Earn Your Extra Credit
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Hearing the disbelief from my best friend's mouth makes the events of my failed date sting that much more.
I would like to make it known, I have a lot more swagger than what it seems. I don't normally ask a girl out, have her fail to recognize it's a date, and then give me a high five--as if I'm her wingman--and take off with someone else.
No. Normally I'm the one taking the girl home but with Stella, it's been one failed attempt after another and frankly, I'm done trying.
But thanks to my best friend getting married in Hawaii right before the school year starts, I'm stuck on a tropical island, watching Stella parade around in what she claims is a bathing suit.
Unfortunately, that's not the worst of it, just the tip of the iceberg. Because what I think is going to be a relaxing vacation, avoiding the one girl I can't seem to make it work with, has turned into a spectacle of being recruited as Stella's doting fake fiancé so she can save face with an old "friend" from high school.
Now I'm navigating through purgatory while trying not to get turned on by the way she holds my hand or kisses my jaw. It's all fake, that's what I keep telling myself, even though it feels entirely too real.
Note from author: This book is a smattering of tropes: Enemies to lovers, turned friends to lovers, and also coworkers to lovers. Not to mention, a fake fiancé romance that takes place in Maui and Chicago. Lots of heat--a balcony scene that will make you blush--absurdly funny pranks, best supporting cast, a surprise "mom" you'll never see coming, and a grumbly guss of a hero who can't stop pining after his girl. Enjoy!
Release date: April 15, 2021
Publisher: Hot Lanta Publishing LLC
Print pages: 427
Reader says this book is...: entertaining story (1) happily ever after (1) heartwarming (1) sex scenes (1) swoon-worthy (1)
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Earn Your Extra Credit
Earn Your Extra Credit
“Do you want to sit next to Stella on the airplane?” Arlo asks.
“What? Fuck, no,” I say while turning up the game so I can hear the announcers over my tedious, wedding-planning best friend.
Arlo snatches the remote from my hand and turns off the TV. The room is silent for a moment before uproarious objections fill the air.
“Gentry is up next,” Gunner, my other best friend and former teammate, complains from next to me. “He’s three for three so far.”
“We need to talk,” Arlo says in that stern, alpha-like voice that won over his fiancée. Little does he know it doesn’t work on me.
I reach for the remote but he swats my hand with a resounding thud, causing me to yank my hand back. “What the actual fuck, man?”
When I decided to have the guys over to my loft, I assumed we’d tear up some wings, drain some brews, and watch the Bobbies game. Never in my wildest fucking dreams would I have pictured Arlo Turner, the grumpy curmudgeon of the Forest Heights English department, to roll in like a beaming bride, holding a wedding planning folder to his chest, and consume the night with questions about what he should wear and if coconut cake is too “Hawaiian-y” for his Maui destination wedding.
But here we are.
“Cut the crap, Romeo.”
“Cut what crap?” I reach over to the coffee table and pick up my almost empty glass of beer.
“I’m not about to have the Bickersons attend my wedding, so what the hell is going on with Stella?”
“Nothing is going on,” I answer, then take a small sip of my beer, making the liquid last so I don’t have to get up for a refill.
Gunner leans in and asks, “If we get to the bottom of the problem, can we turn the TV back on?”
“Yes,” Arlo answers.
“Then it was the baseball game he took her to.”
“Dude,” I say in protest while sitting up on the couch. “What the fuck happened to don’t say anything?”
Gunner unapologetically shrugs. “I really want to watch the Bobbies kill the Rebels in interleague play.”
“What baseball game?” Arlo asks. “Do you mean the game you took her and Cora to?”
“Yup.” Gunner pops a chip in his mouth from the bowl on the coffee table. “Except Cora wasn’t supposed to go. It was supposed to be a daaate,” Gunner drags out.
“You asked Stella out?” Arlo asks, shocked.
“Way to sell me out for a game, you dick.”
Not showing an ounce of remorse, Gunner stands from the couch and takes my glass from me. “I’ll top you off. You’ll need it.”
Seething, I pass my hand over my head and say, “Yeah, I asked her out. She invited Cora. End of story.”
“That’s not the end of the story,” Gunner says from the kitchen, the open concept of my loft allowing his voice to carry to us easily.
