“Hey, baby girl.”

 

Well-rounded bass beats wrap around me, accented by the purr of Barrett’s classically red Ferrari while he trails me along the sidewalk.

 

“Hey.” I clutch my MacBook and folder a little tighter to my chest and slow my walk, hips rolling high. 

 

He idles down the avenue, unaffected by the traffic that steadily stacks up behind him. 

 

“You need a ride?” His sharp jaw jerks casually toward the sky. “Looks like rain.”

 

I’ve waited close to a year for this moment. Two more months and I turn sixteen. Two more months before Dad will buy me my first car, and I wouldn’t have had a reason for this perfect moment to happen. Talk about a close call.
 

I turn my head to eye the line of cars behind him, my pale blonde hair drifting in the breeze. 

 

Barrett applies the brakes, much to the disgust of the man behind him, and comes to a complete stop. “Come on, Lacey. Jump in before I start a riot.”

 

I don’t live far enough away for this fantasy. I’ve dreamed of the day that Barret Reed would pick me up on my way home from school. Played out my every move in my mind: which way I’ll sit to showcase the length of my legs, how I’ll rest my hair over my shoulder, the angle of my body so if he wanted to he could peek over at the cut of my uniform blouse.

 

Rich boys like honey. I’m as sweet as they come.

 

The detail I overlooked is that our residence is eight blocks from Prep. The journey might take me fifteen minutes by foot but in Barrett’s car? Not enough time to work this to my full advantage.

 

I step off the sidewalk and reach for the handle of the 458 Italia. Barrett straightens in his seat, one hand slung casually over the steering wheel as he appraises me from head to toe. I dress no different than any other girl at Riverbourne Preparatory, yet I know I have one feature that sets me apart: I’m a petite five-foot-four with hair naturally the shade of summer rays and a sweet face that gives me a distinctly innocent charm.

 

My mother calls me her “blessed doll.”

 

I tuck my legs demurely to the right and set my MacBook and folder beside my feet. Barrett eases the car up to speed, his gaze flicking my way as I smooth out my short, pleated skirt and then offer him a smile.

 

“Thank you. It would have been terrible to get wet if I was caught out.”

 

His lips curl up on one side before he glances purposefully at my crisp white blouse. “I don’t think it would have been that bad.”

 

I feign a shocked laugh. Inside, I ache to know what it would have been like to have Barret’s hungry eyes on my wet blouse, taking in every curve and dip of my body.

 

With a shock of dark brown hair that he styles into an upward wave, the sides shaved to showcase his sharp jawline, Barrett Reed is one of the most sought-after boys in our year. Not to mention his father owns a chain of department stores that gross hundreds of millions every year. What girl wouldn’t want that kind of access at her disposal if she married into the name?

 

My gaze falls to his full lips before I turn my head and stare out the windshield at the tree-lined avenue while we pass by the two-storey stone colonials that make up our neighbourhood. We’re new money, the Williams family, yet the area we live in is distinctly old. Most of these townhouses were built at a time when people showcased their wealth with a few prized possessions here and there. As the decades went by, two homes were converted to one and so on until the joined townhouses sometimes take up an entire block.

 

“Will you be there tonight?” Barrett asks, his brow firm as he studies the road. 

 

“At Libby’s?” I give him my full attention—boys like that.

 

“Yeah.” He glances across, his eyes dipping to the hem of my skirt.

 

I turn my body toward him a little so that it rises on my thighs. “I’ll be there. I’m meeting Greer at her place beforehand.”

 

“Cool.” He makes a forced sounding cough. “Greer’s nice, huh?”

 

I frown. “She is.” Does he say that because he likes her? Or because he tries to make conversation?

 

I decide to test the theory. We slow for an intersection, pulling to a stop behind a white Range Rover. I lean back in the plush leather seat with a sigh and bring my left hand to my collarbone, selecting a lock of hair with my first two fingers and delicately twirling it around the tips. Back arched and hips back, I pop my chest and wait.

