The sun was setting when Grayson offered to drive Danika home from the hospital, but she declined his offer. ‘I need some alone time. I can walk from here.’
Grayson studied her warily with those eyes as blue as the ocean and she almost drowned in their depths. ‘You sure?’ He sighed as she nodded and pulled her into his arms. ‘Call me if you need anything, okay?’
‘Okay,’ she agreed, although Danika knew he would not give her the one thing she needed most.
‘I’ll let you know if I hear anything more about Elise.’
Her mind had slipped into a trance as she watched him drive away in his white, sporty BMW. Once the car had disappeared around a corner, she blinked a few times before snapping out of her daze. Retrieving her phone from her bag, she tried reaching Taylor again, but the call went to straight to voicemail for the third time that day. Danika would not put it past Taylor to let her phone go flat and forget to charge it for ages. She’s probably busy with her mystery guy.
The green neon sign above the bottle shop across the road called to her, so she crossed the street and entered the small store attached to the town’s only pub. Building the pub across the road from the hospital had been a disturbing feat of genius to be sure, an endless feedback cycle. Ambling through the doorway set off an electronic chime, alerting the man who sat behind the counter, although he only glanced up from his phone briefly. She recognised Marcus, one of the public-school guys who had been on the rugby team. Danika beelined for the whiskey shelf and grabbed a bottle of Glenfiddich.
When she put it on the counter, Marcus did not even bat an eyelid at her drink choice, he simply scanned it, placed it in a brown paper bag, and handed her the EFTPOS machine.
‘You could at least try to be polite,’ she huffed.
Marcus shrugged. ‘Why bother? A rich bitch like you ain’t gonna give me the time of day.’
‘It’s called customer service, dipshit.’ Grabbing her bottle of liquor, she stormed out of the store, almost stepping in front of a beat-up station wagon that rolled into the drive-through. The old geezer behind the wheel honked at her before yelling an obscenity as he wound down the window. Flipping him off, she continued striding down the street.
Lost in myriad thoughts, she ceased paying attention to the route she aimlessly wandered, taking frequent sips from the concealed bottle like some homeless vagrant. Glimpsing the wilted flowers of a familiar camelia bush, she halted dead in her tracks. Her subconscious had brought her directly to the devil’s den. There was no sign of his car, but he probably parked his precious baby in the locked garage. Only one way to know if he’s home. Swigging some liquid courage, she strutted up to the front step before her nerves could abandon her and hammered on the door.
Malik answered the door in nothing more than a pair of basketball shorts, his sculpted body glistening like toffee and looking equally delicious. ‘You just gonna stand there gawking Shortcake? If so, you ought to take a photo ’cause it’ll last longer.’ He began to close the door, but she leaped over the threshold, staggered, and slammed into his solid body. ‘Jesus Princess, how much you been drinking?’ Plucking the bottle from her hand, he ripped away the paper bag and gaped at the contents. ‘Have you seriously been guzzling a three-hundred-dollar bottle of single malt straight from the bottle?’ His ridiculous muscles tensed and his face paled. ‘Elise?’
A pang of jealousy pinched her heart and she winced, hating how petty she was for it. ‘Elise’s condition hasn’t changed.’
‘Why is your drunk arse barging into my house? You know what, forget I asked, I’m not in the mood to deal with your bullshit right now.’ He grabbed her wrist roughly, eliciting a moan from the depths of her diaphragm that made his eyes bug out. ‘What the—’
‘I can’t stop thinking about you, Malik.’
Giggling, she fluttered her lashes at him. ‘Yes please.’
The befuddled expression on his face was priceless, but it hardened a few seconds later and his grip on her wrist tightened. ‘No.’
‘Why not? I didn’t think you had a problem taking advantage of intoxicated girls.’
His jaw clenched as he ground out, ‘I’ll make an exception for you, Shortcake.’
Snatching her bottle back, she shoulder-checked him on her way into his living room. She slumped onto the couch and surveyed the mess. ‘What happened in here?’
‘None of your fucking business.’ Malik towered above her; arms folded as he glared at her.
‘If you won’t bang my brains out, at least have a drink with me.’ She swallowed another mouthful before offering him the scotch.
