I want to argue that being on probation hardly makes me the icon of freedom, but I get what she’s saying. There are expectations that come with this kind of money. More money, more problems or whatever. “That’s pretty depressing.”
She shrugs. “My parents are pretty depressing.” She steps closer, and the back of her hand brushes mine. I hold my breath and tamp down the impulse to thread my fingers with hers. I have no business touching a girl like this.
Suddenly, the music goes quiet, and everyone turns to the ballroom entrance, where a frail girl with long red hair walks into the room. She’s wearing a light blue version of Brinley’s dress, and when she lifts her hand and waves like some sort of pageant queen, the room erupts in applause.
“Who’s that?” I ask Brinley.
“My sister, Brittany,” she says softly.
I frown. “Is it her birthday too or something?”
“No. But she . . .” She swallows. “She’s been sick. It’s kind of a big deal that she’s even home right now, and a bigger deal that she’s out of bed. She’s spent more time in the hospital than out of it this year.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Me too.” There’s more than sorry there in the anguished lines of her face—some complexity of emotion I can’t read and don’t dare try to interpret. “We’re only eleven months apart, and we used to be best friends. People thought we were twins.”
I look down at the redhead and arch a brow at Brinley. “Even with the hair?”
“That’s a wig. She lost her hair after the chemo.”
My neck and cheeks burn. “Oh, shit. I’m sorry.” I’m such an idiot.
“She handled it like a champ. That’s how she does everything. Knoxes keep their chins up.”
Her fake smile draws my attention to something she said. “You . . . used to be best friends? You aren’t still?”
She shakes her head. “I love her more than anyone, but she pushed me away after this last recurrence. It makes sense. On some level, she resents me. I get to live the life she thought she’d live, and I still get to have all the experiences she was supposed to have right alongside me.”
That seems unfair. “But that’s not your fault. Surely she knows that.”
“Yeah. Of course, but it’s normal. She’s not trying to be cruel. She’s just human.”
“That’s an awfully mature way to look at it.”
There’s something in her eyes when she looks at me—not quite a vacancy but a distant pain, as if this is something she’s pushed way down. “There’s no point in being immature about it. It wouldn’t fix anything.”
We both watch the party below as Roman pulls Brinley’s sister onto the dance floor and spins her around in his arms.
“You think she knows he broke up with you?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says, but she doesn’t explain how. Maybe she talked to her sister before she hid in the kitchen. Maybe her sister was the one she told to leave her alone.
“Does he have no shame? Dancing with your sister at your party, right after breaking your heart?”
She shakes her head. “No one will ever judge you for showing kindness to a dying girl.”
What about showing kindness to you? “You should probably get back to your party.”
She turns away from the crowd below and studies me for a long beat. Her cheeks are flushed and there’s something almost lonely in her eyes. “I’d rather not.”
My phone buzzes from inside my pocket. Since this is a brand-new phone and the only one who has the number is Aunt Lori, I know it’s a text from her before I look.
Lori: Where are you? I need you in the dining room.
“You need to go?”
I nod as I type back a reply, letting Aunt Lori know I’m on my way. “Duty calls.” I hesitate. “You feel better?”
Brinley releases a ragged breath. “Actually, I do. It wasn’t the birthday I planned, but maybe this is all for the best.”
“What did you plan?” It’s a dumb question. Obviously, she planned to enjoy the party with her boyfriend, but I’m stalling now. I don’t want to leave her.
Her gaze settles on my mouth when she says, “I thought I’d get my first kiss tonight.”
Her first kiss? I won’t be eighteen for a couple more months but . . . well, kissing is kiddie stuff at this point. Not that I had the best role models. But those blue eyes are still on my mouth. I thought I knew hunger when I was on the streets, but I’ve never felt anything like this need to kiss her. “Judging from the way he was kissing the girl in red, I think you would’ve been disappointed anyway.”
“Maybe,” she whispers.
This time when her gaze dips to my mouth, I let my own go to hers—to the smudged bubblegum-pink lipstick, to her soft, plump bottom lip. I think of my aunt talking to me after my hearing telling me that I need to learn my place, that I’ll come to understand folks like us have to make do with less, that I can’t take things just because I want them, and that life doesn’t work like that. But in this moment, it does. I want to take this kiss, despite who I am and where I come from.