 

Barrett releases a slow, deep sigh as we pull away again.

 

Just like that. My mum may not have taught me much, but she did show me how to use my feminine charms to my advantage. To be honest, I’m surprised I had to wait this long for one of the targets to make a move. Four boys with their future pre-paid and planned for them. Four boys with more at their disposal than they know what to do with, which is why they need a girl by their side to help them manage it. A girl like me.

 

Also one of the Chosen. 

 

“Are you going alone?” I set the lock of hair on my shoulder and turn toward Barrett once more. 

 

He glances down at where my hand rests between us, so close to touching him that surely, he can feel the heat of my body against his. “I’m meeting the others there.”

 

“You could give us a ride then?”

 

His eyes light up as he regards me with a smile. “Sure.” His large hand encases mine and sets it on his thigh.

 

My chest is too tight to breathe. I’ve done it. I’ve played the game right, obeyed the rules, presented the perfect front for these boys, and now my future is close to guaranteed.

 

I won.

 

“Your place is the next block, right?” He frowns ahead.

 

I turn a little to keep my hand connected with him and survey the ave. “Yeah…” My word drifts off on the breeze that cuts through the open window. I take in the police car parked outside our townhouse with a frown. What the hell?

 

My hand drifts from Barret’s leg, and I lean forward as we near. The cruiser is most definitely right outside our front door. A cold wave washes through my veins. What if somebody’s hurt? Dad was working from home today, but he could have gone out with Mum, or maybe Colt has been involved in an accident.

 

“Do you know what’s going on?” Barrett pulls in two parks behind the cruiser, the rumble of his car dying to a quiet purr. “Why are they here?”

 

“I have no idea.” My words fall as a whisper, lost in the small confines of the car when I step out and walk toward our steps in a daze.

 

“Lacey!”

 

I turn, hair tangling in my face, to respond to Barrett.

 

“You forgot your things.” He climbs out of the car, my MacBook and folder in hand. 

 

The door of the Ferrari shuts with a solid thud after he nudges his hip into it. I take a step forward, yet stall when I note Barrett’s shock.

 

This isn’t good. My gut plummets as I spin on my heel. Dad? 

 

“What’s going on?” I cry, racing toward where two policemen assist my cuffed father from our house. “Why are you doing this?” I direct my anger toward the nearest cop.

 

He releases Dad’s arm to restrain me by the shoulders. 

 

“Lacey,” Dad calls from behind him, making his way down the steps. “It’s okay.”

 

“Why are you in cuffs?” I cry. “Where’s Mum?”

 

“She’s inside.” Dad glances toward the cop who still has him restrained, offering a silent plea to be let go.

 

The policeman obliges, releasing Dad so he can take a step toward me. His usually bright eyes are dull, his dusty brown hair messed up as though he’s run his hands through it repeatedly. I reach out and straighten his suit jacket, setting his collar evenly over the lapels. 

 

He sighs out his nose, chin dropping. “Everything will be fine.”

 

Why don’t his shaky words convince me of that, then? “What’s happening?”

 

I sense Barrett behind me before Dad looks over my shoulder to acknowledge him. “Barrett.”

 

“Mr Williams.”

 

Dad’s gaze drops to the ground between us, seemingly a million miles away. He snaps back to me, nods, and then takes a step back to offer his arm to the policeman again. “Your mother will explain everything, Lace.” His chin lifts, the look of pride I’m accustomed to finally returning to his handsome face. “I love you, baby.”

 

“Love you too, Dad.”

 

My feet are frozen, not a single muscle in my legs willing to co-operate as the policemen load my father into the back of the cruiser. My brow twitches, my throat thick, yet I don’t shed a single tear until the car is out of sight, lost behind the lines of expensive vehicles parked down the sides of the avenue. 

 

“Lacey?” Barrett asks carefully. His hand rests on my upper arm, his body close behind mine. 

 

What do I say? What on earth do I tell him?

