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  • Venessa Kimball

Read CHAPTER ONE of Cross the Stars: Book 1 (Crossing Stars Duet)

Updated: Mar 28, 2021

Cross the Stars Book One Venessa Kimball writing as V. Angelika

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The pubication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners. Copyright © 2016 by Venessa Kimball writing as V. Angelika All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright re- served above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the above copyright owner of this book. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Angelika, V Cross the Stars (Book One, Crossing Stars Duet) — 1st edition ISBN-13: 9798679155640 | ISBN-10: 0692633839

~ I always thought it romantic the way people would describe their last moments. Stand-out moments framing their existence here on earth. My moments; my sister Jilly, Allison, Grand- ma Wallace, attending Georgetown University. Meeting Tom for the first time about the pro- gram and the decision to travel to the other side of the world, Jordan. The moment I met my host family, the Ba’ashirs, and the family they gave safe haven to, the Ahmadis. My girls, the moments I had with them. Learning Arabic, something I never imagined doing in a million years. Above all, the moment Raj looked into my eyes and told me I was his forever; no mat- ter the pact fate had made with the universe ... we would defy it. Cross the stars and steal the moon, risk everything to be together. This is what frames my existence as I lay here among the ruin, hovering between two worlds just be- fore the darkness finds me. ~


The knocking on my door at eight o’clock in the morning, courtesy of my roommate Allison, would normally be a rude awakening if I wasn’t already awake. “Are you up, El?” “Yeah.” Technically I am awake, no longer slumbering, even though I am still lying in bed with my blankets pulled up tight around me. Even though it’s April, spring has not found its way this far north, and wrapping myself up in five or six blankets to keep warm is getting really old. “When I say up, I mean in the literal sense. Mean- ing rising from the catacomb, El,” Allison calls from the other side of my door. Up until now my eyes have been closed, taking in the last of the small moment in time be- tween wake and sleep, when my door opens. Bundled tightly, I turn only my head to acknowledge her. “Is it ever going to get warm again?” She has a cup of coffee in hand as she leans against the doorway and smiles snidely at my rhetorical ques- tion. The steam wafting from her mug calls to me with both the promise of warmth and liquid adrenaline. “Come on. It isn’t so bad,” she says as she tucks her arm close to her body, idly looking around my room. “It does seem colder in your room though.” Ignoring her observation, I wonder how we had made it through another cold Washington, D.C. winter here at Georgetown University in this small, tight, quartered yet affordable two-bedroom apartment. I look up at her over my covered body. “It is fucking cold in here.” Allison opens the drawn curtains, letting in some of the dull pre-spring overcast sunlight. “They say it’s sup- posed to start warming up this week. Thank God!” The overcast light fills the room, making me squint. Allison and I have been roommates since our fresh- man year. Last year we pooled our money together and found this apartment. It’s a longer distance from campus than the dorm, but a hell of a lot cheaper, and every penny counts when you are living on financial aid. I sit up, bringing my tightly wrapped blanket with me. Cocooned in fabric, I reach down to turn up the space heater when I notice the illuminating “on” switch is not lit. “No wonder it’s so cold in here. My heater is off,” I mumble as I flip the switch off and on, off and on with no reaction from the heater. “What the hell?” “What is it?” Allison calls to me, now down the hall clanking around dishes in the kitchen. I glance over at the outlet to make sure it’s plugged in; check. I flip the switch off, on, off, on a few more times without any solution. “My stupid heater is broken!” “Damn, that sucks,” she replies. “You think you can be ready in fifteen minutes?” As I rise and stomp in my long socks to my dresser, half of the blankets wrapped close to me begin to fall away loosely to the ground. I open and shut my drawers hard as I grab for each article of clothing. “No! I’m just getting out of bed! Sorry, I’m just pissed about the heater. Just go on without me.” As I stand there, a blob of blanket, she smiles at my fluffy attire and the frustration melts away, leaving me wondering why she is going in so early. “It’s only eight. You don’t have class for like two hours.” Allison pours the remainder of her coffee down the sink and talks as she rinses her mug. “I have a makeup lab from last week when I was sick. This is my last chance to make it up and I can’t let some stupid lab keep me from getting an A.” She is aiming for medical school, so every A is a necessity where GPAs are concerned. I, on the other hand, have just moved from “Undeclared” to an English major, and I’m not sure if I am going to stay with it or change again. I’m barely keeping my head above a 3.0 GPA with my time divided between studying and my job on campus. Allison puts her jacket and gloves on and tosses her backpack over her shoulder as she speaks. “Yeah, well I need to turn in my financial aid packet for next year.” Shit, I have to turn in mine. I filled it out two nights ago, just haven’t had the time to make it over to the financial aid office to drop it off. “Next week is the deadline,” she warns. “You are going to apply, right?” We are sharing an apartment and I can understand her need for me to take care of my financial end of the bargain, but I can’t help thinking maybe I am wasting my time. Yeah, I know, how could I fucking be wasting my time by going to Georgetown University? It might just be me, but I can’t see me doing anything with purpose beyond graduation at the rate I’m going; it’s disturbing. Before I can relieve her concern, she probes, “Or are you going to talk to your parents tonight about helping you out?” I cut her off before she can go there. “The paperwork is already filled out. I will drop it off this week.” Avoiding any further interrogation, I go into the bathroom, shut the door, and turn on the shower faucet. I can’t blame her for asking. I mean, if I knew my friend’s parents had money and were in a political position like my father, yet she chose to put herself through college with work and financial aid, I would want to know what the hell brought it on. She never straight out asked me my issue with them, just indirect comments and questions like the one she just posed. Allison’s voice sounds full of apology as she calls to me over the running water. “Want to meet for lunch?” I drop the blankets around me and get undressed. A hotdog or a burger is the best lunch option I could find in college on a tight budget. “Yeah, lunch truck at one?” I call back as I get into the shower, lather up, and rinse quickly, leaving a few short seconds to soak up the remaining hot water. The bus stop is three blocks down from our apartment complex, with the ride to campus being just over thirty minutes with stops. The neighborhood is not the safest, but we don’t mind. My parents don’t approve of the part of D.C. where I live. They make it known at every family dinner. I don’t expect them to understand, since money is no object for them. Having come from two well-bred families, they have never experienced wanting for anything. Grandma Wallace was the only one who could truly understand having grown up with no money until marrying Grandpa Wallace. Even then, she kept things real. She would always come to family dinner on Fridays and talk about all of the things she did in her life. Even at the age of ninety, she would recall the moments of her life as if they had occurred yesterday. My last memory of her is asking me, “Is it worth the risk to cross the stars and steal the moon for something greater than yourself? Something greater for someone else? For love?” “Always do something with purpose, Ella Marie. Something greater than yourself. Risk for love, risk for life. Cross the stars and steal the moon if you have to.” Those words ring fresh in my mind and have been with me for days now, haunting me, reminding me I need to do something with my fucking life. I’m sure it has to do with tonight’s dinner at my parents’ house. Dad said he had an offer to discuss with me and I have been debating canceling just to avoid any fucking confrontation with him. Dad is a Congressman serving his third year as a prime example of our roots. Mom is the ideal congress- man’s wife, having been groomed by her own mother, who was the wife of an influential prosecution lawyer who turned into a judge in his later years. There are very few Wallaces and Cromwells who haven’t made a name for