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“What the fuck?” Sara says. “Did that asshole seriously just do that right now?”

“I’m so sorry. It’s my fault.”

“What do you mean?” She starts to walk into the cafeteria to see if we can catch up.

“I mean, he did it because I went with you. It’s all a big fucking game.”

“It’s a pretty childish game for someone so big.”

As we round the corner, we find the tail of our group again. It seems that Kameron’s plan to lose us wasn’t as effective as he might have hoped.

“So this is a good place to eat if you want bland food,” he says within earshot of one of the women who work there. She gives him a withering look, and I totally get how she feels. I wish that looks could kill. Then I could annihilate this jackass with one side-eye.

The tour continues like this, and I’m grateful when it comes to an end.

“So,” Sara says as we head back to the coffee shop for a break. “I think it’s safe to say that your stepbrother has a problem with you, but why?”

“It’s not just him. It’s all of them, and I don’t know why. It’s just always been like that.”

“Mmmm. It’s a strange one for sure.”

I shrug. “It’s more than strange. If this is what it’s like already, and I’ve only been back for a day, imagine what the rest of the years are going to be like.”

“I don’t envy you,” Sara says. “But then again, I kind of do.”

“If you’re going to tell me that you find them sexy, after everything you’ve seen and heard, I’m going to have to punch you in the arm.”

Sara laughs and swats me on the shoulder. “There is no way you can even pretend that you don’t see how good looking they are. And the mean boy thing…. I know it shouldn’t be a turn on, but it is.”

“Ugh.” I pretend to shudder at the thought, and that pesky image of them naked springs back into my mind, taunting me some more. “Mean boys suck.”

“Only if they’re getting the better of you. But if you’re ahead of the game…well, that’s something different.”

We join the line and order two cappuccinos and two large double-chocolate-chip muffins.

“Ahead of the game?”

Sara takes the tray loaded with our food and drink and makes her way to a table in the window. “Ahead of the game as in, you’re getting the better of them.”

“But I don’t want to be fighting with them all the time.”

“Who said anything about fighting?” Sara pops a huge chunk of muffin in her mouth and chews it enthusiastically. “All I’m talking about is you getting on the front foot. Giving them a taste of their own medicine.”

“And how do you propose I do that?”

“Well…if I’m right, and they’re all harboring secret lusty feelings for you, then maybe you need to give them a whole lot to think about.”

I sip my coffee, welcoming the bitter heat. “It’s not really my style,” I say.

“Just hear me out. I’m not telling you to do anything other than tease them a bit. For example, you’re staying in the pool house, right?”


“Well, how about you walk around in front of the windows in your underwear. Or sunbathe around the pool with your top barely covering the goods.”

I screw my nose up at the thought of baring myself that way.

“Don’t make that face,” Sara says. “I’m just talking about getting them hot and bothered. They won’t be able to concentrate on making your life hell if they’re thinking about what’s under your clothes. Flirt with them, and then, when you’ve got them where you want them, you can keep them dangling.”

“You’re talking like I’m some kind of sex goddess or seduction queen. Have you seen me?”

“Err, yeah, I’ve seen you, and so have your stepbrothers. You left their house a little girl and came back all woman. They’re probably all thinking the same thing about you. In fact, I’d be willing to put my trust fund on it.”

I peel back the paper from my muffin and take a bite.

“You know you’re living so many girls’ dreams right now. Your setup is like the start of one of my favorite romance novels…and you know how they end up?”

I shake my head.

“With the lucky girl in a stepbrother club sandwich, that’s where!”

I make a disgruntled snorting noise. “There’d be no room in there for me. Their egos would take up the whole damn room.”

“Aren’t you just a little bit turned on by the thought?”

“NO!” I laugh, but Sara grins and shakes her head.

“I don’t believe you.”

I sip my coffee and ponder on Sara’s idea while she chatters on about what we need to do for the rest of the afternoon. Could I really do what she suggested? Would it work? I have no idea, but things can’t exactly get worse than they are already. Knowing my stepbrothers, they are probably going to leave me on campus today and tell my dad that they “forgot” to bring me home. And maybe later, I’ll find a roach in my dinner or an eyeball in my juice, or one of the other pathetic practical jokes they pulled on me when we were kids. I only had to deal with them for alternate weekends in those days. This is every day, day in, day out, for years.

But I’m not confident like Sara. Or as sexy as I feel I’d need to be to get away with her suggestion.

We spend the rest of the afternoon attending our first day schedule, and at 4.50 pm, I go back to the parking lot where Jameson left his truck this morning. As I predicted, the truck is gone. My blood is boiling, but I don’t show it because I suspect they might be watching me from somewhere. They only seem to get full satisfaction from fucking with me when they get to witness the full effects.

