to Pinkberry and just eat toppings.” She looks up at me like I’ve killed a kitten. “Are you even human?” I roll my eyes and nudge her shoulder to turn her back around. “Stop berating me or I’ll dump you before we even find a table.” I pull a twenty out of my wallet and pay for our dessert. We maneuver our way through the crowded restaurant, but there aren’t any free tables. She heads straight for the door, so I follow her outside and down the sidewalk until she finds an empty bench. She takes a seat on it cross-legged and sets her bowl in her lap. It’s the first time I take a look at her bowl and realize she didn’t get a single topping. I look down at my bowl—full of nothing but toppings. “I know,” she says, laughing. “Jack Sprat could eat no fat . . .” “His wife could eat no lean,” I finish. She smiles and spoons a bite into her mouth. She pulls the spoon out and licks frozen yogurt off her bottom lip. I wasn’t expecting this today of all days. To be sitting across from this girl, watching her lick ice cream off her lips and having to swallow air just to make sure I’m still breathing. “So you’re a writer?” Her question gives me the footing I need to pull my mind out of the gutter. I nod. “Hope to be. I’ve never done it professionally, so I’m not sure I can call myself a writer yet.” She shifts until she’s facing me and props her elbow on the back of the bench. “It doesn’t take a paycheck to validify that you’re a writer.” “Validify isn’t actually a word.” “See?” she says. “I didn’t even know that, so you’re obviously a writer. Paycheck or not, I’m calling you a writer. Ben the Writer. That’s how I’m going to refer to you from this point forward.” I laugh. “And how should I refer to you?” She chews on the tip of her spoon for a few seconds, her eyes narrowed in contemplation. “Good question,” she says. “I’m kind of in transition at this point.” “Fallon the Transient,” I offer. She smiles. “That works.” Her back meets the bench when she faces forward. She uncrosses her legs, allowing her feet to meet the ground. “So what kind of writing do you want to do? Novels? Screenplays?” “Hopefully everything. I don’t really want to put a cap on it yet, I’m only eighteen. I kind of want to try it all, but my passion is definitely novels. And poetry.” A quiet sigh leaves her mouth before she takes another bite. I don’t know how, but it feels like my answer just made her sad. “What about you, Fallon the Transient? What’s your life goal?” She shoots me a sidelong glance. “Are we talking about life goals now or what our passion is?” “Not much of a difference.” She laughs half-heartedly. “There’s a huge difference. My passion is acting, but that’s not really my goal in life.” “Why not?” Her eyes narrow in my direction before she looks back down at her container again. She begins stirring at the frozen yogurt with her spoon. She sighs with her entire body this time, like she’s crumbling to the ground. “You know, Ben. I appreciate how nice you’ve been since we became a couple, but you can stop with the act. My dad isn’t here to witness it.” I was about to take another bite, but my hand freezes before the spoon hits my mouth. “What’s that supposed to mean?” I ask, baffled by the nosedive this conversation just took. She stabs at her yogurt with the spoon before leaning over and tossing it into a trash can beside her. She pulls a leg up and wraps her arms around it, facing me again. “Do you really not know my story or are you just pretending not to know?” I’m not really sure which story she’s referring to, so I give my head a slight shake. “I’m so confused right now.” She sighs. Again. I don’t think I’ve ever made a girl sigh this much in such a short amount of time. And they aren’t the kind of sighs that make a guy feel good about his skills. They’re the kind of sighs that make him wonder what the hell he’s doing wrong. She picks at a piece of loose wood on the back of the bench with her thumb. She focuses on the wood as if she’s talking to it, rather than to me. “I got really lucky when I was fourteen. Landed a role in a cheesy, teenage spin on Sherlock Holmes meets Nancy Drew called Gumshoe. I starred in that show for a year and a half and it was starting to do really well. But then this happened.” She motions to her face. “My contract was pulled. I was replaced and I haven’t acted since. So that’s what I mean when I say that goals and passions are two separate things. Acting is my passion, but like my father said, I no longer have the tools it takes to achieve my life goal. So I guess I’ll be looking for a new one soon, unless a miracle happens in New York.” I don’t even know what to say to that. She’s looking at me now, waiting for a response, but I can’t think of one fast enough. She rests her chin on her arm and stares off behind me. “I’m not very good with on-the-spot motivational speech,” I say to her. “Sometimes at night, I’ll rewrite conversations I had during the day, but I’ll change them up to reflect everything I wish I could have said in the moment. So I just want you to know that tonight when I write this conversation down on paper, I’ll say something really heroic and it’ll make you feel really good about your life.” She drops her forehead against her arm and laughs. The sight of it makes me smile. “That is by far the best response I’ve ever gotten to that story.” I lean forward to toss my container into the trash can behind her. It’s the closest I’ve come to her since we were sitting in the booth together. Her entire body stiffens with my proximity. Rather than pull back right away, I look her directly in the eye before focusing on her mouth. “That’s what boyfriends are for,” I say as I slowly back away from her. Normally, I wouldn’t think twice about the fact that I’m deliberately flirting with a girl. I do it all the time. But Fallon is looking at me like I just committed the cardinal sin, and it makes me question if I’ve been misreading the vibe between us. I pull back completely, never shying away from the look of annoyance on her face. She points a finger at me. “That,” she says. “Right there. That’s the shit I’m referring to.” I’m not sure I know what she’s referring to, so I proceed with caution. “You think I’m pretending to flirt with you to make you feel better about yourself?” “Aren’t you?” Does she really think that? Do people really not flirt with her? Is this because of her scars or because of her insecurities about her scars? Surely guys aren’t as shallow as she’s implying. If so, I’m embarrassed on behalf of all men. Because this girl should be fighting off the guys who flirt