themselves up and down the east coast of the United States. Those cast aside Wallaces and Cromwells, the deadbeats left for no mention, were considered a sore on the family names. What if they just took the road less traveled? The tucked-away road, the road of the fucking “undeclared,” not yet purposed? They still could prove themselves. My parents see this as the direction I am heading, since I haven’t made as many advances and wise decisions as they expected. My mediocrity isn’t something that just happened one day; there were reasons for it. Mine started years ago in high school. I had become tired of not fitting in. The phrase “If you can’t beat them, join them” somehow became a necessity in my naive mind. Dad was a newly elected senator and Mom was finally enjoying the fruits of their labor by decorating our new house on The Hill, also known as Capitol Hill. It was a lapse in judgement with me trying to fit in. A lapse leading me to believe the finest schools, the prettiest clothing, the best-looking boyfriends, the most popular and well-to-do friends, and the most elite and influential people in the district were what I had to surround myself with. Try it. You will like it. The best tutors for the highest GPA. Getting accepted to the best universities. Losing your virginity to the most popular senior in high school and son of one of the most influential families in the district. Try it. You will like it. Sex in Logan’s parents’ cabin, my bedroom, the backseat of his car. Nowhere was off limits because we were Logan and Ella and it was expected since it was inevitable in everyone’s eyes that we would marry and live happily ever after with little Bristols running around. Try it. You will like it. Attending the National Debutante Cotillion and Thanksgiving Ball for only a few of the hand-picked juniors “coming out” with Logan on my arm; a preparation for his and my parents to brag about us being the most pedigreed couple of the entire event. Try it. You will like it. All of it was a putrid pool of overindulgence, entitlement, and extreme privilege invisible to me until the night I came home from the ball, my five-thousand-dollar Emilio Pucci dress rumpled from the clumsy and haphazard sex Logan and I had in the backseat of the limo paid for by his parents, with my Jimmy Choo heels linked in my fingers. My mother and father sitting in the living room waiting for me to tell me my grandma had passed. Her death was my awakening. That night was when the rose-colored glasses of living under my parents’ endowments, my parents’ great expectations, and our family’s influence in the elite circle of friends we kept came off. Actually, I threw them down and stepped on them, completely shattering and rejecting everything that reflected the privileged and materialistic lifestyle I had focused on for far too long. One of my many rebellions widening the rift between my parents and me was choosing to pay my way into Georgetown University without their help. That night the rift between us became so wide, I never expected to fill it again. It still hasn’t been filled, just calcified over the bitter co-existence. That is what the high society does, covers the rifts and makes nice like every- thing is perfect and undamaged. My wait at the bus stop is cut short when a white BMW pulls up to the curb. “Hey, El.” It’s Natalie, my sister. “Hey, what are you doing here?” “I was in the area and thought I would catch you before you got on the bus. Get in, I’ll give you a ride to campus.” Okay, first off, she would never be caught dead in my neighborhood, let alone at eight thirty in the morning, so I’m skeptical from the start to get into the car. I hesitate, wanting to question her reason for being here, when she leans farther across the passenger’s seat and raises her eyebrows. “It’s cold and I have to get to campus. Look, I thought I was being nice by stopping by.” She rolls her eyes then forces a smile. “Come on, get in.”

The smile she holds on her lips is full of unvented sarcasm, I can feel it. I get into the warmth of her car and barely get the door shut before she takes off. “What are you doing all the way over here?” She lives in Georgetown in an apartment she is renting with an- other graduate. There is no reason for her to come all this way unless something is up. She concentrates on the traffic. “I had to drop off a document with a client. Hazards of being an intern for a corporation, I suppose. Could be worse,” she says and starts to giggle, “I could live here,” then she realizes her comment went a step too far. She glances at me briefly, then back at the road. “Sorry.” I glance out the window to hide rolling my eyes and try to change the subject. “Yeah, so we have dinner to- night at Mom and Dad’s.” “Yeah, but I need to head back right after. I have this thing with a couple of friends,” Natalie halfway explains. “That’s fine.” If the evening at Mom’s and Dad’s is too long, the conversation turns against me and I don’t want to deal with that shit. It’s hard enough bringing myself to go every week as it is. I hear my mother’s voice ringing in my ears, “It’s family tradition, Ella.” “Want to come tonight?” Her question doesn’t register right away, until she peers over at me. “Me?” She gets this stupid look on her face. “Yeah, you, El. Who the hell else? Are you okay? Don’t tell me you are sick or some shit. I don’t have the time to catch anything from you, let alone bring you to Mom and Dad’s sick!” I shake my head, more to diminish her credibility to myself than answering her. “Just thinking about classes.” “How are they going? Are you keeping up? You know, since you chose your major late in the game, things are going to get more challenging. What’s your major again?”

This is how deep our disconnection is. She doesn’t even remember my major. She is as big of a pain in the ass about my shortcomings as my parents. Being a year ahead of me, Nat earned a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Georgetown University on my father’s dime. That wasn’t enough for my mother and father though. “Aim higher, Natalie,” they said. Fitting the Cromwell-Wallace mold, she was accepted into and enrolled in the master’s degree program for Public Relations and Corporate Communications. What kind of job will that get her? I have no fucking idea, but it sounded prestigious to have been accepted into the program at GU. Hey, it might earn her a husband, you never know. She was the perfect Cromwell-Wallace package all wrapped up into the nicely dressed, perfectly made-up and bejeweled eldest daughter of Byron and Nannette Wallace. Suddenly, the car jolts as a taxi cuts her off and stops to make a pickup, sending Nat into a conniption fit as she lays on her horn. “Are you fucking serious! Move out of the way, you fucking asshole!” Minor flaw: for a pristine daughter, she has a mouth like a sailor; just like me, the affected daughter. The taxi moves on quickly and Natalie swerves around it as she stares over at me. “What is wrong with people?” I can’t help but grin. “What?” she asks, noticing my smile. “Nothing, it’s just that I don’t see why it is such a big deal.” After I say it, I regret my words. She takes turns looking at me and then the traffic in front of her. “Well, El, maybe if you did think things were a bigger deal then your life would be a little fucking different for you. Maybe your choices would be smarter.” Damn, I set up that opportunity for criticism. I choose not to look at her as I defend myself. “My decisions are fine and I’m happy with my life.” Not entirely true, but I will fake it to save face in front of my holier-than-thou sister. “Really, El. You are happy scraping by on financial aid, working on campus when you could have had Dad pay for college and possibly be on your way to a paid internship somewhere?” I shift uncomfortably, wishing myself out of this car as she continues to bombard me. “You are happy living in the ghetto when you could be living on campus comfortably with no worries of walking to and from a bus stop? I lived on campus and I—” “I do not live in the ghetto and Allison and I are careful. Don’t compare me to you! You are fine with their guidelines and opinions, Natalie. You like them telling you what to do, but I sure as hell don’t.” “God I wish you would, El. It would make life so much easier for you. Maybe you would find direction. Tell me, do you like life being difficult? Do you like torturing yourself like this? Or is it solely to prove yourself to Dad and Mom?” Hell, she sounds just like Dad. