Main Less Than Perfect: A Bully Romance

Less Than Perfect: A Bully Romance

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Year: 2019
Language: english
File: EPUB, 337 KB
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Language: english
File: EPUB, 237 KB
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Perfection is in the eyes of the enemy.





Don’t let him win.





Contents




Prologue



Chapter 1



Kids on the Block



Chapter 2



Kids on the Block



Chapter 3



Kids on the block



Chapter 4



Kids on the block



Chapter 5



Chapter 6



Chapter 7



Kids on the block



Chapter 8



Chapter 9



Kids on the block



Chapter 10



Chapter 11



Chapter 12



Kids on the block



Chapter 13



Kids on the Block



Chapter 14



Kids on the block



Chapter 15



Kids on the block



Chapter 16





Stay Connected





Prologue





When I was a little girl, I dreamt of being the Eiffel Tower.

That’s right.

Not an astronaut.

Not the first female president.

The Eiffel-fucking-tower.

Tall and graceful, beautiful and iconic, Parisians once considered her bold arches an eyesore. She ignored the naysayers and the haters of course; stretched her arms high toward the sky, and continued to bask, glistening under the sun. People who’d once spit on her gazed upon her glory in pride, and millions flocked to her side to bask in a shadow that refused to shrink for anyone.

I loved her because she’d turned something ugly into a symbol of romance and passion. Of indomitable will. I loved her because she’d been forged with fire and steel. I loved her because she was made of iron rather than weak, broken, flesh. I loved her because I loved anything that wasn’t me, even a tourist-trap thousands of miles away from my hometown of Beloxi, Mississippi. In fact, maybe that’s the part of her that I loved the most; the fact that she was anywhere but there.

It was, I thought, as twin shadows fell over me, a freedom I’d likely never know.

Momma had a mantra: “Ignore the bullies and they’ll go away, poof, like magic.” When I was still naïve enough to believe her, this suggestion had made perfect sense. Only for some reason, it never worked for me that way. At first, I thought that I wasn’t ignoring them hard enough. Then I realized that magic only works when you’re pretty.

For me, ignoring my tormentors just seemed to make them angrier. The girls at school loved watching me cry and they took my reticence as, not only a challenge, but also as permission and encouragement.

I was their favorite punching bag.

Most days I woke up only to lay in bed trying not to cry at the thought of having to go to school. Each year got just a little worse and my only respite came in the form of Summer vacation. Unfortunately, it seemed as if my luck had finally run dry and the one day I was brave enough to venture down to the ocean for a swim, my peers just happened to be in the midst of a beach party.

Everyone who was anyone was there, which meant that by default I wasn’t invited.

Sarah-Lee, Marcus, Azalia, Drake, Patrick, Phillip, and Ark. People who never once bothered to call me by my name despite the fact that we’d been going to school together for the last ten years. Seeing them at the beach, drinking and laughing around a low burning bonfire made my stomach drop to my toes. I wanted to run away but I was feeling unaccountably, stupidly, brave. This was just as much my home as it was theirs, I reasoned, and I should be allowed to enjoy the sand and sun just like everyone else.

It was one of those days when dusk lay heavy on the world. In the south there’s a sweet spot between hotter than the devil’s ass crack and colder than a witches’ tit where the sun sits warm and polite on your skin and the air fits comfortably in your lungs, its wet heat reminiscent of molasses wrapped in honeysuckle. This was the time of day when pale girls like me could venture forth and not get third degree burns due to our lack of melanin. With my blonde hair and non-complexion, I didn’t tan so much as my freckles levelled up and evolved. Sort of like little Pokémon scattered across the landscape of my face.

I thought, maybe if I held still long enough then none of the ‘It’ crowd would notice me there, skulking amongst the dunes, but it’s like they had a sensor.

“Oink Oink little piglet.”

I froze, a deer caught in headlights. When I finally worked up the courage to look up, it wasn’t because I didn’t know what to expect, but because I did. Sara-Lee and her brother Marcus stared down at me as if I were a bug instead of their next-door neighbor. Sara-Lee always seemed vaguely disgusted to see me. Which made a certain amount of sense. If I looked like Sara, I’d detest being around someone like me too.

There was a lot about me that Sara didn’t like, but our biggest point of contention seemed to be my weight. I was fat. The school counselor referred to it as being morbidly obese or big boned. To me there was no difference between the words other than the fact that one phrase made folks feel better about themselves when they made mention of it. As if calling me ‘morbidly obese’ was a call to arms mired in concern for my health. Advocates for this politically correct phrase told themselves that their way was preferable to whispering about how fat I was behind my back when they were feeling petty and small.

No matter which way you cut it, I was a fat, pasty, vertically challenged (read ‘short’) nerd. I usually tried to keep as much of my body covered up as possible, so I often wore my foster brother’s clothes because they reached down to my knees. When I was feeling particularly low, I imagined his jerseys as armor. Impenetrable walls that no nasty word or mean look could pierce. ‘Piglet’ might not have been the kindest nickname, but I was self-aware enough to realize that it made a painful sort of sense.

Sara-Lee was my complete opposite. Her jet-black hair was kept short so that those perfect curls could frame her heart-shaped face. Her breasts were small, and her hips were narrow, but when combined with her painfully long legs, she looked more like a model than a tomboy. Sara had a small, lush, mouth that most of the boys at our school drooled over. Personally, I never saw the appeal. Probably because whenever she was around me, one corner of that perfect mouth was lifted in a snarl.

If it were only about looks, Sara might have simply been apathetic toward me. But we were fundamentally different. Everything from our attitude to our view on life clashed. We were almost friends once, in the third grade, but Sara stopped talking to me after Marcus, her twin, freaked out the first and only night I slept at their house.

I never asked why. Hell, I wasn’t really sure what Marcus’ problem was, but I knew better than to try to find out. Never tried to clear things with Sara either.

Everyone hated me and a single person wasn’t going to change that even if it happened to be the illustrious Sara-Lee. For the most part, Sara and I weren’t talkers. Our conversations consisted of cutting looks and cold disregard. When she addressed me at all it was usually something short, sweet, and to the point.

“Move, pig.” Seemed to be her go to for our senior year, but it was better than ‘Bitch’ or ‘Dump truck’.

I think.

Either way, Sara was one of the only people at school who didn’t go out of her way to make my life a living hell. Unless, of course, she was accompanying Marcus.

Marcus.

Marcus.

If I had to choose one word to describe Marcus, it would be ‘nightmare’ or maybe ‘monster’. Whereas my other tormentors were creatures of habit, Marcus liked to think of new, exciting, ways to fuck with me.

Since getting her degree in psychology, Momma liked to analyze the people in our lives whenever the mood struck. According to her, Marcus had a lot of pent up aggression - thanks to his toxic relationship with his stepfather.

Personally, I didn’t care as much about his origin story as I cared about the fact that he’d shoved me down the stairs at homecoming after I’d finally worked up the courage to tell him to stop treating me like trash. The teachers hadn’t seen it and the rest of the student body was eager to protect their golden boy. In everyone’s defense, I hadn’t tried terribly hard to tell anyone what had happened. I’d been scared that he would lash out at me again if I said anything, so I’d kept my mouth shut and my head down and avoided him like the plague while my arm healed.

This time, it worked.

By the time the school year wrapped up and graduation came and went, my bones had reset, and I felt confident in the belief that Marcus had forgotten all about me. We were graduates now. What point would there be to continue the abuse? Maybe that was why I’d come today. Why I refused to leave when I saw the vultures on the sand. I’d be on my way to college soon and something, maybe me, would need to undergo a metamorphosis if I had any hope of making the next four years better than the past twelve.

But Marcus had always been full of surprises.

Looking up at him, my body broke out in a cold sweat and the recently mended bones in my left arm began to ache as if my very cells could sense the threat he represented. Like his sister, Marcus was darkly beautiful. His face was slimming into the hard-jawed masculinity of adulthood. These days, whenever he looked at me, there was a new light in his blue eyes that I didn’t like but had no name for.

That light was there now as he looked down at me. I shifted uncomfortably, regretting my decision to wear the simple black one-piece Momma got for my birthday, instead of my usual beach attire of jeans and a t-shirt. Momma desperately wanted me to step out of my shell and I wanted to make her happy, so occasionally I did something outside of my comfort zone. This was the first time it had bitten me so spectacularly on the ass though.

Marcus’ eyes traveled down the length of my body, lingering in all the places I never thought a man’s eyes might skim over. I covered my body with my towel in belated shame.

Marcus’ lips parted and I knew better than to think he was going to say anything good. “What do you call a sunbathing piglet?” He crooned, crouching until we were eye level. “Bacon.” He made an oinking noise and my eyes darted away. Just like that, my resolve to stick it out and try and enjoy myself for the day went up in smoke.

‘Just like bacon’

For a moment the imagery was so strong that I almost thought I could smell it and I resisted the urge to sniff self-consciously at my own skin. I hated Marcus - not just for everything he did to me - but for how he made me feel. I surged to my feet, grabbing the towel as I straightened so I wouldn’t have to bend down in front of the two of them and put my wide ass and belly rolls on full display.

“Oh piglet, don’t run away,” Marcus laughed, following me as I hurried back toward the parking lot. “I was just having a little fun.”

I ignored him, keeping my head down so I wouldn’t have to look at the rest of my graduating class while I stumbled past the bonfire. I knew that the sand was gritty beneath my toes, but years of walking barefoot on gravel had toughened the soles of my feet. Built calluses so that it wouldn’t feel as if I were walking across razor-blades for the rest of my life. My feet were the only parts of me immune to concentrated cruelty. My heart had yet to build up the calluses I’d need to survive.

It is why tears were already blurring my vision long before Marcus was done with me.

“Hey!” His grip on my arm was like iron. “I’m talking to you.”

I didn’t want his hands on me. It was the only clear thought I had as I turned and shoved him, jerking my arm out of his grasp with a viciousness that startled even me. He rocked back on his heels, but it was more of a testament to his surprise than my strength. His eyes narrowed and mine grew wide as he took a step toward me. Before I could stumble back, he reached out, striking with the quickness of a viper, to grab me by the throat.

My blood pressure rose on the wings of fear and dots danced before my eyes.

“Marcus!” I looked over his shoulder to find Sara glaring at the back of his head. We were far enough now from the bonfire that no one was paying us much attention, too focused on Julie gyrating in the center of the circle with a beer in one hand and her bikini top in the other.

