I ran from Tristan's room down the hallway with only one purpose—to get as far away from him as possible. I had to get to my bedroom unseen. I couldn't think about what just happened, not yet, not until I'd had a moment to process, and my heart wasn't jumping out of my chest.
Perhaps this was all a cruel joke.
Tristan was known to be an ass. He couldn't seriously mean for me to break up with Preston. I could call his bluff and do nothing.
But the ramifications that would trickle into my life if he did release the photos gave me heart palpitations.
Why would he do this?
Did he hate me that much?
If so, what did I ever do to him?
Was he jealous? Just a vindictive asshole? Was he bored? Looking for a new plaything?
My bare feet sunk into the plush carpet of the hallway as I raced away from Tristan. Only two doors to go and I'd be into the safety of my room. Then I planned to pack my shit and get out of here. I needed a day or two to clear my head, think this through methodologically.
With my mind racing in a whirlwind, I wasn't paying attention and didn't hear Preston's door open, not until I thudded into a hard body. Shit. I kept my eyes averted to the ground, afraid to look up and let Preston see my face. I was filled with shame, but I had done nothing wrong.
Heat colored my cheeks as an awkward silence filled the space between us. Preston's hands were on my shoulder, steadying me, my head spinning. I could tell by his scent he had recently showered and the smell caused a pang in my chest to bloom.
"Uh, Hey, Ev." His fingers drifted down my arms in a familiar caress. "Hey," he said again when I refused to look up at him. "What's wrong? Is this about our fight yesterday?"
Of course, he would think it was about our fight. Why wouldn't he? It was logical, and Preston was a logical type of guy, not irrational and cruel like his brother.
I shook my head, my throat clogged with thick emotion. "It's just been a long night," I tell him, my breath quivering. It was a pathetic excuse, and even I didn't believe me.
Neither did Preston. "Look, I'm sorry about what I said. I've just been stressed with school coming up and having to leave you." He hooked a finger under my chin, rubbing the pads of his thumb along my jawline. Preston was good with words. He knew just how to melt my defenses.
I glanced up finally and gasped. My fingers automatically lifted to the side of his skin-kissed face. "Preston, what happened to your eye?" With a light touch, I skimmed the purplish bruise that had formed. His eye, a beautiful shade of blue and green, was partially closed from the swelling. There was also a small cut at the corner of his lower lip.
Never in my life had I ever seen Preston with a black eye or any kind of injury he hadn't sustained from playing golf or lacrosse. Those brawl injuries had been reserved for Tristan.
"Oh, this. It's nothing," he replied, shaking off the state of his face. Sometimes it was hard to believe Preston and Tristan were brothers. It was more than their opposite personalities, but it was their looks as well. Where Tristan was dark-haired, Preston's coloring favored their mother, a light brown with sunny highlights from long days on the beach. They had the same full lips, but when Tristan smiled, it was menacing as if he always had a secret he was keeping. Preston smile could light up a room. Both brothers stood close in height. Tristan might have an inch on Preston, and each was physically fit, just in different ways.
"Did you get into a fight? Who hit you?" I ran my finger over his bottom lip.
He winced. "I said it's not a big deal. Just drop it, okay?"
I stepped back at the sudden sharpness that leaked into his tone, my hand falling away from his face. Wow. I was done having both Malone's snap at me. I wasn't their punching bag to use when they were feeling prickly or testy. "I'm going home," I told him and moved to walk away.
He reached for my arm, preventing me from turning away from him. The lines of tension were replaced with confusion. "What? Why? School doesn't start for another week."
"Exactly. I have so much to do, to pack."
"I'll help you," he offered, the grip on my arm loosening. "There's no reason why you can't stay here and still get everything you need boxed up. It's not like you'll be taking your whole room, Ev. It's just a dorm. And I'll help you." The softening of his voice only made this whole situation that much harder.
I didn't want him to be nice to me or supportive.
I had to leave before I broke down and told Preston everything. The party. Tristan. The pictures. My mind was whirling. "I don't want you to help me."
"Are you still pissed about yesterday?"
"No. Yes. I don't know. I just need a few days to clear my head."
"Away from me," he added, his aqua eyes swimming with hurt.
"Preston," I groaned. "It's more complicated than that." He just didn't have any idea how messed up my life had suddenly gotten.
His brown brows furrowed. "Does this have anything to do with Tristan?"
"No. Why would it?" I quickly rushed out, my voice going up an octave as my eyes darted to the closed door down the hall.
He shifted on his feet, rubbing a hand at the back of his neck. "Because he came home last night. I thought, maybe you knew."
I couldn't lie to him, but I could avoid talking about Tristan. "I went to a party with Sam last night. Look, Preston, I really have to go."
