Chapter One

The summer of 2001 was proving to be the most boring summer of my life.

My dad had taken his new wife sailing in the Caribbean for a month, so that left me with my thirteen-year-old brother until the middle of July. Thankfully, I was spending the rest of the summer before I had to go back to school in Italy. But it was going to be a long few weeks of babysitting my little brother. I had to make sure he stayed out of trouble, ate regularly, and made it to baseball practice every day. 

Keeping him out of trouble was no problem. My brother, Beckett Anderson Vinroot III, was a total dweeb. The only thing he liked more than reading was computer games. And baseball. He really liked baseball. And surprisingly, he didn’t suck. He could actually hit the ball pretty far and run decently fast, for a glasses-wearing, skinny, shaggy-haired nerd. 

My older sisters, twins three years older than me and going into their junior year at college, were supposed to be supervising me and Beckett for the summer while our dad cavorted with his new wife (who was only ten years older than them), but they had abandoned us for internships in Charlotte at Duke Energy and Bank of America. 

I couldn’t blame them. Addison and Avery had taken after our father—they cared more about achievements than family. When they’d gotten the news about the internship opportunities in the respective fields of study, they’d taken off in a flash, leaving me and Beckett alone in our ten-thousand-square-foot home on Sapphire Lake with only our housekeeper, Lucinda, to watch over us. 

“We can’t pass this up,” Addison had said. “It’s the—”

“Opportunity of a lifetime,” Avery had finished for her in that annoying way identical twins had of finishing each other’s sentences.

I understood; I didn’t blame them one bit. I wasn’t exactly cutting back flips about being stuck in Mossy Oak for the rest of June and half of July. If I had to be in North Carolina at all, I’d rather be in Charlotte, where there was at least a decent mall and a population in the six digits. 

Mossy Oak was a small town nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where everyone knew each other. I couldn’t even buy beer, because all the convenience store clerks had known me since I was a kid. A fake id didn’t work when I’d gone to elementary school with the cashier, two years older than me and still not of drinking age herself. 

The only plus to being stuck in Mossy Oak for the next month was having the house to myself. Beckett hardly counted because he rarely came out of the game room where he had multiple screens for playing SimCity and The Legend of Zelda simultaneously.  

I’d already planned a party. 

Even though I didn’t live in Mossy Oak during the school year, I had plenty of friends in town. I ran with an elite crowd. We all drove expensive cars, lived on the lake or golf course, spent the school year away at boarding school. We were only in North Carolina for a few weeks a year in summer or during holidays, but we always reconnected before going our separate ways again. Poor, little rich kids whose parents are too busy to deal with them have to stick together.

Reconnecting mostly meant taking advantage of our parents’ neglect. We took their boats without permission, drank their liquor, and maxed out their credit cards. 

If our parents noticed, they felt too guilty to punish us. 

“Are you gonna stay for practice?” Beckett asked.

I eased the brand-new BMW convertible my father had leased for the summer into a parking space, or two. My driving skills, never the greatest to begin with, were a little rusty. 

“You want me to stay?” I turned to Beckett, whose puppy dog eyes stared up at me from behind the lenses of his glasses. 

A lock of brown hair fell over his forehead, and he pushed it aside. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” Beckett said.

I gestured at my white pleated skirt and matching tank. “I’m still wearing my tennis clothes.” 

Beckett looked at me as if I’d said something in a foreign language. “So?” 

I wrinkled my nose. “I probably stink.”

Beckett sniffed the air in my direction. “Nope. You’re all good.”

I rolled my eyes, not sure I trusted the opinion of a teenage boy whose socks reeked so badly I could smell them from across the house.

He reached for the door. “It’s no big deal,” he said with a small shrug that looked so brave it pinched my heart.

And with that, I made my decision. I switched off the car and plucked the keys from the ignition. Beckett’s grin was a fleeting flash of metal, disappearing almost as quickly as it came.

We climbed out of the car and walked along the stone path winding between soccer fields and playground equipment to the baseball fields. 

It was a perfect June day. Not too hot, with just the right touch of mountain breeze that ruffled my skirt. I’d worked up a sweat playing tennis, but hadn’t had time to change before rushing off to pick up Beckett. If I would have known I’d be out in public, I would have taken time with my appearance, but Beckett was right. It wasn’t a big deal. We were at Ginger Cake Acres, a county park where dogs outnumbered people. The chances of me running into someone I knew while looking less than perfect, and possibly smelling like a locker room, were slim.

Beckett strode along beside me on feet too big for his body, looking more like our handsome father every day. His dark hair curled at his neck, and a thin shadow of hair dusted his upper lip. He hadn’t hit his growth spurt yet, but I knew it was only a matter of time before he towered over me. Those size twelve feet demanded a body to go with it. 

“You need a haircut.” I reached over and ruffled Beckett’s shaggy brown mane. “What would Dad say?”

Beckett ducked from under my hand. “Dad’s not here.”

He had a point there. “I can make an appointment with Cindy for next week.”

He adjusted his duffle bag on his shoulder, giving me the stubborn look that he’d perfected a few years ago during StepMonster #1’s reign of terror. “I don’t need you to make me an appointment, Peppy,” he said. “You’re not my mom.”

