Liar Liar Preview

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LIAR LIAR PREVIEW

1.

“Becca, are you going to stand out there all day or come in and help us unpack?” Mom called from the doorway as she watched me, her eyes clouded with a mixture of trepidation and sorrow.

“Coming. I’m coming.”

My eyes swept over the gray stucco house in front of me once more, sadness constricting my chest. Just turned eighteen, I had a life full of memories in another house—a much bigger and prettier house—and even though it was bittersweet and my throat burned with tears, staring at the unfamiliar building, I felt a kernel of hope at what it represented.

No more secrets …

No more hiding …

No more lies.

Born and raised in Montecito, CA, I’d lived in one place my whole life. The kitchen where Mom taught me to bake cookies when I was just five. The doorjamb where Dad scratched a notch every year on my birthday. The porch that witnessed my first kiss while my parents pretended not to watch from the living room window. All wrapped up in that house. But it was more than a house.

It was my home.

Filled with love and comfort and happy times, it held every memory of every significant moment of my life. Drawing in a long breath, I rolled my shoulders back and forced a smile. Climbing the steps to the door, Mom met me halfway, wrapping me in her arms. “Let’s get things straightened out and then I’ll make us something to eat. It’s been a long day.”

She wasn’t wrong. Five hours in the balmy California heat stuck in Dad’s truck on the highway wasn’t my idea of fun. I shrugged out of her grip and met her eyes, aged with the events of the last few months. “Sure, Mom.”

A sad smile tugged at her lips. “It’s going to be okay, Becca. New town, new friends, a fresh start.”

My lips pulled into a flat line, and I nodded, hardly able to get the word out over the lump in my throat. “Yeah.”

“Come on.” Mom took my hand in hers and guided me into the house.

My new home.

My fresh start.

My escape.

~

“So I called ahead, and Principal Garraway knows to expect you.” Mom clicked her belt into place, and I groaned, rolling my head back against the leather. “Seriously, Mom, I got this. It’s just school.” A new school, but whatever. It wasn’t like I hadn’t been to school before.

“I wanted to make things as easy as possible, Becca. You can’t blame me for that.”

Guilt twisted around my heart. Of course, she was only trying to help. It was all she and Dad had done since everything happened.

“I’m sorry,” I said, my voice thick with regret.

“Hey.” Mom’s hand squeezed my hand across the stick. “None of that. Your father and I would do it all again, in a heartbeat, so no more pity parties, okay? This is your senior year, baby. You get a shot at doing it right. New town, new friends, a fresh—”

“Start,” I finished. It had become Mom’s mantra ever since Dad announced we were leaving and moving three-hundred miles upstate to Credence, a small town between Oakland and Hayward. Turning my head to the side, I watched the unfamiliar landscape rush past.

“It’s new for all of us, but I’m excited. Your father’s looking forward to getting started, and I can’t wait to christen the kitchen. Did you see the oven? It’s a baker’s dream come true.”

“That’s great, Mom.”

“You know, Becca, change is good for the soul. And while I expect Credence High is going to be different from Montecito Prep, it’s nothing you can’t handle.”

I forced a smile. “Yeah. I’m sure it will all be fine.” Except I’ll know no one and be the new girl. I didn’t know what was better—starting a school where no one knew me, or returning to my old high school where everyone knew me too well.

“Are you sure I look okay?” I asked for the tenth time. I’d never attended public school before, and while Mom had reassured me that my outfit was ‘perfectly fine,’ I didn’t feel fine. Not in the least.

“You look perfect—lovely, in fact—although I still don’t know why you had to throw out so much. There was nothing wrong with—”

“Mom, you know why.”

She shifted uncomfortably. “I know; I’m sorry. Oh look, there it is.” Mom pointed at a brick building in the distance. Kids streamed into the open gates, and the knot in my stomach tightened. It was nothing like my old school. Not a single convertible or palm tree in sight, not that I’d expected it. But it was more than that. It was on the tip of my tongue to ask her to turn around and go back so I could change into something else. Sensing my nerves, Mom reached for my hand again. “Becca, it’s going to be fine.”

Fine. She was right—nothing could be worse than the last four months of my life. I immediately shut down my thoughts. Now was not the time to remember, to let in the memories that haunted me in my sleep. Just breathe. I clamped my eyes tight and inhaled deep, long breaths just like my therapist had shown me. If I didn’t give my memories power, they couldn’t control me.

He couldn’t control me.

“Okay, this is it.” Mom beamed over at me. “You’ll do great. Mac told your father Credence High is a good school.”

Mac, one of Dad’s oldest friends, was the guy who had made our move to Credence possible. If Mac said it was true, well, then it must be, and the thought eased some of the turmoil cutting through me.

Once upon a time, I would have strolled straight into Credence High School, sought out the most popular girls, and introduced myself. But that wasn’t who I was anymore. The old Becca Torrence was gone. Lost to a night that not only changed my life forever, it changed me.

