I used to love fairy tales. When I was a little kid, my mom would read to me before bed every night. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty- I must have heard them a hundred times over, but still, I couldn’t get enough. The brave heroines, the beautiful dresses, the big gala balls. And of course, the handsome prince. No matter what evil spell the witch cast, or how fierce the dragon was, he would always show up in time to win the princess’s heart and restore good to the world.
I don’t know when I stopped believing in happily ever after. Maybe it was when my dad walked out on us, back when I was just four years old. Maybe it was the first time I found my mom high: slumped on the bathroom floor with a glassy smile on her face and an empty vial of Oxy in her outstretched palm. Or maybe it was when she walked out for good, left me and my brothers alone like we didn’t mean a thing.
Either way, by the summer I turned sixteen, I knew: fairy tales weren’t real. There was no godmother coming to wave her magic wand over my crappy life, and Prince Charming would only leave in the end, leaving me heartbroken and alone. So I swore, I wouldn’t fall for his bullshit. I would never let myself believe in love.
I wouldn’t make my mom’s mistakes.
I took what I wanted from guys, and didn’t care about the whispers that followed me around town. I didn’t give a damn if they thought I was some trailer trash slut, my heart was safe behind my barricades, walls built high enough to keep anyone out.
Until Hunter Covington smiled at me one bright July afternoon, and my defenses came crashing to the ground.
I couldn’t help it. He was gorgeous, charming, rich. The golden boy of Beachwood Bay--and the last guy who would ever look twice at a messed up girl like me. But my heart didn’t care.
I wanted him more than I’ve ever wanted anything. Just a taste of his perfection, a glimpse of what it felt like in the safety of his embrace. Just one night to believe in the dream I knew I could never have.
One night. Just one night, that was all I wanted.
But what would happen when morning came?
It’s the last night of summer, and I’m stuck in a suit and tie, about to lose my goddamn mind in the middle of my parents’ stupid dinner party.
“Summer in Beachwood has been lovely as always,” my mother coos to her collection of friends--an identical group of Botox and beaming insincerity. “But I can’t wait to get back to civilization in the city. And of course, Hunter will be joining his brother at Yale. We’re so proud. He can’t wait, can you, darling?”
I murmur a reply. What I can’t wait to do is tear off this damn tie and get the hell out of here, but dad made it clear: attendance was mandatory.
“Here’s your drink, bro.” My brother Jace hands me a tumbler of clear liquid. “Club soda, right?” He winks, and when I take a sip, I taste a healthy dash of vodka in the mix.
God, I love my brother.
“Have you declared your major yet?” One of the blondes asks Jace.
Before he can reply, my father interrupts. “Business, with a minor in Econ.” He slaps Jace on the back. “Just what he needs to join his old man at the firm. He’s been working with me this summer, learning the ropes.”
“More like working on my golf swing.” Jace quips.
“Now now,” my dad chortles, “plenty of important deals have been sealed on that green. It’s all part of your responsibility as a Covington.”
“As long as my responsibilities include an after-game drink at the clubhouse, I’m set.”
The room laughs along with dad and Jace. “Like father like son,” one of the guests remarks, and I down the rest of my drink in a single swallow.
I hate these parties. Jace can turn on the charm and play along, but every word of small talk just sticks in my throat. What’s the point? I want to yell. Especially tonight, with college looming over me like a prison sentence. I’ve managed to ignore it all summer, but now, I can’t avoid it. Soon, I’ll be one step further along the plan my parents have made for me, walking in footprints that were laid out in stone the day I was born.
“What about you, Hunter?” Someone turns to me. “Have you been working this summer?”
“Yup,” I nod, just as my father answers,
“No.” I turn. “Messing around on that ranch isn’t work,” he corrects me.
“Tell that to the guys who are up at five every morning to feed the horses,” I reply, feeling a familiar tension blaze in my chest.
My dad chortles again, like I’ve made a joke. “I’ll never understand the appeal of that ranch,” he says, talking about my Grandpa’s pride and joy like it’s some broken down shack and not one of the best training ranches in the county. “Camille and I tell him to sell, that land’s got to be worth a fortune, but pops won’t hear about it.”