“I’ll be there in a minute Sara.” Marcus growled, impatient with his sister for interfering, but unable to outright ignore her. “Piglet and I are just catching up. It’s been a while since we’ve talked. Hasn’t it, piglet?” he asked, lowering his voice so that his words were just for me. “I was starting to think you were avoiding me.” He tsked and shook his head. “But you wouldn’t do something that stupid. Not to me. Not to your only friend.”

Friend.

Is that what he thought we were?

I was pretty sure that this wasn’t what friendship was supposed to look like, but I had nothing else to compare it to. The tears in my eyes spilled over, rolling down my cheeks to stain my lips with salt and Marcus’ eyes glowed with pleasure. Grunting in satisfaction as if he’d just seen something delicious, he caught one tear with his thumb and licked it away.

I shuddered in revulsion and he laughed.

“If you shake it more than twice, you’re playing with it.”

Marcus froze at his sister’s words and his expression darkened. When he let me go to turn and glare at her, I sagged in relief.

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

She shrugged, her expression just as blank as always, and nodded toward me.

“Just that if you keep playing with the pig people are going to think it’s because you’re trying to get into her circus tent sized panties. I already told you, Marcus…you can’t save her.”

I winced, but couldn’t help but notice the way Marcus’ jaw clenched at Sara’s words. Save me? What on earth could he be saving me from when the only danger in my world was him? Marcus shot me a look full of venom and turned on his heel.

“Whatever. I’m bored now.”

Sara stared at me until her brother was several feet away before she shifted to follow him.

“Why?” My voice was small and strangled. At first, I didn’t think she heard me, but then she paused. “Why do you hate me so much?” I asked her disapproving profile. Sara sighed, her shoulders lifting and falling with the motion. She was quiet for a long time and I was shocked that she would give the answer any serious thought whatsoever. When she faced me, her eyes blazed with the first real emotion I’d seen from the Ice Queen.

“Because you’re pathetic,” she said finally, her face twisting into its typical sneer. “I could forgive you if you were nothing more than a fat loser Cornelia, but you’re so much worse than that.” Her voice lowered further, and she took a step closer to drive her point home. “You’re a quitter,” she said, shaping the word as if it were the foulest of curses. “You roll over, show predators like Marcus your throat, and then expect everyone to get on the bandwagon of ‘poor Lia’ when he gives into the urge to rip out your jugular.” She rolled her eyes and readjusted her board. “It’d be gross if it weren’t so sad.”

Before I could even think of something to say in response, she turned on her heel and stalked away.

“See you later Pig,” she sing-songed. I stood there for several long minutes watching her sashay over to the crowd surrounding the bonfire. She urged a few intrepid souls to join her in the ocean. Shrieking with laughter and exuberance, they all splashed into the rising tide. Amidst the gaiety only one set of eyes looked for - and found - me. As I met Marcus’ gaze from across the sand, I knew that his sister was right.

This world wasn’t kind to little pigs.

We don’t live long.

Sooner or later someone always comes along to blow our worlds down around us.

If I wanted to survive, if I wanted men like Marcus to leave me alone, I’d have to become something different.

Something new.

Something better.

I’d have to grow teeth and claws.

I’d have to be willing to bite back. To kill the piglet and transform myself into a big, bad, wolf. My jaw tightened with determination and I left my former classmates to their revelry to lose myself in the gathering shadows of a day finally drawn to a close.

Little did I know that my humiliation would be the least devastating thing of the day.

As it would turn out, it wasn’t only little piglets that died young. Big, bad wolves like Sara. Well, sometimes their candles went out while they were still fresh.





1





Ten Years Later…



The tapered candles numbered in the thousands. They stretched from one wall to the next, casting dancing shadows across the exposed brick and grandiose beams that made up the centuries old monastery where the wedding was being held. A violinist in one corner played a painfully sweet rendition of ‘here comes the bride’ and I straightened my shoulders. I should have been terrified, but instead, a thrill ran through me.

This was it.

It was finally happening.

The double-doors of the monastery swung open and I stepped from the shadows and further into the room. The crowd gasped, but I ignored them, lifting my chin in defiance. So what if I wasn’t what any of them were expecting? My soon to be husband was a surprise to me too. The camera men stationed strategically around the room followed me with their lenses. The director was standing in one corner with the wedding planner, their heads together as they pointed out different angles in the room for mood shots that would be edited later into the final product.

It was hard to focus on everything in the room at once, but I gave it my best shot. Anything to avoid looking directly at my Fiancé. When I first sent in my submission video to be considered for the show, I’d never thought I’d actually make it this far. First Comes Love was a reality television show that focused on forming love connections between people from all over the world. The social experiment documented the lives of three couples, all of whom were strangers to one another, over the course of their first year together.

Pairings were made at random and contestants wouldn’t meet their partner until moments before they had to say ‘I do’. Each couple was married on the same day and after the last marriage certificate was signed, we would all be driven to the mansion we would be living in for the next year. We would be presented with a series of challenges to test our connection and loyalty and each couple that threw in the towel before the end of the year would be asked to leave the house.

If the last pair standing could overcome all the obstacles and chose to remain married during the anniversary ceremony, then they would win a new car, an all-expenses paid honeymoon to anywhere in the world, and $100,000 in prize money.

Here’s the thing, watching the show from the comfort of my own home was different from going through with it. Five minutes ago, the only thing I’d known for sure about my fiancé was that his/her last name was Westbrooks. It wasn’t until I began walking down the aisle that I saw that he was male. Which was nice since I wasn’t sure I was ready for the self-examination I’d need to sift through if my partner had been female.

Navigating lesbian waters (pun intended) would have been complicated enough but I was more disappointed by the fact that my fiancé was hot. Why? Because that meant the producers were under the impression that I wasn’t. While they claimed that pairs were chosen at random, I’d always thought it deliciously convenient that people were usually assigned someone who was their exact opposite in every way. It made sense of course. It would get boring if everyone in the house spent twelve months singing kumbaya and talking about how much they had in common. Accord was great for world peace, but it was the death of reality television.

Last season, a white supremacist and a Jamaican woman had been one of the more iconic pairs. The couple had given a whole new meaning to the word ‘drama’. To everyone’s shock, they’d been the last two standing and, in the end, they’d chosen not to rip up their marriage certificate.

That episode, more than any other, put First Comes Love on the map and from that moment on, the show’s ratings shot through the roof. It became a household name, as ingrained in American pop culture as the Jerry Springer Show and it has all happened seemingly overnight.

I bit my lip before I remembered that I was wearing lipstick and stopped. My tongue ran across my top teeth to ensure that when my fiancé lifted my veil I wouldn’t be smiling at him with Maroon Madness caked on my pearly whites. Thoughts of the man I was about to marry brought my gaze to him again against my better judgment. I studied him curiously and the longer I looked, the more nervous I became.

He was built like a lumberjack. Like a man who made a habit of pushing himself not just in the gym, but in life as well. His long, powerfully muscled legs were braced, and his hands were folded at the small of his back. He watched me approach without expression, ignoring our mummering audience with enviable aplomb.

My future spouse had wavy brown hair and bright hazel eyes. He wore a black suit with a green tie that brought out the emerald specks in their hazel depths and made them look even brighter. With his wide, structured jaw and an aquiline nose that made him look like some sort of modern day spartan, the only thing that saved him from looking too masculine was the small beauty mark right below one eye.

The public was going to love him and the knowledge of that made my knees feel like jelly. Great, I’d been placed with a real-life Hercules by some douche-bag with a sense of humor and a tiny penis.

I took a deep breath, glad that the veil hid my face from scrutiny. It didn’t matter who my partner was. I didn’t sign up for the show to be the butt of anyone’s joke. I’d done it because while I might be fat, I was just as worthy of respect and love as anyone else. I was tired of people telling me that there was something wrong with me, that only skinny, beautiful women were allowed to feel sexy. Allowed to find prince charming. I was more than numbers on a scale and this was my chance to prove it.

Not to the world, but to myself.

This was my wedding day damnit, and I was going to enjoy it - camera crew and all.

The walk down the aisle was a lonely one. Like most girls, I thought that if I ever got married I would have someone to hand me off to my future husband. Momma would have been my first choice since Daddy died a few years back, but she didn’t approve of my being on the show in the first place and refused to have any part of it. I didn’t blame her, but knowing why she wasn’t there didn’t make me feel any better about not having her.

There were rows of hanging flowers to mark the altar and I stepped up beside the priest and adjusted my shin length wedding dress. My heart was hammering away, but I tried to keep my breathing slow and steady for the cameras. When you’re plus sized, breathing too hard and too fast got x-rated real quick. I’d once had a date deliberately drive over speed bumps and rocky roads so that he could watch my boobs jiggle. Looking back. it was funny, but at the time the incident had left me feeling self-conscious and uncomfortable.

A lot like now when I think about it.

The priest’s words were a blur. I knew when to respond and when to hold out my hand to exchange rings, only because I’d been practicing for the last few days, not because I was actually paying attention. How could I, when my husband smelled so good? He was wearing some expensive ass cologne that made me think of moonlit nights and cool silk sheets. He was even larger up close and looking up into those hazel eyes I couldn’t help but shiver. For the first time I didn’t feel like the largest person in the room. Just standing next to him made me feel small and feminine. A novel concept since I’d gained weight over the last several years instead of losing any.

The priest was talking about Jesus and heaven and how your spouse was supposed to be a gift from the almighty and I wrinkled my nose. Some couples got Christian weddings, but the show borrowed from different cultures. The idea was to start pushing boundaries and belief systems early on. I might have been raised Jewish, but I’d never been particularly good at it. So, while the ceremony seemed a little…stale in comparison to what I was used to, I wouldn’t have minded it so much if an already long process wasn’t being drawn out an extra five minutes.

If I was going to do this, then we had to get it over with before I chickened out.

“Repeat after me.” Thank God. I straightened my shoulders. “I, Maddox Westbrook-”

“I, Maddox,” Jeez his voice was husky. The deep baritone had my body flushing with heat and I shifted, scrumptiously clenching my thighs together. How the hell was I supposed to share a bedroom with this man for a year?

“-until death do us part.”

Shit. My mouth felt dry and as Maddox wrapped up his lines, I took a deep breath. It was my turn now and I didn’t know whether to run screaming or burst out crying.

“I, Cornelia Hammond take you, Maddox Westbrook to be my husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward… until death do us part.”

“By the power vested in me, I now pronounce you Mr. and Mrs. Westbrook.” With a little prompting from the director, the audience cheered. “You may kiss the bride.”

