The Sister Code
About the Author
Note from the Author
Copyright © 2016 by HALEY ALLISON
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
To Derek, who showed me what it’s like to have a rocker in the house.
I tap my finger on the side of the laptop and glance out the open window for inspiration. The rolling green hills give a ripple effect in the breeze as our horses graze peacefully inside the wooden fence. Clicking and trilling noises sound from the trees surrounding the house. It’s a Kentucky country paradise…and I’m so over it. There’s nothing to write about here. Nothing but boring, daily drudgery. No social life. No boys. No pep rallies or proms. Just a quiet, bland life with nothing to spice it up, like a saltine cracker.
Nana’s sharp rap comes at my bedroom door. She croaks through it, “You workin’ on that assignment I gave you?”
I groan. “Yes, Nana.”
“Good. Take your time on it. Give my tired old ears a rest.” I hear her rushed footsteps pound down the hall.
Nana wants me to start expressing my feelings some other way than shredding on a guitar. I’m supposed to be creating a diary, so I decided to make a private—for my eyes only—blog. I called it “Diary of a Rocker Chick.” Keeping a diary is something I wouldn’t normally do. I’m not obsessed with my feelings, and I honestly think diaries are cheesy and childish, but I’m not allowed to go outside until I finish this. Homeschooling would have been great with a crunchy mom who thinks going outside is a science class. Instead, I’m stuck with a crotchety old grandmother who thinks Montessori is a scam invented by the devil to dumb down my generation’s minds until we’re all devoted to Satan.
I look down at the laptop in my lap and scowl. It doesn’t disintegrate into dust the way I was hoping it would. Guess my dream last night about falling into a vat of toxic waste and waking up as Cyclops was just that.
Well…here goes nothing.
Hi, Me. I guess that’s who I’m supposed to be talking to here.
What to write…what to write…feelings. I guess I’m supposed to be writing about my feelings. Gross.
As usual, I’m stuck-y in Kentucky while Ana’s on spring break like a normal person. Her parents didn’t invite me to join them because, in their words, I’m a “bad influence” on Ana. I’d expect nothing less from a conservative Southern preacher and his wife, but it’s a bit hilarious to be labeled as that because I’ve never had a drop of alcohol, I don’t know how to roll a joint, and I’m still a virgin, so there’s no way they could label me as a whore. The only legitimate reason they could call me a “bad influence” is because I want to be a rock star someday.
I glance over at my Gibson and smile. She’s a thing of beauty, her silver trimmings glinting in the light of the afternoon sun.
Today during lunch break, I did something I’ve been trying to do for two years: I mastered the guitar riff from Back in Black by AC/DC. I would have known that one already, except I was too busy learning an assload of Avenged Sevenfold songs to care that I was getting behind on the 80s. I’m obsessed with 2000s rock, especially A7X. I eat, drink, and breathe them.
I keep trying to write this one song, but it’s like the words are stuck in my head. They’re there, I can feel them, but they won’t pop out. It’s like one of those pimples that festers and gets really painful until it finally grows a head. Until I pop the word pimple, I can’t really call it a song, so for now it’s just some naked, sick-ass guitar chords. I guess it’s hard to write songs when nothing ever happens to you.
Yay, me and my boring life. Not a very inspiring blog topic. Maybe I can make this sound a little more exciting.
After my little music break, I was forced to battle it out with Geometry, my archnemesis. It took me two hours to get today’s lesson down. That subject hovers over me like a supervillain bent on destroying my future. Thankfully, I’m almost done with it, since junior year is almost over.
Six months until I turn eighteen, and then I’m packing a bag and going off to see the outside world. My first mission when I leave this farm is to find my mother, whom I affectionately refer to as “Mother Dearest.” She’s never been a part of my life, and I don’t even know her name. I’ve asked Dad about her, but all he’ll tell me is that she was a “bitch who didn’t deserve me.”
Eww…my mother. Writing about her did not give me warm and fuzzy feelings. I don’t think I’ll be making that mistake again.
Now that I’ve finished my last assignment of the day, I’m free to go out and take a ride with Dad before dinner. We love riding our horses around the property as a way to unwind at the end of a long day. I’ll come back and write more if anything interesting happens while we’re out. That’s highly unlikely, so don’t get your hopes up.
“Your?” Damn, this assignment is really bringing out my inner weirdo. Time to sign off.
I laugh out loud. No, no, no.
See you soon,
What? Seriously, no. Why is this so hard?
Sigh…sure. Guess the inner weirdo’s here to stay. I might as well embrace her.
I click “Submit” and take a look at my published post, surprised that writing in a diary didn’t suck too much.
That evening, as Dad and I come back in through the windowed, curtained back door to the kitchen, the smell of my favorite dinner meets my nose. Fried chicken and the works is a staple in any self-respecting, good old-fashioned Southern home. I’ve eaten way more than my share of it in my lifetime, but it never gets old.
The kitchen is overrun by dated wallpaper and carved wooden horses. The tile was once white, but it browned from years of people tramping in dirt from the stables through the back door. Nana already set the table, and now she’s scurrying back and forth between the refrigerator and the stove. I know better than to get in her way. This is Nana’s kitchen, and no one else is even allowed to step foot beyond a certain point.
“Hey, Nana, how long until dinner’s ready?”
“Patience is a virtue, young lady!” she barks in her raspy growl of a voice.
Dad nudges me, and his maple eyes twinkle. “You were askin’ for that one, baby girl.”
I head to the nearby half bath to wash my hands, and Dad follows behind me. “She just gets more and more pissed off as she gets older, doesn’t she?” I whisper.
“Well, if your body was decayin’ and givin’ off a smell, you probably wouldn’t be so happy, either.”
I gag. “Gross, Dad! I didn’t need to hear that spelled out.”
“It’s the truth, though. She’s senile, honey. Just keep cuttin’ her slack.”
“Fine, but I don’t have to like being yelled at for every little question I ask.” I turn off the squeaky hot and cold knobs, then I make a futile attempt to dry my hands on the old-as-hell hand towel. There’s hardly any fiber left on this dense web of beige threads. “Can’t she at least buy new towels once in a millennium?”
“I’ll talk to her about it,” Dad promises, and I nod and pass by him to exit the room.
When I get back to the kitchen, I stand behind my chair at the table and wait impatiently for Nana to set everything down. Once Dad is back at the table and everyone is seated, I grab the metal tongs and sort through the bounty to select my choice meat.
“How’s school goin’?” Dad scoops some delectably lumpy mashed potatoes onto his blue china plate with a plop. “I haven’t heard much about it lately.”
“It’s all right. Nana got me started on this diary thing today.”
“Sounds great! I wish I had written down more of what you did when you were little. I can barely even remember those days now.” Dad takes a long draught of his sweet iced tea.
“What, are you gettin’ senile or somethin’?” My Southern accent is usually kind of tamed down, but it comes out when I tease back and forth with Dad. He takes it as me making fun of him, but it’s totally accidental.
His eyebrow cocks in warning. “Careful, young lady.”
We fall silent for a little while to eat, and I glance at Dad again as I bite into one of Nana’s fluffy, buttery, melt-in-your-mouth homemade biscuits. He’s graying around the temples, although he’s somehow managed to keep all of his ear-length brown hair. Crinkles appear around his eyes when he smiles, and he’s also getting just a hint of creases in his cheeks. Dad is getting older…not as old as Nana, of course, but it’s still kind of scary when you realize your only parent is starting to age.
“Do you know when Ana’s gettin’ back?” Dad’s question derails my train of thought.
“I think she’s getting back in, like, a week.”
“They’ve been havin’ a good time, I assume?”
“Hell yeah. She loves it there.”
“Good. We’ll arrange somethin’ with her family when she gets back.”
When we’re almost done with our meal, Dad gets a call. “It’s Cass,” he says, and he jumps up from the table and runs down the hall with his phone. Cass Meriwether is Dad’s best friend who lives in California. We’ve never been out to visit her, but she comes out to visit us once a year, and they keep in touch by phone and text. It seems like she’s well off, but she never really talks about it. I guess she’s modest about her wealth or something.
Dad comes back in the room as Nana and I are taking our dishes to the sink. “Cass just broke up with Tom,” Dad says, and I groan.
“Again?” The woman can never keep a fiancé. Cass has been engaged, like, five times, and she always has some crazy excuse for why she broke up with the man she was supposed to marry right before the wedding.
He scratched behind his ear too much.
His credit score wasn’t high enough.
The car he drove wasn’t a hybrid. Supposedly that’s really important to Californians. I guess it’s really, really important to her.
“Yeah. This time, they just couldn’t get along. I feel terrible for her, as always,” Dad says with a rueful chuckle. “But the good news is she wants to come see us a little early this year to get her mind off it.” I catch a hint of a grin on his face. Cass’s visits are his favorite part of the whole year.
“Fine with me.” I toss chicken bones into the trash can beneath the sink. “It will be nice having two riding partners instead of one.”
“I told her she can come whenever she’s ready. She seemed pretty torn up about it, so I think she’s gonna take a couple days to recover before she flies out here.”
“We’ll need to freshen up the guest room,” Nana says. “Mads, that’ll be your task tomorrow.”
A groan escapes my throat. “She’s Dad’s friend. Why should I have to clean the guest room?”
“Madison Landers, don’t talk back to your Nana,” Dad scolds firmly. I sigh as I rinse my dishes off, and then I wash my hands.
“Ungrateful…” Nana mutters something else under her breath as she places my dishes in the dishwasher.
“Sorry, Nana,” I say, feeling a tinge of genuine remorse. Her whole life has revolved around me since I was born. I guess I do act ungrateful sometimes, but I don’t mean to.
“Tell you what, honey, I’ll help you clean up the guest room tonight. Sound fair?” Dad asks.
“Sure.” I grudgingly follow him upstairs while Nana finishes up the kitchen.
Dad hands me a can of Pledge and a dust rag when we enter the guest room. I spray and dust the old oak furniture as he takes the linens off the bed to wash them and then vacuums the carpeted floor. After we’re both done with our tasks, Dad takes the linens down the hall to the laundry room. I rush into my bedroom before he can find another chore to keep me busy.
When I get inside my room, my ringtone goes off. I hurry over to my nightstand to pick up my phone and slide it to answer. “Hey, lady!”
Ana is video-chatting me from Miami, looking gorgeously tan and perfect as ever. Her honey-blonde hair falls in waves over her shoulders, and her green eyes sparkle with happiness at the sight of me. “Hey! Aw…I miss you,” she pouts.
“Miss you too. How’s Florida?” I sink down into my black silk comforter, cringing at the image of me in the right corner of the screen. My glasses and braces look alien compared to Ana’s model looks. My long, dark hair is pulled into a braid over my shoulder that stretches all the way down to my waist. The length of my hair is one of the few girly things about me. In most other things, I might as well be a boy.
Ana chatters for a while the obnoxious drive down with her zoo of brothers and sisters, then she adds, “By the way, be glad you’re not down here. I tanned so fast this afternoon. Those same rays would have had you looking like a lobster.”
I chuckle. Too many times I’ve ended up with sun poisoning because of my pigment-challenged skin. “Yeah, you’d be playing my nurse again right now with gallons of Ocean Potion and Advil. Having an Irish complexion is not as awesome as it sounds.”
“Well, being blonde isn’t all that, either,” Ana says with an eye roll. “I wish I had your dark hair. Everyone assumes I’m a moron because I’m blonde. I overheard this dude on the beach earlier saying he could probably con me into sleeping with him because I looked so gullible. I told him ‘up yours.’”
“You’re one of the smartest people I know, so that’s his loss,” I say, bringing a smile to her face.
“Thanks, girl. Well, I have to go to dinner now, but I just wanted a quick chat with you before my family monopolizes me for the evening. Hang in there, okay? I’ll be home soon.”
“All right, love. Have fun.”
“See ya.” She hangs up the phone, and I toss my body back on the bed, wishing teleportation was a thing already.
So big news, something’s happening around here. A visitor is coming to town. I’m actually really pumped about it.
Most teens wouldn’t like hanging out with their parent’s “lame friends,” but Cass is not lame. In fact, I’m fully expecting all sorts of mischief to take place while she’s here. Cass loves playing pranks on Dad, and occasionally she’ll attempt one on Nana, and she always enlists me as her partner in crime. Of course, when she’s mourning a lost love, she’s usually a little less energetic, but if she stays long enough, her usual self might creep out.
It’s also nice to have Dad preoccupied so I can have more Internet time. Usually, I only get half an hour on the Internet a day, not including time spent on gaming. With Cass around, he doesn’t pay any attention to the fact I’m holed up in my room, and Nana’s busy playing hostess, so I get off with stretching the rules a little bit.
Cass likes to drink too, so I bet she’s going to get hammered at some point while she’s here. Nana doesn’t allow liquor in the house, but Dad and Cass usually sneak out to a shed at the far end of the property with bottles of whiskey and rum. They won’t go out to drink, for some reason, and if we all go out together, they always wear sunglasses, even in a dark restaurant. They say the lighting in restaurants and bars hurts their eyes, but as far as I know, neither of them have any sort of eye condition. Whatever, weirdos. As long as you get out of the house and busy doing other things, I’m happy.
There’s not much else to write about today. Life is still boring as hell. At least I’m getting close to being done with this school year, and the count of songs I’ve mastered on guitar just hit seventy-five. I keep a running list, which I’ll probably post on this blog the day that number hits one hundred.
Here’s hoping the next week will be fun and not a total sob-fest.
The next afternoon, Dad and I pick Cass up at Blue Grass Airport. Usually, Cass looks picture-perfect even after a long plane ride, but when she trudges out of the gate this time, she looks like hell. Her long, blonde hair is rumpled, and gray sweatpants and a royal blue hoodie swallow up her trim figure. Without her makeup, I’m not even sure I’m looking at the same rich, beautiful, put-together person I once knew as Cassidy Meriwether.
“Hey, Mike,” she mutters as she approaches us.
“Aw, come here.” Dad doesn’t waste time with a greeting. He takes Cass in his arms, and she clings to him.
“Am I gonna die alone?” she asks with a sniffle.
“Absolutely not. You still have us,” Dad says. She pulls back from the hug after a few seconds, wipes her eyes and nose on her sleeve, and then turns to me and holds out her arms.
“Hey, sweetie,” she says.
I cringe at the thought of getting her bodily fluids on me, but I’m nice and hug her anyway. “Hey, Cass. I’m sorry about you and Tom.”
“Honey, word of advice—don’t bother with men,” Cass says with a rueful laugh. She pulls back and wipes her eyes again.
“Not like Dad would allow that, anyway.”
Dad grins at my smirk and shakes his head. “Not a chance. You’re my girl until you’re eighteen.”
“Well, let’s get out of here,” Cass says. “I could really use some equine therapy right now.” The three of us go to the baggage claim to get her luggage, and then we ride home in Dad’s truck.
All the way back, Cass moans to Dad about how Tom “didn’t understand her” and all this crap, and all I keep thinking is, Just be glad you even had the chance to go out with someone. Seriously, sometimes it feels like no one understands what it’s like to not even have the option of love. My body pillow is nice to snuggle at night, but it’s a little humiliating that’s the closest thing I’ve ever had to a boyfriend at seventeen and a half years of age.
Thirty minutes later, we pull into our gravel driveway, which is such a rough, uneven ride that it always makes me feel like my teeth are chipping themselves off. Dad helps Cass with her luggage, and I go on to the stables to get three of our horses ready to ride. Prepping Maggie, my chestnut mare, is easy because she’s so sweet and laid-back, but Jackie, her sister, is a pain in the ass. She always tries to buck while I’m strapping the saddle on her, which makes it nearly impossible to secure it. This time, after just a couple of bucks, Jackie takes mercy on me and stands still, so I reward her with an apple and a pat on the back. Dad never lets me mess with Weston, his black stallion, so I simply offer treats to him and Maggie, and they both nuzzle me for it.
When Dad and Cass walk in the stables twenty minutes later, Cass is looking a little more presentable with a bleach-blonde braid, a plaid button-up shirt, jeans, and boots. Her clothes are almost an exact female version of Dad’s. I’m not into the plaid shirt thing like they are. I like band tees and Converse better.
The three of us take a long ride out to a giant oak tree, which we love to sit under in the spring. We all tie our horses to it, and Dad lays out a blanket for us to sit on. After chatting for a while about the farm, Dad and Cass get into the business end of it, and I completely tune them out. I couldn’t care less about what it costs to run a farm. All I care about is riding the horses.
My other senses come alive as I’m lying down on the blanket waiting for them to move on to another subject. The grass is starting to green up, and the smell of fresh new life—and manure— wafts up all around us. Birds chirp above us in the tree, and I smile at the sight of a couple of tree swallows nesting. I’d love to climb this tree and spy on them, but Dad always says it’s rude to climb the tree while I’m supposed to be hanging out with someone on the ground. It’s a shame…those limbs up there are really tempting.
My ears start operating again when Cass says, “Well, if you ever run out of money, you know you’ve got hundreds of valuables at the mansion you could sell.”
“You’ve got valuables in a mansion?” I ask, and then I notice both of their faces have turned ashen.
“Oh…my…God…” Cass clamps her hand over her mouth. Her eyeballs are bulging out of their sockets. Clearly, she just said something she wasn’t supposed to say. “Mike, I am so sorry—”
“Seventeen years and you choose now to slip up,” Dad growls, glaring daggers at her. His nostrils start to flare like Maggie’s when she’s just run an obstacle course, which only happens when he’s mad as hell.
“What’s going on?” I ask, utterly confused. They’ve been hiding the fact that Dad has valuables in a mansion for seventeen years?
“I’ve got some things in storage in California…it’s really not a big deal,” Dad says.
“How did you get them in the first place?” I ask, realizing there’s a big chunk of Dad’s past I know absolutely nothing about. I’ve always wondered how he met Cass, and now I’m finding out he has hundreds of valuables sitting in a mansion in California. Something tells me there’s a connection here. “Are you rich or something?”
“I am so sorry,” Cass whispers to Dad again, and with one look between them, she knows it’s time to leave us alone. She stands and unties Jackie, mounts her in two expert movements, and urges her to a gallop in the direction of the stables.
My voice rises two octaves in my excitement. “You [_are _]rich, aren’t you?”
Dad lets a long exhale seep into his palms, clenching his eyes shut and shaking his head. “I don’t know how I’m gonna keep this from you now.” He takes a good, long look at me, and then he stands up, helps me up from the blanket, and nods in the direction of our horses. “Come on, baby girl, I…I need to show you somethin’.”
We drop the horses off at the stables, and Cass takes them from us without a word and ushers them back into their stalls. Dad leads me inside to our main desktop computer, pulls two chairs up to it, and goes to YouTube in a web browser.
“Why are we watching YouTube videos right now?” I ask with a nervous chuckle.
“You’ll see.” Dad searches “W3 documentary” and chooses one of the results on the first page.
Before he plays the video, he pauses it and turns to me. “Sweetheart…I’m about to show you somethin’ I’ve been keepin’ from you for a long time. I figured I’d tell you this when you turned eighteen, but I guess seventeen and a half is close enough. The truth is, I do have a lot of money and valuables, but that’s not the whole story. I’m…I’m not really who you think I am.”
My eyebrows scrunch in confusion. “What?”
“Just listen. Before we watch this, I need you to know I kept this from you for a reason. You may not understand at first, but just know that I love you, and I would never purposely hurt you. You’re not gonna be happy about this, and I’m not expectin’ you to forgive me right away, but just…promise me you’ll forgive me. You know…eventually.”
“Um…I promise,” I stutter, and Dad clicks the Play icon on the video.
The video starts in the typical rock band documentary fashion, with clips of the band in action and people talking over the music. The look of this particular band is really strange and melodramatic in nature. It seems like they took their name, Weep With the Willows, really seriously and may have even been one of the catalysts for the emo movement. Their faces are painted white with black eyeliner and drawn-in black tear streaks to drive the point home. I can’t help but snicker at the cheesiness. The frontman goes by the stage name ‘the Grim Weeper,’ which makes it even funnier.
“What are you laughin’ at?” Dad asks.
“I’m sorry, this is just weird. And I’m not really sure what you’re trying to tell me.”
Dad skips forward in the video to the part where the narrators speak a little bit more in depth about the band. According to the narrators, W3, as they shorten it, was last active in 1997, and they wrote songs that made it onto the Top 40 list. Listening to the music in the background, I can see why they got popular. The music itself is really good. It’s something I might even listen to by choice, which is why I’m a little surprised Dad never mentioned this band.
He skips forward some more to the point in the video where the tone changes dramatically. Before, it was all aglow with worship for W3, but now there’s darker music in the background and they’re talking about the band split.
One commenter says, “You know, I really thought W3 was going to be huge forever. Their music played everywhere, and the Grim Weeper himself couldn’t go anywhere without being thronged by fans. Then that baby got dropped off on his doorstep, and he just…he was a goner. He fell in love with her instead of the music.”
My eyebrow goes up, and I turn to Dad, whose lips are tucked under with nerves. I give him a questioning look, but he shakes his head and points back to the video.
Another commenter was talking during my little moment with Dad, and I hear, “…he knew instantly she was his. As soon as Michael Daley saw that baby, he became a ‘dad first, musician second,’ as he put it in his interviews.”
Michael Daley…that must be the Grim Weeper’s real name. He’s been on the screen a few times, and I had a vague sense of him looking familiar. Then they show a clip of him holding a baby in a TV interview, and my mouth swings wide open.
That’s my dad!
Younger Dad says, “‘Dad first, musician second’ is my new mantra. Madison here is my number one love in life now.”
“Madison?” I choke out. I look over at Dad, and he nods slowly. My gaze returns to the baby as Younger Dad turns her face forward toward the camera, and my moment of truth crashes into me.
Oh. My. God.
Dad pauses the video to give me a chance to breathe and looks up the Grim Weeper’s page on Wikipedia while I’m processing everything. He scrolls down and points to the “Born” section, which reads:
Michael Andrew Daley
August 4, 1970 (age 44)
Birmingham, Alabama, U.S.
The current residence line is left blank. All of that information is right about Dad except for the last name.
“Our last name is Landers,” I protest. “We’re Mike and Madison Landers, not Mike and Madison Daley.”
“Landers is Nana’s maiden name. I haven’t told you much about my father, but his name was Charles Daley, and he left your Nana and me thirty-five years ago. You and I started going by Landers when we came back to Kentucky.”
“W-wha…” I can barely even make words. “But…our last name is Daley?”
“Not legally anymore, but yes, we were born Daleys.”
I sputter and scoff, feeling a disconnection between my brain and my mouth. I shake my head and laugh. “No! No way. You’ve got to be messing with me here.”
“I’m not messin’,” Dad says with a solemn gaze that reminds me of all the times he’s had to keep my jokester side under control before.
This can’t be real. It has to be some kind of late April Fool’s joke, or maybe a dream.
Dad goes back to the video again, and a narrator says, “Not long after presenting his little girl to America, Grim disappeared into thin air. He gave his mansion in L.A. to Black Angel, and just…” The grizzly man on the screen imitates a magic trick with his hands. “Poof! Gone.”
“Cassidy Knox moved into Michael Daley’s mansion and took over all of his affairs,” another commenter says. “She’s the only one who knows the truth about his location, but she’s sworn to secrecy. Something must have happened to make him leave, but nobody knows what. It’s almost like he was chased away.”
Cassidy Knox. That must be Black Angel, the lead guitarist. Now that I know, I recognize the young blonde woman in the clips as our Cass, but…Knox? Not Meriwether? And what about this disappearing act? What happened?
“Dad…what the [_hell _]is this?” I know it’s a dumb response, but at the moment I can’t fabricate anything better.
Dad pauses the video and turns slowly, taking my hands in his and peering into my eyes. “I know this is a lot to take in. I am the front man of W3, as you gathered. You were left on my doorstep in a pretty pink basket by your mother as a baby. I knew you were mine because of your nose, which you undoubtedly got from me.” Dad pauses with an affectionate smirk. Then a darker expression passes over his face. “We…we left because your mother did something bad that forced me to take you away and keep you safe.”
“My mother?” He nods. “What did she do?”
“A lot of terrible things, baby girl.”
My limbs start to tremble, and my chest constricts. If it was bad enough to make Dad leave a music career…
“Is she a criminal or something?”
“Oh, God…” I drop my head into my hands, hearing my own breath as a roar in my ears. My eyes sting with tears, though I’m not really sure which emotion is causing them. Dad’s a rock star, Cass is a guitarist, and my mother is a ‘not exactly’ criminal. This has to be a dream. It has to be.
“What do you think of all this, darlin’?”
“I don’t know what to think…” I lift my head and repeat my question. “What exactly did she do?”
“Well…the truth is, she did leave you on my doorstep, but then she came back for you two months later. We had a visitation agreement for a couple of months, but we kept it quiet because she still wanted to keep her identity a secret from the world. One day, she tried to steal you away durin’ one of her visits.”
“Whoa, whoa, wait…she wanted me back?”
“Yes, she did. I had mercy on her and didn’t file charges for the kidnappin’, but then she paid me back by tryin’ to take me to court for custody. That was why we got the hell outta Dodge.”
This is too much information to absorb at once. I drop my head back into my hands just to keep from passing out. After my initial shock and a new rush of blood to the brain, one thing after another falls into place.
Dad is famous. I was left in a basket on a rock star’s doorstep by Mother Dearest. She abandoned me, true, but because of the kidnapping and custody threat, I can only assume one thing—Mother Dearest wanted me back. She took extreme measures trying to get me back. This is the total opposite of everything I once believed.
Then one thought screams louder than all the others. Fury overtakes me, and I lift my head. My eyes burn holes in his skull, and when I speak, my voice is dead even and so full of rage that it’s terrifying even in my own ears.
“You lied to me.”
Dad doesn’t say a word. He just sits there in stunned, fearful silence.
“I don’t believe this,” I scream, jumping up from my chair. “You waited my entire life to tell me you’re an actual rock star? Are you serious?”
“Yes,” Dad whispers. “I was trying to protect you.”
My hands ball into fists at my sides, gripping at nothing as I try my best to steady myself. My head is reeling, and my emotions are spinning out of control. At risk of sounding completely cliché, I just discovered my entire life is a lie.
“This is why I’ve been isolated for so long? This is why I can’t have a normal life? You’re famous?”
Dad just nods, clasping his hands in his lap with his gaze glued to the floor.
I cover my mouth with my hands, shaking my head. This is unbelievable. I never thought he’d lie to me like this. My hands fall to my sides again, and a tremor enters my voice. “You…you told me my mother abandoned me without looking back. I’ve felt like the scum of the earth all these years, and now you tell me she was willing to risk jail to get me back? How could you tell me that if it wasn’t true?”
“She…” Dad lets out a shaky sigh, looking helpless and vulnerable. “She’s a psychopath, honey. I couldn’t risk you trying to contact her. I can’t trust her to be near you or even know where you are.”
“Do you have [_any _]idea how much it hurt to think I’d been left like that?”
“Yes. I have my own experience with abandonment,” Dad reminds me pointedly. “It was better for you to think she’d left you for good.”
“But it wasn’t true…nothing was true…not even my last name…” I stagger back, almost tumbling over my chair because my eyes are blinded with tears. “This is crazy. [_You’re _]crazy! I…I gotta go.” I whirl around and shove past Cass and Nana on my way to the kitchen, and then I thunder out the back door in the direction of the barn.
I run to the barn and shakily unlock the padlock on the door with a key that was hanging on a nail beside it. Then I dart inside and take an electric lantern from a nearby shelf. I turn the lantern on and close the door behind me, and then I climb the ladder to the loft, which is empty except for hay Dad put up here for me. It’s one of my favorite places to go when I need a time-out, and man, do I ever need a time-out right now.
Once I’m safe in the loft, I set the lantern down and squeeze my arms around my waist as I cry hysterically. All the information I just received muddles in my head, and all I can think is He lied to me! on repeat as the sobs rack my body. One of the barn cats, Tasha, comes up to nuzzle me, and I lift her into my lap and hold her so tight that she eventually decides she’s had enough and squirms out of my arms. I wrap my arms around my knees and press them to my chest, needing something to hold on to so I don’t go spiraling out of control.
Several hours pass before I finally get up the courage to step foot in that house again. Once I’m inside, I conduct some research on my computer to confirm everything’s true. After yet another jarring revelation, I need a word purge like I never have before.
I don’t even know how to write this without sounding batshit crazy.
Turns out my entire life—my identity, my childhood, everything I ever held sacred about myself—it’s all a lie. My dad is a rock star. Like a legit, face-paint-wearing, womanizing, rich-as-hell rock star. Our last name was Daley when I was born, and my father, Michael Daley, is the front man of the nineties band W3. People call him the Grim Weeper, or Grim for short.
Cass lives in a mansion in Beverly Hills, California, that belonged to Dad and me before we left the spotlight. Also, I just found out through a Google search that I have my own unfortunate claim to fame. People call me the “Basket Baby” because of the way my mother left me. Being known by the whole world for the way your mother abandoned you…yeah, that sounds about right for my life.
My mother dropped me like a hot potato on Dad’s doorstep in L.A. She even wore a mask to conceal her identity. I knew she abandoned me, but that wasn’t the story I was expecting. I thought maybe she left Dad because he doesn’t work or something, but no. She left me on a doorstep and hoped for the best. I was a rock star’s baby, so she couldn’t have done it because of money problems. I guess having me was just such a terrible burden that I wasn’t even worth the fame, fortune, and golden toilets that came with it.
Kay, maybe not golden toilets…but really…why?
I know she came back for me, but that doesn’t change what she did. I keep wondering what the hell was wrong with me. Something must have been terribly wrong for her to give up the child of a rock star, right? There has to be a reason, because if not, I think I’m going to lose my goddamn mind.
My relationship with Dad is shattered now. I don’t know if I’m ever going to trust him to tell me the truth again. I’m afraid to even be in the same house with him. Even my last name was a lie. I was born Madison Daley, not Madison Landers. For all I know, even that could be a fake name. I can’t even imagine going back to “normal” living after this. I mean…I could have grown up in a mansion.
He said my mother was a psychopath, but I don’t know what to believe right now. If he lied about all these other things, how can I trust him to tell me the truth about that? There’s no way I’m going to be able to face Dad tomorrow when all I want to do is crumple into a fetal position on the floor. What happened tonight changed everything. It turned everything I believed about myself on its head.
I have a sickening feeling in my gut that the worst is yet to come.
Mads…or whoever I am…
Lying motionless in my bed, I stare at the white popcorn ceiling as the sun comes up and wonder what it must be like to be an inanimate object. It’s gotta be nice not to have any parents or feelings to worry about. If I could transform into one of those bumps on the ceiling right now, I would. I want to go numb and forget about everything that ever happened to me.
After a long time, I hear someone coming down the hall toward my door with a suitcase, so I throw a hoodie on over my American Idiot tee and open my door. As the door moves out of the way, I see Cass passing by in a T-shirt and sweats with her luggage.
“Where are you going?” I croak. My voice is an octave lower from the crying and lack of sleep.
“I don’t think Mike is going to want me here anymore after yesterday.” Her face is dragged down by that morning exhaustion that comes after a night full of tears. I guess they must have had a huge fight before they went to bed.
“He may not, but I do.” I cross the hall to hug her, and she lets go of her luggage and holds me tight. “Thank you for making him tell me the truth,” I say with a sniff. Damn teenage hormones…I’m crying again.
“Oh, sweetie…are you okay?” Cass asks with a sympathetic squeeze.
“I don’t know,” I sob. “Am I supposed to be okay?”
“No…no, you can be as sad as you want.” Cass soothes some of my tension with a back rub. She lets me cry it out for a while, and then she says, “I’m so sorry for doing this to you. I didn’t think, I just spoke—”
“No, please don’t apologize.” I detach myself from her to wipe my eyes. “I needed to know the truth.”
“He was going to tell you when you turned eighteen, but…honestly, I think he should have told you a lot sooner. It wasn’t my place, though, and for that, I’m sorry.”
“I’m just glad someone around here has common sense enough to realize I should be told,” I say, and her pretty red lips pull up in a half smile. “By the way, did you change your name too?”
“I agreed to go by a different one whenever I was around you.” Cass rolls her eyes with a ‘whatever’ smirk. “Your dad talked me into it. He said it would seem less suspicious.”
“He put a lot of thought into hiding this from me, didn’t he?” Last night I remembered Dad was the one that steered me away from older bands. He said I should focus on playing more “current” rock. Now I know exactly why he did that.
“Oh, you have no idea,” Cass says, and then we hear a doorknob twist and clatter open and fall dead silent.
Dad trudges out of his room into the hall, groaning and rubbing the back of his neck. He looks like a dad cliché in a plaid robe and big black slippers. “Too early for all this noise,” he growls. Dad is a zombie in the morning if he hasn’t gotten much sleep. He probably didn’t hear what we were talking about, just our voices.
Cass turns around with the fear of losing him evident in her eyes. “Please forgive me,” she begs.
“We’ll talk later,” Dad says, and then he turns to me. “Where were you last night?”
“Just out in the loft…you know, getting a time out from this house of lies.” My gaze is steady with accusation.
Dad’s shoulders droop, and he glances back in the direction of his bedroom. “I think I should have stayed in there.”
My voice is broken and whisper-soft. “Please don’t hide from me anymore. Please.”
Pain registers in his eyes, and then he turns to Cass. “Can I talk to her privately?” he asks. Cass nods and quickly tiptoes down the stairs.
Dad takes my hand, leads me to my room, and shuts the door behind us. He settles in front of me with the same steady gaze he held with me last night, and I pull my hand away to fold my arms. “Look…I know what I did sounds completely crazy. I know it’s gonna be a while before you understand—”
“I don’t think I’m ever going to understand this.” I try to be strong and not break down in tears again. “I feel like I lost my whole life. Seventeen and a half years, just…gone. I don’t even know who either of us is right now.”
“Baby girl, I’m so sorry I had to lie to you. She was gonna take you away. I couldn’t let that happen. I know it seems like what I did was terrible, but…maybe I can explain.”
Dad takes me to my bed, and we sit down side by side as he continues his story. “Well, I found out after the kidnappin’ that because of my past with drugs, your mother could easily prove I was an unfit parent in court.”
My jaw drops a little. “You have a past with drugs?”
“Yeah.” He nods with a guilty expression. “I mean, I haven’t taken any drugs at all since the night she dropped you off, and I tried to stop drinkin’ and smokin’ too. I’ve never gone back except for the occasional drinkin’ session with Cass. You know that’s the truth.”
I nod slowly. He’s right. He’s been clean as a whistle.
“But…because my drug problem was so severe before that, she had an easy case. Courts tend to rule in favor of the mother, and I was just…I was terrified I was gonna lose you forever.” Dad starts to choke up. “I couldn’t let that happen. Your mother is not a good person. She’s…she’s ruthless. She’s connivin’ and evil, and she’ll do anythin’ to get what she wants. I couldn’t let her raise you like that. I couldn’t let her ruin my little girl.”
“Is she really that bad?” I ask in horror and disbelief.
“She seems nice when you meet her, but you quickly find out she’s a real snake in the grass. She’s a celebrity now, and she’s done some horrible things to get where she is today. I felt you’d be better off not knowin’ her, and I was right. Don’t ask me how I know, I just do.”
“Whoa…[_two _]celeb parents?”
“What does she do that’s so bad?”
“Besides lying in court and kidnappin’?” I nod, and Dad continues, “Well, she blackmails people, trades secrets for projects, sabotages other celebrities…you name it, she’s probably done it at one time or another.”
“Wow…” She sounds scary as hell. I can’t help but wonder which celebrity it is. “Who is she?”
“I don’t wanna tell you her name. I don’t want you gettin’ any ideas about tryin’ to go and find her.”
“Wait…you’re still not gonna tell me who my mother is?”
“I’ll tell you when you’re eighteen,” Dad says, and for the first time in my life, I have trouble believing him.
“I swear on my life, sugar.” I see the sincerity and intensity in Dad’s eyes, and I try to convince myself he’s telling the truth.
“Well…okay,” I say with a shuddering sigh. She does sound like she’s trouble, so I guess I can understand. I wish I could at least know her name, though. It’s going to bother me until I find out. Normally I’d be badgering him about it, but right now, I think I’ve had enough life-altering information for one twelve-hour period.
Dad brings a big tanned paw up to my shoulder and turns me to look square in my eyes. “I know I’ve hurt you bad, but I did what I did to protect you. I hope you understand someday.”
I just shrug in response. I’m still not sure what to think of him.
“Is there anything I can do to make this up to you?”
My gaze darts to the floor as I turn my head away from him. Dad used to be my best friend. I trusted him with my life before. Now I feel a cavern of distance opening up between us, and it scares the living hell out of me. My gaze returns to meet his. “Can you let me have a normal life?”
He shakes his head sadly. “I’m afraid such a thing doesn’t exist for us, sweetheart. You have no idea how much I wish I could. We still need to keep our identities private around here, at least until you’re eighteen. I don’t want her comin’ to find you.”
“So…I’m supposed to lie about who I am? Just pretend to be nothing but a backwoods farm girl for the next six months?”
Dad shrugs. “Basically…yes. I hate to ask you to lie, but Cass just ensured I have no choice in the matter.”
I shake my head, trying to clear space for rational thought. A chuckle squeezes its way out of my tight chest. “This is so unbelievable.”
“Well, I could prove it to you if you want,” Dad offers, and that gets my attention.
“I’ll prove I’m the Grim Weeper by performin’ a W3 song for you. Then your doubts will start to fade away.”
In spite of myself, my lips pull up in a half smile. “Well…okay.” Who could turn down an offer like that?
Before Dad sings, he shows me the corresponding W3 music video on my laptop. When the video’s done, Dad says the song would sound better with a guitar, so I fetch him my Gibson off its stand and hand it to him. Dad takes it from me and expertly flings the strap up and around his neck and shoulder. I hand him a pick from the top of my tall, black dresser and plug in the guitar for him, and he takes a deep breath. He seems a little nervous, and his emotions are matched by my thundering heart. If everything I just heard over the last twelve hours is true, and not a dream, a famous rock star is about to give me a private concert in my bedroom.
Dad dives into the intro of the song, and as I watch him, a tsunami of tears rises in my eyes. It’s undoubtedly the same voice I just heard in the video: smooth as honey, yet powerful with a bit of a growl in it. To top it all off, he’s playing the lead guitar part instead of his own. It’s not everyone who can pull off the lead guitar part while singing simultaneously, especially when it wasn’t their part to begin with. The lyrics could use a little work…clearly they were not the reason he had a legion of fans in the nineties. It’s just…him. He’s oozing with star quality, and I never even saw it. Dad plays through the entire song, just to prove his point, and when he’s done, I whisper in awe, “You really are him.”
He takes off the guitar and sets it back on the stand, and then he opens his right arm to me. I cross the room to him and break down in tears again. “I’m so sorry, sugar,” Dad says as he wraps me in a tender embrace. I lean weakly against him and sob my eyes out, feeling like my world just ended and began all at once.
Later that afternoon, I take Maggie out to a far corner of the property and tie her reins to a tree a few hundred yards from where I’m going to be. My shotgun-toting Southern Daddy made sure I knew how to shoot a gun at fourteen years of age. I have a rifle strapped to my back and several rounds in my hands as I approach our target-practice area. I need a nonviolent way to express all these feelings of anger, heartbreak, and betrayal, and I figured shooting a gong target would be a more satisfying outlet than video games right now.
I take the gun off my back and load it, taking extra care since I’m by myself. Then I pull earplugs out of my pocket and twist them, feeling the fullness when I insert them in my ears and they expand. Once the gun is cocked and ready, I pull it up to my shoulder, narrow my eyes to focus on the target, and pull the trigger. Sure enough, the thrust of the gun recoiling against me and the ping, ping, ping of bullets striking the gong sends a rush of adrenaline coursing through me. I brought plenty of bullets, so I keep on shooting and reloading for a good half hour until they’re all gone. When I run out of bullets, I lay the gun against a tree and wipe the sweat from my brow, smirking at the gong. I hit it almost every time. I might have some issues with Dad right now, but I have to give it to him—he raised a badass.
I take my earplugs out and hear whinnies in the distance, and then I turn around to see Dad and Cass riding out to meet me. My high from shooting fades a little bit, but I swing the rifle onto my back and walk out to meet them. They both stay mounted as they approach Maggie, and I meet them over by her tree.
“Hey, come with us. I wanna show you somethin’,” Dad says.
My entire body tenses up. That sentence sounds like the tagline of a horror movie to me now. “No more surprises, please,” I beg.
“No, this time it’s something you’re really going to like,” Cass says with a smile, and I relax. She’s the one person I trust around here.
The two of them take me on a ride to the other end of the property, and we stop at a rusty old shed which, up to this point, I was never allowed in.
When Dad opens the padlock with a key and pulls the door open, we all step inside, and I choke in a gasp. It’s a legit, movie-quality shrine to his glory days, complete with records and other rock star paraphernalia. Magazine articles and posters from each of their albums and tours line the walls. In the corner, three crazy-expensive guitars rest on metal stands, still in perfect condition.
