That’s how long it’s been since I took my last breath. Since my eyes found the worry on the face in front of me. Thirty seconds was all it took for me to realize I was in love with Rex.
Such a small amount of time for such a monumental revelation. The funny thing about time, sometimes it passes soul-crushingly slow. Other times it goes in the blink of an eye. There’s no rhyme or reason. Time, like Life and Death, does what she wants.
Thinking back to the last eight weeks, she flew by faster than hummingbird wings beating over a hollyhock. Faster than she’s moved my whole life, and now, in this moment, Time has slowed to a crawl.
People say that, before events of extreme trauma and almost death, your life flashes before your eyes. I think that’s what’s happening, only I don’t see my whole life. Except for a few key moments, it’s been shit and not worth remembering. Instead, I see the last eight weeks.
I. See. Rex.
He made these last two months memorable. His persistence and damn near electric touch made me feel things I didn’t know I was capable of. He brought the light when I was consumed in darkness. He saved me in every sense of the word.
It’s my turn to save him.
Just one second after my life-altering revelation, a bullet no bigger than my thumbnail will shoot out of a slate black barrel. And if I let it, that tiny piece of metal will snuff out Rex’s light. Darkness will consume him, devour me, and I’ll be left with nothing but a broken heart and shattered will to live. I can live with dying inside, but I can’t let the darkness take him.
The arm keeping me from Rex loosens as a fat finger moves to pull the trigger. My spine no longer presses against a stomach, round from too much whiskey and gas station food. A chill slides through me. Sweat on the small of my back icing over as the cold lobby air blows our way.
This is my chance.
I can’t hesitate. I lunge myself forward milliseconds before the boom of the pistol echoes in the lobby. I’m sure the hotel’s guests hear it, I can’t see how they didn’t, but to my knowledge no one is downstairs with us. The concierge lady ran away ages ago. The kitchen staff is probably hiding and anyone who might have been making their way to an early breakfast has likely taken cover. None of this matters. Whoever they are, they don’t matter.
The only person I’m worried about is Rex.
Pain pierces my shoulder, rippling throughout my chest. My hands find Rex’s shirtless body, touching his silky skin for what probably will be the last time. I shove him out of the way and fall to the ground, the wind is knocked from my lungs.
Please let me have reached him in time.
I roll onto my back and struggle to fill the empty spaces inside with air. Each breath tangles with fire that seeps into every crevice of my being. My lungs fill, air pressing down on me with the force of an elephant. I exhale, bubbles rumbling beneath my chest, and attempt to take another breath.
“Stupid bitch.” Our assailant says, barely a foot away. His voice is lost, muffled as if it’s on the other end of a tunnel.
I should see more, feel more, but the world’s hazy. A blur of swirling colors and lights. A dark shadow towers over me. I want to see the face, but it’s a pit of darkness. This is the moment I realize that I’m about to get what I wanted. Well, used to want. Death has finally come to take me away.
Only I'm not ready to go anymore. I need to know that Rex is okay. That I saved him. My life has meant nothing. I’ve done nothing purposeful, but to die in place of someone I love would make my miserable existence worth something. I turn my head, searching where I think he should be, but I can’t see anything.
Icy fingers curl around my wrist. I shiver, mentally willing death to leave me be, begging her to give me five more minutes. A chill slithers through my veins like venom from a snake, paralyzing me from head to toe.
The shadowy figure above me leans closer, “Piper.”
I’m the school slut. It’s a title I wear—not proudly—but because it’s what’s expected of me. Everyone at St. A’s High School knows my bio-mom, Monica, is a whore. A real screw-you-for-money whore, that slept with the physics teacher last week.
Thank you, Facebook, for tagging me in that humiliating article.
They also know that Monica was arrested for all of two seconds before making bail, thanks to her pimp, and the John she got caught with. He just so happens to be my first-period teacher this year. So, on top of the daily whispers spread about me, that mess is going around, too.
I’m used to my name being in everyone’s mouth. It’s been that way since the third grade. Back then, people talked about my dirty nails, how skinny I was, and how my best friend was a boy. In high school, the daily gossip changed to where I moved to, what alleged drugs I’m on, and eventually, who I’ve spread my legs for. When last year’s rumor started—the one about me giving a killer blowjob for fifty bucks—no one doubted it. Why would they? I’m the girl with a whore for a mom. The girl from the wrong side of the tracks.