When you think a friend is trustworthy and then they go and shock your fucking nuts right off by divulging everything you told them in secret . . . without even a blink of an eye. Gunner is dead to me.
You’re probably wondering why I didn’t say anything to Arlo about what happened, given he’s one of my best friends, right? It’s simple. Gunner got me drunk and I relished in the comfort of far too many cold beers and a listening ear. If it wasn’t for that, I’d have kept my mouth shut, because the entire incident was fucking humiliating.
Between you and me, I’ve liked Stella Garcia, the Spanish teacher at Forest Heights, for a while now. Far too long actually. I can’t quite pinpoint when it happened, but all I know is over the three years I’ve known her, I’ve been pining after the girl for the majority of the time.
Fucking bold, quick-witted with a sharp tongue, loves sports, shy when it counts. Flat-out gorgeous with her long, wavy brown hair and fascinating green eyes that have a ring of brown around the pupil. She’s had my attention for a while and last year, I decided to finally make a move.
Enough was enough. We shared too many dinners together as friends. She’s pressed her lips to my beer glass without a second thought way too many times. The moment presented itself, I grew a pair, and asked her out to a baseball game knowing she loves watching the sport as much as I do.
But fuck did it backfire.
“What’s the end of the story?” Arlo asks, growing agitated. His patience runs thin, which is surprising, given his profession of educating the youth.
He’s not going to drop it.
Arlo’s relentless when he wants to know something.
Dragging my hand down my face, I say, “It was supposed to be a date.” Gunner sits next to me and hands me my refilled glass, which I gladly take. “She invited Cora. Which was fine. We had a good time, I still sat next to Stella, and we shared jokes even if there was a third wheel. But it was what happened afterwards that—”
“That gutted him,” Gunner finishes for me. When I snap a look at him, he smirks. “That’s what you told me. Just thought I’d help tell the story.”
“I wasn’t gutted.”
Maybe I was a little.
Hell . . . I was humiliated.
Gutted isn’t a strong enough word for what happened.
“What the fuck happened after? Christ. Why are you taking so damn long to get to the point?” Arlo practically growls.
“Go easy on our guy.” Gunner grips my shoulder. “He was embarrassed, man.”
“It’s fine, I’m over it now,” I say in a passive-aggressive tone.
“You’re clearly not if you and Stella can’t even be in the same room together. I don’t want anything ruining this trip for Greer, and your constant arguing with Stella is driving everyone fucking crazy.”
“Great, then I just won’t talk to her. Simple.”
“Just tell him,” Gunner says, nudging me.
Staring down at my beer, I quietly say, “She went home with someone else that night.”
The room falls silent.
They don’t have to react for me to know what they must be thinking. They know I’ve liked Stella for a while. They know I’ve been trying to figure out a way to ask her out.
And this . . . hell, this was an epic fail on my end.
It wouldn’t be as bad if I weren’t already carrying a chip on my shoulder about the way I was forced to twist my life around.
Five years ago, everything changed.
Five years ago, I was stripped of the one thing that brought me life.
A ruptured Achilles tendon ended everything for me.
I never got the chance to appreciate my last game.
I never had the opportunity to sit on the field and say goodbye.
Instead, playing professional baseball was stripped from me and I was forced to fall back on my teaching degree I earned while playing in college.
To say I’m bitter, resentful, and fucking angry . . . yeah, that’s an understatement.
I live with regret daily and harbor more animosity than anyone should.
So, when I took Stella to the game, on a date, hoping to tell her how I feel, and she went home with someone else, it fucking stung.
Do you know what stung more, though?
The fact that she looked right past me and instead went for a rookie on the Bobbies.
Why go out with a washed-up baseball player turned phys ed teacher with a slight limp in his walk, when you can go out with an unmarred professional baseball player?
Yeah. There’s resentment for a reason. She chose the star. That’s who she wants.
That’s who I’ll never be.
And that’s why I plan on staying as far away from Stella Garcia on this trip as I can.
And when we get back to Chicago and the school year starts, everything will go on as planned.
Avoid. Avoid. Avoid.
Too easy, right?
“This place is amazing,” Cora says, lost in the ambiance of the grand lobby of the Four Seasons Resort Greer and Arlo chose for their wedding locale.