I froze, my body flushing with ice as Maddox reached out to grip the edge of my veil. This was the moment in the show that everyone loved. When the groom and the people watching at home finally got to see the bride. I knew that it would be nerve-wracking, but I’d never felt anything like the terror that gripped me as Maddox exposed my face to the cameras. It was like being stripped naked in public and my face flushed red with embarrassment. Maddox gazed down at me for a moment, studying the lines of my face and the curve of my body, but his expression gave nothing away.

Some couples didn’t kiss after the veil was lifted if they didn’t like what they saw. It usually set the mood for the rest of the partnership so many compromised by giving a peck on the cheek or simply hugging. I fully expected Maddox to take the way out and use one of those options and I was shocked when he gripped me around the waist, pulled me flush against the hard planes of his muscled body, and lowered his lips to mine.

Considering how hard the rest of him was, his lips were surprisingly soft. His tongue delved into my mouth. A bold claim of ownership that had moisture flooding my panties. His teeth nipped my bottom lip and I had no choice but to open for him and to spread myself wide and accept his hungry tongue. He stroked the wet cavern of my mouth slowly, taking his time, drinking me down, and when my knees finally gave out - and I moaned - he swallowed the sound.

As it turned out, the muscles weren’t just for show and when he pulled away, I realized that he held me at least an inch off the ground, supporting my weight with apparent ease. I blinked up at him and knew that my eyes were as big as saucers.

“Wow,” I breathed.

This time, our wedding guests didn’t need any encouragement from the director to voice their appreciation. There were hoots and catcalls, wild applause, and most of all, laughter.

Maddox set me down and I took a step back, looking away from that unwavering gaze. It was the laughter, faint but unmistakable, that planted my first seed of doubt. I knew my reasons for being on the show were good ones, but the discrepancy between Maddox and I…

We were just so different.

Maybe too different.

I wasn’t sure if our story would turn out to be a romance, a comedy, or a mixture of both, but I knew that if I wasn’t very careful, it would spiral into a tragedy before I could say ‘piglet’.





Kids on the Block





‘You ok?’

I jumped, surprised that someone cared enough to come looking for me. As the new kid in school, I’d taken it for granted that everyone hated me. I was eight years old and it was my first day in this small school in Mississippi, but I was already used to feeling like an outcast. A freak. No foster family wanted to adopt the fat kid and those that tried got tired of the novelty quickly. Chubby cheeks were cute on a toddler. Not so much when you’re seven and the neighborhood kids are shoving you down hills just to see if you’ll roll. I ran my fingertips over the still healing scar on my leg from my last foster home. A broken bottle hidden in the grass had cut me open and as soon as the doctor finished with the stitches, my foster family called my case worker.

Their home just wasn’t a good fit, they said.

I heard that a lot.

Rachel, my new mother was likely no different. She’d figure out how hard it was to raise a punching bag soon enough and I’d be right back in the system. It would be a group home for me next. I was already undesirable and now I was getting too old. My case worker, Desiree, wouldn’t come out and say it, but I wasn’t stupid.

This wasn’t home. It was just a waystation on my way to the inevitable.

It was why I was in the bathroom crying. No one had been mean to me, I was just tired and experience had taught me that crying in the bathroom kept people from staring. It never occurred to me that someone would hear me or that they would speak to me even if they did.

‘I’m fine,’ I managed, only to wince. I didn’t sound fine and the girl on the other side of the door seemed of the same mind.

‘You’re Cornelia, right?’

I sniffed, staring at the gap between the bathroom stall and the floor. The girl on the other side was wearing pink jelly shoes with sparkles in them. Each small toe was painted a different color and I could tell just from her stance that she had an attitude and lots of it.

‘Yeah.’

‘I’m Sara-Lee,’ she declared boldly, voice as sweet as candy and just mesmerizing. ‘I sit behind you in homeroom.’ It was curiosity more than bravery that had me reaching out to open the stall door.

She was wearing a pair of frameless glasses and adjusted them as she looked me over. Her arm shot out and I accepted the crumbled wad of paper towels automatically.

‘You look like a train-wreck.’ She shook her head and her small nose wrinkled. ‘Look. If you’re lonely you can sit with me during lunch today.’

The offer stumped me.

‘But-?’

‘It doesn’t mean we’re friends or anything,’ she interrupted. I shook my head frantically.

‘Okay.’

We had lunch together every day after that. Sara insisted that we weren’t friends and never would be, but she stuck her neck out for me more than once. This was a trait she passed on to her brother, Marcus. He was the protective kind. A part of me knew that it was mainly his sister he was protective of and that whenever he stuck his hand in fire for me, he was only doing it because I was Sara’s friend. Still, it felt like I had two friends, which was a heck of a lot better than one. And worlds better than none. Even if my friendship with them had its blemishes. Strange as it was, Marcus was meaner to everyone else than Sara was. But he was nicer to me than Sara was. Not that she was mean, per se. She was just one of those girls who said what she wanted and did what she wanted, all consequences be damned. It didn’t matter if you were her friend, you were going to get the unfiltered truth.

I remember the night I invited them over to my house. Marcus had been excited. He’d never been to a sleepover before. I told him that my foster mom might make us sleep in separate rooms or bunch us together in the living room so she could keep an eye on us, but it didn’t matter to him. He was happy. Genuinely happy. Sara on the other hand. She stared down at my handwritten invitation as if she’d never seen anything like it, before scoffing at my writing. She pulled out a pencil from her backpack and rested the paper on her knee, correcting all the words I’d spelled wrong. When she was done, she smiled up at me. The look on her face, however made me know that Sara-Lee was just as lonely as I was. She just hid it better.

‘Fine.’ She put the invitation in her schoolbook and slammed it shut. ‘I’ll have my mom bring us over after school.’

I bit my lip and shifted nervously from one foot to the next. People were beginning to glance my way and I wanted nothing more than to slink back to my desk.

‘Does this mean we’re friends now?’ I blurted instead. Sara jumped and for the first time since we’d met, her smile blossomed without hesitation.

‘Almost.’

Marcus hung back for a little while longer. When Sara was out of earshot, he shrugged at me. “For me it’s not an almost,” he said. “We’re already friends.”





2





With the wedding out of the way, all the participants were pulled aside and asked to recount our thoughts and feelings. While we were getting the interviews out of the way, the crew began packing up their equipment in preparation for our arrival at the house.

We’d all been separated from one another and other than Maddox, I had no idea who I would be spending the next several months with. The producers wanted to get everything on camera even if they didn’t end up using the footage in the final edit and that included first impressions of our housemates. Maddox would be difficult enough to deal with and I wasn’t exactly looking forward to dealing with the other four people.

“Mrs. Westbrook?”

Startled, I glanced up to find the woman manning the camera staring at me in concern. She had dark brown hair pulled up in a tight bun. Like most of the crew she was dressed casually in jeans and a hoodie. A combination I found distracting considering the glitz and elegance we were surrounded by. In my pretty wedding dress with my borrowed diamonds and a full face of glam make-up, I felt overdressed and completely out of my element.

“Cornelia? Are you alright?”

I straightened and nodded decisively. The sound of my own name had sunk in in a way that being called ‘Mrs’ and ‘Westbrook’ had not.

“I’m fine.” I assured her, and obediently faced the camera when she indicated that I needed to shift my attention.

“You seem a little dazed,” she began. “What was going through your mind when you first saw Maddox?”

“That I’d made a mistake,” I said without thinking. Then shook my head and laughed. “I’m sorry. That sounds like I don’t like him. It isn’t that, it’s just-”

I wasn’t sure how to put my thoughts into words and I shrugged helplessly.

“The kiss must have come as a surprise then?”

I could feel my face flushing with color and I snorted.

“That’s an understatement.”

We spoke for a few minutes longer and though I struggled to remain engaging, I knew that my answers weren’t nearly as juicy as they would have liked. When she finally released me, I rushed from the room with a sigh of relief, my heels a graceless staccato on the stone floors.

There was a Rolls Royce waiting outside and I slid into the backseat with the help of a boom mike operator. The interior of the car was pitch black in comparison to the late afternoon light from outside and when my eyes finally adjusted to the gloom, I discovered that my new husband must have gotten done with his interrogation early on.

Maddox was lounging in his seat, his knees spread wide while his chin rested in one hand. He unbuttoned the first few buttons on his suit and I caught sight of skin bronzed brown by the sun.

Maddox was the type of man who was used to taking up space. He did it causally, instinctively, and without any thought to the people he displaced as he moved through the world. I recognized the trait because I’d grown up witnessing it.

Maddox wore a pair of dark shades, so it was impossible to tell what he might have been feeling in that moment. It couldn’t have been anything terribly complex since the gentle rise and fall of his chest told me that he’d fallen asleep waiting for me.

I sighed. There was a part of me that wanted to wake him, to have someone to talk to so that I could hopefully exorcise the nervousness growing ever larger within me, but I kept quiet. As nice as it would have been to try and bond with my new husband, I didn’t know what to say or how to say it. I both wanted our partnership to succeed and dreaded it.

Was I really ready to settle down with a complete stranger?

Granted, by the end of the year, assuming we stuck it out for that long, we’d no longer be strangers. Maybe there’d be real feelings there. I could be sitting next to my soul mate and not even realize it.

Or maybe, and far more likely, the ‘winners’ of previous seasons just really wanted that vacation and prize money. For all I knew, each one of them could have gotten divorced the day after filming wrapped up. At least I had options in case I wanted to stick to my principles but not come across as a loser on national television.

It was impossible to tell how long we drove. Our driver concentrated on following the directions on his GPS and Maddox snored softly beside me, not a care in the world. I spent the majority of the trip worrying about what I’d gotten myself into and wondering what sort of person Maddox was. Since his eyes were closed, I took full advantage of his inattention to study his face and body. He was heavily muscled, but the part that sucked the most was how handsome he was. When I signed up for the show, I’d thought I’d get paired with a toothpick. I hadn’t expected to be sitting next to someone so obviously out of every league that I knew of. It wasn’t that I wasn’t confident about my looks. Just realistic. Even if I were 60 pounds lighter, Maddox would still be so beyond me that it wasn’t even funny.

“See anything you like?”

I jerked in my seat, my heart leapt into my chest and I squealed.

Maddox sat up and I straightened, trying not to look as if I were a child cringing away from the boogeyman.

“Sorry.” I flushed. “I didn’t realize you were awake.”