Intrinsically and inherently altered me.

A part of me died that night, and I wasn’t sure I’d ever get it back.

“Becca.” Mom’s voice snapped me into the car. “It’s time.”

I unbelted and grabbed my bag as my other hand hovered over the door handle. “Okay, then. See you later.”

“Good luck, baby,” she called as I climbed out and surveyed my surroundings with a heavy sigh.

This was it. All I had to do was walk in there, smile, and be myself. Only, I had no idea who I was anymore.

~

“I think that’s everything, Miss Torrence. I’m sure you’ll find Credence a welcoming school. We serve a diverse community, which I feel provides an enriching environment for our students.” Principal Garraway cleared her throat. Something flashed over her face, but it was gone as quickly as I’d caught it, and she glanced down at the stack of papers in her hand. “Right, well, Ms. Juliard will escort you to your first class, which is math with Mr. Phillips. He’ll see to it that you settle in, I’m sure.”

She thrust the papers at me, and I forced another smile. I was doing that a lot lately. “Thanks.”

“If you need anything, you can come to me or our guidance counselor. We’ll be more than happy to assist you. Do you have any questions?”

When can I get the hell out of here?

“No.” I held my smile. Forcing my lips up even farther, I hoped she didn’t detect my unease.

“Well, then.” She rose from her seat. “Welcome to Credence High School.”

“Thanks.” I left the room without a backward glance.

It wasn’t Principal Garraway; she’d been nothing but warm and welcoming. It was me—and the paranoia that had lived inside me since that night. The whole point of getting out of Montecito was to avoid people from ever finding out the truth. No one except Mac knew us here, and even he thought we’d relocated for a fresh start after my (fake) illness. Dad had wanted to go the whole hog and buy us new identities, but I didn’t want to become Marissa or Jessica or Amy. I’d already lost too much of myself to lose my name as well.

“This way, Becca.” Ms. Juliard beckoned me over to her. “Math is situated in the east wing. It’s an excellent class, and some of our brightest students are in with Mr. Phillips. You’ll be in good company.”

My ears perked up at that snippet of information. I’d missed school. It had been almost four months to the day since I last attended Montecito Prep. Four months since I sat in classes with my friends, laughing and gossiping about boys. I missed it—school, studying, even homework—and a part of me itched to get back to it. To get back to some kind of normal.

“Right, this is math. Good luck, dear.” Ms. Juliard wasted no time as she pushed the door open and stepped to the side to let me past.

“Umm, thanks,” I murmured, slipping into the room.

Greeted with a whoosh of heads snapping up in my direction, I avoided looking anywhere but at Mr. Phillips, a tall, wiry man standing at the front of the class smiling at me. “Ahhh, and you must be our new transfer, Miss Torrence.”

“Becca,” I said.

He nodded. “Find a seat, and we’ll get you caught up.”

Finding an empty seat meant looking for one, which meant making eye contact with my new classmates. It was inevitable, but it didn’t stop me from taking another breath before forcing myself to look up. A faceless sea stared back at me. A couple of girls snarled, narrowing their eyes, while some of the guys raked their eyes down my body. My stomach roiled, and I lurched slightly. It was enough to propel me forward. One foot in front of the other. Left, right, left, right. I shut out the curious stares and the low rumble of whispers, reminding myself this was completely normal. Roles reversed, I would have been the same, seated behind one of the desks watching a new kid turn up in class.

Cautious …

Judging …

Wary.

Third row back, on the end, I found an empty seat and hurried to it.

“Excellent,” Mr. Phillips announced. “Let’s get back to it. Bonnie, I believe you were just about to tell us the answer to question three?”

The class resumed as I sank into the chair, keeping my eyes ahead.

“Here,” a deep voice to my left said, and I turned a fraction. A guy’s face appeared in my peripheral vision. He handed over his textbook open to the page the class was working from.

“Thanks,” I offered, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear, suddenly very aware of him.

He nodded, not sparing me a second glance or a reply. Fine by me. I needed to get used to this again—being around people, socializing, holding a simple conversation. Four months was a long time to be checked out from reality. So when the bell rang almost an hour later and chairs shuffled, and everyone started filing out of the room, I looked around, hoping someone would offer to help me find my next class.

But everyone was gone.

~

The rest of the day didn’t go much better. Apparently, being the new girl meant nothing to the kids of Credence High. It was business as usual, leaving me feeling like a social leper. If Mom was here, I knew she’d have something to say on the matter because it wasn’t like I’d actually tried to talk to anyone or ask for help. I ended up late for second and third period after getting the room numbers mixed up on the crappy copy of the map Principal Garraway had given me. But no one tried to help the red-faced girl walking circles in the hallway. Not. One. Single. Person. Fortunately, it was hard to miss the cafeteria with its vast floor-to-ceiling windows, but I didn’t hang around after collecting my lunch. Situating myself in a quiet spot outside on the grass under a huge tree, I ate in solitude. It gave me the perfect vantage point to watch my new classmates without being obvious. Not that anyone had given me the time of day so far. Well, apart from the guy in math. But even he had rushed out of the room without so much as a backward glance.