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dad sent her to pick me up and start shit with me this morning; in preparation for tonight’s dinner. I close her off and stare out the passenger’s window at the peppering of students starting to come into view as we get closer to campus. “El.” I don’t want to even look at her right now. “What?” “I shouldn’t have said what I did.” “Why did you? Are you seasoning me for tonight or something? Getting me ready for Dad and Mom’s line of fucking questions, suggestions, advice, and criticism. Is that why you swung by to pick me up this morning?” She stares at me for a long time before turning back to the road. She raises her chin and tightens her lips. “Look, you are lost, El. You have just decided on a major and it is your junior year at one of the best universities in the United States. Yes, you are smart, you got into fucking Georgetown University on your own merit, but what do you have to look forward to after college? What is your plan?” Mind you, Nat didn’t get into Georgetown on her own. I overheard her and Dad talking my senior year of high school, telling her he had gotten her in. “Ella, you have to plan ahead, play the game, and right now you are just drifting. Mom and Dad are worried about you and yes, I wanted to talk to you before we went over there tonight so I drove all the way over to get you in that ... your neighborhood, to maybe talk some sense into you. Give you some advice about taking Dad’s offer tonight.” The fucking offer. They are going to corner me with some ridiculous offer and I will reject it because it will be both demanding and commanding, which will totally fucking piss me off, ruining yet another family dinner. I can’t help my sarcasm. “Offer, yes, the main course of tonight’s menu. I was wondering when they would plan an attack again. I’m sure this one will be just as de- moralizing as all the others.” I shake my head and release a low laugh. “Unbelievable. I should fucking cancel right now.” Realizing she has pushed too far, she starts backpedaling. “Damn it, El, don’t start this shit. You skipped last week’s dinner and if you skip this one...” “I had to skip! I had papers and an exam to prepare for!” She shakes her head. “Fine. Whatever. Look, this offer is not an attack, believe it or not they are wanting to compromise with you.” Okay, that is a word I have never heard my family use before. Seeing she has my attention, she eases into it as she pulls into the student parking. “I don’t know the exact compromise Dad has to offer, but Mom told me he want- ed to come to an agreement with you on things.” Holy shit, it’s a miracle! She turns off the ignition and shifts her body to face me. “Dad doesn’t do compromise, but for whatever reason he plans to with you. Whatever he has to offer, just please listen to him. He is your father, for God’s sake. It is the least you could do. Just hear him out tonight, all right?” Picking up my backpack from the floorboard, I take a deep breath then settle my eyes on hers as she stares at me with a small sense of pleading. Pleading is again something my family doesn’t do, and the only thing making me more curious about what Dad is going to offer as a compromise. “Fine.” Her entire body visibly relaxes and the concern on her face disappears as she perks up. “Thank you. Meet me here at five. Traffic is going to be hell.” “Yeah.” Getting out of the car, Nat adds, “Oh, and think about going with me to meet my friends tonight. It will be fun.” Fun with Nat. I can’t fathom. “Hey, did you want to meet for lunch?” Her question is unexpected. She has never asked me to lunch before. “Oh my treat.” I know she has added this because of my budget. “Promise no talk about Mom or Dad. Just sister stuff, I guess.” The questioning look on her face mirrors my thoughts as I don’t think we have had a “sister stuff” talk since middle school. I consider it for a half second, when I remember I’m meeting Allison for lunch after work. “I can’t, sorry.” She shrugs. “No, it’s fine. Meet me here at five.” “Okay.” I head toward campus wondering if I have sacrificed a chance to turn a corner with my sister because of work or fear. I could always ask to switch days and find Allison before we meet. I turn around to change my mind, but notice she is on her phone already, walking in the other direction. “Hey, did you want to go to lunch still? I’m free after all. Yeah, she couldn’t make it.” I don’t call to her, realizing I am second place to the person on the other line and Nat always thinks of opportunity before family. As I exit the Southwest garage, the chill in the air from earlier has nearly vanished and the sun has finally pushed through the blanket of clouds covering the city. I can’t help thinking about tonight, dinner and this loom- ing offer. There are two reasons I still attend the family dinner. The lesser of the two is my hope that one of these days my parents will magically accept my choices and the way I want to live my life. The number one reason is for my little sister, Jillian, Jilly. She is a junior in high school and the most level headed and mild mannered out of our entire family. She reminds me of Grandma Wallace, an- other reason I look forward to seeing her every week; seeing her keeps Grandma’s spirit alive for me. I take the last bite of my sauerkraut, mustard, and sweet relish dog just as Allison asks details about the surprise ride to campus with my sister. “So she went all the way to our hood to pick you up out of the goodness of her heart?” The rhetorical question is laden with sarcasm; one of the many reasons I love Allison. I nod, unable to immediately speak through my chewing. “Hmmm. She had to drop something for a client.” “Yeah, sure. I don’t buy it. Something is up.” She takes a bite of her hotdog, then crumbles the wrapper in her hands. I take a sip of my drink, then collect my own trash, tossing it in as she holds the bag out to me. “Yeah, well, I guess if there is, I will find out tonight at dinner.” Rising, I pick up my backpack from the ground. With the sun shining now, we couldn’t resist sitting out on Copley Lawn just like all the other students scattered around us. “So, are you heading to work?” Allison asks. “Yeah. Why?” “It’s Friday and there is this thing going on in Red Square. You don’t have to be to work until one, right?”

This is Allison’s way of asking me to go with her. “Yes, why?” Red Square is a huge open area students gravitate to on Fridays. It is not uncommon to see student organizations promoting causes, spontaneously putting on a dance performance, or spur-of-the-moment celebrations for national holidays. The organizations on campus also like to advertise for events and performances on good weather days, like today. She shrugs and stares off in the distance as she ex- plains, “I wanted to look into something for the summer. I just happened to pass a table offering an internship af- ter leaving my last class to meet you. I didn’t stop, but wanted to go back after lunch.” I glance down at my watch; it’s only twelve ten and while I wouldn’t normally go to Red Square, Allison ap- pears desperate to go back. “Sure.” As we get closer to the Intercultural Building, the dis- tinct red-brick walls, the roaming students, the sound of live music, and the smell of grilling hamburgers are evidence we are entering Red Square on a Friday afternoon. I totally forgot about the GU Grilling Society and burger on Fridays. Allison and I look at each other at the same time as she says, “How could we forget about the burgers!” Our freshman year, we ate hamburgers from the society every week, weather permitting. We both laugh a little at the fond memories.“They kept asking us to join.”

“And we always had an excuse not to,” Allison adds, smiling, “except that one time those two guys asked us out.” My smile sours a little. “Yes, the date.” It was one of the few dates I agreed to go on as a college student and a one-night stand in his dorm room I would rather forget. “What? They were cute,” Allison chides. “Yeah, well, cute can only get you so far.” Table after table, student representatives talk and laugh with passerby stopping to chat, when Allison stops. I look down at the banner—”Georgetown Summer Medical Institute”—l then up at the cute guy standing behind the table smiling at Allison. “You’re back,” the guy says. Allison’s grin is as wide as his. Okay, so there is more to this possible internship than what she originally let on. Seeming caught in a white lie, she shrugs at me, then looks at him. “Yeah, I wanted to find out about applying for the Institute for summer!” Allison is a brainiac and has her heart is set on med school, but her uppity voice and ear-to-ear smile tells me her heart is set on more than the Institute. “El, this is Bradley. Bradley, El.” Her introduction and his, “Hi nice to meet you,” are vacant as they continue to stare at each other. Allison had no problem hooking up with guys and from time to time they would stay the night. Yeah, I hooked up with a few, but never let them sleep over. I always kicked them out right after, security I suppose. That vacant, faraway expression she has right now, this one might be spending the night soon. “I’m going to just be over here for a minute, okay?” My comment seems to get Allison’s attention as she looks at me for a split second. “Sure. I’ll be there in a bit.” I slip away behind her, passing by students eating, talking, and laughing