“This is amazing,” I breathe.
Glancing at the posters, photos, and articles on the wall, I can’t help but feel a little bit of fame fever. Dad’s shows, especially the ones in his “hometown” of Los Angeles, look like a dream come true. The smoke, the lights, and the sea of fans in the stadium…I would give up both my legs and ten years of my life to have that kind of fame and success. It’s all I’ve wanted since Dad bought my Gibson for my tenth birthday.
Then I come across a photo of Dad’s mansion. It’s the epitome of modern architecture and prowess, and it spreads out over several acres of land. I run my fingers over the picture as if I’m expecting them to magically bring it to life. Looking at the home I should have had, I feel like some kind of rocker Cinderella, except my fairy godmother didn’t quite get me to the ball. Instead, my mother wrecked it. She screwed up everything…my life, Dad’s life, W3…
“Do you have any more of this stuff in Beverly Hills?” I ask out of curiosity.
“Yeah, I have a lot of things stored there, including your basket,” Dad says.
My basket. It’s still there. I feel like a hammer just swung down and hit me in the chest. “You kept that all this time?”
“Well, unless you’ve thrown it all out by now,” Dad says, glancing over at Cass.
Cass says, “No, everything’s just as you left it.”
“Really?” He smiles. “I knew I could count on you.”
A fresh set of tears builds up in my eyes, but I quickly brush them away. I hate crying…it makes my head hurt, and I’ve already done too much of it today. Just thinking about that basket brings all the emotions of last night crashing down on me again. It’s the portal between me and my mother…the only thing still in our possession that might hold some of her DNA, besides me.
I turn to face him and ask, “Did she leave anything with the basket besides me?”
“Actually, yes. She left a note.”
My heart races. “What did the note say?”
“It said, ‘She’s yours. Take good care of her.’”
A moment of silence follows. “That’s it?”
“I’m afraid so,” Dad says.
That response was not at all what I was hoping for. “Oh…okay.”
Dad notices my disappointment and comes to give me a hug, but I step back, shaking my head. I let him comfort me earlier, but my feelings toward him are still a twisted mess. Dad lowers his arms and nods, turning away, and I feel a twinge of guilt. It sucks putting this distance between us, but it’s not my fault. None of this is.
It’s 2:00 a.m., and I should be asleep, but honestly, I’m not sure who sleeps after receiving this kind of news. Seeing that mansion today and hearing Dad play his music in my bedroom made me realize, “Okay, yeah, this is real.” Dad’s a rock star, my mother is a celebrity, and I’m the Basket Baby…a.k.a. the unluckiest girl alive.
Because of Mother Dearest, I have a label I’m never going to shake. Seriously, the “Basket Baby?” What kind of claim to fame is that? I’ve done some more research online, and it looks like nobody even bothered to use my real name in articles because they wanted to hype up my story to see if my mother would ’fess up. I was used as a pawn to sell magazines. The writers pretended to know my mother’s identity so people would buy their shit, and then they were like, “Just kidding! Nobody actually came forward to claim her. But here are some nice makeup ads for you.”
Now if I want a music career someday, I’m never going to live that down. I might as well just use it as my stage name. Maybe I should go on living as Madison Landers just to avoid that nickname and the horrible stigma that comes with it. If I went to school and people found out who I was, I’d probably get made fun of daily for it. Being the Basket Baby makes me the ultimate reject. Combine that with being a farm girl with glasses and braces and…well, you might say I’m the ultimate dork.
Where’s a Xanax when you need it…seriously…
Right now, I have a ton of anger building toward my mother. I wish I could go back in time to the day she dropped me off and demand she get her shit together. After all, it seems like she wasn’t completely sure leaving me was the right thing to do. I at least want to find her in the present day and give her a piece of my mind. I’ve got a sailor mouth from hell, so I could rip her a new one and then some. Looks like I’m going to have to wait at least six months to do that, though…or anything else…
God, I want to get out of here so bad. I’m so sick of being alone and not having a real life. Now that I know what I missed out on, it hurts even worse. I feel cheated. She cheated me out of my life, and I need to know why. Maybe if there was a good reason, I could feel okay about this…like I made the ultimate sacrifice for the good of humanity or something.
Okay, that was a little extreme…maybe not the “ultimate” sacrifice. Seventeen and a half years is a pretty damn big sacrifice, though, so the reason had better be good.
I have to find her. I need to…but I still don’t even know her freaking name.
For the next few days, I busy myself with homework, Internet research, and shredding on the guitar. There’s something therapeutic about blasting out a song at full volume, knowing I’m annoying the shit out of Nana and loving every minute of it.
This afternoon, my jam of choice is “Unholy Confessions” by A7X, and I have to admit, my one-guitar rendition of this song is pretty killer. I’ve spent so much time alone in my room practicing guitar that I’m almost at a pro level with some of these songs. By the time I’m eighteen, I should be there, which is the perfect age to start a band.
About an hour before dinner, I set my Gibson on
the bed beside me while I get on my laptop to conduct some research on W3. Turns out there is still a host of fan clubs out there that obsess over them. I’ve been perusing them, but I haven’t joined any yet, because if I accidentally let it slip who we are, the information would probably go viral. Dad would flip a shit, and I’d never get to use the Internet again.
Instead of looking at more fan clubs, I go to YouTube to watch some old W3 videos. After about half an hour, I hate how much I love their band. They might be one of the reasons my life is a wreck, but…dammit, this music is the song of my soul. It’s mournful and melancholy with a driving backbeat that makes you feel like screaming at the world. The mechanics of Cass’s guitar solos are absolutely insane. I’m dying to attempt one of these songs.
There’s one song in particular, “Tearing into Silence,” that I really like, so I listen to that one about ten times in a row, focusing on Cass, who’s killing it in the lead guitar position. Eventually, I get the riffs and chords of the first verse written into my head, and I pick up my Gibson and start playing along with the video. I struggle a little bit with the chorus because she has this one complicated fingering I’ve never heard in anything before. It gets worse and worse for me until I’m swearing like a sailor, and then my stomach drops when I hear a sharp knock at my door.
“Filthy devil music,” she growls through the door, and then I breathe a sigh of relief when I hear her stomp away.
Ten minutes later, I’m still struggling with the chorus of the song, and I hear another knock at the door. This one isn’t as familiar. It sounds like a drum beat: Rap rap, tap! Rap-rap, rap-rap, tap!
Cass swings the door open and gives me a saccharine-sweet smile. “How’s it going in here?”
I throw myself back on the bed with a groan and a bounce, and feedback squeals from the amp. Cringing, I say, “Horrible. I’ll never be as good as you.”
Cass sits by me on the bed. “Here, let me see if I can help,” she says, and my heart starts pounding. Black Angel herself is about to show me how to play her part of the song.
I sit up slowly, and she plays the video again, pausing at the beginning of the first chorus. “Okay, I want you to watch my fingers really carefully here,” Cass says, pointing at the screen and explaining there’s a trick to her fingering. She arranges my fingers correctly on the neck for each of the chords and guides me through the whole thing easily…so easily it’s obvious she’s done this before.
“Did you ever teach guitar?”
“Actually, I taught your dad all of my guitar solos,” Cass says with a smug little grin. “He plays them [_almost _]as well as me.”
“Before I try this, can you play it for me?” She nods, and I hand her my Gibson.
Cass counts out four beats in a whisper, and then she blasts out the song, and I sit there feeling like I’m watching a goddess create a brand new world.
Cassidy Anne Knox is a billion times more badass than Cassidy Meriwether, the mysterious rich woman from California. Head-banging and making some fierce guitar faces, Cass perfectly executes an extremely advanced guitar solo, and I realize I’ve just found my new rock idol.
Dad walks in the door without knocking just as she finishes the song. “Whatcha doin’, ladies?”
“Cass is teaching me “Tearing into Silence.”” Cass hands the Gibson back to me. “You wanna sing with me?”
Dad smiles with an extra sparkle in his eye. “Nothin’ would make me happier. Play it through once by yourself first, though.”
I play the song with the video and only stumble a little bit this time. Then I start again, and chills surge through my body when Dad’s million-dollar voice joins me. The chills are multiplied when Cass joins him with harmony. I’m able to keep up pretty well, except for having to skip a few notes during the solo and in other random places. As we’re jamming together, I reconsider my stance on living as Madison Landers to avoid the stigma. After all, there’s no way the Grim Weeper’s daughter could fall flat on her face…right?
The trio turns into a duet after a while, with Dad and Cass playing and singing tons of their old songs for me. As I lie sideways on the bed drinking it all in, the heartache fades a little bit, and I even think this might be the greatest day of my life. Never did I imagine having actual rock stars playing their music in my bedroom, and now it turns out I can have that privilege whenever I want. Dad and Cass seem to be enjoying it just as much as I am. Finally, after about an hour, Nana raps sharply on the door.
“Dinner is served,” she yells and stomps away.
Dad and Cass can’t wipe the grins off their faces. “Damn…” Dad says. “I don’t wanna be done with this.”
My ears perk up, and I push up on the bed. “What did you say?”
“I don’t wanna be done singin’.” He’s talking about the immediate situation, I know that, but the tone of his voice and the longing in his eyes suggest there might be a hidden meaning in there.
Dad wants to go back to rocking the world.
I can see it. I can feel it.
And…I think a part of me wants him to.
Up until now, I wasn’t sure how Dad felt about leaving the spotlight for my sake. His focus was mainly on me and my reaction for the past few days. Jamming with Cass and Dad in my bedroom this afternoon—which, by the way, was easily the most epic experience of my life—made me realize he never wanted to stop rocking in the first place. This wasn’t his idea, which means I might have a chance at getting us out of here earlier than I thought.
He’s kidding himself if he thinks I’m going to sit here and rot for the next six months. I am so ready to get my life started and get out of this boring hellhole. I want to get Dad back to L.A. so he’ll remember his life before me and consider going after his music dreams again. While we’re in L.A., I’ll conduct a secret search for my mother’s identity. Getting my hands on that basket might be the key to finding her, and that’s something I need to do. I need to talk to her. I need to know why she gave me up. I know she’s the devil incarnate, according to Dad, but I don’t want to become her or anything. I just want an explanation from the woman herself and the chance to give her a piece of my mind. Waiting six months to do that is going to make me crazier than I already am, so…I figure the world will be better off in the long run if I just get it over with.
So here’s the plan. I’m calling it “Mission Los Angeles.”
Step 1: Get Cass on board.
I need at least one member of the band on my side for this to happen.
Step 2: Reignite Dad’s music dreams by getting him back into singing and playing the guitar.
This step has already been put into motion. Cass and I will continue working on this.
Step 3: Convince Dad that I’ll be safe in L.A. and he doesn’t need to worry about me looking for my mother.
And…here we have the tricky part. I’m not really sure how I’m going to pull this off.
It’s going to involve a lot of lying and promise-making on my part. I’m going to have to act totally disinterested in the topic of my mother. I might even have to act like I hate her guts and never want anything to do with her, when the truth is I’m so curious about her that it gnaws at me day and night. Flattery might help…you know, telling Dad he’s the greatest father in the world and that he’s the only parent I’m ever going to need.
Yep, lies and flattery. That’s the key to Step 3, for sure.
Step 4: Find a way to “accidentally” reveal our identities.
I have a feeling Cass is going to be instrumental for this step. After all, she’s already done it once.
Step 5: Propose the trip to L.A. as a vacation instead of a permanent move.
This is my way of easing him into that whole scene again.
Step 6: Keep Dad from flaking out and changing his mind about the vacation.
Another tricky step, but it involves material from the next mission.
I cooked up another plot while I was devouring one fourth of a lasagna tonight, and I’m calling it Mission W3 Reunion. Reuniting W3 is going to be absolutely vital in getting Dad back to the stage. I’ll probably designate this one to Cass, since she’s the one that has the influence and knows how to contact Dad’s other bandmates. It needs to be a big deal—something the whole nation will see—so I’m thinking national television might be a good bet. We’ll work on the details of this one once we arrive in L.A…if we make it to L.A., that is.
This is it. I’m getting a ticket out of here.
The next day, I take Cass on a ride to the oak tree, just the two of us, and I detail every last step of my plan. She hesitates to agree because of risking Dad’s anger, but then she finally admits that she does miss being in a band.
“It was all I ever wanted to do,” Cass says. “Going back to music would be as natural as breathing. If getting the band back together is your aim, even if it’s just for one day, I’m…I guess I’m in.”
“Excellent,” I say with a grin. I check off Step 1 in my mind. “The first thing we need to do together is work on Step 2.”
Almost immediately, she comes up with a sub-plan. “Mike and I haven’t done karaoke in years, but we used to,” Cass explains. “I could take him to Lexington tonight under the guise of having a night out on the town, and then I could surprise him by taking him to a karaoke bar. He’ll protest at first, but if I get a few drinks in him, I bet that will loosen him up.”
“Will it make him forget that he wants to keep his identity a secret, though?” I ask, doubting it.
“It might. Being out with me and drinking like we used to might cause him to revert completely.”
“Well, I hope it works. This is my one and only ticket out of here, so don’t screw this up.” I smirk at her like my fate rests in your hands, woman, and she chuckles as I lay down on my side on the blanket and glance up at the puffy, white clouds. We lie in silence for a few minutes, and then Cass speaks up.
“Are you sure you want to find your mother? I support you one hundred percent, but I’m sure your father told you how dangerous finding her could be.”
“He did tell me, but…I dunno, I still want to find her and get some answers. If I don’t, I’m going to keep feeling empty inside.”
“Oh…honey, I know what that’s like,” Cass says, rubbing my arm in sympathy. “I wouldn’t wish that feeling on anyone.”
“How do you know?”
Cass blows out a deep sigh. “Well…I was adopted. I didn’t know either of my birth parents until much later in life. When I met them, it was painful, but it also brought a huge sense of closure for me.” I look into her blue-gray eyes, and for the first time, I can see the years of pain that led her to write such heart-wrenching lyrics. Their best songs were entirely written by her. “Until you know who your mother is, you’re always going to be wondering. Mike doesn’t understand that because he knew his father before he left Nancy. Your grandfather was a bastard who abandoned them too, but he never looked back. Your mother did look back, so…believe me, I understand.”
“Did you know my mother too?”
“I met her a few times when she was visiting you at the mansion. She seemed really nice, but then her true colors came out, and it was ugly. She tore your dad up real bad. Promise me you’ll be careful with this, okay? The last thing you all need is more drama in your life.”
“I promise I’ll be careful. One conversation is all I need. Can you give me any clues about how to find her?”
Cass purses her lips, and then she says, “All I can say is that it may be easier than you think.”
Once we’re ready to return, we mount our horses and cross the field back to the stables. We find Dad there, and Cass asks him if he’d like to go with her to Lexington tonight. After some argument and some bargaining from Cass—promising to disguise herself and keep a low profile—he agrees, and they make plans to go out after dinner and drop me off at Ana’s house on the way. She just got back from vacation.
I still haven’t seen Ana since she got back from her trip, and there’s a lot I need to catch her up on…that is, unless she knows already and wasn’t allowed to tell me. Over the past few years, I’ve gotten this vibe from her a few times that she’s hiding something from me. If she doesn’t know, I’m not really sure how I’m going to tell her. She’s known me since we were toddlers. How do you tell your best friend that you’re not who she thinks you are at all?
Ana’s big green eyes are even bigger after I show her the same documentary Dad showed me. We’re sitting in her room, which is decorated like a bedroom you’d find in a teen magazine. Ana loves bargains, and she manages to find some really cute stuff that barely costs her a dime. She has impeccable taste, although I don’t let her pick out décor for me anymore. Pink-and-purple owl pillows don’t really go with my A7X posters and skull pillowcases.
“Ho-ly shit,” Ana says, and I laugh because I’ve never heard her cuss before. She’s not even allowed to use the word damn in a non-Biblical sentence.
“I know, right? It’s nuts!”
“That’s an understatement, girl! How long have you known about this?”
“A few days,” I tell her. “It’s been kind of crazy. I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to tell you sooner.”
“Oh, my God…I’m friends with a celebrity…”
“You okay?” I put my arm around her. Ana looked a little delirious for a second. Judging from this reaction, I’d say she definitely had no idea who we were.
“Believe me, I am more than okay,” she says, and both of us giggle. “But…I mean, how are you dealing with this? I can’t even imagine getting this kind of news.”
“It’s been really hard, but at the same time, it was amazing.” I tell her all about my blowup at Dad, and then the mini concerts I got in my room. I also tell her everything I know about my mother, and Ana’s arms go around me when another round of tears starts. “Ugh, I’m sorry,” I sob, but Ana just squeezes me tighter.
“It’s me, Mads. Let it all out.” Ana holds me against her, and I cry quietly, trying not to draw attention from any other members of the household. Ana’s the only one who can know about this. I shouldn’t even be telling her, but I know that if I tell her a secret, she’ll take it to her grave. When my sobs subside, I continue the conversation.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but just so you know, I’m trying to get Dad back to L.A. There’s a chance it will never work, but in case it does, I wanted you to be prepared for me leaving. It will probably be just a vacation, but still.”
“Man…if you do go to L.A., and I don’t get to come with, I think I might die,” Ana says, looking star-struck at the very thought of stepping foot in Los Angeles.
“I’d love to take you, but I don’t think your parents would ever agree to that. I mean, they won’t even let you watch music videos.” She has to stick to “clean” music videos. Her parents won’t let her watch anything that’s even slightly raunchy. Cass wears some pretty risqué outfits in some of their videos, and there are some suggestive lyrics in a lot of their songs, so Ana’s parents probably never allowed her near W3.
“I think we should at least ask,” Ana says. “If we don’t even try, I’ll probably regret it forever.”
“Well, let me work on Dad, and I’ll let you know what happens. Don’t tell anyone about any of this until I give you the green light.”
Ana’s eyes widen. “Not even my parents?”
“No one. You have to swear you won’t tell.”
“Okay…I swear,” Ana says, nodding and looking a little freaked out.
After a while, Ana turns on her small flat-screen TV and we sit side by side, pressed up against pillows on the wall. She goes to Netflix and looks up Never Really Alone starring Jacie Redinger. Ana and I are crazy about horror movies, and this one is our favorite of all time. It’s a little old but still good. We watch it together one night every six months, religiously, or when I need something to remind me that life could always get worse. I link arms with Ana because she can be a little squeamish at the scary parts and she always wants to hold on to me. No matter how many times we watch this movie, it still has the power to make chills run up our spines. It’s just that good, mostly because of JR. She’s such a talented actress.
Two hours later, I feel a little less glum, and Ana and I pull out nail polish and start talking about the things we could do in L.A. as we give each other manis and pedis. I tolerate nail painting as long as I can use the color black…maybe occasionally purple. Any other color is too bright and cheery for my taste.
Around one in the morning, we finally lay down side by side and pretend to be asleep when Mrs. Lincourt pokes her head in to check on us. Ana eventually drifts off, but I stay wide awake. Sleep has been evading me ever since I found out who Dad was…who I am. I’m consumed by thoughts of my mother and the life I could have had. If only I had a fairy godmother who could magically transport me to L.A.
I guess Cass will have to do.
Dad comes alone in his truck to pick me up the next morning. He tosses my things into the backseat, and as he’s driving away, I ask, “So how was last night?”
“It was great, although there’s a lot I don’t remember,” Dad groans. He does look a little ragged. My guess is they partied hard last night.
“What about you? Did you have fun with Ana?”
“Yeah, we had a great time.” I fall silent, trying to think of something else to add so it won’t seem suspicious. I can’t let him even suspect that I told Ana, or he’ll freak out. “We had a movie night and fell asleep around one a.m.”
“Sounds fun.” Dad sighs, rubbing his forehead briefly before gripping the wheel with both hands. “Sorry, honey, I’ve got a bit of a hangover. I think maybe we should avoid talkin’ for the rest of the trip.”
“That’s fine,” I say, cheering on the inside.
The rest of the ride home is dead silent, and all the way I’m wondering what happened with him and Cass. If he had been discovered last night, he’d probably be a total mess today, not grouchy and quiet from a hangover. It doesn’t seem like much progress was made, which is kind of disappointing, but I didn’t expect this to happen instantly.
When we get inside the house, Cass is waiting for us in the living room on our faded blue couch, watching TV on our boxy old CRT. “Hey, did you have fun?” she asks.
“Yeah, it was great.” I sit down beside her, and Dad sinks into his tan easy chair, pulls the lever that makes his footrest pop up, and lies back to take a nap. After about five minutes, his snoring starts, and I lean over to Cass and whisper, “Okay, so what happened? Did he sing karaoke?”
“He did, but he was so drunk that he didn’t sing well, and nobody thought anything of it. Sorry, sweetie, I think I waited a little too long to get him up on the stage. It was a tough balance to achieve between ‘drunk enough to sing’ and ‘too drunk to know what he was doing.’”
I’m half-relieved, half-disappointed. I wanted this to work, but at least the inevitable explosion when our identities are revealed has been pushed off a little. “Well, at least you tried. We’ll just have to come up with something else.” I start to turn away, but then I notice the secretive smile that’s growing on her face. “What are you smiling at?”
“Oh…you don’t want to know,” she says, and my curiosity is even more piqued.
“Yes, I do. Tell me.”
“Well…we weren’t discovered last night, but something [_did _]happen,” she says with a sheepish grin, glancing over at Dad.
I look between the two of them, trying to make sense of the guilty-yet-deliriously-happy look on her face. I finally connect the dots. “What? Ew! You and him?”
“Yeah…” If Cass didn’t have a spray tan, she’d be turning a deep shade of red.
“Ew!” I scoot down the couch until I’m as far away as I can get. “Wait…he said he didn’t remember a lot of last night. You basically raped my dad!”
Cass smirks. “Trust me, he remembered that part. It happened again this morning.”
“Ugh…” I shudder, shaking my hands like I’m trying to get the dirt off them. “Thanks for ruining my appetite for the next year.”
Cass laughs her ass off. “Sorry, but you did ask.”
I continue to shudder, disgusted by the fact that I just facilitated my own father’s drunken one-night stand. Well, actually, I don’t know that for a fact. Thinking back, I remember a lot of times when I wondered why they weren’t together. Their best friend banter has always carried more of a “couple” vibe than a platonic one.
“Was this a one-night stand or is there something between you two?”
“We used to have an FWB thing way back when,” she says, and I start feeling sick to my stomach. “I always hoped it would turn into something more, but we both enjoyed the loose ‘rock star lifestyle’ too much to have a real relationship. It was kind of like an open relationship, but now…honestly, I’m hoping for something more. I’ve always felt like he was my soulmate, on stage and off.”
My heart melts a little, and my sickness starts to subside. “Well…as long as you want him for more than just sex.” I gag at the words that just came out of my mouth. Ew, ew, ew. I’m going to need a shower after hearing that.
I lean back on the couch to pay attention to the TV, trying to get my mind off the mentally scarring confession I just heard. Cass has it tuned to E! News, which is ironic, considering what I’ve been through over the past week. As I’m watching an interview with a star, I wonder what my mother did that made her a celebrity. Is she an actress? Musician? Dancer? Designer? I’m sure there are more possibilities, but those are the main occupations I’ve heard of that people become famous for in L.A.
Now that I know who I am, I’m going to soak up all the information I can get about celebrities, socializing, and what to do in L.A. I’m not going to be out of the loop when I get there…or at least, I’m going to try not to be.
I’ve developed a name for my Mother Dearest mission. I’m calling it AYMM, like Are You My Mother?, the Dr. Seuss book I used to read as a kid and relate to a little too much. I’m going to record clues I pick up along the way and try to put the pieces together on my own, whether or not we make it to L.A.
Clue 1: She used to live in L.A.
Clue 2: She’s a celebrity.
Clue 3: She possibly has a bad reputation.
I am going to eat, drink, and breathe celebrity news for the next few weeks, focusing on the age group my mother would logically fit into. Then I’m going to study people that match the above description to see if any of them match up. I’ve already been Google searching “Basket Baby’s mother,” but so far nothing has come up…which I was expecting. If gossip websites couldn’t connect the dots, this has got to be hard, so I’m going to have to work at it.
Here goes nothing…time to put my detective skills to the test.
It’s been a while since I wrote in here because I’ve been crazy busy with finals. The good news is I finished this school year early with flying colors. I even passed Geometry, and I swear there was no better feeling in the world than throwing that book into a bonfire. All my homework was done in a notebook, so we still have our records, and Nana decided to let me have some fun for once. Usually, I would treat a book with the utmost of respect, being an English lover, but Geometry can kiss my ass. I loved watching the pages shrivel up and crumble into ashes. I think I even caught a grin on Nana’s face when we burned it. It was the bane of both our existences for way too long. I did Algebra 2 last year, so I guess next up is Trigonometry. Not looking forward to that, but at least it’s the last math I’ll ever take.
The bad news is I haven’t seen much progress with my missions so far. I’ve been buttering Dad up like crazy and playing music with him and Cass whenever I can, but I think he’s onto me. He hasn’t said anything else about wanting to go back to music. He also gets a “yeah, right” look in his eye whenever I tell him what a great dad he is. He knows I’m still a bit pissed at him underneath all this flattery, and I haven’t really forgiven him yet.
Maybe I should dial down the compliments and not be so obvious with them.
I’m also getting nowhere with AYMM. Cass told me this was going to be easier than I thought, but I’m calling BS. There are a few celebs that kind of fit the description, but they’re not the right age. Most of the ones my mother’s age are settled down and their days of bad behavior are mostly behind them. I guess she really is a snake in the grass. She’s one of these people that appears to have their life together, but you don’t know what’s going on in the background.
Cass and I are still working on ways to accidentally out ourselves to the world. She’s taken Dad out a couple more times, but so far nothing’s gone wrong and a lot has gone right. It still makes me want to blow chunks thinking about Dad having a love life, but I guess this is a long time in coming. I’m happy for them, but…ew. I just wish I didn’t have to witness the hungry eyes at the dinner table. It kills my appetite.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot, I got another bit of good news. One week from today, I’m getting my braces off. That’s the best news I’ve heard in four years.
One week later, I bounce up and down in the truck as Dad drives all four of us into town. “No more metal mouth! No more metal mouth!” I chant incessantly over “Let’s Get Rocked” by Def Leppard. We can listen to whatever we want in the car now that I know about W3, and I’m finding there are some older bands I really like. Def Leppard is one of my favorites.
After about five minutes of my chanting, Nana scolds me from the passenger seat. “Girl, I’m gonna tear that metal right outta your mouth if ya don’t shut it.”
“Besides, I thought you liked metal,” Dad teases.
“Music, yes. Binding, blistering, banded steel digging into the inside of my mouth is another story.”
“Nice alliteration.” Cass shoots me a grin. She’s using a pocket mirror to apply dark red lipstick, as if her teeth needed to stand out even more. Was this woman ever a hardcore rocker? It’s really hard to believe just looking at her. She looks more like an actress, or maybe a blonde country singer.
“Are you an English nerd too?” I ask.
“Yeah, it was always my best subject…that is, until I dropped out of high school.”
“You were a dropout?” I couldn’t be more shocked. Cass has the aura of a person with a master’s degree.
“Yeah…I would say I wish I hadn’t done it, but if I hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t have met your father.” Dad looks at her through the rearview mirror, and they exchange a smile that’s reserved for each other. There are definite romantic undertones to that smile. Gag. Sweet, but…gag.
“Let me ask you a question,” I say, trying to change the subject.
Cass puts away her pocket mirror and lipstick once she’s satisfied with herself. “Go ahead.”
“Did you happen to despise Geometry the way I did?”
A knowing grin appears on her face. “That’s actually one of the reasons I dropped out. I failed, and they tried to make me take it again the next year, and I said, ‘Oh hell no!’”
I explode with laughter. “You really are a kindred spirit!”
“Just please promise me you won’t ever drop out of high school,” Cass says. “That was a stupid decision if I ever made one, in spite of the result.”
I bite back a smirk. If only she knew how many times I’ve considered that. Hopefully it won’t be necessary if my missions work out, and I might even get a chance to go to a real school. “I can’t drop out. Nana would hunt me down and slit my throat.”
“Darn right I would,” Nana says. “I didn’t quit teachin’ after thirty years to educate a high school dropout.”
We arrive at the dentist’s office, and after waiting about ten minutes in the dusty waiting room that smells like chemicals, they take me back to a room. I sit down in the funny gray dentist chair, and my lips will not close. I’m so excited that I can’t stop smiling for anything.
My orthodontist, a small woman with red plastic glasses and blonde hair wrapped into a bun at the top of her head, enters the room with her mask down around her neck. “Hey, Mads!”
“Hi, Ursula!” I say. We know each other so well now that I’m on a first-name basis with her.
“You ready to get those suckers off?”
“Yes, yes, yes, do it now!” I beg, bouncing up and down as much as I can without knocking all the tools out of the tray.
Ursula turns to the other three people in the room. “My, we have an entourage here today, don’t we?” Dad and Cass laugh, and Nana grunts. “I appreciate the show of support, but I think we only have room for two people in here.” Ursula’s right…this room is small, and pretty cramped. “If the three of you don’t mind, I’m going to have to ask that you wait in the waiting room until I send her out to see you.”
“Sounds good,” Dad says, and he takes two steps to lean down and brush a soft kiss against my forehead. “Good luck, baby girl,” he says with a grin.
“Thanks, Daddy,” I squeal.
Two hours later, I’m finally free from the foreign contraption that has been giving me hell for years. Ursula hands me a mirror, and I’m not at all prepared for the sight that meets me.
“Holy hell…” I smile in the mirror like I’ve never seen my own teeth before. In a way, it feels like I haven’t. They were pretty effed up when I first got my braces.
With my glasses off and the mirror held in close range, I can see my own unobstructed face for the first time in a while…not clearly, because my vision sucks, but I can see well enough to know I look a million times better without braces. My smile is gorgeous, and it will be even more so if I do some at-home teeth whitening. My plump, pink lips spread out over my lower teeth and upper gums just like they should. Somehow, this new smile even makes my crystal-blue eyes seem lighter and disguises my long nose a bit. It doesn’t do anything for my slightly crooked jaw, but nothing will after the way I banged it up. Nothing except plastic surgery, which I’m pretty nervous about.
After receiving my clear retainer and some last minute instructions from Ursula, I head out to the waiting room with pursed lips, not wanting to spoil the surprise. When I meet the others, I wait until all eyes are on me.
“Wait, wait, I wanna get my camera.” Dad pulls his iPhone out of his back pocket. He never uses his phone camera, so Cass has to help him with it. It takes a hot minute for them to figure it out.
“Come on, guys,” I mutter behind my hand, and finally, they get the phone ready and Dad starts recording.
“Go,” he says. I drop my hand and grace them with the biggest smile I’ve ever smiled in my life. “Ho, my God!”
“Sweetie, you look beautiful,” Cass says, and even though I have trouble believing that, it’s a huge compliment coming from her. Dad and Cass continue to gush over me, but Nana remains stoic off to the side, not saying a word.
Finally, I turn to her, my eyes begging her to say something nice for once. “Nana, what do you think?”
Nana clamps a withered hand over her mouth and shakes her head. The expression in her sunken brown eyes is one I’ve never seen before. She finally steps forward, takes me in her arms, and squeezes the life out of me. Then she turns her head to firmly plant a kiss on my cheek, pulls back abruptly, and heads to the door, sniffling. I can’t help but smile again, even though my cheeks are starting to hurt. I’ll take that reaction over a thousand words any day.
On the way down the steps out of the dentist’s office, I beg Dad to let us go out to eat. “I want to try out my new teeth.”
Dad laughs. “They’re the same teeth you’ve always had, and you can try ’em out just as well at home.”
“Yeah, but I haven’t had corn on the cob in years, and you know Hogger’s BBQ has the best around. Please? I took really good care of these teeth with this moment in mind.”
“Really? For Hogger’s corn on the cob?” Dad asks with a grin.
“Honey, I just don’t think it’s such a good idea right now.”
I resort to begging, which for me just involves puppy eyes and batting my long, dark eyelashes at him. “Pleeease?”
Dad’s eyes roll back in his head, and he sighs, defeated. We all know he can’t resist my puppy eyes. “Fine, but we’re gettin’ a table in the back.”
We get to Hogger’s, and after Dad and Cass slip on their sunglasses, we go inside and get a table in the far right corner in a back room. I leave my glasses off because I don’t want to ruin my new face with them on my first time out without braces. After we’re all seated and looking at our menus in the dim, yellow lighting, the redheaded, freckled waitress comes to take our order. She welcomes us and tells us the specials, and then she leans down to look in my face. “Are you an actress?” she asks me.
“No.” I giggle, utterly flattered. “Thanks, though.”
“You’re welcome. Sorry, you just look a lot like—”
“Can we just go ahead and get our drinks, please?” Dad asks.
“Y-yes, of course.” She immediately shifts focus onto getting our orders.
After she’s gone back to the kitchen, I gape at Dad in disbelief. “What the hell was that? You’re never that rude.”
“I’m just thirsty, that’s all.” His eyes are glued to the menu. I don’t believe him for a second.
“She was about to give something away, wasn’t she?” I haven’t been pressing him about my mother’s identity for the last two weeks, but I can’t pass up this golden opportunity.
“Let’s just enjoy your celebration lunch, okay?” Dad flashes me a smile that’s not one of his warm, friendly, brimming with Southern-hospitality smiles. That’s a smile that says Drop this, now, or you’re in for a massive grounding. Not that grounding me has ever made a difference, anyway. It basically means I don’t go outside for any reason other than chores, and I usually find a way around that.
Our food arrives, and my corn on the cob is heavenly. We’re all kind of quiet at lunch, trying not to draw attention to Dad and Cass’s distinctive voices. When we’re done, Dad leaves to go to the bathroom and Cass offers to pay. I accompany her to the front counter while Nana waits at the table for Dad to get back.
When it’s our turn, Cass looks up at the side of the counter to read a sign posted there and, seemingly out of habit, pulls her sunglasses up onto the top of her head. Then she slips her credit card to Kelly, the brunette woman at the counter who looks like she’s in her thirties. Usually Cass pays with cash to avoid suspicion, so it’s odd that she’s paying with a credit card this time. Maybe she didn’t have cash on hand or something.
Wait. No. This is her plan. It’s another Step 4 attempt.
Kelly slides the card, and as Cass is signing for it, she looks down at the card and then back up at her and draws in a shuddering gasp. “Cassidy Knox? Is that you?” she shrieks.
Cass pulls her sunglasses back down over her eyes right as Dad comes up to meet us. “Shhhh,” Cass shushes her with a finger pressed to her lips, snatching the card away.
“Why are we whispering?” Kelly asks. Then she glances at Dad, and her eyes grow wide with recognition. “Oh my God…it can’t be!”
Dad’s face turns ashen as Kelly freaks out and calls her coworkers over to meet ‘Grim.’ Even through his dark sunglasses, I can see him shooting a fearsome glare at Cass as people from all over the restaurant jump up from their seats and make their way over to meet him.
“Let’s go,” Dad says, and all four of us turn tail and rush out the door. I hear a clamor behind us as people beg him not to leave, but Dad urges me forward with a hand at my back.
“Well, here we go,” I say as we all pile into the truck. “I don’t think our identities are quite so secret anymore in Lawrenceburg.”
Well, the secret is out. The employees at Hogger’s BBQ connected the dots and made sure to tell everybody in town exactly who we are. The town newspaper and some other websites picked up the story, and now we’re getting calls for interviews from everywhere. The news of our location is truly going viral.
Ana’s parents found out who we are and, surprisingly, they were okay with it. They even asked Dad and Cass for autographs. I guess they’re excited by the fact that now they have someone to ask a favor of when they need a new organ or projector for the church. Plus, we’re celebrities, and we’ve been to their church. I guess that would make anyone happy.
Dad is absolutely furious with Cass. He’s been out with the horses constantly, and he doesn’t want to see her at all. I know Cass meant to be discovered, but she still keeps apologizing over and over, and I think she severely regrets it. I feel bad that I was part of the reason she did it. I hope she didn’t just lose him for good.
Nana and I are taking Cass to the airport tomorrow so she can go home. Hopefully, this isn’t the last time I’ll ever see her. She’s done a lot of good for me at great cost to herself. Also…I mean, I got to jam with Black Angel for a couple of weeks. I don’t want to lose that.
I guess soon we’ll find out if Dad values his relationships or his stubbornness more. I understand why he’s mad, but seriously, I’m almost an adult. There can’t be that much danger now that I’m five months away from turning eighteen. It’s about time we came out of hiding.
It feels wrong to be so excited about this, but I am. No more hiding.
I’m ready to live.
Nana and I take Cass back to the airport early the next morning. She sheds silent tears all the way there. When we have to say good-bye before she goes on to the next area, she holds on to me tightly.
“Keep trying to get him out to L.A.,” Cass whispers in my ear. “Don’t give up. You deserve those answers, and you deserve to have your real life back.”
“I won’t give up, Cass,” I say, pulling back. “Thank you for everything. I’m sorry it backfired so badly.”
“Well, I didn’t do it all for you,” Cass reminds me. “I have my reasons for wanting the hiding to be over.”
“Yeah, but it seems like you may have lost him for good now.”
“It’ll be okay,” Cass says with a sad little smile. “Trust me, I know Mike. He can’t stay mad at me forever. Keep in touch, okay?”
“Will do. I’ll see you again soon.”
We say our good-byes, and then Nana drives me home in her car. When we arrive, there are cars lining the entire length of our driveway, and there’s a swarm of people out in front of our house. Some of them are reporters, but others look like crazed fans that will do anything to get a glimpse of a rock star. Nana drives past the cars on the grass and blares her horn at the mob. As she parks and gets out of the car, she pulls a Beretta out from under her pants leg and points it at the ones who are banging on our front door. She’s had a concealed weapon permit all these years, and now she’s finally using her privilege.
“All you trespassers get the hell off my front porch,” Nana squawks, and I snicker behind my hand at the terrified looks on the people’s faces. “This is private property! I’m not afraid to use this!” Nana fires a couple of warning shots up into the air, and everyone scurries out of our way. Most of them run back to their cars, and the few stragglers that remain follow suit when Nana points the gun directly at their heads.
As we approach the front door, I giggle and whisper to Nana, “I gotta admit, that was pretty badass.” Usually Nana would yell at me for the dirty word, but this time she just smirks and winks at me.
When we get back inside, Dad’s slumped on the couch, looking dragged down and older than when this whole mess started. Nana goes around to the kitchen to get lunch started, but I sit down on the couch with Dad. There’s a long moment of silence, and then he speaks.
“I didn’t mean she had to leave,” he says, staring sightlessly at the TV in front of us.
“Then why didn’t you say anything about us taking her away?”
“I was just so angry.” Dad shakes his head. Even from the side, I can see his pained scowl. “So angry she let that happen. That all those years of hidin’ were undone in an instant.”
Anger simmers inside of me too, but it’s for a different reason. “They weren’t undone. Trust me,
I’m still suffering from the effects.”
Dad looks at me. “What?”
I’ve been trying so hard not to explode at him, but it’s no use. The fury at the knowledge of everything I’ve missed out on is too much to handle. “How could you?” I whisper-shout, feeling rigid and poised to detonate.
Dad sighs and drops his shoulders. “Here we go…”
“How could you keep me hidden from my real life for seventeen years?” I stand from the couch, and my voice echoes through the house. “How could you force Cass to stay at a distance and go by a different name? How could you let her leave like that? Do you care about either of us at all?”
Dad jumps to his feet, his anger nearly matching mine. “Believe me, I care about you more than you will ever know,” he spits with a finger pointing right toward my face.
“If you cared about me, you would have let me live a normal life! You lied to me and made me think I was this whole other person! You kept me away from everything for so long, and I don’t know if anything’s true anymore. I don’t feel safe anymore. Ever.”
“I did what I did to keep you safe. I gave up everything for you! Don’t you [_ever _]say I don’t care about you!”
“Why was all of this necessary to keep me safe? Why couldn’t you have just fought back in court? You’re a rock star, for God’s sake. Surely you had better lawyers than her.”
“I know for a fact I would have lost you,” Dad says with a break in his voice. His hand falls down to his side, and his eyes water up.
“How do you know?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“Why?” I sob. “Why can’t you just tell me the truth?”
“Because when you find out who your mother is, it’s gonna destroy you!”
Both of us are stunned silent. Dad grips the hair on the back of his head, and I watch my father fullon cry for the first time in my life. “It’s just…it’s gonna break your heart. I wanted to wait until you were grown and could handle the truth.”
I stand there in silence, suddenly feeling more scared and vulnerable than I’ve ever felt in my life. This woman has got to be one of the biggest stars in Hollywood if it would hurt me that much to find her. My heart pounds, and for a moment I lose my resolve to find her. It’s going to kill me, I can clearly see that now, but…why do I still have this ache for her?
