Isn't She Lovely Page 11

But her blatant dismissal of me hits a raw spot. Does she think I’m not aware that I’m a little too glib sometimes? This girl doesn’t know me. She can’t possibly understand that the charm comes on without me intending it to, even when inside I feel anything but charming.

Does she really think I don’t look at my life—at the cushy apartment I don’t pay for, the classes that come a little easier than they should, the CEO position that’s just waiting for me—and feel exactly what she’s accusing me of?

Substance free.

It burns a little, because she’s right.

Sometimes I think I’m nothing but a decent-looking package for other people to fill up with their garbage. From my parents, who spoon-feed me my future in exchange for a nice allowance, to my friends, who demand a ringleader.

And then there was Olivia, who never put any overt pressure on me—never asked me to be anything other than what I put forward. But we both knew that what I put forward sure as hell better meld with the image of our families. That meant learning how to schmooze your father’s clients before you could ride a bike. It meant Saturdays spent on the golf course with family friends when all you wanted to do was play video games. It meant escorting your perfect girlfriend to her debutante ball. And it meant figuring out a way to get good grades, regardless of whether you actually learned anything.

Hell, even when I rebelled I did it the right way. Even when I put my foot down and refused to do my usual summer internship at the company, I didn’t do so by putting on coveralls and working at an auto repair shop in Queens.

No, my form of rebellion was a f**king film class with an Academy Award–winning screenwriter who went to college with my daddy.

Stephanie Kendrick is right.

I have no substance.

And even worse, I don’t know the first place to start in actually acquiring any.

Something soft touches my arm, and I realize that it’s Goth. Her slim fingers are on my bare forearm, her black nail polish against my tan skin is hot, and despite the fact that she’s pissed me off, I want to know what her fingers would feel like against the rest of my skin.

I shake her hand off, and she lets me, but her blue eyes never leave my face.

“Sorry,” she says simply.

“For what?”

“For saying you were substance free.”

“Yeah, I can tell from your tone you’re really torn up about it. Zombies have more inflection.”

She tilts her head a little as though I’m a puzzle. “Would it be better if I fluttered my eyelashes? Maybe added a couple of adverbs? I’m soooooo sorry, Ethan, you absolutely must forgive me.”

I laugh a little in spite of myself, because she sounds exactly like every other girl I know, but coming from her scowling face and black-rimmed eyes, it’s all wrong.

“I don’t know that I like you,” I say, surprised to see that my hand has gone out to tug a piece of her hair.

She looks a little startled at the gesture, but her eyes seem to soften slightly and she gives me a tentative smile. “I’m shocked. I thought for sure you were going to ask me to be your tennis doubles partner.”

“Price, you out there?”

We both turn toward the sound of my name being called, and I recognize Joe and Gary walking toward us. Joe’s got that stupid grin on his face that tells me he’s way past sober, but Gary merely looks puzzled, and that’s worse.

“Where the hell have you been?” Gary demands. “Isn’t this supposed to be your party?”

It’s only “my party” because I pay for the beer—always—but I don’t argue. And I don’t blame Gary for being confused. Sitting out in the backyard during a party isn’t typical behavior for me. Sitting out in the backyard with someone who looks like she belongs in The Addams Family is even less typical.

He gives Stephanie a curious glance, but at least he doesn’t ogle and then ignore her; instead he reaches out a hand. “I’m Gary.”

“Neat,” she says snottily, as though daring him to question her presence. I don’t know if she smokes, but if she pulled out a cigarette and blew smoke in his face, I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised. The scene had that kind of feel.

“Sorry to steal away your Golden Boy,” she says, pulling her hair back in a ponytail, a gesture that attracts undue attention to her cle**age. Joe’s practically drooling, but Gary and I are made of classier stuff and barely sneak a glance.

Okay, a long glance.

“So, you guys are … friends?” Gary asks.

I feel a little clutch of panic. How the hell do I explain this? I can’t say that she’s just a tagalong with a great rack, marking her as one-night-stand material—they’d eat her alive. But if I brush her off altogether, I’ll look like a dick.

Stephanie solves the problem for me.

“Not friends,” she says succinctly. “I just stopped by in hopes of scoring a free drink, and he told me to scram.” She’s already moving back toward the side of the house, ready to make her escape. “Don’t worry, your boy Ethan here would never slum it with someone like me.”

Now hold on just a goddamn minute. Who said anything about slumming it? Sure, her presence is a little uncomfortable. And yeah, I don’t exactly want everyone to know that I’m hanging out with the film nerds for the summer. But my social group isn’t that snobbish.

Well, okay, maybe they are.

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