with her, not questioning their motives. I squeeze the tension from the center of my jaw and then cover my mouth with my hand while I contemplate how to respond. Of course tonight when I think back on this moment, I’ll come up with all kinds of great responses. But right now . . . I can’t come up with the perfect response to save my life. I guess I’ll just go with honesty. Mostly honest, anyway. That seems to be the best way to respond to this girl, since she reads through bullshit like it’s written on transparent paper. Now I’m the one releasing a heavy sigh. “You want to know what I thought when I saw you for the first time?” She tilts her head. “When you saw me for the first time? You mean as in one whole hour ago?” I ignore her cynicism and continue. “The first time you walked past me—before I interrupted your lunch date with your father—I stared at your ass the whole time you were stomping away. And I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of panties you had on. That’s all I thought about the entire time you were in the restroom. Were you a thong girl? Were you going commando? Because I didn’t see an outline in your jeans that hinted you were wearing normal panties. “Before you returned from the bathroom, I started to get this panicked feeling in my stomach, because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see your face. I had been listening in on your conversation and already knew I was drawn to your personality. But what about your face? People say not to judge a book by its cover, but what if you somehow read the inside of the book without seeing the cover first? And what if you really liked what was inside that book? Of course when you go to close the book and are about to see the cover for the first time, you hope it’s something you’ll find attractive. Because who wants an incredibly written book sitting on their bookshelf if they have to stare at a shitty cover?” She quickly glances down at her lap, but I continue talking. “When you walked out of the bathroom, the first thing I noticed was your hair. It reminded me of the first girl I ever kissed. Her name was Abitha. She had great hair and it always smelled like coconut, so it made me wonder if your hair smelled like coconut. And then it made me wonder if you kissed like Abitha, because even though she was my first kiss, it’s still one of the only ones I can remember every detail of. Anyway, so I immediately noticed your eyes after admiring your hair. You were still several feet away, but you were looking straight at me, almost as if you couldn’t understand why I was staring. “But then I grew really uneasy and shifted in my seat, because as you so clearly pointed out already, I hadn’t even looked in the mirror yet. I didn’t know what you were seeing now that you were looking back at me, and if you even liked what you were seeing. My palms started sweating because this was the first impression you were getting of me and I didn’t know if it was good enough. “You were almost to my booth at this point and that’s when my eyes fell to your cheek. To your neck. I saw the scars for the first time, and just as I noticed them, you darted your eyes to the floor and let your hair cover most of your face. And you know what I thought in that moment, Fallon?” Her eyes flick up to meet mine and I can tell she doesn’t really want me to say it. She thinks she knows exactly what I thought in that moment, but she has no idea. “I was so relieved,” I tell her. “Because I could tell with that one simple movement that you were really insecure. And I realized—since you obviously had no idea how fucking beautiful you were—that I just might actually have a chance with you. And so I smiled. Because I was hoping if I played my cards right—I might get to find out exactly what kind of panties you were wearing under those jeans.” It’s as if the world chooses this moment to go silent. No cars pass by. No birds chirp. The sidewalk around us is completely empty. It’s the longest ten seconds of my life, waiting for her to respond. So long, ten seconds is enough time for me to want to take it all back. It’s enough time for me to wish I would have just kept my mouth shut, rather than lay it all out there like that. Fallon clears her throat and looks away from me. She pushes off the bench and stands up. I don’t move. I just watch her, curious if she’s chosen this moment to finally fake-dump me. She inhales a deep breath and then releases it just as her eyes fall back to mine. “I still have a lot of stuff to pack tonight,” she says. “Offering to help is the polite thing for a boyfriend to do, you know.” “Do you need help packing?” I blurt out. She nonchalantly lifts a shoulder. “Okay.” Fallon My mother is my hero. My role model. The woman I aspire to be. She did put up with my father for seven years. Any woman who could make it that long deserves a medal of honor. When I was offered the lead role of Gumshoe at the age of fourteen, she hesitated to let me take it. She hated the way my dad’s career had forced him into the limelight. She absolutely hated the man it turned him into. She said before he became a household name, he was wonderful and charming. But once fame started getting to his head, she couldn’t stand to be around him. She said 1993 was the year that led to the demise of their marriage, the rise to his fame, and the birth of their first and last child: Me. So of course she did everything in her power not to let the same thing happen to me when I started acting. Imagine transitioning into the cusp of womanhood while being an up-and-coming actress in Los Angeles. It’s pretty damn easy to lose sight of yourself. I saw it happen to a lot of my friends. But my mother didn’t allow it to happen to me. As soon as the director called wrap on set each day, I went home to a list of chores and a firm set of rules. I’m not saying my mother was strict. She just didn’t show me any type of special treatment, no matter how popular I was becoming. She also didn’t allow me to date before I turned sixteen. So in the first few months after my sixteenth birthday, I went on three dates with three different guys. And it was fun. Two of them were coworkers I may or may not have already made out with once or twice in a dressing room on set. One of them was the brother of a friend of mine. And no matter who I went out with or how much fun I did or didn’t have, my mother would have the same conversation with me every time I came home from a date, about the importance of not falling in love until I’m at an age where I genuinely know myself. She still has