"Are you sure it is wise for you to be alone in that...house?"
Anger, sadness, regret, and a thousand other feelings flashed through my blood. I hadn't stayed inside that house by myself since the worst night of my life. "I'll be fine," I insisted. "I'm a big girl now, Preston. I have to face it sometime."
"But you don't have to do it alone. You know that, don't you?"
There was no holding back the tears that welled in my eyes. Not now. "I have to do this. Please try and understand." Not waiting for him to try and talk me out of it, I spun and darted down the hall.
"Ev!" he called after me, but I slammed the door to my room closed, drowning out his voice.
I swear, I could hear Tristan laughing in his room.
Or it was more likely my imagination getting the best of me.
Behind the closed door, the panic clawing at my chest finally won. Tears burst from my eyes in waves, streaming down my cheeks. I flopped face-first onto the bed, the pillow soaking up my sorrow, but I didn't care. At that moment, I didn't care about anything. I let the tears take over me, let the pain consume me, and screamed into the down feather pillow.
How the hell was I supposed to break up with my best friend?
* * *
When the tears finally dried, I shoved a bag full of clothes I kept at the Malone's and another full of my bathroom essentials, cosmetics, and personal items. Perhaps the time away on my own would be good for me. Perhaps I'd come too dependent on the Preston and his parents.
Tristan at least thought so.
I threw on a pair of pants and slung the two bags over my shoulders, before I grabbed my phone and keys off the nightstand. I took one last sweeping glance at the room that had become my safe haven—my sanctuary. The Malone's had always wanted a little girl and Anna had been ecstatic when I agreed to stay with them for the summer, mostly because it gave an excuse to redecorate the guest room and spend her husband's money. Anna loved to shop. It was her career. Her words, not mine. And she was exceptionally good at it.
She included me in every single decision, from paint to fabric colors, regardless of my refusal. I hadn't wanted them to fuss over me, but fuss both Anna and Blaine did. In a way, I knew it was because of what I had gone through. They felt sorry for me and their pity had been the very last thing I wanted.
Heaving an exhale filled with sorrow and disbelief, I walked out the balcony door and down the white wooden steps. I was being a coward, refusing to leave out the front door where I might be seen. I couldn't face, Anna or Blaine, Preston either, and I definitely didn't want to risk a run-in with Tristan. Later, once I got home and cleared my head, I'd call or text the Malone's. It was near the end of summer, surely they would understand.
What they wouldn't be able to fathom was my breaking up with their son. Anna had practically been planning my wedding to Preston forever, always showing me magazine photos or mentioning how pretty trailing hydrangeas would be for a beach ceremony. She even had a Pinterest board. It didn't matter that her son hadn't purposed or that we were so young. Anna was confident Tristan and I would be together.
My feet padded over the sandy driveway, the waves crashing from the ocean beyond the house. It was a sound that always gave me peace and I tried to take comfort in the ebb and flow of the vastest part of this world, so much bigger than the problems I currently faced.
I tossed my bags into the backseat of my white BMW convertible, a gift on my sixteen birthday when I thought my life was perfect, the American dream, but even people with money have secrets. I learned the hard way that money wasn't the answer to everything. It could destroy lives.
It shook the shit out of mine.
The drive next door was short and could have been walked in ten minutes. I tried not to think about the numerous bonfires on the beach our families had shared, drinking, laughing, and gazing at the stars. A lifetime ago. And yet, not that long at all.
I put the car in park, killed the engine, and just stared at the three-story dove-gray house with its pristine white shutters. My eyes squeezed shut as I tried to block out all the memories, the screaming, the world-shattering pain, but my heart continued to race, anxiety swallowing me up.
My knuckles clenched the steering wheel.
Maybe I should call Sam, have her stay with me for a few days?
But that would require an explanation of why I was here instead of at the Malone's.
"Shit," I muttered, remembering Tristan had left Sam at Lang's and I'd been too drunk to object. Fishing my phone out of the cupholder, I sent Sam a quick text, asking if she was okay, if she had made it home. Then I added a sorry.
I never should have left the party with Tristan.
The house was wholly silent when I walked in. Empty. Lonely. And full of memories I was desperate to suppress or white-out as if they never happened at all. The usual housekeeper had been given the summer off, while my father was overseas, other than the once a month cleaning to keep the dust at bay.
I dropped my bags on the tiled floor of the entryway and just stood there, a combination of frozen fear and overwhelming sadness. You can do this. Your not a little girl anymore. It's only a few days.
My chin tipped up and took the stairs to my right, heading straight for my bedroom. I needed a shower, a hot cup of tea, and a plan. Being in this house reminded me of one thing—the Malone's were my family. I just hoped they didn't grow to hate me.