I sighed, watching as Bryce smiled at a girl who stood close to him, with such promise in her eyes. She arched her back and lifted her chest for his viewing pleasure and he didn't seem to mind. They weren't touching. She wasn't plastered against him, but she wanted to be. And I wondered if the only reason she wasn't was because I was there, because Bryce knew I was there. Then I looked to the left and sighed again. Corrigan stood at the bar, his arms around two girls, giving them shots. As they bent backwards, he poured the liquid down their throats and then laughed. His eyes were empty, though. Bryce's were anything, but empty.
"How do you handle that?"
I glanced over as Carolina climbed the stairs and sat in the seat beside me. We were sectioned off into our private box in Bentley's, a new club in downtown Los Angeles, but the view was normally the redeeming part of its special VIP status. To me—it was the downfall of it. The only special quality it held was that it was private. I didn't have to mix with all the girls who seemed to have come out in droves to vie for the attention of soccer superstar Bryce Scout or the newest It Guy, Corrigan Raimler, that had been named since Grace's murder went national. Every reporter in the country had come to town and immediately Corrigan had become a superstar. Bryce was old news and Corrigan was the newly loved. I couldn't ignore that fact. There'd always been something about him that sent girls' into heat.
"What do you mean?" I tried to act ignorant.
Carolina flashed a smile, flicking her blonde hair behind her shoulder. "Like you don't know." She chuckled and folded her arms over her chest.
I eyed her form. "You look good." She did—dressed in a white summer dress, with a halter top. It was flowing, casual, but it showed off her thin, but tall figure. As the head of her sorority, which was now the number one sorority House on campus, I knew Carolina looked and was the part of the newest up and coming socialite. She was going places and she had the intelligence to make sure she steered the direction where she chose.
And her place at my side helped seal that fate. The media had latched onto both of us. While I was more invisible or reclusive, Carolina had been in the public media's eye.
She smiled, softer. "Thanks, but so do you."
I wanted to roll my eyes, but didn't. A part of me had grown to not care how I looked anymore. If I looked good, it'd be in the papers. If I looked horrible, it'd be in the papers. They had grown to constantly criticize how I looked or they glorified my fashion sense. It just depended on what I wore that day. And that night, I had chosen a shimmery gold dress. It cut beneath my thighs and above my breasts. I wore a pink pearl necklace looped twice over and glittery pink sandals that wrapped all the way to my thighs. The shoulder-length brunette mane that I often cursed was wrapped in a few braids around my head. I was dressed for the part of a party girl that night and I knew I'd regret it in the morning. I almost hated giving the media what they wanted.
Carolina studied me with a knowing look when I never responded to her. "Both your boys are acting like you're not here."
That was the problem. I sighed, "If only that were the truth."
"What do you mean?"
I watched Bryce again and saw the forced look of amusement in his eyes. A part of him wanted that girl to push her boobs against his chest. He wanted her to do it to make me jealous and then I glanced to the other side. Corrigan wanted to enjoy those two girls, but he didn't. I knew that he felt empty inside and that he had outgrown the fraternity type of lifestyle, though he wanted to never stop partying.
I commented, sipping my drink, "They want everything to be normal. It's not. And they'd be like this even if I weren't here."
'So maybe I shouldn't be,' I had a fleeting thought, finishing my drink.
Carolina murmured, sipping on her own drink, "I think you should embrace the power you have."
I glanced over. "What?"
She gestured towards them with her drink in hand. "Bryce Scout is the newest golden boy to soccer in our country. Everyone loves him. They worship him. Then there's Corrigan. And I'll be honest—I don't think the nation has even figured out how much they're going to love him. They're both huge already, especially with the media romanticizing how Corrigan kinda dated Grace. Then there's you—both those guys love you. Both those guys are in competition for you, although it's like they both don't want to admit it. You have a lot of power right now, over them, and therefore over the nation. Don't ask me what to do with it because I'm a little drunk right now, but I'm just saying—wake up to what you have here. You have a golden opportunity—not to mention how the media has sensationalized you."
Everything she said wasn't a surprise to me. It had been like this since Grace's murder had become local news. That went national—she was pretty. She was Christian. She had been a sorority girl. Grace had been everything to what the nation wanted to see a girl become and she'd been butchered. Now they all wanted to find her murderer, but until that happened—they focused on the people who'd been in her life.
I caught sight of Leah on the dance floor with some of her other sisters and asked Carolina, "How's Leah?" We both knew she hadn't taken the news well when Carolina and I had become better friends, better than better. Carolina had almost become the female version of what Bryce and Corrigan had been—family to me.
