( The Fall Away Series #1 )
When one brave young woman stands up to her best friend Jared, now tormentor, the consequences go beyond anything either of them ever would have imagined.
• June 2013 (independently published)
• February 2014 (Penguin Group)
• ISBN: 978-0349405933
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New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Penelope Douglas delivers an unforgettable New Adult romance that toes the fine line between love and hate.
My name is Tate.
He doesn’t call me that, though. He’ll barely refer to me at all, and he’ll hardly ever speak to me.
But he still won’t leave me alone.
We were best friends once. Then he turned on me and made it his mission to ruin my life. I’ve been humiliated, shut out, and gossiped about all through high school. His pranks and rumors got worse as time wore on. I even went to Europe for a year, just to avoid him.
But I’m done hiding from him now, and there’s no way I’ll allow him to ruin another year. He might not have changed, but I have.
It’s time to fight back.
Bully Chapter 1
One Year Ago
“No! Turn here,” K.C. shrieked in my right ear.
The tires of my dad’s Bronco screeched with the sudden, short turn onto a car-packed street.
“You know, maybe you should’ve just driven like I suggested,” I blurted out, even though I never liked anyone else to drive when I was in the car.
As if reading my mind, K.C. responded, “And have you bury your face in your hands every time I don’t launch myself through every yellow light? Not.”
I smiled to myself. My best friend knew me too well. I liked to drive fast. I liked to move fast. I walked as quickly as my legs could take me, and I drove as speedily as was reasonable. I rushed to every stop sign and red light. Hurry up and wait, that was me.
But hearing the pounding rhythm of the music in the distance, I had no desire to rush any further. The lane was lined with car after car, displaying the magnitude of the party we were crashing. My hands clenched the steering wheel as I squeezed into a spot a block away from the party.
“K.C.? I don’t think this is a good idea,” I declared…again.
“It’ll be fine, you’ll see.” She patted my leg. “Bryan invited Liam. Liam invited me, and I’m inviting you.” Her calm, flat tone did nothing to ease the tightness in my chest.
Unfastening my seatbelt, I looked over to her. “Well, just remember…if I get uncomfortable, I’m gone. You catch a ride with Liam.”
We climbed out and jogged across the street. The party ruckus amplified the closer we got to the house.
“You’re not going anywhere. You leave in two days, and we’re having fun. No matter what.” Her threatening voice shook my already unsteady nerves.
As we walked up the driveway, she trailed behind me. Texting Liam, I assumed. Her boyfriend had arrived earlier, having spent most of the day with his friends at the lake while K.C. and I shopped.
Red Solo cups littered the lawn, and people filtered in and out of the house, enjoying the balmy summer night. Several guys I recognized from school lunged out of the front door, chasing each other and sloshing drinks in the process.
“Hey, K.C. How’s it going, Tate?” Tori Beckman sat inside the front door with a drink in hand, chatting with a boy I didn’t know. “Drop your keys in the bowl,” she instructed, returning her attention to her company.
Taking a moment to process her request, I realized she was making me surrender my keys.
I guess she wasn’t letting anyone drive drunk tonight.
“Well, I won’t be drinking,” I shouted over the music.
“And you might change your mind,” she challenged. “If you want in, I need your keys.”
Annoyed, I dug into my bag and dropped my set into the bowl. The thought of giving up one of my lifelines irritated the hell out of me. Not having my keys meant I wouldn’t be able to leave quickly if I wanted to. Or needed to. What if she got drunk and left her post? What if someone accidentally took my keys? I suddenly remembered my mom, who used to tell me to stop asking “what if” questions. What if Disneyland is closed for cleaning when we get there? What if every store in town ran out of gummi bears? I bit my lip to stifle a laugh, remembering how annoyed she would get with my endless questions.
“Wow,” K.C. shouted in my ear, “look at it in here!”
People, some classmates and some not, bounced to the music, laughing and living it up. The hair on my arms stood on end at the sight of all the bustle and enthusiasm. The floors echoed the beat coming from the speakers, and I was speechless at the sight of so much activity in one space. People danced, horse-played, jumped, drank, and played football…yes, football, in the living room.
“He better not ruin this for me,” I said, the force of my voice sounding more forceful than usual. Enjoying one party with my best friend before I left town for a year wasn’t asking too much.
Shaking my head, I looked to K.C., who winked knowingly at me. I motioned towards the kitchen, and we both slithered our way, hand in hand, through the thick crowd.