I’ll give it to them, fantastic choice. Thanks to the time difference, we arrived right at noon. The car service that picked us up from the airport offered us fresh fruit, snacks, and champagne. I indulged in all of it.
And I realized something—it might be the tropical breeze, or the fact that I can already feel my body starting to relax, but the pineapple here tastes a thousand times better than on the mainland.
Yup, I’m using the terminology already.
“Greer informed me of the absence of any person younger than the age majority while we holiday,” Keiko, my wonderfully brilliant, slightly quirky, always awkward friend says as she adjusts her glasses on her nose. She went all out on the Hawaiian prints when packing for the trip. She went with a light blue print featuring palm trees and rainbows for her first day, tucked into a pair of khaki Bermuda shorts.
Cora, Arlo’s sister, and a member of our Ladies in Heat Book Club, gives me a confused look. “What did she say?”
“I think she’s trying to tell us there won’t be kids here.”
“Affirmative,” Keeks says while reaching into her pocket and pulling out a pair of sunglasses that attach to her glasses. “Shall we comb the grounds and make ourselves familiar with the exotic vegetation?”
“Uh, I think I’m going to head to the bar,” I say. “After that flight, I need a Mai Tai.”
“I second that.”
“Was the flight unsettling to you?” Keeks asks, confused. “I don’t recall much turbulence nor an uproarious baby that could deter a flight from being enjoyable. In fact, you had two and a half mimosas, the egg and bacon sandwich, which the flight attendant paired with a lackluster bowl of fruit, a strawberry yogurt cup, and an uninspiring croissant. After you nourished yourself to satisfaction, you delighted in a role reversal romantic comedy, What Men Want, and then proceeded to take slumber on my shoulder, where you sleepily salivated, leaving a one-inch diameter wet stain on my sleeve. If anyone had a rough flight, it would be me, having to fend off your hot breath on my shoulder while I attempted to compete in a challenging game of travel chess against myself.”
Did I mention Keiko has no problem telling it like it is?
Nor does she have a filter.
“My breath wasn’t hot,” I mutter.
“All human breath is hot—”
“Okay,” Cora cuts in, eyes wide. “Let’s not get into the core temperature of our breath. I think Stella was referring to the way Romeo was sneering at her the entire flight.”
“Oh.” Keiko nods. “Why, yes, I did happen to arrest a contemptuous glance from him. But I considered the object of his disdainful glare to be the lusterless fruit bowl.”
“I wish it were the fruit bowl,” I say while scooping my long hair up and quickly tying it into a knot on the top of my head with my hairband. “He has something against me and I don’t know what it is.”
“I feel as though it’s been going on for months. You two have not been fun to be around,” Cora says.
“Which is why I don’t plan on being around him at all during this trip.” I take in a deep breath and let the ocean breeze wash over me. “This is my time to relax and enjoy watching Greer marry the most pompous and arbitrary man I’ve ever met. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need a drink.”
I head toward the bar when Keiko says, “Although relaxation of the human spirit is much needed when basking in the glow of paradise, have you forgotten about the detailed itinerary?”
I pause midstride and swivel on my heel to face Keeks. “Uh . . . what?”
She adjusts her glasses, chin tilted up. “The itinerary. It was attached to your flight information. There are quite a few excursions the happy couple planned for the group.”
“Oh, yeah,” Cora says. “I remember something like that. There was some sort of chocolate tour I was excited about.”
“Itinerary?” I groan. “Is it mandatory?”
“Indeed,” Keeks says. “The Arlo and Greer company were all summoned to the excursions, which would include Romeo.”
“I connected the dots, Keeks.” I sigh. “Well, whatever, doesn’t mean I have to talk to him. It’ll be fine. Is there anything going on tonight?”
From her pocket, Keiko takes out a piece of rolled-up paper and, as if it’s a paper scroll, she unravels it and holds it like the town squire about to announce “hear ye, hear ye.” Her eyes travel over the paper and she says, “After giving the itinerary a quick overview, tonight is scheduled as free time.”
“Thank God for that.”
“As well as tomorrow.”
“Hey,” I say, smiling. “See? This is starting to be better than we thought.” I take Cora’s hand in mine. “Let’s get a drink.”
“It would behoove you to hydrate after a long flight,” Keeks calls out.
“That’s what we plan on doing,” I say over my shoulder. “Hydrating with Mai Tais.”
