Lo’s fingers twitch by his side. “She’s fifteen and probably surrounded by older models blowing lines in a bathroom.”
“I’m sure they sent someone with her.” I hate that I don’t know the details. Since I arrived at the University of Pennsylvania, I acquired the rude hobby of dodging phone calls and visits. Separating from the Calloway household became all too easy once I entered college. I suppose that has always been written for me. I used to push the boundaries of my curfew and spent little time in the company of my mother and father.
Lo says, “I’m glad I don’t have siblings. Frankly, you have enough for me.”
I never considered having three sisters to be a big brood, but a family of six does garner some unique attention.
He rubs his eyes wearily. “Okay, I need a drink and we need to go.”
I inhale a deep breath, about to ask a question we’ve both avoided thus far. “Are we pretending today?” With Nola so close, it’s always a tossup. On one hand, she’s never betrayed our trust. Not even in the tenth grade when I used the backseat of a limo to screw a senior soccer player. The privacy screen was up, blocking Nola’s view, but he grunted a little too loud and I knocked into the door a little too hard. Of course she heard, but she never ratted me out.
There’s always the risk that one day she’ll betray us. Cash loosens lips, and unfortunately, our fathers are swimming in it.
I shouldn’t care. I’m twenty. Free to have sex. Free to party. You know, all the things expected of college-aged adults. But my laundry list of dirty (like really dirty) secrets could create a scandal within my family’s circle of friends. My father’s company would not appreciate that publicity one bit. If my mother knew my serious problem, she’d send me away for rehab and counseling until I was fixed up nicely. I don’t want to be fixed. I just want to live and feed my appetite. It just so happens that my appetite is a sexual one.
Plus, my trust fund would magically vanish at the sight of my impropriety. I’m not ready to walk away from the money that pays my way through college. Lo’s family is equally unforgiving.
“We’ll pretend,” he tells me. “Come on, love.” He taps my ass. “Into the car.” I barely stumble on his frequent use of love. In middle school, I told him how I thought it was the sexist term of endearment. And even though British guys have claimed stake to it, Lo took it as his own.
I scrutinize him, and he breaks into a wide smile.
“Has the walk of shame crippled you?” he asks. “Do I need to carry you into the threshold of the Escalade too?”
His crooked grin makes it hard not to smile back. Lo purposefully leans in close to tease me, and he slips a hand in the back pocket of my jeans. “If you don’t unfreeze yourself from this state, I’m going to spin you around. Hard.”
My chest collapses. Oh my…I bite my lip, imagining what sex would be like with Loren Hale. The first time was too long ago to remember well. I shake my head. Don’t go there. I turn around to open the door and climb in the Escalade, but a huge realization hits me.
“Nola drove to fraternity row…I’m dead. Ohmygod. I’m dead.” I run two hands through my hair and begin to breathe like a beached whale. I have no good excuse to be here other than I was searching for a guy to sleep with. And that’s the answer I’m trying to avoid. Especially since our parents think Lo and I are in a serious relationship—one that changed his dangerous partying ways and reformed him into a young man that his father can be proud of.
This, picking me up from a frat party with the faint smell of whiskey on his breath, is not what his father has in mind for his son. It is not something he’d condone or even accept. In fact, he’d probably scream at Lo and threaten him with his trust fund. Unless we want to say goodbye to our luxuries from our inherited wealth, we have to pretend to be together. And pretend that we’re two perfectly functioning, perfectly well-kept human beings.
And we’re just not. We’re not. My arms shake.
“Whoa!” Lo places his hands on my shoulders. “Relax, Lil. I told Nola that your friend had a birthday brunch. You’re covered.”
My head still feels like it’ll float away, but at least that’s better than the truth. Hey Nola, we need to pick up Lily from frat row where she had a one-night stand with some loser. And then she’d look at Lo, waiting for him to explode in jealousy. And he’d add: Oh yeah, I’m only her boyfriend when I need to be. Fooled you!
Lo senses my anxiety. “She’s not going to find out.” He squeezes my shoulders.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” he says impatiently. He slides in the car, and I follow behind. Nola puts the Escalade in gear.
“Back to the Drake, Miss Calloway?” After years of asking her to call me anything, even little girl (for some reason, I thought that would entice her to drop the whole act, but I think I only offended her instead), I gave up the attempt. I swear my dad pays her extra for the formality.
“Yes,” I say, and she heads towards the Drake apartment complex.
Lo nurses a coffee thermos, and even though he takes big gulps, I’m certain that the caffeinated beverage does not fill it. I find a can of Diet Fizz in the center cooler-console and snap it open. The dark carbonated liquid soothes my restless stomach.
Lo drapes an arm across my shoulder, and I lean into his hard chest a tiny bit.
Nola glances in the rearview mirror. “Was Mr. Hale not invited to the birthday brunch?” she asks, being friendly. Still, anytime Nola goes into question-mode, it jostles my nerves and triggers paranoia.
“I’m not as popular as Lily,” Lo answers for me. He has always been a much better liar. I blame it on the fact that he’s constantly inebriated. I’d be a far more confident, self-assure Lily if I was downing bourbon all day.
