“It’s really not,” I drawled, and winked at the guy, who blushed a darker shade of tan.
I could play nice, but with Cash Mitchell… that was risky. I knew my role—that of a cold and ruthless fame whore. It was what Cash would expect and the suit of armor I needed.
EMMA: 0 FOLLOWERS
I met him six years ago, before I became Emma Blanton. Back then, I was Emma Ripplestine and I was ugly. Honestly, I was. Which was why I was being picked on by some rich prick who was holding the keg wand hostage.
“What’s that?” He raised his voice, attracting the attention of every partygoer in close range. “I can’t hear you over everything those teeth are saying.”
I’d heard the line a half-dozen times before, but my cheeks still burned at the words. All I wanted was a beer. Something to nurse while my cousin finished making out with whatever guy had his hand up her shirt. Come with me, she had groaned, tugging on my sleeve while I had scooped a heap of strawberry ice cream onto a sugar cone. This party is going to be sick. And the guys there will be like… so hot.
The guys were hot, I’d give that to her. They were also the sort of tan, Laguna idiots who drove Range Rovers and had trust funds and dated girls with implants and bleached teeth. This is why I needed to get a beer, melt into a forgotten corner of this house and kill thirty minutes before I bailed on Paige and took the bus back to Hyde Park.
It was a good plan, but this jerk wasn’t going to let me go. Not when he had an audience. He pointed at my face. “Seriously, were braces ever a thought or did your parents just say screw it?”
Laughter rippled through the crowd.
“Hey.” Another preppy jerk shouldered in, and I couldn’t deal with two of these people. I turned to run but the crowd was there, keeping me in place. Panic flared in my chest.
The words weren’t about me but I still turned, desperately wanting them. I followed them through the smoky air and to a guy that couldn’t possibly mean them. But he was looking at me. Smiling at me. And not that cruel grin that someone gives you just before they crush you—this was a real smile. A kind one. I lifted my beer to my lips just to keep myself from smiling back.
“That’s a joke, right?” my attacker laughed. “Come on, Cash.”
And then, I realized who he was. Cash Mitchell. This was his house. His beer. His money. His friends. Even back then, he was the king of Laguna Beach. The one with the movie star mother and the hair gel empire father. The one who already had a collection of cars, and a vintage Rolex, and a face that had already racked up a million followers.
Cash ignored him and stepped closer to me, close enough that the toes of his boots brushed against mine, and the edge of shirt sleeve whispered against my arm. “You okay?” he asked gruffly. As if he had all of the time in the world. As if the party hadn’t already moved on from its focus of me, as if people weren’t tugging on his arm, and shouting out his name. The music started a fresh and familiar beat, and everyone roared in approval.
“I’m fine.” I scoffed and tucked my hair behind my ear. “But thanks.”
“I meant it. You’re beautiful.”
“Um.” I forced myself not to combat the compliment. “Thanks?” Super smooth, Em. Super smooth.
Something caught his eye and his gaze narrowed. He stepped back. “I gotta take care of something.”
I kept my lips pinned together, my teeth hidden, and nodded. And then, like prey hauled off to be eaten, he was swallowed by the party.
She was out of place at the party. The girls were the usual mix of college girls with daddy’s credit cards. All blonde, in push-up bras and heavy makeup, their touch aggressive, voices too loud. She was quiet, dressed as if she was hiding, with a gaze that seemed to look everywhere except at anyone. She didn’t want to be there, and for that reason alone, I wanted to talk to her.
Lacey was all over me, and then I had to break up a fight by the poolhouse, and by the time I made it to her, she was squaring off against a dickhead who was making fun of her teeth.
I couldn’t move, couldn’t speak fast enough. I tripped over someone’s foot and barely made it through the crowd before the laughter started to build.
“She’s beautiful.” I shoved at the prick’s back, and he turned to face me. From over his shoulder, her eyes connected with mine.
She really was beautiful, and it was heartbreaking to see the tentative way her gaze teetered from mine because she didn’t believe it, and that was a travesty.