the same conversation with me, and I don’t even date. My mother went on a self-help book binge after she divorced my father. She read every book she could find on parenting, marriage, finding yourself as a woman. Through all of these books, she concluded that girls change more between the ages of sixteen and twenty-three than at any other time in their lives. And it’s important to her that I don’t spend any of these years in love with some guy, because if I do, she fears I’ll never learn how to fall in love with myself. She met my father when she was sixteen and left him when she was twenty-three, so I’m thinking her age range restrictions have a little to do with personal experience. But considering I’m only eighteen and have no plans to settle down anytime soon, I figure it’s easy to follow her advice and allow her to take the credit. It’s the least I could do. I do find humor in the fact that she thinks there’s this all-magical age when a woman finally has all her shit figured out. But I will admit that one of my favorite quotes is actually one she made up. “You’ll never be able to find yourself if you’re lost in someone else.” My mother isn’t famous. She doesn’t have an incredible career. She isn’t even married to the love of her life. But there’s one thing she’s always been . . . Right. And that’s why, until I find reason otherwise, I’ll listen to every word she says, however absurd it might seem. I’ve never once known her to give me bad advice, so despite the fact that Benton James Kessler could have walked right off the pages of one of the many romance novels I keep stocked on my bedroom shelf—the guy doesn’t have a chance in hell with me for at least five more years. But that’s not to say I didn’t want to crawl on his lap and straddle him right there on that park bench while I shoved my tongue down his throat. Because it was really hard to hold myself back after he admitted he thought I was beautiful. No, wait. Fucking beautiful were the exact words he used. And while he does seem a little too good to be true, and he’s probably full of flaws and annoying little habits, I’m still just greedy enough to want to spend the rest of the day with him. Because who knows? Even though I’m moving to New York, I might still straddle him tonight and stick my tongue down his throat. When I woke up this morning, I thought today was going to be one of the toughest days I’ve had in two years. Who knew the anniversary of the worst day of my life might possibly end on a good note? “Twelve, thirty-five, pound,” I say to Ben, giving him the gate code to my apartment. He rolls down his window and punches in the code. I took a cab to meet my father at the restaurant this morning, so Ben offered to drive me back home. I point out an empty parking spot, so he turns in that direction and pulls in next to my roommate’s car. We both climb out and meet at the front of his car. “I feel like I should caution you before we walk inside,” I say. He glances at the apartment building and then looks back at me with unease. “You don’t live with a real-life boyfriend, do you?” I laugh. “No, not even close. My roommate’s name is Amber, and she’s probably going to bombard you with a million questions, considering I’ve never stepped foot through my front door with a guy before.” I don’t know why it doesn’t bother me at all to admit that to him. He casually drapes his arm around my shoulders and begins walking toward the building with me. “If you’re asking me to pretend we’re just friends, that’s not gonna happen. I’m not downplaying our relationship for your roommate’s sake.” I laugh and lead him to the front door of my apartment. I catch myself lifting my hand to knock but turn the doorknob instead. This is still my home for at least ten more hours, so I shouldn’t feel the need to knock. Ben’s arm leaves my shoulders in order for me to walk through the door first. I look across the living room to find Amber standing at the kitchen counter with her boyfriend. She and Glenn have been dating for over a year now, and neither of them have come out and said it, but I’m pretty sure he’s moving in the second I move out tonight. She glances up, and her eyes immediately grow wide the second she notices Ben filing in behind me. “Hey,” I say cheerfully, as if there’s nothing unusual about me bringing home a very good-looking guy whom I’ve never once mentioned before. We make our way across the living room and Amber’s eyes never leave Ben the entire time. “Hi,” she finally says, still staring at him. “Who are you?” She looks at me and points to Ben. “Who is he?” Ben steps forward and reaches out his hand. “Benton Kessler,” he says, shaking her hand. He reaches over and shakes Glenn’s hand next. “Just call me Ben, though.” His arm drapes over my shoulders again. “I’m Fallon’s boyfriend.” I laugh, but I’m the only one who laughs. Glenn eyes him up and down. “Boyfriend?” he asks, moving his attention back to me. “Does he know you’re moving to New York?” I nod. “He’s known since the second we met.” Amber arches an eyebrow. “Which was . . . when?” She’s confused, because she knows I tell her everything. And having a boyfriend is definitely considered a part of everything. “Oh, man,” Ben says, looking down at me. “How long has it been now, babe? One . . . two hours?” “Two at the most.” Amber narrows her eyes in my direction. She already wants to know all the details, and she hates that she has to wait until Ben leaves before she gets them. “We’ll be in my room,” I say casually. Ben gives them a quick wave and then removes his arm from around my shoulders, sliding his fingers through mine. “Nice to meet you both.” He points down the hall. “I’m gonna follow Fallon to her room now so I can see what kind of panties she has on.” Amber’s mouth falls open and Glenn laughs. I push Ben’s arm, shocked he took the joke that far. “No, you’re following me to my room to help me pack.” He pushes out his bottom lip in a pout. I roll my eyes and lead him down the hall to my room. Amber and I have been best friends for over two years now. As soon as we graduated high school, we moved into this apartment together. Which means I’ve only lived here for six months, so it feels like I’m packing up all the things I just unpacked. When we walk into my room, Ben closes the door behind him. His eyes wander around the room, so I allow him a few minutes to be nosy while I open my suitcase. The apartment I’m moving into in New York is fully furnished, so really, the only things I have to take with me are clothes and toiletries. Everything else is at my mom’s house. “You’re