One brow shot up over the top of his sunglasses.

“So, you’ll be watching me while I sleep. Noted.”

Shit.

This older version of me was enough of a social butterfly to understand that this wasn’t what good first impressions looked like. Especially when it came to someone I was now married to. I sat back in my seat and tried to project a non-creeper vibe. It was impossible to read his expression from behind the shades, but his general attitude told me he wasn’t buying it.

“I-I’m not sure how to do this,” I admitted.

He stayed still but eventually he sighed and faced forward once more.

“That’s not necessarily a bad thing, given the circumstances.”

I chuckled. “This is one hell of a first date.”

Maddox snorted. “Tell me about it, sweetheart. Last week I was swimming in Barbados and now…” He sighed, shrugged, and his words trailed off.

“Married to a fat girl?” I offered, with a self-deprecating smile.

His head cocked to one side in thought and I thought I saw his lips tighten, but he didn’t respond and the silence between us shifted from mildly friendly to downright awkward. Was it something I said? Clearly. It was too much of a coincidence not to be. Did he take issue with my self-prescribed moniker or did he dislike being reminded of the turn his life had taken.

I bit my lip anxiously, unable to fight the temptation any longer.

Outside the tinted windows of the car, a stretch of trees obscured the rising face of the moon. There was no sign of civilization, so it would be a few minutes still before we reached our destination. I had two options. Either iron out any weirdness now so that we could step into the competition armed for success, or keep my mouth shut and let it stew and fester.

Whenever I was faced with a decision, I always asked myself if it was something that Piglet would do. If it was, then I did the exact opposite. So far, the game plan had worked out and I had no reason to believe it wouldn’t continue. So rather than clam up, I cleared my throat and tried for an air of normalcy.

“Do you do this sort of thing often?” I finally managed, only to wince. “I don’t mean marry random women, or men if you’re into that. I just mean-”

“I know what you mean,” he interrupted. I nearly sagged at the display of mercy. “And in answer to your question; yes. I like taking risks, but…” He shook his head and laughed. “This is a new level, even for me.”

“Then why do it?” I asked. I was genuinely curious. What would make a man like Maddox, perfect in almost every way that I could tell, agree to participate in a show like this? He could probably have any woman he wanted back in the real world and yet here he was, sitting next to me.

‘Maybe his dick is small.’ I thought. ‘Like ridiculously tiny.’

I glanced at his crotch from the corner of my eye and thanks to his devil-may-care style of sitting I got an unobstructed view. My heart sank. Ok, so tiny dick was out. That must mean he had a shitty personality. My thoughts immediately went to Marcus and my stomach dropped.

Anything, but that.

I could deal with anything but that.

Maddox shrugged in answer to my question. Leaning his head back against the seat, he angled so that he could look at me.

“Why not?” His voice was a deep, rumbling, bass that I could feel at the pit of my soul. My breath caught.

“Pretty flippant for a guy who just signed a marriage certificate,” I said softly. Jesus, had I married a monster like Marcus? Beautiful on the outside and rotten to the core? As I watched, he reached up to remove his sunglasses and I sucked in a sharp breath. In hindsight, I regretted wishing that he’d take them off. Even in the relative shadow of the car, the green flecks in those hazel eyes was striking. We passed a streetlamp and in the flash of illumination, I thought I caught flecks of gold in their depths.

I shifted uncomfortably and tried to scoot away, put more distance between us, but there was nowhere else to go.

“Why’d you do it?’ he asked, moderating his rumble to a whisper that left the backseat feeling far too intimate for my liking. His gaze was unflinching, so direct that I may as well have been standing under a spotlight. “Last I checked, I wasn’t the only one standing up at that altar.”

Those eyes unpacked me, left me vulnerable and feeling exposed. His gaze demanded a sincerity I wasn’t sure that I was ready to give. Even so, my lips parted, and I found myself answering without truly thinking about the words.

“I didn’t have much choice, did I?” There was something stark about saying it aloud. “It’s cute when people preach about beauty being in the eye of the beholder, but they have to actually look at you first.” I laughed and to my horror the sound was bitter as hell. “Not sure if you’ve noticed, but anything over a size 10 is pretty much invisible these days.”

What the hell was wrong with me? I was used to making self-deprecating comments about my weight. Not because I had a problem with it, but because it addressed the elephant in the room. No one had to tiptoe around the fact that I was a precocious little butterball and it undermined any cruel comments strangers might be bold enough to voice. It was a lot like the scene in Green Mile when Eminem made fun of himself for being white before it could be used against him in the rap battle.

While my size didn’t bother me, everyone else’s reaction to my size did. I’d just never hinted at that during casual conversation before.

Maddox studied me for a moment longer and I got the impression that he wanted to say something. Before he could, the car slowed to a stop and the stage lights sitting on the lawn turned night time back into day.

Great.

It was show time again.





Kids on the Block





The sleepover at my house was followed by a sleepover at Sara-Lee and Marcus’ house. Marcus was probably more excited than Sara was. So excited, in fact, that Friday after school, he offered to come over to help me pack. Not that it was necessary, of course. It wasn’t like I was going on a vacation or flying out of the country or anything. Still, the way he asked and the way he weaved his fingers together, his entire face lighting up like the fourth of July, meant that I couldn’t say no.

“I’ll just come home with you, then.” It was more of a statement than a request. Marcus did that often. He stated things without really thinking about the normal course of action. When Momma Rachel picked me up from school, he approached her with the same confidence that he approached everything in life.

“I can’t just take you with me,” she laughed.

“Oh, my parents won’t mind. It’s totally fine,” he said.

I wouldn’t understand just how right he was until I got to his house. I knew the kind of parents Marcus and Sara-Lee had – people like them had played foster parent to me during my stints in the foster system. They weren’t just laid back and care-free. They laid on their backs and didn’t care at all. They were the wholly and irrevocably irresponsible type. The kind of people who shouldn’t be trusted with themselves, let alone with children. I was young, yes, but I wasn’t blind.

Sara’s mom smiled as I entered the house, not that there was anything she could do about the way her lips pulled her entire face up. She was higher than Mount Everest. How she’d managed to string together a coherent conversation with my mom, I wasn’t sure. But I was grateful that she had because if this sleepover didn’t happen, it would have gutted Marcus.

“You kids need anything?” Marcus and Sara-Lee’s stepdad asked. The scent of whisky on his breath carried all the way from the kitchen into the living room where I was standing with my bag hanging from my shoulders and my blanket bundled to my chest.

“No, we’re okay,” Marcus said and pulled the blanket from my hands, dumping it on the part of his couch his mother wasn’t occupying. “Let’s go find Sara,” he boomed. His hand was latched around my wrist in an instant and now and he was pulling me through the house a million miles a minute. We moved so fast that the mess in the house was almost not visible at all.

Standing in front of the bedroom, it seemed like an entirely different house – save for the hole where someone’s hand had most definitely punched through the door. Here, I was in a neat-freak’s paradise. Like someone had gotten down on their hands and knees and scrub, scrub, scrubbed, until there wasn’t even so much as a dust particle left. I had a hard time believing their parents had any part in this and somehow that made me feel bad.

I sucked in a breath and pretended like all was good, though.

Feasting my eyes forward once again, I took even more of the room in. One side was a girl’s paradise, complete with N-Sync posters and pink pom-poms dangling from the ceiling. The other side of the room – Marcus’ side – had all the boyish simplicity that I’d grown to know from him. A single baseball poster decorated the wall on his side and blue sheets were pushed into the corners of the bed. Neat, but not as neat as Sara’s.

“Ugh, this is stupid,” Sara grunted as I stepped deeper into the room. She was perched upon her neatly made bed, filing her fingernails like someone out of a 70s sitcom.

“Stop being such a party pooper,” Marcus spat, looking less than pleased with his sister. If it wasn’t evident before that he was the driving force behind this sleepover, it was obvious now.

“Have you seen mom?” Sara hissed, and shook her head.

Marcus looked thoroughly embarrassed. I left like I was locked in a chokehold and still someone felt the need to suck even more air out of my lungs. “She didn’t seem to mind that I was here,” I said, because what else could I have said? It wasn’t like it was a lie either.

Sara mumbled something under her breath and rolled her eyes. I couldn’t even blame her for how she was acting because I got it. Outside of the fact that my old foster parents – rather than my actual parents - were the ones who were living the way her family was forcing her to live, I’d felt embarrassed at the time. I hated the idea of even being glimpsed with them in public. Having someone I knew enter the home I shared with them would have felt like downright terror. But I was good at pretending and so I made sure that that was exactly what I was going to do. Pretend. Act. Put on a show. If they thought they were excited to sleep over at my house…hah, they were going to see what excited really looked like. By the time I was done, they were going to want me here all the time and Sara would take back her ‘almost’ and tell me that we were certainly friends.

The night carried on. And as it would turn out, I didn’t have to act as much as I’d planned on it. Sara and Marcus’ parents strolled through the front door, leaving us kids to fend for ourselves. We watched movies that we would have never been able to watch at my house. Jeepers Creepers should have won an award for its therapeutic skills. Snuggled together on our blankets in the living room, all the worries of each of our worlds seemed to be forgotten. There was nothing but bliss as we pushed ourselves close to each other, covering each other’s eyes and gripping whoever was closest whenever the Creeper popped onto the screen. Terror turned into humor. Fear found comfort. And there in the middle of the living room of the only friends I’d ever had, I found pieces of happiness that I never thought I’d experience in my life.

By the time the end of the movie rolled around, we were all too exhausted to function.

“We can sleep right here if you want,” Sara muttered. I had no objections to that. Squeezing into bed beside either her or Marcus would have been a task impossible. Despite the hardness of the floor beneath me, I knew that sleep would be easier to find down here than it would be trying to inhabit a half of a bed that was only barely big enough for one.

Sara propped herself in the middle, pushed a pillow behind her head and pulled her blanket all the way up to her chin. The television was now off, but a small light lingered in the kitchen, making it possible to catch the look of ease that swept across her face as she closed her eyes.

I followed her lead and soon enough drifted off into a deep, deep sleep.





Somewhere, hidden in the bowels of the night, movement caused me to stir. As gentle as the touch was, it didn’t feel quite as comforting as it should have. A whisk of air caught my shoulder where my blanket had been removed and hands, rough and calloused traveled to the small of my back.