In the distance, Keiko starts rattling off how alcohol actually dehydrates the human body, but we press forward with one thing on our minds—tropical inebriation.
“I like rum,” I say, licking the rim of my glass rather aggressively. “I’ve never been this attracted to rum, but I’m feeling . . .” I pause and roll my head to the side. “Dare I say, I might have a crush?”
“I’ve had a crush on liquor before,” Cora says while sucking on the end of a cherry stem. “It ended poorly. We broke up the next morning while my body revolted over giving the intoxicating beverage a chance.”
“What was it?”
I wince and give the rim of my glass one more lick before tipping back the rest of my Mai Tai. “Fireball is a devious bastard. Grabs your attention, makes you feel all warm inside, and then BAM!” I smack the table. “Trouble. That’s what it is . . . just trouble.”
“Fireball is like the bad boy you should stay away from.”
I nod. “If Fireball had a mode of transportation, it would be a motorcycle, and you know Fireball wouldn’t wear a helmet.”
“Or a condom,” Cora adds. “Fireball is too good for a condom. For any protection.”
“Fireball says FUCK condoms and then shoots its load on your back.” I gesture with my hand.
“And it’s a cinnamony load.”
“So much cinnamon.” I sigh and sit up. Turning to face Cora, I say, “I believe we’ve reached the threshold of loving Mai Tais or hating Mai Tais. If we drink one more, we’re going to regret our decisions, but if we stop here, we’ll remember how much Mai Tais make us feel valued and respected, unlike the shrewd Fireball.” I press my hand to hers and speak with my heart. “I want a long-term relationship with Mai Tais, a meaningful vacation fling that will mean something to me when I’m sixty and thinking about my younger years. I don’t want to be resentful and rigid when thinking about them . . . like how you feel about Fireball.”
She nods. “I hear you and I see you.” She drops her cherry stem to the counter and takes a deep breath. “I need a Pop-Tart.”
“Pop-Tarts by the ocean,” I say, the idea so grand in my head that I can’t imagine doing anything else. I can’t possibly fathom something bringing me more joy. I tap the bar top and say to the bartender, “Dear sir, we shall take two Pop-Tarts.”
The bartender, whose name we don’t know, turns to me and says, “Sorry, ladies, we don’t have Pop-Tarts here, but you could check the gift shop.”
“You’re a gem.” I smile at him. “We’d like to close our tab.”
He chuckles. “I have it on your room. Just need your signature.” He slips me a receipt attached to a board and I quickly sign across and up the paper, and then draw a palm tree after my name. I hand the receipt back to him and say, “The palm tree is a little treat for you.”
“That was very kind of you. Let us know if you need anything else . . . like a shot of Fireball,” he says with a smirk.
My eyes widen as Cora gasps next to me, hand to her chest. “How dare you bring up an ex-lover? You know we’re in a weakened state.”
“That’s why Fireball is the bad boy of liquor. It doesn’t care about your feelings; it just keeps you coming back for more.”
I stand from my chair as Cora reaches out her hand. “No,” I say into her ear. “You’re strong. You don’t need Fireball. It’s not good to you. It doesn’t care about your feelings.” I wrap my arm around her chest and slowly pull her away from the bar.
“It loves me.”
“It doesn’t,” I snap back and then calm my voice to a whisper. “It . . . doesn’t.”
Resigned, she nods, and I hold her hand, guiding her away from her toxic lover. Our flip-flops snap against the beige tile as we drunkenly navigate through the luxurious hotel. With a lack of walls, the entire lobby and dining area are open to the sea breeze and lit up by strategically placed tiki torches. Faint Hawaiian music plays in the background, and because the hotel isn’t crowded this weekend and is free of kids, it’s quiet. Serene. Just what I need.
Yes, I do believe I’ll have a love affair over the next two weeks. A love affair with Mai Tais, the sun, and the sand.
“Thank you for being there for me,” Cora says quietly. “What you just saw was a low point. Bottom of the barrel. I’m hoping it’s only up from here.”
“I pass no judgement. I know what it’s like to be in a weak moment like that. It’s hard to see past what your heart wants. But I’m proud of you. You held strong. Now we can enjoy our Pop-Tarts and think about how we’re strong, confident women who don’t need Fireball to make us feel good.”