when I notice a banner that reads, “Go Abroad! Make a difference with WorldTeach.” I turn around to see how far I have strayed from Allison, just as she turns my way. I point to the table, letting her know I will be here, and she give me a nod. As I walk up to the table, my eyes are immediately drawn to the laminated pictures displayed: children in a rundown classroom raising their hands, sitting in small desks with a woman leading them in classwork. Another poster on the desk shows a group of children lean- ing against a concrete wall, having been lined up for a picture with their volunteer teacher standing with them. Another picture shows a group of volunteers standing among statues; looks like a foreign landmark. “Hi, would you like an information packet?” the man behind the table asks. “Uh, sure.” I can take a brochure, no harm, no foul. The words “WorldTeach” are written across the brochure in red. “Is this only for people who want to be teachers?” As the man smiles wider from my question, I feel stupid for asking all of a sudden. He shakes his head, still passing out brochures to the few students pausing long enough for him to give them one. “No you just need to have the desire to make a difference. You know, get out there, take a stand for something bigger than yourself.” I’m not a superstitious person, but hearing him share a sentiment so similar to Grandma Wallace’s, my gut tells me to linger and find out more. He passes out another brochure to a student, then focuses on me. “Are you interested?” Somewhat put on the spot by his direct question, I look down at the brochure, then at the pictures of places and people representing something bigger than me. “Yeah, I think I am.” The man at the table introduces himself as Tom Stern, then takes down my name and email address, telling me he will be in contact to set up an appointment for next week. I thank him and walk back toward Allison, who is already approaching me. “Hey.” “Hey.” I fold the brochure in one hand and hold it by my side. Allison looks down at the brochure in my hand, then at the table. “Go abroad? You thinking about going abroad for the summer?” I keep walking and answer her nonchalantly, “I don’t know. Just looked interesting.” “Oh, can I see the brochure?” Feeling self-conscious about something I might not even do, I frown at her. “It probably won’t turn into anything.” She smiles menacingly. “Okay, just let me read it. I might be interested.” I shake my head and smile as I hand it to her. Feeling the pressure of her scrutinizing the hell out of the brochure, I ask, “Don’t you have somewhere to be, like class?” She looks so serious as she reads through it, answering me softly, “No, I have an hour break. Summer pro- grams available for undergraduates interested in making a difference in another country; Chile, Amman, Jordan, Morocco. Says they are looking for students interested in volunteering to teach English.” I nod, recalling the similar points Tom the director made. He said I would be an asset to the program. Abruptly, she swats me with the brochure. “English major, Ella. That is you!” I nod and smile mildly, attempting to diminish her excitement. “What?” Allison asks. “What do you mean, what?” “It’s just you nod and smile like that when you have already made up your mind.” Her expression of worry is foreign since I come from a family lacking much of it. “Well, you’re wrong. I’m supposed to meet with the director next week.” She seems shocked. “Really? God, Ella, traveling to a faraway land, discovering a new culture, using your abilities to help teach others the English language while learning a new language and culture yourself. That is an amazing opportunity! A chance of a lifetime!” Feeling the pressure of not being everything this program might need, I divulge, “Yeah, well I’m not sure I will be a good addition.” “Don’t you even do that shit, Ella,” she says, nudging my shoulder then handing me the brochure. “See, aren’t you glad you came with me to Red Square today? It wasn’t a total loss, right?” I turn my eyes up to the sky and change the subject from me to her. “Yeah, it was entertaining watching you flirt with Mr. Med School.” She swats my arm and squeals. “I was not flirting! It is for an internship!” “Yeah, sure. When is he spending the night?” I ask playfully. “Ha, ha, ha,” she says, finding no humor in my attempt to distract the focus. “Seriously, El, keep the appointment. What do you have to lose?” As I collect books from each study room on the fourth floor, I think about traveling abroad and Allison’s question. What do you have to lose? I have nothing to lose. I mean, what are the chances of me going to Red Square today of all days and stumbling upon Tom’s table to talk about going abroad? South America, the Middle East? At least ten thousand to one. It would just be three months. Nothing to lose for a small risk of putting myself out there to find something more. Nat’s car is already running when I get to it after my shift. I overhear her phone conversation as I get into the car. “Yes, she just got in. We will be there in about twenty minutes depending on traffic. Okay, bye.” Hanging up, she looks over at me. “Hey.” “Hey.” I toss my backpack into the backseat and put my seatbelt on. “How was it?” Her question throws me off a little. “How was what?” “Your day,” she says, running her hand through her gold- en-blonde hair as she weaves around traffic, almost rear-end- ing a car. I want to close my eyes as I cringe from the anxiety. “Uh, good. Yours?” Nat takes my simple polite question as an invitation to unload her entire day on me she drives. By the time we pull up to my parents’ house, she has maybe stopped to breathe a handful of times in between telling me about the counselor she is working with on her dissertation and her over-demanding boss. “This is a fucking internship. I shouldn’t have to take this shit from him, right?” Is she really asking me? As she turns off the car, I reach into the back, grab my bag, and open the car door, and pacify her rant, “Right, you shouldn’t.” As I walk up the steps to the house quickly, Nat follows close behind me. “I know! You would think he would be more appreciative. I mean, Dad telling him about me. My taking the internship and giving my talent. I am a fucking asset!” Correction, Dad got you the internship and you aren’t a fucking asset, just a fucking ass. “Yes, Natalie. You are so right. You are a fucking asset,” I say, smiling perversely. I pull my jacket close around me as I ring the doorbell. The house’s stately prestige from the outside could be intimidating to any visitor not of upper crust caliber. It just made me fucking uncomfortable. Before I can pull back, Jilly opens the door and smothers me in a huge hug. For being smaller and younger than me, she packs a wallop. “Ella! Oh my God! I have missed you so much!” Even though she is in high school, her soft child-like voice seems to chime when we are together. I hug her back and laugh. “It’s only been two weeks, Jilly! You act like you haven’t seen me in months.” She steps back letting us pass through the front door, “Yeah I know. It just gets so boring with just Mom and Dad here.” I set my backpack down on the high end marble flooring and notice Winston, our white Siamese, slinking around the corner curiously looking at my bag. “What about Winston?” “What about Winston? He is a cat, El. It isn’t like I can talk to it.” She rolls her eyes dramatically and crosses one leg in front of the other, folding her arms roughly. I can’t help but smile at her angsty teenage posture. I pick up Winston just as he rubs his jaw against my backpack. He lets out a low meow. “Sure you can. See?” I hold him close, his face next to mine, and move his small white paw in a waving motion to Jilly. Clearing throat, I throw my voice, “Hi, Jilly. Will you please talk to me? I am so lonely.” She rolls her eyes again and giggles. “You are crazy, El.” Natalie passes in front of me, lacing her arm through Jilly’s, pulling her away from me and Winston deeper into the pretentious abode my parents have surrounded themselves with. “So, tell me how everything went.” I put Winston down and follow after them as they walk through the lavish foyer. “How what went?” Natalie glances back at me briefly before she tosses her head back. “Seriously, El. Debutante? Hello? What is going on with you today, El?” She moves on with Jilly by her side. “I am so excited for you. Have you decided on your dress? I remember when...” I feel a burn in my stomach twisting and gnawing as Natalie reminisces about her fucking debutante days to Jilly. Natalie stops in the living room and pulls Jilly into a delicate hug. “You are going to have the time of your life, Jilly, mark my word.” Jilly nods as Nat disappear through the dining room doorway. “Hi, Mom. Dad.” With her gone, Jilly and I look at each other. She is still smiling, but it is different than the one she gave Nat just now. “Is it really going to be the time of my life, El?”