a reader?” he asks. I look over my shoulder and he’s fingering the books on my shelves. “I love to read. You should hurry up and write a book, because it’s already on my TBR pile.” “Your TBR pile?” “To be read pile,” I clarify. He pulls one of the books from the shelf and reads the back of it. “I hate to tell you this, but I don’t think you’ll like whatever books I end up writing.” He slips the book back on the shelf and grabs another one. “You seem to favor romance novels, and that’s not up my alley.” I stop perusing the shirts in my closet and stare at him. “No,” I say with a groan. “Please don’t tell me you’re one of those pretentious readers who judge people by the books they like.” He immediately shakes his head. “Not at all. I just don’t know anything about writing romance. I’m eighteen. Hardly an expert when it comes to love.” I walk out of the closet and lean against the door. “You’ve never been in love before?” He nods. “Of course I have, but not the kind worthy of a romance novel, so I have no business writing about it.” He plops down on the bed and leans against the headboard, watching me. “Do you think Stephen King was actually murdered by a clown in real life?” I ask him. “Did Shakespeare really down a vial of poison? Of course not, Ben. It’s called fiction for a reason. You make the shit up.” He smiles at me from his position on the bed, and the sight of him sitting there makes my cheeks feel all hot and bothered. I suddenly want to beg him to roll around on my sheets so I can smell him when I fall asleep tonight. But then I remember I won’t be sleeping on them tonight because I’ll be on a flight to New York. I turn around and face my closet again so he doesn’t see the flushed look on my face. He laughs quietly. “You were just thinking dirty thoughts.” “Was not,” I quip. “Fallon, we’ve been dating for two hours now. I can read you like a book, and right now I do believe that book is full of erotica.” I laugh and begin pulling shirts off their hangers. I don’t want to bother folding them yet until I figure out how I’m going to pack them, so I just toss them in the middle of the bedroom floor. I pull down about a quarter of the shirts in my closet before I glance back at Ben again. His hands are propped up behind his head and he’s watching me pack. I didn’t really expect him to help me once we got here, because he’d probably be more in the way than anything. But Ben acknowledging this, too, makes me feel good that he still seemed excited to spend more time with me. I decided on our drive over that I wasn’t going to question his motives. Of course the insecure side of me still wonders what the hell a guy like him is doing spending time with a girl like me, but every time that thought creeps into my head, I remind myself of the conversation we had on the bench. And I tell myself that everything he said seemed genuine—that he really does find me attractive somehow. And honestly, does it really matter in the grand scheme of things? I’m moving to the opposite end of the country, so it’s not like whatever happens in the next few hours will impact my life one way or another. Who cares if the guy just wants to get in my pants? I’d actually prefer it if that’s all he wanted. It’s the first time in two years someone has made me feel desirable, so I’m not going to beat myself up over the fact that I’m enjoying it as much as I am. I walk to my dresser and hear him dialing a number on his phone. I’m quiet as he makes the call. “Can I get a reservation for two tonight at seven?” The silence after that question is palpable as I wait to hear what he says next. My heart has gotten more of a workout in the past two hours than it has in the entire past two months. “Benton Kessler. K-E-S-S-L-E-R.” More silence. “Perfect. Thank you so much.” More silence. I’m digging through my top drawer, acting like I’m not praying to the Lord that he intends for me to be his plus one at that dinner. I hear him shift on the bed and stand up, so I turn around to see him walking toward me. He grins and then peeks over my shoulder at the drawer I’m rifling through. “Is that your panty drawer?” He reaches around and grabs a pair. I pull them out of his hand and toss them toward my suitcase. “Hands off,” I tell him. He walks around me and leans his elbow against the dresser. “If you’re packing underwear, that means you don’t go commando. So by process of elimination, I’ve figured out that you’re currently wearing a thong. Now I just have to find out what color it is.” I toss the contents of my drawer toward my suitcase. “It takes a lot more than smooth talk to get me down to my panties, Ben the Writer.” He grins. “Oh yeah? Like what? A fancy dinner?” He pushes off the dresser and stands up straight, shoving his hands in the pockets of his jeans. “Because it just so happens I have reservations at the Chateau Marmont tonight at seven.” I laugh. “You don’t say.” I walk around him to my closet again, attempting to hide the huge smile on my face. Thank you, Jesus. He’s taking me to dinner. As soon as I reach my closet, my smile turns tepid. What the hell am I going to wear? I haven’t been on a date since before my boobs were fully grown! “Fallon O’Neil?” he says, this time from the doorway of my closet. “Will you go on a date with me tonight?” I sigh and look down at my boring clothes. “What the hell am I going to wear to the Chateau?” I look back at him and make a face. “Couldn’t we have just gone to Chipotle or something?” He laughs and then steps into my closet, pushing past me. He sifts through the clothes in the back of my closet. “Too long,” he says as he scoots hangers over one by one. “Too ugly. Too casual. Too dressy.” He finally stops and pulls something off the rod. He turns around and holds up a black dress I’ve been meaning to throw away since the day my mother bought it for me. She’s always buying me clothes in hopes I’ll actually wear them. Clothes that don’t cover up my scars. I shake my head and grab the dress from him, hanging it back in its spot. I grab one of the few long-sleeved dresses I own and I pull it off the hanger. “I like this one.” His eyes fall to the dress he initially picked out and he pulls it off the hanger and shoves it at me. “But I want you to wear this one.” I shove the dress back at him. “I don’t want to wear that, I want to wear this.” “No,” he says. “I’m paying for dinner, so I get to choose what to stare at while we eat.” “Then I’ll pay for dinner and wear the dress I want to wear.” “Then I’ll stand you up and go to Chipotle.” I groan. “I think we’re having our first fight