Biting a chunk off my apple, I watched the kids around me. When Principal Garraway had said Credence High was diverse, she wasn’t wrong. It was worlds apart from the rich and privileged crowd back in Montecito Prep, not to mention the fact we had to wear a uniform there. Here, kids wore their own styles, and I realized my new wardrobe of mainly t-shirts and jeans wasn’t going to cut it in a place like this.

My eyes landed on a group of girls sitting at a table in the back of the cafeteria. Two of them sat on the tabletop with their feet up on the chairs in front of them, wearing smiles on their faces as they laughed and joked with their friends. A pang of something I didn’t want to acknowledge shot through me. These girls were at the top of Credence’s social ladder. Their friends hung on every word, kids at other tables watched them over their lunch trays with envy sparkling in their eyes, and guys ogled them hungrily. They might have lacked the designer purses and manicured nails of my girlfriends back home, but I knew that in Credence High, they were the girls at the top of the ladder—popular, beautiful … desired, and a hollowness filled me as I stared at a version of me before everything changed. I’d been that girl, and now, I was … no one. Realization hit me like a wrecking ball, sucking the air from my lungs. I hadn’t considered how hard it would be to acknowledge everything I’d lost when I finally returned to school—everything he’d taken from me.

From my family.

Mom and Dad had given up so much. Their privileged lives in Montecito with the big house and pool and membership to Montecito Country Club, not to mention twenty years of service with the police department. All for me. To protect me. To give me a real shot at finding myself again. Before everything, I’d been a social butterfly. Everyone knew me at school. Guys wanted to date me, and girls wanted to be my friend. Now, I’d barely said two words all day and was eating lunch by myself.

So much for a fresh start.


 

2.

 

“FIGHT,” someone yelled, and a crowd of people rushed past me. Tension rippled through the air, and someone slammed into me, knocking me into the lockers.

“Watch it, bitch,” the girl hissed over her shoulder, and I stood there wide-eyed unable to find a reply, let alone an apology. She glared at me for another second and then re-joined the stream of people all wanting to watch two guys beat on each other.

I pressed back against the locker bank, just able to make out one guy driving his fist toward another before the growing circle swallowed them completely. Giving myself a couple of seconds to catch my breath, I rubbed my shoulder where the girl had crashed into me.

“It’ll get easier,” a voice said, and my head craned up to find Math guy watching me intently. That was all I could call him since he still hadn’t formally introduced himself, even though we had a handful of classes together.

“Is it always like this?” I mumbled, still in shock. There’d been the odd fight at my old school, but the teachers were always quick to intervene. Most of me wanted to believe his words, but a small part of me wondered if I’d ever fit in here. He seemed immune to the fight happening at the end of the hallway.

Disappearing behind his locker door, he switched out textbooks. When he closed the door, I looked at him—really looked at him. His eyes were a stormy gray color with lighter flecks interspersed. He was tall—at least a head taller than my five-foot-six—with dark hair that was mussed in that sexy just-got-out-of-bed way. As if he could read my mind, his lips tugged up in an amused smirk. “You just need to keep your head down and find your people,” he said as if he’d just given me the answers to the universe.

My face must have betrayed me because he studied me for a second, and his smirk dropped. “I’m not talking about me. Trust me.” His gaze hardened. “But not everyone in CH is a complete dick. People just tend to stick to their own. All you have to do is figure out where you belong. See you around, new girl.”

Math guy slipped into the crowd as it dispersed at the sound of the principal’s voice. I probably needed to get out of there too, but with my heart in my shoes, I was pretty much rooted to the spot. When he’d spoken to me, a part of me had hoped he might be taking pity on me. People had been less than welcoming since I arrived. No one went out of their way to be mean or anything—yet—but, in a way, that stung even more. Throwing insults and stabby looks my way would have at least meant people noticed me. At the moment, I was barely visible. Sure, I never expected it to be easy, but I didn’t expect this either. Maybe Math guy was right; I just needed to find my people.

And in Montecito, my people had been the popular kids.

~

In a moment of fresh determination—or complete insanity—I didn’t slink out of the cafeteria at lunch. Instead, I gripped my tray and weaved through the tables until I reached the last cluster at the back of the room.

“Are you lost?”

Everyone stopped talking and turned to me. It felt like the whole room had quieted. Maybe it had. Maybe this was the most stupid idea I’d ever had. But it was too late to back out now. I was here, and they were all watching me. Swallowing down the nerves clawing up my throat, I smiled and said, “Hey, I’m Becca. I just transferred to Credence.”