I don’t know if she remembers much about the night of my debutante ball. It was rightfully overshadowed by Grandma Wallace’s passing. I badly want to tell her not to do it, not to give in to what they expect of her. Instead, I lock arms with her, walking side by side into the dining room. I don’t want to change her mind, but I also don’t want to glorify it like Nat and Mom obviously have. “Jilly, just take it with a grain of salt. It is just a dance. Plus, it’s like six months away.” “I know, but Mom and Nat talk about it all the time,” Jilly whispers to me, just as Nat comes into sight sitting to the left of Dad, still dressed in his suit. Mom is buzzing around in a dress and heels as she sets the table. A suit and dress attire isn’t what you would expect at a normal family dinner, but sophistication always trumped normalcy in this household. Jilly and I were the only two under dressed for this joyous occasion. I pull her close and lower my voice. “Jilly, just don’t try to be someone else for them. You are perfect the way you are.” She pulls back and smiles softly, her blue-gray Grand- ma Wallace eyes thanking me before the words pass her lips. “Thanks, El. I won’t.” I let her go and move to the opposite side of the table just as Mom stops me by the shoulders, air kissing me. “Hi, honey. What were you two whispering about over there?” Mom doesn’t wait for my response as she continues to buzz around the table, straightening napkins and silverware. “Nothing.” Jilly and I exchange a quick glance at each other as we sit. Dad is talking to Nat intently, barely acknowledging me. “Ella.” “Hi, Dad.” That is about as tender as our greetings get nowadays. Dad takes the lid off the dish to his right. “Mmm. Chicken stroganoff!” I smile, remembering how much I love Mom’s chick- en stroganoff. She hasn’t made it in years. “Isn’t that your favorite, El?” Natalie asks as she takes the dish from Dad to get her serving. I take the dish of green bean casserole Mom is passing me. “Yeah, it is.” I notice Mom smile. “I figured why not. It has been a while since I made it. Just thought it would be nice.” Mom can definitely cook, but one thing she was re- ally bad at was lying. I look across the table at Nat, who is busy pouring herself a glass of wine, giving me a level eye and smirk. The sound of silver forks and knives tapping porcelain plates fills the room, as the tension in my stomach rises. Fuck it. “What’s the special occasion?” Dad wipes his mouth with his napkin, reaches for the bottle of Pinot Grigio and pours me a serving. “New opportunities, new endeavors. Let’s just enjoy this meal, shall we?” Dad sounds genuine, not wanting to rush into a discussion, which makes me consider the offer even more. Taking the glass of wine, I nod then take a hefty sip as the conversation starts around me. Mom talks about Tibby Nelson, president of the Junior League of Washington, and how she is finally going to relinquish her position and pass the torch to Mom. Dad congratulates her and, right on his coattails, Nat tells Mom how she is so happy for her, but not without asking if there are any open chair positions she could inquire about. Jilly talks about her day, the exam she needs to study for, and the term paper she is struggling to complete on landfill issues. Dad gives her the “just stay focused and power through” talk just as Nat forms a link of commonality with Jilly’s term paper and her striving to get the acknowledgment she rightly deserves at her internship. “Natalie, you are very lucky to have found the intern- ship. Don’t burn any bridges,” Dad warns as he sits back, savoring his wine. Nat tilts her head; she does that when she gets pissed at him. “I don’t intend on burning any bridges. The internship is over in three months.” Dad sets his glass down and folds his hands in his lap as he feeds her his thoughts. “And then you are done. You will have experience behind you to use for your career.” She nods, fiddling with the edge of the butter knife. “Have you been in contact with Hank Bristol?” my father asks. Hank Bristol is uncle to Jasper Bristol, and great uncle to Logan Bristol. Hank is also the owner of one of the biggest corporations in America, Bristol Holdings. Nat stops fiddling and folds her hands together in her lap. “Yes, I have. We had lunch last week.” Dad sets his glass down. “Good. Just put on your charm and Wallace confidence and you will do fine, Natalie,” he says, smiling. It is obvious Dad has swooped down and positioned Nat in a job. She is glowing, having Dad’s full attention and approval, until she shifts her gaze to me; it quickly fades as she realizes I have seen through their conversation. She brings the rim of her wine glass to her lips, sipping generously. “What about you, El? Anything to talk about? New possibilities?” Well played, Nat. I reach for the bottle of wine as everyone’s eyes shift to me. “No, just wrapping up classes, getting ready for finals.” “How are your grades?” Mom asks. As I continue to pour a robust serving, I nod. “Good.” Nat probes, putting me back in the spotlight, “What are your plans for the summer, El?” I’m about to tell them I don’t have any when Dad clears his throat. “Well, I suppose this is a perfect time to discuss a proposal I have for you, Ella.” Nat looks at Dad, Jilly, then Mom with pure surprise, acting like she has no idea what he is talking about. Dad angles his body toward me. “Now I know you and I haven’t seen eye to eye on many things lately, but I want you to know I respect what you have accomplished.” Is he complimenting me? If I could see myself now, my jaw is probably hanging on the floor. His tone changes suddenly. “Ella Marie, I won’t pre- tend that it has been easy to sit back and watch you struggle. Your mother and I have wanted to step in many times and I know I have been demanding on several occasions trying to talk you into letting us help you.” He pauses for a moment, appearing to collect him- self, then clears his throat as he leans his elbows onto the table. “Tonight, I am offering not with an ultimatum or demand, like I have so many times before.” I would be lying if I said his expression of emotions isn’t making me consider what he plans to propose. It is said to be innate in politicians to have top-notch negotiating skills. This could be the case, or maybe the effects of a glass of wine before dinner. Either way, he has my attention. “Your mother and I had dinner with Jasper and Liz Bristol a few nights ago.” Before Dad can go on Mom interrupts, “Remember how we used to have family dinner with them years ago, El? Natalie, Jilly, you and Logan. You two ... Ellie and Logie.” Her voice drifts off as she smiles and looks down at her food before she takes a small bite of stroganoff. I know she is angling for me to take a walk down memory lane, but I’m not into it. Daydreaming about Logan Bristol is long gone, a past I would prefer not remembering. Seeing my lack of enthusiasm, her smile fades as she continues, “Anyway, Jasper asked about you specifically, right, Byron?” Dad sets his wine glass down. “Yes, he has a paid internship available through his law firm and he thought you would be perfect.” How would Jasper know if I were perfect for an internship? I haven’t seen him since my senior year in high school, and the way I ended things with his son cold turkey, I would expect him to remember me as the girl who hurt his precious son’s ego, not perfect for a paid internship at his multi-million-dollar law firm. Dad continues to sell the offer. “I told Jasper you were an English major and law wasn’t something you were aiming for. Still, he insisted I tell you about it since the in- ternship was research based and you would be working alongside law students. With this being a paid internship, maybe it could help alleviate some of your expenses with the apartment, food, etcetera.” “Who knows, it might give you some direction for your future.” As soon as Mom speaks, she backpedals. “I mean, more options.” Nat speaks up, “El, opportunities like this don’t come around every day. He is asking specifically for you.” I have had two glasses of wine on a near-empty stom- ach, but I’m still able to see through the bullshit being served. What is Jasper Bristol’s angle in all of this? I know Dad’s and Mom’s is to give me direction because they feel I am fucking flailing here through the last year and a half of college. Yeah, it is true, but I’m not going to fucking admit it to them; I have my pride. Nat purposefully goads, “You would have to be crazy to not consider this. I mean the only other paid intern- ship he has offered was to his son, so he must think highly of you.” Of course! There it is! The ultimate reason for this offer! Insert Logan Bristol, the one they all think I let get away. “She is right, Ella. Logan was offered the same internship a year ago, just before he started law school. I believe he is still working there. Byron?” Mom asks. The clarity is blinding. “Yes, Nan. He is still there and showing great prom- ise of heading the firm once Jasper retires.” Dad doesn’t dare look at me as he seasons the offer with show of Lo- gan’s ability to provide greatly for a token wife, AKA me. I pick up the bottle of pinot grigio and pour as I respond to their strategic proposal. “I’m not interested.” You aren’t even going to think about it?” Dad’s aghast laughter is all too familiar; years of disappointment with me has