“Go back to sleep, little princess.” Just as rough as the hands that were against my skin, was the tone of the voice that whispered the words to me. I startled, my eyes widening at the sound. I wasn’t a creature equipped with evolutions prompts to survival. I could neither fight nor flee from a stressful situation -at least not in any way that could be deemed successful. When my eyes finally adjusted to the lack of light and I caught a glimpse of the figure in front of me, I was at least a little eased by the fact that it was not, in fact the Creeper hovering above me. Instead, the familiar scent of whiskey scorched my nostrils.

“Shhh….” he encouraged, and I did as I was told. I didn’t feel threatened anymore. If anything, I felt comforted by the fact that Sara and Marcus at least had a stepfather who tucked them into bed at night. A stepfather who extended that courtesy to their guests.

I pulled the blanket back over my body and attempted to close my eyes once again. I was nowhere close to falling asleep, a feat made even harder by the hand now weaving crop circles in my hair. And as though that was nowhere next to being enough of a disturbance, the voice that boomed through the house in the next few moments, had my nerve endings on fire.

The hand left my hair. My back shot up straight. Sara leapt to her feet. And Marcus…I’d never heard so much rage in my life. I didn’t think kids our age could produce such guttural sounds. He was on his stepfather in an instant, punching him, kicking, biting, doing whatever the hell he could. I understood jealousy. I’d seen it time and time again from the kids of some of my former foster parents. They didn’t like the non-biological kids getting even a fraction of attention. But this…what I saw coming from Marcus…it was next level. Especially because I didn’t even want the attention I was getting.

“What the hell, Marcus,” Sara was angry too, but her words still managed to have their usual throw over the shoulder ease to them. Her hands were now grabbing at Marcus, yanking him back by the hole in the collar of his shirt. For good measure and to prove that a little snot-nosed kid couldn’t get away with disrespecting him, their stepfather drew back and landed one square on Marcus’ nose. Marcus, however, was so packed with adrenaline that the punch did nothing to deter his rage. The bigger problem was that now that rage was fixed on me. He took me by the hair, fisting his hand in my messy ponytail as he dragged me out of his house. My weight would have made it hard for him, had it not been for the fact that my feet decided to comply. It was the middle of the night. We’d just watched Jeepers Creepers. I was terrified. Really and truly terrified.

Tears spilled from my eyes like someone was trying to drown a waterfall and I begged and I pleaded and I apologized.

“Sara was right about you,” Marcus roared, slamming the door behind him as he stormed back into the house. It was Sara-Lee who came out with my blanket and my pillow and my backpack. She dumped them on the step beside me and left, slamming the door a little less hard than her brother had.

That night, I learned the importance of forgetting. I didn’t want to remember this night. I didn’t need to remember this night. Somehow, it felt more terrible than the combination of all the other awful things that had ever happened to me because for one of the first times in my life, I actually felt like I belonged.

Momma Rachel picked me up, so at least they had the decency to make it so that I wouldn’t have to spend the night out on the curb. When she came, I did my best at putting my notion to forget into action. I told her I was scared. That I’d had a bad dream I couldn’t shake. That I missed her.

What I didn’t tell her was that even wrapped in her arms, her love pouring into me like an endless fountain, I felt more alone than I’d ever felt.





3





Being famous was never a dream of mine.

Walking the red carpet had always seemed like too much work.

While the wide cathedral like steps leading up to the four-story mansion might not have been a carpet, they were certainly imposing in their own right. Especially with the cameras and lights all around. The driver was in charge of bringing in our luggage and Maddox and I exchanged a quick glance, before grabbing one another’s hand and setting off towards the front door. For better or for worse, we were a team now and it was important that we appear that way. There was no telling what sort of challenges the show would throw at us over the next few months, but that wasn’t the only threat to our tenuous union.

Contestants could, and would, sabotage a relationship if the opportunity presented itself. I knew better than to give anyone an opening and Maddox seemed of a similar mindset because he kept me close as we made our way up the stairs.

The house was easily the length of a football field and there were more than enough rooms to accommodate all the crew members, the equipment and props used for the show, and each contestant and still have space left over. On television the house always seemed spacious. Behind the scenes it would be like living in a dorm building.

“We should have been talking strategy in the car,” I whispered, realizing too late that I still had my microphone attached. Deciding on a plan of attack would have been smarter than staring at my husband’s dick and lamenting over society’s obsession with thigh gaps, but it was too late now. While Maddox and I could strategize once we were alone again, I could only hope that the producer would be merciful enough not to put our conversation in the final edit.

‘Who am I kidding. It’s definitely going to be in the blooper reel.’

The front door opened before I was ready for it to and I blinked at the bizarre tableau that greeted us. Standing in an entryway that looked more like a ballroom, were a dozen people. It would take me a while before all those cameras and boom mics truly faded into the background. For now, so many people turning their attention to us at the same time was like a slap in the face. I froze and if Maddox hadn’t squeezed my hand in that moment I might have bolted.

Instead, I gathered myself, stepped forward, and forced a smile.

A woman approached and like me, she was still dressed in her wedding gown. Maddox and I were the last to arrive and it was clear that this woman and her partner had been the couple before us. She had nut brown skin and brown curls down to her bare shoulders. The strapless, empire gown she wore was pure elegance whereas my gown was more casual. She was taller than me, with small, careful, features save for bold lips and large, brown, eyes.

“Hello,” she said, her voice melodious. “My name is Phee.” She looked over her shoulder and an older man with salt and pepper gray hair and rugged good looks, nodded his head in greeting. “That’s my husband, Pete.” She said his name very carefully and I could tell by the way her lips tightened that there had already been some tension between the two. “We were all just talking about how to divvy up the rooms.”

Surprised, I glanced between Phee and Pete. “They haven’t been assigned?”

She shook her head and I startled as another woman joined us. She wasn’t in her wedding gown, but she still wore the full face and glitter power that screamed ‘bride’. She was likely the first of us married today, so she’d had enough time to get to the house and change clothes. Now she wore a red silk top and a pair of designer jeans with heels. Everything about the woman looked fake. From her ass implants, to the fake boobs, and lip injections. It was impossible to tell how old she was though her blue eyes were surprisingly shrewd given the sheer amount of flesh spilling forth from her low-cut top. The only thing soft about her was her dark auburn hair. It framed her face in deliberate waves that were more the product of a good stylist than genetics.

At my question, she rolled her eyes.

“Some new bullshit they’re rolling out this season to up the ratings. We were told to wait here until the host could explain everything.” She looked me up and down, hesitated, and then offered her hand. “I’m Sheila by the way. That hunk of man meat brooding in the corner is Giles.”

Giles was the exact opposite of a hunk of man meat, but he had a certain appeal. He was lanky and corded with ropey muscle. I would have thought he was a runner or a swimmer but the dazed look in his eyes told me that he was probably too high to remember where he was, let alone how to do a backstroke. His hair was pulled in a careless bun at the top of his head and his five o’clock shadow was on the verge of becoming a full-blown beard.

He met my curious gaze with an open-mouthed grin that was nevertheless charming.

“Sup’?” he said simply, making no move to leave his perch on the top side of the table.

“Ain’t shit,” I assured him, lifting my chin in acknowledgement. He nodded solemnly, and Sheila snorted.

“Great. You speak stoner. At least now there’s a translator in the house.”

Phee rolled her eyes.

“He isn’t a foreign exchange student, Sheila. You’re just salty because our boy over there won’t share his meds.”

“I have a prescription,” Giles called defensively. “Medical marijuana is not a toy. This isn’t a game people. In the wrong hands this is basically a gateway drug.”

Sheila bristled in annoyance.

“How high is he?” Maddox asked, staring at the young man. Giles stared back.

“Not high enough,” Sheila growled. Then leaning in, she confided. “He’s been riding my ass all day. ‘Plastic surgery is a byproduct of America’s impossible to reach beauty standards’ this and ‘Strippers are victims of sexual abuse and don’t even realize it’ that. Before you guys got here he was talking about the ‘friendzone’ and how deep-down women hate nice guys. If he mansplains one more pop culture reference, I’m going to bash my own head in.”

“Is he really that bad?” I asked Phee.

She scowled. “It’s like a politician mated with a boy scout and got the baby high on shrooms.”

I’d take that as a yes, then.

Odd company aside, this wasn’t so bad.

After years of avidly watching shows like Real Housewives of Random States and Sport’s Wives, I’d been prepared for hot women and a lot of drama. Instead of cat fights and name calling, my housemates’ biggest issue seemed to be with our resident plug.

“Guys?” We glanced over to find the producer, Justin, standing near the staircase leading to the second floor. He was a short, plain faced man and he wore a cap over his balding plate. “Now that you’re all here, we’re going to need you to head into the living room to greet the host and get another round of interviews out of the way.”

I groaned, and I wasn’t the only one. So far, we’d done at least four interviews. One days before the wedding, one right before the ceremony, one after the ceremony, and now another. I knew that they would be taking cut scenes from each and piecing them together throughout the course of the show, but I wasn’t used to spending so much time talking about my feelings and first impressions. At this rate, it was easy to see how someone could slip up and say something that they didn’t mean. The sheer act of trying to think of something original to share other than ‘holy shit, this is crazy, why am I here?’ would leave us little choice but to be as candid as possible.

“This would be a hell of a lot easier if they just gave us all an itinerary,” Pete grumbled.

“They switch things up every season,” Phee reminded him. “It’s not exactly improv if they give you the answers to the test before the quiz.”

Pete didn’t respond and Phee and I looked at one another. It was impossible to tell what his problem was with her, but it was obvious that I wasn’t the only one who’d noticed the strange tension between them. Out of all of us, Pete and Phee were the only ones who looked like they would make a good match. I could see why Sheila and Giles were at each other’s throats and Maddox and I were so incompatible that it was laughable. My jaw tightened. Even more of a reason why we needed to prove them wrong.

Maddox hadn’t released my hand since we walked through the door. Not that I was complaining. His hand was large, completely engulfing my own and I was starting to grow accustomed to how feminine and fragile his touch made me feel. It was almost enough to distract me from what was happening around us.

Almost.

We strolled into the living room hand in hand and it was hard not to notice that we were the only couple that did so. In fact, the man standing in the center of the room smiled at the sight.

“Fantastic. We’re all here. Could everyone take a seat?”

One by one, we obliged. As I settled next to Maddox, I realized the cameramen had dwindled down to three. It would still take some getting used to, but it was better than being surrounded by a dozen strangers. I recognized the new arrival as our host. Robert Tully had been the face of the show for the last three years and he had the compassionate nature of someone who’d built his life on his belief in true love. A licensed psychiatrist, Robert had been a matchmaker and couple’s counselor for over a decade before leaving his business behind to join the show.