Entering the huge, every-mom’s-dream kitchen, I spied the makeshift bar on the center island. Bottles of liquor covered the granite top along with two liters of soda, cups and a bucket of ice in the sink. Blowing out a breath, I resigned to keep with my commitment to stay sober tonight. Getting drunk was tempting. What I wouldn’t give to just let go for one night.
K.C. and I had sampled our parents’ liquor stashes here and there, and I’d been to a few concerts out of town where we’d partied a bit. However, it was out of the question to be off my guard around some of these people tonight.
“Hey, Tate! Come here, girl.” Jess Cullen grabbed me in a hug before I reached the bar. “We’re going to miss you, ya know. France, huh? For a whole year?” My shoulders relaxed as I hugged Jess back, my muscles less tense than when I walked in. At least one other person here besides K.C. was excited to see me.
“That’s the plan.” I nodded, letting out a sigh. “I’m set up with a host family and already registered for classes. I’ll be back for senior year, though. Will you save me a spot on the team?”
Jess was vying for captain of the cross-country team this fall, and competing was one experience in high school that I would miss.
“If I’m captain, honey, your spot is secure,” she boasted animatedly, clearly drunk. Jess had always been nice to me despite the rumors that followed me year to year and the embarrassing pranks that reminded everyone why I was a joke.
“Thanks. I’ll see you later?” I inched towards K.C.
“Yeah, but if I don’t see you, good luck in France,” Jess shouted as she danced her way out of the kitchen.
Watching her leave, my face quickly fell. Dread crawled its way through my chest and down to my stomach.
No, no, no….
Jared walked into the kitchen, and I froze. He was exactly the person I’d hoped not to see tonight. His eyes met mine with surprise followed by immediate displeasure.
Yep. I’m totally familiar with that look. The I-can’t-stand-the-fucking-sight-of-you-so-get-off-my-planet look.
His jaw clenched, and I noticed how his chin lifted slightly as if he had just put on his “bully” mask. I couldn’t seem to catch my breath.
The familiar pounding in my chest echoed in my ears, and a hundred miles away sounded like a really nice place to be right now.
Was it too much to ask that I had one night of normal teenage fun to myself?
There were so many times when we were kids, growing up next door to each other, that I thought Jared was the greatest. He was sweet, generous, and friendly. And the most beautiful boy I’d ever seen.
His rich, brown hair still complimented his olive skin, and his stunning smile—when he smiled—demanded undivided attention. Girls were too busy watching him in the hallway at school that they ran into walls. Like actually ran into walls.
But that kid was long gone now.
Quickly turning away, I found K.C. at the bar and tried to fix myself a drink, despite my shaking hands. Actually, I just poured a Sprite, but the red cup would look like I was drinking. Now that I knew he was here, I needed to stay sober around the asshole.
He walked around to the bar and stood right behind me. A nervous heat ran through my body at his proximity. The muscles in his chest rubbed against the thin fabric of my tank top, and a shockwave burst from my chest to my stomach. Calm down. Calm the hell down!
Scooping up some ice and adding it to my drink, I forced my breathing in and out slowly. I maneuvered to the right to get out of his way, but his arm shot out to grab a cup and blocked my passage. As I tried to squeeze out to the left next to K.C., his other arm reached out to grab the Jack Daniels.
Ten different scenarios ran through my head of what I should do right now. What if I elbowed him in the gut? What if I threw my drink in his face? What if I took the sink hose and …?
Oh, never mind. In my dreams, I was much braver. In my dreams, I might take an ice cube and do things God didn’t intend a sixteen year old girl to do just to see if I could make his cool demeanor falter. What if? What if?
I had planned on keeping my distance from him tonight, and now he was positioned right at my back. Jared did things like this just to intimidate me. He wasn’t scary, but he was cruel. He wanted me to know he was in control. Time after time, I let the jerk force me into hiding just so I wouldn’t have to endure any embarrassment or upset. Enjoying at least one party had been my top priority all summer, and now here I was again, dreadful anticipation twisting me into knots. Why didn’t he just leave me alone?
Turning around to face him, I noticed the corners of his mouth turned up. The smile was lost on his eyes, though, as he poured a hefty serving of alcohol into his cup.
“K.C.? Pour some Coke into here, please.” Jared spoke to K.C. but his eyes were on me as he held up his cup for her.
“Um, yeah,” K.C. stammered, finally looking up. She poured a small portion of the liquid for Jared and glanced nervously to me.
As usual, Jared never spoke to me unless it was to bite out a threat. His dark brow knitted before taking a swig of his drink and walking away.