There’s the rich side of town where my classmates live, the good side of the tracks, and then there’s that side. It’s like the shadowy place in The Lion King Mufasa warned Simba to stay away from. Yeah…Monica lives there.
Anyway, not long after that rumor about me started, I figured, what the hell. They say when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. I was given stupid, horny boys. So, I made money.
For the record, I’ve never actually touched anybody. At first, I turned down anyone who approached me; but there have been a select few I’ve said yes to. The most selfish, arrogant, disrespectful guys in our school get special treatment.
Underneath the shadows of the stadium bleachers, they dropped their pants, exposed their less-than-exciting junk to me, and then I kicked in the balls. Those jerks fell to their knees, cursing my name while I took all the cash from their wallets.
It is the perfect hustle.
Anyway, all of this is why Tad Parker is staring me down. Captain of the baseball team, running back on the football team, and a total tool. Bloodshot eyes narrow on my face, expecting a different answer to this morning’s question.
“It’s still a hard no, Tad.”
I stop walking and cross my arms. While I’d love to take the pretty boy for all he’s got, I’m trying to turn a new leaf and make the most of what’s left of my senior year. I don’t expect to fix my reputation, but I’m trying to change how I see myself. Which means no more pretend illicit acts for money.
Tad rolls his red-rimmed eyes and pulls a brown leather wallet from his back pocket. He thumbs through his cash, offering more twenties than I’ve held at one time in my entire life. “Come on, Piper. I’ll make it worth your while. Five hundred dollars, right now, for five minutes in the bathroom.”
Tad’s a good-looking guy if you’re into that classic blond-haired, blue-eyed, prince-charming wannabe with the attitude of Gaston. He has no shortage of self-entitled princesses throwing themselves at him. I don’t understand why he’s chasing me.
I shake my head and push his arm back. My checking account may be teetering on the edge of zero, but I’m not this desperate. “Why not hit up one of the JV cheerleaders? They’d jump at the chance to get tangled up with you. For free.”
“Because they aren’t Piper-fucking-Lovelace. Now come on.” Tad’s hand curls around my arm. He squeezes, pulling me toward the stadium bathrooms, and it sets off a chain reaction within me.
My airway constricts. Bats swarm in my stomach, threatening to bring up the vending machine cinnamon roll I had after fourth period. I detest being touched; it sets off a catalyst of reactions that steadily get worse. My one and only thought at this point is to make Tad let go.
I dig my heels into the ground and yank my arm back, but my efforts go unnoticed. I try to pry his fingers off me, punch him, kick him in the leg, but nothing I do makes a difference. Tad’s too strong. Even with my best attempt at a struggle, he almost effortlessly drags me clear across the parking lot.
My hands tremble, sending vibrations up my arms and throughout my body. I need help. I hate asking for help almost as much as I hate being touched, but I don’t have much choice. I look to my left and then to my right, but there’s no one in sight. No one to hear my screams. I try anyway, opening my mouth to yell, but nothing comes out. This can’t be happening. I swallow the tiny bit of saliva in my bone-dry throat and try again.
Nothing but air.
Beads of sweat drip down my neck as the feeling of impending doom lingers. The memory of a crooked grin I’ll never forget flashes before my eyes, amping the intensity of my breakdown.
I spent a good part of this year in counseling to learn how to manage my panic attacks and finding ways to keep everyone from noticing my freak-outs, all for those skills to fail me when I need them most. Tad makes me feel like I’m trapped, watching from the outside, as I lose all control.
Logically, I know it’s been more than three seconds. It has to have been, but I’m stuck in a time warp. Everything happens at a snail-slow pace yet lightning fast at the same time.
Tad pushes me against a wall near the girl’s bathroom at the stadium. He lets go of my arm and presses his hands on either side of me, caging me in. I realize this situation probably isn’t going to end well, but my anxiety begins to subside. As close as Tad is, he’s not touching me anymore.
I can think again.