He had perfect black hair with a superman curl over one brow, tan brown skin, and a smile so blindingly white he could have made a living directing ships to shore on stormy nights. That smile was tailored to put people at ease, and it was like a ripple effect through the room. I could see guards dropping one by one and a few of us leaned forward instinctively as if being closer to Robert meant we could absorb some of his casual ease.

“Ladies, you all look beautiful. I wish I could have made the ceremonies, but I was busy getting things set up here.”

“Care to share with the rest of the class?” Maddox quipped, and Pete nodded in agreement. Robert smiled amiably and folded his hands at the small of his back.

“I’m sure you were expecting to be shown to your rooms by now.”

“Kind of, yeah,” Sheila snapped, and crossed her arms beneath her breasts. “Don’t get me wrong, I love wandering aimlessly through a stranger’s house, but it would be nice to have a place to put my luggage.”

Robert chuckled.

“We want you all to feel at home. Regardless of who’s name is on the lease, the six of you will be spending a lot of time here and the more comfortable you are, the better things will be for the show and your relationships.” Before Sheila could say anything, Robert smiled at us all. “Which brings me to my first point. We don’t want any of you being forced to share a room until you’re comfortable doing so. Everyone will have the chance to grow to know one another organically. If you’d like to sleep in the same room as your spouse, you’re welcome to make that change at any time. However, if any of you are found with someone other than your partner, you’ll be automatically disqualified, regardless of whether everyone involved is aware of the indiscretion.”

I couldn’t help it, I looked at my housemates and shuddered at the idea of choosing any of them over my spouse. He was the most appealing thing in the house…aside from Phee of course. If the dark looks I got were any indication, the other women might not sink so far as to climb into his bed, but they would certainly be vying for his attention.

This new stipulation sounded almost too good to be true. I was shrewd enough to wonder what they could possibly be planning, but too relieved to make a big deal out of it. It was likely just an easy way to pick off the weak links.

“The trials won’t start right away. For the next week or so each of you is encouraged to get to know your spouse. Think of it as a mini-honeymoon. You’ll have free reign of the house and the grounds beyond. A driver will be available to take you back and forth from town. I only ask that each of you read through our terms and conditions one more time. While you can do whatever you like, keep in mind that some of your actions could negatively affect your partner. If the infraction is serious enough, like becoming intimate with someone else or lying to your spouse, then both of you will be disqualified.”

Giles raised his hand and Robert turned to him expectantly.

“Not to sound privileged or anything.” Phee rolled her eyes. “But how is that fair? Like if one person screws up why should both of us be cut?”

He had a point. Usually if someone broke their Vows, or the verbal contract everyone agreed to concerning the rules and regulations of being a part of the show, then only the guilty party would get the boot. Then a vote was put to the public. People got to decide if the infraction was the fault of a poor partnership or if it had been out of the other person’s hands. If it was decided that the other person had done all that they could to make the relationship work, they would be remarried to another applicant and the show would pick up from there.

“Marriage is about partnership.” Robert was explaining. “If one of you loses, you both lose. It’s easy to forget that when there are cameras involved. This season we really want to get back to the heart of what it means to be in a committed relationship. We can’t do that if there are no real stakes and contestants not only undermine each other, but themselves.”

It made sense, actually. For the last few years, a contestant could sabotage his or her partnership in the hopes of getting a more viable option during their second marriage. But that wasn’t how life worked. You couldn’t trade in one model because you thought you could trick the dealership into something better. Not that doing so was easy to pull off. Usually when someone threw their partner under the bus their machinations were documented by hidden cameras and midnight confessions. I used to wonder how someone could forget that they were under 24/7 scrutiny, but my slip up in the car was proof that it was easier to do than I’d thought.

“You’re free to choose your own rooms and starting tomorrow we’ll have a list of activities planned for each of you. Each morning you’ll find a wedding present outside of your door detailing the plans for the day. During Trial week, we’ll all meet here, and I’ll go over the rules for the upcoming challenges.”

He spoke for a few minutes more, but the instructions were all standard, so I tuned out. I was both relieved and disappointed not to have to sleep with Maddox tonight. On the one hand, I wouldn’t have to share a bedroom with a stranger. On the other hand, I wouldn’t get to share a bedroom with Maddox, who was still just a stranger, albeit a hot one.

“That covers it for today. Everyone get to bed and try to get some sleep tonight. You each have a big day in the morning.” Robert came to each of us and shook our hands or offered a hug depending on our individual enthusiasm.

We all headed back toward the foyer and I trailed last, my steps dragging. I was especially tired. Maddox must have gotten tired of pretending for the day as he’d been one of the first out the door. I stared after him as he carted his luggage up the stairs and searched the foyer for my own. The drivers were gone, and the crew were busy doing last minute checkups on sound and lighting before turning in for the night. My shoulders slumped, and I couldn’t ignore how much my pretty white heels pinched my not so slim toes. If I didn’t get off my feet soon I’d be hobbling. I glanced around for my luggage and startled when I realized that it was nowhere in sight.

“Where-?”

“You coming?” I glanced up. At the top of the wide stairs stood Maddox and I realized for the first time that he’d brought up my luggage in addition to his own. When was the last time someone had done something thoughtful for me? Even something as simple as holding open a door? It made my heart twist for reasons I couldn’t put a name to. Rather than examining it too closely, I hurried up the stairs after my husband, silently hoping that he was as nice as he seemed, instead of just especially good at pretend.





Kids on the block





Funny how twisted truths can make a new reality. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a little happy that Marcus decided to put his own spin on what had happened the night of the sleepover. Somehow, pissing on his living room floor felt like a good enough reason to have him hate me – even if it wasn’t true. At least it was better than the reality that I did nothing at all. That he just decided, on a whim, that I was the enemy. Years later, I would learn to forget all about that night. Years later, none of this would matter.

I walked past the snickering kids and deeper into the cafeteria. Ever since Sara-Lee had offered me a spot at their table, I forgot what it was like to stand in a room filled with enough open seats and not feel comfortable to flop down onto a single one of them.

All eyes were on me.

All laughter was for me.

Despite my size, I felt ridiculously small. I feared what might have happened if I was actually one of the skinny kids – would I have vanished under their gazes. Poof. Disappeared like a dove in a circus act.

“She even smells like pee now,” one of the kids to my right whispered. His entire table erupted in a round of laughter and I stepped away from them as though a few feet of space would do anything to silence them.

Honestly, I didn’t even know what I was doing standing in the middle of the cafeteria. It’s like I wanted them to pick me apart. I should have known better. I’d already heard the rumors during class. What the hell made me think that once the teachers were out of earshot, everyone would calm down with the gossiping?

None of that helped me now. I had a tray of food in my hands, a stomach that was groaning in rebellion and somehow, I was still managing to cling to what little strength I had.

Chairs screeched across the floor and my eyes shot up in the direction of the sound. A group of girls were on their way out, leaving the entire table empty. This was my shot. Slowly, I took one step forward, trying to gauge what direction they were moving in without being too obvious about it. If they took the long route to the exit, I’d take the short one, and vice versa. Things didn’t exactly pan out that way, though. They had their eyes on me. I was the precious new punching bag that everybody wanted to put a dent in and here they were, about to put a dent in me. Unfortunately for them, someone else had the same thing in mind. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t see him coming. Didn’t even notice he was there until my box of apple juice was clenched between his hands.

“Did you piss yourself again, piglet?” He laughed a little, but somewhere embedded in that laugh, there was something else. Guilt? Maybe. I wasn’t sure. Not that it made sense. If he felt guilty, then he wouldn’t have pushed the straw into the box, positioned it at his center and squeezed, pissing apple juice all over my pants.

The tray fell. As did my tears. I think I hated the fact that I was crying more than I hated anything else. I was so upset that in between the sobs, I snorted, like a pig. Like a damn pig. If the nickname wasn’t going to stick before, it sure as hell would now.

“Awwww… don’t cry, piglet. I’m sure they make diapers in your size.”





A week later, the joke didn’t die down. I walked into homeroom, knowing even before I entered, that today was going to be worse than yesterday, and even the day before that. Not that those previous days were hard to top. Most of the boys – including Marcus - had busied themselves prepping for the upcoming game. All their focus was on the win, which meant there was little time left to torment me. I’d never loved sports more in my life than I did when I walked into the classroom to realize that once the game was over, their boredom as well as their hatefulness came charging back at full force. Wrapped in a tidy red bow, and nothing else, was a pack of adult diapers. The snickering started there, but it didn’t stop there.

They laughed and they snorted. And when the snorting started, so did the chants of my new nickname. “Piglet. Piglet. Piglet. Piglet.”

Somewhere in the corner, Sara- Lee rolled her eyes. Somewhere in that same corner, Marcus gave her a nudge. She didn’t budge. He shrugged his shoulders, set his eyes on me and walked up with that cavity sweet smile on his face.

“I’ll open the pack for you,” he taunted, “but don’t expect me to help you to put them on.”

Another round of laughter and then silence. Hands were on me, turning me away from the crowd.

“You all should be ashamed of yourselves,” Miss Miller spat. “Whoever is responsible for this…” she sighed, but didn’t finish her statement before starting another one. “We’ll get to the bottom of this,” she promised.

I appreciated the fact that she cared. Honestly, I did. Unfortunately, she had no idea that caring wasn’t exactly in my best interest. She held true to her promise of getting to the bottom of things. Somehow – perhaps because of the trailer wide smile on his face – she figured Marcus was responsible. This meant Marcus spent the next week plotting revenge while he sat in detention. It also meant that now, everyone felt as though they had a reason to hate me. I’d taken their golden boy away. Made it so that the coach benched him for the next game. We were all kids, sure. And in retrospect, this game was the equivalent of chickens running about trying to spot the remnants of their food. But it mattered to them. And I’d ruined it for them. Never mind the fact that they actually lost the game.

If I thought I knew hell before, boy oh boy, was I in for an unsavory treat.





4





My room was the smallest one on the second floor. But even small was bigger than my entire apartment and I didn’t mind taking one for the team since it meant an unobstructed view of the garden courtyard. There was an infinity pool toward the edge of the property, and I was itching to get into the water.