as a couple.” He smiles and holds out the hand with his dress of choice. “If you agree to wear this dress tonight, we can make up right now in this closet.” He’s relentless. But I’m not wearing that damn dress. If I have to play the honesty card, I will. I release a frustrated sigh. “My mother bought me that dress last year when she was going through her ‘Let’s fix Fallon’ stage. But she has no idea how uncomfortable it is to be in my skin. So please don’t ask me again to wear that dress, because I’m much more relaxed in clothes that don’t show too much skin. I don’t like making people uncomfortable, and if I wore something like that, they would feel weird looking at me.” Ben’s jaw tenses and he looks away from me, down at the dress in his hands. “Okay,” he says simply, dropping the dress to the floor. Finally. “But it’s your own fault people feel uncomfortable looking at you.” I don’t even hide my gasp. It’s the first thing he’s said to me all day that’s made me feel like I was being spoken to by my father. I’m not gonna lie. It hurts. My throat feels like it’s swelling shut, so I clear it. “That wasn’t very nice,” I say quietly. Ben takes a step closer to me. My closet is small enough as it is. I certainly don’t need him standing even closer. Especially after saying something as hurtful as he just did. “It’s the truth,” he says. I close my eyes, because it’s either that or stare at the mouth delivering such hateful words. I exhale a calming breath, but it catches when his fingers brush the hair in front of my face. The unexpected physical contact forces me to squeeze my eyes shut even harder. I feel so stupid for not forcing him to leave, or in the least, pushing him out of the closet. But for some reason, I can’t seem to move or speak. Or breathe for that matter. He pushes the hair away from my forehead, running his fingers through it until it’s no longer hanging in my face. “You wear your hair like you do because you don’t want people to see too much of you. You wear long sleeves and collared shirts because you think it helps. But it doesn’t.” It feels like his words are turning into fists and punching me directly in the stomach. I pull my face away from his hand, but I keep my eyes closed. I feel like I might cry again, and I’ve cried enough for one stupid anniversary. “People don’t feel uncomfortable when they look at you because of your scars, Fallon. They’re uncomfortable because you make people feel like looking at you is wrong. And believe me—you’re the type of person people want to stare at.” I feel his fingertips graze my jaw and I flinch. “You have the most incredible bone structure, and I know that’s a weird compliment, but it’s true.” His fingers leave my jaw and trail up my chin until he’s touching my mouth. “And your lips. Men stare at them because they want to know what they taste like, and women stare at them out of jealousy because if they had lips the color of yours, they’d never have to buy lipstick again.” I release what might be a cross between a laugh and a cry, but I still don’t dare look at him. I’m stiff as a board, wondering where he’s going to touch me next. What he’s going to say next. “And I’ve only met one other girl in my life with hair as long and beautiful as yours, but I’ve already told you about Abitha. And just so you know, she doesn’t hold a candle to you, despite being a great kisser.” I feel his hands come up and push my hair behind my shoulders. He’s close enough that I know he can see the exaggerated rise and fall of my chest. But my God, it suddenly got really hard to breathe, like I’m ten thousand feet higher above sea level than I was five minutes ago. “Fallon,” he says, commanding my attention. His fingers meet my chin, and he tilts my face upward. When I open my eyes, he’s a lot closer than I thought he was. He’s looking down at me with a pointed stare. “People want to stare at you. Believe me, I’m one of them. But when everything about you screams, ‘Look away,’ then that’s exactly what people are going to do. The only person who gives a shit about a few scars on your face is you.” I want so badly to believe him. If I could believe everything he’s saying, then maybe my life would mean a whole lot more to me than it does right now. If I believed him, maybe I wouldn’t be so nervous about the idea of auditioning again. Maybe I would be doing the exact thing my mother says a girl my age should be doing: finding out who I really am. Not hiding from myself. Hell, I’m not even dressing for myself. I dress in what I think other people would prefer I wear. Ben’s eyes fall to my shirt, and for the first time, I notice his lungs are pulling in air with as much effort as mine are. He lifts his hand and fingers the top button on my shirt, popping it open. I suck in a quick breath. His eyes never leave my shirt and mine never leave his face. When he moves his fingers down to the second button, I could swear he pulls in a shaky breath. I don’t know what he’s doing, and I’m terrified he’s about to be the first person to see what’s beneath this shirt. But for the life of me, I can’t find words to stop him. When the second button is freed, he moves down to the third. Before he flicks that button loose, his eyes lift to mine, and he looks just as scared as I feel right now. Our eyes remain locked until he gets to the last and final button. When it’s loose, I look down at my shirt. Only a sliver of skin is showing over my belly button, so I don’t actually feel exposed yet. But I’m about to, because he slowly lifts both of his hands to the top of my shirt. Before he makes his next move, I squeeze my eyes shut again. I don’t want to see the look on his face when he sees just how much of my body was burned. Most of my entire left side, to be exact. What he sees when he looks at my cheek is only a fraction compared to what’s beneath my clothes. I feel my shirt being pulled open, and the more of me that becomes exposed, the harder it is to hold back tears. It’s the worst time in the world for me to get emotional, but I guess tears aren’t known for their impeccable timing. His breaths are extremely audible, and so is the gasp I hear him suck in as soon as my shirt is open all the way. I want to shove him out of the closet and close the door and hide, but that’s exactly what I’ve been doing for the last two years. So for reasons I can’t explain, I don’t ask him to stop. Ben slips the shirt off my shoulders and slowly slides it down the length of my arms. He works it the rest of the way over my hands until it falls to the floor. I can feel his hands graze both of