With a sigh, he accepted it. ‘Fine, but I’m doing this properly.’ He marched off into the kitchen, returning with two rocks glasses, each containing a triple shot of the whiskey. Handing her one, he sat beside her and sipped his own drink.
‘I’m honestly surprised you turned down my offer,’ Danika admitted.
‘Are you really that vain?’
‘Hardly,’ she scoffed. ‘I guess I imagined the chemistry between us, just like I misjudged your interest all those years ago.’
Malik frowned. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘Remember my fifteenth birthday?’
He shrugged. ‘Not really. I’ve blocked out my weakling years.’
Danika stared aghast. ‘Are you for real?’
‘Those memories aren’t useful to me.’
‘Wish I had the luxury of forgetting.’ Her mind returned to that horrid day seven and a half years ago. Sometimes the most harmless rumours can do devastating damage. Danika Henderson’s school friends had often joked that she was the girl with two boyfriends. They knew better, of course, but that did not prevent gossip spreading like wildfire in Moonlake. On the eve of her fifteenth birthday, her relationships with Malik Fadel and Hayden Archer were still completely platonic. The three of them had been inseparable during their primary school years and attending different high school campuses did not keep them apart either. Her guys were like a breath of fresh air, a reprieve from a stiff society. Holding her chin up and constantly smiling all fucking day had been exhausting enough, not to mention the prim and proper persona she needed to adopt. Hayden understood the pressure to some extent, although he would never know the joys of wearing stilettos. Malik, on the other hand, represented the antithesis of it all and this was one of the many things she had liked about him from the get-go. ‘Maybe it’s time I jogged your memory.’
I practically skipped down the front steps that morning, excitement bubbling over as I flew into Hayden’s arms.
‘Morning Angel.’ Hayden met me with a genuine smile, a sight that had become rare lately. ‘Happy birthday!’ He loosened his grammar school tie, letting it drape over his shoulders as we commenced our walk. Mid-length blond tresses whipped around his face in the wintry wind.
‘Thank you!’ I removed my own tie and shoved it in my blazer pocket before unfastening the top four buttons of my blouse. ‘I can’t wait for the weekend—my first parent-free party. It’ll be wild.’
‘For sure. You got anything planned for tonight?’
‘No,’ I lied to him for the first time in my life. Things had slowly shifted in our trio’s dynamics, and I did not want to risk upsetting Hayden.
‘Maybe we could hang out, just you and I,’ he suggested.
‘Oh, um… I can’t.’
He sighed. ‘Surely your old man doesn’t expect you to hit the books on your birthday. Come let loose with me, for old time’s sake.’
‘What about Malik?’ Speaking of the Devil!
As we rounded the corner, you came into view; leaning against the lilly pilly in front of your house as you chewed on the plant’s fruit. Sunglasses hid your eyes despite the overcast gloom, and you had spiked your hair with wax again. My chest constricted, as though an invisible corset cinched around my ribs.
You kicked off from the tree and grinned with a magenta berry between your teeth. ‘Happy birthday, Princess.’
When we embraced, I whispered in your ear, ‘Meet me at our hideout after school, just you okay?’
You sucked in a breath. ‘’Kay.’
You guys greeted each other with your weird bro code fist bump and the three of us joked and laughed together as we walked to our respective schools.
The next seven hours dragged while molten lava waited to erupt within my body. The moment the bell rang, I rushed outside and sprinted for the scrubland between town and the lake. Breathless by the time I made it to the old rusty hut, I dropped my bag and shrugged out of my blazer before collapsing onto the plush sofa—one of the few pieces of furniture we had been able to drag into the derelict building with help from Elise’s father.
Fuck it feels hot in here, I thought, stripping out of my jumper and opening my top buttons—six this time—along with a few at the bottom of the shirt. Pushing my shoes off, I let them hit the floorboards with an almighty thud and stretched out over the couch while attempting to catch my breath. It was a futile endeavour because footsteps sounded on the porch a minute later. I sat and waited for you with a hammering heart that bottomed out when Hayden stepped through the door.