I waited until a few hours had passed and then went into my private bathroom. It would be the only area without a hidden camera, so it would be my dressing room from here on out. I pulled on my swimsuit, a retro affair that hugged my curves and made me look elegant rather than dumpy. I was always artistic when it came to showing skin. A lot of people looked at my weight and saw me as sloppy and lazy. I’d had a few boyfriends over the years who’d been surprised by the fact that I paid very close attention to my hygiene. I never wanted someone to make an assumption about my fashion sense or my body odor so sometimes I overcompensated with designer clothes and high-end make-up. The bottom half of my two-piece sat above my belly button and with my curly hair pulled up into a neat topknot I looked like a model from the 1950’s.

Or at least I liked to think so.

Normally I wouldn’t put so much effort into a midnight swim, but I had to remember that I was constantly on camera. They could use any footage they chose, and I didn’t want to slip up and get caught looking ratchet on national television.

The pool was easy to reach - thanks to a winding pathway of stones through the garden. Surrounded by a volley of fruit trees with sleek patio furniture stationed on its edge, the infinity pool was a swimmer’s dream. The mountain side home gave us the perfect vantage point of the Denver cityscape and the lights of the skyscrapers competed with the stars above for dominance until they were one glittering blanket of impermanent beauty.

I slipped into the pool and dove beneath the surface. I swam out until I could no longer feel the bottom beneath me, and the edge of the pool fell away. Leaning my arms over the lip of the pool, I rested my chin on my forearms and allowed my body to float aimlessly behind.

This was my favorite part of swimming. I felt weightless, separated finally from the shackles of my own skin. If I closed my eyes, I could probably imagine myself as someone else, but why would I want to?

I thought back to that girl I’d once been. The one who’d been too timid to even wear a bathing suit on the beach, the one who would have given anything to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, and I sighed. It was hard to hate the person you once were without some of that bias leaking over into who you’d become. I still had a lot of work to do on myself, but I couldn’t imagine being anyone other than Cornelia.

A part of me wondered what the kids who tormented me in high school were doing these days, but another part of me was convinced that they were off somewhere burning in hell. Which I was perfectly fine with.

“Room for one more?”

I turned, my heart in my throat. Maddox was standing at the edge of the pool. Watching me. I couldn’t read his expression in the dark, but I could see enough of him thanks to the recessed lighting beneath the water to know that he was practically naked.

He shifted and I amended practically, to completely.

“Not if you plan on coming in with that thing,” I squeaked, then blushed. I was going for suave, but the sight of shadow dick had stolen all of my common sense.

Maddox glanced down at his crotch as if surprised to find it waving free.

“I’m sorry,” he said mildly. “I didn’t think it would bother you.” He sounded amused and my eyes narrowed. Was he laughing at me?

“It doesn’t,” I said defensively. “I just…it’s just unexpected.”

“You like to watch me while I sleep, and you don’t like surprises that involve dicks.” He nodded. “Gotcha. See there? We’re learning more about one another every day.”

I laughed and while I was still mentally unpacking his bullshit, he dove into the water. We were far enough from the house that the splashing probably wouldn’t alert anyone, but I still glanced toward the darkened windows of the mansion in growing paranoia. I knew that there were cameras everywhere and yet it was so easy to dismiss them when I couldn’t see any with the naked eye. By the end of the year I’d probably be wandering the halls in my granny panties and no bra playing candy crush on my phone.

Robert had said to make ourselves at home.

‘Yeah, but he didn’t say ruin his ratings.’

Maddox had been under the water for a while when I felt the whisper of skin on skin. I flinched back from his touch and stifled a gasp as he came up for air less than a foot from me. He ran one hand through his hair to pull the dark strands out of his eyes and wiped his face with the other.

“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

He was close. Too close for comfort. I couldn’t see his penis, but I was thinking about it so intently that I was sure it would pop out of the water with the same rakish smile any second now.

“I don’t get you,” I said in a sudden bout of frustration. “One second you’re cool and detached and the next you’re kissing me and skinny dipping.” I shook my head, letting myself tread water until most of my body was beneath the surface. I could feel the pool latch onto the curls that had fallen from my bun placing them heavy against my neck, a caress in the dark. Whenever Maddox was around, I always felt deliciously aware of every inch of my body. Not necessarily a good thing when that lust went unresolved.

He shrugged casually, his gaze unfathomable and his grin promising trouble.

“What’s there to get?” he whispered hoarsely. His eyes were heavy on my skin and beneath the surface I felt my body heat as if on que. “As far as I’m concerned, the situation is pretty straightforward.”

“What situation is that?”

At some point, we’d begun whispering and without thinking, I let myself drift closer to his warmth. Being near Maddox was intoxicating. I felt like Icarus flying too close to the sun. I knew damn well I was about to get burned but I couldn’t seem to make myself turn away.

“I like you.” He slipped closer still until our chests were almost touching. My breath felt loud between us. “I want you.” My back was against the wall I’d been leaning on so there was nowhere to go when he lifted his hand to brush his knuckles down the outer curve of my breast. My breath caught on a shaky sigh. “And I know you want me too.”

“Let me guess?” It was hard to drip sarcasm when heat was gathering between my legs. My body ached to be filled and my heart beat so hard that I could feel my pulse jumping in my throat. “You’re the kind of man who gets what he wants?”

“Usually,” he admitted.

“Is-” I swallowed, hard. “Is this a trick?” I hated having to ask, but I’d grown up around cruel people. I knew how they thought. The types of things they found funny.

“Does it feel like one?”

I growled in frustration. “Do you always answer a question with a question?”

He shrugged, and laughed softly at the ire written on my face. “Only if the question is a stupid one.”

Not really an answer.

Or maybe, it was.

I couldn’t imagine what kind of enjoyment Maddox would get out of tricking me when there was so much on the line, but I had to ask. Maybe that was it? Maybe this was just some sort of tactic. The stronger we were going into the trials, the better and there was no quicker way to get to know someone than mindless fucking.

I tried to feel offense, but I couldn’t muster the emotion. So, what if he were only using sex as a way to get closer to me? I wanted him to get closer to me. I had no intention of allowing our partnership to fail which meant that at some point over the next twelve months, the issue of sex was bound to come up (pun intended).

Contestants had sex with one another all the time. It was expected. When I found out that I would be on the show, my biggest concern was if my weight would be a deal breaker in the bedroom. Some men were turned off by heavier women while others looked at me as if I were a fetish. Maddox seemed to be in that sweet spot where he liked what he saw but only because I was a woman he was attracted to and not because it was some weird kink. I was pretty sure I was wrong. We were all in this for the money, after all. If love came, that would be the bonus to really make it worth it.

Maddox grabbed the edge of the pool on either side of my body and suddenly we were pressed about as close as two people could get without one of them being inside of the other. My swimsuit clung to my body and it offered little protection against the muscled planes of his chest and stomach. His thigh slipped between my legs and I cried out at the contact. I could feel his cock pressed against my hip and my hips rocked, eager for more and already shaking from the attention he was showing. The slow, careful, ebb of his dominance spilled over me like Lava and I clutched his shoulders for support.

“Was I right?” he mused, gazing down at me, eyes searching my own and unwrapping my soul as if it were a present. I looked away and he pressed his lips against the shell of my ear, murmuring a breath warm with desire. “Do you want me Cornelia?”

His hip pressed upward, and I shuddered against him as my moisture soaked the V of my swimsuit even more than the water had. Something about being alone, in the dark, with this man pressed hungry and hard against me, made me reckless. Hadn’t I come here to prove…something to myself? To be a little spontaneous? To throw caution to the wind for once and embrace who I was fully and without hesitation?

Yes.

Yes.

Yes.

He must have seen the answer written all over my face because he growled against the side of my neck, his tongue teasing my frantic pulse, and I moaned. A deep, guttural sound of want. It had been months since my last sexual encounter with anyone and I couldn’t even remember what it had been like or what the guy had looked like. When I wasn’t in a relationship I had sloppy one-night stands with men I never expected to hear from again. The sex was never earth shattering. I used it to scratch an itch and I was smart enough not to get too attached to the man doing the scratching.

“Why?” I couldn’t seem to leave it alone, despite firm orders to do just that. I wanted to enjoy this moment, not overanalyze it. But even so…even so… thoughts of Marcus reared their ugly head. “Why would you want me?”

He froze, staring at me as if I were the dumbest creature he’d ever seen. One eyebrow lifted in challenge and rather than back down, I stood my ground while he shattered the last of my walls with no discernable effort.

“Why wouldn’t I?”

I knew when Maddox pressed his lips to mine, in our second kiss of the day, that every precaution I’d drilled into myself was going right out the window. He wasn’t the type of man who accepted half measures. I wouldn’t be able to stop him from taking all of me, from burrowing beneath my skin and making his home there, and the terrifying thing was that I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to try.

‘Just this once,’ I thought frantically, my stomach fluttering as his tongue delved deep and stroked me as if he couldn’t get enough of my taste. ‘Take what you want, just this once. Fuck the fallout.’

Walls that would have been insurmountable in my day to day life fell away. I lifted my legs, wrapping them loosely around his waist. One hand still balanced on the edge of the pool, he reached between our bodies and slipped a finger between my thighs. I felt him shift my bathing suit to one side and had to bite my lip when he found my clit with the ease of long practice.

The hand against the wall flexed and he pulled us in close against its uncompromising face. He devoured me with his mouth even as his finger stroked my pussy and I found myself jerking my hips forward in a desperate bid for more. My arms wrapped around him, holding him close and using his body as leverage. He angled his hips and his cock pressed against the opening of my body just as the sound of voice penetrated the fog of desire clouding my thoughts.

I went very still, and my body screamed at me for it. The ache in the pit of my womb became an inferno but Maddox didn’t withdraw. Instead, he met my eyes in the dark and mischief flashed across his face. When I opened my mouth to argue, he pressed his finger against my lips.

“Be bad with me Cornelia,” he whispered just on the other side of his finger. It was almost as if he were hushing himself too, though he was brave enough to disregard his own advice even as the voice grew louder, closer.

“Show me what kind of bad ass agrees to get married to a complete stranger.”

It was a challenge. There was no other way to describe it. God help me, but in that moment of abandon, sitting on the knife’s edge of pleasure denied, I was eager to call his bluff.

Until I heard them.

I couldn’t make out what the faceless voices were saying, and I didn’t try. Maddox and I stayed quiet, moving by slow increments into the deeper shadows the surrounding fruit trees offered. In their wake, I could barely make out my own hand. Even with the recessed lighting below the surface, the pair would need to be nearly on top of us before they knew we were there. The pool was shallow at this end, so Maddox was able to stand on his own two feet. It was only Maddox who stood, because he refused to let me get down, preferring instead to pull us hand over hand along the edge of the pool until he got his feet beneath him.

