Chapter 1

Clay

Confetti flies in the air, and I reach down, grabbing three more rolled-up T-shirts out of the bucket.  

“More shirts!” I yell over to Krysten to restock.

The float bobs under me as the crowd cheers on both sides of the street, and I jump down off the step, stopping at the edge as I hold my hand to my ear.  

“Ah!” little girls scream.

“Hi, Clay!” tiny six-year-old Manda Cabot squeals. “Hi!”

She waves at me as her twin sister, Stella, holds up her hands, ready to catch.

A comfortable breeze blows through the palms lining Augustine Avenue, grazing my bare legs in my jean shorts as the potted pink lantanas hang on the street lamps lining the road and fill their air with their scent.

Just your typical balmy, Florida winter evening.   

“We want a shirt!” Stella cries.

I shoot my arm up in the air, my white T-shirt with the word BIG shining in bold silver letters.  

I smile. “You wanna be a Little?” I tease.

“Yeah!” they cry out.

“Then I need to hear it!” I move my feet, doing a little dance move. “Omega Chi Kappa! Come on!”

“Omega Chi Kappa!” they shout. “Omega Chi Kappa!”

“I can’t hear you!”

“Omega Chi Kappa!” they scream so loud their baby teeth damn-near shake.  

Oh, my God. So adorbs.  

I throw them both an underhand toss and resume to dancing to the music as the truck pulls us at a crawl, our float in the middle of a long line of floats, all celebrating the annual Founder’s Day.   

“See you in a few years!” I tell them. “Be good and study!”

“Yeah, we only take the best!” Amy Chandler shouts next me.

Followed by Krysten’s chirp at my other side, “Be best!”

I snort, turning around to grab some more shirts. Balloons dance in the air along the sidewalks, and I toss some more bundles, the tingles in my head helping me play my part as I dance our choreographed little number in sync with Krysten to Swish, Swish.

The rest of our girls walk in front of or alongside the float, dancing along with us in the street, and every eye on us makes the hair on my arms rise. The attention always feels good. Rolling my hips, arching my back, and shaking my body, I know one thing for sure.

I’m good at this.

Our sorority is the biggest in any high school in the state, and while it’s service and academic-based, because that’s what gets us into college, we’re popular for other reasons.

We know how to look good doing what we do.

Whether it’s washing cars to raise money for cat saliva research, hosting the football team’s annual pancake breakfast, or helping clean Angelica Hearst’s house and do her laundry, because she just had baby number four from daddy number four and she’s overwhelmed—bless her heart—we get it done Instagram-style.  

Krysten and I falter in our steps, laughing as we grab some more shirts and toss them to our future little sisters out there in the crowd.

“You see how fucking drunk they are?” Krysten says under her breath. “Again?”

I follow her gaze, seeing her boyfriend, Milo Price, smiling and sweaty in his backwards baseball cap and flushed cheeks, which was his tell that he’d had beer tonight.

Callum Ames stands next to him, grinning with his arms folded over his chest and watching me like something that’s already his.

Maybe. We’d make a decent picture at prom, in any case. That alone will make it worth it.  

I swipe my water bottle out from under the paper mache clown fish and take a swig, the burn already intoxicating as it courses down my throat. Just the taste eases my nerved.

“I’m going to kill him,” Krysten gripes.

His eyelids are hanging low. I almost laugh. Poor girl.

“Wait until after V-Day,” I tell her. “You need a date.”

She has to hang on to him for ten more days at least.

Taking the bottle out of my hands, she throws back a swallow as I grab her shirts and toss them to waiting hands.

Music and laughter surround us, the confetti gun shooting another bomb into the air—blue, pink, silver, and gold fluttering like snow.

“God, that stuff is good.” She hands me the bottle back. “Goes down like water.”

“As long as you don’t drink sixty-four ounces a day, got it?” I joke, taking one more drink and capping my new favorite brand of vodka, the perfect liquor to be disguised in my Evian bottle.  

She scrunches up her face in a funny smile, her apple cheeks perfect and long chestnut hair in a messy bun on the top of her head.

“What would I do without you?” she teases.

I chuckle. “The only thing any of us need is a little love…” I lean in, whispering, “from the right bottle.”