Watching him leave the kitchen, I wiped away the cold sweat that broke out across my forehead. Nothing had happened, and he hadn’t even said anything to me, but my stomach had hollowed all the same.
And now he knew that I was here tonight.
“I can’t do this, K.C.” My weary whisper was a contradiction to the force with which I clenched my cup. It was a mistake to come tonight.
“Tate, no.” K.C. shook her head, probably recognizing the look of surrender in my eyes. Tossing the cup into the sink and making my way out of the kitchen, I weaved through the throng of people as K.C. followed behind.
Grabbing the glass fishbowl, I began digging around for my keys.
“Tate, you are not leaving,” K.C. ordered, every word dripped with disappointment. “Don’t let him win. I’m here. Liam’s here. You don’t have to be afraid.” She was bracing me by my upper arms while I continued my search.
“I’m not scared of him,” I said defensively, not really believing it myself. “I’m just…done. You saw him in there. He was already messing with me. He’s planning something. Every party we go to, or every time I relax at school, there’s some prank or embarrassment to ruin it.”
Still searching for my colorful DNA-shaped key chain, I relaxed the knit in my brow and offered a tight smile. “It’s okay. I’m fine,” I reassured her, my words coming out too quickly. “I just don’t care to stay and see what he’s cooked up this time. The dickhead can starve tonight.”
“Tate, he wants you to leave. If you do, then he wins. He, or that jackass Madoc, might come up with something, but if you stay and stand your ground, then you will win.”
“I’m just worn out, K.C. I’d rather go home mad now than in tears later.” I returned my attention to the bowl. Every time I sifted through a pile of keys though, my hands would bring up nothing resembling my set.
“Well,” I shouted over the music and slammed the bowl back down on the stand, “it looks like I can’t leave anyway. My keys aren’t in there.”
“What?” K.C. looked confused.
“They’re not in there!” I repeated, looking around the room. My money and my phone were in my bag. Two lifelines safe and sound. My other escape plan was missing, and the walls felt like they were caving in. Curses ran through my head, and the weariness that got me running before turned to anger. I clenched my fists. Of course, I should’ve known this was going to happen.
“Someone could’ve grabbed them by accident, I guess,” she offered, but she must’ve known that the odds of that happening were slimmer than people leaving the party this early. Accidents didn’t happen to me.
“No, I know exactly where they are.” I locked eyes with Madoc, Jared’s best friend and henchman, at the opposite end of the room by the patio doors. He smirked at me before redirecting his attention to some random redhead he had pressed to a wall.
Stalking over to him, K.C. followed in my wake as she viciously texted on her phone—Liam probably.
“Where are my keys?” I demanded, interrupting the pursuit of his next one-night stand.
He lifted his blue eyes slowly from the girl. He wasn’t much taller than me, maybe a few inches, so I didn’t feel as if he hovered over me like Jared did. Madoc didn’t intimidate me. He just pissed me off. He worked hard to make a fool out of me, but I knew it was all at Jared’s behest.
“They’re about eight feet under right now. Feel like a swim, Tate?” He grinned wide, showing his dazzling smile that turned most girls into puppies on a leash. He obviously loved every moment of my predicament.
“You’re a dick.” My tone remained calm, but my eyes burned from the anger.
I walked out to the patio and peered into the pool. The weather was perfect for a swim, and people were carousing in the water, so I trekked around the pool looking for the silver glint of my keys through all of the bodies.
Jared sat casually at a table with a blonde on his lap. Frustration knotted in my stomach, but I tried to appear unaffected. I knew every ounce of my discomfort gave him pleasure.
Spying the shimmering silver of the keys, I looked around for a pole to grab them. When nothing could be found, I looked to some of the swimmers for help.
“Hey, would you mind grabbing my keys down there, please?” I asked. The guy turned his eyes on Jared, who sat quietly back, watching the scene, and retreated from me like a coward.
Great. No pole, no help. Jared wanted to see me get wet.
“Come on, Tate. Strip down, and go get your keys,” Madoc shouted from Jared’s table.
“Fuck off, Madoc. You threw them down there, no doubt, so why don’t you go get them?” Liam, K.C.’s boyfriend, had joined her and was sticking up for me like he often did.
I slipped off my flip-flops and stepped to the edge of the pool.
“Tate, wait. I’ll do it,” Liam stepped up and offered.
“No,” I shook my head. “Thanks, though.” I gave him a grateful smile.
One whole year, I reminded myself, savoring the promise. I was going to have a whole year away from Jared.