Pain surges through my arm like a lightning bolt. It was probably there the whole time, but I didn’t notice it before. I’m going to have five little bruises in the shape of his fingers, but I don’t move to soothe the throbbing. I hold my ground, fists balled at my sides, and stare up at him.
“I'm not above dragging you into the bathroom, but I don’t want to do that. I just need you to go in there with me, Piper.” Tad rests his forehead against the wall, his breaths loud and shaky beside my ear.
“A thousand dollars,” he says suddenly, turning his head, begging me with his eyes to concede. “Walk in there with me. Please. That’s all you have to do.”
If my heart wasn’t already racing, it would be. That’s a lot of money, enough for a ticket out of town and a few nights at a cheap motel. It’s not nearly enough to pay Monica’s debts, but it would put a dent in them, and maybe even keep everyone off my back a little longer.
I don’t know, though. Whatever rumor is bound to start about me would be gone in eight short weeks, but this situation doesn’t feel right. Something’s off. “I need that money. More than you can imagine, but no.”
Tad beats his fist on the bricks beside me. I flinch, but he’s so lost in himself that he doesn’t notice. “What the fuck, Piper? I’ve offered you ten times more than your worth. If you don’t go in there, I’m gonna be...” He shakes his head.
“I don’t want—”
Tad turns to me again, this time crashing his lips onto mine. He tastes like cigarettes and tuna fish, two things I hate. His hands push into my hair, tangling and pulling my roots and bile creeps up my throat.
I don’t want this.
I don’t want him.
No! I bite down on the tongue invading my mouth and press my palms to Tad’s chest, pushing as hard as I can. He stumbles back a step and stares at me, wide-eyed, shocked that I rejected him.
“You bitch!” He raises his hand and slaps me across the face. “You don’t want to do this the easy way, fine. We can do it—!”
“Hey!” A deep voice booms from my right. A wide, tall body comes out of nowhere, physically shielding me with its massive frame while a hand shoves Tad’s shoulder.
Tad loses his balance and stumbles a step to the right. “What the fuck do you want, Montgomery?”
Rex Montgomery—the owner of said voice—reaches behind him and puts a protective hand on my hip. With everything happening, my brain doesn’t seem to register the touch. It can’t; it’s too stunned that he, of all people, came to my rescue.
I mean, the man is a living work of art. At six-foot-four, Rex towers over almost everyone at St. A’s. Teachers included. It’s a known fact that he played ice hockey at his last school, and rumor has it he’s already been drafted to go semi-pro next season.
Every inch of him is carved from gold. Not really, but I hear his muscles are drool-worthy. Add to that near-perfect body a strong jawline and an angled nose. Yeah, girls swoon just from hearing his name. I’ll admit, I might be one of them too, sometimes, but never in public.
“Leave her alone,” he growls.
Tad snorts. “That’s cute. You sticking up for the trash. This bitch doesn’t belong here, Rex. All girls like her are good for is a quick lay.”
“Fuck you!” I yell.
Rex squeezes my hip, probably trying to be reassuring. Oddly enough, it works. A calm settles over me, releasing an unexpected smile. What the heck is happening right now?
“Tell you what, you can take her into the boys’ bathroom first. When you’re done, I’ll do my thing with her in the girls’. My treat, man.”
Rex swings, catching Tad off guard with a right hook to the eye. He moves like a shark. Agile. Quick. And with precision. He swings again, hitting with enough force to knock Tad back a step.
I stand there, mouth open, eyes gaping as if this is the first time I’ve witnessed two boys throw down. I’ve seen fights before. Hell, my tattoo artist runs a backyard fight club once a month that, once upon a time, I used to go to.
But this is different.
The rage in Rex’s eyes is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s terrifying and unbelievably hot at the same time. I couldn’t tear my gaze away even if I tried.
Tad grunts and lunges forward, hitting Rex in the stomach with his shoulder, but he barely moves. Rex punches him in the side, once, twice, then slams Tad’s face onto his knee.
Tad falls to the ground, panting, blood seeping from his nose and a cut on his brow. He took a hell of a beating, and I have no clue how he’s still conscious. Must be all that practice getting his ass handed to him on the football field. Defeated, Tad holds a hand up in surrender.