She hesitated with her words, but then said, "Leah will…get over it. I think—I hope. She's just mad because she felt that she was your friend and then I took her place. Eventually she'll figure out that we were better suited to be friends than her and you. She loves Corrigan—she has to realize at one point that you two wouldn't be good friends."
I shrugged. I was beyond caring. Leah had taken a back seat in my life since she'd introduced Carolina to me. She hadn't tried to remain friends, she just went away. It wasn't in me to worry about those types of relationships. If she wanted to remain friends with me, she should've said something. If she didn't, that was her choice. I had enough struggle keeping the two that had been a constant in my life. And to a point, I'd grown immune to any female friendships. They never seemed to stay throughout any struggle and I had no wish to waste time on the meaningless ones.
"If she wants to be friends, she can act like it. If she doesn't, I don't care." I didn't mean to sound as jaded as I did, but I wasn't going to pretend otherwise to Carolina.
I felt her gaze on me, as if judging what I'd just said, but when I didn't react, Carolina went to another subject. "Normally, I wouldn't care, but since all the hoopla with your life, I feel like it's my duty to tell you something."
Everything about that statement didn't bode well with me. A knot took form, but I asked, tense, "What are you talking about?"
"There's a new student coming to school."
Then she added when I didn't say a word, "Mena Cruiw. I believe she's Denton Steele's sister, correct? And someone you knew?"
Hell. Everything hit rock bottom. She was the last thing I wanted to deal with in that moment, in that month, year, or lifetime. "Are you serious?"
She nodded with a flash of sympathy in her eyes.
I didn't need her sympathy. I needed something else, something that…I had no idea. I just knew that I was not ready to deal with Mena. Then I sighed again, "Hell, I'm going to have to tell Bryce and Corrigan."
Carolina frowned. "What do you mean?"
"They're going to freak."
"Oh yeah." I nodded. She hadn't been in school with us. She hadn't seen how they had both stood against Mena, the lonely somewhat crazy sister of Denton's. She'd been ostracized by both of them, and rather cruelly.
"I'd like to see that." She sat back, perusing both of them with renewed eyes.
I grimaced at the memory and then stood. I'd had enough. "I'm going to go home."
"What? This is your party."
I shrugged. "I might've rented out the club, but I don't even like half of these people and that's the half that I know. It'll be fine. Promise. No one will even know I'm gone."
Carolina stood and moved to follow me. As we started to descend the stairs, I knew she wouldn't argue anymore. She wasn't one to push or pressure, respecting that people did what they wanted to do. I was grateful for this and then she tapped my shoulder and leaned close since the music had gotten louder. "Can I get a ride with you? I should be home since Leah was supposed to be the sober driver tonight. I know some of our other sisters will be calling from other parties at home."
I nodded and led the way through the crowd. A few called out greetings. Some shouted lewd suggestions. One asked for my autograph. I shoved past them all and was grateful when we got to the front entrance. Renald saw our approach and headed inside to meet us. Quickly, the large security guard wrapped both arms around each of us and herded us through the last group waiting in the foyer and then past the line outside.
"Thanks, Ren," I panted as we both climbed into the backseat of a waiting car. I'd grown an attachment since we had started going to Bentley's after Grace had been murdered. All of us wanted a different environment, where not everyone knew us. That hadn't lasted long.
He nodded, stoic, and then patted the top of the car twice. On cue, it moved away from the curb smoothly and the clambering chaos was left behind us. Quiet settled inside the car, which I welcomed as I slid down on the tan leather seat and sprawled out, getting into a comfortable position. As I kicked off my shoes, I saw Carolina had slumped down a bit on her own seat, across from me.
"Take off your shoes. We've got a little bit of drive." Downtown Los Angeles was more than a little bit of a drive to our home. I knew I'd probably be asleep before we got there.
Carolina gave me a polite smile, tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear, and then looked out the window. It had started to rain and the soft thud from the drops dulled the quiet into a soothing lull that I knew would put me to sleep quicker than before.
I saw a flash of concern in her eyes. "What's wrong?"
She shook her head. "There's something else about Mena Cruiw that I need to tell you." Then she grimaced. "I already know you're going to explode."
I narrowed my eyes and studied her carefully. Carolina wasn't someone whose feathers got ruffled by anything. Even the night Grace's murder was announced; she had barely blinked.
"I…" She hesitated, smoothed out her hair, then her dress, and took a deep breath. "Okay. Here it is—I should have told you about Mena Cruiw earlier than this. The reason I know she's attending our university is because some of the girls heard Cadence had been scouting her to be pledge Zeta Gamma Phi. When they heard that, they called a House meeting. My girls wanted us to recruit her to our House."