been great practice at perfecting it. “Ella Marie.” Mom’s tone is saturated with criticism and disappointment. “Don’t rush into any decisions without thinking this through.” “You need to think about it, El,” Nat adds. “I mean, what else are you going to do this summer? You haven’t attempted to look at any other internship options.” I take a long drink of my wine and think of the option that opened up to me today. “Yes, I have actually, Natalie.” My voice slurs her name a little; the sweet elixir is doing its job nicely. Dad sits back in his chair arrogantly and folds his hands together, resting his elbows on the arms of it. “What do you plan to do this summer that could possi- bly give you opportunities like Jasper Bristol’s?” “I plan to go abroad and teach English.” You know the dizzy feeling you get when you have said something you know is going to lead to more chaot- ic bullshit? Yeah, I just did it. The resounding “What?” from Dad, Mom, Nat, and Jilly obliterates my confidence. I take another savory drink of my wine before I state my case. “You asked if I had plans giving me opportunity. I believe this program will open doors for me.” Did I really believe it? Huh. It’s funny how alcohol can bring clarity and make you say what you really feel. I lean back in my chair and stare back at the eight eyes targeting me, confused and bewildered. Dad’s eyes bounce from Mom to me. “And this pro- gram will pay you?” “I’m not sure.” “You aren’t sure?” Mom asks, then Dad chimes in, “Did you not think to ask such an important question?” “Ella, if this program doesn’t pay, it is a waste of time and energy.” Nat’s superficial logic is a typical response, but it still fucking pisses me off. “I don’t think you have much to go on, Nat.” “Well, she has a point, Ella.” His chuckle is patronizing. “I mean, how long have you considered this pro- gram? Did you just up and decide this weeks ago, days, hours?” His voice is getting louder as his own scenario of what I have considered to do this summer eats away at him. “So typical!” Dad heatedly tosses his napkin onto the table. My lips finally loosen to his rant. “Typical, disappointing Ella, right?” “Byron,” Mom warns, sensing the slow build of tension between him and me. “Jilly, help me clear the dishes, honey.” Jilly puts her napkin onto the table and pushes out her chair slowly. “Jilly,” Mom says more curtly now, moving her into motion as she collects her dish. “It is typical for you to turn your back on something valuable, like a paid internship that could become some- thing ... more,” Dad says. “Like a potential partnership with Logan Bristol. Playing matchmaker with the two high school sweet- hearts. This isn’t fucking high school and I have no plans on returning to that time in my life, thanks!” Dad pushes back from the table, shaking his head at me. “That is not what this is about, Ella.” Nat makes sure to say her peace. “Seriously, El, you are being so dramatic. After how you acted with Logan, you should be thankful Mr. Bristol is considering this internship for you.” I peer straight into her eyes. “Thankful?” As I rise from the table, Dad starts in. “Where do you think you are going? This conversation isn’t over!” “Yes, it is!” I place my napkin on the table just as Mom walks back into the room. “Ella, don’t leave like this, please.” She shakes her head and furrows her brow as she starts collecting utensils from the table. “Volunteering abroad? A foreign country? You aren’t thinking straight. Let’s just sit down and talk this through, logically.” I look from Mom to Dad, then to Nat, taking turns shooting daggers at each of them. “Oh, I’m thinking straight, but just to humor you, answer one question for me. Is Logan Bristol one of the law students I will be working with at Bristol Law Group?” Their silence is the most honest they have been all night. “I take that as a yes.” I move around Mom, and just as I get to the open doorway, Dad calls after me. “You are still throwing your life away on ignorant decisions, Ella. After three years of struggling, trying to make your own way to prove some kind of point to us, throwing the help we offer back in our faces, and not having any direction for your life, you still do not get it! You are a Wallace, like it or not! No matter how much you fight it, eventually you are going to realize the mis- take you are making! I am giving you every opportunity to save face!” I stop in my tracks, turn on him, and snicker, “Save face?” He retaliates immediately, “Yes, and you just throw it away, choosing to go to another country to volunteer over taking a paid internship! Okay, enlighten me! What are you going to do there? You will be working for free and live in meager surroundings at best. You will be put- ting your life in danger! Tell me, where will this ‘philanthropic’ mission take you? Where are you going since you have thought this through so thoroughly?” I shoot back from the hip, “I have options. Chile, Morocco, Jordan.” His eyebrows rise high on his forehead as his jaw works overtime, pushing a bitter scoff from his mouth. “Jordan! Perfect, the Middle East! Do you realize what is going on over there? The fighting, the terror? Hell, our mil- itary troops are leaving, refugees fleeing the civil war and unrest and here you are blindly going over there to teach English!” His face has reddened to a ruby tone I have only seen when he has reached a level of anger nothing can stop. Nat makes sure to include her two cents. “Terrorists, militants, poverty, war.” Her list stirs the pot already boiling over for Dad. “I doubt you are aware of any of this. You aren’t aware of the most obvious gifts being handed to you right here by your own family! Tell me, Ella, what are you putting your life at risk for? What reward are you searching for by doing this? Because I can’t think of a single great fuck- ing reward!” “Byron, please,” my mom pleads for his language. “A purpose greater than myself!” I doubt he remem- bers his mother speaking those words before her death. “Goddamn it, Ella!” He hits his fist against the table, making my body jump. “Risking your life to gain some greater purpose! You don’t have to take risks with Jas- per’s internship! It is a gift to simply take!” “It isn’t a gift. It is a give and take. I take, but what am I giving up in return?” He looks at me wildly, like I am the most ignorant person on the planet, and shakes his head in disgust. “Please tell me you are smarter than the choice you are about to make, Ella Marie.” Standing at the doorway, holding my breath, emo- tions, and tears on the cusp of overflowing, I think about what the smarter choice would be and I know in my heart I’m right. “I am. I’m not taking the fucking internship. Goodbye.” I storm through the living room, and as I pass the kitchen I see Jilly coming toward me. Her embrace is one someone would give if they were afraid of never seeing the other again. “I love you, Ella.” “Love you too, Jilly.” Nat picks up her bag and mine and opens the front door, then walks to her car talking over her shoulder. “Another glorious family dinner! Look, I have some- where to be, so let’s go!” Following after her, I glance back at Mom standing with her arms folded across her chest and Jilly wiping tears from her eyes as I get into the car. As soon as the car door is shut, Nat pulls away from the curb without hesitation. Speeding from the house, she starts her rant. “Unbelievable. Well, I guess this turned to shit after all. Turning down an internship to volunteer abroad? What the hell is going through your head?” “I am not going to take a fucking internship because of Dad’s and Jasper’s fantasy of me marrying Logan!” “He has your best interests in mind and so do I! I tried to redirect the conversation! Oh and by the way, I didn’t appreciate your patronizing look when Dad and I were discussing my job opportunity with Bristol Holdings.” Nat weaves through traffic, then enters the freeway. “Redirect? That is fucking bullshit!” “Mouth of a sailor,” she mumbles under her breath. “Yeah, well it must be a family trait.” Magnifying a sigh, she changes lanes. “Look, we both are pissed off right now.” Her eyes shift to me. “Differ- ence of opinion. Maybe you just need to relax a little.” I breathe out, expelling every ounce of heated anger inside. “I am relaxed.” “Yeah, sure you are. How long has it been since you let loose?” My eyes move to hers questioningly. “You mean like go out with friends?” She gives me an over-exaggerated eye roll. “Yes.” Nat puts on her blinker and exits the freeway. “Wait, why are you exiting? My house, remember?” Without answering, she slows down enough to turn onto Wisconsin Street. “Yeah, I remember. We will only stay for a little while.” “What? Stay where? What the fuck, Nat! I don’t want to fucking go to your party!” She glances between me and the restaurants, coffee shops, stores, and buildings we pass. “We are just making a party pit stop!” She grins from ear to ear, hoping I will cave to her idea. “Pit stop? The last thing I want to do is be at some pretentious and superficial party with a bunch of fucking unappreciative rich kids!” Her smile fades as she turns stiff. She turns down a side street, then onto another. “You can either sit in the car, or you can be polite and come in for a quick drink. I need to show my face before driving you all the way home to your fucking shanty town.” She pulls the car into an open