I dove in hands first, and the water cooled my tense skin. My body immediately relaxed at the pleasure of the pool. No sound, no eyes on me. I savored the peace of it, the kind of peace I get when I run.
I continued downward using the breast stroke. Eight feet was nothing, and I reached my keys in seconds. Clutching them tight, I reluctantly ascended head first, releasing the air in my lungs.
That was the easy part.
“Whoo hoo!” An applause sounded from bystanders that weren’t actually cheering for me.
I just had to get out of the pool and face the whole party dripping wet. They would laugh and joke. I’d endure a few comments, and then go home and eat my weight in Swedish Fish.
Swimming gently to the edge and climbing out, I wrung out my long hair and slipped on my sandals.
“Are you okay?” K.C. came to my side, the wind blowing her long, dark hair.
“Yeah, of course. It’s just water.” I couldn’t meet her eyes. Here I was again. The laughing stock. The embarrassment.
But K.C. never blamed me. “Let’s get out of here.” She locked arms with me, and Liam followed behind.
“Just a minute.” I paused and looked over at Jared, who still had his challenging brown eyes on me.
Walking over to him—something I knew was a bad idea—I crossed my arms and gave him a pointed stare.
“I leave in two days and that’s the best you could come up with?” What the hell am I doing?
Jared fixed me with a hostile smile as he doled out the cards at the table. “You have a good time in France, Tatum. I’ll be here when you get back.” His threat made me want to hit him. I wanted to challenge him to deal with me now.
And I was none too comfortable with the thought of his impending wrath hanging over my head the whole year I was away.
“You’re a coward. The only way you can feel like a man is to pick on me. But you’re going to have to get your kicks somewhere else now.” As I dropped my arms to my sides, my fists tightened as everyone around the table and in the general area witnessed our exchange.
“Are you still talking?” Jared snorted, and snickers erupted around me. “Go home. No one wants your stuck-up ass here.” Jared barely spared me eye contact while he continued to deal cards. The girl on his lap giggled and leaned into him further. The crushing sensation in my chest hurt. I hate him.
“Hey, everyone, look!” Madoc shouted as I tried to hold back tears. “Her nipples are hard. You must be turning her on, Jared.” Madoc’s goading echoed through the backyard, and everyone began hooting and laughing.
My eyes closed with mortification as I remembered that I was wearing a white tank top and was definitely chilled from the water. My first instinct was to cross my arms over my chest, but then they’d know that they got to me. Hell, they already knew. My whole face stung with humiliation.
Son of a bitch.
I’d be going home in tears again. No doubt.
I opened my eyes, feeling flushed seeing everyone visibly entertained by the harassment I’d endured tonight. Jared stared at the table, nostrils flaring, ignoring me. His behavior still puzzled me after all this time. We used to be friends, and I still searched for that kid in his eyes somewhere. But what good did it do me to still hang on to a memory of him?
“Why is she still standing here?” the blonde sitting on Jared’s lap asked. “Is she like “special” or something? She can’t take the hint?”
“Yeah, Tate. You heard Jared. No one wants you here.” Madoc’s words came out slow as if I really were too stupid to understand him.
My throat closed. I couldn’t swallow, and it hurt to breathe. It was too much. Something inside me snapped. I pulled my fist back and popped Madoc right in the nose. He dropped to his knees, hands over his face, as the blood gushed through his hands.
Tears blurred my vision, and the sobs began erupting from my throat. Before I could let them get any more satisfaction out of me tonight, I walked as quickly as possible back through the house and out the front door without looking back.
I got in my car, K.C. climbed in the passenger side and Liam into the back. I hadn’t even realized that they’d followed me. It was on the tip of my tongue to ask about Jared’s reaction, but then I realized that I shouldn’t care. To hell with him.
I looked out the front window, letting the tears dry on my cheeks. Liam and K.C. sat silently, probably not sure what to say or do.
I’d just hit Madoc. I’d just hit Madoc! The novelty of my action was overwhelming, and I let out a bitter laugh. That really just happened.
I took a deep breath and blew out slowly.
“Are you okay?” K.C. looked at me.
She knew I’d never done anything like that before, but I loved the rush of fright and power I felt.
Hell, the last thing I wanted to do was go home now. Maybe a tattoo or something else was in the cards tonight.
“Actually, yes.” It was weird to say that, but it was true. Wiping the tears away, I looked to my friend. “I feel good.”
I reached to put the key in the ignition but paused when Liam chimed in. “Yeah, well, don’t let it go to your head, Tate. You’ll have to come back to town eventually.”
Yeah. There was that.