“I didn’t know that,” I whisper, and both of us sit back down on the couch, needing the support.
Dad chokes back sobs with one hand clamped over his nose and mouth and the other gripping his knee. Finally, I realize how much all of this has hurt him too. He left his career and his mansion behind just to protect me. My heart is softening toward him, but I still feel violated by the lies, and I don’t know if that’s ever going to change. I lay my hand over his on his lap, and he immediately turns it over to grasp mine. We sit there for a while staring at our hands without a word.
Finally, I break the silence. “Look, Dad…I’m sorry you lost everything for me, but…we’ve all been hurt. How would you feel if you lived your entire childhood as one person, and then you found out you were someone totally different? That there’s this great life you could have lived, places you could have seen…” My tears start up again, and my voice starts to tremble. “We could have traveled the world together, you know? I could have gone on vacations…I could have gone to school, had so many more friends…I’ve been hurt anyway. Now that people know who we are, there’s nothing stopping us from living on the outside. I know if she finds us, it could mean trouble, but…I’m sure there’s hope. I mean, I’m seventeen now. Is she really going to try to take me away now, after so much time has passed?”
Dad blows out what feels like a gallon of air, staring at our hands in his lap. “I dunno…you may be right.”
“Also, think about Cass. She was your best friend, and you’ve been forcing her to stay out of your life all this time. She was just hurt…you know? She just wants you back. That’s all. She misses you so much.”
“I know. I miss her too. And I really don’t hate her, I was just angry.”
“I think she deserves an apology, and I think she deserves it in person.”
His gaze travels up to meet mine. “Are you suggestin’ what I think you’re suggestin’?”
I nod quickly with a pounding heart. “Everybody knows where we are now, anyway. We need to go back to L.A., and not just for Cass. You have things there that have probably been sitting untouched for years. Why don’t we go there just for the summer? Then Cass will know how much she means to you, and you’ll get to show off your rock star past to your daughter, who is dying to see it.”
Dad chuckles softly. “Honey, I would love to show you my ‘rock star past,’ but…your mother still lives in Los Angeles.” Dad pauses for a second in thought. “Then again, I did hear she’s gonna be on a film shoot out of town for the whole month of June, so if there was a time to go to L.A., it would be now.”
“Well, uh…” Shit, that’s a complication I hadn’t thought of. At least I know for certain she’s an actress now. Maybe I could extend the trip somehow if I find out who she is. Either way, I’ve got to keep a straight face or he’s going to suspect I want to meet her. I give him a nonchalant shrug. “I have to agree. Now’s the time.”
“Can you promise to behave if I take you to Los Angeles?”
My heart rises into my throat. “Uh-huh.”
“No drugs, no booze, no studly boys?”
I laugh my ass off. “Dad…have you seen me?” I gesture to my skinny, boy-like body. No L.A. stud is going to want to hit this.
“Promise me,” Dad says with a solemn gaze.
“Well…then I guess we’d better start packin’. It’s gonna be one helluva summer.”
I did it! I got Dad to agree to come to L.A. He’s probably going to stick by my side like glue and never let me do anything by myself, but at least I have him where I want him now. I also convinced Ana’s parents to let her come with us after about an hour of begging, swearing to keep her out of trouble, and promising to find a church to attend in L.A. We won’t be keeping that third promise—on the few vacations I’ve been on in my life, we’ve never done anything but pig out on junk food and laze around in the pool—but I got them to agree, and Ana couldn’t be happier. I promised her we could shop on Rodeo Drive together as long as she visits the Grammy Museum with me. Usually, I avoid clothes shopping like the plague, but this is a special occasion, so I guess I can deal.
I know I’m taking some huge risks with this trip. I still plan to search for my mother, even though I know that finding the truth about her might destroy me. I wish her pull on my heart would go away, but it won’t, and the longer I have to wait to confront her, the more it’s going to hurt. I can’t deal with any more secrets in my life. I need to find her. I need to hear her side of the story and see if she’s changed. I hope I’m not putting anyone in real mortal danger, but it sounds like she’s more of a liar and a backstabber than a felon, so hopefully it will be all right. She won’t be there for the whole month of June, so if I do find out she’s a serial killer or something—highly unlikely—I can get our asses out of there before she comes back.
Two more weeks and I’ll be staying in the house I should have grown up in. I don’t know how I’m going to get any sleep from now until June.
I think a person can actually die of excitement. I swear I’ve felt my heart stop at least five times tonight as I was trying to sleep. Tomorrow we’re flying into Los Angeles
International Airport. We haven’t told Cass about our visit because Dad wants it to be a surprise. It seems like he’s excited about the trip too, which is a relief. I was afraid he was going to bail on me during the two weeks we’ve been packing and setting things up for Nana. Aunt Melissa, Dad’s older sister, is coming to stay with Nana while we’re gone, and I’m confident she’ll take excellent care of Maggie. Melissa owns a legit horse farm a couple of counties over from us, and she’s trained dozens of horses, including Weston.
Ana’s sleeping over tonight…well, staying over. She’s not sleeping either. I know because the light from her iPhone is merging with the light from my laptop. I know I need to sign off, but my fingers won’t stop moving. It’s like I have a caffeine high, but I didn’t drink coffee or anything. The anticipation of a trip to Beverly Hills is the equivalent of three Red Bulls for me.
Beverly Hills…my Cinderella story is finally progressing. Now if only I was pretty like Ana and could easily attract a Prince Charming.
Guess I’ll turn on the Relaxation channel on Pandora and try my best to sleep. My chronic insomnia really is becoming a problem. I’ll get that checked out when I go to therapy after finding Mother Dearest.
Ttyl in L.A.,
My stomach does a flip when the plane touches down on the runway in Los Angeles. I press my nose against the glass, trying to drink in every second of this huge moment. This was my first plane ride ever, and I loved it, especially since we got to ride first class. The whole way, amidst Ana’s chattering, I watched older, dignified people sip champagne and look all important as they kept their noses in books and laptops.
There were some rich teenage guys in first class that looked us up and down when we first got here.
They seemed impressed with Ana, but they didn’t linger on me long, as I expected. We overslept this morning, and I didn’t even have a chance to take a shower, let alone put on makeup or look any sort of presentable. This is the story of my life…not even fame can make me more attractive than her.
We leave out of the gate and make our way through the airport, and all the way to baggage claim, people stare, point, and whisper about us. Dad puts on his shades again, trying to keep a low profile, but people recognize him and follow us as we pick up our bags and go to get a rental car. When they bring out their phones to take pictures of us, Dad groans and mutters under his breath, “I should have hired bodyguards.”
Bodyguards. We need bodyguards. Sometimes I still think I’m living in a dream.
Dad picks up a rental car and drives us straight to the Beverly Hills neighborhood where the mansion is. Ana and I link arms as we ride down some more secluded streets in Beverly Hills. The houses we pass by are nothing short of spectacular. They’re all different styles, but each one looks like it cost at least a million dollars to create, whether in present times or past.
My chest constricts when Dad pulls into 21 Leighton Way and stops at the gigantic black gate, which is connected to a stone wall. He talks to someone through an intercom, and they open the gate quickly to grant us access. We drive up the long driveway to our home, and I grip Ana’s arm so hard that she winces.
I’ve seen the mansion in pictures already, but nothing compares to stepping out of the rental car and seeing the real thing up close and personal. The mansion is two stories high, made of white cement, and the balconies have minimalist steel railings and sliding glass doors leading out from each bedroom. Black double doors with thin steel handles beckon me from the front of the house. As soon as Dad stops the car, I drop everything and shove my door open, running up to the front patio as Ana follows closely behind me. I stop in front of the doors with a heaving chest.
This is it. I’m about to see the house I should have grown up in.
I ring the doorbell, and I instantly recognize the tune. It’s custom-made with the melody from the chorus of “Tearing into Silence.” A thin brunette answers the door, and her eyes widen at the sight of me.
“Uh…may I help you?”
“Hi, I’m Madison Daley. I…well, technically, I live here.” Dad instructed me to use Daley instead of Landers while we’re staying here so people will know who I am.
“Oh, of course! I’m Kelsey, the housekeeper.” Kelsey and I shake hands, and then I introduce Ana. Kelsey glances behind us and sees Dad coming up the way with our luggage. “Michael Daley in the flesh…” Kelsey whispers, releasing Ana’s hand. The look in her dark brown eyes makes me gag. You can tell she wants to do unspeakable things to my father.
They introduce themselves, and Kelsey’s voice is about an octave higher while she’s talking to him.
Dad tells her to call him Mike, and then he says, “We’re here to visit Cass. Is she home?” To his credit, he’s not paying any attention to Kelsey’s doe eyes or her pushed-out chest. In fact, he’s looking behind her for Cass.
“Yes…right this way,” Kelsey says. She takes our luggage and sets it to the side, and then she ushers us into the entry hall.
On the way out to the backyard, I gaze in wonder at the interior of our home. We have a two-story entryway with a semi-vaulted ceiling and a skylight. The stairs are like white floating platforms with steel railings, and they curve on their way up to the second floor. Peeking into the living room, I see a gigantic 4K television on the wall in front of the black leather couch, which is decorated with red throw pillows. The white, black, steel, and red theme continues throughout the house, including the kitchen, which has black granite countertops with stainless steel appliances. There’s a bar with black leather stools that looks just perfect for eating a bowl of cereal in the morning…or whatever fancy famous people from L.A. eat in the mornings. I really have no idea.
Kelsey takes us back through a sunroom which is lined on two sides with nothing but floor-to-ceiling windows. She opens the sliding glass door for us and gestures to the patio, where Cass and a thin African American man are sitting at a black castiron table with an umbrella. I glance behind them at the Olympic-sized swimming pool and the wet bar that’s right near it. Judging from the number of benches, tables, and chairs around this pool, I’d say Cass throws a mean party in the summer.
My gaze returns to Cass and the man she’s talking to as we approach them. One look at this guy, and I can tell he’s not going to be Cass’s next boyfriend. His sense of style is quite flamboyant, and Ana, a fashion enthusiast, recognizes him immediately.
“Oh. My. God. That’s Stephan Lowe!” she whisper-shouts. Stephan Lowe is one of the foremost designers in L.A. Ana wants to be a model someday, so her meeting Stephan Lowe of Stephan Lowe Designs in the flesh would be like me meeting the members of A7X in person.
“Don’t pass out, Ana, don’t pass out—”
“I might,” she chokes out, “hold me.” I keep my arm around her as we cross the patio.
Cass and Stephan stand from their seats with wide eyes. “What the…what? Am I seeing things?” Cass mutters.
Dad and Cass face off in front of each other before his resolve crumbles and he takes her in his arms. “I am so sorry. I should have talked to you. I didn’t mean you had to leave.”
Cass is overcome by emotion. “Oh my God! You came back!” she says over and over through wracking sobs, holding on to him like she’s afraid to let him go.
While Dad and Cass make up, Stephan turns his attention to me and extends his hand with a big, white smile. His teeth are almost brighter than Cass’s. “Madison Daley, I presume?” His voice is high-pitched and pleasant.
“Stephan Lowe, I presume?” I reply, and he laughs—a tittering, jovial sound.
“The very same,” he says, and we shake hands warmly. “This is going to sound strange, but have we met before?”
“Highly unlikely. I’ve been out of town for the past seventeen years.”
Stephan laughs again. “You’re a funny girl. I only asked that because you look so familiar, but I suppose you’re right. It’s an extraordinary pleasure to meet you, dear. If you ask me, you and your father have been out of town for far too long.”
“And who is this vision of beauty?” Stephan asks, turning to face Ana.
“This is Ana Lincourt, my best friend.” I push Ana forward. “She’s a huge fan of yours.”
Ana’s hand trembles as she shakes his. “It is an honor to meet you, Mr. Lowe.”
“Steph is my preferred name, honey,” he says with a wink. “Forgive my boldness, but are you a model?”
Her voice cracks. “I want to be.”
A delighted smile grows on his face. “We’ll talk about that later,” Steph says, and Ana suppresses a squeal.
Cass lets go of Dad then and grabs hold of my arms while Steph and Dad introduce themselves. “You did it! How did you manage to finally get him here?”
“I told him he needed to apologize in person because he was being a massive douche to you.” Her eyes widen. “Well, okay, I didn’t use those exact words, but it was that basic idea.”
“Very impressive! How does it feel to be in L.A.?”
“It’s amazing. This is so huge…but I have to admit, I’m starving. The food on the plane was inedible.”
Cass releases me and motions to follow her. “Well then, come inside! Let’s go, everyone!”
“Cassidy, darling, I’m going to have to excuse myself,” Steph says, and everybody groans in disappointment. “Don’t worry, I live right next door.” He giggles as he gestures to the impressive Italian villa just to the right of us. I can see its towers poking up above the stone wall, and I can already tell it looks amazing up close. “You all are welcome to join us for dinner tomorrow night if you’d like.”
“That would be terrific!” Dad says, and the rest of us agree.
“Perfect. My family and I will be expecting you.” Steph gives us a little wave. “I’ll leave you to explore your home. It was a pleasure meeting all of you.”
“Likewise,” Dad, Ana, and I say, and then Steph leaves us and Cass leads us back inside the mansion.
After a quick lunch of chicken wraps, Dad and Cass take us upstairs to get settled, and they give Ana and me rooms next to each other. “There’s no point in makin’ you share one, since there are nine bedrooms in the house,” Dad says.
“But girls like sharing bedrooms, don’t you know that, Dad?” I tease. That was always his excuse for shoving Ana and me into a single twin bed back in Kentucky.
“It’s okay, now I won’t have to put up with your bony knees in my back all night,” Ana says. She’s referring to the many sleepovers we’ve had where I accidentally tried to maim her in my sleep. Apparently, I sleep-kick…tae kwon do style.
My king-sized bed has a pretty minimal design—it’s basically just a mattress on top of a black platform. I have my own bathroom and a few black shelves on the walls for displaying things. There’s also a TV in my room that’s about three times bigger than Ana’s TV at home. I feel every bit the spoiled rich girl I am as I lay my carry-on bag on the bed and breathe in the smell of fresh linens. Cass enters the bedroom with my suitcase, and I take it and unload my things into an impressive walk-in closet.
Ana joins me in my room after a few minutes. “Oh…my God…this place…is epic!” she exclaims, beaming.
“Yeah, it really is.”
Ana pokes her head into my closet and laughs. “Oh no. No. This is not okay. Are those really all the clothes you have?”
“Yeah…” I groan. My clothes only take up about a fourth of the space, and I brought nearly every item of clothing I own.
“Tomorrow we’re going shopping. You have to promise me.”
“Does it really have to be tomorrow?” I ask.
“Yes. We’re having dinner with Stephan Lowe. You can’t show up to that in a faded Black Veil Brides tee and Converse.”
I glance down at my outfit, cringing when I realize that next to all this black leather, my previously black shirt looks gray. I never realized how faded all my clothes are, but everything I own is at least two years old. Dad did a great job pretending to be poor.
“Yeah, you’ve got a point.” I let out a heavy sigh. Guess my day of reckoning has finally come.
We’re here…and it’s the best feeling in the world.
As soon as I walked in those double doors, I immediately felt at home. That has never happened to me before. The farmhouse felt like home because it was all I had, but this place has Dad, Cass, and me written all over it. It’s a rocker’s mansion for sure, and Dad already told me some stories about the wild parties they used to have in here. I enjoyed hearing about how completely off the walls Cass and he were. It makes me think maybe he’ll forgive me for the shit I plan to do once I’m legal…or not so legal.
He’s loosening up a lot now that we’re in L.A. He’s even treating me like an equal in a lot of ways. I guess he’s finally realizing I’m close to becoming an adult. Also, he said he plans to go out with Cass a lot while we’re here. Score for me! The less parental supervision, the better.
I’m not sure how to feel about meeting Stephan Lowe’s family tomorrow. According to Ana, Steph’s partner is Alfonzo Abate, a major action film star. He’s easily an A-list actor, and I’ve watched and obsessed over all his movies. His teenage son Giovanni is an actor too. He was a supporting actor on one of my favorite tween-teen shows, Jackson and Julia, until it got cancelled last year. He is constantly in the news, and girls everywhere obsess over him. My palms sweat and my throat dries up just thinking about him. I mean, this guy is swoon-worthy, and I’m about to meet him tomorrow. That has me terrified. What am I going to say to two actors I’ve worshipped for the past few years of my life?
Especially one my age?
I can see it now—
“Hi, I’m Mads. You’re gorgeous. I want to marry you. I know I’m the Basket Baby, but maybe we can look past that. I’m even willing to start over on a deserted island together and forget either of us has a name. We can just sit on the beach day and night in nothing but our birthday suits and let the world fade away for the rest of our lives. Sound good? Great. I’m on my way to the courthouse to get emancipated right now.”
I’m dying laughing over here.
That’s so unrealistic it’s almost not funny.
Anyway, now that I know who I’m meeting, I’m considering letting Ana give me a full-scale makeover tomorrow. She’s been wanting to do that for years, and now we’ve finally got the perfect opportunity. Plus, it’s kind of necessary. I’m looking at the ends of my hair, and…yep, I’ve got split ends. They’re all over the place. Definitely getting a haircut, and I might color it too, even though that’s way outside my comfort zone.
Here goes nothing. Hopefully I won’t come back bald. That’s my secret fear when entering a salon.
“Beverly Hills” by Weezer plays in my head as we turn onto Rodeo Drive. The shops lining the street are just as iconic and ritzy as I pictured them, and it would seem that the palm trees have taken over this place. Ana acts like she’s about to have a seizure next to me as she points out all the stores and salons she wants to check out. Cass said we could spend as much as we want, and neither of us have ever been able to do that, so we’re both pretty stoked.
The first store we hit is called Ferria, and it’s known to have a lot of the best clothes for teenage girls. We’re greeted at the door by a tall, darkhaired woman with a smug expression. “Welcome to Ferria. My name is Meg, how can I help you?”
“Hi,” Ana says. “This is Madison Daley, the Grim Weeper’s daughter. She needs a whole new wardrobe.”
“Gee, thanks Ana.” I laugh.
Meg gasps, and her eyes light up. “No way! You’re the Basket Baby?”
I can’t help but feel a little flattered at her response. I’ve never heard my ‘fame name’ on someone else’s lips before, and the way she just said it, it actually didn’t sound too bad. “Yeah, I am.”
“Oh my God! I heard the Grim Weeper was back in L.A., but I wasn’t sure whether or not to believe it!”
“Well, believe it,” Cass says, looking like she’s about to burst with happiness. “They’re out of hiding for good.”
Meg immediately comes to my side, takes me by the arm, and leads me in the direction of the juniors section. “Well, don’t you worry. I’m going to personally see to it that you get everything you need today.”
In the hour that follows, Meg stays true to her word. I end up finding a lot of cute clothes I like, even some dresses, much to my surprise. She takes Cass, Ana, and me back to a dressing room with armfuls of clothes in hand, and when I try on my first dress—a strapless black lace overlay dress—I come out of the stall with tears in my eyes.
Ana notices my distress right away as she’s adjusting a bright green mini-dress in front of the three-sided mirror. “Mads, what’s wrong?”
I lift up the top of the dress, showcasing how much room is left in the bust area. “I have no boobs,” I mourn.
“You can always get it altered,” Meg interjects, giving me a reassuring smile. “Lots of people need their clothes altered. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you.”
“I guess,” I say, supposing that all the dresses in L.A. are made for women who have implants. My cup size is between an A and a B, so I don’t even stand a chance.
“Try on another one,” Ana suggests. “Find one that looks a little smaller on the top.”
I respond with a dejected nod, and when I trudge back into the stall, I find a deep purple dress that we got from the juniors section. I slip off the black lace dress easily, and when I slide the new one on, I’m pleasantly surprised to find it fits me like a glove. It’s made of knit fabric and has cap sleeves, and it’s also formfitting, which gives me more of a curvy look.
I open the door of the stall and step out, feeling a little more confident. Ana and Meg gasp when they see me. “It’s perfect!” Ana says, smiling from ear to ear.
Meg leads me over to the three-sided mirror and stands behind me with her hands on my shoulders. “See, Madison? You look great.” I smile and nod. Other than my head, which has not been updated to Beverly Hills standards at all, I look great.
Cass and Ana drag me to a salon after three exhausting hours of shopping. After we’re signed in and sitting in the waiting room, they take some catalogs from a shelf and help me pick out a hairstyle. It’s going to require a dye job, but I’m warming up to the idea. Nearly every celebrity I’ve ever seen has dyed their hair at least once.
I get called back to a chair, and yet another tall, blonde, tan person comes up behind me to do my hair. “Hi, I’m Rick. I’ll be working on your hair today,” he says in a high-pitched voice. Another gay guy. I’m liking the number of men in L.A. who don’t treat women like we’re bodies with heads attached.
“Hi, I’m Mads. Please be gentle, I’m a style virgin.” Rick laughs at my little joke, and he talks me into taking six inches off my hair for health reasons. Then he darkens my base color just a bit and adds deep red highlights. After that, another person gives me a facial and waxes my eyebrows and upper lip.
Finally, the makeup artist, a middle-aged Asian woman with on-point eyeliner and a sweet smile, enters the room and comes up to shake my hand. “Hi, Madison! I’m Angie, and I’ll be doing your makeup.”
“Hi, Angie. Do you think you’ll be able to do anything with this?” I ask with a grin, pointing to my face.
She laughs. “Don’t worry, we’ll make you look great. Now the first thing I’ll need you to do is take off those glasses.” Before she approached me, I put my glasses on just to look at my hair in the mirror. When I take them off and lay them on the dresser in front of me, she gasps. “Oh my God, you have perfect eyes!”
“Thank you,” I say. She also praises my high cheekbones and plump lips. Angie goes on to describe the different products she’s using as she starts on my makeup and educates me on the best makeup to use. As she’s talking, I inwardly obsess over the fact that I can actually go out and buy all this stuff now I know we’re millionaires. She puts a slightly darker shadow on my eye than I’m used to, dabs concealer over the little bit of acne and dark circles I have, and then she finishes me off with foundation, pink blush, and light pink lipstick. The eye makeup gives me a dramatic, star-like appearance. In fact, I [_almost _]look like a real celebrity.
“Holy hell, is that me?” I ask, gazing into the mirror in awe.
“That is you!” Angie assures me, smiling.
Cass and Ana come up behind me, chatting and giggling. When they notice me, they gasp. “Mads!” they exclaim in unison.
I stand and turn around to face them with my hands in the air at my sides. “How do I look?” I ask, referencing the TV show Ana used to make me watch.
“Sexy,” Ana asserts like she means it.
“You look like a totally different person!” Cass exclaims. “It’s amazing!”
I look in the mirror again and smile. I might, might see myself as being a little bit hot.
Dad is waiting for us in the entryway when we get home, and as I enter the house, he clamps a hand over his mouth.
“Hi, Dad,” I say, feeling a little awkward. He’s staring at me like he’s never seen me before.
“Baby girl, you look divine,” he says. The corners of his eyes crinkle up in a smile.
“Thanks,” I say, and he gives me a quick hug. “I think I’ll put my glasses back on now that you’ve seen me, since I can barely see.”
“That’s fine. You ladies ready to go to dinner?” “Just let us take these things upstairs,” Cass says. We take our bags up the stairs and change into semi-casual attire, and then we file out of the house to go to the Italian villa next door.
We’re let in a gate that’s remarkably similar to ours, and I cling to Ana’s arm as we soak in the showcase of grandeur that looms in front of us. The stucco towers are even more impressive up close, and they give the home a sense of character and elegance. There’s a bright blue fountain out front that is already lit for the night. Impeccable landscaping and natural-colored floodlights liven up the front, and their balcony railings are black cast iron that is twisted into charming, traditional designs. We approach an ornately carved cherry wood door, and Cass rings the doorbell.
A distinguished, middle-aged Italian man opens the door, and I immediately start freaking on the inside.
Oh my God, it’s Alfonzo Abate…oh my God, it’s Alfonzo Abate…
He sees Cass, and a big, toothy grin appears on his face. “Ciao, bella!”
“Ciao, Alfonzo!” Cass replies, and they kiss each other’s cheeks like Europeans do. “This is Mike Daley, his daughter Madison, and their friend Ana. Everyone, this is Alfonzo Abate.” We all mutter our hellos. Even Dad looks a little nervous. I guess he never got to meet him before we left.
“A pleasure to meet you all,” Alfonzo says in a thick, charming Italian accent. “Please, come in.”
We walk into the entryway, and I hear a door close and footsteps padding down a hall upstairs. My heart picks up speed and time slows down when a younger, hotter version of Alfonzo saunters down the stairs into their grand entryway. It’s Giovanni Abate in all his glory—tall and tan, with piercing silver eyes and black hair so thick you could bury your hands in it and lose them. He’s wearing a white polo and jeans that are a little tight on him, and I have to try hard to bring my eyes up from his perfect body.
His gaze is intense as he fixates on me, and even after he touches down on the floor, his eyes don’t leave mine. “Come va? I’m Gio…” He stops, still staring at me. I’m not sure if he lost his train of thought or if that’s really his nickname. I squirm under his scrutiny, and then I feel a huge sense of relief when Steph dances in from the kitchen.
“Oh, perfect, you’re all here,” Steph says, gleefully clapping his hands. “Let me tell you, you’re all in for a treat. Alfonzo prepared dinner himself, so everything you’re eating tonight is authentic. We’ll start off with a 1965 Pinot Grigio and—”
“Take your glasses off,” Gio suddenly interrupts.
Everyone falls silent, awaiting my response.
“Giovanni!” Alfonzo roars with a scowl. His deep, bellowing voice echoes off the high ceiling and the walls. “Attento a come ti comporti!” I have no idea what he just said, but it seems like he was telling his son not to be rude.
Gio softens and rubs the back of his neck like Alfonzo just cracked a whip on it. “Sorry…never mind. I just thought you were someone I know.”
“I must look like someone,” I say with a nervous giggle. “Steph said the same thing.”
“You really do,” Gio says. “You look extremely familiar.” His dark brows shadow his eyes, and his gaze intensifies again, like he’s trying to get me to confess something.
“Well…I guess there’s one way to straighten this out,” I say, and I take the glasses off. Alfonzo and Steph gasp, and Gio’s eyes widen.
“She does look like…” Alfonzo mutters.
“My God, the resemblance is…scary,” Steph says in horror.
“What resemblance?” I ask.
“You, uh…” Steph glances at Cass, who makes a throat-cutting gesture with her finger. Dad’s glare is practically melting him. “You just look like someone we know, that’s all.” Steph shakes it off, and his joyful smile returns. “Anyway, I’m simply dying for some antipasto, so let’s show them the dining room, Alfonzo.”
Dammit! When am I going to know who I look like?
Alfonzo and Steph lead us into the traditional, luxurious Italian dining room. “Everyone help yourselves to the antipasto,” Alfonzo says, gesturing to the appetizer as Dad, Cass, Ana, and I pull out our fine-upholstered mahogany chairs and sit down. “Gio, take the Pinot and serve it to our guests.” Alfonzo disappears into the kitchen with Steph so they can bring out the rest of the food.
“’Kay,” Gio says in his deep, cute voice. He takes the bottle from the table and moves around to pour the wine for Dad and Cass. Then he pours wine for Ana too, and I raise my eyebrows at Dad, like “Are we allowed to drink this?” He holds up a pinky, imitating the teacup hold Nana tried to teach me as a kid, and I laugh quietly behind my hand. That’s his secret code for “Be polite.” Manners have always been a huge deal in the Landers-Daley family, so I guess I’ll get to sample wine just this once.
Gio pauses again to stare at me when he brings the bottle around, and I reach for my cold crystal wineglass and hold it out to him. I was trying to make it easier on him, but he gets distracted by me again while he’s pouring and accidentally spills some on my fingers.
“So sorry,” he says, reaching for my crisp, white napkin, but I set my glass down and get it myself.
“It’s all right, really.” I give him a reassuring smile. Funny, I thought I would be the nervous one tonight…
The dinner conversation is lighthearted among the adults, but Gio remains dead silent as he plays with the food on his plate, which forces me to only talk to Ana. She taps me on the shoulder, and I lean over to her.
“What is his deal?” Ana whispers.
“I’m not sure. I guess I really look like whoever it was he used to know and he’s in shock about it.”
“Yeah, but…isn’t he being kind of rude?”
“Ana,” I say through my teeth, “it’s the first time any guy has ever stared at me. And it’s Giovanni Abate. Just go with it.” She rolls her eyes and shakes her head, like You’re hopeless.
I listen in as Alfonzo talks to Dad. “So what have you been up to for the past seventeen years, neighbor?”
“Nothin’ much,” Dad replies. “Raisin’ horses, takin’ care of Momma…and, of course, raisin’ that one over there.” He nods in my direction and grins at me.
“If you keep blaming me for us leaving town, everyone in L.A. is going to hate me,” I say. The adults chuckle.
“No one hates you, Madison,” Steph assures me. His dark eyes sparkle with mischief. “We might resent you a little, but—”
“Steph!” Cass scolds, and he laughs.
“Well, I hope I’ve redeemed myself by bringing him back,” I say, and Steph nods enthusiastically.
“Honey, this is a great day for all of us.”
“By the way, Mads is my preferred name,” I say, making him grin.
“I’ll be sure to remember that.” He turns to talk to Dad after that, and I can’t resist another glance in Gio’s direction.
Gio’s completely ignoring his vermicelli with vodka sauce and instead looking up something on his phone. I take the opportunity to study his face further. His nose is long and straight, and it leads down to some delicious-looking, well-shaped lips. His sideburns almost meet the hollows in his cheeks, and I follow them down to the clean edge of his sharp jawline. My gaze travels down his strong neck and back up again, and…yep, that view is just as glorious from the bottom up. I’m in so much trouble. Everything about this guy puts waves of nausea in my stomach. I lay down my fork and sit back, taking a few extra sips of my wine. As long as this Adonis is sitting next to me, I’m never going to be able to keep all this food down.
When dinner is done, Steph stands and motions to Ana, who gladly follows him out of the room. I shoot her an encouraging smile as she leaves. Dad, Cass, and Alfonzo go out to the living room, which leaves me alone with Gio. He finally glances up in my direction.
“So…you’re the Basket Baby, huh?” he asks with a smirk.
Shit…he would bring that up first thing. “Yeah…not the most flattering claim to fame one could imagine.” He snickers, but it’s not derisive. It’s more like an ‘I get that’ laugh. “And you’re
Tony from Jackson and Julia, right?” “Correct,” Gio says.
“I have to admit—I loved that show. I think I’ve probably watched every episode. I was so upset when it ended.”
“Yeah, me too.” Gio rolls his eyes and sighs. “I’ve been out of work for a year because of that.”
I choke up for a second, losing steam in his presence. Say something…anything…
“I gotta say, you’ve changed a [_lot _]since that first season.”
Ugh, that’s the worst thing you could possibly say!
Much to my relief, he laughs. “Yeah, luckily I got a trainer after the first couple of seasons. I was that stereotypical fat kid everybody got to make fun of on set.”
“Well, you showed them.” A surge of heat rushes into my cheeks. Why did I say that? Am I actually flirting right now?
I’m rewarded with a dimpled smile that turns my heart into mush. “Thank you,” Gio says pleasantly. I’m relieved he didn’t find that comment disgusting coming from me.
Say something else…ask a question, something innocent…
“So, what are you doing right now?” Good. Safe.
“I’ve been at Wilcox High School for the last year,” Gio replies. “I wanted to have a couple years of normal high school experiences before it was too late. I already had a lot of friends there, since my best friend Dalton goes there, so it just made sense. One more year, and then I’m going back to acting full-time.”
Oh yeah, that’s right. He probably had a tutor on set. Maybe we have more in common than I thought. “I’m also hoping I’ll be able to get one year at a real high school before graduating. I was homeschooled my entire life,” I say.
Gio raises an eyebrow, making some cute little creases appear on his forehead. “Your dad homeschooled you?”
“No, my Nana did. She was a teacher for thirty years.”
“Oh…I see,” Gio says.
Ask something else…
“What’s Wilcox like?”
“It’s an exclusive private high school in Beverly Hills that you only get into if you’re filthy rich or a scholarship kid,” Gio says, and he leans back and folds his muscular arms in front of him. I wish he wouldn’t do that…it’s really unfair. I have force myself to concentrate on what he’s saying. “We have to wear uniforms, and they have insane grading standards. If you make an eighty-seven on a test, it’s a C instead of a B.”
“Holy damn! Wilcox sounds cool, though. If I moved here, I’d probably try to get in.”
“I barely passed junior year,” Gio admits. “If you have any previous classes with a grade lower than an eighty, you might as well abandon all hope.”
“My Geometry grade was an eighty-two,” I tell him. “Everything else was way above that.”
“Nice! I guess you’re set then, bella.” He gives me a wink and a sexy half smile.
My neck and cheeks feel like they’ve just been set ablaze. Giovanni Abate just called me “bella.” I’m starting to wish I was recording this conversation, but that would be creepy and weird, so I’ll just record it in my head instead.
“Hey, do you wanna see my room? You know, just for something to do,” he asks. I hesitate for a split second before remembering our parents are inside the house, so it’s unlikely he has any naughty intentions. Then I laugh at myself on the inside for even imagining he would look at me like that. I nod in response to his invitation, and he takes me upstairs to his bedroom.
Gio also has his own king-sized bed, plus he has a gigantic curved TV on the wall opposite the bed. There are a ton of posters from action movies on his walls, not surprisingly, and there are some bookshelves between them filled with Blu-Rays, video games, and books of every sort. Gio is completely entertainment-obsessed, which is a relief, because that’s something I can definitely talk about.
“Nice room.” I head over to one of the bookshelves to look at his games. “What’s your favorite console game?”
“Battlefield. You play?” Gio asks, shocked.
“Yeah, my dad and I play Battlefield together all the time, actually. I’m pretty good at it.”
Gio smirks. “Bet you’re not as good as me.” His arrogant smirk reminds me of a smolder. God, he’s so cute…even cuter in person. I could literally melt into a puddle at his feet right this moment, but I manage to keep myself strong.
“Is that a challenge?” I ask, returning the smirk.
“You bet your sweet ass.” He glances down at it as he moves behind me to get the controller, and I thank myself profusely for wearing these flattering black skinny jeans. There are a couple of black leather lounging chairs in front of his TV, so we both sit down in front of it. “Have you ever played on a TV this big before?” Gio asks.
“No…we had a flat-screen back at home that we played on, but it was nowhere near as big as this.” I steal another glance at him as he boots up the console and leans back. His core movement is so smooth…you can tell he’s played just about every single sport there is. Except maybe football. He’s not that bulky.
“It’s a little jarring if you’re not used to it,” Gio says, talking about the TV screen. “I’ll show you.” He logs in and gets a match started, and I immediately see what he means. My eyes can barely keep up with the motion of the guns and characters on the screen.
“Whoa, this is trippy,” I say, rattling my head.
“Scoot back,” he says, and I pull my chair back all the way to the bed. It’s a lot better after that.
Gio gets a decent number of kills, but I know for a fact that I can beat his score and even double it, which brings me to a dilemma. Should I show off my mad gaming skills and possibly make him feel bad about himself? Or should I do the ego-boosting thing and pretend I need his help? My feminist side kicks in and makes the answer pretty obvious. There ain’t no way in hell I’m getting beat by a boy if I don’t have to.
Gio’s match ends half an hour later. “Good job,” I say, and he hands the controller to me with a selfassured grin. I take the controller from him and inhale and exhale deeply as I join a new match. I’m proud that I’m able to get used to the new screen immediately and dive right in. I steal a glance at Gio every now and then as I’m playing, and his eyes grow wide, glued to the TV. As I go on to obliterate enemy after enemy with expert ease, his expression morphs from shock to horror to embarrassment. I feel a little guilty about emasculating him like this, but I keep going, not willing to sacrifice my pride for anything. At the end of the match, I have more than double the number of kills he got, and the challenge is won.
“[_What the shit? _]How did you do that?” Gio shouts, staring at the screen in dismay.
“I was trained by the best,” I say, giggling over his mind-blown reaction. “You should see my dad play. He’s always one of the best in the nation.”
“’Kay, well, can I have my balls back now?” He’s somewhat disgruntled as I hand the controller back to him.
“Sorry,” I say, still giggling, and Alfonzo walks into the room unannounced.
“What have you two been doing up here for an hour?” he asks Gio with a suspicious look in his eye.
“Just playing Battlefield, Papa.”
“Well, I think you should join us downstairs now,” Alfonzo says, eliciting an irritated groan from Gio.
“Fine.” As Alfonzo leaves the room, Gio turns back to me. “That was the most impressive gaming I’ve ever seen in person. You’ve got to teach me to play like that.”
“Well, here…” I pull out my phone and go to the Notes app. “Give me your gamer tag, and we’ll party up sometime this week. I’ll get a console for my room at the mansion and teach you everything I know.”
“Awesome.” He grins as he types in his tag. “Hey, I’m sorry for being so rude earlier. I didn’t mean to ask you to take your glasses off. It just kind of popped out.”
“No worries.” I’m smiling like an idiot. I got his gamer tag, which means I officially just made the acquaintance of one of my favorite TV stars.
“Are you doing anything Saturday?” Gio asks.
“Um…” I gulp down saliva like it’s the cure for a terminal illness. “Depends.” Promises, promises…
“Well, Papa and Steph are going away for a night, so I’m having a pool party over here, and I would love to give my new neighbor a proper welcome to L.A. You’d be my guest of honor, and I’d introduce you to all my friends. I’m guessing you don’t know anyone else here yet.”
“No, I really don’t.”
“So do you think you can make it?”
Gio…pool party…shirtless…yesss…“Yeah, we’ll be there,” I say, cringing at the thought of explaining this to Dad. I think I’ll just refrain from mentioning it at all. “Can I get your number? I mean, in case I need to ask you any questions about the party.”
Whoa, what? Madison Landers…I mean, Daley…whoever you are, I hate you. Why the hell would you feel the need to ask that question?
“Good cover,” Gio says with a teasing wink. “And yeah, you could have had it, anyway.” He goes to my contacts and plugs his number in, and I breathe a sigh of relief.
Sorry, Me, I didn’t mean it…and now I have Gio Abate’s number!
Gio takes me downstairs, where everyone is now gathered in their stylish, traditional living room. I sit down on their plush, cream-colored sofa, and Gio sinks down in a taupe chair across from me. He’s focused on me again, this time wearing an admiring smile instead of a look of utter confusion. He winks after a long moment of gazing at each other, and my heart rejoices out of control.
Something tells me that ‘no studly boys’ thing is not going to work out.
I totally just became friends with Giovanni Abate.
He wants me to teach him how to play Battlefield better. I would have preferred letting him teach me how to French, but I’ll take what I can get. Gio may not be able to beat me at video games, but he is still the thing of dreams. I’ve pinched myself several times this evening to make sure that’s not exactly what he was. He’s so gorgeous, and he treated me like an equal, which is something I definitely wasn’t expecting. At first, I thought he was a little rude, but then as the evening went on, I realized he was just confused.
When he called me “bella,” I was absolute putty in his hands. He probably says that to all the girls, but it was still the most beautiful word I’ve ever heard rolling off anyone’s tongue. Judging from the easy way he says Italian words, I’d say he speaks his family’s native language fluently. I know I’m fan-girling hard mode right now, but Jesus…
I’m afraid I won’t even be able to handle being near him on Saturday in bathing suits.
My only worry with him is I’m at risk of veering off into the friend zone. Typically, guys play games with their other guy friends…or, at least, that’s what I’ve gathered from the conversations I’ve heard over my headset. I need to somehow avoid coming off as a guy in a girl’s body. That’s basically what I am, but…he doesn’t need to know that, right?
Think girly thoughts…think girly thoughts…
I don’t know if I even stand a chance with him, but I’m going to try my best to find out.
I sleep in until noon the next day. After lunch, Cass, Ana, and I take body floats to the pool to lounge in the shallow end in our bikinis, which I still feel very awkward wearing. As we lie there enjoying the warm sun, I adjust my big black prescription sunglasses on my nose and talk to Ana. “So what did you and Steph talk about last night? You never said anything about it.”
Ana’s face lights up at the mention of his name. “Oh, we talked about everything. Upcoming fashion trends, what it’s like to be a designer…he even showed me his wardrobe.”
“Badass!” I say, truly happy for her.
“He says I have great taste in fashion, and I have a bright future ahead of me in the industry.” Ana stops and swallows hard. “He, uh…he also told me that he wants me as a teen model for his new line.”
“Wait, what? Why didn’t you lead with that?” I shriek, starting to get excited.
Ana lets out a heavy sigh, twirling her finger through the shimmering ripples beside her. “Because I have to have parental permission to do it, and Mom and Dad are never going to agree to this in a million years.”
My train of celebration slams to a screeching halt. She’s right. Her parents don’t even let her wear shorts in the summer back at home. No way are they going to let their daughter become a model. “Damn…that sucks.”
