The box had been sitting there for seven years. It was the last one. Avery had put it off for that long because she knew what was in it, the secrets it contained, the truth of a past she wasn’t certain she was ready to face.
Size-wise, it had been the smallest box in their shipment. Avery hadn’t known, at 11, that the one box her parents had made her lug around was also the one box she would have the hardest time opening. It was only later, when her mother told her she could keep it and do with it what she willed, that she realized the box wasn’t full of everyday trinkets, but answers.
As she stared at it now, one day before her eighteenth birthday, her arms crossed, gaze steady… she still couldn’t open it. She sighed, dropping her hands to her sides, and shoved the box deep into the abyss of her closet, the home she had made for it over the years. She slammed the closet door shut, wiped her hands clean from the dust that had accumulated, and grabbed the now packed duffel bag from where she had left it on the bed. Nate would be here any minute.
As if in answer to her thoughts, an ancient car horn sounded from outside, and Avery knew, without even looking, that Nate had succumbed to Spencer’s whims. She peeked through the window at the 1965 Mustang convertible, her stomach rolling at the picture of the golden boy at the wheel, her boyfriend beside him, and Blaise, sweet, fiery Blaise, gagging over the side of the car.
Spencer Shaw was many things, but a stellar driver was not one of them.
She shot her parents a text in the family chat, letting them know she was heading out, and stumbled down the stairs to the front door, her shoulder heaving at the duffel bag that was heavier than she had expected. Her phone vibrated before she opened the door. A message from her mother.
Ok, baby. Wish we could be there to see you off. Stay safe and have a fun birthday. We love you.
Her father’s text came in a second later.
And don’t do anything stupid, you little brat.
She smiled at that, at the loving, teasing tone she could practically hear, and stepped out the door.
Nate stood there, perched to ring the doorbell, and stumbled slightly as Avery ran into him. “Oomph.”
“Nate,” Avery hissed, her bag dropping from her shoulder. “The hell? I heard you guys honking the first hundred times.”
He smiled, regaining his balance, and lifted her chin up to meet him. “Hi, sweet Avie.”
She couldn’t help the smile that tugged at her lips. “Hi, you stupid boulder.” She shoved him gently, as if to say get out of my way. He did not listen, only bent down to kiss her. When the kiss did not come, she opened her eyes to find him halfway down the front porch, her duffel in his hand, a wicked smirk on his face.
“Nate,” she groaned, following him to the car. “I can carry my own damn bag. You know I hate it when you do that.”
His eyes twinkled. “Why do you think it’s so much fun?”
He shoved the bag into the Mustang’s trunk and slammed it.
“Hey!” Spencer called. “Baby Ronda does not need your abuse, Nathanial!”
“Since when do you consider a hard pounding abuse, Shaw?” Blaise piped up, her face still green.
He cocked an amused blonde brow. “Is that an invitation?”
“You’re a damn pig,” she spat.
Avery shot Nate a questioning glare, and he shrugged. “They’ve been like this all morning,” he said. “I think it’s the driving.”
“Don’t worry, Blaine, I’ve got all week to change your mind.” Spencer winked and revved the engine.
From the look on Blaise’s face, she looked about to hurl—whether it was from Spencer’s taunts or the driving she was just reminded of, Avery did not know. She climbed in to the seat behind Nate, gently reaching across to grab Blaise’s hand. Her best friend would never admit it, but Avery knew that it soothed her. That the idea of being alone terrified her more than the fear itself. And Avery would do it—she would follow her all the way to hell if only Blaise asked. But today…
“To Havasu?” Spencer asked, grinning as he put the car in gear.
“It’s cute, you know. That you think we’re going to survive all the way there.”
“Come on, Blaine. Have some faith.” He shot her a smile, and even Avery, whose doting boyfriend was only two feet away, felt her heart contract in her chest. Blaise merely grunted and looked away, her head hanging outside the car, because though she wouldn’t say it, not when Spencer smiled like that, she didn’t have faith in his driving.
Not one bit.
After six hours of Blaise’s music on repeat (“If Spencer gets to drive, then I will die listening to my goddamn playlist, thank you very much”), they pulled up into the long driveway of Nate’s lake house. She’d been here a few times before, ever since Nate had moved to La Cañada two years ago and they’d begun dating, but the house never ceased to amaze her.
It was two stories of white marble and windowed walls, with a glass balcony that spanned its circumference. Plush white couches with fur throws, beds made for kings, and jacuzzis that served as bathtubs decorated the interior, but it was the outside, with the dug out stone fire-pit and the infinity pool that seemed to stretch into the lake beyond it, that made this house not just a casual weekend retreat, but a full-blown vacation.
Avery grabbed her duffel bag from the car, refusing Nate’s persistent offer to carry it for her, and followed Blaise into the house. There were three rooms, but only two available for use, since the third belonged to the parents that Nate never talked about, in passing or otherwise. Avery had never met them, but she imagined them as selfish socialites who had given their child everything that money could buy and believed it to be enough. It was a wonder Nate had ended up so… normal.