Nola laughs, her plump belly hitting the steering wheel with each chortle. “I’m sure you’re just as popular as Miss Calloway.”
Anyone (apparently Nola too) would assume that Lo has friends. On an attractiveness scale, he ranges right between a lead singer from a rock band you’d like to f**k and a runway model for Burberry and Calvin Klein. Although, he’s never been in a band, but Burberry did scout him once. They retracted the offer after seeing him drink straight from a nearly empty bottle of whiskey. Modeling agencies have standards too.
Lo should have lots of friends. Mostly of the female kind. And usually they do come flocking. But not for long.
The car travels along another street, and I count the minutes in my head. Lo angles his body towards me while his fingers brush my bare shoulder, almost lovingly. I make brief eye contact, my neck burning as his deep gaze enters mine. I swallow hard and try not to break it. Since we’re supposed to be dating, I shouldn’t be afraid of his amber eyes like an awkward, insecure girl.
Lo says, “Charlie is playing sax tonight at Eight Ball. He invited us to go watch him.”
“I don’t have plans.” Lie. A new club opened up downtown called The Blue Room. Literally, everything is said to be blue. Even the drinks. I’m not missing the opportunity to hook up in a blue bathroom. Hopefully with blue toilet seats.
“It’s a date.”
Silence (of the awkward variety) thickens after his words die in the air. Normally, I’d be talking to him about The Blue Room and my nefarious intentions tonight, making plans since I am his DD. But in the censored car, it’s more difficult to start R-rated conversations.
“Is the fridge stocked? I’m starving.”
“I just went to the grocery store,” he tells me. I narrow my eyes, questioning whether he’s lying to play the part of a good boyfriend or if he really did make a Whole Foods run. My stomach growls. At least we all know I didn’t lie.
His jaw tightens, pissed that I don’t know a fib from a truth. Normally I do, but sometimes when he’s so nonchalant, the lines blur. “I bought lemon meringue pie. Your favorite.”
I internally gag. “You shouldn’t have.” No, you really shouldn’t have. I hate lemon meringue. Obviously he wants Nola to think he’s an upstanding boyfriend, but the only girlfriend Loren Hale will ever treat well is his bottle of bourbon.
We stop at a traffic light, now only a few blocks from the apartment complex. I can taste freedom, and Lo’s arm begins to feel more like a weight than a comforting appendage across my shoulders.
“Was this a casual event, Miss Calloway?” Nola asks. What? Oh…shit. Her eyes plant on the muscle-tee I snatched from the frat guy’s floor. Stained and off-white with God knows what.
“Umm, I-I,” I stammer. Lo stiffens next to me. He grips his thermos and chugs the rest of his drink. “I-I spilled some orange juice on my top. It was really embarrassing.” Was that even a lie?
My face flames uncontrollably, and for the first time, I welcome the rash-like patches. Nola gazes sympathetically. She’s known me since I was too shy to say the Pledge of Allegiance in kindergarten. Age five and timid. Pretty much sums up my first years of existence.
“I’m sure it wasn’t that bad,” she consoles.
The light flickers to green and she redirects her attention to the road.
Unscathed, we make it to the Drake. A towering chestnut-brick structure juts up in the heart of the city. The historic 33-story complex boards thousands and teeters into a triangle at the apex. With Spanish Baroque influences, it looks a cross between a Spaniard cathedral and a regular old Philly hotel.
I love it enough to call it home.
Nola offers a goodbye and I tell her thanks before hopping from the Escalade. My feet no sooner hit the curb than Lo clasps his hand in mine. His other fingers run over the smoothness of my neck, and his eyes trail my collar. He sets his hands on the openings of my muscle shirt, touching the bareness of my ribs but also concealing my br**sts from Philly pedestrians.
He observes me. Every little movement. And my heart speeds. “Is she watching us?” I whisper, wondering why he suddenly looks like he wants to devour me. It’s part of our lie, I remind myself. This isn’t real.
But it feels real. His hands on me. His warmth on my soft skin.
He licks his bottom lip and leans closer to whisper, “In this moment, I’m yours.” His hands run through the armholes of my shirt and he settles them on my bare shoulder blades.
I hold my breath and immobilize. I am a statue.
“And as your boyfriend,” he murmurs, “I really hate to share.” Then he playfully nibbles my neck, and I smack him on the arm but fall victim to his teasing.
“Lo!” I shriek, my body squirming underneath his teeth that lightly pinches my skin. Suddenly, his lips close together, kissing, sucking the base of my neck, and trailing upward. My limbs tremble, and I hold tightly to his belt loops. He smiles, in between each kiss, knowing the effect he has on me. His lips press to my jaw…the corner of my mouth...he pauses. And I restrain from taking him in my arms and finishing the job.
Then he slips his tongue inside my mouth, and I forget about the fakeness of his actions and believe, for this moment, that he’s truly mine. I kiss back, a moan caught in my throat. The sound invigorates him, and he pushes closer, harder, rougher than before. Yes.