“Yeah, tell me about it,” Ana says. A weighted silence follows, and I finger one of the strings on the side of my black bikini bottom, not knowing what to say.
A few minutes later, I look up and notice some people walking around the outside of our mansion, swiftly approaching our pool. They’re two guys who look like they’re in their upper teens and a younger teenage girl. Cass smiles and waves at the sight of them, so I guess they’re friends. Then Gio appears behind them, and my heart thunders in my chest.
Looks like I’m going to know what it feels like to be near a shirtless Gio a lot sooner than I thought.
They come to the side of the pool to stand near us. Since I’m wearing dark sunglasses, I allow my eyes to wander all over Gio’s exposed upper body. I’ve been dreaming about this moment since last night, and I’m definitely not disappointed.
“Ciao, signora!” Gio greets us. “You lovely ladies mind if we join you for a swim?”
“Sure, dive in,” Cass says pleasantly, and Gio and his friends hurry over to the diving board to comply.
Everyone swims to me first and gathers around my float. Gio introduces his friends as Dalton
Jacobs, his sister Devon, and their family friend Hayden Turner. The one he introduced as Dalton almost rivals Gio in looks. Both he and his sister have the same sandy-brown hair. Hayden’s hair is a little darker in color, and he has ebony eyes and a lanky build.
“Good to meet y’all,” I say.
Dalton returns my smile warmly. “Good to meet you! I’m a huge Grim Weeper fan. He’s one of my inspirations. I play W3 music constantly.”
“He plays a mean electric guitar,” Gio brags.
“Well, that’s something we have in common,” I say.
“You play guitar too?” Devon asks, looking shocked. She’s a younger version of her brother except for her coffee-brown eyes. Dalton’s eyes are an intriguing shade of hazel.
“Yeah, mostly Avenged Sevenfold. I’m a little obsessed.”
“Great choice!” Dalton says. “I love me some Avenged. What other bands do you like?”
“Disturbed, Seether, Evanescence, Three Days Grace—”
“We’re going to have to jam together sometime,” Dalton says, brimming with enthusiasm. “‘Riot’ is one of my favorite songs to play.”
“Rock on!” I fist-bump him, happy to finally meet someone who gets me. Back in Kentucky, most people I met only liked pop, country, and religious music. Dalton and I discuss music for a few more minutes, not realizing we’re making the others uncomfortable.
“Do I need to give you two a moment alone?” Gio jokes.
Dalton’s head snaps back like he just got jolted out of hypnosis, and then he laughs. “Oh…sorry, man. It’s cool. I’ll let you guys chat while we hang out with the others. Come on, Dev.”
The three of them back away from me, and I feel like bats just flew into my stomach and started whirling around in a circle. Gio must have told them he wanted to talk to me alone.
“Good to meet you, Madison,” Devon says.
“Call me Mads,” I say, waving after them. “That goes for you too,” I say to Gio, who now has his arms resting on my float near my waist with his body extended in the water behind him. His closeness makes my insides do crazy things, but I will myself to keep my composure. No crazy fangirling…no crazy fan-girling…
“Mads?” Gio cringes, making a tendon in his neck stick out. He shakes his head confidently. “That’s not a pretty enough name for you.”
I smile at the compliment, and then I give him a nonchalant shrug. “I’ve been called that since I was born.”
“I have a reputation for giving people good nicknames. I’ll come up with a better one, don’t worry,” he says.
My eyebrows shoot sky-high. That was a little presumptuous, but coming from him, I really don’t mind. “Well, all right, then.”
Gio inches closer to my face and croons, “So why didn’t you text me last night?” That was a sultry tone of voice if I’ve ever heard one, and I can feel his warm breath on my lips and cheeks. Every pore in my body starts leaking sweat.
“Um…” I bite the inside of my lip shyly. “I didn’t know you wanted me to.”
“Well, I felt jilted, just so you know,” he teases in a mock-offended tone.
I giggle at his word choice. “Sorry, I won’t make that mistake again.”
Gio’s arm slides a little farther onto the float and brushes against my leg, and I bite back a shuddering sigh. I hadn’t touched him at all up until this moment, and the mere brush of his skin against mine sends waves of anticipation rippling up to my chest. There’s a definite vibe here, and I have to stay strong if I want to keep it going. I can’t let him see me obsess over him, even though all I want to do right now is fall down at his feet.
“You look very mysterious wearing these,” Gio says, reaching up and tugging at my sunglasses.
I respond with a teasing smirk. “Are you going to demand that I take my glasses off again?”
“I might,” he says with a chuckle. “I don’t get to hide from you, why should you get to hide from me?”
I immediately start listing off the reasons I need to wear these sunglasses outside. “Well, first of all, I need these to see. Secondly—” I’m interrupted by his laughter, and my heart melts. His laugh is so adorable.
“I was just messing with you, bella,” Gio says, lightly scratching my forearm with his forefinger. His fingertip migrates to my float, and he starts tracing little shapes on it. “I like mystery in a woman. It keeps things entertaining.”
Laughter plays at my lips. He’s acting like a fullgrown man right now. Come to think of it, I guess he almost is. “Just curious, how old are you?”
“Seventeen,” he says, and I breathe a little sigh of relief. If he had been eighteen already, it might have made this complicated. “My birthday is November 27.”
“I’m seventeen too. My birthday is October 31.”
An odd sequence of emotions parades across his face. First shock, then confusion, then dismissal, and finally putting on his flirting face again, which consists of a cocked eyebrow and eyes sparkling with mischief.
“Halloween, huh? I bet your birthday party’s gonna be interesting.”
“Well…if I’m here.”
“Okay, lovebirds, break it up,” Cass teases us from the sidelines, chucking a volleyball at me. “Who’s up for a game of pool volleyball?”
The guys set up the net, and we start a match of guys vs. girls. I let Ana, Cass, and Devon do most of the work, since I’m generally uncoordinated and also hypnotized by Gio. I watch him unashamedly as he stretches up to hit the ball and swings his muscular arms to serve it. His hair drips with pool water and curls touch down on his forehead, and then he laughs at something Dalton says, making his dimples appear. Because of him, I’m not paying any attention to the game itself, and at the end of the match, the ball hits me square on the head and bounces off to the side.
“Guy point for the win!” Dalton cheers, and he turns and does a secret handshake with Gio.
“Well, damn,” I say, picking up the ball. “Sorry, girls.”
“Feel free to sit out the next match,” Ana says. I stick my tongue out at her like a child, and she returns the love.
“It’s fine, I don’t like volleyball anyway.” I hand Ana the ball before I climb out of the pool, and then I dry off and fall into a lounge chair as they play another round. Dad comes out of the house in swim trunks and joins me on the sidelines.
“You okay, sugar?” He eases himself down into a chair next to me.
“Yeah, I’m good. Where have you been?”
“Just on the phone helpin’ Melissa with some farm stuff.” Dad and I talk for a few minutes, and I tell him who everybody is. Then I start watching Gio again, and Dad figures it out. “You have a thing for that Abate kid, don’t you?”
My head snaps around to look at Dad. “What?”
“You like Gio,” Dad repeats, and I start sweating again.
“No,” I lie, but I feel my face flush.
“Yes, you do,” Dad says with a chuckle. I continue to protest, and then he rebukes me for my obvious lies with a single word. “Mads…”
“Well…yeah…kinda,” I admit with great reluctance. Now I’m going to be banned from ever seeing him again.
“It’s okay,” Dad says. “You know, I was thinkin’ maybe we could make an amendment to that agreement we made earlier.”
My stomach jumps. “Really?”
“Yeah. After all, you’re four months away from turning eighteen. If you really like Gio Abate that much, you can see where things go. Just don’t do anything stupid, all right?”
“Ohhh, I can’t promise anything,” I say with a face-splitting grin.
Right after Gio takes the others back to his place in the late afternoon, I take my phone from a nearby table and text him.
Me: This is because I don’t want you to feel
Gio texts back about fifteen minutes later.
Gio: Lol I appreciate that. Thanks for letting us hang, we had a great time.
Me: Same here. :)
Gio: I just said goodbye to Dalton, Dev, and Turner, and I’m heading up to take a shower now. After that, do you want to party up?
I try to keep some incredibly vivid mental images of him in the shower out of my head as I text him back.
Me: Sounds good, I’ll add you while I wait.
I immediately head up to my room, shower off in record time, and slip into a comfy tank top and athletic shorts. Dad bought me a console earlier today while he was out shopping for some miscellaneous household needs, and he even hooked it up to my TV in my room while I was sleeping. Getting him to do things for me is easy as hell now. He feels guilty about hiding our life story from me, and I’ve been taking full advantage of that sentiment lately.
I add Gio on the console, and five minutes later he confirms me and we start talking on our headsets as I sit on my bed.
“Hey!” I say.
“Ciao, bella!” he replies cheerfully, and I pinch myself again.
“You okay?” There’s concern in his voice.
“Yeah, I was just being stupid, sorry.” I laughing it off, and we party up.
As we’re getting ready to start a match, he talks to me. “So awesome that you play games. I’ve never had something like this in common with a girl before.”
“Then you’re hanging out with the wrong girls. There are a lot of us out there,” I say.
“Duly noted, although I don’t really need to meet another one right now.” Oh my God…I hope that means what I think it means. “You’re still coming to the party on Saturday, right?”
“Yeah, of course! By the way, what’s the dress code?”
“It’s out by the pool, so most girls just wear a bikini and shorts…or ditch the shorts…”
“Got it.” Shit…that’s the one thing I really didn’t want to wear…
Most of our talk after that is game-related, but I do find out a little bit about Gio over the next half hour. For one thing, he doesn’t mind taking instructions from a girl, which means he doesn’t have an ego problem. Secondly, he thinks it’s hilarious when I cuss up a wall. Whenever I die in game, I have a bad habit of letting my sailor mouth take over. Dad never holds back when gaming and neither do the guys I hear over my headset while playing, so I guess I just picked it up.
Gio chuckles after a particularly rousing swear session. “It’s fun listening to girls swear. You all try to be so dainty, and—”
“I am not dainty!” I hate to yell at Giovanni Abate, but seriously. He did not just call me that.
“But you’re so pretty and small. How could you be anything but dainty?”
I smile at the “pretty” bit, but I don’t let him hear it in my voice. Instead I mumble under my breath, “I’ll show you ‘dainty.’”
The next time I die in-game, I go through my entire repertoire of swear words, and Gio almost starts crying because he’s laughing so hard. “Okay, now it’s official,” he chokes out through his laughter. “I’m going out with a guy on Saturday.”
My entire body freezes, causing my character to die on screen. “Shit! _]And…[_what?”
“Oh…did I not mention you’re my date for the party?”
Oh God…don’t pass out, don’t pass out… “No, you didn’t.”
“Well, you are. Hope that’s okay.” There’s a teasing lilt in his voice.
Don’t. Pass. Out. “Sounds great.” There wasn’t even the slightest tremor in my voice. I silently congratulate myself on my unexpected poise.
He asked me out. The day after I met Giovanni Abate, he asked me out. At first, I was over-the-moon excited, but now my stomach is in knots and I’m gnawing my fingernails off. I’ve been wracking my brain all evening, and I can only come up with three things this could possibly mean.
Scenario 1: He actually likes me.
This would be super weird and something that would never happen to me. It’s too good to be true. I can’t count on this being reality. I’m hoping for it, but I’m not sold on it.
Scenario 2: He just wants me for a summer fling.
This is a little more realistic, but still weird. I mean, I’m not exactly the first thing that comes to mind when a guy thinks about which girl he wants to screw around with for the summer. If he wanted someone for sex, I think he would have picked Ana over me. So yeah…this one’s unlikely too.
Scenario 3: He wants to humiliate me at this party.
This is probably the most likely scenario of all. It’s not that he seems like a person who would do this, it’s just that I can’t imagine this guy actually liking me or wanting to fool around with me. There are too many other options for him. I’m fresh meat, and he sees an opportunity to show me who runs this place, so of course he’s going to take it. I’m such an idiot…and now I’m not sure what to do.
Should I go to this party and risk humiliating myself? Or should I blow off Giovanni Abate and risk pissing him off royally? I guess I should go, but what if something terrible happens and I have to endure the aftermath of it and my father’s wrath?
Or what if Scenario 2 is true? I have a rule about sex that would totally screw that up. When I swipe my V-card, I want it to be with someone I love. As amazing as Gio is, I wouldn’t say we’re in love yet, which means I’d have to say no to his admittedly tempting invitation. It would be so humiliating to have to reject Gio. I don’t know if I could do it. I might give in and lose a part of myself in the process.
Finally, what if he actually likes me? I’m leaving at the end of June. I don’t want to start something with him that’s going to have an inevitable end. It would put a dark cloud over the whole summer. Plus, he’s an actor, so every relationship he has is going to be heavily publicized. I’m not sure if I’m ready for that kind of media scrutiny. I just know someone’s going to make a cutting Basket Baby remark and a whole new era of humiliation will begin.
Good God…I’m overanalyzing this. I have a tendency to obsess over things before they even happen. That’s another girly trait I have, I guess…worrying over nonsense things. Who knows, Gio might turn out to be better than the typical rich, handsome douchebag. He might even be my Prince Charming.
Whoops…veering off into fantasy land again…
Back to reality. I don’t know what his intentions are, but…maybe it’s best if I leave them a surprise.
After breakfast in the morning, while Dad is outside talking to Aunt Melissa on the phone, I pull Cass aside in the kitchen to talk to her about the W3 reunion.
“I already called the others,” Cass says, referring to their former bassist and drummer. “Carl and James are so excited. They still live in the area, and they were both thrilled to hear Mike’s back. I think they might even be open to reuniting the band for good, so everything’s moving according to plan.” “Cass! You rock!” I say, making her chuckle.
“Thanks. Do you have any ideas for the reunion itself?”
“Well, I was thinking…our favorite talk show is Late at Night with Johnny McIntyre, and it’s based in L.A. They’ve had actor reunions on there before. Do you think they would do a band reunion?”
“Sweetie, I think any talk show in the area would be delighted to host our band reunion,” Cass says. “I think that’s an amazing idea. That’s one of the most popular talk shows in the nation. If I call Johnny’s people, do you want to be the one to propose your idea?”
I let out some breathy laughter. “I don’t think I could talk to Johnny McIntyre. Besides, we haven’t even talked to Dad about the idea yet.”
“Honestly, I think the band reunion should be a surprise to your dad. We could have Johnny just invite the two of you on to talk about your return, and then the rest of us could come out from behind the stage and give him the shock of his life.”
“That’s brilliant!” I gush. “Then he’d have to cave under the pressure.”
“It’s settled then. You and I will call Johnny after lunch, once we talk to your dad about the interview.”
“Sounds perfect,” I say, giving her a fist bump.
Before lunch, Dad takes us into a bedroom that’s being used as a storage room, and we get to see all of their old things. He shows me his vinyls and cassette tapes from way back when, and I get to hold a couple of Cass’s old guitars. She also shows me some of her outfits from performing, which are horrendously nineties, even though the black and silver studs are pretty cool. Finally, someone comes across the object I came here for in the first place.
“Mads…” Ana holds it up so I can see it. “Your basket.” I wade through the rubble on the floor and stretch out my hands, almost afraid to touch it, but needing to.
Dad smiles tenderly as I take the wicker basket and finger the bright pink lace. “The very first place I ever saw you,” he says, coming up behind me. “I remember it like it was yesterday. It was the single greatest moment of my life.”
“Really?” I feel him nod against my head. I lean back against Dad, and his arms wrap around me.
“For what, sugar?” He kisses the top of my head.
“For caring about me. For giving up all of this. She gave me up, but you gave up your whole life for me.” My throat tightens to the point where I can barely breathe. This basket I’m holding is the only trace of my mother’s influence in my life, and it’s the thing she gave me away in. It’s a symbol of the abandonment, and it’s all I have from her, besides possibly my looks.
“We’ll leave you two alone,” Cass says, and Ana follows her as the two of them leave the room to give us some privacy.
I turn around to face Dad and set the basket down on a nearby box. “Why did she give me up? Did she ever say anything about that?”
“Oh, honey, please don’t worry yourself about that.” Dad grasps my upper arms gently and looks directly into my eyes. “She did not deserve you in the least, and there’s no reason in the world why you should waste one more thought on her, okay? Here, let me show you somethin’ that might take your mind off it.” He leads me over to a small cardboard box with an assortment of autographed pictures in it. He thumbs through them and shows me photos he got with all sorts of celebrities: musicians, actors, CEOs, and even a couple of presidents. There are tons of pictures with pretty actresses in here, which brings a mischievous grin to my face. Now I have an easy point of reference for my AYMM mission, and he doesn’t even have to know about it.
“Hey, can I take these pictures into my room?” I ask.
He looks at me a little weird, but then he shrugs.
“Whatever you want, baby girl.”
Kelsie Walderman Michael Daley.
Pictures of Dad and the tall, blonde, blue-eyed actress populate near the top of the screen. Dad was with her in more than one of these photos, and she has a bit of a reputation, so I figured she might be a good bet. Studying her face, though, I don’t see any resemblance other than the eye color. There are also no articles that even begin to link her to me. I guess this one is another internet dead end.
As I’m typing in another actress’s name, my phone goes off. The screen lights up with a text message.
Gio: Hey neighbor ;)
My heart jumps. I wasn’t sure if I should expect to hear from him between now and Saturday.
Me: Hey! What’s up?
Gio: I’m at a modeling shoot right now with Steph, but I just wanted to say that playing BF with you yesterday was awesome. You wanna play again when I get back?
Me: Sounds great. What time do you think you’ll be back?
Gio: Probably sometime after dinner. This is taking forever.
Me: Well, just shoot me a text when you get back, and I’ll hop on my console.
Gio: Awesome. See you then.
Me: Okay, ttyl.
I played it cool, but I was a little disturbed to hear that he’s at a modeling shoot. All those insanely sexy girls, probably posing in provocative ways…then again, he did just ask to hang out with me when he gets home, so I guess that’s a good sign? I just hope I’m not getting friend-zoned…
Nope, can’t be that, either. He asked me to be his date on Saturday.
Gio Abate is coming home to play Battlefield with me instead of coming home with a model.
Later, as we’re all eating lunch out on the back patio, Cass and I propose the Johnny McIntyre idea to Dad, minus the part about the W3 Reunion. He hesitates at first because he thinks Mother Dearest might see we’re in L.A. and come back, but Cass reminds him how demanding a film shoot is and that it’s very unlikely she’d be able to leave early without throwing off the whole production. He continues to protest because he doesn’t want to deal with media attention.
“I just don’t see the point,” he says.
I wipe my mouth after my last bite of chicken Caesar salad. “The point is that we get to go on Johnny McIntyre and tell the world what we’ve been up to since the disappearance. Don’t you want to give your fans that closure? Don’t you want to put an end to all this speculation once and for all?”
He lets out a deep sigh. “I guess it would be all right. But just that one show, since it’s our favorite. I don’t wanna go on a whole damn media tour or anything.”
I try my best to suppress a squeal, but it comes out anyway. “Thanks, Daddy! Cass and I will take care of everything, don’t worry.”
After lunch, Cass and I go into her bathroom in her room and lock the door, blocking the opening between the door and the floor with a towel. We don’t want to take even the slightest risk of Dad hearing us through the door. Cass gets a hold of Johnny’s people, and she gives them a brief synopsis of our plan. They like it so much that they get us talking to Johnny himself. Cass gets him on the phone, and she tries to hand it to me, but I’m shaking too much to take it.
“Come on, Mads,” Cass whispers, strained and irritated as she holds out her phone to me.
“Take the phone.”
I let out a breath and try to channel some Zen. “All right.” I clear my throat, and then I accept the phone with a trembling hand. “H-hi, Johnny.”
“Hi, Madison!” His voice is deep, pleasant, and middle-aged.
“Listen, I just have to say, I’m honored you chose my show to help reveal your father’s return to Los Angeles. However, I do have some questions
about the specifics of your plan.”
“Is your father currently working on a new album?”
“Well…not yet. But I think he might want to.” Technically, it’s true. He might want to.
“All right,” Johnny says. “And do you have his permission to be setting up this interview?”
“Yes, he’s all for it,” I say, once again mildly stretching the truth. “However, we do want to keep the reunion with the other bandmates a surprise, so we didn’t tell him about that part.”
“Oh, I understand,” Johnny says. I briefly explain the plan to him, and he repeats it back to me. “So this interview would be revealing to the world where you’ve been living for the past seventeen years, what you’re doing in L.A. now, and the surprise reunion, is that correct?”
“Yeah, that’s pretty much it.”
“Well, just so you know, I think it’s a fantastic idea. I look forward to working with you and the others. I actually just had a cancellation for June 17. Do you think you could do the interview on that day?”
“Yes, absolutely,” I say, giddy with excitement. I had no idea we’d be doing this interview so soon. “Excellent. Can’t wait to meet you!”
Johnny McIntyre can’t wait to meet me. “Likewise,” I say. He hangs up the phone, and I come within one breath of passing out.
Gio: I’m home. Be on in a few.
After I receive that text, I sit down on the edge of my bed with headphones and controller ready. It may seem silly considering where I am now, but I’m sort of missing my purple bean bag chair. Dad and I had a designated game room in our house in Kentucky, and my chair is worn into the shape of my body because we played so much.
Gio finally logs in, and I add him to a party.
“Hey,” he says, sounding beyond exhausted.
“Hey! Everything okay?”
“Yeah, it’s just that the modeling shoot sucked.
Guess it was an off day for me.” “What do you mean?” I ask.
“Well, I was supposed to be modeling this one collared shirt, and it just didn’t hang right on me—”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. You were the model?”
“Uh, yeah.” Gio chuckles. “What did you think I meant?”
Ho-ly shit. He models too. “Nothing…nothing, go on.”
“Nah, don’t worry about it. I don’t want to bog you down with my problems.”
“No, really, it’s okay,” I say. “What happened?” We start a match, and the sounds of guns firing and character voices join ours.
“Well, long story short, Steph ended up swapping me out with another guy near the end because I couldn’t pull off the shirt. It was made for stick figures.”
“Which you definitely are not,” I say in a flirty voice. Whoa, did that just come out of me?
“Definitely not!” he says. “I’m glad you understand.”
“A wise person once told me that when clothes don’t fit you right, it’s not anything wrong with you. It’s just the clothes. Dammit, I died.” I utter a few more choice words.
Gio bellows with laughter. “Man, I never thought I’d hear words like that coming out of a pretty girl like you.”
Heat rises into my cheeks. “Sorry, I can get a little carried away.”
“You don’t have to apologize. I needed that laugh. In fact, coming home to this made my depressing day a lot better.”
“Glad to hear that…and I’m glad you didn’t find some other girl to come home with after the photoshoot.” Not sure why I just said that, but I guess I can give up on playing it cool. It’s not going to happen.
“I’ll be honest, I have gone out with a couple of teen models in the past,” Gio says, and I immediately feel about as tall as a mushroom. “But I prefer a smart girl to a self-absorbed twig any day.” Since he can’t see me, I smile like the Cheshire Cat. “So what do you do for fun besides playing guitar and video games?”
“Well, first of all, I don’t play guitar for ‘fun.’ That’s going to be my career someday.”
“Right, of course. I’m sure you won’t have a problem with that.”
I smile. “Anyway, I did a lot of horseback riding and outdoor exploration back in Kentucky. Interesting fact: I can shoot a real gun.”
“No wonder you’re so good at this game!” Gio laughs. “I’m impressed!”
“Thanks. What about you?”
“I play sports at school, and during the summer I like to surf. Friday is usually my surfing day with my buddies at Santa Monica. I had to ditch them today because of that damn modeling shoot, but now I wish I had just gone surfing instead.”
“Sounds fun. I’ve never surfed…well, unless you count sliding down hay bales on a metal sled.”
Gio busts out laughing. “No, but that’s a funny visual.”
“Yeah, it was fun until I slammed face first into a post and busted my chin,” I say. “That’s why my jawline is ever-so-slightly crooked.”
“Well, you can barely even tell,” Gio says. “I didn’t notice until I was inches from your face.”
“It’s funny, people stared and pointed at us in the hospital, and I thought it was just because of my broken jaw. I think they may have recognized us, though. That happened a few years ago. It’s why I had to have braces for four years.”
“That all sounds like it sucked,” he says. I laugh and agree.
As the night goes on, I tell him more stories about my farm antics in Kentucky, and Gio tells me stories about his life on the set. Apparently making a teen TV show involves a lot of pranks, bloopers, and animal mishaps. He has this one story about an elephant that gets me laughing so hard that tears stream down my face. I guess it doesn’t matter how strong you are…when an elephant sits down and rests its front legs on you, you ain’t goin’ nowhere.
We laugh and game long into the night, and it’s two a.m. before we even realize how long we’ve been at it. “I’ve never been able to tolerate a girl for this many hours at once,” Gio says with a yawn.
“Oh, so you’re merely tolerating me, huh?” I tease.
“You know what I meant. This was amazing.”
My heart sprouts wings and takes off into the sky, even though I can barely keep my eyes open. “It was for me too. I’ll let you go so we won’t be falling asleep and tumbling into the pool tomorrow.”
“Yeah, that would be a bad day,” Gio says with a lazy chuckle. “See you tomorrow.”
“See ya.” I take my headset off, turn off the console, and fall into bed, not even bothering to squirm underneath the covers before falling asleep.
I wake up around ten a.m., and the first things my eyes fall on when I push myself up are the basket and the pictures beside my bed. I rub the sleep out of my eyes, and then I reach down off the side of the bed and grab the basket. I search through the bedding for anything that might give me an additional clue, and when I lift up the pillow, I gasp. The note is lying there on the bottom of the basket. I find another clue when a long, dark hair comes up with it.
“She had dark hair,” I whisper. That eliminates the blondes, redheads, and light brunettes I saw in these pictures with Dad. I look at the note then, and I can’t stop the tears that build up and roll down my cheeks.
She’s yours. Take good care of her.
That’s all it says. No “Tell her I love her,” no “Make sure she knows I tried,” no “I’ll miss her”…not even a name or an initial to remember her by. The handwriting is neat, elegant, and even a little uppity in nature, and the paper is fine stationary. My guess is that this person is from a family that’s afraid to even admit they have emotions, let alone express them.
Whoever she is, she obviously didn’t want me to find her, or she would have left some indication of who she was. I can’t stop thinking about what Cass said, though…she looked back. All those things she did in the past proved she regretted what she did. The problem is she never came after me when we left California. She didn’t even send out a media Amber Alert, which means she still didn’t want the world to know she was my mother.
I feel my face tighten with resolve as I look from the note to the hair to the basket. Mother Dearest, I’m coming to find you, whether you want me or not.
I found some more clues today, so I thought I’d add them to my growing list. Here are the clues I’ve gathered
Clue 1: She’s an actress.
Clue 2: She looks like me.
Clue 3: She’s away on a film shoot.
Clue 4: She lives in L.A.
Clue 5: She has dark hair.
Clue 6: She has elegant handwriting.
Clue 7: She likes ruffles.
Surely all of these clues combined will be enough to lead me to her without any testing or record searching. I mean, she’s a celebrity, for God’s sake. How hard can it be? I have a couple of suspicions already, but I’m not going to say anything yet, because I don’t want to jinx it.
Here’s hoping…the longer I have to wait, the more I’m torn apart on the inside.
“Damn my stupid boobs!” I yell as I’m getting dressed for Gio’s party.
Ana comes to stand beside me in front of my full-length mirror. “What’s wrong?”
“I hate swimsuit tops, and I especially hate being between cup sizes,” I rant, scowling at my body in the mirror.
“Sorry, girl.” Ana moves behind me to see if there’s any way to tighten my purple bandeau top. “It doesn’t look like anything can be done to fix that. Why did you get it too big?”
“They didn’t have any A cups, but I really liked the style. Now I’m regretting it.”
“Can’t you just wear another one?”
“This one makes me look bigger. I don’t want to look flat-chested in front of Gio’s friends.”
“Well, all right.” Ana shrugs at me in the mirror. “Just be careful if you get in the pool. And you might want to stuff it a little to make it tighter.”
“Good idea.” I go in the bathroom and stuff some cotton balls down in the bottom of it just above the underwire. After I’m done, I actually look like I have a hint of cleavage. “You’re a veritable genius!”
Ana smiles and comes into the bathroom with me. “It’s a time-honored fashion tradition. If you want to be safe, just don’t jump in the pool at all…or if you do, don’t move too much.”
“Got it,” I say, feeling jealous of her perfectly symmetrical C cups for a moment.
We head straight over to Gio’s pool party, where a lot of people have already arrived. Gio’s best friend is the first one to recognize us, and he immediately climbs out of the pool to greet us, dripping wet and smiling.
“Hey, ladies!” Dalton says, and we say “Hey” back. “Can I show you to the bar? Gio’s busy inside right now, but he’ll be out in a minute.”
I look over at Ana. Aside from the glass of wine we drank here with Dad’s permission on the night of the dinner, we’re not supposed to be drinking at all. Ana just shrugs.
“Yeah, sure,” I say, not wanting to look lame.
Dalton leads us past some attractive people in bikinis and swim trunks to the outdoor wet bar, where they’re serving margaritas. I figure just one won’t hurt. Dad doesn’t want us getting drunk, and one margarita is not very likely to accomplish that. Dalton hands us each a margarita, and Ana and I smile at each other as we both take our first sip at once. Our faces scrunch up at the taste of it. That was almost as strong as I would imagine rubbing alcohol would taste.
“Mm…strong,” Ana says, trying to disguise our liquor virginity.
“Yeah, Gio came up with this particular margarita. He likes them loaded with tequila. You’ll get used to it.” Dalton notices more guests coming in. “I gotta go help some more people. Let me know if you need anything.” We nod, and he hurries in their direction.
“I guess he’s the stand-in host when Gio’s not around,” I observe as we walk away from the bar.
Ana and I find some chairs to sit in between the pool and the hot tub, and she takes another sip of her margarita.
“This is pretty good,” Ana says. “Strong, but good.”
I take another sip, and my tongue starts to get used to the zing of the alcohol and I taste the other flavors. There’s salt around the edge, and the flavor of the drink itself is fruity with a hint of coconut.
“I’ll have to agree with that.”
“What do you think Gio’s up to?”
“Probably screwing his backup date,” I joke.
Ana’s jaw drops in horror. “Mads!”
I giggle at her reaction. “I’m just kidding!” “You need to think better of yourself, though,” Ana says with a serious gaze. “Gio Abate likes you. Don’t screw this up because of your low selfesteem.”
I take off my glasses for a minute so she can see my eyes better. “I really am just kidding. Relax.”
An Asian girl in an orange string bikini approaches me, squinting at my face. “Raven?” she asks.
“Um…no, my name is Madison,” I tell her.
“Oh, okay.” She immediately smiles and relaxes. “Sorry, I thought you were someone else.”
“It’s okay,” I say. She starts to walk away, and then she takes another look at my face.
“You’re really not Raven?” She glances at Ana as if to gauge whether I’m telling the truth or not. “She is definitely not Raven,” Ana says.
“Okay. My bad. Enjoy the party.”
“Thanks, you too,” I say, and she walks away. Ana and I look at each other with wide eyes. “Well, I guess my mysterious doppelgänger now has a name.”
“Raven…” Ana repeats. “Where have I heard that name before?”
At that moment, a loud, piercing whistle comes from a balcony on the back of Gio’s house. The throng of guests looks up in the direction of the sound.
“What up, party animals?” Gio yells through his hands from the balcony, eliciting a cheer from all his friends. He started some pop music that is now blasting out of speakers all around the party area. “Who’s ready to get this thing started?” Another cheer. People are still pouring in. The party has grown to roughly seventy people. “Before you get too busy, I just wanna give a shout-out to my guest of honor tonight. Madison, can you stand up, please?” He looks right at me, and I slowly stand up from my chair, feeling hot and a little shaky. “Allow me to present Madison Daley, my date tonight, who also happens to be the daughter of the Grim Weeper of Weep With the Willows.” The guests gasp and murmur among themselves. My glasses are still off, so everyone can see my face. “This is her first party here in L.A., so everybody make her feel welcome, all right?” All of his friends clap for me, although some of them still sound confused. I must really look like this Raven person. “Enjoy your night!” Gio goes back inside, and immediately I’m swarmed by people…and questions.
“Are you really the Grim Weeper’s daughter?”
“The Grim Weeper is back in L.A.?”
“You look super familiar…have we met before?”
My answers become robotic and preformed.
“Yes, I’m the Grim Weeper’s daughter.”
“We’re back in L.A. for the summer.”
“No, we haven’t met before.”
“I don’t know if W3 is making another album.”
“No, my dad is not home right now.” Dad and Cass are out again tonight, doing God knows what. Ana stays right by my side until some girls start talking to her about fashion, and eventually she abandons me to go and talk to them. I put my glasses back on, hoping to deter some of the curiosity, but people know who I am now, and they’re on me like flies on honey.
By the time Gio finally comes down to talk to me, I’m about ready to kill him. “Ciao, bella!” There’s a drink in his hand and a massive, wicked grin on his face.
“How do you say ‘bastard’ in Italian?” I reply, making his abs clench with laughter. My scowl fades into a smile when he slips his arm around me.
“Sorry about that. I just didn’t want you to have to deal with people mistaking your identity all night,” he explains.
“It’s okay. By the way, who the hell is Raven?”
“Oh, they already figured that out, huh? Don’t worry about it, she’s just a mean girl from Wilcox who is never invited to my parties. Or any parties, really, unless she throws them herself.”
’Kay, so my doppelgänger is definitely not my mother. I was way off.
“Anyway, there are some people I want you to meet, so let’s go this way,” Gio says. He leads me through the mass of near-naked bodies to a corner of the patio where about ten people are hanging out in a group. “Ciao, amici!”
“Hey!” Everyone greets us with wide smiles.
“Madison, this is my ‘beach gang.’ They put up with me every Friday at Santa Monica for surfing, and we all go to Wilcox. Everyone, meet Madison Daley, the newest addition to our group.” Wow…he’s already accepting me into his group.
“Hi, everyone,” I say, swallowing a surge of anxiety. I have never been this popular anywhere.
They all start talking to me, and there’s one girl in particular that catches my eye. She’s Hispanic, with gorgeous dark hair and eyes, and she’s fixated on me much like Gio was when we first met. Gio introduces her as Zuri. Over the next twenty minutes, his friends ask me the same type of questions everyone else did, and I end up telling them my whole life story. Zuri pulls me aside after I’m done, and we sit down together at a table with an umbrella.
“I’m Zurina Juarez,” she says, and we shake hands over the table. Her voice is low-pitched and her diction is smooth, like a reporter’s or a radio host’s. “I run a student news blog at Wilcox. I have to say, your story is truly fascinating. I can’t imagine being that isolated my entire life.”
“It was hard,” I admit. “I’m hoping that phase of my life is over now.”
“It definitely seems like it! You picked the right person to go out with if you don’t want to be isolated. Gio is one of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. He’s pretty much the king of Wilcox.”
“Wow.” I giggle. “Should I be intimidated?”
“Oh, not at all!” Zuri says. “In fact, we’re all a little intimidated by you. Now that you’re back, I bet your family is going to take Los Angeles by storm. Anyway, I keep the blog going during the summer, keeping people up-to-date on Wilcox happenings and such. Do you mind if I write a story about you? I know you’re not a Wilcox student, but I think a lot of the teens in L.A. would still be interested to hear what happened to you.”
“Actually, could you wait to write that story? We have this big interview planned with Late at Night with Johnny McIntyre, and it’s supposed to be our first exposure to the media since the disappearance. After that, you can write whatever you want.” “Oh, of course!” Zuri nods with understanding. “Thank you for telling me. I’ll be sure to link that interview when I write my article.”
Gio interrupts us by sitting down next to me. “You ladies getting along?” he asks.
“Definitely, she’s great,” Zuri says with a smile. One of the surfer guys motions to her to join him, and Zuri holds up a finger like “One second.” “Gotta go, the boyfriend’s calling. Don’t hesitate to call on me if you need anything, all right?”
“Thanks,” I say. “See you later.”
Gio takes me around the pool to the hot tub, where a cluster of couples are already getting drunk and making out. When they see us coming, they clear a space for us, and I smile at Gio as we lower ourselves down into the warm, bubbling water.
“Must be intoxicating having that kind of power,” I comment, and Gio laughs as he sits down beside me and drapes his arm around my shoulders. I’m loving the thought of spending this whole evening attached to his hip.
“You get used to it,” he says. “Eventually, it gets kind of annoying. Sometimes I wish someone would stand up to me for once.”
“Well, at least you’ll never have to know what it feels like to be invisible.”
Gio’s eyebrows furrow as he studies my face. “Do you feel invisible?”
I glance up and around at the people on the patio who are still scrutinizing Gio and me. “Well…not anymore. But I used to.”
I turn back to look at him and see his lips pulled up in an adorable dimpled half smile. “I know why people didn’t notice you before. They couldn’t see you behind all that glass and plastic.” He tugs on my glasses again.
I roll my eyes, take my glasses off, and set them on the side of the hot tub. “Better?”
“Much,” Gio whispers, and his eyes light up with desire at the sight of my face. I bite my lower lip, but it doesn’t stop my smile. Our legs meet beneath the surface, and his closeness sends chemicals racing through every cell of my body. God, I want him…so bad. The desire intensifies with every inch he closes between us. By the time he’s three inches away from my lips, I’m begging for his kiss on the inside.
Come on…kiss me. Kiss me. Kiss me.
Gio leans in and completely bypasses my lips. He brushes a light kiss to the crooked part of my jaw and makes his way down to my ear. When his lips are barely touching my ear, his breath feathers into it as he whispers, “I like to make a woman wait.”
“That was cruel,” I whisper. I feel his body shake against me with laughter.
“It will be worth it, trust me.” He leans back and chuckles again at my playful scowl.
“Have you thought of a nickname for me yet?”
Gio squints his eyes and looks around at the speakers. One of Muse’s new songs just started playing. “Hey, do you like Muse?”
“Yeah, they’re pretty good, why?”
“You know that song, ‘Madness?’” He turns to me with a grin.
Three beats pass. “Okay, that’s actually kind of brilliant.”
“Madness it is, then,” Gio declares as he wraps his other arm around my waist.
I lean against him, breathing in the scent of his expensive cologne and loving the feeling of his wet, strong chest against my ear. He buries his nose in my hair and breathes in deeply, content to hold me without any expectations. Oddly enough, I’m content too. Just being in his arms while he kisses the top of my head and whispers sweet Italian nothings is pure heaven. We sit like that together until the hot tub gets too crowded and we’re forced to vacate.
After leaving the hot tub, we decide to meet up with Ana next to the deep end. She’s chatting with a beautiful African American girl with a dark pixie cut and stunning, honey-brown eyes.
“Hey, Ana! Who’s this?” I ask as we approach them.
“This is Jerica Valrey,” Ana says.
Jerica smiles and extends a hand to me. Her voice is low, syrupy, and pleasant to listen to. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Madison Daley.”
I shake her hand. “The pleasure is mine.”
“Jerica is a business prodigy,” Gio says. “She developed a computer program at age fourteen that a lot of businesses depend on today for their administrative tasks.”
“Wow, that’s impressive!”
“Thank you,” Jerica says humbly. “Being a geek has its perks sometimes.”
“She’s a billionaire. Her main house is bigger and more beautiful than the two of ours combined,” Gio says. “And she has five beach houses in different places around the globe. ‘Perks,’ indeed.”
“How old are you? If you don’t mind my asking,” I say.
“Eighteen,” Jerica says, and my mouth falls open.
“I bow at your feet,” I say, bending over at the waist and making her laugh. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize how close I was standing to the pool.
Before I know what’s happening, my foot slips and I fall into the deep end. I’m so shocked at first that all I can do is gasp for air and flail around for the edge. I suck water down my throat in my panic and cough violently.
“This way, Mads!” I hear Ana say, and I swim toward her. When I pull up on the edge closest to her, she gasps. “Oh my gosh…look down, look down!” She sounds absolutely beyond horrified.
I look down and suck in a strangled gasp. My bikini top flipped inside out in the water, completely exposing me. I quickly flip my top up, but then I realize something’s missing.
“Where are my…?” Ana points behind me, and I immediately feel like ducking my head underwater and keeping it there.
My cotton balls are floating out in the middle of the pool.
So yeah, I just crashed and banged all the way through Humiliation Station.
My swimsuit top came down right in front of Jerica Valrey and Giovanni Abate. Not only was I exposed, but my cotton balls popped out, proving to everyone that I was so embarrassed about my cup size, I thought I had to lie about it. To say I’m mortified would be an understatement. I turned tail and ran as soon as it happened, and I didn’t even look back when Ana and Gio called out after me.