Cora gives me a side hug. “I’m so glad you’re here. I was feeling like the third wheel coming on this vacation. It seems as though everyone is hooked up with someone. Arlo and Greer, Gunner and Lindsay, Keiko and Kelvin—well, when he gets here. I assumed you’d be tied to Romeo the whole time.”
“Ha!” I let out a loud guffaw. “Yeah, no thank you. Trust me, there will be no tying myself to Romeo.”
We turn the corner and find the gift shop, which is still conveniently open. “The motherland of snacks,” Cora whispers. “Do you think they have Pop-Tarts?”
“Not sure, but if we put out good vibes, we might be able to manifest it.” I pause in our pursuit to the store and take a deep breath. “Dear Hawaii, please provide us with the sweet, sugary nectar from Kellogg’s.”
“Preferably blueberry nectar,” Cora adds.
“Blueberry, really? I never pictured you as a blueberry Pop-Tart girl. You’re more like a brown sugar.”
“What? How so?”
I loop my hand through her arm and continue to walk toward the store while divulging my logic. “You’re fancy. You have a posh upbringing. I’m not saying you’re the kind of girl who would frown upon a Pop-Tart, but you do have a more refined palate, and in my head, brown sugar is more refined than an artificial fruit flavoring.”
“They’re all artificially flavored, but I understand what you’re saying.” She gives it some thought. “You know, I am a brown sugar kind of girl. If I’m going to eat a Pop-Tart, by God, it will be fancy.”
We step into the store and we’re greeted by the attendant behind the register. “Aloha.”
“Aloha,” I say, diving right into the culture. Look at me. Mai Tais and alohas. Next thing you know, I’ll be firing up the pit for the luau. Is it called a pit? Hmm, something I need to look into. If I’m firing it up, I need to know the terminology.
“Can I help you find anything?”
Hands clasped together, Cora asks, “Do you have Pop-Tarts?”
The attendant smiles and points to the back of the store. “With the snacks.”
“Oh, thank God.” Cora bows and then says, “Mele Kalikimaka.”
“That means Merry Christmas, you nitwit,” I say, laughing.
Cora pauses while the attendant laughs as well. “It felt like a Mele Kalikimaka moment, didn’t it?”
“Thank God you didn’t have the Fireball,” I say while dragging her toward the back.
“I won’t see her at Christmas. Maybe I was wishing her Merry Christmas in advance. That’s just kind.”
“Is that what you were trying to do?”
She shakes her head. “No, I think I was going for God bless.”
“Exactly.” I move around a rack of kid souvenir shirts, and from the corner of my eye spot the familiar blue package. “Gasp,” I say. “There they are.”
“Where?” Cora whips around, looking frantic. “Do they have my fancy flavor?”
I direct her head toward the Pop-Tarts just as I hear, “Stella?”
My entire body freezes as the authoritarian voice I grew up with shakes me to my bones. Slowly, I turn around and come face to face with my dad. My dad, shirtless, wearing swim trunks and a straw hat.
I’m going to tell you right now—this isn’t normal.
Growing up, my dad was straitlaced. Rigid, almost. He woke up, worked out in the garage, ate breakfast with the family, and then went to work, where he did something like computer processing. Still not quite sure on the details. When he’d get home, Mom would have the food on the table, ready, and then he’d check over our homework while Mom cleaned the kitchen. If we were lucky and he was in a good mood, he’d play a round of cards with me and my sisters. He wore a button-up shirt until he had to take it off to go to bed, and his hair was always perfectly parted to the side and slicked down with gel. Not a hair out of place. Always a freshly shaven face.
That is not the man I’m looking at right now. Yes, he might have the same stern look in his deep chocolate eyes, but that’s as far as it goes when it comes to the man I know as my father.
“Dad?” I ask, still unsure if it’s him.
“Stelly, have you been drinking?”
My spine immediately stiffens, and I’m about to answer when Cora tumbles into me. “Oh yes. The Mai Tais are fantastic and we plan on procuring a long-lasting relationship with them while here, but don’t worry, Mr. Stella’s Dad, we stayed away from Fireball.” She taps her nose and then points at my dad. “We’re keeping it classy.”
Yup . . . really classy.
My dad has never seen me drunk.
And the fear coursing through me of acting like a fool in front of him is real.