As soon as he was free to stand, he wrapped an arm around my waist and held me up against his side while he used his other hand to pull my bottoms off. They clung and fought to stay on my skin, but Maddox was more determined, and I was of no mind to stop him. Instead, I trailed kisses along his face and down his neck, nipping him with my teeth and soothing the sting with a swipe of my tongue. I lost myself in him, pulling him close and rubbing myself across the length of his body.

I was drunk off the feel of his hands and mouth, by his scent like warm butterscotch and brandy. When his teeth found my nipple through my top, I ground my pussy against his bare stomach and threw my head back on a moan.

I’d read somewhere that pool sex was more uncomfortable because the pool water made it hard for a woman to get and stay wet. I was so swollen with need that I doubted it would be a problem. I loved rubbing my body along his, loved floating weightless and unencumbered while he pleasured me with fingertips, teeth, and tongue alike.

The voices grew louder and just when I thought I was ready to cry out for him to stop, Maddox pressed the head of his cock back against my vulnerable center and began to push. His mouth captured my answering cry and my nails dug into his shoulders as he spread me wide. I hadn’t been able to see what his dick looked like in the dark, but he felt as big as his outline had suggested in the car. My inner walls stretched to accommodate his girth and I whimpered into his mouth. He pushed forward, inch by inch, until he filled me to the brim. I could feel the head of him against my cervix and my mind went blank.

“Fuck me.” I mouthed the words against the corner of his lips when I was finally able to pull myself away from the kiss. Lifting myself in his arms only to slam back down. He held still at first and I scrambled, close to begging if only it would bring me that greedy, violent, release I’d craved ever since his lips touched mine. He gripped my ass and let me fuck myself on his rigid length and it was only when a desperate sound crawled up from the back of my throat that he finally gave in.

His muscles bulged, and he lifted me with ease, pumping his hips softly at first and then harder and harder. Maddox didn’t move quickly. Every thrust was carefully thought out and executed with agonizing care. He fucked me hard and slow to keep the water from making too much noise and I felt tears fill my eyes each time he struck that delicious part deep within me that was all nerves and need.

Instead of detracting from my excitement, the threat of getting caught only added to it. I imagined being seen. I imagined people looking over and knowing that Maddox was inside of me, fucking me, about to fill me with his cum with God, the stars, and all of America watching.

It should have been a turn off to feel so exposed, to move with such abandon in front of unseen eyes, but it sent a shockwave through me. A thrill so intense that it bordered on pain and sent liquid gold flooding my inner canal. I almost wanted to get caught if only because I could see Maddox ignoring their shock and disbelief to keep pumping away. I wondered if he would finish. He seemed like the type who would just keep going if someone found him mid-coitus. He wasn’t cocky, per say, but there was a brash confidence that demanded obedience if not downright subservience. There was no doubt in my mind that Maddox would stay inside of me until he was good and ready to leave, witnesses or not, and for someone who’d spent most of her life as an afterthought, that knowledge nearly sent me spiraling over the edge of release.

Then the voices that had been so distant grew decidedly more distinct.

“-think is going to last?”

“Definitely the black chick and the old man. They’re the only ones who look even remotely good together.”

“Tell me about it.” Laughter was a bucket of icy water causing our rhythm to falter. “Is it just me or did casting really stick Magic Mike with Mrs. Piggy?”

I’m sure they laughed again but I couldn’t hear it over the roar of memories that assaulted me. You’d think after ten years society would have been able to come up with something a little more original, but if it works don’t fix it.

Right?

Without rhyme or reason those two little words unraveled my lust, punctured my resolve, and brought my walls back to painful life. I pulled away from Maddox, and sensing that something was wrong, he let me go without hesitation.

My throat grew tight. Was I really that pathetic, that starved for kindness, that even the simplest act of decency touched my soul? Maddox wasn’t professing his love or tattooing my name on his ass. No. He was holding my hand, carrying my luggage, letting me go when I pulled away during sex. Even the fact that he wanted me seemed, under the circumstances, an act of cruel charity. I hated that I’d been crafted this way. That I couldn’t even enjoy the touch of another person without wondering at their motives.

Even strangers, a pair I could only assume were part of the crew since I didn’t recognize their voices, knew enough to realize that Maddox and I hadn’t been paired as a love connection. I’d been brought on the show for laughs. I was the butt of the joke, yet again, and I was too busy convincing myself that I could play the system against itself to notice.

I curled against the pools edge, slipping back into my bottoms one leg at a time. They were easier to slip on while my hips were still under water so that’s exactly what I did. I didn’t care if the crew could hear us splashing around anymore. My knees were still shaking from the pounding Maddox had given me and the flesh between my legs was tender and so sensitive that even my bathing suit was nearly too much. My ID told me to ignore the cruelty of their words. That I should instead be focusing on fucking and coming. But I was thinking now and with space between Maddox and myself, my thoughts were my own once more. I never thought it was possible to think with my lady bits before so on a positive note, I’d learned that. On a more negative note, by the time the show aired I’d officially look like the biggest, saddest, slut in the US.

Not in an empowering, Amber Rose, Slut Walk sort of way either. It would be in a he-was-nice-to-me-for-two-seconds-so-I-gave-him-the-coochie kinda way. Momma would be devastated.

“I should go,” I muttered beneath my breath, pulling myself out of the pool before I could change my mind. I’d been in the water for so long I’d forgotten how heavy the world was once your feet were on solid ground. Feeling waterlogged and clumsier than ever, I darted dripping wet through the courtyard. I could feel Maddox striding after me, but I ignored him. We managed to slip past the crew without having to pass too closely, but I was sure that they would be able to recognize Maddox even in the dark. He was the tallest of the men in the house. Whether they were open-minded enough to picture me as an accomplice in his torrid behavior would remain to be seen.

“Cornelia?” I walked a little faster. I couldn’t outrun him, but I didn’t want to have this conversation. I felt stupid, childish, ugly and I didn’t want to face Maddox when I knew that at any minute I would lose the battle to keep my tears at bay.

“Lei!”

The name brought me up short like nothing else could have. I faced him, already on the defensive and hungry for blood to wash the taste of shame out of mouth.

“What do you-?” I abruptly remembered his declaration in the pool and ditched the question on behalf of a statement. “What we did was idiotic.”

Maddox had noticed my slip, but his answering smirk died as I continued.

“It didn’t feel idiotic.”

I shook my head, amazed at him.

“Is that how you go through life? How you make decisions? By just doing whatever feels good without any thought to the consequences?”

“I tried living life your way once,” he retorted. “Scared and always scrambling in hopes that the world would see me for what I was instead of who it thought I should be.” He shrugged. “It…wasn’t my cup of tea.” I got the feeling that he wanted to say much more than that but the acoustics in the kitchen were too discerning for curse words, even the grumbled kind. We’d drawn enough attention to ourselves as it was.

“You don’t know anything about me.” I hugged myself, cursing my own stupidity for worrying more about my hair than a towel.

He stepped into my space and even with cool tile beneath me and the kitchen shelves rising like nightmares in the dark, his proximity reminded me so forcefully of what we’d just done in the pool that my thighs clenched together. He looked down at me, studying the planes of my face as if committing them to memory. I wondered what he saw.

“I know enough,” he began softly. “I know you’re too scared to admit when you want something, so you make excuses as to why you can’t have it. That won’t work with me. With us. This isn’t a game for me, Cornelia. I didn’t come here for a car, a paycheck, or a vacation around the world.”

I shook my head as the cold crept through me, seeping into my muscle and bone. Something about this entire scenario felt off. Wrong. But I couldn’t put my finger on why.

My teeth sunk into my bottom lip and I shook my head. I tried looking away, but Maddox reached out and his hand cupped the side of my face. Its gentleness belied the ice in his expression. I held still, afraid that if I moved, I would shatter whatever was growing in the space between us.

“Why are you here, Maddox?” I whispered, searching his eyes with growing desperation. “Why did you sign up for the show.” I’d asked him this very question only a few hours ago in the car and I realized now that he hadn’t answered me then. I held my breath, waiting for him to deflect or distract, to answer my question with another question and leave me just as confused as when I’d started. Instead, his thumb brushed across my lower lip and a small, bitter, smile twisted his face.

“I came here for you.”

Alarm bells went off in my head and I turned, pulling away from his touch and running out of the kitchen. There was a part of me that was afraid he’d try to stop me, but he let me leave without even a word of protest and somehow, that made it so much worse.





Kids on the block





The worst part about living in small town America was the fact that everyone knew everyone and mostly, it was that way from the day they were born until the day they died. I loved my new foster mom. My new foster mom loved me. But my heart broke at least a thousand times every single day. Being here, going to school with Marcus and Sara-Lee hurt so much that I often wondered just how much having an actual place to call home even mattered. Whether or not it would be easier to hop from foster home to foster home. Because the truth was, I didn’t have the option of going to a different school. From the time you started kindergarten to the time you burned your cap and gown, you were stuck with the same faces.

The older I got, the more it hurt. You’d expect that after years of torment, my skin would only grow thicker, that the insults would just roll of me like I was made of oil and everything they spewed was nothing but a mix of Hydrogen and Oxygen. Water and oil, they don’t mix and so, their words shouldn’t have hurt me. Except, they did. They always did.

I was older now, yes. And people had matured. But with that maturity came a shit load of new and improved ways to make my life a living hell. The jokes were dirtier. The bullying even more vile. But worse, was possibly the fact that hormones were raging high and mighty, eagles of ego soaring through a very crowded sky. Those hormones also meant that crushes were being developed. My problem was hinged on the fact that I’d never mustered up feelings for anyone who wasn’t Marcus. Not love or hate or anything in between.

When high school rolled around, I told myself that I was going to make a comeback. I wouldn’t just become a better version of myself. I’d become a whole new Cornelia. I’d worked my ass off in the summer. Lost a little weight here and a bit more there. I looked great. I felt great. I could run around a track without breaking a sweat. Marcus noticed. He made a comment about it too and for the first time in years it didn’t feel like he was looking at me like I was the farmer’s next slaughter. As things always were with Marcus, however, I should have known better. By the time I got to class, he’d managed to turn weight loss into my worst nightmare.

There was a sign-up sheet going around class. At first, I didn’t think much of it. Hell, I didn’t think anything of it until it was slapped onto my desk by none other than the only person