Mena as a sorority sister didn't click with me, but I wondered why Carolina seemed concerned. "Why are you telling me all of this?"
She took another deep breath. "I'm telling you because I knew your history with her before I talked with her. It's been on my mind and I feel as if I should've gotten your okay with it. I'm very sorry, Sheldon. I really am, but the House wanted her so bad and I'm not supposed to talk about House decisions with 'outsiders.' They all know her connection with Denton Steele and they loved having him go on that expedition with us. Then they heard you rip into him and no one's holding their breath that you'll be bringing him back around. It's just… I feel dirty and shady about the whole situation."
"Carolina." I couldn't hold back a smile.
"What?" She bit her lip, worried.
"I just realized that we've become good friends. When did that happen?" I had known, but this was the first time I actually felt it.
She laughed, relieved. "You're not mad?"
I shrugged. "How could I be? You're doing what your House wants you to do. I'm just glad that they're not trying to use me to get Denton back around. Mena can hold her own. They're welcome to her."
"Oh." She dismissed. "She turned the Zetas and our House down."
"Really?" I would've assumed Mena would jump at the chance of that acceptance. Everyone knew Grace had.
"I talked with her on the phone and she said she wanted to come back only to learn and be closer to her brother. She has no desire to party or anything. At least, that's what she said. We all know how often that story's the actual truth." She sat back, her shoulders confident once more.
I couldn't help to chuckle. Carolina was normally so self-assured and I'd just witnessed a weaker version of her. "You're never usually wrong, are you?"
But I saw I was right. Carolina never had to feel weak or unsure because she usually wasn't. She saw through the hardest wall and had the mind that could make her the President someday.
"You're not normal. How'd you get so strong?"
Her eyes met mine and I saw the sorrow in them. "My sister killed herself, remember? When you go through that, you either sink or swim. I learned that I wanted to walk on the water."
Just then my phone rang. Bryce's name was flashing back at me, but I silenced it and then texted him. 'Going home. Carolina is with me. Talk to you tomorrow. Tired.'
A moment later, he responded. 'Can I stop over later tonight? Please? Want to see you.'
Then I grinned and enjoyed when I typed, 'No.'
"What's he want?"
"Same old, same old. He wants to come over, says he misses me."
Carolina laughed. "And you enjoy making him work for it."
"Payback's a bitch. He still talks to her, you know."
She groaned. "Bryce or Corrigan. What are you going to do?"
"For now, nothing. I told them both I wanted space."
"And how's that worked?"
I shot her a look, remaining silent.
Carolina shook her head with a knowing look. "So who's really coming over tonight? Bryce or Corrigan?"
"Neither." And I meant it. I hadn't done one sexual thing with either of them. Realizing my feelings had changed for both of them, in different ways, had been the biggest adjustment in my life. I still needed time to figure things out.
"And if I come over tomorrow, I won't be finding Corrigan in your kitchen?" Her voice hardened, "Like I've found every time I've come over in the last two months."
Hell—"That's different. That's about comfort." And it hadn't been every time.
"You need to choose, Sheldon." She glared at me.
"I will…" Someday…
"Choose and do it soon or they're both going to get fed up with the back-and-forth. You go on dates with Bryce, but you sleep with Corrigan. Who is that being fair to? And where's this space that you just talked about?"
I glared back at her. "When you put it like that…" Then I stopped talking. I had no idea what I was doing, but it worked for me, right now. It wouldn't in the future and I knew she was right. Corrigan and Bryce were starting to get restless, for different reasons. Bryce wanted back in, all the way in, and Corrigan kept denying that he didn't want anything more. If his eyes said the same thing, I might've believed him. And I didn't want to think how the situation might've been different if that had been the case.
Carolina didn't say anything more and I was afraid to. I knew she pushed for a reason, but I was choosing the coward's way out. Making a decision would change everything and the thought of that almost made me crap myself. Still…that sleep that I had looked forward to on the ride home never happened. When we go to the Theta Delta house, Carolina squeezed my hand and gave me a reassuring smile before she climbed out.
"Call me tomorrow?"
I nodded and as the car pulled away, a small smile crossed my lips. I'd been calling Carolina almost every day. It felt good to have a friend, an actual one. Then when the car stopped before my gate, I opened my window and coded in the password. As they slid open and I was dropped off, I wasn't home for five minutes before the gate buzzed again.
There sat Denton Steele in the driver's seat of his car. His eyes looked flat in the monitor, and I knew from experience that meant he was angry, more than I wanted to deal with. Still—I sighed and pressed the button to allow him access.
'Here we go.'