But to my shock, he says, “The Mai Tais just about took me down last night.”
Umm . . .
Dad reaches his hand out and says, “I’m Donny.”
I nearly choke on my own saliva. Donny?
**EYES POP OUT**
Uh . . . never in my ENTIRE twenty-nine years has my dad EVER referred to himself as Donny. He’s always been Donald, and nothing else.
Donald Garcia with the pressed pants.
Donald Garcia with the sensible Volkswagen, which wasn’t allowed to be eaten in.
Donald Garcia who would polish his shoes at night as a relaxation technique.
Never once was he ever called Donny. My mom never called him Donny. She wouldn’t dare. Maybe that’s why they fell out of love—the inability to call each other nicknames.
No. I know why they divorced.
They never really loved each other. Thrown together by their parents, they married, had kids, raised them, and when we were all out of the house, they called it quits. They’re friendly with each other, but not friendly enough to call each other nicknames like Donny.
“Coraline, but everyone calls me Cora.” She shakes my dad’s hand. “Wow, what a surprise, finding your daughter in Hawaii, at the same resort. What are the odds?”
Yeah, what are the odds?
I’ll tell you. They’re slim, but that seems to be the kind of luck I have.
Perplexed and still trying to figure out if this is a side effect of the Mai Tais, I ask, “Dad, what, uh . . . what are you doing here?”
He rocks on his heels. “Oh, you know, just living the good life.”
Okay. This is definitely the Mai Tais. There’s no way in hell my dad would every say something like living the good life. And here I thought I’d have a long-lasting relationship with the rum concoction.
Oh hell no. Not if it’s making me have strange conversations with my dad where he says things like living the good life.
Chuckling, I shake my head. “Sorry, I thought you said ‘living the good life.’ These Mai Tais must be hitting me really hard.”
“No, that’s what he said,” Cora says. “And I couldn’t agree more. Life is too short. We have to enjoy it when we can. By the way, love the board shorts. Men are so scared to wear the short ones, but, dare I say, great legs, Mr. Donny.”
“Why, thank you. Your friend is smart.” Dad looks at me and smiles before opening up his arms. “Where’s my hug, Stelly?”
Before I can even consider what it would be like to be pressed against my dad’s naked chest, he envelops me against him, and I’m caught up in the smell of sunscreen and beer as he snuggles me against his furry chest.
Curly hairs rub against my nose.
His pecs encase my cheek.
And I can honestly say, I’ve never been this intimate with my father.
“It’s good to see you. You’re always so busy, I never get to see you anymore.” When he pulls away, I try not to flinch as I feel the imprint of my dad’s gray chest hair against my cheek. Not sure I’ve ever seen him shirtless, let alone hugged the man when he’s running around topless.
This shop must be another dimension. Alternate reality. A threshold for what-the-fuck situations. I hate to say it, but I don’t think the Pop-Tarts are worth the trouble. And that’s saying a lot, coming from drunk me.
“Why aren’t you visiting with your dad?” Cora chastises me.
“What?” I blink, still trying to comprehend what’s going on. “Uh, I teach a lot.”
“Not during the summer.”
“I teach workout classes during the summer,” I say, dazed.
“What kind of workout classes?” a female voice asks to my right.
Now who the hell is that?
I turn to see who spoke up when my jaw nearly hits the ground.
“Stella Garcia, as I live and breathe.” Turning to my dad, she asks, “Donny, did you plan this?”
Dad rests his hand on his stomach and in a jolly tone says, “I had no idea she was here.”
Please excuse me while I brace myself against a clothing rack.
The cool fabric of the souvenir shirts, which have been hanging in the air-conditioned space, are a contrast to my heated skin.
What in the fresh hell is happening?
Ashley Broome, my high school nemesis, is standing in front of me. The girl who made my freshman and sophomore years on the volleyball team a living hell is standing . . . right . . . there . . . looking at me with those perfect blue eyes, long blonde hair and—oh, wow.
And she’s calling my dad Donny.
Swallowing back the bile that has risen in my throat, I say, “Ashley. Wow, what are you doing here?”
She laughs and pushes at my shoulder as if we’ve been friends for years. “Oh, always the joker.”
She steps toward my dad and, in absolute horror, I watch as she slips her hand into my dad’s.
My eyes zero in on the connection. My vision begins to tunnel.