She laughs, and we both hop down from the float, leaving Amy to man it, while we join the girls in the last chorus of the dance.

My head floats a few feet above my neck, the “help” we just drank giving me just the right buzz that I’d sweat off in twenty minutes, but enough to put a spring in my step.

Callum and Milo follow us, Callum watching me move as I step and tease him with my eyes. Little girls cheer us on, looking up at me like I’m something, while a couple guys hover close together, staring at me and whispering between them.

I move in ways our facilitator will certainly hear about on Monday, but I don’t care. I rub in their face something they’ll never get.

Because even at twelve, strutting down a pageant stage in a bikini, I knew what my power was. There’s no confusion.  

“We love you, Clay!” some of my classmates scream as I lead the group and finish the dance.

I close my eyes, soaking up all the phone cameras recording us and the pictures that would survive of Clay Collins long after I was gone. Images that will show who I am far louder than I can ever tell.

Homecoming Queen.

Prom Queen.

Cute, while I last, and Omega Chi sweetheart.

That’s me.

I open my eyes, immediately seeing myself in the window of a parked car at the curb. I bring up my hand, pushing the lock of blonde hair back in place.

We all have to be something, I guess.  

***

“Are you sure you have to go?” Krysten says from the back seat of Callum’s Mustang. “Have you even slept the past twenty-four hours?”

I climb out of the passenger side seat, and shoot her a look as Milo sits next to her, hanging his arm around her.

I slept last night. Minus a couple hours to finish readying the float.

I close the door and lean on the convertible, meeting Callum’s eyes in the driver’s seat. “Get her home safe?” I ask.

God knows, Milo’s too dumb to do it.

“Maybe,” he taunts.

“Then maybe I’ll think about coming to your birthday party in couple of weeks.” I swing my bag over my shoulder and dig inside, pulling out a wipe to clean the sparkly Greek letters off my cheeks. “Still haven’t had a proper tour of your parents’ lake house,” I tell him. “Heard you have a really big… shower.”

He flashes that winning grin we’ll see when he accepts his Heisman someday. “Big enough for ten plus me.”

Yeah, okay.

He sits there, that confident gleam in his eyes like everyone wants to be near him, and he’ll wait for me to realize that.  

“Come here,” he urges.

Slowly, I lean in, giving him ninety, so he only has to give me ten and still look like the man, and he kisses me, coming in again and again, his wet tongue grazing my bottom lip before he pulls back.

Holding back, so I’ll come running for more.

“You were amazing tonight, babe,” Milo said, squeezing Krysten. “You both were.”

I hold Callum’s eyes as I stand upright again. “Thank you for coming.”

“I think they liked it,” he says. “You dancing for me.”

I smile, backing away toward the dress shop.

He shifts the car into gear, takes off, and I spin around, wiping off my mouth.

I hate kissing. Wet and slobbery like a damn slug flopping around my mouth.

I pull open the door to Lavinia’s on the Avenue and stroll in, tossing the wipe out on the sidewalk behind me.

The streets of St. Carmen still buzz with foot traffic, cafes and local hot spots swarming with people enjoying a quiet night with friends al fresco. The parade ended more than an hour ago, and even though it took us that long to get our gear cleaned up and Amy’s father to get the float clear of the gridlock and on his way home finally, I still wasn’t done for the day.

I walk into the boutique, gowns displayed on mannequins as I cross the white carpet and pass the reception desk, my mother sitting in the lounge area.

She spots me. “Talk tomorrow,” she says into her phone.  

“I’m here now,” I tell her, knowing she’s going to whine.  

“I’ve been waiting an hour.” She rises from the white cushioned high back chair and sticks her phone into her handbag. “Call next time.”

I chuckle under my breath as I keep walking and she follows. It’s not like I can control how fast the parade moves.  

Her chunky gold and pearl bracelet jingles as she enters the dressing area behind me, and I set my bag down next to the chair near the floor-length mirrors. I glance at her in the reflection, noticing my gold necklace draped across her tanned chest, visible in her flowing deep V-neck blouse.

Coiffed golden hair, perfectly tailored black slacks that hug her three-spinning classes-a-week ass, and squeaky-clean right down to her trimmed cuticles. My mother’s body hasn’t seen a carb other than champagne in at least twelve years. Pretty sure it’s in cryo-freeze at this point, simply relying on eggs and hair spray to animate.