“We know who you are,” a dark-haired girl with a short pixie cut answered, her narrowed eyes sweeping over me. Her lips pursed as her steely gaze landed on the charm bracelet wrapped around my wrist. She looked fierce; the harsh kohl outlining her eyes matched the irritation in her voice and the black boots covering her feet. We were like polar opposites—she was intimidating and alluring in that sexy-vixen kind of way, and I looked like I was going to have afternoon tea at the Yacht Club in my cropped jeans, navy striped tee, and pristine white sneakers. What the hell was I thinking?

Ugh. I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me whole. But I couldn’t show them—her—that. Not now that I’d made my bed and entered their world. So I did the only thing I could. I met her severe glare with a brighter smile. “I wondered if I could join you for lunch?”

Sliding her foot over the chair, she leaned forward onto her knees. Not bothering to smooth out her skirt, she flashed her black panties to everyone. “Do you see any spare seats?” Her eyes moved over the tables her friends occupied, and someone snickered, causing a red flush to work its way up my neck.

I tried my best not to look at the two empty seats right in front of her. “Maybe another time.” My voice cracked, but I didn’t stick around to break down in front of them. That would have to wait until I was somewhere private like the girls’ bathroom. Clutching my tray, I spun on my heels and started walking away. As if my embarrassment wasn’t enough, she had to kill the last shred of hope I had at having any kind of social life at Credence High.

“By the way, love the outfit.” Her voice dripped with sarcasm, and I sucked in a sharp breath. Eyes set ahead, I fought the urge to throw my tray and get the hell out of there. Back in Montecito, I was popular, but I was never mean. Sure, some of our group thought being at the top of the social ladder gave them the right to do whatever the hell they wanted, but it wasn’t my style. I was friends with everyone. The Pixie had looked at me as if I was nothing more than the dirt on the bottom of her boot. Way to go, Becca. 

As I crossed the room, I felt their eyes—their judgment—burn into me. But it was nothing compared to the whispering I heard as I dumped my tray and hurried out of the cafeteria.

How pathetic.

Who does she think she is?

Didn’t she get the memo that this isn’t the 90210?

Rushing out of the door, I almost collided with someone. Math guy stepped into my path, and I ground to a halt. “Jesus, you scared the shit out of me.” I clutched a hand to my racing heart, gasping for breath.

“Piece of advice. Stay away from Kendall and her crew.”

“W-who?”

“The evil pixie who just handed you your ass in front of everyone.”

“Oh.”

His eyes lingered on me as if he wanted to say more, but he didn’t. Running a hand through his hair, he swerved around me and headed into the cafeteria, while I stood there wondering what the hell had just happened.

~

Something changed after the cafeteria incident.

For the rest of the week, wherever I went and whatever classes I found myself in, the low rumble of voices and snickers followed. I tried not to let it get to me—I was the new girl, after all. Until people gave me a chance, I was an outsider. Acceptance had to be earned. Sure, my little run-in with Kendall was a temporary setback, but I could still make it work … Until I discovered that the Evil Pixie was Kendall O’Hare, Queen Bee and Head Bitch of Credence High. She wasn’t going away anytime soon, and because I had some bad karma biting me in the ass, last period on Friday she walked into English with her friends. Their eyes fell on me for a second before they continued to their desks like I was nothing. Nobody.

Invisible.

“Way to go, new girl,” a guy said beside me, and I turned, raising an eyebrow. “I don’t know what you did to piss off Kendall but smooth, real smooth.”

“Am I supposed to know what you’re talking about?” I hissed back.

He held up his hands in surrender. “Hey, don’t kill the messenger. I’m just saying … you picked the wrong girl to mess with.”

Mess with? I hadn’t done a damn thing except try to sit with them at lunch. And I wore that stupid outfit.

“Whatever,” I replied, angling myself away from him. My eyes found Kendall a couple of rows in front of me with her arm wrapped tightly around the huge arm of the guy seated beside her. She laughed at something he said, ducking her head into his jersey when the teacher threw them a scowl. Too busy watching them, I missed the paper projectile headed for me until it landed on my desk. I glanced around in hopes of catching the offender, but no one was looking my way.

 

What’s the going rate for head from a girl like you?

 

My stomach bottomed out, and I looked around out of the corner of my eye again. Balling the note back up, I slipped it into my pocket, acting as if nothing had happened. The teacher issued more instructions, and I followed along, answering each section from the textbook while paying no attention to my racing heart. It was just a prank, just something to shake me up.

And then another ball landed on my desk.

Whipping around, the girl seated directly behind me arched her eyebrow, clearly annoyed that I dared to look at her. I moved my gaze to the guy seated beside her, but he was paying me no attention, busy writing his answers. My fingers trembled as I smoothed out the paper.

 

What? Your stuck-up pussy too good to slum it?

 

My eyes widened the same time my heart catapulted into my throat, and a gasp escaped my lips. What the hell…

“Miss Torrence, is there a problem?” the teacher boomed across the room, and I slouched down in my seat trying to avoid a scene.