I don’t say a word. The world may revolve around balance sheets and shiny new toys to people like my dad, but Grandpa knows there are some things more important than money. Like passion, freedom. Making your own rules. He’s been teaching me to train the horses every summer here for years, and it’s my secret dream to take over from him one day. But if I’m going to stand a chance of running my own ranch, I need to make it through college, at least—and another few years of gritting my teeth through nights like this one.
Dad starts up talking about business gossip, so I look around for some distraction. My mom comes back in from the kitchen looking distressed. “Everything OK?” I ask.
“It’s a disaster,” she tells me in a hushed tone. “Maria’s making her pastries for dessert, but we’re out of butter. I can’t believe we don’t have spare!” She looks so upset, you think we were talking about world famine instead of profiteroles, but I leap on the chance to escape.
“I can run out and get some.” I offer quickly.
“But you’re enjoying the party...” Mom is reluctant.
“I’ll be back in no time.” Before she can disagree, I kiss her on the cheek and slip out of the room, leaving the small-talk and stifling laughter behind.
I pile in my car and back out of the driveway so fast I send gravel flying, turning at the end of the leafy street and heading into town. It’s a gorgeous evening as I cruise along the winding coastal road that leads to Beachwood Bay, the ocean glittering blue under the clear skies. I pass the harbor, boats bobbing on the tide, and find a spot to park on Main Street. The town feels emptier now, but there are still some tourists browsing the quaint stores, kids buying ice-cream, their legs sandy from the beach.
I feel a pang in my chest, the same one I always do when summer comes to an end. Beachwood Bay is my escape: a chance to leave Charleston and my parents’ stuffy social scene behind. No obligations, no rules, just two months to work with grandpa on the ranch; go sailing with Jace, hang out and feel free. Time has slipped by so fast I can’t believe it, and now summer is over for another year. The house is already packed up, and tomorrow we’ll be heading back home—back to reality. To the life I can’t wait to leave behind.
I grab butter from the grocery store, and then take my time on the way back, strolling the long route around that takes me past Mrs. Olson’s diner. It’s empty, and the sign outside reads ‘closed’, but I can’t help pausing to glance through the window, searching for a familiar figure.
There she is.
Wiping down the countertop at the back of the diner, her dark head bent away from me. She’s wearing her usual uniform of an apron over cut-off shorts and chunky black boots, her hair tipped with blue this week. Even cleaning up, there’s a grace to her movements that mesmerizes me. I watch her, my errand and the party suddenly fading right away.
We’ve never spoken, not so much as a word, but I know who she is. Everyone in this town knows. She’s only sixteen, and the things they say about her... but I don’t believe them, not for a second. Brit doesn’t even seem to care. She just strides around town with her tough-girl outfits and that dark, piercing stare, like nothing can touch her.
She doesn’t realize how beautiful she is.
Brit looks up from the counter, and I leap back, embarrassed, but she doesn’t see me out here in the fading dusk light. She says something to the person at the back of the diner, and then pulls of her apron, grabbing a scuffed satchel and heading for the front door.
I quickly take a few steps up the street, and pull out my phone, like I’m looking at a message.
The door rings, and Brit steps out onto the street.
“Hey Brit!” A voice calls, and she turns. It’s a couple of local guys, toting six-packs and snacks. “You coming to the party?”
Brit shrugs. “Maybe.”
“You gotta,” the other guy urges. “Last blowout of the year. It’ll be crazy. Down at the beach, past the breakers.”
“Cool,” Brit nods. “I’ll swing by later.”
She turns back and sees me watching. Brit looks startled, and I quickly drag my gaze away and start walking, back towards my truck. I feel like an idiot, but at the same time, I sense the burn of her gaze still echoing through me, her dark eyes full of secrets.
I’ve wanted her all summer long.
She’s always been here, around town, but somehow, this year, everything changed. I took one look at that glaring, wounded stare, and suddenly, she was the only thing I could see. Other girls just faded into the background. I didn’t want them. I didn’t care about anyone but her. I found myself looking for her in every crowd, suggesting Sunday breakfast at the diner just to catch a glimpse of her, imagining what it would be like to touch that soft dark hair, taste those perfect pink lips...