In ten minutes, I’m on the riser in front of the mirror and wearing the debutante gown my mother had designed for me.

“Oh, Lavinia,” she says, holding her hands to her cheeks as she circles me. “You’ve outdone yourself. It’s exquisite. I love it. The detail…”

I look away from my image in the mirror, clenching my jaw as hard as I can to contain myself.

My mother rushes up to me to as the older lady remains back, taking in her work and looking for any final fixes.

“Clay?” My mom urges me. “What do you think?”

I look down at her, struggling to keep my emotions from bubbling up my throat. I fold my lips between my teeth, about to burst.

She doesn’t care what I think. She wants me to lie.  

“It’s, um…” I choke on the words, a snort escaping. “It’s so beautiful. I’m speechless.”

And I can’t do it anymore. Laughter pours out of me as I take in the big, fat hoop skirt monstrosity in the mirror that makes me look like Scarlet Fucking O’Hara, complete with puffed sleeves and some dumb ass ruffle around the waist. I’m tempted to look for the stains of Lavinia’s tears of laughter all over the dress as she sewed this bullshit.

I hunch over, my stomach tight as I try to rein it in.

My mother glares at me.

“I’m sorry,” I gasp, fanning myself. “My emotions are running wild. I’ve waited so long for this.” I plant my hand to my heart, recovering. “Lavinia, can you bring me some gloves and a pearl necklace? I need the whole picture. I’m so excited.”

The corners of her eyes crinkle with a tight smile, but she nods, quickly leaving the room to fetch the accessories.

It’s not technically her fault. My mother approved the design.

The two of us alone, my mother steps up on the riser in front of me and twists the bodice, jerking it until it’s straight.

“I thought for sure I’d look like a cupcake,” I tell her, trying to catch her eyes. “Now, I almost wish I could say that I looked like a cupcake. You know that white stuff that spills out of a heroine addict’s mouth when they’re overdosing? That’s what I look like.”

She meets me eyes, her blue slightly paler than mine as she continues to yank at the dress. “You chose your homecoming gown,” she points out. “And you’ll choose your prom dress. The debutante ball is mine.”

I knew I should’ve gotten this over with two years ago when she wanted me to.

My body jerks as she situates the dress on me, and I stare over her shoulder and into the mirror. The back of her blonde head can easily be me in twenty years.

“You won’t be able to tell me from the rest,” I say, coming as close as I can to begging her.

Every other debutante will be wearing white, and while the fabric is rather pretty on mine—lacy with pearl accents—the design is embarrassing. All the debutante dresses reek of Stepford.

“That’s kind of the point,” my mom says. “Tradition. Solidarity. Community. Unity. You’re coming out as a member of society, and a society functions on standards.” She smooths her hands down the fabric, pressing out any wrinkles. “You need to learn that rocking the boat puts everyone on board in danger.”

But that’s what boats are built for.  

I sigh, not sure why I decided to let her have this one. I get my way, because my mother picks her battles and any battle with me that lasts more than three minutes is too much effort.

I could fight her on it. Maybe I still will.  

“Do you need a Xanax or something?” she asks.

I laugh under my breath and look away. Gigi Collins, everyone. Chairwoman, socialite, and schoolboard president.   

She puffs my sleeves, and then presses a hand to my stomach. “Hm.”

“What?”

She purses her lips and walks around me, inspecting. “I was going to have her take it down to a four, but a six is already a squeeze, isn’t it?”

Heat spreads down my skin, and I clench my jaw.

Her phone rings from her bag on the chair, and she heads for it, waving me off. “We’ll leave it, I guess.”

Picking up her bag, she digs out her phone and answers it, walking past me and leaving the room.

I rub my eyes, listening to her chatter out in the waiting area about whether or not we should have a crepe station for my school’s Easter brunch in two months.

Looking up, I stare at my huge skirt in the mirror, bored with this entire look that’ll live forever and come back to haunt the shit out of me in years to come.

I lift up the skirt, cringing at the white stockings and fugly satin heels, and then I spin, taking in the back of my gown and the obnoxious corset lacing that should really be buttons instead.

God, I should’ve taken that Xanax. Why the hell do I want to make her happy when she’s out to hurt my feelings like this?