All of this is going on and I’m over here less than three feet from the action, fighting the urge to jump up and down like a freaking cheerleader. Something has to be wrong with me today. I’ve never been the preppy ra-ra type. I’m more of a glare-at-you-from-a-distance kind of girl, but watching Rex kick Tad’s ass has me feeling some kind of way.
“Since you were too stupid to listen the first time, I’ll tell you again. Piper is closed for business,” Rex growls. “You will not stop her in the hallway or corner her when she’s alone. Your days of talking to or thinking about Piper are done. If I find you in the same room as her outside of class, I’ll kick your ass three ways from Sunday. Got it?”
All the bubbly feelings I had watching Rex kick Tad’s ass disappear. Reality smacks me in the face with a horde of questions.
What does Rex mean by the first time?
Is he the reason everyone has left me alone the last few weeks?
What the hell is going on!?
Tad spits blood onto the ground and nods. “Got it.”
“Good,” Rex says, rising to his feet. “Now get the hell out of here before I beat the living shit out of you again.”
I watch Rex while he watches Tad walk away, guarding me until that low-life is out of sight.
Rex turns. His dark brown hair, short on the sides but long enough to run your fingers through on top, blows in the rare Florida breeze like he’s in a shampoo commercial. Under normal circumstances, I’d make fun of him for it, but I’m too stunned to speak. My mind’s still tripping over the fact that he saved me, that he touched me, and that my pulse is racing faster than a greyhound from the way he is still looking at me.
“Are you okay?” Rex takes my chin between his thumb and forefinger to examine my face.
My breath catches. Not because I’m anxious, but because the feeling of impending doom isn’t there. There is no tightness in my chest or nervous shakes. No needles shooting down my spine or fuzziness in my head. Instead, there’s an electric current pulsating between us that I’ve never felt before, similar to my anxiety needles, yet different.
“I’m fine.” I’m not fine. My skin is on fire, the space between my legs aches, and I’m a confused mess.
Rex is the first person to touch me this year who doesn’t send my body into shock. His skin on mine should ignite a catalyst of crippling reactions. Instead, heat spreads from my cheeks down to my core. Awakening parts of me I thought died long ago.
Rex drops his hand. Deep blues study me, combing over every feature. My insecurities bubble up: the bags under my eyes, the scars on my arms, some hidden beneath a colorful tattoo, others still visible to all who look beyond the dozen rubber bracelets.
“Wanna get out of here?” He asks with zero traces of hidden innuendo.
Another first. The only time guys—who aren’t the Harris twins—talk to me is to ask for a favor. An unfortunate hazard of my reputation.
Please don’t let Rex ask a favor.
Shit. I must have zoned out. No, I don’t want to leave with you because I don’t know what’s going on with me! I shake my head, hoping I didn’t actually say those words aloud.
Rex smiles, revealing two deep, beautiful dimples.
The overwhelming need to have his hands on my body consumes me. Tears prick the back of my eyes again because, for the first time in a year, I want to be held. What’s worse, I want to be comforted by him— the hot almost-stranger who saved me.
I hate it.
I like it.
I don’t know how to take it. I’ve gone so long learning how to cope with the anxiety of unwanted touch that I forgot how to react when it’s desired.
I look up at Rex unsure of what to do next. Should I say thank you? Is that enough? I mean, what he just did, saving me, is huge!
“Can I walk you inside? I’m sure Cooper wouldn’t want you by yourself after that bullshit. And I…” he rubs at the back of his neck. “I don’t want to leave you alone. You know, in case Tad comes back.”
“Okay.” My voice cracks, sounding nothing like its usual calm, collected self. Rex steps closer and tucks me under his arm. There’s a bubble in my chest, but I can still breathe—still function.
I think I’m nervous.
Go figure. The hottest guy in school that I’ll never have a chance with is ushering me inside and now my brain starts to act like a teenage girl. If I can’t get this under control, I’m screwed.
Rex angles his body to shield me from eyes that might be watching as we cross the parking lot. The smell of musk and clean linen swirls in my head. It’s delicious. I sniff again, committing the scent to memory because the likelihood that I’ll be this close to him again is slim to none. Even if Rex can touch me without causing a debilitating panic attack, handsome, popular guys don’t actually like girls like me.
They just like the way we make them feel.