She’s holding on to him.
But not just like “oh no, I tripped on my ho-y sandals and I need to brace myself.”
No, she’s holding him as if—as if . . . she belongs to him.
As if they’re—I swallow bile—together.
What in the devil is happening?
“We’re here celebrating,” Ashley says.
Mouth dry, my heart pounding, ready to escape my chest, I say, “Celebrating what?”
She chuckles, and I watch as she takes her other hand and presses it against my dad’s naked chest, just where my cheek uncomfortably rested a few moments ago. She smiles up at him as if he’s her entire world, and that’s when my eyes see it.
The glint of a diamond.
The sparkle of promise.
The eternal commitment between two lovers.
No fucking way.
There’s no fucking—
“We’re celebrating our engagement, of course.”
“Oh . . . shit,” Cora whispers next to me as I blink rapidly, attempting to comprehend what’s unfolding in front of me.
“Isn’t it amazing?” Ashley reaches out and takes my hand in hers. “I’m going to be your new mom.”
I . . .
There’s . . .
No more Mai Tais. Here I thought it was Fireball that was going to wreck us, that was going to swoop in with its wild ways and make us regret our decisions. We didn’t give Mai Tais credit where credit is due.
Can we cue up a slow clap for the rum concoction? Because, well done on the mindfuckery.
Well fucking done.
Bringing a parent to an island in the middle of the ocean, changing his personality completely, and then attaching him to the girl—two years my senior—who used to torture me all throughout volleyball practice. Not just attaching, but marrying him.
Oh, good one.
This is really freaking good.
“Why are you slow clapping?” Cora asks me.
I look down at my hands—they’re moving without my knowledge. I shake my head. “Can’t tell you, but I do think I’m having some sort of weird episode.” I clear my throat. “I think there was something in the Mai Tais that’s making me delusional.” I swallow, my saliva feeling like a boulder trying to squeeze down my throat. Clutching the back of my neck, I say, “You see, I thought I saw my dad in Hawaii and engaged to a girl two years older than me.”
“She’s two years older than you?” Surprised, Cora looks past me and asks, “What’s your skincare routine? Your skin is flawless.”
“Aw, thank you,” Ashley says, making me nearly jump out of my flip-flops. “But this is just me, nothing special. I just seem to be lucky.” She pushes my shoulder again. “But I do recall someone having a tremendous amount of acne in high school. Looks as though you’re all cleared up now, Stella. Good for you.”
Still uneasy, I face the sight in front of me, my dad looking jolly—yes, freaking jolly—holding Ashley Broome’s hand, her bosom high and large and in your face, a pink sarong wrapped around her stomach making her look like Hawaii Barbie.
This is real.
This is actually real and happening.
My dad is engaged to Ashley Broome, an absolute witch.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name,” Ashley says to Cora.
Waving, Cora says, “I’m Coraline, but everyone except my brother calls me Cora. Arlo never took to the nickname.”
“Cora, nice to meet you. Are you Stella’s partner?”
“Partner?” Cora asks. “Ohhh, like her lover?” Cora starts giggling like a moron.
“No, she’s not,” I say.
“Oh, sorry. She just seemed like your type,” Ashley says offhandedly.
My dad clears his throat. “I wasn’t aware that you like women. Is this a new development?”
“What? No,” I nearly shout.
“We always thought she was into girls,” Ashley says.
“Who’s we?” I ask.
What is happening right now? Why is my sexual preference a point of topic? And why is Ashley bringing it up? Not that it would be a bad thing to be gay. I envy lesbians at times, not having to deal with the disgusting intricacies of the male population. Is it too much to ask to wash your hands after you go to the bathroom? You touch your private parts to pee, therefore WASH YOUR HANDS. The amount of times I’ve seen male teachers come out of the teachers’ lounge bathroom with dry hands is—
“Kristin, Tiffany, and Madison,” Ashley answers, interrupting my thoughts. “We actually thought you and McKenna were a secret couple.”
“No.” I shake my head. “She was my best friend.”
“McKenna would spend the night often at our house,” Dad says, a raise to his brow.
“Because she was my best friend.”
“You’d giggle in the back of the bus on school trips.”
“Because she was my FRIEND!” I shout, drawing attention from the shop attendant.