Too late.

Everyone looked at me, but no one’s eyes burned into me more than Kendall’s did. It was impossible that she’d thrown the notes, but the look of smug satisfaction on her face told me she knew exactly what was going on.

“Miss Torrence?”

“Hmm, no, sir,” I stuttered, pressing further into the chair while wishing the floor would swallow me up.

“Good, well, if I may continue.”

Dropping my eyes, I inhaled a sharp breath. One week in this place and I was already falling apart. I needed to get a grip. But it was a double blow to start a new school and be an out-of-towner. I don’t know how my classmates knew. Mom drove me to school in the used Ford Mac arranged for us. It wasn’t anything special, and I’d left most of my old clothes behind. A fresh start hadn’t only meant a new town and new house. The old Becca was gone. Now, I was jeans-wearing Becca. Okay, so most of my jeans were True Religion, but surely, I wasn’t going to be hated on for my choice of designer?

Who was I kidding? I knew what kids could be like, and once they made up their mind about something—someone—it was almost impossible to change it. The sound of the bell was a welcomed noise. Grabbing my bag, I filed out of the room along with everyone else, not sparing my classmates a second glance as I made my way out of the building and to the parking lot.

“Hey, baby, how was your day?”

Peering through the window, I muttered, “Okay.” Opening the door, I slid inside and dumped my bag between my feet.

“Uh-oh.” Amusement laced Mom’s voice. “Who pissed you off?”

“Mom!” I gasped. “You kiss your mother with that mouth?”

She laughed. “We both know no one cussed better than your grams did, God bless her soul. Now, talk to me, Becca. What happened?”

“It’s nothing.” I turned my head away from her, hoping to hide the thickness in my voice.

“It’s not nothing.”

“It’s just different is all.”

“We knew Credence was going to be different, baby. We just all need to give it a chance. It’ll take time, but I have a good feeling about this place.”

That made one of us.

Mom was ever the optimist, but when life handed you everything you’d ever wanted, what was there to be jaded about? I’d been the same—before—but now, it felt like finding my way again was an insurmountable task. I didn’t fit in at Credence High, that much was clear. And the notes in class confirmed my fear … I stood out more than I hoped I would.

But they didn’t know the sacrifices my family had made to give me a second chance.

What I’d been through.

They didn’t know a single thing about me.

“Becca?” Mom’s voice pulled me from my depressing thoughts. “You can tell me if something happened.”

I turned to her and let out an exasperated breath. “It was nothing really, just guys being guys. You’re right; it’s just going to take time. I’ll get there. I want to make this work, Mom.”

She reached over and squeezed my knee. “That’s the spirit. Now, what do you want to eat? Dad and I thought it might be nice to go out and explore. Find a nice restaurant maybe.”

“Sure, Mom, sounds good.”

It wasn’t as if I had any plans or anything.

 

 

3.

 

Mac recommended a cute little Italian place downtown for dinner. Parking had been a nightmare, but we had finally found a spot on a one-way street, and we walked the rest of the way.

“This is nice, don’t you think, Geary?”

“It’s…” He hesitated, rubbing his jaw. “Different.”

I spied Mom elbowing him in the ribs, and he gasped, clutching his side. “Melinda, what in—”

Throwing him her best ‘mom stare,’ he cleared his throat, spluttering, “Oh yes, yes, it’s very nice. I think we’ll settle quite well here.”

“You guys,” I said. “You don’t need to do this. I’m fine, really. School is fine. Credence is fine. Everything. Is. Fine.”

The only thing Dad wasn’t wrong about was that Credence was worlds apart from Montecito. With its Mediterranean-style buildings and palm tree lined streets, it made this place look like the ghetto.

“Becca, baby.” Mom linked her arm through mine and nestled close. “We just want you to be happy. After everything …” she trailed off, and I leaned my head against hers as we walked arm in arm down the street.

“I know, Mom, but you don’t need to tread on eggshells around me. I’m fine, really, or at least, I will be. This is my fresh start, and I intend to make the most of it.”

If I kept lying to myself, then maybe, one day, I’d believe it.

“We’re damn proud of you, Becca.” The emotion in Dad’s voice surprised me. He’d found the whole ordeal difficult to deal with—watching his daughter go through something like I had, having to listen to me admit everything—but he’d been there for me in ways I would never forget. If it wasn’t for him, life could have turned out very differently for me.

“Mac said the place is called Amalfi’s, right?” I pointed at a place across the street. A huge glass window with white lettering and thick red velvet curtains pulled back gave way to bistro-style tables and chairs.

“Ooh, it looks wonderful,” Mom crooned. A little taste of Montecito and she was easily pleased, but I had a feeling it was going to take Dad and me longer to adjust.

