I can hear the music long before I pull up outside the house, the thumping bass like a living, breathing thing pulsing through me. When I come to a stop and slip off my bike, I stare up at the three-story beachfront property, taking it all in like I do each time I’m invited over.
Music radiates outward and throngs of people are visible through the large windows that face out to The Strand and the beach. They spill out from the open doorways onto the multiple decks and patios on each level, laughing and drinking and dancing along with the beat.
I always wanted to be invited to these when I was in high school, the Lucas Pearson parties that were all anyone could talk about on Monday mornings after a wild weekend. The stories were almost unbelievable.
Sex in the rooftop jacuzzi.
Illegal fireworks off the front patio.
Cops stopping by to hang out.
It always seemed like something from a movie about high school rather than a real thing that could have been possible, but I never knew if the hype was true or just the result of the teenage gossip mill because I wasn’t really a part of that clique. Instead, my time was spent oscillating between helping my mother at her salon and writing anywhere I had a few minutes to sit down and put pen to paper.
A few times, I thought about showing up. I mean, there were supposedly hundreds of people. Nobody would notice if I just grabbed a drink and stood in the corner, right?
But I always chickened out, sure if I were to attempt anything like that, I’d be seen as exactly what I’d feel like: an imposter. An unwelcome outsider, mooching off of the extravagance of people who live in a world that feels very different from mine.
Which makes the fact that I’m regularly invited to these events now almost laughable.
Last summer, Lucas’ sister Hannah started working at Bennie’s, the upscale pub at the pier where I’ve been waitressing for a few years, and we became almost instant friends. Apparently, that means I’ve been placed on some kind of VIP list, because now I get regular texts about everything: birthdays, engagement celebrations, holiday parties, etc.
The message I got about the full weekend of events called tonight a Pre-Fourth-of-July-Palooza. It’s only Thursday, and there is something going on here every day and night through Monday, when the festivities will conclude with the annual fireworks show from the pier.
Not that I’ll be able to be here for all of it.
Not that I’d want to be here for all of it.
Even if I wasn’t supposed to be working all weekend, which I am, it still feels like just way too much for me. Too much partying. Too much alcohol. But mostly, too many people.
I’d much rather tuck into a corner with a good book or snuggle into an oversized armchair with my manuscript and lose myself in some other universe, some other world where I can be someone wild and carefree, someone who says exactly what is on her mind without worrying what other people think.
After I lock my bike against the railing of the neighbor’s front porch, I make my way inside, navigating through the throb of bodies on the patio and in the downstairs living room, people who are dancing and drinking and laughing.
There are plenty of familiar faces, and I say a few hellos as I head up the stairs to the second floor in search of my friend, ultimately finding her in the kitchen with a group of people I’ve known since middle school.
“Eleanor!” Hannah shouts, beaming when she sees me. “I’m so glad you’re here!”
Her boyfriend Wyatt smirks at me as Hannah flings her arms around my shoulders. “Hannah’s kinda drunk tonight.”
“It’s the margaritas!” she says, her voice loud and her smile wide. “They don’t even taste like there’s alcohol in them.” She cackles a bit maniacally, and everyone in the circle laughs as well.
“Someone needs to learn to hold her alcohol,” Rebekah says, laughing as she pours tequila into shot glasses and begins passing them out.
“Oooooh, tequila!” Hannah’s eyes sparkle as she reaches out for one.
“Last one, and then it might be time to call it a night, Morrison,” Wyatt tells her, rubbing his hand on her thigh.
She harumphs but doesn’t protest.
“Alright everyone, pick a shot, any shot, and we are going to officially celebrate the start of the holiday weekend!” Rebekah says, her voice loud and catching the attention of people around us.
Everyone grabs a shot, including me, and we all raise them up.
“What do we toast to?” Lucas asks.
“Independence Day, idiot.”
Lucas rolls his eyes at Aaron’s remark.
“To a wild weekend!” Paige finally shouts.
Everyone seems to like that one as a bunch of cheers fly from various mouths before we tilt our shots back. The tequila bites and I wince, setting my now empty shot glass on the counter and reaching for a lime to chase it with.
“You know, it doesn’t matter how many shots you do, it never tastes better,” Rebekah says as she reaches past me to snag a lime as well.
I laugh. “Yeah, I’m more of a wine person myself.”
“Well then let’s grab you a glass!” she says, a wide smile on her face that matches Hannah’s, and then she’s taking my hand in hers and pulling me over to the bar in the corner where there are at least a dozen bottles of wine sitting out, untouched.
“Do people just not like wine?” I ask, surprised that this much alcohol could manage to be completely ignored at a party this big.
Rebekah laughs. “Who wants to sip wine at a house party?”
I think that over as she peruses the bottles, not really knowing how to answer other than pointing out the fact that she’s helping me pour a glass of wine to sip at a house party. I figure that’s probably a waste of my time.
“Ooooh, this one’s great. Do you like cabs?” She shows me a bottle, and my eyes widen.
Working at Bennie’s, I’ve gotten intimately familiar with the extensive wine list, and the one in her hand is easily several hundred dollars a bottle, if not more.
“Yeah,” I reply. “But that’s a pretty nice wine. I can pick something else.”
She looks back down at it and shrugs. “It should be fine.”
