He stubs out his cigarette on the hood and tucks the butt into his pocket. “Are you always like this?”

My stomach pitches, and I tense in anticipation of some sort of criticism. My father is Abraham Knox. I was raised on criticism. “Like what?”

“The welcoming committee? The one who makes sure everyone has a friend?”

“Who said I do that?”

He props his hands behind him and leans back. “We go to the same school. I see you in action. Little Miss Perfect is nice to everyone.”

I slide off the hood and step away. “If you want me to go away, just say so.”

He shakes his head, and a shadow of a smile crosses his face. “It wasn’t an insult.”

“It wasn’t a compliment.”

He chuckles. “Fair enough.” His gaze sweeps over me again, stuttering for a beat where the hem of my polka dot dress meets my thighs. When he tears his gaze off me this time, it feels like maybe he doesn’t want to.

Is Liam right? Does my dress make me a tease? “Is it too short?” I ask quietly.

Marston’s eyes snap back to mine. “What?”

I swallow. “My dress?” I tug on it again. “I felt pretty in the store, but maybe it should be longer. Someone said it was too short, and . . . Never mind. It doesn’t matter.”

He shakes his head. “It’s a dress, just like half the other girls are wearing. You shouldn’t have to dress differently just because you’re prettier than the rest of them.”

I bite my lip, but my smile breaks through anyway. “You gave me a compliment.”

He rolls his eyes. “You know you’re pretty.”

“But you called me the prettiest.”

He turns his head, looking around the parking lot, at his shoes and the sky and anywhere but me. “It’s true.”

The red flush creeps up his neck, making me smile bigger. “I’m surprised to see you here. I didn’t peg you as the type who’d come to homecoming dances.”

“Aunt Lori wanted me to come. She feels like it’s an important part of high school, and I didn’t feel like arguing.”

“And does Aunt Lori know you’re spending the whole night sitting on your car and smoking?”

“What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.” He’s silent for a beat, and when he finally looks at me again, his jaw is tight, his eyes narrow. “Your date probably won’t like you sitting out here with me.”

“My date left when I refused to let him feel me up in the back of his car.”

He grunts. “Christ.”

“What?”

“You sure know how to pick ’em.”

I shrug. “Maybe it’s not them. Maybe it’s me.” He’s quiet, watching me as if he’s waiting for me to explain what I mean by this. “I’m sixteen, and the only boy I’m interested in kissing avoids me.”

“Happens to the best of us,” he mutters.

I lean over, knocking his shoulder with mine, and whisper, “It’s you, dummy.”

His head snaps around and his eyes are wide.

“Don’t look so shocked.” I smile. I don’t know why I feel more comfortable with this surly stranger than I do with any of the boys I’ve been going to school with for years, but . . . well, maybe that’s just it. I like that he doesn’t know me or my family. I feel like everyone else comes to me with a box they assume I should fit into, but Marston doesn’t have any expectations. It’s freeing and makes me feel bold in a way I’ve never experienced before.

“If you’re here with me because you want to horrify your parents, I’ll take you home and grope you in front of the security cameras. Save us both some time.”

“Wow. What an offer,” I deadpan.

“It would, you know.”

“Would what?”

“Horrify them. Maybe even push them to stop treating you like a child. I’m not judging you for wanting out from under their thumbs.”

He’s not wrong about the way my parents treat me, but he’s way off about why I’m sitting here. Is it so hard for him to believe I might be interested in him for reasons that have nothing to do with my parents or my need to be kind? I cling to that unfamiliar boldness. “I’d rather skip the security cameras and go somewhere no one is watching.”

He studies me for a long time, and there’s so much suspicion in his eyes that I expect him to tell me to get away. Instead, he wets his bottom lip and swallows hard before nodding. “Get in.”

I should be nervous about getting into Marston’s car, given how he could easily misinterpret what I just said. And I am nervous, but not for the logical reasons. I’m nervous because I want him to kiss me again. Because I like the way he looks at me and I want more of it.

The car has a beat-up leather interior, but it’s clean and doesn’t smell like smoke. I buckle in as Marston climbs into his side. He turns the key in the ignition, and the car slowly coughs to life. He shoots me a look like he’s waiting for me to comment. When I say nothing, he says, “This is Aunt Lori’s dead husband’s car. It’s been sitting in the driveway for two years, so I’m surprised it works at all.”

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