About to agree, I found my gaze landing on a building further along, and the words died on my tongue. It stood alone on a lot between two side streets. The typical-looking diner had a sign hanging above the door flashing Shake ‘n’ Pass, only the P was out, so it read Shake ‘n’ ass. But the unfortunate name wasn’t what drew my attention. It was the crowd of people gathered around a bench outside. Kendall O’Hare was hanging off the guy she’d been with in class. He leaned over her almost pressing her flat onto the bench, kissing her hungrily. I dropped my gaze, but it was too late.

“Do you know them? We could go over and say hello?” Mom said.

“W- what?”

“That group of kids over there.” She nudged her head in the direction of the diner as we crossed the street. Kendall no longer had her tongue rammed down the guy’s throat. Instead, she was looking right at me. Although look didn’t do justice to the death glare she was sending my way.

What the hell is her problem?

“Do they go to school with you?”

“Something like that,” I murmured, dropping my eyes again.

“We could go and say hello. Maybe after we get finished, you could go and—”

“No, no,” I said a little too sharply. “They’re just some guys in my class. I don’t really know them. It’s fine. Let’s go eat; I’m starving.”

“Oh, okay then.” Mom didn’t hide her disappointment well. All she wanted was for me to settle in—to find new friends and find myself again—and part of me felt bad for not making more of an effort. After all, she and Dad had given up everything—their whole lives—for me.

Because of me.

We walked in thick silence the rest of the way to the restaurant, the last few months weighing heavily on us all.

“Welcome to Amalfi’s, do you have a reservation?” the host asked as we entered. Dad stepped forward and replied, “Yes, it’s Torrence, table for three.”

“Excellent.” He checked us off his list. “This way please.”

Mom pressed her hand into my back, urging me forward as if she was worried I might bolt. I understood her concern, but I was done hiding. Almost three months in therapy, trying to come to terms with everything, had been enough. I really did want to make Credence work. I just wasn’t sure it was going to be that easy. Not now that I had spent a week at Credence High.

We settled into our seats, and Dad ordered our usual drinks. “So, Becca, how’s school?” he asked.

Since arriving in town, he hadn’t been around much. After turning over his gun and captain’s badge, Mac had given Dad a job at his local private investigator’s office. It wasn’t the same as police work, but he had many transferable skills, and Mac assured Dad there was plenty of work around these parts. Apparently, much to Mom’s disappointment, PI’s worked just as many hours as cops did.

“Geary,” Mom warned, but I shook my head. “It’s fine, Mom. School is …” I swallowed hard. “Different.”

Dad’s eyes softened. He got it. He’d said the same thing earlier. “We knew it was going to be a stark change to Montecito.”

“I know. It’s just going to take some time.”

Dad changed the conversation after that, and I was grateful. I didn’t want to ruin dinner by admitting that I had yet to make a single friend. That I spent the whole week ducking and dodging Kendall and her friends. They wouldn’t understand.

“Well, we have forever.” The look on Mom’s face told me she meant it as a positive remark, but I couldn’t help but wince at her words.

Forever.

My forever was supposed to be senior year with my friends. We were supposed to graduate together and spend hot sticky summer days at the beach before parting ways to head off to college.

“Excuse me,” I said, fighting back the tears. Don’t let them see you cry. “I’m going to find the restrooms.” My feet carried me toward the back of the restaurant on autopilot, away from the stares of the two people who had proved their unconditional love for me in ways no parent should. I couldn’t fall apart in front of them. Not again. Not after everything. I had to be stronger. To find a way to can my feelings, just like I’d talked about with my therapist.

“Whoa, there.” Strong hands steadied me as I all but stumbled through the door to the restrooms.

“Math guy?” spilled out of my mouth before I could stop myself.

“Math guy?” He gripped my shoulders for another second, his lips quirking up, before he released me. I stepped back, putting some distance between us.

“Well, yeah.” I hugged myself tight. “We’re in math; you’re a guy … Math guy.”

“Right,” he drawled in an amused tone, and my whole body burned with embarrassment … and something else. Something I absolutely did not want to acknowledge. He was too … too everything. Brooding. Mysterious. Everything about him screamed bad boy, and I did not need that in my life right now. Not again.

Not ever.

“What are you doing here?”

His eyebrows knitted together, and I clapped a hand over my mouth. What the hell was wrong with me?

“Getting pizza. What are you doing here?” It sounded almost accusatory.

“My parents brought me out for dinner.”

“Cute.”

“So, yeah, so I’ll be going now. Enjoy your pizza.”

His eyes narrowed on me. The storm raged in his depths, and his lips parted as if to speak, but he obviously thought against it, scrubbing a hand down his rugged face instead. What was with that? The way he seemed so unsure around me, guarded, and most of the time, downright rude. He flicked his chin the way guys did when they were unsure of what else to say and started to walk away. Pressing a hand to the door of the restrooms, I was about to step inside when his voice stopped me in my tracks.

“Evan.”