Leave it to me to misjudge where I was standing because I stupidly left my glasses by the hot tub. They’re still there, but I don’t give a shit. I don’t even want to see myself in the mirror right now. I’m squinting my eyes to type this so I’ll remember this feeling and never behave like such a dumbass again. My near vision is okay enough to type. Apparently it sucks when it comes to depth perception and knowing where my feet are.
What in the name of all that is holy is wrong with me? Why didn’t I wear a swimsuit I was absolutely certain would stay on my body? My vanity bit me in the ass, and it was the first time I even allowed myself to have some. I guess I’m not supposed to look good. The universe wants me to be a loveless dork from Kentucky forever.
My angry blog post is interrupted by a text alert. I set my laptop down and grab my phone off my nightstand.
Gio: Hey, please come back. No one even remembers it anymore, trust me. They’re all too drunk.
Me: I can’t. Sorry.
Gio: Then I’m coming over there.
Great…now I have to face him. I really was hoping I would not have to do that for a few days. I rub the tears from my eyes and let out a shuddering sigh, wondering where the hell Ana is. It’s not like her to not come after me. Then again, she [_was _]making the acquaintance of a billionaire before I wrecked it all.
Gio knocks on my door five minutes later, and I get up to let him in. I can’t even look him in the eye as I open the door, but he holds something up in my field of blurry vision. “You forgot something.”
“Thanks.” I take the glasses from him and slide them on, still not meeting his gaze.
“Madness, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have even hinted you should take your glasses off. You can come back, it’s okay—”
“No, it’s not. I’ll never be able to face those people again.”
“It’s really okay.” Gio pulls me into his embrace and brushes a kiss against the top of my head. The warmth of his body softens me, and I melt against him. “Most of the people there didn’t even see it, and some who did didn’t understand what the cotton balls were for. Besides, if anyone made fun of you, they’re not my real friends. I wish I knew who laughed so I could deck ’em for you.”
I smile against his chest. “Thanks. Still embarrassed, though.”
“You shouldn’t be. To be honest, that was the sexiest thing I’ve seen in a while.” I yank back to face him, and I’m met with a naughty grin. My face becomes igloo-melting hot. “And I’ll admit, it was a little funny because of the cotton balls. But I would never laugh at you. I hope you know that.”
“You just basically admitted you did.”
“Well, can you blame me?” Gio’s voice lilts, and his lips twitch as he works hard not to laugh. “Do you really not see even the smallest bit of humor in this?”
“I might in a few years…”
“Well, I’ll give you that. I just wanted you to know we’re good. And by the way, you don’t need to stuff your bras or bikini tops. You’re perfect the way you are.”
“But…” I was about to say, “But nothing fits,” but Gio’s a guy. He won’t understand.
“I could show you my own goods if that would make you feel better.” He waggles his eyebrows suggestively, making my stomach ache with laughter.
“I think I’m good. Thanks, Gio. The party was great up until my big blunder.”
“It would have been better if we could have spent more time alone together,” he says, and I nod in agreement. “When can I see you again?”
“Whenever you want, neighbor,” I remind him with a grin.
“Right…of course.” He brings his fingers up above my ear and combs them through my hair gently, causing my breath to come out in a shudder. “I really like you,” he whispers, and my heart sings.
Scenario 1 just got confirmed.
“I really like you too.”
His eyes glow with a smile. “I have to get back now, but I’ll text you later.”
“Okay. By the way, how’s Ana doing?”
“She went out in Cass’s Jag to get you something as soon as you left. Don’t ask me what it is, I have no clue.” The red convertible Jag is Cass’s spare car, and yesterday she gave Ana a key and said we can use it in case of an emergency.
“Well, okay,” I say, smiling because I know exactly what Ana’s getting me. It’s what I always want when I’ve been sick or I’ve been through something hard: a giant bag of cheese puffs and a pint of chocolate ice cream. Not sure why it’s taking her an hour to get it, but I should have known I could count on my Ana. “Text you later,” I say, and Gio gives me a soft, clinging kiss on the forehead before releasing me and trudging downstairs. I wish that kiss had been about four inches lower, but I guess we’ve got time.
Ten minutes after he leaves, Ana comes up and opens my door without knocking. She’s carrying a big bag of stuff from the grocery store and some knives and spoons.
“Sorry that took so long,” she says. “Weird that a grocery store would be so busy at this time of night. Then I got lost on the way back.”
“Ana, you are an angel sent from heaven.”
She lays the bag down on my bed, and not only are there cheese puffs and ice cream, but she also got us chocolate hazelnut spread and vanilla wafers, my other favorite weird combination. There are two sodas in there too. “Are you trying to fatten me up?”
“No, although that may be an unintended benefit.” Ana giggles as I throw my arms around her in a hug.
“I’m so sorry I ruined your conversation with Smart Girl.”
“It’s okay, she asked for my number before I left.” I can hear the smile in her voice.
“Nice!” I pull back and study Ana intently. She said that in the same tone of voice I used when I told her Gio asked for my number. “Hey, is there something I’m missing here?”
“Uh, no? Why?” Those words were uttered in her breathy, high-pitched “lying” voice.
I really want to press her, but I won’t. If Ana has something to tell me, she’ll tell me. “No reason. So, JR and junk food?”
“JR and junk food.”
We sit down on my bed side by side, just like we always do back in Kentucky. Ana finds Never Really Alone on Netflix, and we dig in to our snacks while we watch the movie again.
“Do you think we’ll meet JR while we’re here in Cali?” Ana asks.
“You never know.” Jacie Redinger is an A-list actress now, and horror movies are mostly in her past, but she does still act in one on occasion. “After what just happened, though, I really don’t want to think about meeting anyone that important.”
“Aw, but she’s your favorite!” Ana persists. “Come on, I bet she’d love to meet the daughter of the Grim Weeper.”
A derisive laugh escapes my throat. “Doubt it. She’s got much more important things to do.”
We sit in silence for a while, watching Raven Jones, JR’s character, creeping through dark hallways and listening to the sounds of the evil spirits that call to her in the night. Weird that her character’s name is Raven, considering the revelation we just had at Gio’s party. I guess they named her after the character’s pitch-black hair and somber disposition.
Ana’s mind is following the same track as mine, which happens a lot. She knows all about my missions since I showed her the AYMM posts in my blog. “Hey, JR has naturally dark hair, and she’s a little uppity in her interviews. Do you think she might be…?” Ana trails off, not wanting to say the word.
“Also doubtful. She might be uppity, but everybody loves Jacie Redinger. She’s great with her fans, and as far as I know, she’s never done anything remotely criminal in nature.”
“Yeah, but look at her.” Ana points up at the light-skinned, blue-eyed actress. “She looks just like you except for the nose.”
I study JR intently after that and identify several similarities in our looks. Eyes? Check. They’re the same shade of blue with the same long, dark eyelashes. Cheekbones? Check. Height? Double check. I could probably fit into her shoes. Our noses don’t match, but I know for a fact I got my nose from Dad. Our chins don’t match, either, but there’s an obvious reason for that too. Then I study her mouth, and a deep sense of dread washes over me. There’s no mistaking that our mouths match. We smile the same, we frown the same, and we even…
“That’s my smirk,” I whisper to myself. Jacie has that sarcastic, arrogant, know-it-all smirk I’ve seen on my own face in the mirror zillions of times. It’s my trademark…or at least, I thought it was. I guess it was hers first.
Ana hyperventilates next to me. “Oh my gosh…did we just find your mom?”
“No…it-it can’t be.” I shake my head, unable to take my eyes off the TV. “She’s not notorious, she’s a good person. I mean, she gives half of her money to charity, for God’s sake.”
Scrunching her face in thought, Ana continues to study her. “Well, maybe not. Still, it’s an odd resemblance.”
“I probably just mirrored her makeup and expressions subconsciously,” I reason aloud. Ana nods beside me. “I mean, she’s my favorite actress.”
“Right,” Ana whispers. We fall silent again, but an uneasy feeling settles in the pit of my stomach.
Morning comes, and I don’t wake up until 11:30. The only reason I wake up then is because Dad bursts into my room with a picture on his phone and a massive scowl on his face. I rub my eyes sleepily as I sit up and try to make sense of what’s going on.
“Do you know what this is, Madison Alexandria?”
When he uses my first and middle name, that’s when I know I’m in trouble.
He holds the phone up in front of my face, and I am instantly horrified. It’s a picture of me in the pool after my swimsuit flipped down. It’s mercifully censored, but still, I am now in the deepest trouble I’ve ever been in.
“Dad, I…I can explain—”
“Explain what? That you went to a party without even tellin’ me? That you decided to go naked in front of a bunch of high school guys? I really thought you were better than this!” He’s yelling now, and his nostrils are flaring. He looks incredibly disappointed in me. “Someone posted this on the Internet, and now everyone is lookin’ at it and talkin’ about you! Where did I go wrong?”
“Everyone?” My voice is hoarse with tears. I should have known…social media makes it possible for someone to humiliate you in front of the whole world in a nanosecond. Now I really won’t be able to show my face in L.A. again. “Listen, it was an ac—”
“Are you really trying to pretend you didn’t know what was going on?” His scowl deepens. “Is this your revenge for what I hid from you? What is it?”
“I didn’t know, I swear! If you’d just let me explain—”
“Don’t bother. I would ground you, but I doubt it would do any good.” He turns on his heel and tromps out of the room. Ana is still in my bed from staying with me last night, so she sits up after he leaves, looking sleepy and confused.
“What’s going on?” she asks through a yawn. Sobs take over, and I can’t reply. My crying wakes her up completely. “Mads, what’s wrong?”
“Someone took a picture of me in the pool, and now it’s all over the Internet. I…” Hiccup. “I might as well be dead.”
“Wow…” Ana slips her arms around me. “Who posted it?”
I shake my head and lean against her. “I don’t know…but whoever they are, I hate them.”
Ana nods against my head. “Me too. What kind of sick person does that?”
“Now Dad hates me.” I cry even harder. “He…he wouldn’t even let me explain.”
“Shhh…” Ana strokes my hair, which she knows has a calming effect on me. She holds me for a long time, telling me it’s all going to be okay.
Later, Ana and I leave in the Jag, with Cass’s permission, to go to Griffith Park and hike up to the Hollywood sign. Seeing the sign up close is something I’ve always wanted to do, and I figured physical activity would help me purge some tension and anxiety. I felt like I was about to go crazy in that house with Dad. His wrath is the last thing I want to face right now.
As we hike up Mount Lee, I am once again amazed at how vastly different California and Kentucky are landscape-wise. Cali is basically a dry dustbowl, and Kentucky is a lush, green oasis in comparison. That’s one of the few things I’m starting to miss…Nana, the horses, and the land.
“Almost there.” Ana struggles to breathe as she trudges up the mountain in front of me. Her family doesn’t live on a farm, so she’s not quite as used to physical activity as I am.
“Come on, you can do it. Push through the pain,” I tease her.
Ana grins down at me. “Shut up.”
We arrive at the top of Mount Lee, and both of us gaze upon the giant white letters in awe. Then Ana strikes several poses in front of the sign while I take pictures with her phone. This kind of thing happens a lot with us—Ana practicing her modeling and making me be the photographer. After that, we sit down side by side in front of the sign to drink some water.
I lay my head down on Ana’s shoulder as we take in the expanse before us. From the top of the mountain, you can see a lot of L.A. dusted in a fine layer of smog. The area directly in front of us is mostly comprised of neighborhoods, but then in the distance you can see the towering skyscrapers, and sapphire-blue Lake Hollywood is over to the right.
“I could stay up here forever,” Ana says.
I chuckle, still smarting from my exposure to the world. “I wish I could.”
“Why did you fall? Were you pushed?”
“I don’t think so. I’m just clumsy, and I didn’t have my glasses on.”
“Why didn’t you have your glasses on?”
I bite back a sheepish smirk. “Gio.”
Ana chuckles. “Ah. The things we do for love.”
“I wouldn’t say ‘love.’ More like intense, frustrating ‘like.’” I sit up to drink more water.
“Why is it frustrating?”
“Because he didn’t kiss me. He says he ‘likes to make a woman wait.’ Of course, for all I know, he really doesn’t want to kiss me.”
“I’m sure he does,” Ana says. “He seems like a bit of a tease. I bet he just likes to see you squirm.”
“Well, today I definitely feel like squirming.” I sigh, shaking my head. “I’m such an idiot. I kind of wish I could die.”
“Don’t say that.” Ana pulls me in again and rubs my arm with her palm. “People might talk about you for a while, but eventually it will all blow over, and everything will go back to normal. Trust me, this happens to celebrity girls all the time. People are only making a big deal out of it because you’re new in town. Just ride it out and try not to take it too seriously.” I nod against her, and then my phone buzzes, and I pull it out of my green messenger bag.
Gio: Where are you? Are you OK?
“Aww, Gio’s worried about me. Can I call him real quick?”
“Yeah, sure,” Ana says. I tap Gio’s contact to call him. The phone only rings once.
“Hey, where are you?” His voice is strained.
“I’m at Griffith Park with Ana, and I’m fine.”
“Oh good. I saw the stuff online and got really worried when you weren’t at home.”
I feel myself blush, and not in a good way. This is so embarrassing. If only I could bore a hole into this mountain and live out the rest of my life as a gopher. “Thanks for caring. I’m just getting some BFF therapy right now. By the way, exactly how bad is the post? I only saw it for a second.”
“It’s…it’s bad,” Gio reluctantly informs me.
“Some gossip websites are posting it, and…well, let’s just say, you’re trending.”
[_Hammer. Meet. Chest. _]“Oh my God…”
“They found out who you are, and they’re calling you a party girl. I’m so sorry, Madness. Cass and I are trying to figure out who took the picture so your dad can file a lawsuit.”
“Yeah, for emotional distress. Cass told me he’s already looking into it. If the person is over eighteen, they might even press criminal charges. I’m not sure who at my party would do a thing like this to a person they don’t even know, but they’re going to pay for this. We’ll get them. Don’t worry.”
“What’s going on?” Ana asks.
“I’ll let you talk to Ana,” Gio says. “Talk to you soon.”
After I hang up, Ana repeats her question. “Mads, what is going on?”
“Well…you know that picture of me Dad
showed us early this morning?”
I release a labored sigh. “I think the president has seen it by now.”
After her initial shocked reaction, we take out our phones and Google search my name, and the results pour in.
“Basket Baby Madison Daley returns the way she left us…in her birthday suit.”
“The Grim Weeper’s daughter is back, and she’s ready to party!”
“Curious about what the Grim Weeper’s daughter looks like now?”
“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Michael
Daley’s daughter is just as wild as he was!”
I tap on that last link, just to see what Dad did that was comparable to what everyone thinks I did. We see tons of photos in the article of Dad partying it up in clubs, bars, and house parties, dancing with near-naked women and drinking until he was plastered.
“So having your swimsuit fall down at a party is the same or worse than all of this? Horseshit!” I throw the phone down on the mountain in anger. Ana keeps it from tumbling down the slope in front of us with her foot, and I pull my knees up to my chest and bury my face in my legs.
“Mads…don’t look at the comments on these articles.” Her voice is thick. “There are some horrible people in this world.”
“What? What are they saying?” I lift my head up
and try to look at her phone.
Ana keeps it away from me and shakes her head. “Believe me, you don’t want to know.”
I take the phone in spite of her protests, and I feel sick to my stomach as I read comments like:
“What a little whore…”
“Where are her boobs?”
“Her father must be so proud…”
“We missed out on seventeen years of W3 for this?”
My tears come back in a rush. “This is a nightmare. Please wake me up.”
“I wish I could.”
Ana drives us back home, and when Kelsey opens the front door for us, I see Dad in the entryway on the phone with a lawyer. His hair is mussed, and his eyes are wild with worry. He talks about some legal-sounding stuff that I don’t understand for a minute, and then he hangs up and sees me. I half-expected him to still be angry, but he immediately scoops me up in his arms and presses me to his chest. “Thank God you’re all right.”
We grip each other for a long time, and I almost start crying again at the feeling of his arms around me. “What’s going on?”
“We’re gonna find the person who did this to you, and then we’re gonna make them pay,” Dad says.
“Dad…money is not going to fix this.” I pull back from him. “It’s not like people can unsee the picture.”
“That’s not the point. The point is that whoever took your picture and posted it committed a sexual offense. We have to make sure whoever it is never does it again.” A sexual offense…I hadn’t even thought of it that way. “But, listen, Gio came over and told me everything. I am so sorry for yellin’ earlier—”
“Don’t worry about it.” I pull into him again. “Just hold me. Please.” Dad holds me against him like he did when I was a scared little girl back home.
Well, I guess I just officially became a celebrity. It seems the rite of passage for becoming a real famous girl always involves some kind of nip slip, wardrobe malfunction, nude photo, or sex video. I just managed to accomplish three of those all in one step. Now that my dues are paid, I guess I can rest easy. I’m officially famous. Hooray!
Anyone who can’t see the obvious sarcasm dripping off the paragraph above needs to be held under water.
This is horrific. Someone took a picture of me when my swimsuit flipped down and proceeded to post it online. People must really be obsessed with Dad’s return, because my story has been “breaking the Internet” for the past ten hours. They’re calling me names I didn’t even know existed and railing against me for taking Dad away just to come back like this. My hopes and dreams of someday reinventing my image in the public eye are all but destroyed. Now everyone sees me as the girl who was dropped off in a basket, wrecked W3, and got naked at a pool party in front of everyone.
I am officially a total screw-up. Not only have I screwed up my own life, but I screwed up everybody else’s too. I’ve cried myself out, and now all I want to do is hide.
Actually, hiding isn’t enough. I want to disappear. Dematerialize. Cease to exist.
I wish people knew it was an accident. It would make me look stupid, but at least it might make them stop defaming my character and making me out to be a whore. I’m the furthest thing from a whore. In fact, now I’m wondering if I’ll ever want to get naked again.
Thank God for Dad, Ana, and Cass. They’re keeping me sane right now. I’m not letting anyone see me, but they’re bringing things to my room for me and trying to keep me as calm and comfortable as possible. Gio has texted me a few times, but after seeing myself on the news, I’m too embarrassed to acknowledge his existence. This is so far beyond ‘humiliating.’ If a person can’t die of excitement, I’m almost certain now that one can die of mortification.
Ttyl if I’m still alive,
I set my laptop on the nightstand after clicking Submit. Then I squirm underneath my covers and pull them up over my head. Everyone else is downstairs having dinner, but I can’t eat. All I want to do is listen to the sounds of random TV shows, zone out, and forget I’m Madison Daley and the whole world has seen me without a shirt. I’m wearing sweat pants and a hoodie under my covers because if I see my own skin, I’m going to want to hurt myself. Being covered feels safe. I snuggle into my pillow and pull it up over my face, feeling like it might even be a risk to let the sun see me right now.
A knock comes at the door, and I pull the covers up even further. “Come in.”
I hear the door swing open. “Hey,” Gio says, and my stomach drops.
“Hey…look, no offense, but I really don’t want to see [_anyone _]right now…”
“I understand. I just wanted to bring you something. I guess I’ll set it on the nightstand and go.” I hear the clank of glass on the wooden nightstand, and I turn over and pull the comforter back a little bit to take a peek. It’s a single purple rose in a clear, water-filled vase.
I pull the comforter away from my eyes. “Gio…it’s beautiful.”
“I figured purple was your favorite color besides black. Glad you like it.”
I can now add “observant” to the list of qualities I like about this guy. “Thanks.”
“No problem. Guess I’ll see you later.” Gio turns around to walk out the door, and my heart yearns after him.
“Hey…wait.” He turns back around, and I sit up, holding the comforter in front of me from the shoulders down. “You don’t have to go.”
Gio’s perfect lips turn up in a smile, and he comes back to sit next to me on the bed. “You doing okay?”
I blow out a sigh. “No…not really. I feel…well, I don’t really feel anything. I’m just—”
“Numb. Like feeling anything at all would be too much to handle.”
“Exactly.” I’m amazed at how easily he got that.
Gio brings his hand up toward my face. “May I?” I nod, and he runs his fingers through my hair like he did last night. “Believe me, I know how that is. I’ve been in the news for bad reasons a few times myself, and people said horrible things about me too. You just have to realize they’re not the ones who really matter. If your family and friends know the truth and support you, you’re doing all right.”
“I’m trying to believe that, but they’re all so mean…”
“You’re right. They are mean. Don’t listen to them. You’re beautiful, and you’re definitely not a party girl or a whore. Everyone who matters already knows that.”
My hands lower, bringing the comforter down with them. Much to Gio’s credit, he doesn’t even glance down at my chest. Instead, he smiles and leans in close to my face.
For a second, I think I’m about to get my first kiss, but then he whispers in my ear, “Hey, do you want to go see something pretty and not upsetting at all?”
I pull back, panicking at the mere thought of going outside. “Um…I appreciate the offer, but I’m terrified to go out in public right now. I don’t want any of these horrible comments coming to my face.”
“No one’s going to say it to your face. All those people commenting on your pictures are complete cowards. They’d never have the guts to approach you in person and defame you like that. Trust me, you’re safe.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, and if anyone says a word to you, I’ll punch their ass out,” Gio promises. “You have my word.”
“Are you doubting my ass-kicking abilities?” Gio glowers at me in mock offense, and I giggle. “No, I’m sure you’re incredibly strong.”
Gio pulls me in by my covered arm and kisses my cheek. “Then just trust me, okay? Let me get your mind off your troubles.”
I pull the comforter off my legs, keeping my gaze fixed on my black, manicured fingernails.
After I’m dressed in jeans and a black long-sleeved shirt, Gio and I take a ride to Santa Monica Beach in his steel-gray Maserati. On the way over he tells me, “The radio’s all yours tonight. Pick a station, any station.”
I scan the stations, and then I stop when I hear a familiar song. “Hey, they’re playing W3!”
“Yeah, I’ve heard W3 in a lot of places lately. I think people are getting nostalgic now that your dad’s back in town.”
“Excellent.” I grin like a villain. “Looks like my missions are right on track.”
I briefly explain my missions to Gio, leaving out the parts about my mother. At the end of the explanation, he laughs. “Why am I not surprised by this?”
“I dunno, I guess you’re psychic.”
“Nah, you just give off a general evil mastermind vibe.” He gives me a dimpled grin and a wink.
I sit and watch him drive the rest of the way, loving the way his light blue shirt contrasts sharply against his dark coloring. I can’t help but feel like I don’t really belong in this passenger seat next to him, especially after everything that happened over the weekend. I’m not the kind of girl he deserves at all, but if Gio doesn’t mind being seen with a weirdo like me, I’m not going to complain.
We arrive at Santa Monica Beach, where the park on the pier is closing and the sun is just starting to dip toward the horizon. Orange and purple streaks are beginning to appear in the sky, and the bit of Pacific Ocean washing up onto the shore is reflecting the pier like smooth glass. Gio and I slip our sandals off as we step onto the warm, fine sand, and he reaches for my hand. I link fingers with him, relishing the feeling of his slightly roughened skin as we walk down the beach.
“This is incredible,” I whisper as the lights on the Ferris wheel come on in the distance. The contrast of the bright pink electric lights against the coral and heather hues of the sunset is nothing short of magical.
“I knew you would like it.” Gio rubs the side of my hand with his thumb. “When I come down here at sunset, it helps me forget about everything and not feel like I need ten shots of whiskey quite as much.”
I turn to look at him with an amused smirk. “You’re a big liquor fan, aren’t you?”
“You have no idea,” Gio says with a chuckle.
“Just curious, what are you doing here in L.A. during the summer?” He raises an eyebrow in confusion. “I mean, on TV, rich kids go out of town to places like Paris and Rome to get away.”
“Well, ironically, Rome [_is _]usually where I go in the summer. That’s where my mother lives. This year Papa has a big movie premiere and Mamma’s really busy, so they just decided I would go there for the holidays instead.”
“Your dad has a movie premiere?” He nods. “That is sick!”
“Yeah, I get to walk the red carpet with him again. That never gets old.”
“What’s it like having two homes?” I squeeze his hand. “Being away from your mom all the time must be hard.”
Gio shrugs and looks straight ahead. “It’s all right. Mamma runs a four-star restaurant over there, so she’s never really around anyway.” He quickly turns the attention off himself. “What about you?
Did you ever figure out who your mother is?”
I shake my head. “No. I just started trying a couple months ago.”
“You know who I think your mother is?”
“Wonder Woman.” Gio gives me a big, teasing grin. “I mean, it’s pretty obvious.”
I giggle at the flattery. “You really think I’m as hot as Wonder Woman?”
“Hotter. And believe me, that’s saying a lot coming from me.”
My heart begins to pound, and I take a deep breath to steady my voice. “So Gio Abate is a
Wonder Woman fan. Finally, this makes sense.” Confused, he asks, “What do you mean?”
“I mean…you liking me.” I stare at my feet in the sand.
Gio takes my arm and turns me to face him. “Hey…” He inches toward me with a look of concern. “I like you for you.” As he winds his fingers down my cheek and neck, I gaze into his wonderful eyes, which are reflecting the pier and the sunset. “You’re so great, Madness. I wish you could see it.”
“Thanks,” I whisper. I lose my breath as our bodies come fully together. He wraps his arms around me, making me feel safe and vulnerable all at once.
“Take your glasses off,” he says softly, and he smiles at my shocked reaction.
“Just take them off.” My hand trembles as I reach up and remove them. Then his head tips down, and I almost squirm out of his embrace in my panic. Oh God…this is it…
In one smooth movement, Gio touches his lips down to mine. At first, I freeze up in my nerves, but then I reach up and dig my fingers into his mass of black hair as I kiss him back. It’s my first kiss ever, and there’s no way it could be any more perfect. We listen to the waves crashing against the shore and seagulls crying above us as the breeze whips my hair against his face. Gio tightens his grip around me, and his lips press down firmly against mine, grasping them over and over and flooding me with euphoria from head to toe. Eventually, we have to come up for air, and Gio breathes against my lips,
“You’re awesome,” I whisper back.
He swallows hard as he tangles his fingers in my hair. “I’ve never had a kiss like that before.”
“I’ve…never had any of this before,” I say with a breathy giggle.
He pulls back with wide eyes. “What? Really?”
Shrugging, I say, “Well…I grew up alone on a farm.”
“But the flirting…the kissing…this was really your first time?”
“Yeah…” I trail off, not sure what to say.
Gio chuckles, flabbergasted. “Well, you’re a natural. And I have to say, it’s really not fair.”
My smile grows so wide that I’m afraid it will split my face. He used my ‘not fair’ phrase. It’s almost like we’re a match made in heaven. “Thanks.”
“You got any notes for me?” There’s a hint of vulnerability in his eyes. I’ve been teaching him how to excel at gaming, but there’s no way he could possibly improve on this.
I wrap my arms around his strong neck and shake my head. “Not this time.” Feeling braver than ever before, I rise onto my tiptoes and press my lips to his again.
I feel almost guilty for writing this. It’s like I’m betraying all feminists everywhere. I know a guy isn’t supposed to be allowed to swoop in and save the day, but…
Oh. My. God.
He. Just. Did.
Saying “Giovanni Abate kissed me” would be like saying “Avenged Sevenfold is okay.” Gio didn’t just kiss me. He rocked my world at its core and ruined me for every other guy on the planet. Now I understand why he wanted to tease me and draw it out. Waiting a day to give me what I wanted made me want it that much more.
He is so perfect…which scares the hell out of me. I just know there’s some massive imperfection that’s going to surface and ruin everything. When he was talking about drinking and his mother, it made me realize this guy might have some demons cooped up underneath that joyous smile. He’s always so happy and confident…there’s just got to be a cavernous store of pain locked up in there. When it surfaces, I hope I’m the one who gets to help him through it. After all, I know exactly how he feels when it comes to absentee mothers. We don’t like to talk about the abandonment because most of the time we like to pretend it didn’t happen.
Back at home when I was planning this trip, I kept getting this “feeling” I was supposed to come here this summer. Maybe Gio is the reason. I don’t know much about him yet, but it seems like he’s running away from something, and I might be the only one who knows what he’s running away from. I could be the key to getting him to open up about his past and deal with his feelings instead of drowning them with whiskey, tequila, and partying. Then again, he could be totally fine with the events of his life and he simply enjoys liquor. Honestly, I didn’t mind the feeling I got from that margarita. I wouldn’t mind having another one right now.
Dammit…this could have been the perfect weekend if only I had remembered to pick my glasses up before going over by the pool.
In the morning, before any sane, normal person would ever be awake on vacation, Dad comes into my room and taps me on the shoulder, waking me up.
“What’s going on?” I moan. Gio brought me straight home after the beach last night, but I had a hard time going to sleep after that mind-blowing, life-altering, still-burning-my-lips first kiss.
“Sorry, baby girl, I couldn’t wait to show you this,” Dad whispers, and I gasp when I turn over to look at what he brought me. It’s a custom-made guitar, blood red with a tan scratch plate and neck, and it has the W3 logo emblazoned in a bold, red, dripping font just below the tailpiece.
“Wow…” I rise slowly to a sitting position.
“It was mine back when I was on my last tour before meeting you,” Dad explains. “This was the only custom-made guitar I ever had. I came across it this morning in storage, and I want you to have it…because I love you, and because you’ve been to hell and back this weekend.” He hands the guitar to me, and my hands tremble as I accept it. I feel like I’m handling a holy relic. I run my fingers down the smooth strings and let them fall on the letters at the bottom.
“Oh, Dad, this is beautiful.”
He sits on my bed next to me and gives me a side hug. “I am so sorry I freaked out on you yesterday morning. I just panicked. I had no idea it was all an accident, and I feel terrible you were humiliated like that.”
“It’s okay.” I lean into Dad, appreciating him more than ever. Giving me this guitar is the ultimate act of trust. He really does believe me. “This more than makes up for it.”
“You wanna come downstairs and plug this sucker up to see what she can still do?” Dad asks.
“Can I get a picture of you with the guitar first?”
My face turns to stone. “Dad, did you [_really _]just suggest a picture after—”
“Okay, never mind.”
Completely disregarding the hour, Dad and I set up a couple of amps in the sunroom, and I play the custom guitar while he plays my old one. He teaches me some of the old riffs and solos, and after a while, I’ve forgotten all about my exposure to the world. I’m playing W3 songs on the Grim Weeper’s custom guitar[_ ]with man himself. Thousands of people would _kill to be me right now. Dad teaches me some of the lyrics too, and we work on harmonizing together. Cass and Ana come downstairs after a little bit, and then Cass takes the guitar from him, and we play to the sound of his voice.
I’m still shredding like crazy after both of them have quit, and then Gio comes to the back door. Cass lets him in, and his eyes grow wide as his gaze locks on to me. I keep on playing just to show off for him.
“Hot damn,” he says at the end, not even caring that my dad is standing right there.
Dad clears his throat. “Hello, Gio.” His grin puts creases in his cheeks.
Gio purses his lips as if he wishes he could take those words back. “Hi, Mr. Daley.”
“Call me Mike,” Dad says, and Gio nods in assent.
“You here to join us for breakfast?” Cass asks.
“Yeah, if you don’t mind too much.”
“Well, then I guess we’d better get started.” Cass nods to Dad, and they head to the kitchen to cook French toast together. That’s my favorite of their ‘couple quirks.’ The mere smell of one of their breakfasts can wake me out of a dead sleep. Ana dismisses herself to take a shower, leaving Gio and me alone.
“Can I hear you play something else?” Gio asks as he sits down on the three-seater couch.
“Sure, what do you like?”
“Can you play ‘I Love Rock ’N‘ Roll?’”
My lip pulls up in an arrogant smirk. That’s a song I learned when I was twelve. I’m relieved he picked an older song I actually know. I start playing and singing my own version of the song, and even I have to admit it sounds pretty incredible with my voice. I glance up at Gio at the end of the first chorus, and he looks completely star-struck. Just to blow his mind, I blast through the rest of the song, jazzing up the final chorus with my best guitar riffs. When I’m done, he claps enthusiastically, and my face gets hot and I smile like an idiot.
“Play another one.” I play “Sweet Child of Mine” by Guns N’ Roses. Then Gio asks, “Do you write any of your own music?” I nod. “Can you play me something you wrote?”
Suddenly, I feel like a shrinking violet instead of the Wonder Woman of rock ’n’ roll. “I don’t know about that…”
“Come on, I won’t judge, I swear.”
“If you play me a song, I’ll take you on the red carpet with me.”
My eyes almost pop out of their sockets and fall into my open mouth. “[_What? _]Are you serious?” “Yeah, totally,” he says with a huge grin.
A guttural sound pushes its way out of my throat. “I think I’m getting the better end of that deal!”
“Exactly, so now you have no excuse. Play me your song.”
Who could resist that teasing sparkle in his eyes? Those dimples? That offer?
“Well…all right…” I clear my throat, steady my hands, and start into the song I’ve been working on over the past couple of months. It starts with a slow, mournful intro as I whisper-sing a softer version of the chorus. Then, as I move into the verse and the bridge, the chords get heavier and my gritty, melodic voice grows stronger.
Locked in a cage,
Frozen in chains,
Will it never be my day?
Always the same,
Always enslaved by this pain,
Someday I’ll break away.
I’m sleeping inside,
A prison of your own design,
I’m trapped in a cell,
Awaiting the day I escape this hell.
But nobody knows, nobody cares,
Tell me why they don’t know,
Why can’t I go out there?
Give me a chance, give me a choice,
And we can be free,
I’ll never again be
Locked in a cage,
Frozen in chains,
Will it never be my day?
Always the same,
Always enslaved by this pain,
Someday I’ll break away.
My chords end abruptly. “That’s all I have so far.”
Gio grins, clapping his hands. “I’ve got to tell Dalton about you. He’s looking for bandmates, and you have just the style he’s looking for.”
My voice rises two octaves. “Really?”
“If you’re interested, that is. You probably have plans already—”
“No, I don’t. I’m interested.”
“Do you mind if I bring him over here sometime?”
“Not at all.” I take off the guitar and set it on the stand. “Bring him anytime.”
“Awesome.” Gio smiles, and I have to smile back.
“Five minutes!” Cass calls from the kitchen, and Gio stands from the couch. We cross the room to each other, and excitement jolts through me at the thought of getting to touch him again.
“I’m glad you came over. I was wondering when I’d see you next,” I say.
“Well, truthfully, I couldn’t wait any longer for a repeat of last night,” he whispers, making his slow approach. I swallow hard as he glances around to make sure we’re still alone, and then he presses a firm, yet gentle kiss to my lips. He tries to pull away like a good boy, but I hold his head down and kiss him again, letting our noses touch sides and burying my fingers in the little curls at the nape of his neck.
“Dio, sei così bella,” he whispers. His breath passes through my lips into my mouth, and I linger against him, relishing his closeness.
“What was that?”
“I said, ‘God, you’re so beautiful.’”
I smile against his lips. “I’m gonna have to say the same for you.”
He kisses me deeply, and then he pulls back with that adorable teasing grin of his. “Also, you rock. Literally.”
I giggle. This gorgeous Italian ping-pongs between being irresistibly romantic and a typical teenage guy. “Thanks.” I give him one more kiss, and then he drapes an arm around my waist as we head into the kitchen.
After breakfast, Gio takes me straight over to the villa to hang out alone. As soon as he shuts the front door behind us, he presses me up against it, bringing his lips down onto mine with magnetic force. I bury my hands in his hair and kiss him back with minimal restraint, glad to finally have him alone. It was torture sitting at that breakfast bar together and wanting nothing more than to lean over and kiss him again. We held hands under the counter, but it just wasn’t the same.
After a few minutes, Gio scoops me up in his arms and carries me away from the door. It’s the first time any guy has carried me, and I feel like I’ve literally been swept off my feet.
“Where are we going?” I ask breathlessly.
“My room.” He said that as if it was the most natural thing in the world. My eyes pop wide open, and he quickly explains. “I’m not expecting anything. This is just in case Steph comes home early. Sometimes he works from home.”
“Oh…okay.” I smile and lean against his sturdy shoulder as he easily carries me up the stairs to his room. He sets me down in front of his door, and he kisses me as he opens it behind me and nudges me inside. After the door is closed behind us, Gio picks me up again and strides over to his bed. He tosses me onto it like a doll and tickles the life out of me. I laugh and thrash, trying to get his hands off me.
He chuckles at my protests. “You have the cutest laugh.”
“I can’t be held responsible for what I do to you,” I warn him through my giggles.
“Mm…I like the sound of that.” He keeps on tickling me, and I squirm even more.
“Stop!” I kick him with all my might while he’s off-balance, and he tumbles down onto the floor. Both of us pause in stunned silence, and then Gio bursts into laughter.
“I think that’s the second time I’ve ever had my ass kicked by a girl.”
“I am so sorry,” I mutter in horror. “Are you okay?”
“Never better.” He’s still laughing as he comes back up to lie beside me on the bed. “Now I’m even more convinced you’re Wonder Woman in disguise.”
He snakes a muscular arm around me and kisses me again, and I pull into him, holding his head and neck with my hands. His tongue touches my lips, and I hesitantly part them and let my tongue meet his. His mouth tastes like the cinnamon gum he spit out right before we came inside. It’s spicy, alluring, and sweet, just like him. We swirl our tongues in unison, creating a sort of slow dance meant just for us.
He moves his hand down to the small of my back as he searches for the hem of my shirt. When his fingers graze the exposed skin of my back, his tongue reaches further into my mouth. I let him pull me in even closer, and he rubs his hand up and down my back, holding me tightly against him.
We kiss for a long time, but then his fingers inch down over the waist of my jeans and toward my back pocket, and fear settles in my stomach instead of excitement. He may not think he’s expecting anything, but it seems like he is. If he doesn’t expect it, he’s at least hoping for it. He needs to know. I guess I’m going to have to tell him about my rule.
I pull back. “Hey, um…I need to tell you something.”
“What’s up?” He reclines on his elbow, supporting his head with his hand. There’s a hint of disappointment on his face, but he smiles to cover it.
“Well…I kind of have this resolution about sex. I…I don’t want to have sex until I’m in love with someone.”
Both his eyebrows raise, and his lips make an O. “I see.”
“I know, that probably sounds backward and weird, but—”
“No, no, it’s fine. It’s just…”
He chuckles. “Well, aren’t you almost eighteen? I’d be getting really impatient by now if I were you.”
I shrug. “Honestly, I never had an opportunity, so I didn’t obsess over it too much.”
“So you’re not in love with me, huh?” He pokes out his lower lip and draws his eyebrows together in mock pain.
I laugh. “Not yet, anyway.”
He smirks, and then he leans in close to my ear. “You know, there are a lot of fun things we can do that don’t count as sex.”
My heart pounds, and I feel the electricity between us rising. “Yeah?”
He pulls back with a nod and a naughty smile. “I don’t have to show you today, but just know you don’t have to be chaste to be a virgin. I mean, it’s summer. You’re too beautiful to be stuck in a bedroom by yourself playing games.”
I glance down at his body, feeling its pull on me like never before. “I will admit I’m curious.”
“Well then, I can show you a good time while you’re here. We don’t have to go all the way. If we fall in love, we fall in love. If not, you’ll have a summer to remember.”
I bring my fingers down to touch his chest through his thin white shirt. “Maybe…”
“Madness, look at me.” I tip my head up to meet his gaze, and I see sincerity in his eyes. “I’m not going to force you into anything. We can do nothing but kiss if you want. It’s all up to you.”
“Well…” My hand lingers on his chest, and I run it up to his neck. “Let’s kiss for now and see where it goes.”
Gio nods and waits a mere beat before leaning down and taking my lips again. This time, his hand stays firmly planted on the outside of my shirt, and part of me wishes he’d slip it back in.
The last four days have been a whirlwind. I hate to admit it, but I’ve put a pause on my missions and the reasons I’m here in the first place. Giovanni Abate hijacked my vacation. He’s all I can think about now. We’ve spent hours in his room, in his hot tub, out on the patio…everywhere. All we’re doing is making out and touching each other’s bodies over the clothes, but it’s still pretty intense.
Being with Gio over the last week almost made me forget about the events of the weekend. Almost. Unfortunately, the rest of the world won’t let me forget.
Tomorrow I’m going to Santa Monica Beach with Gio to watch him surf with his friends, and I’m extremely nervous about seeing them again. I know they’ve read the articles about me and all the cruel comments I received. What are they going to think of me after reading all that? They probably do think I’m a whore. I bet they think Gio’s been absent lately because of a week of sordid sexual behavior instead of make-out sessions out by the pool.
You know, maybe I should let them think that. I don’t really want anyone knowing I’m making Giovanni Abate wait for sex.
Amidst all this hotness, I did find out something weird. Jacie Redinger is out of town for a film shoot until July First. It’s strange how everything about her adds up, yet there’s no way she could be my mother. I would look into it, but Gio’s texting me again, and…
I just got my first dirty text.
It’s not graphic or anything, but…I’m fanning myself…
Me: Giovanni Abate! You’re gonna get me in so much trouble!
Gio: You know you liked that, though ;)
Me: Of course, but Dad checks my phone sometimes. At least warn me!