mine, and I’m too embarrassed to move, knowing exactly what he sees right now as he looks at me. His fingers begin to rise up my hands and wrists, just as the first tear falls down my cheek. The tear doesn’t faze him, though. Chills break out on most of my skin as he continues moving his hands up my forearms. Instead of trailing his fingers all the way to my shoulders, he pauses. I still don’t dare open my eyes. I feel his forehead rest gently against mine and the fact that he’s breathing as hard as I am is the only thing that gives me a sense of comfort in this moment. My stomach clenches when his hands meet the top of my jeans. This is going too far. Too far, too far, too far, but all I can do is suck in a wild breath and let his fingers pop open the button on my jeans, because as much as I wish he would stop, I get the feeling he’s not undressing me for pleasure. I’m not sure what he’s doing, but I’m too immobile to ask. Breathe, Fallon. Breathe. Your lungs need new air. His forehead is still resting against mine, and I can feel his breath crashing against my lips. I have a feeling his eyes are wide open, though, and he’s staring down between us, watching his hands as they work down my zipper. When the zipper reaches its destination, he slides his hands between my jeans and hips—casually enough for me to believe it doesn’t even bother him that he’s touching the scars on my left side. He pushes my jeans down over my hips and then begins to slowly lower himself as he slides them down the length of my legs. The breath from his mouth moves down my body until I feel it stop at my stomach, but his lips never once touch my skin. When my jeans are at my feet, I step out of them one foot at a time. I have no idea what happens next. What happens next? What. Happens. Next? My eyes are still closed, and I have no idea if he’s standing or kneeling or walking away. “Lift your arms,” he says. His voice is rough and close, and it startles me to the point that my eyes flick open involuntarily. He’s standing directly in front of me, holding the dress he dropped to the floor earlier. I look up at him, and I absolutely wasn’t expecting to see this look on his face. His eyes are so heated and fierce, it’s as if it’s taking every last ounce of his restraint not to remove my last two items of clothing. He clears his throat. “Please lift your arms, Fallon.” I lift them, and he raises the dress over my head and slips it down my arms. He pulls it until my head slips through and he keeps pulling it, adjusting it over my curves. When the dress is finally in place, he lifts my hair and lets it fall down my back. He takes a half step back and eyes me up and down. He clears his throat, but his voice still comes out raspy when he speaks. “Fucking beautiful,” he says with a slow grin. “And red.” Red? I look down at the dress, but it’s definitely black. “Your panties,” he says as clarification. “They’re red.” I let out a burst of what I thought was going to be laughter, but it sounds more like a warbled cry. That’s when I realize tears are still streaming down my cheeks, so I bring my hands to my face and attempt to wipe them away, but they keep coming. I can’t believe he just undressed me to prove a point. I can’t believe I allowed it. Now I know exactly what Ben meant when he said he finds it difficult to control his indignation in the presence of absurdity. He thinks my insecurities are absurd, and he took it upon himself to prove that to me. Ben steps forward and wraps his arms around me. Everything about him is comforting and warm and I have no idea how to respond. One of his hands meets the back of my head and he presses my face against his chest. I’m now laughing at the ridiculousness that is my tears, because who does this? Who cries when a guy undresses her for the first time? “That’s a record,” Ben says, pulling me away from his chest so he can look down at me. “Made my girlfriend cry less than three hours into our relationship.” I laugh again, and then I press my face to his chest and hug him back, because why couldn’t he have been there the second I woke up in the hospital two years ago? Why did I have to go two whole years before finally being given the tiniest bit of confidence? After another minute or two of me trying to rein in my erratic emotions, I’m finally calm enough to realize that he doesn’t smell so good when my face is pressed against a shirt he’s been wearing for two days. I take a step back and run my fingers under my eyes again. I’m not crying anymore, but I’m sure mascara is everywhere now. “I’ll wear this stupid dress on one condition,” I say. “You have to go home and take a shower first.” His smile widens. “That was already part of my plan.” We stand in silence for a bit longer, and then I can’t take being in this closet for another second. I push his shoulders and shove him out into the bedroom. “It’s almost four o’clock now,” I tell him. “Be back at six and I’ll be dressed and ready to go.” He walks toward the door to my bedroom, but faces me again before he exits. “I want you to wear your hair up tonight.” “Don’t push your luck.” He laughs. “Why the hell does luck exist if I’m not supposed to push it?” I point at the door. “Go. Shower. And shave while you’re at it.” He opens the door and begins to back out. “Shave, huh? You plan on putting those lips on my face tonight?” “Go,” I say with an exasperated laugh. He shuts the door, but I can still hear what he says to Amber and Glenn as soon as he walks into the living room. “They’re red! Her panties are red!” Ben What the hell am I doing? She’s moving to New York. It’s dinner. That’s it. But seriously, what the hell am I doing? I shouldn’t be doing this. I pull on a pair of jeans and walk to my closet to find a clean shirt. Right when I get the shirt over my head, the door swings open. “Hey,” Kyle says, leaning against the doorframe. “Nice of you to come home for a change.” Jesus. Not now. “Want to have dinner with me and Jordyn tonight?” “Can’t. I have a date.” I walk to my dresser and grab my cologne. I can’t believe Fallon willingly got as close to me as she did with the way I smelled today. It’s a little embarrassing. “Oh yeah? With who?” I slide my wallet off the dresser and grab my jacket. “My girlfriend.” Kyle laughs as I slip past him and begin walking down the hallway. “Girlfriend?” He knows I don’t do girlfriends, so he follows after me to drain me for more info. “You know if I tell Jordyn you’re on a date with your girlfriend, she’ll question me until my head explodes. You better give me something to work with.” I laugh. He’s