Maybe it would be different if I thought I didn’t stand a chance, but now I know, this weird connection between us runs both ways. Last week, I was working in the harbor cleaning up our boat when I caught her watching me from the shore. I didn’t let her know I saw her, I acted like nothing had changed, but I felt her eyes roving over my body; caught the look of desire on her face.
It took my breath away.
Any other girl, I would have strolled right on over and asked her out. Taken her for a stroll on the beach, never thought twice about kissing her. Hell, if I’m honest, I would have sealed the deal too, shown her everything I already know about making a woman moan with pleasure—and let her teach me so much more.
But Brit isn’t any other girl. She’s like a blazing neon sign on a dark night: ‘Warning: Danger. Keep out.’ Even now, heading back to the house, I see her face dancing in my memory, and the beautiful burn of those dark eyes, calling to me.
I shake it off. Even if I wanted to, summer is as good as over. Come tomorrow, I’ll be miles away, and Brit will be nothing but a memory—if she was ever anything more.
Back at the house, the party is still underway. I suffer through drinks, and dinner, and more mindless small-talk that even another secret vodka can’t improve, all the while deflecting questions about college, pretending like when it comes to my future, I have any say at all.
“And are you seeing anyone special?” One of the nosy blondes asks. I’ve been stuck seated next to her all through dinner, watching her push a single green bean around her plate.
“Not right now,” I force a polite smile.
“You know, my niece Kiki is starting at Harvard in the fall, I should give you her number, she’s just a doll!”
“Then keep her away from Hunter,” Jace interrupts, coming to my rescue with a teasing grin. “He’ll only break her heart.”
“Oh, you boys!” The woman laughs, but writes me out the number all the same. I crumple it into my pocket, not interested in Kiki, or Jennifer, or any of the other numbers my parents’ friends have pressed into my palm.
There’s only one girl I think about at night, restlessly turning in the cool night breeze. One girl who fills every thought, plagues me with fantasies I’ll never share.
One girl who’ll soon be out of reach forever.
Unless you do something about it...
I try to ignore the whisper, but then there’s a lull in conversation and Jace clears his throat. “Dinner was lovely, mom, but we better get going now.”
“You’re going out?” Mom blinks in confusion.
“Sure, just a little good-bye get-together,” he gives me a look, and I quickly rise to my feet. It’s the first I’ve heard about it, but any chance to escape this party is one I’m going to take.
“I don’t know...” My dad frowns, but Jace isn’t deterred.
“I’m sure you don’t want us kids hanging around while you go crazy,” he winks. “I know how rowdy your parties get.”
There’s another chorus of charmed laughter, and mom finally waves us away. “Alright then, but not too late. We’ve got an early start back tomorrow morning.”
Jace kisses her on the cheek. “We’ll be good, I promise.”
I follow him out, marveling for the hundredth time how he’s got our parents wrapped around his little finger. “How do you do it? If I asked, they would have shut me down in a heartbeat.”
“That’s ‘cause you didn’t spend the summer shaking hands with all Dad’s biggest clients.” Jace gives me a look as we head out through the kitchen. “When are you going to learn, it’s give and take? You’ve got to give some charm to take what you want.”
I shake my head. “Enough about our parents, where are we headed?”
“There’s a party on the beach, end of summer thing.” Jace replies.
I stop. The party those guys invited Brit to; the one she said she’d drop by. “How did you hear about that?”
“I hear everything, little brother.” Jace laughs. “I already snagged some booze from the cabinet while we were packing up. We’re all set.”
I pause by the back door, feeling torn. I’ve kept my distance from Brit all summer. Just one more night, and I’ll be safe a hundred miles away from her chaos.
But do you really want to be?
I catch my breath, feeling the kick of anticipation in my veins. “Let’s go.”
“Hey sweetie, I guess you’re out, or busy, or... Well, it doesn’t matter. I was just checking in. Things are real good here, I’m going to meetings. Eight weeks sober now... I’ll be home soon, I promise. I miss you, baby.”
I listen to the voicemail message five times over, and then delete it before I can listen five hundred times more. There’s a pain in my chest so tight I feel like I might explode, a hot stab of anger and bitterness and desperate ache.