Gio: Lmao. Will do.
I get another text from him, and my eyes bug out.
Me: Stop. It’s not fair.
Gio: You in love with me yet, bella? ;)
I laugh and roll my eyes. He is a never-ending tease.
Me: Working on it :P
Late Friday afternoon, Ana and I ride along with Gio to Santa Monica. This time, I’m wearing a swimsuit I’m sure is going to stay on, and I doubleknotted it just for insurance. It’s an extremely hot day, so I also sprayed on some 100 SPF sunscreen before we left the house. I rubbed it in so well that Gio couldn’t even tell the difference.
When we get to the beach, I give Gio a quick kiss before he runs out to the water with his surfboard to meet his friends. Ana and I lay out our towels next to Zuri and a couple of other girls who are lying in the sun listening to music. Since they’re zoned out and not paying attention to us at all, Ana and I talk amongst ourselves until Ana gets a call. “Hello? Oh, h-hi, Jerica! No, I’m not busy, what’s up? Yeah…yeah, I-I’d love to. Sure. Okay, well just let me know. Thanks. Okay. You too. Bye.” Ana’s about to have a panic attack when she hangs up the phone.
“What’s going on?”
Ana turns to me with a deer-in-the-headlights expression, shaking like a leaf. “I’m…uh…I’m hanging out with Jerica Valrey tonight.”
“Hanging out? Can I come?”
“Well, she only invited me.”
I immediately feel a surge of heat, and it’s not from the scorching-hot sun. Of course she wouldn’t want to hang out with me after what just happened. I’m embarrassed I even asked. “I get it.”
“No, no, it’s not that,” Ana’s quick to explain. “She really likes you, don’t worry. It’s just…well, she wanted to hang out with me alone, that’s all.”
“Oh…okay.” I try to bite back my smile, but it won’t stop. I’m too thrilled for her. Ana has a date.
“Nothing weird is going on, I swear.”
“Of course not.” I look down at my phone in my lap and pretend to be extremely interested in Candy Crush.
Ana pauses for about three beats. “You know already, don’t you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You know what this really is.”
“Not if you don’t want me to.” I cringe. Shit! I was really trying not to let on.
She’s silent for a few more seconds. “Well…it seems like you do already know, so…” Ana sighs as she twists her hands in her lap. “I think we need to go for a walk.”
“I’m serious. You don’t have to talk about it.”
“Come on.” Ana stands and yanks me up from the sand.
As we walk down the beach a ways from the others, I turn my head to study her face. She has this stubborn scowl she only wears when she’s trying to protect herself or someone else. Her cute nose wrinkles up, and her eyes look like an emerald blaze that will incinerate you in a hot second if you piss her off. I wish I knew why she thinks she has to hide this from me, but maybe it’s not me she’s hiding from. Maybe it’s herself, or someone else. After about five minutes, she finally speaks.
“It’s a date,” she blurts out, and I stop in my tracks. I wasn’t expecting her to crack so easily.
“Ana! That’s amazing!” A tear streams down her cheek. “Hey…what’s wrong? Aren’t you happy?”
Her voice is tight. “I’m scared. Jerica’s famous. What if my parents find out?”
Of course. Her conservative parents. They’re definitely not going to approve of Ana going out with a woman. “Well…I mean, they understood about Dad and Cass, right? Maybe they’ll understand about this.”
“They’re not going to understand.”
“How do you know that?”
“They’ll kick me out, Mads. That…that’s an understanding in our house. I know for a fact they’re going to disown me.” Her voice breaks, and she covers her mouth as the sobs begin.
“Oh, my God…” Tears burn my eyes as I take her in my arms and squeeze her tightly.
I suddenly remember things I’ve shut out of my mind for years. Nana used to drag me to church bright and early every Sunday morning when I was little, and there were times when Pastor Lincourt would go on and on about the fire and brimstone awaiting those who ‘chose’ homosexuality. I didn’t even understand what was going on at the time, so I tuned it out and forgot about it, but now I realize just how dark the last four years have been for my best friend. She was so afraid of getting the boot from her own parents that she couldn’t even tell me about her orientation.
“Listen, if they kick you out, that’s their loss. We would welcome you to live with us with open arms.”
“I don’t want to be kicked out, though,” she sobs. “I don’t want to be rejected by my own family.”
“You’re almost an adult now. Who knows? Maybe things will be different.”
“I really don’t think they’re going to be. Mom might understand, but…Dad definitely won’t.”
“Well…I really hope he changes his mind, but…no matter what, I will never breathe a word to them. Your secret is safe with me.”
She clings to me for a long time, and all the while my thoughts are racing in my worry. What’s going to happen to her now? If her parents somehow find out what she’s doing with Jerica, it could mean the worst for her. What if I screwed her over by bringing her here, giving her a taste of this amazing life only for it all to be ripped away at the end of the summer?
After a while, she wants to return to the others on the beach, and I keep my arm around her as we walk back. When her tears have completely subsided, I ask, “Ana-love, are you sure you want to do this?”
Ana sighs. “I know it’s risky, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for me. I can’t imagine saying no to Jerica Valrey.”
I nod. I get that. I couldn’t imagine saying no to Gio, either.
“I’ll explain my situation fully tonight and ask her to keep this private. Hopefully she’ll understand.”
I nod again, and Ana squeezes me around the shoulders. “Thank you so much for telling me,” I say.
“Thank you for understanding. You’re the best, girl. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
“You have to swear you won’t tell,” she teases me as a throwback to our conversation in Kentucky.
“I’ll take this secret to my grave if you ask me to.”
A couple days later, Gio brings Dalton over to take a look at my new old guitar. He has it in his hands, and he’s gazing at it with the same awed reverence that I felt when I first held it. “Ohhh my God…can I play it?”
“Sure.” I plug it into my amp for him. We’re down in the sunroom, which is now the permanent music room in this house, and Gio is watching us from the sofa. I adjust the amp settings, and Dalton wastes no time plunging into a flawless version of an advanced Black Angel guitar solo. The muscles in his forearms bulge as his fingers fly over the strings and neck. He doesn’t miss a single note, and it’s possible he might be better at this solo than Cass.
After the last chord, he grabs his head with both hands and laughs—a deep, musical sound. “I can’t handle this! It’s too epic!”
“That was awesome,” I tell him with admiration.
Gio sighs from the couch, fixated on his phone. “Dammit…Steph needs me to send him something from his computer at home. I’ll be right back.” He gets up and leaves out the back door, leaving Dalton and me alone. Judging from his nonchalant attitude, I’m guessing Dalton makes him listen to guitar solos all the time.
“Can I hear you play something?” Dalton asks. He takes off the guitar and hands it to me. “I’m curious how Grim’s daughter sounds on this baby.”
“Yeah, sure.” I adjust the settings and start playing the intro to “Riot” by Three Days Grace. “Sing along if you want.”
“Okay.” He clears his throat, and then when his voice leaves his body, I almost stop playing in shock. I laugh breathlessly, and he stops, fearing the worst. “What, is it bad?”
“No, no, definitely not. Keep going.” We resume the song, and I can’t get over the flawless blend of his voice with my guitar. He sounds almost like a younger version of Dad, except his voice has more grit to it. After he sings through the first chorus, I can’t hold the question back anymore. “What have you been smoking to get gravel like that?”
“That’s just my voice,” Dalton says, chuckling. “I don’t know why it’s like that.”
“You’re starting a band, right?”
“Yeah, and I would kill to have you in it,” he says with a grin.
“Damn, I wish I knew for sure I was sticking around. We’ll be here for the summer, but after that it’s up in the air.”
“Well, hey, if you do stick around, hit me up. You would make a phenomenal lead guitar. Can
you sing backup, by any chance?”
“Hell yeah! And I write music too.”
“Really? Would you mind showing me something you wrote?”
“Sure…it’s not finished, but here’s the first part.” I start into the same song I showed Gio.
When I reach the end of what I’ve got so far, Dalton immediately falls to his knees on the floor and folds his hands to beg. “Please please please please please stick around? Please?”
I’m dying laughing as Gio comes back inside and walks onto this scene. “What’s going on?” Gio asks.
“I just played my song for him, and he’s begging me to be in his band.” I take my guitar off and lay it to the side.
“I told you he’d love you,” Gio says with a wink. “You guys wanna go outside for a little bit?”
Both of us nod, and we all walk out the open door to the patio. We sit down at one of the tables while Ana swims a little ways out from us in the pool.
“Hey, is she going out with anyone?” Dalton asks, pointing to Ana with his thumb.
“Yeah, um…she went out with someone a couple nights ago. They seem really into each other.”
“Ah…well, damn. It seems like all the hottest visitors are snapped up in a second as soon as they get to L.A.”
“You’re going to have to step up your game if you’re going to compete with me,” Gio says with a proud smile directed at me. I reach over and take his hand, and we link fingers like we always do.
“Come on, man, you know I don’t do relationships,” Dalton says.
“Aww, why not?” I ask him.
Dalton waves it off. “I don’t want to get into it right now. It’s complicated.”
“Well, all right. Does it have anything to do with your music dreams?”
“Yeah…how did you know?”
“I’ve thought about the same thing. Relationships are hard to keep up once you get hardcore into touring, I’ve heard.”
Dalton snickers, not making eye contact. “That would be the understatement of the year.” There was an undertone of bitterness there. It’s almost like he already has experience with that. “Anyway, I’ve already got one woman who’s going to miss me when I’m gone. My whole world revolves around Dev. I’m afraid she’s going to be a nervous wreck when I leave her.”
“Aww, well I’m sure that just means you’re a great brother.”
“Well, my world kind of has to revolve around her, since we ran out of parents to rely on recently.”
“Oh man, what happened?”
“My dad has always been out of the picture, and my mom recently died of cancer. We live with my uncle now, whom neither of us ever knew very well.”
“Wow…I am so sorry,” I say.
“It’s okay. Sorry to bring the mood down.”
“You’re good. My mom is out of the picture, obviously, so I can kind of relate.”
Dalton gets a call all of a sudden, and I barely hear Devon’s voice coming through the speaker, but I can’t make out what she’s saying. Dalton says, “Hey, you okay?” He sighs. “Again? I—yeah, okay, I’m coming home. Hang in there. I’m coming as fast as I can.” He hangs up, irritated. “Gio, I gotta go. Dev is having a panic attack again.”
“Okay, man, see you later,” Gio says. Dalton hurries off the patio and around the mansion to his car.
“Man, that is so sad,” I say. “I can’t imagine losing Dad and having a sibling to take care of.”
“It’s been pretty hard on him. He’s tough, though. He never lets anyone see him break down.”
“Do you think he was serious about wanting me to be in his band?” I feel a little selfish for even thinking about that, but I’m just so damn excited.
“Definitely. You are the Grim Weeper’s daughter, after all.”
My stomach twists with guilt. Is everything in life just going to be handed to me now?
Things are still hot with Gio and me, but I came here for a reason, and I’ll be damned if I don’t get my answers. Talking to Dalton today made me realize how crucial it is for me to find my mother. If something ever happens to Dad, I don’t want to be an orphan. I’d like to at least know who my mother is, even if she really is an evil witch.
I’m still focusing on the women in the pictures with Dad, and I’m down to only two: Amelia Maynard and Katherine Crest. Amelia kind of looks like me, and she did appear with Dad in more than one picture, so I’m looking into her story carefully. She has no children my age. I made sure to check that this time. She also has an uppity signature, which validates one of my clues. She acted as Alfonzo’s love interest in a movie once, so that would be weird if she turned out to be my mother. I could say Gio’s dad kissed my mom.
Gross. Nasty. Now I’m hoping that doesn’t turn out to be true.
Anyway, the W3 reunion is heavy on my mind as well. We’re going on Johnny’s show in a couple of days, and I’m really looking forward to meeting the other members of the band. Their names are Carl Wright and James Corsetti, bassist and drummer respectively, and they go by the stage names Kite and Squillo. I guess what I’m really looking forward to is getting explanations for those weird-ass stage names. Carl’s makes sense, his is obviously a play on his first and last names, but Squillo? That’s probably the weirdest name I’ve ever heard.
Two more days, and I’ll get to meet Dad’s bandmates and Johnny McIntyre face-to-face. I’ll also have to talk about the pool picture on national television.
Shit…is it too late to cancel?
Two days later, Dad and I are waiting on the set of Johnny McIntyre, and “nervous” does not even begin to describe my feelings about this whole thing. My palms are sweating bullets, and my left eye has developed a twitch. The twitch is partly from my new contacts, which I got for the sake of the show and not having to worry about glasses anymore. I’m not used to things being in my eyes, but I’d rather deal with that irritation than risk having another accident in front of the whole country.
Before going into makeup, Cass and I secretly met with Dad’s other bandmates, who are hiding out in a room backstage where Dad is not likely to find them. I finally got an explanation for Carl and James’s stage names, Kite and Squillo.
“So, explain those stage names to me,” I said.
James had to explain both of them, since Carl was high as a kite. “I think Carl’s is pretty obvious, but mine is a little less straightforward. It’s an Italian word for a blast or a flourish. I can be a bit of a showoff on stage.”
“Nice! I seem to be surrounded by Italian people lately.”
“Consider yourself lucky,” James said with a wink.
Currently, Johnny McIntyre himself—a handsome, dark-haired, middle-aged man—is reading off an intro he wrote for us, and he’s sitting at a desk in front of an image of the Los Angeles skyline. He’s on a raised platform in the middle of a black stage-like set, and there are two chairs next to him ready for Dad and me. We met him behind the scenes before he went on set, and he was so excited to meet Dad face-to-face that he almost couldn’t contain himself. Dad told him to call him Mike and gave him an autograph, and he promised to give one to everyone in the audience who wanted one.
Johnny finally wraps up his intro. “And now, it is my honor to present to the nation, for the very first time in seventeen years, the Grim Weeper of W3 and his daughter, Madison!” Ear-shattering applause and cheers result, and I shakily follow my father onto the set of Johnny McIntyre.
As soon as I turn my head and see the audience, I feel like a badass walking onto that set. Everyone is screaming his name, and there are even a few young, attractive women in the front who are acting like crazy fan girls. We carefully step up on the platform and take our seats, but it takes a minute for the cheering to die down. Finally, Johnny is able to be heard over the din.
“Wow, right?” He chuckles with Dad over the response from the crowd.
“I know, thank you everyone.” Dad waves, eliciting yet another roar of applause. “It’s overwhelmin’. It really is.”
“Thank you so much for joining us today. I know it took some convincing from your daughter here. Hi, Madison!”
“Hi.” I giggle nervously.
“Everyone, in case you didn’t know, [this _]is the girl you have to thank for the Grim Weeper’s return to Los Angeles.” Everyone cheers, and I start blushing _hard. “Our Basket Baby here jumped through a ton of hoops to get her dad here and make it as special as possible, so thank you, Madison.”
“It was nothing,” I say, still laughing. God, how embarrassing…and cool…and embarrassing…
Johnny talks about what a pleasure it was to meet Dad backstage and announces Dad will be signing autographs. Then he says, “Mike, tell us a little bit about what you all have been doing here in L.A. for the past couple of weeks.”
“Truthfully, we’ve been pretty decadent and lazy. Mostly, we’ve been shoppin’, eatin’, and hangin’ out at the mansion. Seventeen years away from home makes you want to stay close for a while.”
Oh my God. He just said “home”…
“Well, not to be inappropriate, but I know Madison here has been having some fun.” Light laughter comes from the crowd. Instant buzzkill for me. Now it’s time for my moment of truth.
“Um…yeah, about that. I’d like to explain, if you don’t mind.”
“Sure, go ahead,” Johnny says.
“Well…what happened at that party was not what everyone thinks it is.” Johnny gives me an intrigued look. I go on to explain that I fell in and my swimsuit top came down, and someone snapped a picture without my knowledge or permission.
“Well that is quite a different story from what we were all told,” Johnny says.
“Yeah, all those magazines calling me a party girl are completely wrong. I am not a party girl. I’m just a dork who fell in a pool.” The audience chuckles.
“Did you ever find out who took the picture and posted it?” Johnny asks.
“No, but we’re looking into it.” Then I go on to add something Dad coached me to say. “If anyone has any information, we would really appreciate them coming forward. Repercussions will be a lot less severe for anyone who comes to us with what they know.”
After that, Johnny asks Dad questions about what our life was like in Kentucky, and then he asks about his music career and whether or not he has any plans, and Dad is pretty vague about the latter. I happen to know Johnny is totally BSing with these questions right now so Cass and the others can get ready on the sidelines. After a five-minute conversation, Johnny finally announces that’s all the time he has for today.
“However, we have some other guests waiting backstage that I think you’re going to want to see.” Dad squints at him in confusion, and Johnny smiles. “W3, come on out!”
Dad gasps as our heads whip around to see Cass, Carl, and James coming out on the stage with the guitars. The roar that results from the audience is almost deafening. Johnny’s crew drops a curtain on the side to reveal James’s drum set and the mics that have been set up, and the bandmates walk right on over to the staging area and start getting ready to rock. Dad is practically having a panic attack next to me…a good one.
“Grim, would you do us the honor of performing a song?” Johnny asks.
Dad looks at the crowd, then at the band, and then his head comes around to me with a flabbergasted expression.
“Go on!” I yell, and Dad laughs.
The audience roars again. He stands up and sprints in the direction of the stage, and the first thing he does is give Carl and James gigantic hugs, laughing and crying at the sight of them. I feel tears of my own coming on as Johnny and I exchange a we-did-it look and a fist bump.
I just fist-bumped Johnny McIntyre. What!
The band takes a minute to conference together and warm up, and then Dad announces, “We’re gonna play an old favorite, ‘Tearing into Silence.’” More cheers. Some people in the audience are straight-up sobbing. This reunion means so much to so many people. I had no idea when I planned this just how awesome it was going to be.
The band starts playing, and people quiet their cheers down to hear them. Smoke rises up on the stage, and the main lights go dim on the set. Multicolored lights flash over the band, and a white backlight comes up behind them. As soon as Dad opens his mouth to sing into the mic, another surge of suppressed cheers comes from the audience.
Dad and Cass exchange glances as they perform, and now I see what Cass meant when she called him her “on-stage soulmate.” They feed off each other and fuel each other’s music, and together, they’re unstoppable. This particular song involves an impressive guitar solo by Cass, and her face gets lost in her mass of blonde hair as she leans down and shreds her heart out. James blasts out a powerful, thundering drumbeat at the end of her solo, which leads them directly into the last portion of the song. It’s a flawless performance, and after the last chord of the song is played, Johnny wraps up the segment amidst more thunderous applause.
People don’t stop cheering even after the cameras have stopped rolling. The bandmates talk among themselves for a few minutes, catching up, and Johnny turns to have his first one-on-one conversation with me. “Madison Daley, thank you so much for what you did here today.”
“Oh no, thank [_you _]for having us.”
“No really, do you know how high the ratings for this show are going to be?” Both of us laugh. “This was a fantastic idea.”
“Well, I’m happy to help.”
He leans in a little. “Listen, I’m sorry about what I said about the party—”
“Oh please, don’t apologize,” I say, impressed he even thought to say that. “What you said was nowhere near the worst thing I’ve heard.”
“Sorry to hear that.” A crewmember comes up behind him, signaling that he’s needed elsewhere. “Well, I have to go, but I just wanted you to know how much I appreciate this.”
“It was a pleasure to meet you, Mr. McIntyre.”
“Likewise, and call me Johnny.” He extends his hand to me.
I shake it. “Well then, you should call me Mads.”
I have to hand it to Gio. His nickname for me could not be any more spot-on. This life I’m living now is sheer madness.
The W3 Reunion was not only watched by millions, but the clip went viral on news websites. Everyone in the U.S. who follows entertainment news has now seen us on TV. They all heard my explanation of the pool picture, too, and I’m actually receiving some apologies from people who made fun of me…not many, but still, it’s a little validation where once I had none.
I opened my Twitter account, which I’ve barely touched in four years, and Ana helped me post a selfie I got with Johnny McIntyre behind the scenes. I captioned it:
“Mission W3 Reunion complete! Thanks, Johnny! #comebackW3”
I tagged Johnny and the show, and they reposted it and replied, thanking me again for what I did. Then my hashtag took off and became a top trend on Twitter. One of my first posts ever, and it’s a top trend! I got more than 70,000 follows in the space of two days. Now when people search my name, it has the little white check mark inside a blue circle that indicates I’m legit. Cass, Gio, and Steph all followed me and shared my post, and they have millions of followers each, so the number just keeps growing and growing.
People are begging for more W3, but things aren’t looking too great. I’ve shown the posts to Dad, but he still hasn’t chosen one way or the other. Cass and I came clean last night about our plotting to get him back to his music career, and his reaction was kind of heartbreaking.
He looked into my eyes with a sad expression and said, “But you’re not grown up yet.”
I said, “Dad, I’m close enough. I’ll be eighteen in four months.”
Tears came into his eyes, and he whispered, “I don’t know what to do,” and turned and walked away.
This totally sucks. All this work, and still the only thing holding him back, holding that entire band back, is me. Cass, Carl, and James are all for the return, but Dad is just so attached to me that he can’t let me go. They all tried to comfort me last night by telling me it’s not my fault, but I don’t believe them, and I feel extremely guilty about it. For once in my life, I’m running out of ideas.
“Gio, stop.” I giggle. “Stop!” We’re in his pool together the next afternoon, by ourselves, and he’s splashing me without mercy.
“If you stop being cute, I’ll stop splashing you.”
“But I can’t help that!”
“Well then, I guess you’re screwed.” His giant bronze hands continue to scoop gallons of water in my direction. I sputter and cough, holding my hands in front of my face in a futile attempt to shield myself. Every time I turn away from him, he follows me. I love his teasing nature…it’s one of the things that makes him so hot. It’s getting old after ten minutes of this nonsense, though.
Finally, I lunge at him and throw my arms around him, blocking his arms. “Ha! Can’t splash me now.” He simply moves his arms and starts splashing me from the sides. “Dammit!” He laughs and keeps on splashing me until I move my hand down to an area I haven’t touched over the clothes yet.
Gio freezes and drops his hands to my elbows. I only barely grazed him, but it still shocked him. “Man, I need to harass you more often.”
“I think you harass me enough.” I rub the water out of my eyes.
Gio laughs at my expense, and then he wraps his arms around my waist and kisses me softly.
“Mm…sorry, bella. You’re awesome.”
“I forgive you. You’re amazing.”
I grasp his neck and kiss his wet lips again. Gio kisses me back without restraint, making me feel absolutely adored. My tongue slips into his mouth, and I savor the cinnamon taste as he reaches a hand up under the strap of my bikini top. I’ve been letting him touch me under the strap, but no lower. He likes feeling like he’s almost allowed to take it off.
Gio pulls the strap down from my shoulder and rubs my skin with his thumb. I bring my hands down his sides, tracing every muscle. Gio leaves my mouth and kisses down my neck, stopping on the skin of my shoulder. He slides his tongue out and in, giving me just a hint of it.
“You’re such a tease,” I whisper. His warm breath comes out in a rush as he laughs.
He presses his lips against my ear and whispers, “Sarai la mia rovina. Mi piaci troppo.”
Chills run down my arms, and my breath comes out in a shuddering rush. “What does that mean?”
He hesitates and shakes his head against mine. “You don’t get to know that…yet.”
When he pulls back, pain is etched into his face, and it kills me. “Hey…what’s wrong? You look upset.”
This isn’t the first time this has happened lately. He’s been in kind of a funk, acting super into me sometimes and then turning around and acting all distant. It’s been happening ever since Dalton came over. I’m not sure what to think, and it’s making me feel like maybe he doesn’t really like me after all.
“Honestly, yeah, something is kind of bothering me,” Gio says with a sigh, and I let go of him. We hold on to the side of the pool, facing each other.
“You wanna talk about it?”
“Well…not really.” He traces shapes in the water, not meeting my gaze. “It’s just some personal stuff I’m working through right now.”
I blow out a dejected sigh. “Okay,” I mutter, turning toward the stairs leading out of the pool.
Gio takes me by the arm and turns me back to him. “Hey, what’s wrong?”
“It’s just…well, I’m not really sure where we stand. You say you like me, but it seems like you don’t really want to let me in.”
I can almost see the stone wall go up as his eyes glaze over. “Madness, it’s hard for anyone to get in here.”
“Even the person you like?”
Gio shrugs. “Anyone.”
I thought I was okay with a fling in the beginning, but I can’t take another person shutting me out. I’m really starting to care about him, and since he’s not letting me in, Scenario 2 is looking more and more plausible. I don’t want a sex-based relationship. I never have, and if that’s what he wants, this is never going to work.
“Look, Gio…this has been amazing, and I don’t want to lose my chance with you, but if all you want is to screw around with someone, I’m not that girl.
You’d have better luck with that somewhere else. Maybe this was a mistake.” I back up toward the stairs. “Maybe I should go.”
The pain in his face deepens as I glide away, but I turn around, anyway. When my foot is on the first step, I feel his hand on my arm.
“Wait.” I turn back around to face him, and he sighs. “There’s something you need to know.”
We go back over to the side of the pool, and I stand in front of him, waiting for his explanation.
“There’s…there’s something I’ve held back on telling you. The truth is, I went out with Raven Redinger last year. There was a lot of scandal attached to our relationship.”
“Yes.” Gio nods, looking more scared and vulnerable than I’ve seen him yet. “She acted like she was really into me, but then three months after we got together, she told me our relationship was all for show. It was for the cameras, the media, the fans…I really cared about her, but she didn’t care about me, and I guess that’s why I’ve been holding back from you. I didn’t want to tell you all my secrets until I was sure you were nothing like her.”
“Oh, wow…” A fake relationship for the cameras. I’ve heard of that before, but I never thought much about the effect it would have if one person was not in on the charade.
“The night I found out about everything, I went out and partied at a club before officially breaking up with her. I did some stuff with a girl that I shouldn’t have, and someone sent pictures to the tabloids and they ruined my reputation. The only girls that wanted me after that were sluts who only wanted one thing. You’re the first girl I’ve met since then who doesn’t think I’m a dirty cheater. It was such a relief that you didn’t hate me when you met me that I didn’t have the guts to tell you about all this, but…I understand if you don’t want to be with me now, especially since she’s your look-alike.”
I lean my head down on my arms atop the cement and try to process what I just heard. Raven Redinger, Jacie’s daughter, is my look-alike. I never noticed it until Gio stated it outright. She could practically be my prim, proper, perfectly sculpted reflection in a mirror. Everything makes total sense now. All the pieces of this crazy puzzle have fallen into place, especially the ones I was wondering the most about. I don’t really want to know the answer, but I need to.
“Is that why you wanted to be with me? Is it because I look like her?”
“No, of course not.” He leans down over me and slips his arm around my shoulders. “You are both beautiful, but you have something she doesn’t have.”
“A crooked chin?” I smirk as I turn to look him in the eyes.
He shakes his head. “No, you have a heart. You do share a birthday with her though, which is weird. And you’re the same age.”
Again, I feel the “bats whirling in my stomach” sensation. “What did you say?”
“You’re exactly the same age, and you look exactly alike. If I didn’t know any better, I would think you were twins.”
Time stands still as the clues start to form a cohesive web of information in my head.
Raven Redinger shares a birthday with me.
We look just alike.
Jacie and Raven live together in town, but Jacie’s out of town.
Jacie’s uppity, and she’s from a super-rich British family, which explains why she might be a little reserved.
She’s a huge star, and she’s my favorite, which explains why Dad wouldn’t want to tell me about her.
If what Gio just told me about Raven is true, I bet she learned her conniving ways from…her mother.
Could it be true? Is this my answer?
“Ho-ly shit,” I whisper.
“I have to go.” I make my way over to the stairs. When I’m up on the patio, I snatch a towel from a nearby chair, wrap it around myself, and sprint around the villa toward the front gate.
“Where are you going?” Gio shouts after me, but I’m too distressed to answer. I have to get home. As much as it’s going to kill me, I have to know the truth.
Kelsey lets me in, and the first thing I do is call for Ana. I hear her bedroom door open, and she comes to the top of the stairs as I reach the bottom.
“What’s up?” Ana asks.
“I…I think I…may have solved the mystery,” I pant, whispering the last part.
I climb up the stairs carefully. “AYMM.”
Ana knows my codes. Her eyes widen until her irises look like green egg yolks. “Holy shit!” That’s the second time she’s ever said that in her life.
I take her hand and yank her down the hall toward my room. “Come on, we’re going to crack this case once and for all.”
We lock my door behind us and sit down on my bed in front of my laptop, and Ana has to take it from me because my hands are shaking so hard. “What do you want me to search for?” Ana asks.
“Raven Redinger.” I give her a brief run-down of my conversation with Gio. “If it’s true that Raven shares my birthday, and if she doesn’t have a father, it’s almost a guarantee that Jacie Redinger is my mother.”
“I’m going to her Wikipedia.” I manage to nod. She looks over her information and starts pointing like a mad woman when she comes to the “Born” section. “Look, look, look!” It reads:
Raven Elvira Redinger
October 31, 1997 (age 17)
Los Angeles, California, United States
Then Ana’s finger moves down to the “Parents” section.
Jacie (Jessica Charity) Redinger (mother)
No father is listed.
After the Raven Redinger discovery, Ana and I sit still on my bed for about five minutes. Well…not “still.” I can’t stop shaking for anything. “What are you going to do?” Ana asks.
“I don’t know.” I whimper. “What should I do? I mean…is there any chance we could be wrong?”
“Well, I guess it could all be one big fat coincidence, but I seriously doubt that. I think we just found your mother and your twin sister.”
Tears well up in my eyes as we gaze upon photos of Jacie and Raven standing together on the red carpet. Jacie really does love ruffles. All her red carpet dresses are superbly extravagant and queen-like. Their milky white skin, their huge blue eyes, their dark hair and trim figures…Ana’s right. There’s no mistaking it. This has to be the other half of my family. “No…no, no, no. Please tell me my idol didn’t give me up. Please tell me she didn’t keep my twin sister and give me up.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, except there’s one simple way you can get an affirmative answer on all this.”
She reaches down and clasps my hand for moral support, looking directly into my eyes. “Go find your dad and ask him to tell you the truth.”
“Mads, you have to.”
“No, he’s not going to tell me. He’s determined not to tell me the truth, no matter what.”
“Just ask him. This is what you came here for. Plus, I mean…it’s your only option now.”
“Well…I guess I can try.”
“Take the laptop. He can’t argue with the evidence.”
I put on a t-shirt and shorts over my swimsuit and hobble down the stairs, holding my laptop in one hand and gripping the rail like my life depends on it with the other. When I touch down on the floor and see Dad sitting on the couch in the living room, I take deep breaths and will myself to stop shaking and calm down. Breathe…breathe…
I approach him and swallow against my nausea. “Hey, can I talk to you about something?”
Dad immediately becomes concerned by the look on my face. “Yeah, sit down, honey. You feelin’ okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“I’ve seen something.” I clear my throat nervously as I sit down and open my laptop, revealing the browser that’s still open to the pictures. “Dad…am I related to these people?”
Dad clenches his eyes shut and breathes out a long sigh that sounds more like a growl. His hands go up to cover his mouth, and he leans forward on the couch, whispering to himself, “I guess the day has come.”
That was all the confirmation I needed. “Please, please tell me this isn’t true. Please say it isn’t her. Anyone but her.”
Dad drops his hands and shakes his head solemnly. “You wouldn’t forgive me if I told you another lie.”
I feel my insides go hollow and numb, like I’ve been scooped out, had melted steel poured inside me, and been left to cool and harden. This cannot be happening.
Dad looks at me with concern in his eyes and tries to keep my gaze, but I look down at my hands. He lays a hand on my shoulder.
“Sweetheart, before anything else is said, you need to know that none of this is your fault, okay? She made the biggest mistake of her life when she walked away from you that day, and she knows that. Trust me, she knows, and I daresay she’s regretted it ever since then.”
“It doesn’t matter if she regretted it,” I rasp. “She gave me up.”
“But it was her loss.” Dad holds my head against his shoulder and kisses my forehead. I lie rigidly against him “She’s a moron who gave up a perfect, beautiful, talented little girl for no good reason.”
“So she didn’t have a reason?” I pull back, and Dad’s face turns ashen as he mutters a curse under his breath. “Dad, what was her reason?” He hesitates. “Tell me!”
“She, uh…” He looks away and swallows. “She only wanted one child.”
I’m too stunned to speak for about ten seconds. I was hoping he would say she was poor at the time, or that she was having trouble managing with twins, but…again, that’s the answer I didn’t want to hear. “[_That’s _]it? She kept Raven and gave me away because she only wanted one child?”
“Come here.” Dad pulls me back into his embrace. “I’m so sorry, angel. I’m so, so sorry.” I shove away from him and let out a guttural grunt.
Ana comes to the top of the stairwell. “Is everything okay?”
Dad sighs heavily. “Time will tell.”
Pushing up off the couch, I dash to the entryway and take the stairs two at a time up to my bedroom. Then I burst in the door, paying no attention to Ana and Dad following me. My gaze zones in on the basket and the pictures next to my bed. After one good look, seething with anger, I sling the basket across the room. The note flies out with the pictures, and I jump onto the bed to grasp it in my hand.
“Stupid. Fucking. Worthless. Bitch!” I rip the note to shreds as tears flood my cheeks. As I hurl the pieces of paper against the wall, my sobs become hysterical. Ana tries to grab me, but I shove her in my anger and she slips back on the bed.
I stand up and run around the room, throwing everything I can get my hands on haphazardly. The glass in a picture frame shatters, and the sound of destruction echoes in my soul. I pick up the basket again, and Dad watches in silence as I tear the first thing he ever saw me in to shreds.
Everything fogs up in my head except one thing.
Fuck Jacie Redinger. Fuck her. I hate her.
She ruined my life, gave me a name I’ll never live down, and then she went on to become an A-list actress with everything she ever wanted. She gave everything to Raven, and what did I do? I spent my whole life worshipping her like an idiot, never knowing she was everything wrong with me. Once upon a time, she was my favorite person. Now she’s all the way down at the bottom of my list. Raven’s not far up from her. She’s living my life. She even had my Prince Charming first, and she chewed him up and spit him out.
My whirlwind dies down after a while, and I see the contents of my room lying in ruins around me. I look up into Dad and Ana’s eyes then. They’re both crying for me. Ana stretches out her arms to me, and I fall into them weakly, clinging to her for all she’s worth.
“I’m sorry…I’m sorry.” She just shakes her head against mine and squeezes me tighter. Ana moves me over to the bed, and we lay down side by side, clinging to each other as her tears mingle with mine.
When the sky goes dark, I finally lift my head from Ana’s shoulder and look around at my catastrophe of a room. Her stomach growls, and I realize we skipped dinner entirely.
I hold my head and let out a shuddering sigh. “Ana…I don’t know what to do. I really feel like never eating again.”
“Don’t say that,” Ana whispers hoarsely as she strokes my hair. “You’re gonna get through this.”
“I don’t know how.” I wipe my eyes with a tissue. “I’m the only person in the world who can say ‘Jacie Redinger gave me up.’” Ana’s lower lip trembles, and tears build up in her eyes again. “Please don’t do that. You’re going to get me started again.”
“I’m sorry.” She dabs at her eyes with her own tissue. “It’s just…I don’t understand how anyone could give you up. You’re the best. I feel so sad for both of you.”
“Both of us? How could you feel sad for that bitch?” I toss my wadded-up tissue in the trash can and pull out a fresh one. Never before this day did I imagine referring to Jacie Redinger as a bitch, but things change when you realize you’re related to a person.
Ana shrugs as she continues to wipe at her eyes. “She missed out on your whole life.” Then her eyes widen. “You know what? So did your dad. He missed out on Raven’s.”
“Yeah…I wonder what happened, you know? She’s his child too. You would think he would have fought tooth and nail to get her if he really thought Jacie was so dangerous.”
“Sounds like there’s still a lot we don’t know,” Ana says, and I nod in response.
“Yeah…” I sigh. “I’m not sure I’m ready to hear it, though.”
We both sit up, and a couple minutes later, a knock comes at the door. “Who’s there?” I call out.
“Someone you probably don’t want to see,” Gio says through the door.
“No…it’s all right, come in.”
Gio opens the door, looking a little torn up himself. “Please, just let me explain.” He approaches the foot of my bed.
“She’s kind of in the midst of a crisis right now,” Ana says. “We found out who her mother is, thanks to you.”
“What?” His brows furrow in utter confusion. Clearly, that knowledge hadn’t reached him yet, either.
“Your theory was correct. Raven Redinger actually is my twin sister, and Jacie is my mother,” I inform him.
Gio’s face contorts with horror, and his breathing picks up speed. “Uh…Ana, can I please talk to her?”
“She doesn’t want to see nyone right now—”
“It’s okay. I need to talk to him,” I say. Ana sighs and squeezes my shoulder before standing from the bed and leaving the room.
Gio’s weight comes down on the side of the bed, and I turn slightly toward him. “Madness, I…I had no idea she was really your sister.” He shakes his head like he doesn’t know what else to do with it. “I swear, I didn’t know.”
I push my way up to a sitting position. “Neither did I.”
“Shit, that’s crazy…and pretty weird for us.”
“Yeah…” I dab at my eyes again, humiliated that he has to see me this way.
“I was worried when you left the pool so suddenly,” Gio says. “I thought you hated me for having a past relationship with Raven. I had no idea you were solving your mother mystery.”
“I don’t hate you, and I appreciate you telling me the truth, but…everything’s different now.”
“Yeah…” Gio rubs the back of his neck, which I’ve found out is his little quirk that he does when he feels awkward. He’s so damn perfect…and yet he went out with my twin sister. The twin I never knew I had. They probably did things I don’t even want to know about.
“What are you going to do?” Gio asks.
“I don’t know.”
“Do you want to break up with me?”
“Um…I didn’t know we were together—”
“I meant, do you want to stop seeing me?”
“Oh…” I clear my throat. “Not really, but it’s just…”
“Complicated,” Gio says, and I nod.
“Yeah.” My fingers twist in my lap, and I feel tears gathering again. We were never even officially boyfriend and girlfriend, and here we are talking about breaking up. I’m on the verge of breaking up with Gio Abate. This sucks worse than a broken jaw. It sucks worse than braces. It even sucks worse than growing up without many friends or a life.
Gio stands from my bed, and then he leans down and presses a kiss to my forehead. “Let me know what you decide, okay?”
One tear trails down my cheek, and he gently wipes it away. I grab his hand before he can pull it back and squeeze it one last time. “Okay.”
Life as a celebrity can be a total suckfest.
Guess who my mother is? Yeah, that’s right, she’s the actress I’ve been worshipping my whole life. Jacie Redinger, the one I thought could do no wrong. I never suspected her in the beginning because she has such a cleaned up image in the public eye, but my guess is she’s put years of work into developing that image to cover up her secret sins. I also found out about a second family member who looks like me. My identical twin sister, Raven.
She was a child actress before going on hiatus a few years ago, and she’s gorgeous, famous in her own right, and has gone out with not one, not two, but three teenage actors over the past year. Unfortunately, one of those teenage actors just happened to be Giovanni Abate. He says it was a fake relationship, and that she didn’t tell him until three months after the fact. He also called her a “mean girl” at his party. If Jacie really is a snake in the grass, it sounds like Raven is following in her footsteps.
I thought there was a chance I’d want to know them, but right now my fury is overshadowing my curiosity. How could anyone give up one of their twin daughters just because they only wanted one child? If she had given Dad custody in the first place and arranged visitation rights or something, that would have been a lot better, but no. She dumped me on his doorstep with no intention of ever seeing me or acknowledging my existence again. Then she totally changed her tune and tried to kidnap me and lie in court to get me back. What a bitch…I just…I can’t even think in nice words right now.
Now I’m wondering if I should have even tried to find my mother. Dad was right…the truth about what happened with her destroyed me. After six hours of crying, I finally lost all feeling and went numb again. Now there’s just this dull ache inside that feels like it’s never going to go away.
This trip was supposed to be the start of great things for us, but no, I just had to push and find things out I wasn’t supposed to know. Lesson learned. Curiosity killed the rocker chick and made her dead inside.
Jacie Redinger gave me up. If I needed more proof I’m the unluckiest girl alive, I just got it in spades.
The next morning, Ana and I drive out to Santa Monica in the Jag, and at my request, she leaves me to meet Jerica at a nearby restaurant. I just wanted to be alone with my music, which for me is the equivalent of medicine for a broken heart. When I step onto the sand on the beach, I find an unpopular spot, and I lay out a towel and sit down to unpack my acoustic guitar.
The only thing I wanted to do was enjoy the morning breeze and the gentle sun and forget about everything else. However, just a few minutes after I settle down, I notice a familiar sandy-haired boy sitting about fifty feet from me doing the very same thing I’m doing. He’s strumming his guitar fiercely and singing, and he sounds good. Damn good.
I pick up my belongings so I can go over and sit by him. “Hey,” I say as I walk up behind him.