“Huh?” I spun around, and he was just standing there, looking at me. His eyes burned into me with such intensity, I felt it all the way down to my stomach.

“It’s not Math guy; it’s Evan.”

Evan.

“Okay, Evan.”

He shook his head with silent laughter. “See you around, Math girl.”

Watching as Evan slipped back into the restaurant, I couldn’t have stopped the smile tugging at my lips even if I’d tried. I knew that I needed to stay away from someone like Evan, but I couldn’t help but think that maybe Credence wouldn’t be as bad as I’d first thought.

~

I was wrong.

Monday in math, Evan didn’t speak to me. It was the same for rest of the week. In the classes we shared, he didn’t acknowledge me—he didn’t even look at me. It was like I didn’t exist to him. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t sting a little. But aside from Evan’s icy cold shoulder, things were a little easier. The snickers died down, I avoided Kendall and her crew as much as possible, and a couple of people had actually smiled and said ‘hey’ to me in government, or at least, I’d thought they had.

But none of it stopped the nerves churning in my stomach as I entered English last period on Friday. There was nowhere to hide from Kendall now, and although she sat up front and I didn’t have to endure her scowl burning into the back of my head, I would have preferred not being in class with her, at all.

To my surprise, it passed without incident. There were no more notes. No whispered insults.

Nothing.

When the bell rang, I almost dared to hope that my arrival in Credence was old news. But it slipped away as I watched the teacher hurry out of the room along with a stream of kids. One of Kendall’s friends remained behind, closing the door and gripping the handle tightly so that no one could enter from the outside. The room closed in around me as Kendall stalked forward. My eyes searched for someone—anyone—who might stick around and help me.

There was no one.

Just Kendall, her friend, and me.

“Hey, what’s going on in there?” a voice called followed by banging on the door.

A girl’s face pressed up against the glass as the door handle rattled. The brunette holding the handle stepped in front of her view, narrowing her eyes at me.

Kendall rounded the desk in front of me and leaned back against the edge casually. “I thought we should meet, officially.”

“I know who you are,” I croaked.

“Good, that’s good.” Her voice was eerily calm, unnerving me even more, if that was possible. With the way my heart was beating out of my chest, I figured it probably wasn’t.

The banging on the door intensified, echoing the pounding in head … my chest … my ears. Kendall shot her friend an irritated look.

“Kendall!” The voice sounded pissed.

“What’s a girl got to do to get some peace around here?” Kendall mused, completely unaffected by the whole situation. I, on the other hand, felt very affected. Terrified, in fact. And when the banging grew louder again, and she pushed off the desk, leaning in close, I stopped breathing.

“Consider yourself warned.” Her warm breath brushed my ear, and I shuddered, finally exhaling.

The door flew open, and my alarmed gaze landed on a slim girl with red braids wearing black jeans so skinny they look painted on. She looked familiar, but I had spent a whole week of lunchtimes eating and observing my classmates, so it was possible I’d seen her from my spot under the tree.

“What the fuck, Kendall?” Her eyes widened.

“Chill out; we were just getting acquainted,” Kendall said, moving for the door. “Isn’t that right, Becca?” She glanced back at me with an evil smirk. The way she had spoken my name caused chills to run up my spine. Even though I didn’t understand it, in that single word, I felt her hatred for me.

The second they left, I sagged down onto the desk edge, and the door banger rushed into the room. “Jesus, are you okay?” She approached me.

“Yeah.” I smiled weakly, a little unsure of what had just happened.

“Don’t look so scared.” She laughed, “I don’t bite. Well, sometimes I do, but I prefer brunettes.” She winked, and I stuttered something. Did she mean … was she …

“Gay? I don’t define myself that way. I like who I like.”

“Sorry.” I flushed. It was like since arriving at Credence High, I’d lost all ability to communicate like a normal person. That, and my heart was still in my mouth.

“For what? Besides, it distracted you, didn’t it?” She shrugged, chewing on her thumb. “So do you like to party?”

“Party?”

What was happening right now?

“Yeah, you know. Music, beer, dancing, that kind of party?”

“Hmm, yeah, I guess.” I glanced sideways, but no one seemed to be paying us any attention. There was no huddled group waiting for her to deliver the punch line. No one discreetly recording the moment she made a fool of me. Kendall wasn’t hovering around, waiting for me to get another social beat down. Which meant she was actually inviting me.

Didn’t it?

“Well, consider yourself invited. I’ll text you the details.” She held out her hand, and I stared at it blankly. “Cell phone, new girl. You do have one of those, right?” Her brows knitted together when I didn’t reply, still freaking out. “Geez, you’re weird.”

She wasn’t wrong.

My insides clenched tight from how awkward I was acting. But after my run-in with Kendall, my brain wouldn’t function properly. The redhead waved her hand, snapping me out of it, and I dug around in my bag, handing her my cell phone. Her fingers flew over the screen, and when she was done, she held it out for me. “Okay, expect a text this evening. It’s kind of an exclusive thing, so don’t go spilling to anyone, got it?”