spot along the curb, leans across the center console, and looks out my win- dow past me. “This should be it.” I don’t bother following her gaze as I fold my arms over my chest. I am not fucking getting out of this car. She digs through her purse, turns on the interior car light, and starts applying lipstick in the rearview mirror. Pouting her lips, she smiles, closes the lipstick, and tosses it in her purse. With her hand on the door, she gives me another once over, making sure to avoid my stare as she asks, “Are you fucking coming or not?” “No.” Her keys jiggle as she turns off the interior lights. “Fine, sit in the cold car.” “Fine!” I shoot back, not letting her have the satisfaction of the last word before she tosses the keys onto my lap and shuts the doors. Crossing in front of the car, she walks toward the lit entrance of an apartment building. Looking out my window now, I see how massive it is. She is about to open the glass entrance doors when a suited man opens it for her instead. A doorman? I have been to a few college parties, but definitely not to one in a hoity-toity luxury apartment building equipped with a fucking doorman. Even though I want nothing to do with this shit right now, I can’t help being curious about what my sister is walking into. “Shit.” Getting out of the car, I tap the alarm and put the keys in my jacket pocket as I follow after her. The door- man sees me coming and opens the door, not without giving me a once over. In comparison to my sister’s dress and heels, I am underdressed in jeans, sweater, and peacoat. “Nat, wait!” I step into the elevator just as it’s closing. She looks at me sideways and grins. “Sitting your ass in a cold car doesn’t appeal to you?” “A doorman? Really? What kind of party is this?” She is texting on her smartphone, smiling as she gets a ping back. “Not sure, a friend of a friend invited me. This place is pretty amazing though, right?” Would it be wrong to say when my sister gets this excited, it is either because she plans to befriend or sleep with the person in question? “So you are crashing the party?” She furrows her brow at me, then goes back to tex- ting. “No, it doesn’t work that way, El. God, I swear it is like you have lived under a fucking rock since writing off being a socialite.” I lean back against the elevator as it rises. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that,” she says dolefully, but it lacks luster as she continues texting. The elevator doors open and Nat puts her phone into her purse as she steps out into the hallway. Exiting after her, I hear the low, pumping bass of a party reverberating off the walls. There are only five doors total on this floor. With all the bells and whistles and a doorman, these are probably suites. Nat is not far ahead of me as she looks at the suite numbers, passing one door after another until she comes to the one at the end of the hall. “It must be this one.” What kind of college kid would live in a place like this? Has to be Mommy and Daddy’s place, borrowed for the evening. Nat looks down at her phone, texting as she stands in front of the door I slowly approach. Suddenly the door opens, releasing the sound of the mu- sic and party into the hallway as a drawn-out, annoying “Hi” spews from her long-time friend, Serena Atwood. Her shrilling vocals are almost as annoying as finger- nails scratching a chalkboard. Nat and Serena hug and rock back and forth together as my sister mimics the annoying “hi.” “This is like the best party ever,” Serena says, releasing Nat and looking me over. “Ella? Is that you?” “Hi, Serena.” I haven’t seen her since high school. Serena glances at Nat, then back at me, scanning my attire. “I didn’t recognize you.” Nat takes her hand, leaving Serena to take mine and pull me into the apartment. Thinking Serena knows more about this party than my sister, I ask, “Hey, whose party is this?” Serena releases my hand as Nat stops pulling us along. “It is some Sheikh or prince’s party.” “What?” I don’t think I heard her right. “A prince? What would a fucking prince be doing here at GU?” Nat hands Serena a green glowing drink, then she passes it to me, giggling, “Many royals have passed through the doors of Georgetown, Ella. He is some Lawrence of Arabia or something.” I take a sip of the green liquid and feel the heat instantly as it slides down my throat, taking my breath away. Clear- ing my throat, I spot someone I wasn’t expecting to see: Logan Bristol. I turn away to avoid him just as Nat catches him in her sights. “There you are!” Shit, she knew he would be here. What a bitch. “I’m going to find somewhere to sit.” I start to walk away, when she pulls me back to her side and talks through her toothy grin. “Don’t be rude.” I look at him and, God help me, he still is gorgeous, maybe even more chiseled than he was in high school. “Hey, gorgeous,” he says as he keeps his eyes on me while hugging Nat. She eagerly obliges, hugging him back, a little too eagerly in my opinion. As a new song begins, Serena and the people around us start bouncing around as a guy comes up behind her and sweeps her into the crowd, dancing and laughing. “Hey, Ellie.” Logan’s deep baritone voice is just as I remembered as he calls me by the nickname he coined when we were eight years old. His voice is smooth and disarming enough to make me lighten up. “Hey.” With one arm draped over his shoulder, Nat’s eyes widen as she tilts her head toward Logan. Shit, what the hell does she want me to do? Jump him? She nudges him. “How long has it been since you two have spoken? All you have to say to each other is hey?” I had seen him on campus a handful of times over the three years I’ve been at GU, but it is a big fucking campus and it isn’t like the law school is on my radar for frequented places. Logan has kept up with Natalie obviously. He looks at Nat then smiles at me. “Too long, right, Ellie?” Without warning, he puts his arms around my waist and lifts me up like he used to. Nearly spilling my drink down his back, I have the sense to hold the drink away from us until he brings me back down to earth. I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel my stomach tense. You know, the type of angsty, sex-starved tension you get when a guy touches you a certain way. And yes, I was sex starved. It had been months since I had a meaningless one-night stand. Logan isn’t quick to let go as he focuses on me, but I manage to slip out of his hold. “Uh, yeah. It has,” I say as I shift on my feet nervously, my eyes moving everywhere but at him. I force another gulp of the sour green stuff in my cup, letting the burn it provides numb the coiling tension his heavy stare is producing. Damn him for being so good-looking. His smile is more than casual as he continues to stare at me. “Wow, you look just as beautiful.” I nod and bob my head, pretending to ignore him and enjoy the thumping bass of the music. “Thanks.” “So, I guess you heard about the internship,” Logan says smoothly as he puts his own cup to his lips. Talk about putting a fucking damper on things. Of course he wants to talk about it! Dad, Jasper, Nat Logan, all of them are in on it; it’s a conspiracy. “Uh, maybe we should talk about this later, Logan,” Nat suggests, nervously glancing back at me. He takes in what she is saying, then tries to save face in typical Logan fucking Bristol fashion. “Oh, yeah, sure. Maybe over dinner this week. Sound good, Ellie?” Avoiding his question and his hard stare, I slowly drain the liquid from my cup. It burns all the way down, aching at the pit of my stomach. Scenarios of my sister, Dad, Jasper, and Logan Bristol meeting to devise this plan to put me in arm’s reach of Logan again run rampant in my head, as my sister interlaces her arm with Logan’s. I wouldn’t put it passed Natalie to make a play on Logan, knowing how disinterested I am in him and the intern- ship now. Yeah, it’s cold and callous, but so is Nat. “I’m not taking the internship. I have other plans this summer.” Logan gives me a glare I remember all too well. The type of glare one gives when they don’t get what they want. The kind of look Logan would give me when I would turn down sex with him. The kind of look a kid would have if he had his candy stolen from him. I blurt out senselessly, “I’m not candy.” He steps to me, coming so close I can smell the whiskey on his breath. “Excuse me? Candy?” His condescending tone is some- thing I hated back in high school and I hate it even more now. Still having her arm draped in his, Nat leans in close to him as she looks at me. “Logan, leave it alone. This isn’t the time or place.” “I want to leave, Nat. Now!” As I walk away, she calls to me, “Wait, just give me a minute!” I look back long enough to glare at her. “Fine.” Their argument is voluminous, but is quickly enveloped in the rhythmic music as I flop down on the cushion of a nearby sofa. I run my hand over the soft material. Velvet? Almost immediately the seat cushion next to me shifts, followed by the annoying, sing-song “Hi” only Ser- ena can achieve. “Ooooh, is this velvet?” she asks, touching the cush- ions beneath her ass, and laughs. “Of course it is. He is the fucking prince of Persia.” I put my elbow on the arm of the sofa and rest my temple on my hand, watching her pet the fabric next to her. Laughing at her antics would be nice if I wasn’t so pissed right now. She does manage to get my mind off of Logan and Nat