Dalton looks up, startled. “Hey!”
“Can I join you?” Dalton nods, and I spread out my towel and lay down my case. “What’s that you were playing just now?”
“One of my songs,” Dalton says. “You heard that?”
“Yeah, that was really good. It had a very distinct W3 vibe.”
Dalton chuckles. “I told you they’re my inspiration. I tried to put a modern spin on it, though. Does it sound at least a little bit original?”
“Yeah, totally. In fact, I think you might have improved on their style a little bit.”
“Awesome.” Dalton beams with pleasure at my approval. I make a side observation that he has a really nice smile. “Coming from the Grim Weeper’s daughter, that means a lot.”
I cringe at the reminder that this guy is only talking to me because of who my dad is. And who I was going out with…or still am…I don’t know. “Hey, listen, I hope you didn’t ask me to be in the band just because of who my dad is—”
“Hell no,” Dalton says with fervor. “You’re awesome in your own right. You don’t need your Dad’s name to make you great.”
“Flatterer.” I smirk at him.
“I meant every word. Your songwriting is great. I really hope you finish that song you showed me.”
“It should be done soon.”
“Hey, do you wanna sing something together?”
We decide on a song that has a good male and female part, and then he plays the guitar while we sing. Our voices blend like chocolate and vanilla, and I get goose bumps from more than just the moist breeze passing over me. Every time I hear music that is truly inspired or beautiful, I get chills all over my body that tell me That’s it. That’s what you should be doing. Exhilarated, I turn my head to look into Dalton’s eyes during the second chorus, and we smile at each other as we sing. Our musical chemistry is undeniable.
The song ends, and we’re both breathing a little heavily. “That was…wow,” he says, and we both chuckle. “Hey…by the way, I heard about what happened. I hope you and Gio can work it out.”
“Thanks…” That reminder served to knock me right off the mountain peak I just ascended to while we were singing. I lay my guitar down and pull my knees up to my chest, feeling the urge to cover myself again. “I’m still pretty lost right now.”
“So JR is your mom, huh?” Dalton asks. Guess Gio must have filled him in on every last detail.
“Yeah…” I feel comfortable talking to him about this for some reason. Dalton’s dad isn’t a part of his life, so maybe he’ll understand. “The weirdest part is that I’ve been a fan of Jacie’s for years, and I never once dreamed she was the woman who gave birth to me. That’s what I’ve started calling her now, since calling her a mother is a joke.”
“Believe me, I completely understand. You wanna know who my absentee parent is?”
“Paul McAbee. The frontman of Dark Hate Rising.”
My jaw drops. “Paul McAbee is your father? How the hell did I not know about you?”
A muscle in Dalton’s jaw juts out when he clenches it. “He doesn’t like to admit he has children he’s ignored for their whole lives.” Dalton’s hazel eyes burn with bitterness as his gaze travels out to the sea. “He pays for our place to live and our school tuition, but that’s about it. I even have to work for our food, since our uncle is a lazy piece of shit.”
“Oh my God…Dalton…” I place my hand on his shoulder, and he turns his head back to look at me. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”
“It’s okay. Anyway, people like us have to stick together. That’s the reason Gio and I get along so well, and I’m sure that’s one thing that drew him to you too. We get each other. People who have never been through something this hard don’t understand. It’s like a whole different plane of living.”
I nod in response. He’s right. As much as I love Ana, I don’t think she fully understands what it’s like to go without a parent…although, if she ever comes out to her parents, she might lose both of them for good. Maybe she does get where I’m coming from.
“Well, good luck dealing with that screwed up side of the family,” Dalton says.
“Thanks.” I sift sand through my fingers absentmindedly. Dalton receives a text message then, and he looks up and around, like he’s searching for someone. “Hey, is everything okay?”
Dalton swallows hard, getting nervous.
“Uh…well…speaking of messes, there’s something I need to talk to you about.”
“I know who took your picture.” He looks back out at the ocean. “I don’t know who posted it online, but I know how it got out there in the first place.”
My eyes pop wide open, and my heart picks up pace. “Really? Who?”
Dalton sighs and squeezes his eyes shut. “It was Hayden…my friend, who you met that first day. I found out a few days ago, but I hesitated to tell you because he’s eighteen and I know your dad is probably going to put him in prison for it. He’s a family friend, and he’s been helping us with money, which is why it’s so hard to do this, but…you deserve to know the truth, and you deserve your restitution, so do what you gotta do.”
“Oh wow…thanks for telling me.” That revelation caused my limbs to tremble. I noticed Hayden eyeing me curiously both in the pool and at Gio’s party, and I wondered what his deal was. Now I know he’s a world-class creep.
“Are you all right?” Dalton asks.
“Not really.” I straighten my legs and take deep breaths, willing myself to calm down.
“I’m so sorry…I almost feel responsible.”
“No, don’t, it’s not your fault.” I lay a hand on his arm, surprised that I still feel so comfortable around him.
“So…what do we need to do now?”
“I guess I’ll just tell Dad who it was and let him make the call.”
Dalton nods. “Sounds fair. I…I hope this doesn’t hurt our chance to—”
“Not at all,” I respond, making him smile. “I will need some time to recover from all this bullshit before I join a band, though.”
“Do what you gotta do,” Dalton says. “I’ll wait for you as long as you need.” I return his smile weakly and stand from the beach to call Dad.
After the revelation on the beach, I stay inside for a few days to let the drama fade out. Dad takes care of everything for me, including calling for Hayden Turner’s arrest. My heart has been wrung so dry I can’t even type in my blog anymore. It hurts too much to admit I have emotions. I want to numb out more than ever before.
Jerica finds out about my desire to go numb through Ana, and she offers to take Ana and me to a club downtown. Just this once, I figure it won’t hurt, so Ana and I tell Dad we’re going to see a movie, and we swear up and down we’ll stay out of trouble. We take the Jag downtown and meet Jerica, and she gets us into an exclusive club just by being herself. Bypassing the line entirely, the three of us head straight to the VIP lounge, where Ana falls into Jerica’s lap and they immediately start making out.
“Horndogs,” I mutter under my breath with a smirk. I glance around at the ritzy chandeliers and flashing, colored lights and a smile cracks my face for the first time in days. Being friends with the girl who’s dating Jerica Valrey definitely has its perks. Funny that Ana’s connection was the first one to get us into a club instead of mine. I guess that’s just further proof of how she’ll always be better than me.
I sit down near them in the VIP lounge, and eventually Jerica detaches herself from Ana’s lips long enough to get us drinks. I order a variety of shots and enjoy the burn as I scarf them down a little too fast. Before I know it, I’m reeling from the effect of the alcohol. My body is tiny and I’m not used to liquor, so I’m definitely what people would describe as a lightweight. After four shots in twenty minutes, I’m pleasantly drunk, and Ana and Jerica take me out to the dance floor just to laugh at my failed attempts to dance.
Everything’s strangely fuzzy and ethereal. I know I have problems, but in this liquor-altered state, dancing to this admittedly sick beat, I don’t even care. I’m vaguely conscious of the other bodies jerking and bumping around me, but they’re not threatening anymore. In fact, they’re comforting. Everyone else is here to party, just like me. It’s like we’re all in this together so we can forget our troubles. I raise my hands in the air and cheer, feeling free for once in my life.
Free…until I see him at the bar, choking down a shot of straight whiskey.
Gio. We haven’t talked in a few days, and even in my somewhat-inebriated state, I can tell he’s miserable. He’s hunched over his drink at the bar, and his face is drawn and tense. All I want to do is run over to talk to him, but there are dozens of bodies in my way, and they keep blocking my view. Instead of walking over to him, like a sober person would do, I call out his name over and over until I catch his attention. He finally notices me, sets his glass down on the bar, and makes his way over to me.
“Hey!” Gio smiles, not bothering to hide how happy he is to see me. “What are you doing here?” “Trying to forget,” I say. “Is it working?”
“Hell yeah! I feel amazing.”
Gio laughs. “I should have known this was coming. Going to clubs and getting drunk is my mechanism of choice too.”
“Coping mechanism,” Gio explains.
“Oh…duh.” I laugh, pointing to my head. “I’m totally addled right now.”
Gio’s expression grows solemn. “Hey…do you think we could talk sometime? You know, when you’re not so ‘addled’?”
“Yeah, totally. We can talk tomorrow.”
“Good.” He smiles again. “I would dance with you, but I’m afraid I might kiss you.”
“I wouldn’t complain about that,” I say with a grin.
“It would be taking advantage of you, so this time I’m going to make you wait.” He presses a kiss to my forehead and backs away. “I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”
I make a pouty face. “Okay.”
After he leaves, I remember why he wants to talk to me, and I suddenly need an ass-ton more alcohol.
I wake up in my bed the next morning with a pounding headache and no clue how I got home. My stomach churns, and the sensation of liquid crawling up my esophagus sends me stumbling to the bathroom. Reeling over the toilet, I empty the contents of my stomach in two rounds and wipe my mouth, crying a little in my misery. This is the suckiest feeling in the world. I’ll never drink that much in that short a time again.
The events of last night start coming back, and I remember having a lot more shots. Ana and Jerica tried to get me to slow down, but the more I drank, the more I forgot. At the time, I didn’t fully realize it wasn’t going to be worth it in the morning. Now I have shit to deal with [_and _]a hangover, so…next time, I’ll probably just stick with the four shots.
Dad comes into the bathroom and knocks on the open door. “You okay, baby girl?” He sounds upset and sympathetic all at once.
“Not yet,” I say, and another round of misery hurls itself from my being. Dad kneels next to me and holds my hair, and then he rubs my back when I’m done. “I’m really sorry, Dad,” I whisper hoarsely.
“It’s all right. I’m not happy about what you did, but I’m glad you made it home safely. Ana and Jerica brought you home around one a.m.”
I sit back on my heels, and Dad brushes hair out of my face. Tears fall, and he wipes them away. “I just didn’t want to feel like shit anymore.”
“I understand. Believe me, I do.” Dad takes me in his arms and holds me tight. “I guess I’ll give you one freebie as long as you swear not to do it again.”
“I swear.” I nod against him, and he kisses the top of my head.
After a while, I take a shower and head over to Gio’s house. I’m let in the door by their housekeeper, and Gio immediately races down from his bedroom to talk to me. We go into a side room and sit down on a plush love seat. Gio smiles when I lean back, groan, and rub my head.
“Rough morning, huh?”
“Yeah, it’s the worst,” I say. “Did you see anything else that happened to me last night?”
“Nah, I headed home. You were the reason I was drinking, so after agreeing to talk to you, I didn’t need to drink anymore.”
I smile through the pain in my head. “You were drinking because of me?”
“Yeah. The last few days have really sucked without you.”
“They sucked for me too.” I feel comforted by the smile in his eyes. “Remind me why we broke up again?”
“You have a twin sister who broke my heart,” he says, effectively breaking the spell.
“Right.” I look down at my hands in my lap, hating the distance this revealed secret put between us.
“But here’s the thing…I don’t care. You’re not Raven. I don’t even think about her when I’m with you.”
“That’s not true. I’ve seen the pain in your face when you kiss me.”
“That’s only because I was afraid you would hurt me like she did,” Gio explains. Then darkness passes over his features. “Well…like she and my mother did.”
“What happened with your mother?” I ask. “I mean, if you don’t mind telling me.”
“Well…” He takes a deep breath, clearly uncomfortable with this topic, but enduring it for my sake. “Obviously, Papa came out as gay a few years ago, which was great. I was happy for him and Steph. Unfortunately, my mother felt so humiliated and rejected by him that she picked up and left everything, including me. She tried to work out a custody agreement, but the only one they could come up with was me going out there for the summer. I didn’t want to live in Italy full-time, and she refused to come back here, so…it just worked out that now we’re living separate lives. It felt like she abandoned me, though—”
“She did,” I whisper, hoping I’m not making it worse by confirming his thoughts.
He clenches his eyes shut, wincing in pain, and his gaze drops to the coffee table in front of us. “Yeah, so…I know exactly how you feel.”
I lean against his shoulder, and he wraps his arms around me. We sit like that for a while, and I rejoice a little over the fact that he’s finally letting me in. “Gio…I’m so sorry. It hurt bad enough knowing I’d been abandoned all these years. I can’t imagine being old enough to remember it happening.”
I can hear his smirk. “Yeah, well at least I didn’t end up with a ‘fame name’ based on it.”
I chuckle. “True…our lives suck, don’t they?”
“Pretty much…but mine’s sucked a lot less since I met you.” I smile as he presses a kiss to the top of my head and leans his head against me. “It’s funny…I barely know you, but I trust you. You don’t seem like the type to abandon someone you care about.”
“I’m not.” My smile fades. “I am faced with a dilemma, though.”
I blow out a deep sigh. “Well…I came here to confront my mother, but now there’s a twin sister involved. I was going to try to stick around until they got back, but now I’m not sure I want to meet them at all. If I decide to, being with you might complicate things.”
Gio freezes for a second, and then he releases me. “I see.”
I turn to him, scared by the anger I see on his face. He went from tender to murderous in the blink of an eye. “I’m sorry, but they’re family, and I came all this way to meet them—”
“You do know they’re both batshit crazy, right?” Gio’s face is taken over by a scowl.
“I know…I don’t want to become them. I just want to yell at my mother.”
Gio softens a little bit, but he shakes his head. “Trust me, you don’t want to go anywhere near them. They might seem innocent, but they’re not to be messed with.”
“I know they’re not innocent. That’s why I want to meet them. I want to give Jacie a piece of my mind.”
“No good can come from that. I mean, they’re your family, so obviously it’s your decision, but it just seems like that might cause more harm than good.”
I set my jaw, feeling the heat emanating from my eyes. “You’re right. My ‘family,’ my decision.”
Gio hesitates, but then he nods and doesn’t press it further. “Anyway…is there any hope for us? I want to know now if there’s not. I can’t stand another relationship gone bad.”
I sigh and twist my hands in my lap. “I guess…I just need to know you’re totally over her.”
“I am,” Gio assures me. “As soon as I realized she was using me for my popularity, I lost all feelings for her. I can’t even stand to look at her.” I give him a significant look, but he doesn’t get it. “What?”
“When you’re looking at me, you’re basically looking at her,” I remind him, but he shakes his head vehemently.
“That is not true.” He reaches up to comb his fingers through my hair. “When I look at you, Madison Daley, all I see is you. Your eyes, your smile, your adorable crooked chin…” He brushes a finger against my chin with a sweet little half-smile. “You’re the only offspring of Jacie Redinger’s I give a damn about now. In fact, you’re the only girl anywhere I care enough about to fight for.”
The hard shell that formed around my heart when I learned my mother’s identity weakens ever so slightly. “You mean that?”
“Yes. Going without your kisses for the last few days has been pure hell. What I told you in the pool that day…you remember? When you asked me what I said?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“I said, ‘You will be my downfall. I like you too much.’”
My heart melts into a lake in my chest, and a full smile grows on my face. Gio and I link fingers, and he continues.
“I meant every word. Back then, I was terrified of how much I wanted you. I was afraid you were going to shatter my heart. I’m not scared of my feelings anymore. I want you, Madness. No one else. Whatever I have to do to make you feel better around me, just name it. I’ll do anything.”
I think for a minute, and then I come up with a condition for our reunion. “Well…if we do get back together, you have to promise you’re always going to be straight with me. If you start thinking of me as Raven or hating me because I look like her, just tell me. Don’t bury it or try to push your feelings away.”
“I can do that,” Gio says with a nod. “And you have to promise you’re not going to use me for publicity.” I belly-laugh for the first time since I found out who my mother was. “I’m serious!”
“Gio, I don’t give a flying fart about publicity,” I say through my giggles. “Trust me, you picked the right girl if you want someone who likes you for you.”
“Well, that’s good to hear,” he says with a smile. “I love your laugh.”
“I love yours too.” I lean into him as he inches his face closer to mine. One look into his longing eyes sends every doubt about how much he likes me flying out the window. Raven was never a real girlfriend, which means there’s no reason to feel awkward around each other. Gio is mine, I am his, and we have a chance at happiness, which both of us really need right now.
“I miss you, bella,” he whispers, and I respond by falling into his lips. We melt into each other’s embrace, kissing with renewed fervor and holding each other close, never wanting to let go.
Only one thing can overshadow this reunion now…the fact that I’m leaving in a week.
Things are looking up ever so slightly. I have my gorgeous Italian back, and even though the crazy make out sessions aren’t happening anymore, we still have a good time playing games, hanging out with my family by the pool, and talking about life under the stars in his hot tub. So far, I haven’t needed any more wild nights at the club. Gio is keeping me sane, and he’s even about to give me the best experience of my life.
Nope, not sex. We’re not quite there yet.
Instead, Gio is staying true to his word. I’m his date to Alfonzo Abate’s movie premiere. Dad agreed to extend our vacation indefinitely because of the premiere, and also because things are going really well with Cass. They’ve been inseparable for the past three weeks, and I know the last thing Dad wants is to leave her. Cass really feels like a family member now…kind of like an older sister and a mother replacement all at once. I love her to death, and if Dad ever breaks her heart, I’m gonna put the hurt on him big-time.
Anyway, back to the premiere. There are way more preparations that have to be made than I ever imagined. The day of, I’ll need to go to the salon, and I also I have a fitting for a custommade dress at Stephan Lowe Designs tomorrow. Ana hates me for it. She’s sooo jealous…but she’ll probably be a model for him after high school anyway, so I’m sure she’ll get her day in the sun. I was never a dress wearer before I came to L.A., but I’m quickly becoming obsessed with them. After all, they remind people I’m a girl even though I act like a total dude.
My main worry is that I’m going to get mistaken for Raven out there on the red carpet. I’ve been mistaken for her everywhere else, and if I go in front of the cameras with Gio and they call me Raven, well…that’s going to be awkward, to say the least. There’s got to be something I can do to keep that from happening. Maybe I could paint the words “I’m Not Raven” on my forehead or something.
I’m a little terrified about going in front of all these people, to be honest. Whoever didn’t see me on the Johnny McIntyre show is bound to see me here. Whenever I go out in public, I’m opening myself up to even more scrutiny and criticism. At least I’ll have major bragging rights. Giovanni Abate is my date, and everyone’s going to know after this how much he likes me.
The next day, Gio drives Ana and me to Stephan Lowe Designs on Rodeo Drive. The store is three stories high, and the front façade is lined with nothing but tinted windows. When we enter the store, there’s an entry area with a white, clean, modern winding staircase that connects to the second and third floors. Gio leads us up the stairs all the way to the top, and then he takes us to the right down a hallway with a lot of rooms. He explains to us on the way that this is where the magic happens: fittings, staff meetings, and so on.
At the very end of the hall, Gio knocks on the door with the name plate that reads Stephan Lowe. “Come in!” Steph answers from inside, and Gio opens the door and lets me enter the room first. “Madison! Darling, I’m so glad you could come.” Steph stands from behind his giant oak desk to greet me with a warm smile that spreads all the way up to his eyebrows.
“Hi, Steph,” I say, still not fully believing I’m on a first-name basis with this person, let alone going out with his stepson.
Steph motions to me to join him behind his desk, and the three of us come over to look at the sketches he’s already drawn up. Steph says, “I hope you don’t mind, but I took the liberty of analyzing some of the clothes I’ve seen you wear thus far. You are a rocker girl through and through, am I right?”
“Well, I’d like you to take a look at this one first.” He holds up one of the sketches for me. As I look it over, he describes exactly what it would look like: black and purple, one-strapped and backless, with a black lace overlay in the front and a large purple rose up near the left shoulder. The skirt would start mid-thigh length on the left side, and then it would cascade down below my feet on the right. He managed to capture my essence to a T.
“Oh, Steph, that is beyond perfection.” He shows me a couple more designs, and I politely look them over, but then I end up choosing the first one anyway.
Then he takes me into a room and stands me up on a platform while he takes my measurements. “Well, look at that sweet little booty! Girl, I’m a little jealous.”
I burst into giggles. “Thanks.” If Stephan Lowe says I have a nice ass, it’s [_got _]to be true. “It’s from years of mounting horses and hard farm labor.”
He continues to take my measurements and talks to Ana about upcoming fashion trends. Gio keeps his nose in his phone again, so I take the opportunity to take a good, hard look at myself in the mirror in front of me. I’m wearing my contacts and dark eye makeup along with an asymmetrical smoky-gray shirt and black jeans. My hair has some extra volume from this product Ana’s making me try, and all in all, aside from my skin tone, I’m really starting to look like an L.A. native. For the first time in years, I smile at myself in the mirror. An actor wants to take me on the red carpet. If that’s not a self-esteem booster, I don’t know what is.
The day before Alfonzo’s premiere, Cass, Ana, and I go shopping for my last minute accessories and miscellaneous items. I let them try on some clothes they wanted to buy while we’re out while I mentally criticize myself in front of the fitting room mirror.
“I want to look different,” I say out loud.
“What do you mean?” Cass comes out of her stall in a beautiful, flowing red dress. Her dates with Dad are getting more and more expensive, so she’s been buying a lot of new clothes lately. “You want to look different how?”
“Well, Raven is likely to be invited to this premiere, being an actress and all. I don’t want people to see me with Gio and think it’s her instead of me.”
“Hmm…that’s a really good point.” Cass motions me over to zip her up, and I help her.
“What did you have in mind?”
“Is it too soon to dye my hair again?”
“It shouldn’t be,” Ana pipes up from her stall. “After all, it has been four weeks.”
“There’s a hairstyle I’ve always secretly wanted to try, and I think now would be the perfect opportunity. It’s something I doubt Raven Redinger would ever be seen dead in.”
“Sounds great,” Cass says. “After this, we’ll head to the salon.”
“Madison Daley just suggested a change in her own appearance.” Ana comes out of the stall in an emerald dress with an enthusiastic grin. “I have never been so proud.”
When we get to the salon, I tell Cass and Ana to go ahead and keep shopping without me. “It might take a while, and plus, I want you guys to be surprised.” They exchange a look of amusement and leave me to my devices.
I request Rick again for my stylist, and after a brief explanation of my desired hairstyle, he gushes over it, saying, “Girl, you’re going to burn that premiere down to the ground.”
Three hours later, after a tedious bleaching, re-bleaching, and dying process, I call Cass and Ana back to the salon. I meet them in the waiting area, and their faces freeze in shock as soon as they see me. “Oh. My. God,” Cass says, awestruck.
I dyed my hair black except for my emo-reminiscent bangs, which are streaked with aqua and fall down to my right, ending at my ear. There are a few more aqua peekaboos, two just in front of my ears and two on the underside of my hair. Rick curled the bottom of it in natural-looking waves, and Angie got a hold of me too and practiced my makeup. I have black eyeliner and dark gray shadow with natural lips.
“What do you guys think?” I ask with a gigantic smile.
Ana looks like she might cry. “Mads…you look famous.”
Flashing lights through a darkened window. The smell of champagne and new leather seats. The clamor of reporters and fans yelling outside the limo. The feeling of Gio holding my hand and rubbing the side of it with his thumb. His whisper in my ear, “This is it. You ready?”
This is it. My first ever red carpet premiere. I don’t know whether to puke, faint, or develop a God complex. Am I ready?
The driver comes around the side and opens the door, and Alfonzo and Steph step out first. The roar Alfonzo is greeted with is nothing short of bewildering.
Gio squeezes my hand and says, “Let’s go.” I glance at him, briefly thinking how picture perfect he looks in a black tuxedo with his hair coiffed to the side. He looks like the star he is, and I’m so afraid I won’t measure up to him out there, but I nod, knowing I don’t have a choice but to step outside.
Gio steps out first, and the cheers for him aren’t quite as loud as his father’s but still respectable. He takes me by the hand and I step out, and I hear the cheers change to “ooh” and “ahh.” I smile, wanting to laugh at the abrupt change in reaction, but I manage to keep my composure.
I hear a reporter describing us as we pass by him. “Giovanni Abate just stepped out of the limo, and he’s holding hands with his date, Madison Daley, the daughter of the Grim Weeper. She’s wearing a Stephan Lowe original dress.”
Thank God they didn’t call me ‘Raven Redinger.’ We move on, and I don’t hear the rest of what he says.
On the way, Gio gets stopped for an interview with a major entertainment news channel, and he pulls me up beside him as he talks to the reporter in front of a camera. I hope nobody notices how hard I’m shaking. It’s just so surreal…
“Giovanni, how does it feel to be at another one of your father’s premieres?” the gorgeous, tall, blonde reporter asks him.
“Oh, it’s just another Saturday night for us,” Gio teases, grinning. I smile and watch him proudly. My prince truly is charming.
She laughs at his joke a little too loudly, and then she asks him a few more general questions about Alfonzo’s film. Then her attention turns to him and me. “So you’re here with Madison Daley tonight. Can you tell us what the situation is with you two?”
The “situation.” Interesting word choice. I wish I knew the answer myself.
Gio says, “This beautiful girl is my neighbor and also my crush.” “My crush”…I guess I can live with that. “Her presence here today is actually the result of a bet. I promised I’d take her on the red carpet with me if she played me one of her songs. She’s every bit as talented as her father. I got the better end of that deal.”
The reporter gasps and turns full attention to me. “You’re a musician too?” She holds the microphone up to my mouth.
“Uhh…” I chuckle nervously and shoot Gio a what-the-hell look. He cringes and mouths the word, “Sorry.”
“Well…not professionally yet, but someday, I hope I will be.”
“That is so great! I can’t wait to hear your music,” she replies with enthusiasm.
I blush and smile. “Thanks.”
“I’m a huge W3 fan, by the way.”
“I’m getting that a lot,” I say, and we both chuckle. “They’re a lot more popular than I realized.”
“Especially with old people, like myself,” the reporter jokes. She looks like she’s about thirty.
“Oh stop it, you’re not old.”
She giggles, extremely flattered. “Thank you!” Another major star walks up behind us, so she cuts off the interview. “Well, congratulations, you two, and I hope you have a great rest of the evening.”
“Thanks, you too,” we both reply. Gio gives me an approving smile after we turn to walk down the rest of the way.
“You’re a natural,” he whispers, and we exchange a grin. Photographers are snapping pictures of us like crazy, especially when we smile at each other. Being part of the Abate-Lowe entourage guarantees that pictures of us are going to be all over the news tonight and tomorrow.
Things get a little clogged down the way, and I start to recognize the other celebs that are here for the premiere. I admire their designer clothes and perfect hair, proud that my own measures up and possibly stands out above the rest. My hair is in a voluminous half-up-half-down style and my eyeliner is, to use an incredibly annoying pop term, “on fleek.”
Then I spot one person down the way that makes my heart stop.
“Jacie,” I whisper, and I glance over at Gio. He seems concerned about seeing them, but then he reaches for my hand and squeezes it as if to say It’s going to be okay.
Raven is with Jacie, wearing a strapless, sapphire-colored dress that has a long slit up the right side. For the first time, I notice her chest is bigger than mine, and I have to press back a snicker with my hand.
Guess who has implants already?
Jacie’s wearing a spectacular white-and-gold dress with a plunging neckline and a ruffled train down the back. She poses skillfully for the cameras, giving them a closed-lipped smile I’ve seen on my own face before. Raven’s lips are pursed, and she looks a bit irritated with the attention, yet she’s also posing like a model, and you can tell she’s determined to get in as many pictures as possible.
My heart pounds harder the closer we get to them. If they notice me, what are they going to say? What am I going to say? Is this entire evening about to end in disaster for everyone?
Once we’re all inside the theater, away from the reporters, Jacie stops to look in her clutch for something. When we inevitably pass by her, she looks up, gasps, and whispers unmistakably, “Madison.”
I turn to look at her. She knew me immediately.
Our big blue eyes lock for the first time in sixteen years, and all my brain functions quit on me. I can’t blink…I can’t think…and all I can say is,
“May I speak with you for a moment?”
Ho-ly shit, she wants to talk to me.
My brain wakes up and makes a quick side note that her thick British accent is just as charming in real life as it is in her interviews. I turn to Gio, who reluctantly nods. He may be willing to let me talk to her, but do I even want to?
One more glance at the beautiful, elegant, goddess-like woman who gave birth to me, and the answer is clear in my mind. “Yes,” I repeat, fighting the tremor in my body as she takes my arm and leads me off to the side.
Jacie Redinger is touching me. Oh my God, she’s touching me.
Once we’re alone, Jacie leans down and whispers, “Hi, Madison, I’m Jacie Redinger,” as if I don’t already know her name and have it running through my head on repeat day and night. “I don’t suppose your father has told you about me.”
“H-he has.” I gulp against the hoarseness in my throat. “I know who you are to me.”
Relief washes over her face. I can see myself in her smile, and it thrills me and breaks my heart all at once. “Good,” she says. “Well, with…that in mind, I was wondering what your plans are for after the premiere.”
Odd request, but I’m guessing an explanation is coming. “There’s…there’s an after-party we’re going to,” I tell her.
“Which one?” I stutter out the location, and she nods. “Is there any chance I could meet you there and we could have a chat? I mean, a longer one, of course, and hopefully we could find a more private location.”
She wants to have a ‘chat.’ Really? After seventeen years, she wants to ‘chat’? Plus, she has a history of kidnapping. I probably shouldn’t have even given her my location.
Dammit…stupid, stupid, stupid!
“Um…I dunno. I don’t think Dad would approve of that.”
“I just want to explain myself and deliver my apology in person,” Jacie says, effectively tearing my heart in half. “If you don’t want to hear from me after this, I won’t trouble you any further.”
My mind races, and I try to get a grip on my thoughts. I’m talking to Mother Dearest. My mother is standing in front of me right now, waiting to apologize and give me the answers I came here searching for. It’s what I wanted, right? This is it. This is my chance to hear her out and rip her a new one for abandoning me.
On the other hand, what if she’s asking this so she can get me in private and kidnap me again? Or worse, involve me in one of her secret crimes? I’m in way over my head here. I’m just now experiencing real life for the first time. I have no idea how to deal with a not-exactly criminal.
Madison Daley, shut up and do what you came here for, my inner voice rebukes me. Self-doubt is going to get you nowhere. You came all the way from Kentucky to talk to this woman. Just do it while you’ve got the chance.
“Well…all right,” I say, hoping this isn’t the biggest mistake of my life. I need to hear her apology. I need to know what her feelings have been all these years. Most of all, I need to purge the crazy emotions that swell up inside me at every mention of her name.
“Wonderful,” she says. I hate how much I love the way she says that word. “I look forward to seeing you there.”
“Same to you,” I reply. I walk with her as we return to Raven and Gio, who are waiting for us on opposite ends of the lobby.
I can’t resist another glance in my identical twin’s direction. Raven also examines me underneath eyelashes that are just as long and dark as mine. I expected her to glare at me when she saw me with Gio, but instead she looks mildly intrigued. We study each other’s faces and figures, and it’s insanely hard to take my eyes off of the person who resembles me in nearly every conceivable way. I finally manage to break the gaze and turn to Gio as I approach him. After we’ve linked arms, I look back at her, and she’s no longer staring at me. She links arms with Jacie, and they continue on to their seats in the theater.
I watch as they retreat and notice that Raven’s attitude is definitely different from mine. She carries herself like she’s God’s gift to the world, and you can tell she knows exactly how beautiful she is and uses it to her greatest advantage. Jacie has a similar carriage, but hers is tempered by the poise and grace that comes with middle age for some women. As much as I should hate both of them for different reasons—as much as I thought I hated them for the last couple of weeks—deep in my core, I don’t hate them. I’m also intrigued, and there’s a part of me that’s dying to know them.
Gio also watches Jacie and Raven retreat, clenching his teeth and making a muscle stand out on his jaw that I didn’t even know was there. He swallows hard, and then he mutters something in Italian as he leads me to our seats. The tension between Gio and the Redingers just now would have been difficult to cut through with a cleaver. They seem to hate him just as much as he hates them. I hope my conversation with my mother isn’t the beginning of the end for us.
I’m typing this on my phone from Gio’s limo just in case this is my last ever blog post. If Dad finds out I met Jacie Redinger alone, I’m never going to see the light of day again. We’re on the way to the after-party, and I’m supposed to meet her there for a “private chat.” If I thought I had nerve attacks before, nothing compares to this.
I’m already having major buyer’s remorse about this meeting. What the hell am I going to say to her?
“You abandoned me.”
“You’re a horrible mother.”
“You’re the worst human being on the planet.”
“I hate you.”
She probably already knows those things, hence the offer of an apology and an explanation. Maybe I should just hear her out without a full-on freak-out session. If I go apeshit on her first thing, she might clam up or break down in tears, either of which would be uncomfortable for me.
Yep, yelling at her is out of the question, especially if I have a fangirl moment like I did earlier. I completely froze up in her presence. It was like meeting a deity. You can’t yell in a deity’s face, no matter what they do to you. I’m so humiliated that things turned out like that, but maybe it’s for the best. I wouldn’t have wanted to be the one to ruin Gio’s dad’s movie premiere.
Shit…I think Gio’s getting suspicious.
Ttyl if I make it through this,
I lock my phone and slip it into my clutch, and Gio leans over to me with a smile. “So, what did you think of your first red carpet experience, bella?”
“It was incredible. I couldn’t have imagined it any better.”
“Glad you had fun.” Then he lowers his voice to ask, “By the way…what did Jacie want?”
“She, uh…she just wanted to tell me she liked my dress, that’s all.”
Gio’s eyebrows shoot sky high. “Seventeen years, and all she can say is, ‘Nice dress?’” He scoffs and folds his arms as he leans back in his seat. “Typical Jacie Redinger.”
I turn away and clamp a hand over my mouth to hide my silent laughter. I know how ridiculous that sounded, but I had to come up with something to tell him. Gio continues to fume in his seat, and I look at him, thinking about how adorable he is when he’s indignant like this. When he’s full-on angry, it’s terrifying, but this is just him being mad at a bitch.
“You two are so presh,” Steph remarks, making us aware he’s watching us. He clearly has no idea what we were talking about, which is good.
“Thanks,” I say. Then I tell Alfonzo, “The movie was excellent.”
“Grazie!” Alfonzo says in his smooth, cultured voice. “I hear you caused quite a stir out on the red carpet, Madison.”
“Really?” I wasn’t aware of a stir. People were surprised to see me, yes, but it’s not like I started a riot or anything.
“Honey, you’re the talk of the town!” Steph is radiant with pleasure. “You made me look real good out there.”
I look over at Gio, whose irritation has been replaced by pride. “Our Basket Baby is going to be L.A.’s new ‘it girl.’”
I scoff. “Me? No way.” I shake my head, making my curls bounce. “There is no way I will ever be an ‘it girl.’”
“I think you could be,” Steph says. “Stick with us, and we’ll get you to the top in no time.”
“The top.” I’m starting to think that’s all anyone gives a damn about around here.
The after-party is being held in a penthouse, and when we arrive, Jacie’s limo is waiting outside the apartment building. Alfonzo, Steph, and Gio pass by it to enter the building, but I make up an excuse about having a sick stomach so I can stand outside in the cool air. I pause for a moment outside the front door to collect my thoughts. This is it…the moment I’ve been waiting for my whole life, in more ways than one. I’m having a conversation with my favorite actress of all time and my mother all at once. It’s making me feel like crumbling on the inside.
Jacie pushes her car door open and approaches me on the sidewalk. She gives me a shy smile and opens the door for me, nodding me inside. We approach the woman at the front desk, and Jacie asks about stepping into a vacant apartment. The front desk lady takes us to one, unlocks it for us, and tells us to take all the time we need. We step inside, letting her close the door behind us.
Jacie turns on a light and sits down awkwardly in front of the fireplace in the open living space. I sit down about four feet away from her. My heart is pounding so hard that I’m afraid she might see the movement of my dress. As we sit there in silence, she starts wringing her thin white hands in her lap the same way I do when I’m nervous. It’s clear she doesn’t know how to start this, so I guess it’s up to me. “So…” I start, not sure what to say. “You’re my mother.”
“Yes, I am. Uh…I’d like to start off by saying you look absolutely wonderful tonight. I can’t believe you’ve grown into such a lovely young woman.”
I sigh and look off to the side. “Thanks.” Looks like my lie to Gio wasn’t too far from the truth.
“I suppose I might as well go on with the apology.” Jacie clears her throat and tucks a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “I don’t know how much Michael told you about our past together, but…when I was twenty-one, I made a decision I’ve regretted severely for the past seventeen years of my life. You know about the basket story, I assume.”
“Yes, I’m fully aware of it,” I grunt.
“Well, I feel I should explain why I concealed my identity. At the time, I was just starting off in my career, and I was afraid if people knew I was giving up one of the Grim Weeper’s babies, I would end up in the tabloids. He was so popular back then that anything that happened to him had his face plastered all over the news. I wanted to make my decision privately, without any criticism or stigma attached. My reasoning for wanting one child was selfish.”
Well…at least she admits that…
“It was just an idea I’d had in my head my entire life. I thought I was a one-child woman, and I always would be. But the two months after giving you to your father were pure agony for me.”
I look at her, surprised. It seems the monster has feelings. “They were?”
She nods, still staring at her hands in her lap. “Yes. I tried to resist the feelings of regret, thinking they would pass, but they only grew stronger with time. Finally, I spoke with Michael and begged him to let me have you back, but by then he’d grown attached to you and wouldn’t hear of it. He got full custody, and he allowed me visitation rights, but I was foolish enough to ruin that too.”
“I heard you tried to steal me away,” I say.
“Yes…I was desperate. I was also not in my right mind because I had grown addicted to a pain medication they gave me at the hospital.”
Drug addiction…that would definitely explain a few things. Never imagined both my parents would turn out to be drug addicts.
“I pled insanity to Michael, and he graciously did not press charges. Then he found out about Raven, and I suddenly found myself in court about to lose the one baby I had left.”
“He tried to get her back?”
Jacie nods, swallowing hard. “He brought up the kidnap attempt, and I once again became overwhelmed with desperation. I told the judge about his drug-addicted past and made sure to point out his reckless behavior. It came down between a desperate new mother and a badly behaving rock star, and…well, to make a long story short, I kept custody of Raven and threatened to come after you too.”
Breathing heavily, I grip my knees. “Wow…so that’s why he took me away.” Dad had already lost Raven, and he was terrified he was going to lose me too. He did twist the truth a lot when he told me what happened, though, which scares me. How many other things has he lied about over the years?
Is Jacie even as bad as he says she is?
Jacie continues, “I would have come after you, but I had no idea where you’d gone. Plus, I knew he wouldn’t let me see you even if I found out, so I just…I gave up all hope and tried my best to build a life with Raven.” Jacie takes a long, cleansing breath, and I work hard to keep my tears at bay. She finally turns to make eye contact with me. “To this day, I still regret leaving you there in that basket. I don’t know if it’s possible that you could ever forgive me. I know what I did to you was awful, and completely inexcusable. But you should know I would like nothing better now than to have a second chance to get to know my second daughter.”
My chest tightens, and my voice comes out in a hoarse whisper. “You want to know me?”
“Of course.” She glides closer to me and lays a hand over mine. “You are my daughter, after all.”
A burning sensation sweeps in where her skin is touching mine. The dead, even tone returns to my voice. “No…” I pull my hand away and stand to my feet, towering above her. Rage possesses me, and I seethe out the angry words I resolved not to say on the way over. “How dare you call me that? You lost the opportunity to call me your daughter when you made me the laughingstock of an entire nation!”
“I know…” Her voice trembles with emotion, and tears build up in her eyes. “I realize what it must have done to you—”
“No! You don’t _]realize, or you wouldn’t have the gall to expect me to grovel at your feet like this! You tanked my entire life! I grew up away from my home! Not knowing who my father was, who I was…knowing my mother [_abandoned me…you gave me a name that sticks with me everywhere I go! You know what they call me? The Basket Baby! The Basket Baby!” Now I’m crying and shrieking at the same time.
“I know…I tried to fix it, I really did—”
“Kidnapping me wasn’t ‘fixing it’! Keeping your identity a secret wasn’t ‘fixing it’! Do you honestly think you gave it your best shot?”
“It’s true, I could have done better—”
“You didn’t do shit! All you did was make things worse! I barely had any type of life because of you! You…you didn’t fix shit—”
“I didn’t then, but I want to now.” She raises her voice a little to be heard over me.
I take a couple of deep breaths, trying to stop the sobs. “How do you expect to fix this? How could you ever rectify my disaster of a life?”
“I want to tell the world you’re my daughter,” Jacie says, and it stuns me silent for a few beats. “What?”
“I’ll come forward with everything…the whole sordid story of what I did. I’ll claim you as my own and let Michael claim Raven. No custody battles have to be involved this time, just the truth.”
I study her face. She might be a crazy, conniving person, but…she sure as hell seems sincere right now. “You really mean that?”
“Yes.” Jacie stands in front of me and looks me square in the eye. “Madison…I’m so terribly sorry. I know what I did. I know the devastating effect it had. But I want to make it right now that I’ve got the chance. I saw your viral pictures, and—”
“Oh God…” I cover my face with my hand.