“Hmm, okay.” It came out more of a question than a statement. Who the hell was I going to tell?

“Hey, and if you’re not feeling it, no pressure. You just look like you could use a friend right now. I thought you might like to come and hang out. If you’re worried about Kendall, she won’t be there tonight.”

“I do. I mean thanks.”

“It’s cool. You going to be okay to get home?”

I nodded.

“Okay, so I’ll see you tonight.” She’d almost made it to the door, when I rushed out, “Wait, what’s your name?” Actually, I had a ton of questions, but that was the one to spill out.

“Scarlett. See you tonight, new girl.”

I watched as she slipped into the line of kids heading to their next classes, as if she hadn’t just thrown me a lifeline.

~

“Where is this party again?” Mom glanced back from the sink.

“At a friend’s.”

“Yes, Becca, I understood that part, but where exactly?”

The text from Scarlett had come through an hour ago. Google maps informed me it was an address on the edge of town, but I’d lied and given Mom—and Dad when Mom called him up to insist he check it out—a fake address I pulled off Google. Letting me go to a party at a friend’s was one thing, but I doubted she was ready to let me go to a club.

“I’m not sure, sweetie. I know your father said it’s safe enough, but we haven’t been here long. What if you get lost? Or something happens? Or—”

“Mom,” I said, trying to sound understanding when really all I could think was, please don’t ruin the first—and maybe the only—chance I get at having some kind of social life. After last period, I needed this, or there was a good chance I would hole up in my room and never come out.

Ever.

“I have to join the real world again. It’s senior year. Partying is like a rite of passage or something, and I really want to fit in. People haven’t exactly been welcoming.” My voice trailed off, not wanting to give Mom anything more to worry about.

Dropping the bowl back in the soapy water, Mom dried her hands and turned to face me. “I know, baby, and we want nothing more than to get our old Becca back. Our fun-loving, smiling, happy girl.” Her eyes fluttered closed just for a second, and she inhaled deeply. When they opened again, I saw the lingering sadness behind her smile. “You’re right. Go have fun. Just be home by midnight and make sure you leave your friend’s address, okay? And be careful.” She didn’t say the words, but I got her unspoken message: no guys.

I leapt up and went to her, unable to hide my smile. “Thank you. I know it’s hard for you, but this is a good thing, and you don’t need to worry. Promise.” My arms slid around her small frame, and I hugged her.

“Wear something nice. Something other than those jeans and t-shirts you’ve been hiding under. Us Torrence girls are blessed with good figures for a reason, sweetie.”

“Sure thing, Mom.”

I left her drying the dishes while I went upstairs to get ready. Scarlett’s message had been brief: dress down, meet there. Part of me worried it was all some elaborate prank—another joke at my expense—but she seemed genuine. And I really wanted to make some friends. If I couldn’t make Credence High work, everything my parents had sacrificed would be for nothing. I refused to let that happen. No matter how hard it was going to be.

Staring at the contents of my wardrobe, a pang of regret throbbed through me. I’d thrown out almost everything that reminded me of my life in Montecito. Floaty summer dresses, cropped pants, and pashmina sweaters. It didn’t leave much in the way of options for tonight, and I fingered through the t-shirts until I found something that might work.

Once I had changed, I added some gloss to my lips and mascara to my lashes. I was brushing my hair when Mom walked into my room. “Oh, wow.” She eyed my outfit with surprise. “When I said nice, Becca, that’s not quite what I had in mind.”

Placing the brush down on the dresser, I turned to her and looked down at myself. “Does it look that bad?”

Remembering Scarlett’s dark jeans and low-cut top, I’d picked out a pair of black jeans and a black sparkly tank top that I’d worn once back in Montecito as part of a Halloween costume.

“No, no.” Mom assured me. “It’s not bad …” She hesitated. “Just different. You look so different, baby.”

“You’re kind of freaking me out, Mom. Different good or fashion-disaster different?”

“Good, I think.” Her mouth pulled down at the corners as she tilted her head to the side, still looking at me. “Yes, good. Definitely good. I was just surprised.” Her lips curved into a smile, and I relaxed a little.

“You’re sure?” I spun and faced myself in the mirror. Mom was right—I did look different. Dark honey blond hair cascaded over my bare shoulders and down my chest, contrasting with the shimmering tank top. The jeans, teamed with wedged sneakers, slimmed down my legs and made me look taller than I was.

“You look beautiful, Becca.” Her eyes zeroed in on my wrist. “You’re not wearing your bracelet?”

“Hmm, no, I don’t want to lose it,” I lied, forcing a smile. She wouldn’t understand. “Okay, I think I’m ready.”

A girl I barely recognized stared back at me, but maybe this was a good thing.

A new look for a new Becca.

Maybe this girl would stand a better chance of fitting in.