‘Hi Danny. Sorry to disappoint, but Malik can’t make it tonight. Looks like it’s just you and me after all.’ He tossed his bag aside and dropped his blazer on top of it before crossing the room with a few long strides. Something dark flickered in his eyes, instantly putting me on edge. ‘I bought you a birthday present.’ Retrieving a blunt from the pocket of his grey pants, he handed it to me and slumped onto the neighbouring cushion.
‘Thanks.’ I accepted the gift, relieved by the prospect of chilling with my best friend. It was the best compensation for your absence, and I needed the weed to calm the fuck down. After inhaling a puff, I offered it to Hayden.
He shook his head. ‘That’s a special one, just for you. I’ve got my own.’ He lit up a joint and reclined close beside me. ‘You’ve been keeping secrets from me, haven’t you Danny?’
Twisting in my seat, I studied him. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘This thing you’ve got going on with Malik.’
Shit! I inhaled two long drags while thinking about how to explain the situation. ‘It’s not—’ My head began to swim, the room growing more distant. ‘Fuck! What’s in this?’ I looked down at the cigar I held, confusion setting in when my hands began to shrink.
‘Just a little something to give my angel some wings.’ He stubbed out his joint and snaked an arm around my waist. ‘How long did you think you could fuck him behind my back before giving me a turn, hmm?’
‘Hayden,’ I huffed, trying to push him away, but my arms had turned to jelly.
Plucking the half-finished blunt from my trembling hands, he threw it in the ashtray and pushed me back onto the sofa. The last of the buttons holding my blouse together popped and scattered to the far corners of the room. His frosty fingers crept up my chest before tugging the bra down to reveal my breasts. When he bit my nipple, I cried out, although it hurt less than I’d expected.
‘That’s it Angel, scream for me.’ He ripped everything to shreds; from the thin fabric protecting my virtue to my very soul.
I lay there powerless to stop him, unable to muster the strength to struggle. Yet even in my dissociated state, I maintained the wherewithal to spot you watching through the window. You stood there like some creepy pervert. I remember wondering why you didn’t stop Hayden. Several seconds later, you turned and left me at the monster’s mercy.
Once Hayden had finished, he looked down at the mess he had made and chuckled. ‘Looks like I was wrong about you and him having sex. Was tonight going to be your first time together?’
I stared at him blankly.
He hovered over me and planted a chaste kiss on my lips. ‘Thank you for giving me this special gift.’ He peppered my face with more kisses. ‘I love you, Danny. Come on, let’s get you home.’ With a tender touch, he dressed me and wrapped me in one of the blankets we kept in the hut. His strong arms carried me to his car and carefully laid me down on the backseat and drove me home.
After tucking me into bed, he spoke in hushed tones with my worried father. He left me with a parting kiss on the cheek and another whispered sentiment.
Dad perched on the edge of my bed and ran soothing strokes along my quilted back. ‘I’m sorry to hear Malik broke your heart, Twinkle Toes. I always knew that boy was trouble. At least you still have Hayden. He is a much better match for you, and he clearly loves you. Besides, you have reached an age where it is inappropriate to have two boyfriends, so it was only a matter of time before you would have to choose between them. I am honestly glad it worked out this way. I know you cannot see the bright side while you grieve the loss of Malik, but you will.’ He kissed the crown of my head. ‘Rest for a bit and I will get Michael to bring you some soup.’
News of me and Hayden becoming an official couple spread across town by the end of the following day. I neither confirmed nor denied a word, too numb to care. You ceased walking to school with us, much to my relief. The thought of facing you turned my stomach. I wished Hayden would leave me alone too, but the persistent bastard continued to impose himself on me. He fucked me for the second time at my party without needing to drug me: I was too numb to care. No one noticed me withdraw and I was too numb to care. Within a few months, I began to crave the rough sex with Hayden. It was the only thing to break through the cocoon and bring me back to life, giving rise to a bitter butterfly. As you know, I continued to date Hayden until he graduated from high school and moved to the city, but I never loved him.
Unshed tears glistened in Malik’s eyes. ‘Hayden raped you?’ he whispered gruffly.
She replied with a silent nod.
Sucking in a sharp breath, he rubbed the bristles on his cheek. ‘I… I thought—’
Danika’s phone cut him off. She went to silence it until she read Grayson’s name on the screen. ‘I better get this. He probably has news concerning Elise.’