Jacie responds with a strained chuckle. “No, it wasn’t a bad thing. It…it was the first I’d seen of your return to Los Angeles. After that, they barely convinced me to stay on set. I wanted to rush back home and find you immediately. When I saw you on that red carpet, I…I just knew it was a sign. It’s time. You’re here, and it’s my chance to make everything right.”
I let my hand fall to my side, feeling hopeful and vulnerable all at once. I search her familiar face one more time for any evidence of BS. I can’t find a single morsel of it. “You’re serious? You’ll claim me and let Dad claim Raven?”
“You’ll tell them everything? You’ll clear my name completely?”
“Yes, to all of the above.” She smiles.
“Well…uh…” I tangle my fingers in my hair and almost yank out a chunk of it in my nerves. “I’ll have to talk to Dad. He’s not going to agree to this easily—”
“You might be surprised. After all, he never knew his second daughter.”
That was…an excellent point. “Well…all right then. I’ll talk to him.”
“Wonderful,” she says. “By the way, you may call me Jess. That’s what friends and family members call me.”
“Okay. For now, just call me Madison. My nickname has to be earned.”
Jess responds with a humble nod. “That’s fair.”
She gives me her phone number so I can call her with Dad’s answer. Then we decide to arrange a meeting with the four of us at a public place once he agrees to discuss the details. There’s nothing left to be said after that, so we walk to the door side by side. When she opens the door to let me out, Gio’s standing right there outside it. If looks could kill, Jess Redinger would have been six feet under seventeen years ago.
He misdirects his anger at me. “What the hell were you thinking? I searched the entire building for you!”
Jess flashes me an apologetic smirk and leaves me to Gio.
“Don’t yell at me, okay?” I beg him. “Just…just call me a cab or something. I don’t feel like partying right now.”
“Fine, but I’m coming with you.” Gio fumes out Italian words as he takes out his phone and calls us a cab. I sigh heavily as I watch him. Mother Dearest ruined what was supposed to be the best night of my life. I should have known. At least now I have the hope of clearing my name once and for all.
Gio and I climb into a cab ten minutes later, and he holds my hand even though he’s still angry with me. He stares out the window and mutters, “Well, at least you yelled at your mother.”
My mission today was to get Dad to agree to let Jess claim me as her daughter. He agreed in an instant as soon as I mentioned Raven. I found out every word Jess told me was true. Dad took her to court for custody of Raven, and when he lost, he freaked out and did everything possible to avoid losing me too.
I’m not sure how to feel about him right now. Did he really have to hide those details from me? He says if he’d told me about the custody battle, he would have had to tell me about the Redingers, which I guess makes sense, but…damn. I’m so tired of all these lies and twisted stories. I wish someone would just be straight with me.
Unfortunately, Ana has to go home tomorrow because she already stayed later than her parents expected and they want her back. She was devastated about leaving Steph and Jerica, but Steph promised her a job when she comes back, and I think Jerica might be willing to keep in touch with her long-distance. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. A secret long-distance relationship is a huge risk for anyone, let alone someone whose family might disown them for it. Hopefully they’ll make it work. I think they’re one of the cutest couples I’ve ever seen.
My relationship with Gio is strained now. He was happy that I got to yell at Jess, but he was skeptical when I told him she wants to claim me as her daughter. He told me I’m taking a huge risk with this, and I guess I believe him, but…I dunno. Now that I’ve met her, I think there might be a human in there somewhere. She knew all the right things to say. Either she does have a human side, or she’s an extremely convincing, creepy liar.
Come to think of it, that’s a very real possibility.
So I guess both of my parents are convincing liars with dark pasts. Thank God I’m turning eighteen in three months.
Dad, Jess, Raven, and I arrange a meeting at a fine dining restaurant downtown the next week. They rented it out, so it’s only going to be the four of us and no witnesses other than waiters and other restaurant staff. As I walk in the front door with Dad, my palms swim in sweat and my twitch returns. This is another case where things could either go really well, or they could end in catastrophe.
Dad and I arrive first, and we’re seated at a table in a far corner with fine upholstered white chairs and an immaculately set table. I stare down at the white plates with napkin-wrapped silverware in front of me, and Dad notices my nerves. He reaches over for my hand, looking every bit as anxious as I am, but trying not to let it show. He flashes me a smile, and I weakly return it.
Finally, Jess and Raven walk into the restaurant arm-in-arm. Jess smiles when she sees me, though her smile is also tempered with anxiety when she glances over at Dad. “Darling, good to see you again,” she says to me.
“Likewise,” I say, not wanting to be rude. Truthfully, I still want to throttle her, but I don’t want to ruin this with cutting remarks. Dad and I stand to greet them.
“Michael,” Jess says, nodding in his direction.
“Jessica,” Dad replies shortly. His gaze is fixated on Raven, and vice versa.
“This is Raven.” Jess nudges Raven toward Dad. “Raven, dear…this is your father.”
Raven smiles bravely and does not give any indication that this is the biggest moment of her life thus far. “Hello,” she says in a smoother version of my voice. She picked up just a hint of Jess’s accent.
“Hello,” Dad says, with seventeen years of pain in his eyes.
“Well, girls…allow me to present your twin sister,” Jacie says.
Raven and I lock eyes, and she gives me a smile that’s difficult to read. “Pleased to meet you.” Raven extends her hand to me as if I’m a business associate. It’s an odd way to react to meeting your sister, but I kind of understand. I’m not sure how to act right now, either. I shake her hand hesitantly, and both our eyes widen at the sensation that results when our hands touch. It’s as if half of my body has been gone for seventeen years, and now it’s finally whole.
“Likewise,” I repeat, unable to find any other words.
We sit down and make awkward small talk as we read the menus, and then we order our food. I steal a glance at Dad ever so often as we wait, and he is still fixated on Raven. Meeting her means a lot to him, and it’s making me feel a little insecure. What if he likes her better than he likes me?
Dad finally breaks the small talk exchange about five minutes after we get our appetizers. “So, Raven, tell me a little about your life. Where do you go to school?”
“I attend Wilcox High School,” Raven says. “I’ll be a junior this year.”
Ha. At least I’m a year ahead of her in school.
“Do you enjoy school?”
Raven smiles politely and shrugs. “It’s all right. I prefer socializing over sitting at a desk, though.”
“So, your favorite subject is lunch, then, right?” Dad says with a grin.
Her laugh is stiff, and somewhat forced. “Sort of. I also involve myself in a lot of committees and clubs within the school.”
“Very impressive!” Dad says. They continue to converse, and we find out that Raven was sophomore class president and a host of other important-sounding titles at Wilcox. No doubt Raven and Gio were that stereotypical king and queen couple everybody worshipped and idolized before he found out their relationship was fake. I’m already feeling pretty threatened by her, but I silently gnaw on bites of octopus, keeping my thoughts to myself.
After we receive our main dishes, Jess addresses the issues at hand. “Well, everyone, there is more than one reason why I suggested this reunion. The first, of course, being that neither of us knew our other daughter, but I was also thinking that perhaps now would be a good time to make the rest of the world aware of the connection between us. No one knows that either of us have two daughters, and if we’re going to be getting acquainted with each other, it would be nice to be able to do so publicly without speculation and scandal attached. We can handle this however you decide, Michael, but I was thinking that perhaps the four of us could attend a joint interview and reveal this information in an official manner before it reaches the gossip sites.”
Dad lets out a labored sigh. “You make a good point, Jessica…however, I’m sure you realize that as soon as we come forward with this information, there won’t be a moment of peace for either one of us.”
“The media will be hounding us night and day, no doubt,” Jess says. “However, I don’t see another good way to do this, unless you just want to handle it all in secret.”
Dad ponders that suggestion, and then he stands from the table. “Could we talk privately for a moment, please?” I shoot him a terrified look. You’re leaving me alone with Raven? Seriously? _]He pats me on the shoulder like [_You’ll be okay.
Jess and Dad leave the table and go into a back hallway to discuss things, which leaves me at a table with Raven Redinger, alone. I avoid eye contact with her and focus on my food, but then she speaks to me. “So you’re the famous Madison Daley.”
“And you’re the infamous Raven Redinger,” I blurt out, and then I glance up in horror. Shit! I shouldn’t have said that…
To my surprise, she laughs…a real laugh. “So you’ve heard my life story, I suppose.”
“Bits of it, yes.” I return to my food.
“Well, I must say, I’ve heard quite a bit about you too, and…I’m a big fan of your work.”
Now she has my full attention. “My work?”
Raven leans forward with her hands clasped above the table. “I’ve heard about your…what do you call them again? ‘Missions?’ I especially loved the one where you organized the W3 reunion. That was a brilliant publicity move.” Her eyes rolled back in her head at the word “brilliant.”
“Um…thank you.” How the hell did she hear about my missions?
“However, I do think your skills could use a little fine-tuning, which is why I have a proposition for you. If you agree to what our mother is suggesting, I would love to take you under my wing and show you how you can [_really _]make it in this city. You’ve already shown a great deal of potential. I mean, in one short month, you went from a Kentucky nobody to the show-stealer of last week’s premiere.” She’s right about that. My debut at last week’s premiere was talked about for several days afterwards. “It takes a lot to impress me, but I truly am impressed, and I believe if you and I joined forces, we could take Los Angeles by storm.”
I sit in stunned silence, trying to comprehend what she’s asking of me. She wants to “join forces and take me under her wing.” What does that even mean? “Are you…proposing an alliance?”
A delighted smile spreads across her face. “You understood me perfectly.”
This is so strange. I’m meeting my sister, and she’s treating me like a diplomat from another country. “Uh…what all would this ‘alliance’ entail?”
“I’ll fill you in on the details once you give me a yes or no answer,” Raven says.
Making a deal with a she-devil without even knowing her terms? That’s a scary thought. “I dunno. I mean, I’ve heard what you do to people—”
“You should know, I’m not just proposing this because of the mutual benefits. I’d also like to get to know my sister. We have years of shopping trips, manicures, and swooning over boys to catch up on, and I think this plan would be the perfect opportunity for that.”
I smile in spite of myself. “Really?”
“Yes. I know you’ve probably heard some horrible things about me, but we can carry out my plan however you want. The terms are completely up to you. There’s only one thing that would hinder us, which is why I have one term of my own.”
“If you want things to work between us, I…I need you to break up with my ex.”
I break out in a cold sweat. “What? But…I thought your relationship was a fake.”
Raven chuckles. “Of course you did. That’s what he tells all the girls, but it’s not true. Our relationship was real, and he cheated on me. I hate to tell you, darling, but your boyfriend has been feeding you a pack of lies.”
“Oh God…” My breathing becomes labored. I’m not sure if I should believe her or not, but a part of me does. Gio’s too good to be true. Maybe this is the massive flaw I’ve been waiting on.
“I think it might be best if you break up with him, not only because he’s going to hurt you, but also because dating my ex goes against sister code. It doesn’t look good to the public, especially since he cheated on me so publicly. If there are ever to be any true family ties between us, public or private, we need to start fresh.”
“I’m sorry, Raven, I…I didn’t know.”
“I’ll expect my answer before we go public with our relationship,” Raven says, and at that moment, Dad and Jess come back to join us at the table. “Well, girls, she made a good case.” Dad lowers himself into his chair again. “We’re goin’ public, as long as you’re both on board.”
“I’m on board,” Raven says with a smile. Then she gives me a significant look. “Are you?”
“We can go public,” I say, carefully choosing my words. I still have my doubts about Raven, especially considering that dogged determination I see in her eyes.
Gio has been my unofficial boyfriend for the last two and a half weeks. We’ve done everything together…hosting parties, hanging out at the beach, watching movies and gaming from dusk until dawn…oh, and of course, attending a movie premiere together, where everyone in the country heard him call me his “crush.” The only thing we haven’t done is the “deed,” and now…I’m thinking maybe I made the right choice.
After talking to Raven today, I looked up Gio’s cheating scandal. The cheating looks very real. Some of the pictures were even R-rated. He kissed all over some half-naked blonde chick right in front of everyone at a club before he broke up with Raven. Also, after the scandal, he was seen with the same girl again in public. Their relationship didn’t last long, but I’m sure that was still a slap in the face for Raven.
Then I looked up “Ravanni,” and I have to say, that looks pretty real too. At least, from his end…it’s hard to tell with Raven. They had a three month relationship full of parties, paparazzi, and millions of fans obsessing over them. I’m not really sure how I missed it. I’m not obsessed with celebrity gossip, but Ana is, so she should have caught this. I guess we were both too nose-deep in the first months of school back then to pay attention. Anyway, real or not, Raven’s right. My going out with him completely undermines our family ties, especially in the public eye.
The truth is, I love hanging out with Gio, but seeing those pictures made me want to hurl and never speak to him again. If their relationship was real, he betrayed Raven in the worst way possible. Then he proceeded to tell everyone their relationship was fake so it wouldn’t seem so bad. If he was telling the truth, he still should have broken up with her before causing a big scene like that. His actions scream “publicity stunt.” I don’t think he’s quite as innocent as he claims to be.
Whatever the case, I can’t take the chance of being hurt like that. I’ve had enough public humiliation for one lifetime. As much as it kills me, I think I’m about to say good-bye to my “Prince Charming.”
God, this is going to suck…I hope I can stay strong.
Right after clicking Submit, I head over to Gio’s place. I’m let in their front gate, and I wipe at my tears all the way up the driveway to his front door.
Gio opens the door, and as soon as he sees my face, he guesses what happened. “She told you that you have to break up with me, didn’t she?” He looks more pissed off than I’ve ever seen him.
“She didn’t say I ‘have to,’ but she did tell me your relationship was real.”
“That is a lie and you know it!” He growls something else in Italian, but I hold up a hand.
“Gio, I…I saw the pictures,” I whisper through my tears.
Gio sighs and leans against the doorjamb. “I should have told you not to do that.” He rubs his forehead wearily, and then he looks into my eyes.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m so sorry you had to see that. Really, I am. I wish that nasty scandal would go away for good.”
I look into his beautiful face, so full of remorse, and I lose an ounce of my resolve. God, he’s so amazing…
No. Stay strong.
“Listen…whether or not it was real for her, it was real for you, and you cheated. The honorable thing to do would have been to break up with her before going out with that girl, but you didn’t.”
Gio nods. “I know that now, but back then, I wanted to hurt her. I wanted revenge. She crushed my soul, and I just wanted to give her a taste of her own medicine.”
Damn…I can’t argue with that response. What now?
“Madness, please don’t tell me you believe her over me.” His expression is laced with pain, and I feel my own soul crumpling.
“I don’t know what to believe, but honestly, being caught between Raven and you all the time isn’t going to work. She’s a part of my life now. We’re coming out as a family. I just need to keep the peace.”
Gio clenches his jaw, and his eyes water up. “So that’s it? You’re just going to throw us away to ‘keep the peace?’”
“Gio, this relationship—or whatever it is—was always going to end. It was only a matter of time. This is our expiration date. It’s just something I need to do. I hope you understand.”
He just stares at me in silence with disbelief.
“Please…try to understand,” I beg. “I couldn’t stand it if you hated me.”
He swallows the anger down, and the muscles in his face twitch as he tries to control his emotions. Hurting him like this is going to haunt me. I almost lose my resolve when a single tear slides down his cheek. “I knew she was going to do this. I knew she was going to take you away.”
“We can still be friends—” I start, but he shakes his head.
“No, we can’t…and don’t come crying to me when she destroys you.” He stomps into the house and slams the door shut, not even looking back over his shoulder.
Four days later, I stand alone by the window in my new bedroom that looks out over the pool. My old one looked right out at Gio’s house, and I couldn’t take the reminder of what happened with him, so Dad and Cass helped me move all my things. For the past three nights, I’ve heard nothing but partying and girls’ voices coming from Gio’s backyard. To cover the noise, I’ve been spending all my time on music.
I take Dad’s guitar from its stand and crank up the lone amp that’s in my room to the highest level. The only thing that makes me feel better right now is drowning in sound. Shredding along with my favorite songs is the only therapy I’ll ever need. It helps me forget the world exists for a while. I’ve also been sneaking shots of vodka from Dad’s liquor fridge to ease the pain and help me forget.
Dad knocks forcefully on the door, and I stop playing, hide the shot glasses, and yell at him to come in. “Hey, baby girl,” he says in a gentle tone of voice. Everybody’s been walking on eggshells around me lately. “You doin’ all right?”
“No, but what else is new?” I pause the music on my laptop, set the guitar down on the stand, and sit on the edge of the bed. Immediately, I hear the sounds of Gio and his friends partying next door, and I drop my forehead into my palms.
“Hey…don’t let him get to you.” Dad sits down beside me and wraps an arm around me. “You stood up for yourself and made the decision you thought was right.”
“Then why do I feel like the stupidest girl alive?”
“You are not stupid at all. You’re brave, you’re strong, and you’re going to get through this one day at a time.” I lean against him, and he smells my breath. “Do I smell alcohol?”
“Oh…yeah, I…I had to use some rubbing alcohol to get permanent marker off my hands,” I lie.
Dad raises an eyebrow. “Sweetheart, I know the smell of vodka well.”
I sigh and pull away. “Sorry.”
“Have you been sneakin’ my vodka up here?” “Just little shots…” I shrug.
He stares me down. “No more lyin’, and no more stealin’ my liquor, all right?” I nod, and guilt is added to the long list of emotions I’m battling. “Anyway, I came up here to tell you that because of the Redingers and Cass, we’re movin’ here for good. I’ve already talked to Momma and Melissa and they’re gonna make permanent arrangements over there, so we don’t have to go back except to pack our things.”
“Yay.” My voice is flat and emotionless. There was a time when that news would have excited me, but now it just sounds like a jail sentence. Am I ever going to feel free again? Anywhere?
“I know things are hard right now, sugar, but they’ll get better. You’ll see. We can find you a good school and let you have one year of high school before you go off to rock the world on your own.”
A corner of my mouth pulls up. It’s a small glimmer of hope in a dark world that my rock star dad believes in me. “Okay.”
“Be thinkin’ about which schools you’d like to go to, all right? I’m leavin’ it all up to you.”
I swallow hard. There’s only one school I’ve had my eye on, and I know it’s a longshot, but I have to try.
I miss Ana. It’s been two weeks since she left, and I still have this gaping hole in my heart from the loss of my best friend’s presence. We are officially staying in L.A. with Cass now, which is great, but it sucks because I won’t be living near my BFF for a whole year.
On the positive side, most of my missions have worked out lately, so I’m hoping my new one is a sure win: Mission Survival. I decided I’m going to try to get into Wilcox High School. That’s where Raven goes, so I’m guaranteed to have at least one powerful alliance on my side. Unfortunately, Gio also goes there, so…yeah, this should be interesting.
My new mission is to keep on good terms with Raven so the most feared teenage girl in L.A. won’t be out to destroy me. I’m going to give her my answer when I see her in a week. That’s when we have the interview to trump all interviews: the big reveal of the Basket Baby’s mother. The show we’re going on has already advertised the reveal like crazy, but they haven’t given any clues about who my mother is. People everywhere are putting their theories out there and trying to assemble the puzzle for themselves before watching the interview. It’s kind of comical to watch. Do they really think those theories are going to have any effect on the truth whatsoever? I guess some people must just be really, really bored.
Anyway, that interview is the beginning of a “family press tour,” which starts in New York City in the first week of August. After that, Jess is taking me to meet her side of the family in London, which I am actually kind of excited about. Dad insisted on coming, of course…he’s not going to let me out of his sight whenever I’m with her.
Dad is still determined to stay off the stage, although I think it’s possible he might want to return after I graduate. We had a conversation about it a couple days ago, and I want to write down what he said, because I want to remember it when I start feeling guilty about keeping him off the stage.
Dad said, “Sweetie, being a parent and an artist is really hard. One always has to suffer for the other. You’ve only got one year left before the world takes you away from me as an adult, and I don’t want to miss that year. Once you’re gone and doin’ your own thing, I’ll revisit the idea of going back to music, but until then, I’m your father first and forever. Nothin’ in this world could ever be important enough to take me away from my girl while she still needs me.”
He may have lied to me about a lot of things, but no one can say he doesn’t care about me. I guess I got lucky in the father department. The ending of my mother story remains to be seen.
It’s July 29, and I’m waiting behind the scenes of the daytime TV show that is announcing my mother’s identity to the world. Raven is sitting next to me, and Dad and Jess are sitting on opposite ends of the waiting area behind the set. My pulse quickened as soon as Raven walked in the room, and now that she’s sitting beside me, I know exactly what she’s about to ask.
“So, have you considered my offer?” she whispers.
“What’s your answer?”
I take a deep breath. “Our alliance would have to honor certain conditions. First off, I will not participate in any scheme that inflicts physical, emotional, or psychological harm.”
Raven smirks. “But where’s the fun in that?” My eyebrows go up sternly, and she sighs and says, “Go on.”
“If you involve me without my knowledge in a scheme that inflicts harm, my immunity stays intact, even if I refuse to participate in any more schemes.”
“All right.” She seems hesitant about that one. “Is that all?”
“Just one more. There will be no speaking on my behalf or impersonating me. I might be your protégé, but I’m still an individual who has a voice.”
“Well, I suppose I will have to work with what I can get,” Raven says. “When the show starts, just play along. As I told you, I’ve already got a plan in motion.”
“All right,” I say, feeling a little tense.
Dad and I are called on the set to talk to the pretty brunette host. She gives the audience a little introduction to us, and then, once a sufficient amount of suspense has been built up, she announces, “Would Madison Daley’s mother please come on out?”
Jess and Raven step out, and the audience falls silent in shock before erupting into cheers. The Redingers wave in appreciation and then take their seats next to Dad and me. Jess tells the story in a condensed version, and at the end, she turns to me. “I cannot begin to make up for the years I’ve lost with this girl, but I’m so glad she has seen fit to welcome me into her life now.”
The audience claps for us, and Jess gives me a little side hug. It’s the first physical affection I ever remember receiving from my mother, so I end up shedding a few tears.
“What’s wrong, sweetie?” The host hands me a tissue. I know better than to tell her the real reason I’m crying.
“It’s just an emotional time for me, that’s all.” I force a smile.
“Well, it must be! Not only have you finally met your mother, but you’ve gained a sister as well. Same for you. Can you tell me a little bit about your end of this reunion?” She’s addressing Raven now, who is as poised and confident as usual.
“I couldn’t be happier to be reunited with the other half of my family.” Raven glances over at Dad, and they exchange smiles. The audience rewards her with a round of applause. “My father is terrific, and my twin sister and I have already formed a bond.” “Bond”…that’s an interesting way of putting it. “In fact, I have a feeling we’re going to be the best of friends, right, sis?”
[Play along. _]“Of course,” I say. Raven reaches over Jess for my hand, and when we join hands, the audience bursts into enthusiastic applause. She raises her eyebrows at me, and I can almost hear her words in my head. _Play it up. “It’s…like being reunited with my other half,” I say, eliciting another cheer, and Raven nods and smiles as if to say Good.
So this is her plan. The “twin bond” angle.
I guess it could be worse.
To be continued…
The Sister Code
D.O.R.K. Series, Book Two
I set my laptop down on the table beside my window and lean down to plug the power cable into the wall. Behind the crisp, embroidered beige curtains, I can still hear the reporters’ clamor drifting up fifteen stories from the front side of the hotel. Pulling the sheer inner curtain aside, I gaze down at the paved area in front of the hotel where the paparazzi are gathered around. I chuckle at the irony of my spying on the paparazzi—since they never seem to stop spying on and stalking us—and shake my head at their dogged persistence. I have to give it to them—they’ve all done their jobs well since Dad, Cass, Jess, Raven, and I arrived in New York City. A little too well.
I shift into a comfortable position atop my cushioned chair, press the power button, and watch my laptop come to life, smiling at the piece of outdated technology I can’t seem to bring myself to get rid of. I wrote my first lyrics on this laptop. I penned my first private blog post. I found out a lot about myself, my family, and our past, which everyone in the entire world seemed to know about before me.
I open the blogging site and gently crack my knuckles before plunging into my usual round of word vomit. Thank God I’m the only one who can see this diary. If this blog ever became public somehow, I’d hate to think what would happen.
The shockwave that resulted from coming forward with Jess and Raven surprised even me. We’ve become the biggest entertainment news story to hit the U.S. since…well, ever. The paparazzi are beating down our gates as we speak. Luckily, security at the Flintlock Hotel in NYC knows how to handle stars in their midst. Jess hired bodyguards for all of us this week, so we’ve got that protection when we go out in public, plus my Papa Bear is going to be trailing me everywhere, even when I go out with Raven tomorrow.
Right at that moment, a knock sounds at the door of my lush hotel bedroom.
“Come in!” I call out.
Dad peeks his head through the doorway. “You doin’ okay?”
I sigh and humor him with a smile, an ironic head tilt, and a thumbs-up. He’s asked that question at least ten times since we came in from the airport. “Fine, Dad. Thanks for asking. I’ll be out in a little bit.”
He flashes me a smile and a nod, creeps back out, and closes the door gently behind him.
I turn back to the laptop to re-read what I just wrote.
Where was I? Oh yeah…
Dad, Cass, and I flew to New York in Jess’s private jet at her insistence. On the way here, Raven sat next to me and laid out our plan for this press tour. She somehow talked me into getting a makeover with her tomorrow so that we’ll look more alike. I mean, I guess it makes sense, since we’re identical twins. If we want to be the biggest twins in entertainment news, we’re going to have to play every card in the deck.
That’s the plan, by the way. Raven explained everything to me in detail on the jet. We’re going to play on the emotions behind the twin bond to get everyone to fall in love with us. Then we’re going to use our new status as the hottest twins in Hollywood to our greatest advantage. What she gets out of this, I’m not sure, since she’s not currently looking for acting jobs, but she told me exactly what I’ll get: a first-class ticket to the top of the L.A. music scene.
I’m not very excited about losing my beloved blue streaks, but I know it’s not forever. The only reason I’m even playing along with her game is because I figure the more publicity I get, the better. My only goal in life is to be a rock star. Being one of the Redinger-Daley Twins—as they’ve already labeled us—is a surefire way to make sure everyone knows my name and is curious about me. It’s a classic “ends justify the means” scenario.
I guess there’s another reason…she is my sister. I don’t know if she’s worthy of my trust, but she’s the only twin sister I’m ever going to have. I have to at least give her a chance. If this is what she wants from me, so be it. It’s not like it will kill me to sit through some interviews and look pretty.
Speaking of which, I have a plan of action for the press tour this week. People are curious about me, so I’m going to tell them everything they want to know as long as it’s not damning information. My plan is to keep these interviews light, cheerful, and drama free. They’re all probably looking for my next dork-errific mistake, but they’re going to be terribly disappointed, because I plan to wow the entertainment world this week.
Guess I should go join Dad and Cass in the living room. This suite is really nice. Pretty small compared to the mansion, but it’s a pleasant change. Sometimes that monster of a house feels too big and empty. If I make it as a rock star, I wouldn’t mind living in a loft with just me, a cat, and a guy I’m in love with. Not the typical rock star dream, but then I’ve never been one to fit into a mold.
Deep breaths. Rolled out shoulders. War face on.
I’m gonna rock this press tour like it’s the first show of my future music career.
I plunk down onto the tan sofa by the wall in the living area of the suite and sprawl out, loving the ability to stretch my arms and legs. The flight here wasn’t too long, but it felt longer and more confining because of Raven breathing down my neck. Now that
I’ve agreed to our little deal, she’s not going to leave me alone. I think she’s afraid I’ll change my mind. She messaged me at least seven times after we parted ways at the airport.
My phone buzzes in the pocket of my black jeans, but I ignore it. Instead, I glance sidelong at Dad and Cass cuddled up on the couch opposite me. The TV is going, but they’re not even aware of it. I don’t think they even noticed me coming into the room. They’re still staring into each other’s eyes and whispering to each other.
I guess it’s sweet. Twenty-seven years later, they still see each other as a gift from the gods. I’m getting used to all the mushiness now even though sometimes it creates an unpleasant lump in my throat. After all, they had to watch me with Gio all through the summer, which I’m sure was just as awkward.
Gio…my nose stings and my eyes water up just thinking of him.
I take my phone back out of my pocket to distract myself. Instead of a text from Raven, I see a text from an unknown number. I squint at the phone and realize that the number has an L.A. area code. Then I read the text and smile.
Hey, this is Dalton. Hope you don’t mind me getting your number.
I immediately add his contact info and text him back.
Me: Hey! Not at all! How are things going?
Dalton: They’re going. I hope everything’s going well for you.
Me: Meh, more or less.
Dalton: Glad to hear you haven’t been devoured by the dragon bitches yet.
I laugh out loud.
Me: You’re funny! Nah, so far they’ve been behaving. What’s up?
Dalton: Well I guess I was just wondering if our band plans are still on now that you’re not with Gio and friendly with Raven. I still really want to be in a band with you, but I understand if your feelings about it have changed.
Me: Our plans are still on. My relationship
status doesn’t change a thing.
Dalton: Good. I’m relieved to hear it. I’ve been asking around among my music friends lately, but I haven’t heard anyone play yet. I figured we should do that together.
Me: I appreciate that. We can plan on holding auditions as soon as I get back.
Dalton: Perfect. When is that?
Me: It should be around the end of August.
Dalton: Okay, awesome. I’ll let everybody know.
Me: Thanks, Dalton. How’s Dev?
Dalton: She’s doing good. Her panic attacks have eased off a little lately, so I’m able to relax.
Me: That’s great! Tell her I said “hello.
Dalton: Will do. I gotta run, but I have to tell you I’m really looking forward to the end of August. I’ll be waiting for your call.
Me: I’m looking forward to it too. Ttyl.
I lock the phone and slide it into my pocket again. When I look over to my left, Dad and Cass are watching me intently with teasing grins plastered on their faces.
“You talkin’ to a boy?” Dad asks with only a hint of a protective edge in his voice.
“Only in the best way.” I smile, draw my knees up to my chest, and lean against the armrest. “Dalton and I were just talking about starting a band when we get back.”
“Oh, sweetie, that’s wonderful!” Cass’s pretty face lights up with a smile. She bounces up and down in her seat like an excited schoolgirl.
Dad snickers at her girlish enthusiasm and turns to me. “You ready for a roller coaster ride, darlin’?”
My heart rate spikes at the mere thought of it. Every time I think about performing, it sets my blood racing. I see stage lighting and feel the rumble of the music beneath my feet. I hear thousands of screaming fans in the stadium. Dad allowed my Aunt Melissa to sneak me into a few concerts when I was younger, and I’ll never forget the feeling I got from being out in the crowd. But more than anything, I want to be up there on a platform living my dream.
It’s all I’ve ever dreamed about.
“Yeah, Dad. I’m ready for anything.”
Dad’s face crinkles with a smile. He reaches over to take my hand in his leathery one and presses a kiss to my knuckles.
“I’m so proud of you, sweetheart. You got this. I don’t have a single doubt in my mind.”
“It’s nice to know my rock star daddy believes in me.”
Dad pulls me into his side and presses a firm kiss to the top of my head. “Always.”
“This place is so not me,” I mutter under my breath as Raven and our personal shopper, Vicki, lead me through the racks at Nothing But Chic Boutique the next morning. All around me I see nothing but a sea of floral print and neon. My rocker chick radar is not picking up even the slightest blip of an outfit that would suit my taste. They might as well have called this store “Nothing But The Latest Trends” because that is literally the only thing they carry. My heart sinks further the more I walk around in here. I’m going to look like an idiot in these clothes—not because of my looks, but because they’re not going to suit my personality at all. “Do you have any questions, Madison?” Vicki asks over her shoulder from about ten feet in front of me. Her yellow stilettos click on the marble tiles as she sashays through like she owns the place.
“Yeah, what’s the ‘rich bitch’ version of a Hot Topic?”
Vicki and Raven whirl around to face me, finally giving me their full attention for the first time since we entered the store. I thought I grumbled that under my breath, but I guess it was a little louder than I thought it was.
“Madison!” Raven’s face has gone ashen. Little Miss Prim and Proper Rich Girl blushes when I use “naughty words” in front of people.
Vicki’s cherry red lips pout as she draws her perfectly waxed blonde eyebrows together. “You don’t like our store?”
Raven jumps in quickly. “I apologize for my sister, Victoria. She was raised on a farm by a retired rock star. Etiquette does not seem to be her strong suit.” She stares me down with her icy blue eyes— exact copies of mine.
Guilt settles in my stomach. “I’m sorry, Vicki. I didn’t mean to offend. It’s not you, it’s just this place doesn’t seem to be my scene.” “‘Scene’ or none, this is where we’re shopping. As Jacie Redinger’s daughters, you and I are among the top trendsetters in the nation. We must look the part.” Raven brushes me off and the two of them continue to discuss our fashion choices without me.
Eventually, I find myself in the dressing room with armfuls of clothes that make me want to gag. I glance up into the full-length mirror to examine my recently changed appearance. Jet-black hair, bright red lipstick, and modest eye makeup adorn a face that once had an identity all its own. Now even my French manicure proclaims to the world that I am Raven Redinger’s exact physical copy. My whole goal in life was to be unique and make something of myself. I feel a twinge of guilt at letting that go, even temporarily, but I’d rather be known as a Redinger-Daley Clone—er, Twin—than the daughter Jacie Redinger abandoned as a baby. As long as I never hear the term “Basket Baby” again, it will be a step up.
I sigh and peel my cute black sundress off my skinny frame, clutching it as I subconsciously struggle to let it go. Then I pull on a gross Granny floral dress that reminds me of Nana’s forty-year-old couch we tossed out years ago. The white and pink hues wash me out, making me look pale beyond all reason.
I smirk at myself in the mirror as I adjust it around my chest, or lack thereof, and zip it as much as I can. I look basic. I look girly. But I have to admit, the clinging shape of this dress will definitely attract some attention in the clubs.
I turn slightly to examine my partially exposed back. I can tell by the sight of my spine peeking through that I have not been eating as much as I used to lately. The family and breakup stress has made eating nearly impossible, and that’s saying a lot because I used to be a “bottomless pit,” according to Nana. Even my posterior has lost some of its roundness, which flattens my frame to make me look even more boyish.
I sigh with resignation and open the door to be examined by Raven. She stands directly behind me and nods with approval as I turn in front of a three-sided mirror.
“Good. That’s one down, thirty-five to go.”
“Thirty-five?” My voice squeaks in my surprise. “I thought we were just shopping for the week.”
“Well, you must look presentable for the trip to London as well.”
I grunt. “Raven, that wasn’t what we agreed on—”
I’m interrupted by her breath in my ear when she leans in and whispers, “Do you want this alliance or not?”
I swallow hard, gazing into my own terrified eyes in the mirror. Not even one day in, and I’ve already got a bad feeling about this.
“Madison, I’m going to ask you one more time: please keep your eyes open.”
The photographer for UR Teen Magazine flashes me a smile as fake as Raven’s boobs and continues to blast me with the cold air of the fan while simultaneously blinding me with a camera flash. My new eye makeup is making me itch like crazy, plus my contacts are also still a bit new to me, especially when they dry out in blowing air. I feel like they’re glued to my eyes, and the pain from the bright lights isn’t helping any.
Raven groans from behind me. They placed us back to back, and we’re supposed to be smiling like the happily reunited sisters we are. I hear her whisper through her teeth, “Such an amateur.”
I scoff. “I’ve never done this before, okay? Just chill.”
“Hold your eyes open for five minutes, please, so we can move on.” She grumbles something else under her breath, but I don’t catch it.
“What was that?”
“Nothing.” She pushes her body closer to mine and covertly jabs her elbow into me. The pain causes my eyes to pop wide open. I barely close them at all during the multitude of uncomfortable poses we’re arranged into after that, as if blinking would permanently seal my eyes shut. Forty-five minutes later, after my entire face and body have started to ache, the photo shoot is over and they set us free. When I glance over to the side of the studio, I’m flooded with relief to find Dad and Cass standing there watching us. I’ve been in some sort of interview or photo shoot all day, and even though I knew Dad was always nearby, being able to see him makes me feel safe. I’ll never admit that to him in conversation, but it’s true. Most people want their moms when they’re scared. I want my dad.
Dad’s brown eyes sparkle with mischief. “Is this Raven or Mads I’m talkin’ to?”
I throw a playful punch into his arm. “Jerk. You should know the difference after seventeen years.” “You look very pretty, Mads,” Cass assures me. Her sweet smile isn’t quite stretching to her eyes. She looks concerned, and in my head I can almost hear her asking me, [_“Where did you go?” _]I swear sometimes she knows me better than Dad does.
“Thanks, Cass.” I give her a helpless smirk.
“You ready for the next stop?” Dad asks. “Yeah, just let me get my things.” I grab my clutch and a water bottle from a nearby table, and after Raven joins us, I follow them out to the limo Jess sent for us.
When we’ve been on the road for about five minutes, I feel a vibration in my clutch and open it to look at a text on my phone.
Ana: Miss you. Hope the tour is going well. I hate that I can’t come up there and support you!
Her usual barrage of broken heart and crying emojis follows that text. I send a quick text back.
Me: Miss you too. It’s going okay. We’ll visit real soon. Hang in there, love.
Ana: Love you!
Me: Love you too!
Tears sting my already raw and bloodshot eyes as I lock the phone and slide it back into my clutch. Trying to keep afloat in a world like this without my other half just makes it even harder. Earlier this summer, Ana kept me sane, and now I’m lucky to get five minutes a day to talk to her.
“You okay, sweetie?” Cass asks with a sympathetic smile.
I clear my throat briskly. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just missing Ana, that’s all.”
“We’ll go back to Lawrenceburg to see her real soon. Promise,” Dad says. I nod and turn to look out the window, choosing to focus on the new, exciting sights around me instead of the crushing loneliness.
Diary of Jane – Breaking Benjamin
American Idiot – Green Day
Whisper – Evanescence
Fire and Ice – Within Temptation
Victim – Avenged Sevenfold
Unholy Confessions – Avenged Sevenfold
Meant to Live – Switchfoot
Extraordinary Girl – Green Day
Let’s Get Rocked – Def Leppard
Beverly Hills – Weezer
The Best Damn Thing – Avril Lavigne
Madness – Muse
I Love Rock N’ Roll – Joan Jett
Sweet Child O’ Mine – Guns N’ Roses
Dani California – Red Hot Chili Peppers
Rockstar – Nickelback
Riot – Three Days Grace
Complicated – Avril Lavigne
Titanium – Madilyn Bailey
Oceans – Evanescence
You’re Gonna Go Far, Kid – The Offspring
Famous – Puddle of Mudd
Lost in Paradise – Evanescence
Afterlife – Avenged Sevenfold
Welcome to the Family – Avenged Sevenfold
Thanks to Granddaddy for giving me the writing gene and always encouraging me to reach for the stars. You are still very much missed even after all these years.
Thanks to Mom for being a great teacher and letting me write as much as I wanted for English credit.
Thanks to my husband and your friends, who allow me to listen in on your Battlefield matches.
Thanks to my writer friends for continually sharing your knowledge and techniques so that everyone around you can grow and improve. Also, thank you for letting me rant to you about my writing problems without treating me like the crazy person I am.
Thanks to Nydia S. Robles for your original cover design that was used for the first edition of this book, and for developing the iconic custom-made guitar that I included in the story.
Thanks to my beta readers, especially Geoffrey, Kristina, Ann Rose, Kiarra, and Samatha, for helping me develop my writing style and fix issues in the story as I went along.
Thanks to Lori Whitwam for helping me work out some kinks in my story and being patient with my plethora of questions.
Thanks to JoSelle Vanderhooft for being a wonderfully patient editor and giving me all the time and freedom I needed.
Thanks to anyone I may have left out that helped me develop my writing style or ideas along the way.
Haley Allison is a native of South Carolina. She discovered a love of writing at age fourteen and hasn’t been able to turn off the motor fingers since then. Today, she lives in a quiet country home with her husband, son, dog, and cat. She is currently taking courses at Southern New Hampshire University and hopes to graduate with a B.A. degree sometime in the next couple of years. Her hobbies include composing piano music, nature photography, and blogging about books and authors.
Thank you for taking the time to read Diary of a Rocker’s Kid. If you enjoyed this book, please connect with me at one of the links above and consider telling your friends about it or posting a short review. Word of mouth is an author’s best friend and much appreciated.
Madison Daley has big dreams...and even bigger secrets. Life on a Kentucky farm has never been full of thrills and drama. At seventeen years old, Madison still hasn’t seen much of the outside world. She’s determined her lack of money, style, and friends won’t hold her back from reaching for the stars once she’s finally legal and out on her own. But when a family friend spills the true identity of her dad, a person she once thought she knew so well, Madison’s world is turned completely upside down. Paparazzi. Interviews. More secrets. And an adorable Italian actor who lives in the mansion next door. Sometimes a computer screen can feel like your only friend - or your worst enemy.