And then she’s cutting the foil off, uncorking it, and snagging a wine glass from above the bar.
“How come you never came to these things when we were in high school?”
My eyebrows rise in response to Rebekah’s question, surprised that she would notice I wasn’t around back then. I think it over for a minute before I answer, waiting for her to finish pouring my glass and hand it to me.
“I guess…I just didn’t know if I was invited.”
It’s only a partially honest answer. If I were being completely truthful, I would have said, I didn’t think I was invited. Full stop.
Rebekah nods her head like she understands. “Well, I’m glad you’re here now,” she tells me as she pours her own glass of wine. “It means I’ll have someone to drink wine with instead of those horrible tequila shots.” She clinks her glass against mine and takes a very long sip.
I don’t point out that she literally just got done asking me why anyone would sip wine at a house party, but I definitely consider the point in my mind. Maybe she actually wants to drink wine but feels like nobody else would do it, too? Not that it should matter.
I sigh and swirl my glass again, watching the red liquid streak along the inside, then give it a little sniff and take a sip. It’s incredible. Better than any wine I’ve ever had before. Bright and dark at the same time with the right amount of tannins to make it pinch at the back of my jaw.
A perfect glass.
“I’m surprised you’re not doing shots of tequila.”
I look to my right, and something unfamiliar shifts through my stomach at the sight of the handsome man who has come to a stop a few feet away.
He is…gorgeous. Tall and muscular, his forearms flexing as he adjusts the watch on his wrist, and I can’t help the way my eyes scan him over with appreciation, taking in his well-groomed beard and full lips.
But it’s his eyes I find the most striking, and I feel my stomach dip low when he looks at me. The rich chestnut color seems so bright in comparison to the thick, black eyebrows that hover above them, and for just a brief moment, I feel lost in his gaze.
Clearly that tequila shot has already hit me.
“If you’d have been here ten minutes ago, you would have seen just that,” Rebekah replies, giving him a drunk smile.
He rolls his beautiful eyes.
“Eleanor, this is my brother Reggie,” Rebekah says, gesturing between us. “Reg, this is my friend Eleanor. She’s the one you have to thank for the fact that I’m drinking wine instead of pouring more shots. Because she is classy.”
“Ah, well, thank you for saving my sister from an even harsher hangover,” he says, pinning me with that inscrutable gaze once more before returning his focus to Rebekah. “Though I’m sure you’ll still be feeling it at brunch tomorrow.”
Her face freezes then falls. “Fuck. I completely forgot about that.”
“Which is why I’m here—to make sure you get home in time to drink a gallon of water and get a decent night of sleep.”
“But I don’t want to go,” she says, dragging out the last word and then taking a large swig of the wine as if in protest.
“Look, if I have to go, you do too. Especially if this Audrey thing is really happening.”
Rebekah’s nose scrunches. “What Audrey thing?”
“Mom invited her.”
She pauses, her jaw dropping. “She did not.”
Reggie nods. “She texted me about it this morning to let me know, and I quote, to make sure we have a chance to not let our love go to waste.”
Rebekah shakes her head. “She can’t ever not meddle, can she?” She sighs and takes another long sip from her glass. “Sure you don’t wanna skip out on brunch? We can both say we’re hungover and then you’ll totally bypass the Audrey problem.”
He crosses his arms. “Nobody would believe it if I skipped because I partied the night before. That’s your M.O., not mine.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Rebekah laughs, then pauses. “Too bad you don’t have a date or something. Maybe then Audrey would fuck off back to where she came from.”
Reggie snorts. “Too bad I don’t have a girlfriend, because that is the only way I’m going to convince mom—and apparently Audrey—that things are truly over between us.”
I watch them like a tennis match, my gaze volleying back and forth as they talk about whatever this family drama entails.
“Eleanor could do it.”
I blink a few times, feeling confused, like I might have missed a sentence. They’re both looking at me now, and I take a step back, even more certain that I missed something.
“Eleanor could do what?” I ask.
“Be his girlfriend,” Rebekah replies, gesturing to where Reggie is crossing his arms, his eyes assessing me, as if that’s a completely normal thing to say. “It’s just for a brunch with our family. Well, and Audrey. You can run interference.”
Reggie’s eyes meet mine after looking me up and down for an extended period of time. “What do you think?”
“What do you mean, what do I think?” I ask, sure that, again, I must be misunderstanding something, because this all sounds made up, like something that doesn’t occur in real life.
“Oh please do it,” Rebekah says, a smile on her face. She starts bouncing on her toes. “You can sit between us and then I won’t have to talk to Chelsea about her stupid husband’s problems in the bedroom.”
I wrinkle my nose.
“Trust me, that’s how I feel when I hear about it, too,” she grumbles before she starts giggling. “This is going to be so much fun!”
“She hasn’t agreed yet, Becks,” Reggie says, eyeing me.
“But she’s going to, aren’t you?” Rebekah loops her arm through mine.
“I’m sorry, can you just…” I pause and take a deep breath, doubly sure the tequila had to have hit me harder than I thought. “Can you please clarify? Because I… Are you asking me to…”
“Be my fake girlfriend? Yes. That’s exactly what I’m asking.”
Reggie continues to watch me with those beautiful eyes as I just stand there, feeling completely shell-shocked.
Well, I guess I wasn’t misunderstanding them after all.