 

How do I explain this when I don’t understand it myself?

 

Mere minutes ago, I was on cloud nine believing I’d done my family proud by attracting the attention of a boy whose family wealth could ensure our own survives the turmoils of a first generation. Now… Now I’m a stupid girl playing pretend when the reality of it all crashes over me like a bucket of ice.

 

I don’t know a damn thing about what happens behind closed doors in our family. The police don’t come and arrest a person with no reason, and they sure as hell don’t wake up one morning and think to themselves, “You know what? It must be James Williams’s turn today.”

 

My knees buckle. 

 

Stuff pretences.

 

I bury my face in my hands in an attempt to block out the reality of the world around me and burst into tears. My body jerks with each sob wrenched from lungs that don’t seem capable of gaining enough air.

 

I vaguely make out the metallic scratch of my MacBook as it touches the sidewalk. I topple off balance, crashing into Barrett’s embrace. 

 

“Hey.” His firm hand makes smooth sweeps of my hair. “It’ll be okay.”

 

I cry harder. I don’t want to be consoled like a damn child. I want the truth, yet at the same time, I don’t. 

 

I want to know how serious this is, and yet I also want to stay ignorant to the details so I can continue to pretend that maybe, just maybe, this is all a huge misunderstanding.

 

Tyres crunch over leaves in the gutter, the loud growl of an engine cutting out seconds before the slap of shoes on the road. 

“What the hell is going on?” Colt. 

 

I tear away from Barret, gravitating toward my brother on instinct. I need something familiar. Something I know and something that makes me feel safe.

 

I need my best friend.

 

“Talk to me, sis.” Colt envelops me in his hold, his long arms circling my tiny frame. 

 

I clutch at his shirt, hiccupping through my panic. 

 

“Your old man got led away in handcuffs, bro.”

 

I can’t see either boy’s face, but the tension between them… Damn. You’d struggle to cut that with the sharpest of knives. 

Colt’s chest stiffens against me, his arms banding tighter. “Fuck. They came today?”

 

I jerk away to look up at him with tear-stained cheeks. My makeup is no doubt a mess, but I couldn’t care at this moment. “You knew?”

 

He eases his hold on me. I slip away and stand between Barrett and Colt, eyeing my brother as though he’s a stranger. Perhaps he is?

 

“Some of it,” he confesses. “Yes.”

 

My beautiful brother. My dusty blond prince. He was the one who protected me from as far back as I can remember. My hero. My failsafe.

 

How many other lies has he kept?

 

“Why didn’t you say anything?” I whisper.

 

Barret stoops to pick up my things. “Lacey. You two can discuss it later. Give this time.”

 

I spin on him, equal parts astounded by what he suggests and the look of concern I’ve never seen him take with anyone—ever. “How much time, exactly?” I snap. “Because I don’t see how I feel about this getting any easier.”

“Where’s Mum?” Colt asks, locking his silver SUV.

 

“Inside.” I don’t recognise my voice. Who is this cold and angry girl?

Colt strides past us both to head indoors, leaving me alone on the sidewalk with Barrett. I take my things from him and glance toward the neighbour’s windows. How many of them watched? How many of them knew too?

“Would you like me to come in?”

Head down, I stare at his perfectly polished boots. My hair tangles around my neck; my blouse sits crooked. For all I know, my skirt shows half my arse, but again, stuff pretences. Who cares about appearances when your father just left in handcuffs?

“No. Thank you for the offer, though.” I glance at the Ferrari. “And the ride.”

He stuffs both hands in his pockets as though unsure what to do. “Any time. When should I pick you and Greer up?”

He saw what happened, right? I stare at him, brow furrowed and eyes hard. “I’m not going anywhere tonight.”

Not until I find out when my father will come home.

“I’ll get Greer to message you her address so you can still pick her up,” I say dismissively, turning toward our home. 

“Yeah,” Barrett says curtly. “Whatever.”

What did you do, Dad? 

What happens now?

Continue reading here ...

 

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