That is, as normal as someone who looked like Nate Marin could be. They were all beautiful, La Cañada royalty—Spencer with his golden hair and breathtaking smile, Blaise with her flawless dark skin and perfect willowy complexion, and even Avery herself with her red-gold tresses and stunning blue eyes, but Nate… Nate was something else. Otherworldly. He was tanned and surprisingly muscular, with black hair that swept across his forehead and eyes so impossibly green she swore they couldn’t be real. And his full lips…
Were nibbling her.
He was nibbling her.
She squealed, dropping her duffel bag, and turned around. “What are you trying to do? Eat me?”
His eyes sparkled with amusement. “Devour you, sweet Avie. Ravish you,” he purred. “Just say the word.”
She felt her cheeks burn up, and before she could let him see it, she dug her fingers into Nate’s long, dark hair and pulled his face towards hers. Peppermint.
“Ugh,” Blaise grunted from where she lay curled up on the couch. Spencer was nowhere to be seen. A fur pillow bounced off of Avery’s head. “Get a room.”
“I’m glad you’ve given up real estate,” Avery said, turning to her with a smirk. “Because you’ve got a really promising career as a cranky old witch… Margaret Ann.”
Blaise scowled. She had forsaken her birth name years ago, and wrought hell on anyone who mentioned it.
“Speaking of,” Nate said, “have you given any thought to it?”
Avery knew what he was talking about, and she didn’t want to think about it. Not here. Not now. The letter had remained unopened on her table for a week now, and just like her box, she wasn’t sure if she was ready to open it. To know what her future held in store for her.
“NYU,” she said, at last. She couldn’t consider the alternative, that she had actually gotten in to the only other university she had applied to, because that would mean… it would mean she and Nate would have to part ways. And she didn’t want to imagine it. Not yet. “The scholarship’s amazing, Nate.”
“Yes,” he said, searching her face as if he could tell that she was holding something back. “And I would love to have you there with me, but you’ve been talking about Exetus since the day I met you. I can’t hold you back from that.”
“You won’t. Don’t worry. I… I haven’t heard back from them yet.”
He said nothing as his eyes continued roaming her face. Eventually, he sighed. “Ok, Avie. If you say so. Just promise me… promise me that if you get in, you’ll go.”
She wasn’t sure it was a promise she could make, not when it was all the way across the world, so far from everything and everyone she loved, but she nodded anyway. He pursed his lips, considering, then smiled. “Ok. Come on then.”
He grabbed her hand as he led her through the sliding doors outside. A picnic had been set up, complete with four bottles of champagne, one which Spencer was currently chugging from, and…
“Mac and cheese,” Nate said. Her favorite. “I asked Estelle to make some.”
“I hate you,” she said, meaning the opposite.
He grinned. “I hate you too.”
He slid his hands down her sides, clasping his fingers at the small of her back, and for a moment, they just gazed at each other—sea green eyes to arctic blue.
“Nathanial, you look pathetic. Have a drink,” Spencer slurred, shoving a bottle of champagne between them.
Avery stepped back as Nate grabbed the bottle, tilting it in Spencer’s direction. “And you, Mr. Shaw, look drunk.”
“I’ll admit,” Spencer shrugged, “I took a swig of your mother’s vodka.” So that was where he’d been.
Nate cocked an eyebrow. “Just one?”
“One, seven… must we really debate semantics?”
“You’re revolting,” Blaise said, as she stepped out of the house to join them.
“And you’re dying to get me into bed.” Spencer smirked.
Blaise snarled. “Delusional.” She snatched the champagne from Nate’s hand, took a sip, and pointed it at Spencer. “You’re goddamn delusional, Shaw.”
“Am I now?” He approached her, weaving his arms around her waist.
Blaise feigned nausea. “Get away from me.” But Avery saw how Blaise relaxed into Spencer’s arms.
“Mmm.” He nuzzled his head against her neck.
Blaise’s eyes widened in panic. “What are you doing? What the—oh my god, Spencer!” Water splashed everywhere as they tumbled into the pool together.
“Not the champagne!” Nate said, as he watched the nearly full bottle of Dom Perignon disperse into the pool.
“It’s ok,” Avery said, sitting down beside the rest of the champagne. “We have more.”
Three bottles—and the remainder of Nate’s mother’s vodka—turned out to be more than enough. By midnight, Blaise and Spencer were lip-locked in the pool, all sins forgiven, and Nate and Avery were high on champagne and cheese.
They lay on the sheet, staring up at the stars, with Avery’s head on Nate’s tanned chest, and his fingers through her red-gold hair.
“I love you, Nate Marin,” she said silently, her eyes fluttering shut in drunken exhaustion.
Nate’s chest stopped moving. “I love you too, Avery Westcross.”
For a minute, there was silence.
“And happy birthday,” he said, but she was already fast asleep.