I was not prepared for a house this swanky. As I stood outside on the wide, wraparound porch, I couldn’t help but gape at the glamorous dark paneling and white trim. Rentals--especially party rentals--usually came with shabby carpet and dripping refrigerators. Judging by the exterior, this Jersey Shore mansion was none of that. It was movie-level luxe, and I was staying here with my friends for an epic prom weekend.
“Yes!” I whispered.
My best friend, Aubrey, who had been standing shoulder to shoulder with me, opened the door without knocking. I stepped forward to catch the door before it closed behind her, the porch planks creaking in my wake. Crisp, cold landscaping lights shot up from behind the green bushes, illuminating the commanding white columns at the front of the three-story house.
“Kylie, you coming?” Aubrey had both hands wrapped around the crossbody strap of her overnight bag, like her clothes were about to make a break for the beach.
I shrugged my considerably lighter bag higher on my shoulder and walked inside. “This place is ridiculous.”
“Right?” Even in the low light of the huge foyer, I could see that Aubrey was beaming. Her auburn hair was pulled tight into a perfect ballerina bun, but she sauntered toward the living room with the grace of a newborn giraffe.
The tip of her shoe snagged on the rug, and she pitched forward. The sofa caught her before I could.
“Rug?” Her laugh was clear and high. Nothing was going to ruin this weekend for her.
I needed to get in the same mindset, even if this plush furniture and the wildly ornate candlesticks sitting on the mantel above an oversized fireplace made me feel even more out of place. My house had a standard stoop, not this wraparound porch fanciness.
“Who rents out a party house and leaves so much breakable stuff?” Overly trusting adults, I guessed.
Aubrey shrugged. “People who have money to burn.”
“People ready to make a quick ten grand off seniors.” Aubrey’s boyfriend, Cam, sauntered into the house behind me. He let out a low whistle at the interior.
“You mean like ten thousand dollars?” Even saying that number aloud made my throat squeeze.
“Wait, so Kylie didn’t front the cash?” Cam didn’t bother disguising his sneer. He’d buzzed his hair a couple weeks ago, and it somehow made him look meaner.
Aubrey planted a fist on her hip. “Don’t be a dick.”
“What? I’m kidding.” He rolled his head from side to side, like he was preparing for a fight. “Kylie, the house is covered. Don’t freak.”
“That’s not an apology,” Aubrey muttered.
This was supposed to be our first weekend of freedom. But within seconds of stepping inside this incredible party house, Cam and Aubrey were already sniping at each other.
“Don’t babe me.”
He shuffled closer to her. His shoes screeched against the hardwood floor. “Let it go, Aub. You wanted to do this.”
He cradled her face in the palm of his hand, and I had to look away. This is what they did. A fire and ice routine that left her crying every other weekend. Jabbing at each other until he made promises he wouldn’t keep. I started toward the stairs. Aubrey’s pouty “I wanted to have the prom you promised me” followed me, but I didn’t look back to see if she was caving to his dimples.
This rental was the most secluded house I’d ever seen on the Jersey Shore. We were out on the end of a long road and right up next to the beach. Which was great, knowing how loud we could get when we partied, but I wasn’t supposed to be alone here with just Cam and Aubrey for company. Especially not when they were already going at it.
“Liam? Holli? Rory?” I started shouting my other friends’ names to see who might call back. A precursor to the round of Marco Polo we’d most likely play in the pool after we got back from the dance.
“Noah told me he’s already here. He’s probably staked out primo digs upstairs.” Cam’s voice was raspy behind me. I turned and found him and Aubrey standing at the top of the stairs; Aubrey’s cheeks were heated. That resolved itself quickly. She pulled her phone from the front pocket of her oversized weekender. A swipe and a trio of taps later, she announced, “Dani and Hudson are already here somewhere, too. Rory is stuck in traffic, and everyone else is in her car.”
“Everyone?” The tightness in my chest tried to strangle the word. Seven of our friends were joining us for the weekend: Noah, Dani, Hudson, Rory, Holli, Vic, and . . .
Aubrey got a dimple in her cheek when she smiled. “Even Liam.”
“Oh, good.” Though I could tell my cheeks were burning, Aubrey didn’t call me out. Liam was my boyfriend, but we hadn’t been dating long, and I knew clingy wasn’t a good look. “He thought he’d be here first.”
Aubrey darted past me. “Did anyone call dibs on rooms beforehand?”