“Well, it doesn’t matter.” Ashley waves me off. “I was just confused because your dad was telling me you’ve never been in a relationship, so I figured you were just hiding yourself.” Ashley touches me again on the arm and I swear if she does it again, I’ll— “It’s okay to be open with me. I’m going to be a big part of your life. I’m quite maternal. If you want to come out to me—”
“I have a boyfriend,” I shout, surprising Cora and myself.
“What? Since when?” Cora asks, taking a step back to look me up and down.
Christ, if only she could read a room.
Jaw clenched, I say, “Uh, we’ve been keeping it secret.”
“Oh my God, who is it?” Cora asks, completely oblivious.
I try to communicate to her without talking but we’re both too wasted to have any sort of mindreading communication translated so I say, “Uh, he’s, uh . . .” Think. Think, Stella. Who’s your boyfriend?
No, no, no. Why is Chris in my head right now?
Think of a name.
A man’s name . . .
“Romeo,” I say before I can stop myself.
“Shut . . . UP,” Cora shouts. “God, I knew it. I freaking knew it. I told Greer the other day you two were totally together and putting on a front.” She parades around the small space in the back of the store, fist-pumping the air with certainty. “I can’t wait to tell Greer and shove it in her face. This is fantastic. And he’s here, in Maui. Oh my God, are you two sneaking off to be with each other?”
“Uh, no, it’s not—”
“He’s here?” Ashley asks, jumping up and down, her boobs bobbing with her. “Oh my God, Donny, we need to meet him. Tomorrow night, let’s have dinner together.”
And this is why you don’t say a name people know.
Damn you, Mai Tais, we’re done.
You had your chance, and you didn’t play your cards right. It’s over between us.
“You know, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Oh, so you’re not really together then?” Ashley asks, a challenging glint in her eye.
And that right there, that one look, pushes me over the edge.
Something in me snaps.
Maybe it’s the athlete in me.
Maybe it’s the Mai Tais.
Maybe it’s my jealous breasts who wish they were as perky and nice as Ashley’s, but I up the ante on the delusional situation I seem to be in.
“Oh, we’re together. We, uh . . . we’re actually engaged too but we’re not saying anything since we’re here on our friends’ wedding trip.”
“You’re ENGAGED?” Cora brings her hands to her head in utter shock.
Ugh, how could I forget she was still here?
Ignoring Cora, I say, “So, yeah, happy and in love.”
“Stelly, I’m so happy for you,” Dad says in a warm tone as he scoops me up into a hug and presses a kiss to the top of my head like he used to when I was growing up. “This calls for celebration.” He holds my shoulders and looks me in the eyes. “Tomorrow night, dinner. You, me, Ashley, and Romeo. I’ll text you the details.”
Ashley smiles at me. “I can’t wait.” And then she comes up to me and pulls me into a hug. “We’re going to have the best mother-daughter relationship.” When she lets go of me, she pinches my cheek and then steps away. Giving me a small once-over, she says, “And maybe while you’re here we can go shopping together, get you something more . . . modern?”
“That would make me very happy, seeing you two spend some time together.”
Over my dead and Mai Tai’d body.
Dad tips my chin up. “See you tomorrow.” And then with his hand to Ashley’s lower back, he guides her out of the souvenir shop.
Leaning against the wall with an open Pop-Tart package—when did she grab that?—Cora says, “Wow, just wow. Family reunion, two secret engagements, and no Fireball to skew our thoughts. What a night.”
I swat the Pop-Tart away and watch it hit the floor before looking into Cora’s eyes. “We’re not engaged, nor are we in a relationship, nor have we ever come close to touching each other. I just said that to save face.”
“What?” Cora whines. “Ugh, come on. You literally just peed all over my parade.”
“Ugh, you just had to escalate it with your oohing and ahhing.”
“I didn’t ooh and ahh, and why are you lying, anyway?”
“Uh, did you not happen to notice that my dad is engaged to a woman two years older than me? Or better yet, to a woman who was my archenemy in high school?”
Cora gasps. “Noooooo, really? Ooo, plot twist.”
“No, not plot twist. This is my life.”
Cora starts to giggle. Then snorts. Loudly. “How do you suppose you’re going to get the Master of Sneer to attend dinner with you?”
Things I didn’t think through.
Ugh . . . crap.
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