as I screw with her. “I thought you said he was Lawrence of Arabia?” She giggles, “Arabia, Persia, whatever. He’s a fucking prince!” I survey the room searching for Nat and Logan, but I have lost them now. “Have you seen him?” she asks as I continue to my search for them. “Who?” “The prince, crazy!” She elbows me, then snorts. I shake my head and roll my eyes. “No, you?” Why am I even entertaining this stupid conversation? I want to leave and my sister and ex have disappeared. Together. She continues talking and I halfway listen to her until she says, “He is here somewhere. His brother just flew in like yesterday with a bunch of bodyguards. Correction, hot body guards and hot brother. How do you think he knows all these people?” The music suddenly shifts to something more chill, and as I inspect the room, I notice the mix of people around me: college girls in high-end cocktail dress, most definitely bought on Mommy and Daddy’s Amex, reaching to the ceiling with their drinks held high, no care in the world. She said the prince was Persian or Arabian. I notice the cultural mix in the room; some white, mostly Middle Eastern. All elite, of course. “He probably doesn’t.” I feel her look at me. “What?” “Status,” I huff the words out through bated breath. “High society. It isn’t who you know, it is who you are seen with. Who people think you know.” Serena sits back with me now more casually. I notice her scanning the crowd like I was moments before. Her voice changes, becoming less uppity and careless. “Yeah, you are probably right. Status means everything to everyone.” She doesn’t appear happy with the statement she has just made. “Does it bother you?” I ask. Shrugging, she continues to watch the crowd. “It is what it is. If you want to be something in this life, status has a lot to do with it. Like it or not.” Even though I have always considered Serena to be some airy elitist twit, she has given me a glimpse of what she really thinks and I feel sad for her all of a sudden. I was her once. “It doesn’t have to be. Don’t you want to have a purpose deeper than this?” She doesn’t say or do anything to signal she is listen- ing. Like a polar shift, she rolls her eyes and smiles as she rises from the sofa, turning to me quickly. “Not tonight!” Airy elitist twit Serena has resurfaced, hiding what she really thinks. She tugs on my hands, trying to get me off the couch. “Not tonight. Tonight is for dancing!” Feeling the contents of my stomach lurch as she pulls me halfway off the couch, I fall back and shake my head. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.” Her smile fails a little. My stomach would hate me. Plus, I’m waiting for Nat. “I need to get home.” Her smile lessens even more and she puts on this pouty face suited for the fake Serena. “Party pooper.” She slowly releases my hands, holding my gaze for only a moment more before she turns and bounces off onto the dance floor disappearing into the moving bodies. Would my fate have been much like hers if I had never pulled back from this shit? Would I be one of these girls in the sea of over-indulgence, dancing without a care in the world?I don’t want to be here anymore. I start searching between the gaps of swaying people for Nat when I’m drawn to the sofa on the other side of the loft. This guy is loosening his tie, pulling it from his neck and tossing it to the other side of the sofa. I can tell he is as done with this party as I am. Everything about him has me curious as to why this attractive guy would not be having a good time. Everything about him also has me entranced—the black suit with the loosened white-collared shirt beneath, exposing just enough of his exotic, tanned chest. The way his long, muscular arms stretch along the back of the sofa as he casually sits back and surveys the room. I haven’t come into his sights yet, so I greedily stare for as long as I can before he looks my way. His dark, thick hair hangs over his brow in the front, while it’s nice and tight on the sides and back. He isn’t trendy, but classic. My eyes blur and I blink a few times, wonder- ing if he is just a hallucination from the alcohol. Nope, I am buzzed but he is still there, perfectly stationed on the sofa, giving me an eyeful of his beauty as he scans the crowd. Who is he looking for? As I watch him, I rest my elbow on the arm of the sofa, propping up my heavy head. The contrast of his bronze chest against his stark-white shirt holds my attention far too long. I make my way up, following the angle of his strong jaw, his full lips; they beg for the most attention, rightfully so. It isn’t until I meet his penetrating gaze, I realize I have been caught. I divert my eyes and pretend to rub the back of my neck with the hand propping up my buzzing head. He isn’t staring at you, Ella. You aren’t much to look at, especially in jeans and an over-sized sweater. He has probably moved on. It was just a passing glimpse. This is definitely my intoxicated head giving me reason to look at him once more. As I do, I am captured, held in place by his intense stare. A deer in fucking head- lights, unable to pull from this invisible hold he has over me, unable to breath, unable to comprehend why I would ever want to leave his gaze. Suddenly, he shifts his body forward, removing his arms from the back of the sofa and bearing deeper into me. His stretched arm leaves the back of the sofa to come to rest on his thighs as he pulls me deeper into this gloriously tantalizing trap. A trap I want to remain in for as long as possible. Suddenly, I’m cheated, let go from this sweet capture by a black suit stepping in between us, dissolving this invisible tryst. It is ridiculous to think anything just happened be- tween this guy and me from a simple look across the room. It is more likely the amount of wine at dinner and the conspicuous sour green concoction I downed are hallucinations of an obscure seduction. Results of too much alcohol and not enough sex. I sit up straight and try to think soberly. I need to find Nat and get out of here. Rising from the sofa intent on seeking her out, I find myself wanting to go back to those mesmerizing eyes. The suited interrupter has shifted over, revealing this extraordinary man, but only for a second as he follows the other suit, bringing any substance of a mystic rendezvous to a halt. With my head swimming now, I lose him, the en- snaring, warm, comfort of his gold-flecked, brown eyes. Through the crowd, Serena resurfaces, bouncing back toward me, her eyes as wide as saucers. “Did you see them?” “Nat and Logan?” my mind now refocused on getting out of here. “Duh, the princes!” she exclaims, somewhat annoyed by my disinterest. After the night I’m having, a narcissistic prince high on himself, throwing some luxury end-of-semester party, is not my thing. There is only room for so much arrogance in this fucking room. Speaking of arrogance, I’m about to give up the search for Nat and just leave when I spot her in a corner on the other side of the loft. Her brows are furrowed in frustration as she argues with someone hidden behind a column. Just as I leave Serena’s side to get Nat’s attention, a hand darts out from behind the column, taking her arm. Truth be told, I hate my sister right now, but if someone is starting shit with her I am going to protect her. I’m only a short distance from her now and about to call for her when the owner of the hand comes into view, heated and intense. Logan? Their dueling frustration is obvious in his hardened jaw and narrowed eyes as he pulls her flush against him. Caught in the moment with them, I’m unable to take an- other step as I watch the exchange unfold; the seductive stare, the deep breathes, the desire, the lust. Slowly Logan moves in and kisses her. Wrapped in the disbelief of what I am seeing, I stand there, staring at them as the kiss turns ravenous. I was right; she made a play for him. The air around me is too thick to breath. If I don’t get out of here I am going to pass out. Turning to escape a little too quickly, I stumble. Serena takes hold of my shoulders before I crash to the ground. “Whoa, Ella, are you all right? Here, let me get Nat.” I shake my head, making the room spin. “I have to go.” I try to move past her, but she tugs on my arm, keeping me from escaping. “Wait, she’s right there. Let me get her.” Of all the reactions I could have right now, tears are the ones to surface. I half-heartedly laugh. “Don’t bother. She’s busy closing a deal.” People like Serena can be easily confused and my words have done the trick as I pull free of her hand and rush for the front door. I pull my coat tightly around me, buttoning it quickly as I step out of the building and see my sister’s parked car. I don’t give a shit about the stuff I left in it. I just need to go home. Poor Serena; she had no clue what I meant by Nat closing a deal. As I walk on, I glance behind, checking to make sure Nat or Logan aren’t following. If I see either of them, I don’t know what I will do. In all honesty, I don’t give a shit about Logan. But Natalie, looking out for herself, my own blood doing that sneaky shit to me? It can really fuck with the faith you have in the world when your family turns against you. As the leftover winter wind presses against me and no way of getting home other than the bus, I walk to the nearest stop for the long ride home.

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