right; his girlfriend likes to know everything about everyone. And for some reason, since she’s about to move in with us, she thinks we’re already family. And she’s especially nosy when it comes to family. Kyle follows me straight out the front door, all the way to my car. He grabs my door before I can shut it. “I know where you were last night.” I stop trying to shut the door and fall against the seat. Here we go again. “Your girlfriend has a big mouth, you know that?” He leans against the door, staring down at me with his arms folded across his chest. “She’s worried about you, Ben. We all are.” “I’m fine. You’ll see. I’ll be fine.” Kyle stares at me silently for a few moments, wanting to believe me this time. But I’ve promised him I’ll be fine so many times, it falls on deaf ears now. And I get it. But he has no idea that this time really is different. He gives up and shuts my door without another word. I know he’s only trying to help, but he doesn’t need to. Things really are going to change. I knew that for a fact the moment I laid eyes on Fallon today. • • • I walk up to her front door at approximately 5:05 p.m. I’m early, but like I said . . . she’s leaving for New York and I’ll never see her again. Fifty-five extra minutes with her isn’t nearly as many as I want. The door opens almost as soon as I knock on it. Amber grins at me and steps aside. “Why hello, Fallon’s boyfriend whom I’ve never heard of.” She motions to the couch. “Take a seat. Fallon’s in the shower.” I glance at the couch and then at the hallway that leads to Fallon’s bedroom. “You don’t think she needs my help in the shower?” Amber laughs, but then just as quick, her face falls flat and serious. “No. Sit.” Glenn is seated on the couch opposite the one I’m being forced to sit on. I give him a nod and he raises an eyebrow in warning. I guess this is the moment Fallon warned me about. Amber crosses the living room and takes a seat next to Glenn. “Fallon tells me you’re a writer?” I nod. “Ben the Writer. That would be me.” Right before she fires her second question, Fallon suddenly appears in the opening to the hallway. “Hey. Thought I heard you out here.” There are no signs of her actually having just taken a shower. I turn back to Amber and she shrugs. “Can’t blame me for trying.” I stand up and walk toward the hallway, pointing at Amber but looking at Fallon. “Your roommate is sneaky-sneaky.” “That she is,” Fallon says. “And you’re here an hour early.” “Fifty-five minutes.” “Same thing.” “Is not.” She turns around and walks backward through her bedroom door. “I’m so tired of fighting with you, Ben.” She heads toward a bathroom off the side of her bedroom. “I just finished packing. Haven’t even started getting ready yet.” I resume my spot on her bed. “No worries. I’ve already made myself comfortable.” I reach over and pick up the book sitting on her nightstand. “I’ll just read until you’re finished.” She peeks her head around the doorway of the bathroom and eyes the book in my hands. “Careful. That’s a good one. It might change your mind about writing a romance novel.” I scrunch up my nose and shake my head. She laughs and disappears back into the bathroom again. I open the first page of the book, expecting to skim over it. Before I know it, I’m on page ten. Page seventeen. Page twenty. Thirty-seven. Jesus, this is like crack. “Fallon?” “Yeah?” she says from the bathroom. “Have you finished this book yet?” “Nope.” “Well, I need you to finish it before you move to New York so you can tell me if she finds out he’s really her brother.” She reappears in the doorway in a flash. “What?!” she yells. “He’s her brother?” I grin. “Gotcha.” She rolls her eyes and disappears into the bathroom again. I force myself to stop reading and toss the book aside. I look around Fallon’s room and it already looks different from when I was in here an hour ago. She’s removed all the pictures from her nightstand and I didn’t even get a good look at them earlier. Her closet is almost empty, sans a few boxes on the floor. I did notice when I walked in that she still had on the dress, though. I was hoping she wouldn’t change her mind and pack it before I had a chance to intervene. I see movement out of the corner of my eye, so I glance at the bathroom. She’s standing in the doorway. My eyes fall to the dress first. I have to give myself props for picking that one out. There’s just enough showing at her neckline to keep me good and happy, but I’m not even positive I’ll be able to look away from her face long enough to stare at her cleavage. I can’t tell what’s different about her because it doesn’t even look like she’s wearing makeup, but she somehow looks even more beautiful than before. I’m glad I pushed my luck and asked her to wear her hair up, because she has it pulled up into some messy little knot on top of her head and I’m really digging it. I stand up and walk to where she’s propped up in the doorway. I lift my hands to the doorframe above her head and I smile down at her. “Fucking beautiful,” I whisper. She smiles and then ducks her head. “I feel stupid.” “I barely know you, so I’m not about to argue with you over your level of intelligence, because you could very well be as dumb as a rock. But at least you’re pretty.” She laughs and focuses on my eyes for a beat, but then her focus falls to my mouth and God, I want to kiss her. I want to kiss her so bad it hurts and now I can’t smile anymore because I’m in too much pain. “What’s wrong?” I grimace and grip the doorframe tighter. “I want to kiss you really, really bad and I’m doing everything in my power not to do that yet.” She pulls her neck back and her eyebrows draw together in confusion. “Do you always look like you’re about to puke when you feel like kissing a girl?” I shake my head. “Not until you.” She huffs and pushes past me. That did not come out how I meant it. “I didn’t mean the thought of kissing you makes me sick. I meant I want to kiss you so bad it’s making my stomach hurt. Kind of like blue balls, but in my stomach instead of my balls.” She starts laughing and brings both of her hands up to her forehead. “What am I gonna do with you, Ben the Writer?” “You could kiss me and make me feel better.” She shakes her head and walks toward her bed. “No way.” She sits down on her bed and picks up the book I was just reading. “I read a lot of romance, so I know when the timing is right. If we’re going to kiss, it has to be book-worthy. After you kiss me, I want you to forget all about that Abitha chick you keep talking about.” I make my way to the other side of the bed and lie down