A sharp pain speared my chest at the mention of mom. She’d been gone for five years now. Scottsdale. We only saw her once a year for mandatory holidays. Which was fine by me. Mom had never been the motherly type.

“Well, I don’t know how you’re gonna hit the ball with all that hair in your eyes.” I took a swat at Beckett’s forehead, but he was too quick.

“Watch me!” He ran off toward the field before I could reply. 

I found a seat high on the bleachers away from a gaggle of moms dressed in coordinated outfits from Old Navy and pulled out my cellular Nokia. Dad had given it to me for emergencies before jetting off to the Caribbean with StepMonster #2. 

I flipped open the phone and dialed Emily, whose parents were also divorced and had gifted her with a cell phone. 

When she finally answered, I could hardly hear her over the noise in the background. 

“Where are you?”

“I’m already at the club. When are you coming?”

“I can’t make it,” I said.

“Bummer,” she said. “Justin is bussing tables.”

Justin was a total babe. A rising senior at Mossy Oak High, Justin was all dark hair, tanned skin, and dangerous black eyes. 

“You should invite him to your party,” Emily said, her voice rising over the buzz of noise.

The invitation list was already out of hand. Between me and Emily, we’d invited everyone who was in town. And everyone had said yes.

“I don’t know,” I said. “The Party Boys are coming.”

Emily sighed dramatically. “The Party Boys are so last year.”

The Party Boys were the epicenter of our social group. They were wealthy, good looking, and they knew how to party. Hence the name they’d given themselves. Were the Party Boys obnoxious and annoying sometimes? Sure. But they were still the glue that held us together. And I had a feeling they wouldn’t welcome an outsider like Justin who bussed tables at the club and went to regular high school.

It was probably best not to invite him. Then again, this summer was incredibly boring so far. Maybe Justin was just the spice we needed. 

“Invite him,” I told Emily. 

She squealed in approval and hung up, presumably to carry out my directions with all the enthusiasm of a seventeen-year-old girl.

I flipped my phone shut and caught one of the Gap moms eyeing me. None of the moms ever talked to me at baseball practice. They hardly ever looked at me. I smiled politely, wondering if one of them was going to break formation and say hello to me, but she looked away without comment. 

No big deal, I thought. Determined to adopt Beckett’s nonchalant attitude, I lifted my chin and dropped my phone in my bag. I was at the field for my brother, not to make friends with a bunch of women two decades older than me whose highlights needed retouching. 

I dropped my phone in my bag and focused my attention on Beckett. He was shorter and skinnier than the other kids, but it didn’t matter. He was the best hitter on the team. 

He’d probably analyzed the trajectory of the ball on a spreadsheet. The kid was smarter than anyone. He figured out a way to excel at everything he did no matter his disadvantage.

Even if he couldn’t see the baseball through his glasses and under the flop of his hair, he found a way to hit it out of the park. 

“Here he comes,” one of the mom’s said in a shrill voice that carried up to me at the top of the bleachers.

“Oh my God,” said another. “He’s wearing the gray shorts again.”

I followed their gazes to the dugout and saw two coaches emerge. They jogged onto the field. Well, one of them did. The other sort of shuffled along the dirt, barely picking his feet up. That was Coach Gribble. He’d been around forever. Back in the dark ages, he’d been my father’s Little League coach. According to my dad, he’d been ancient back then.

“He’s absolutely perfect,” one mom said, lowering her sunglasses to stare.

She wasn’t talking about Coach Gribble, or his considerable gut. She was talking about the tall, long-legged man next to him. His shoulders were broad, his hips were narrow, and his ass other-wordly. 

“He’s too young,” said one of the moms.

“Nope. He’s legal.”

The woman scoffed. “Barely.”

“He’s eighteen,” the first woman said. “I asked him.”

Just then, the eighteen-year-old coach with the tumble of blond hair that fell almost to his shoulders à la Brad Pitt in Interview with the Vampire and the perfect ass looked over his shoulder, spotted the group of women on the bleachers, and lifted his hand in a wave.

The women giggled in unison and waved back. I stared at the flock of moms, wide-eyed and embarrassed for them. They were flirting with a kid. Well, technically he was an adult, but he was only five years older than their sons. It was disgusting. 

I turned my attention back to the field and watched the Brad Pitt look-alike run across the field. It was quite the sight. His muscles flexed, his hair swished, and his ass stayed perfect. 

An involuntary sigh escaped my mouth as he pushed a hand through his mane of luxurious hair. He smiled at the boys in encouragement, and I swear, I felt that smile all the way to my toes. 

The group of moms also sighed. The collective sigh carried up the rows of bleachers like the wistful moan of lost youth. I narrowed my eyes at the flock, noticing there were more of them than usual. They had a healthy carpool routine, of which I wasn’t a part of, and there were never more than three minivan-driving moms at practice at a time. Today, there were almost a dozen. Almost the whole team. 

I could hardly blame them. The new coach was worth sticking around for. I settled into my seat and turned my attention to the gorgeous guy on the field. 

Suddenly, the summer didn’t seem so boring after all.