I take out my phone, thinking through my options. I could get a cab, but I don’t have the spare cash to be wasting it right now. I could call Dad, but I know he’ll be annoyed, and that could make things even worse for me. I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place.

I’m just about to bite the bullet and call a cab when a big black truck pulls into the lot. It’s too dark inside for me to see their faces, so I have no idea whether they are grinning at my discomfort or not. I put the phone back into my pocket and make the short walk to the truck of misery.

No one says anything when I slide into the back seat that has become mine, but I do hear some sniggering from up front. Fuck, they’re childish. As we drive, they talk football and assignments and even drop in some talk about a cheerleader that everyone seems to be fucking. Typical boy talk.

I scroll through my phone and send Mom a message to let her know that day one went as well as it could have. She sends me back a grinning emoji and lots of kisses. I know she’ll be worrying about me because that’s what moms do. My dad, on the other hand, probably hasn’t even thought about me today.

Back at the house, I make my way straight through to the pool house—no point in hanging around where I’m not wanted. I put my bag on the table and decide I’m going to take a shower. It’s been a busy first day, and I feel like I need to freshen up. I grab a fresh towel from the closet and make my way to the bathroom. I’m about to strip off when I see something moving in the bath.

What the fuck?

I lean forward and find a lizard the size of a small cat. Holy shit. The scream that leaves my lips is piercing, and I drop the towel and run from the room, my shirt half undone. I dash from the pool house, pulling the sides of my shirt together, knowing that I have to get out of there in case there are any more creepy-crawlies lurking. As soon as I’m out the door, I can hear laughing. Jameson, Kyle, Kameron, Jessie, and Joshua are all reclining on lounge chairs, grinning at the sight of me.

They did this. They put that creature in my bath.


And I have no idea what to do now.

Except I know that I’d rather eat my own arm than ask those douchebags for help. They’re evil—pure evil.

I storm into the house, raging as they laugh even harder. “DAD?” I shout. “DAD!”

“Maisie, what is it?” he calls from the den.

“There’s something in my bath. Can you come and get it out, please?”

Dad rounds the corner to where I’m standing in the kitchen. “A spider?”

I shake my head, trying to keep my voice as calm as I can. “A very large lizard.”

Dad’s eyebrows shoot up. “How did that get in there? Did you leave the window open?”


“Well, how?”

I shrug, pretending that I have no idea. I am not going to give my stepbrothers the satisfaction of thinking that I can’t deal with their shit on my own.

“Okay, hang on a minute.” I follow Dad out into the yard and watch as he retrieves some gloves from his toolbox in the shed. He glances over to where Jameson and his fellow goons are still sitting by the pool. “None of you strapping boys wanted to deal with the lizard?” he asks, shaking his head. I hear him muttering under his breath something about them being big but scared of a tiny animal, and I bite my lip to stop myself from laughing.

Dad doesn’t exactly look as though he’s excited about wrestling with a reptile himself, but he’s going to give it a try. I follow him into the pool house and hang back as he pokes his head into the bathroom. “Wooo,” he says. “That is some lizard.” He laughs nervously as I clutch at the fabric of my shirt and shudder. That thing is giving me the heebie-jeebies!

Dad approaches the bath slowly and then makes a grab for the reptile, taking hold of it around the middle with his right hand and its neck with the left and lifting it up. “There we go,” he chuckles, starting toward the door. “And you say that you didn’t leave a window open.”

“Everything was shut,” I say.

“Well, there must be a hole somewhere,” he says. “I’ll have to take a look around.”

Poor Dad. Not only has he had to waste time retrieving the creature planted there by my stepbrothers, but now he’s going to waste more time looking for a hole that doesn’t exist.

“It’s okay, Dad. Don’t worry. I’m sure it won’t happen again.

Dad takes the lizard to the far corner of the property and puts it on the ground. He’s not a cruel man, so this big sucker gets to run free, just hopefully not into my bathroom again. Or my bedroom, or kitchen, or frankly anywhere I might be. “You okay now?”

I glance over at my stepbrothers who still have grins firmly planted on their faces. I want to say no. I want to tell dad that I need to move out of this house to get away from them, but I can’t. “Sure.”

“Okay. Well, see you for dinner?”

“Actually, I’m going to make something here.”

Dad looks confused, but he doesn’t argue. I guess he must realize that I’m trying to keep some independence.

When I’m back in the pool house, I close the door and press my back against the door. My heart is still beating too fast, even though I know that thing is gone.

Ugh. I shudder again. So gross.

It seems that Sara was right. They’re not going to stop, and I can’t keep going like this. I’m going to need to get on the front foot so that I can win back some control.

Sara’s plan seems totally crazy, but now I think that it might be worth a shot. What’s the worst that can happen?


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