“This is a finders, keepers situation, Aub.” And the sooner I found a room to claim, the sooner I could distract myself with prom prep. I was banking on Aubrey pinning my deep brown hair into a prom-worthy updo. She’d brought the flat iron for some 1920s-style finger waves but promised she wasn’t going to burn my ear again. Third time’s the charm, right?
And speaking of prom-worthy, I couldn’t believe I’d landed my dream date. Liam and I had had classes together for years, but we’d only started dating a month ago. I almost hadn’t recognized him after winter break; he’d grown what seemed like six inches. When he leaned forward with that messy black hair flopping over his green eyes, I went gooey. All languid limbs, bands of tension snapping up from my hips to my chest, and rushes of effervescent bubbles to my brain. Every. Single. Time.
I wasn’t sure I was prepared for how he was going to look in a tuxedo. Or how I was going to handle being with him in this house. Aubrey had made me pack the skimpiest swimsuit I owned, and I was already cringing at the thought of poolside wardrobe malfunctions. Not to mention the more pervasive mental image of me purposefully pulling the string on the back of my bikini because I wanted to show Liam more. Did I?
The first room we passed had two twin beds pushed up against opposite walls. A desk with a stack of leather-bound books was wedged beneath a windowsill.
Aubrey didn’t even pause. “Pass.”
Cam grumbled behind me. “It’s just a place to crash for a couple nights.”
The hallway pivoted right. For a tall, square house, the interior was oddly serpentine. The next door we passed was closed. I gripped the brass knob, but before I could twist it, a high-pitched squeak slipped out. I flinched, then realized the sound was coming from inside the room. There was another squeak, and another. Bedsprings. I peeled my fingers away from the knob before I alerted the couple on the other side.
Aubrey’s eyes widened.
I mouthed, “Found Hudson and Dani.”
Cam simply smirked. “A bed’s a bed, ladies.”
Aubrey and I had to scurry down the hall with our hands clasped over our mouths to keep the laughter from spilling out.
Safely up on the third floor, we found bedrooms across the hall from one another, and a bathroom between them that was big enough for prom prep.
“We each get a room?” I still couldn’t believe it.
“I know how you are. Told everyone we needed mega space for maximum cuteness,” Aubrey said.
The four-poster bed in my room was enormous. Five people could sleep in this bed. I mean, they wouldn’t, but the space. As I was reveling in its sheer size, Aubrey slipped into the room. She’d ditched her shoes, and her toenails were painted a posy pink. I toed off my own canvas sneakers. She nodded at my riotous lime-green polish. “Niiiiice.”
“Cam settling in?” He hadn’t followed her.
“Said he needed to ‘set up’ for the party.” She rolled her eyes, which meant he had to be toting in coolers of beer.
I dove onto the bed, landing starfish style at the center. The mattress threatened to swallow me in downy softness.
“I still can’t believe my mom went for this,” I said to the textured ceiling, refusing to let their relationship drama ruin prom prep.
Aubrey flopped down next to me on the bed. “She knew I’d be a good influence.”
I rolled my eyes at her. “She said it was about proving I was a responsible young adult.” I tried to mimic my mom’s serious voice, all stoic and concerned.
“I just told mine I was rooming with you.” Aubrey tapped her heels against the footboard.
Even when I stretched, my toes barely made it to the wood at the end of the bed. Would Liam fit? His feet had dangled off the edge of my bed at home, but he hadn’t slept over, so it didn’t matter.
No, I chided myself, I wasn’t going to think about what might happen in this bed tonight. I was going to focus on getting ready for prom. My ears burned anyway. Stupid brain.
“It probably helped that Liam and I are such a new thing. I mean, he’s thoughtful and my mom likes him.” When I said our names together, the words had this umami tang, like I was testing a new flavor. Maybe Mom thought I wouldn’t rush into anything serious with Liam, the same way I refused to choose a mom-approved dress for graduation. The difference was I liked the way Liam felt against me, unlike all of those scratchy dresses.
“Yeah. Wouldn’t have worked with my mom.”
“It’s not like you and Cam are new,” I countered.
“Well, he does sneak out of my house at least once a week.” Pink splotches dappled the sides of her neck. New or not, grumpy or not, Cam was it for Aubrey. “And calling it sneaking is generous. He’s so bulky. I love it, but he’s even less coordinated than me.”
A door slammed somewhere downstairs, followed by a flurry of muffled voices that shook me from my thoughts. This weekend wasn’t about sneaking. I wouldn’t have to hide my beer, I wouldn’t have to hold back with Liam if I didn’t want to, and I wouldn’t have to worry about keeping my head down from drama. It was prom weekend, and we had super-fancy digs. Tonight was going to be one hell of a rager.