next to where she’s propped against the headboard. I roll onto my side and lift up on my elbow. “Abitha who?” She grins at me. “Exactly. From now on when you meet a girl, you better be comparing them to me instead of her.” “Using you as a standard is completely unfair to the rest of the female population.” She rolls her eyes, assuming I’m kidding again. But in all honesty, the thought of comparing anyone to Fallon is ridiculous. There’s no comparison. And it sucks that I’ve only spent a few hours with her and I already know that. I almost wish I’d never met her. Because I don’t do real girlfriends and she’s moving to New York and we’re only eighteen and so . . . many . . . things. I stare up at the ceiling and wonder how this is going to work. How the hell am I supposed to just say goodbye to her tonight, knowing I’ll never talk to her again? I lay my forearm across my eyes. I wish I wouldn’t have walked into that restaurant today. People can’t miss what they’ve never been introduced to. “Are you still thinking about kissing me?” I tilt my head back against the pillow and look up at her. “I moved beyond the kiss. Marry me.” She laughs and scoots down on the bed so that she’s facing me. Her expression is soft with a trace of a smile. She reaches a hand out and presses her palm against my neck. My breath hitches. “You shaved,” she says, running her thumb over my jaw. I don’t think a single part of me could possibly smile when she’s touching me like this, because there’s absolutely nothing good about the fact that I’m not going to feel this way again after tonight. It’s fucking cruel. “If I asked for your phone number would you give it to me?” “No,” she says, almost immediately. I press my lips together and wait for her to explain why not, but she doesn’t. She just continues to run her thumb back and forth over my jaw. “Email address?” She shakes her head. “Do you have a pager, at least? A fax machine?” She laughs, and it feels good to hear her laugh. The air was feeling way too heavy. “I don’t want a boyfriend, Ben.” “So you’re breaking up with me?” She rolls her eyes. “You know what I mean.” She pulls her hand from my face and rests it on the bed between us. “We’re only eighteen. I’m moving to New York. We barely know each other. And I promised my mother I wouldn’t fall in love with anyone until I’m twenty-three.” Agree, agree, agree, and . . . what? “Why twenty-three?” “My mother says the majority of people have their lives figured out by the age of twenty-three, so I want to make sure I know who I am and what I want out of life before I allow myself to fall in love. Because it’s easy to fall in love, Ben. The hard part comes when you want out.” Makes sense. If you’re the Tin Man. “You think you can actually control whether or not you fall in love with someone?” “Falling in love may not be a conscious decision, but removing yourself from the situation before it happens is. So if I meet someone I think I might fall in love with . . . I’ll just remove myself from their presence until I’m ready for it.” Wow. She’s like a mini-Socrates with all this life advice. I feel like I should be taking notes. Or debating with her. Honestly, though, I’m relieved she’s saying these things because I was afraid she would kiss me drunk and convince me we were soul mates by the end of the night. Because Lord knows if she asked, I’d jump right in, knowing it’s the absolute last thing I should do. Guys don’t say no to a girl like her, no matter how unappealing relationships are to him. Guys see boobs coupled with a great sense of humor and think they’ve found the holy fucking grail. But five years seems like an eternity. I’m pretty sure she won’t even remember tonight after five years. “Will you do me a favor then and look me up when you’re twenty-three?” She laughs. “Benton James Kessler, you’ll be too famous of a writer in five years to remember little old me.” “Or maybe you’ll be too famous an actress to remember me.” She doesn’t respond to that. In fact, if anything, my comment made her sad. We remain quietly in our positions, face to face on her bed. Even with the scars and the obvious sadness in her eyes, she’s still one of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen. Her lips look soft and inviting, and I’m trying to ignore the knots in my stomach, but every time I stare at her mouth, the intensity of trying to hold back actually causes me to grimace. I try not to imagine what it would feel like if I leaned forward and kissed her, but with her this close, I’m really wishing I’d have already somehow read every romance novel ever written, because what the hell makes a kiss book-worthy? I need to know so I can make it happen. She’s lying on her right side, and with the dress she’s wearing, a lot of her skin is exposed. I can see where the scars begin, right above her wrist, all the way up her arm and neck, pouring across her cheek. I touch her face just like she was touching mine. I can feel her flinch beneath my palm, because I’m touching the part of her she didn’t even want me looking at a few hours ago. I run my thumb over her jaw and then slide my hand down the length of her neck. She’s tense everywhere beneath my touch. “Does this bother you?” Her eyes flicker back and forth between mine. “I don’t know,” she whispers. I wonder if I’m the only one who has ever touched her scars before. I’ve had accidents in the past where I’ve burned myself attempting to cook, so I know what it feels like when a burn heals. But her scars are a lot more prominent than a superficial burn. Her skin feels a lot softer to the touch than normal skin. More fragile. There’s something about the way it feels beneath my fingertips that makes me want to keep touching her. She allows it. For several quiet minutes, neither one of us speaks as I continue running my fingers over her arm and neck. Her eyes moisten, as if she’s on the verge of tears. It makes me wonder if she doesn’t like it. I can understand why this might make her uncomfortable, but for some twisted reason, I feel more comfortable with her right now than I have all day. “I should hate this for you,” I whisper, trailing my fingers over the scars on her forearm. “I should be angry for you, because going through this must have been excruciatingly painful. But for whatever reason, when I touch you . . . I like the way your skin feels.” I’m not sure how she’ll take the words that just came out of my mouth. But it’s true. I suddenly feel grateful for her scars . . . because they’re a reminder of how it could have been much worse. She could have died in that fire,