Twisting the other direction, I see someone leaning against the archway and stop, meeting Olivia Jaeger’s eyes.

She holds canvas bags stuffed with tulle and ribbon, her aviators sitting on top of her head as she clearly struggles to hold back her amusement.

I tip my chin up. “Come here,” I tell her, facing the mirror again.

I hear her lose the bags, and after a moment, she comes around my front, facing me.

“Pin the hem,” I instruct. “It’s still dragging, so bring it up another quarter of an inch.”

Hands on her hips, she hesitates like it’s a choice and then drops to a squat, pulling a pin off the cushion secured to her wrist.

But before she grabs the dress, I pull it away from her. “Wash…your hands first.”

I shake my head as she shoots me a look.

I mean, really. If she’s learned anything, crossing the tracks into St. Carmen every day to attend one of the most prestigious schools in the state the past three and a half years, it should be some common sense. They certainly teach that at Marymount.

Rising, she walks over to the round table and pulls a wipe out of the package, cleaning her fingers. The Jaegers were born with grease under their nails, so better to be safe than sorry.

Approaching me again, she drops down, blowing the lock of hair that came lose from her pony tail out of her face, and folds the hem, pinning it up.

I tip my head back and smooth my hair into a fist high on the top of my head, twirling it into a bun and holding it there. I check myself in the mirror.

Her fingers tug gently at the fabric as she moves to the next spot, and my heart beats harder, every pore on my body cooling with a sudden sweat.

I let my eyes fall, watching her at my feet.

Her jean shorts. The dusky olive skin of her toned legs glowing in the light of the chandelier. I trail my gaze over her messy jett ponytail and the red tint of her lips as she bites the bottom one, concentrating on her task. Her black and white checkered flannel lies open, and I pause at the low V of her gray T-shirt underneath as it dips between the smooth, pore-less skin of her…

I tip my chin up, looking in the mirror again. Is she even wearing a bra, for crying out loud?

She lifts up my skirt to just past my ankles and steals a peek. “You should lose the stockings,” she tells me, going back to pinning. “And the shoes, too, for that matter.”

I turn a little, jutting out my shoulder and trying to decide if the dress looks better with my hair up or down.

“Imagine what the world would have to come to for me to take fashion advice from a white trash, rugsucking, swamp rat like you,” I reply.

The black, leather calf-high boots are kind of cute and all, but I’m pretty sure everything she’s wearing is whatever she could scrounge up from someone’s hand-me-downs.

I feel her eyes on me, and I look down, seeing a little gleam in her eye. Kind of amused but mostly a warning that she’s making a mental note of all the shit I say to her for a rainy day.

I’m shakin’, Liv. Really, I am.  

“If I take off the stockings,” I explain. “I won’t be properly dressed. The women in my world are ladies, Olivia.”

“You’ll feel it on your legs, though.” She looks back down to her task. “It’ll change how you carry yourself.”

“What will? The sticky, noxious sweat of a Florida in May on my naked thighs?”

The debutante ball is in May. The humidity will be a nightmare, despite the air-conditioned banquet hall hosting it. Like she knows anything.  

What was Lavinia thinking anyway? The first thing any business owner sells is themselves. What impression does it give for Olivia Jaeger to be working here?

“Afraid I might be right?” she taunts.

I roll my eyes. Please. The only thing I’m afraid of is wasting time.

But I stand there, letting my hair fall down my back again, and watch her. I’m not sure why, but I kick off my heel and set the ball of my foot on her knee.

Prove it then.

She stops. Tipping her head back, she looks up at me, her honey brown eyes unblinking.

“I can’t bend over in this dress,” I tell her.

Fisting the skirt in my hands, I start to pull it up, past my knees and up my thighs to wear the garter secures the stockings.

She holds my gaze for another moment, and then she reaches up, unfastening the clips.

Her fingertips brush the skin on the inside of my leg, and my flesh pebbles, chills breaking out everywhere. I suck in a breath, and she darts her eyes up to mine, as still as me.

Don’t stop.

I lock my jaw, and she stares at me, the heat spreading across my cheeks.

“I don’t have all day,” I chide, trying to hide my reaction.

Her chest rises and fall slowly, and then she peels the stocking down my leg and off my foot, followed by the other one, both of my shoes laying strewn on the floor with the nylons.

Walking to a nearby shelf, she scans the heels and grabs a pair, pointing to the chair near the mirror.

Indulging this, I step off the riser and have a seat as she plops down on the floor and searches for my right foot under the dress.

I hike up the skirt again as she slips the heel on, almost amused that she refuses to look. I know she wants to. My legs are just as nice as hers, the only difference is she likes to look at ones that don’t just belong to her.

It’s amazing she’s endured me as captain of the lacrosse team this year, especially when she’s probably the better player, and I haven’t made anything easy on her.

But that’s how it is. Effort, focus, hard work…they mean very little when you’re lucky like me. Saints don’t mix with swamp trash.

I gaze at her as she straps the heels on me, the tiny mole on her face, between her ear and the hollow of her cheek, bringing out the gold in her skin. I’d never noticed that before.

She puts my foot back down, and I draw in a breath, standing up and heading back to the riser again. The dress rubs against the sensitive skin of my legs, now bare, and it’s as if every inch of my body is alive and aware of itself.

Almost like I’m naked in my bed, only feeling the sheets.  

I grow warm.

Holding up my skirt, I look in the mirror, the gold heels with the thin, jeweled straps making my skin glow, and I fight not to smile, because they feel and look worlds better than the other shoes.

However…

“They don’t go with the dress,” I tell her. “But I’m hardly surprised you’re so bad at this, given the shit you wear.”

I reach around my back, trying to untie the corset as she stands there with her hands on her hips.

“You’re right,” she says. “You need a new dress now.”

I almost snort. Well, we agree on that.

Unable to reach the laces, because the corset is too tight for me to move, I twist around, planting my hands on my hips.  

“Unlace it.”

She steps up, pulling the bow and loosening the corset, so I can push it down and off my body.

“Tell Lavinia to call me when the alterations are done,” I instruct, “and tell her to take it down a size.”

“It fits you perfectly.”

“To a four, please,” I snip as I pick the dress up off the floor. “And remove this flower.” I grab the one at the center of the bodice. “Are we repurposing wedding dresses from 1982 or something?”

But she’s not paying attention. She stands back and stares at me, and when she turns and checks my reflection in the mirror, I follow her gaze.

The simple hoop skirt wraps around me, thin and absent of bows and ruffles and lace, while the strapless white bustier corset hugs my breasts almost too tightly and covers my stomach, leaving an inch of skin between that and my skirt.

If it weren’t obvious that they were undergarments, they might be kind of hot.

Lifting up my hoop skirt again, I check out the bare legs and shoes, Liv’s smile looking like the one I was feeling.

I could live with something like this, I guess.   

“I could make it for you,” she says. “But better.”

She moves in, placing a hand on my tummy, and I ignore the skip in my heart.

“Maybe a little see-through here with some embroidery,” she explains, “piece them together, and some layering to give it dimension. Tighten up the bodice with some light and subtle gold accents to compliment the shoes…”

I envision it in my head as we look at me in the mirror.

For some reason, I have no doubt she’ll pull it off if I let her, and I’d even love it.

If I let her.

She turns her eyes on me again, standing in front of me and looking up and down my garments.

“We can keep it this same shade of white.” She gestures to the gown in my arm. “It’s a perfect color, really.”

She meets my eyes, looking at me dead-on.

“You won’t even see the cum stain when he drunk-ejacs all over you in the backseat of the car after the ball,” she says.

The ever-present knot in my stomach pulls tighter, and I hold her gaze, unfaltering. Excuse me?

“Because ladies in your world don’t talk about those things.” A smile curls the corner of her mouth as she inches in, whispering, “You just go home in tears and do things with a pulsating shower head that God didn’t intend sweet, little southern girls to do.”

My blood runs ice cold, and I grit my teeth, the heat of her breath an inch away falling across my lips as I curl my fingers into fists.

“Try it tonight,” she taunts, staring at my mouth. “You might like it.”

I stop breathing, the pulse between my legs starting to throb.

She snatches the dress out of my hand, and I suck in a breath as I watch her not miss a beat as she steps backward off the riser and starts to leave. “See you at school, Clay,” she says.

Look for Tryst Six Venom—coming soon!