Well, this post should have gone up a couple days, but I had some emergency edits to do—sorry! Hopefully I’m at the end of this marathon editing cycle and can get on with…
Sharing the second half of UGLY DUCKLINGS FINISH FIRST’s first chapter!
She’d done it.
Payton Pruitt looked around, so pleased with herself it was all she could do to not break into an all-out victory jig right on the spot. She had come to the last place on earth she wanted to be, walked through the front doors like they weren’t her personal Gateway to Everlasting Hell and looked at the people who had made her life a misery a decade ago. And wonder of wonders, she hadn’t thrown up on her shoes.
In her book that definitely called for a happy dance.
When she’d received the invitation, her knee-jerk response had been to throw it away before she broke out in hives. A reunion? What a rip-snorting laugh that was. It was amazing anyone from her class had the gall to invite her back, especially since they knew she had no friends to reunite with. Super-nerds like her never had friends in high school. Tormentors, though—that was another story. She’d had so many tormentors she couldn’t even count them all. Some days it had felt like a Hollywood cast of thousands.
It had taken weeks to work up the courage to come back to Bitterthorn, along with a couple of obsessive-compulsive trips to the salon to get her short brown hair cut to perfection by a stylist known only by one name. To further boost her confidence, she’d also bought the high-end hybrid car she’d been waffling on, using the excuse of needing a reliable vehicle to cover the four-hour drive from Houston to Bitterthorn. It didn’t help. That stupid invitation had proved to be a powerful little sucker. Despite her best efforts to prop herself up, it still knocked her off her hard-won high horse and back into the land of perpetual inferiority. And all it had done was simply invite her to step back into hell.
But when it came right down to it, there had never been any other choice. She’d had to come back to Bitterthorn High this one last time. If she ever wanted to have peace of mind again, she was damn well going to face the dragon that was her past and curb-stomp it until it stopped twitching.
Let the stomping commence.
Grim-faced, Payton made herself look for her past torturers in the crowd and even managed to spot a few. How nice, she thought, her upper lip curling. The heartless bastards looked like they were having a whale of a time, chatting it up and laughing like they weren’t as evil as the Spanish Inquisition. Did any of them remember tying her Pretty Bitties training bra onto the gym’s basketball hoop for all to see? Did any of these now-grown men recall how, as boys, they would literally run away screaming because she committed the unpardonable sin of walking the same hall with them? Even now, would any of them care that barfing up her breakfast had been a part of her daily getting-ready-for-school routine?
Probably not, on all counts.
It didn’t matter, Payton told herself, irked with the whiny pity party kicking inside her. She wasn’t their victim anymore. The person who walked through the doors of Bitterthorn High’s gymnasium was no longer the ugly duckling they’d bullied. Her once frizzy brown hair was now smooth and sleek, her teeth a study of gleaming perfection after years of enduring braces and retainers. Her tormentors could suck it hard as far as she was concerned. She didn’t need their validation. Why would she? She believed in herself, and that was all that mattered.
Now, she thought, dropping the chain she was chewing on. Time to bounce before she puked her guts out.
“At last, my evening is complete.”
Startled by the voice so close to her ear the breath teased her hair, Payton snapped around to find herself captured by the greenest eyes she had ever seen.
Payton’s throat closed with a click. Her blood stopped dead in its tracks. The planet might have even paused in its cosmic rotation. With a conscious effort she locked her knees before they could take the easy way out and buckle beneath her, and it took every ounce of strength she had not to lick her lips and smooth her hair back. She’d patted herself on the back too soon, she despaired even as she battled against the desire to run, or hide, or curl into a fetal position. Coming face-to-face with a roomful of almost-strangers was a snap compared to meeting the sorest point in her past.
The years had been good to Wiley Sharpe. Too good. How was it possible the added maturity of ten years only made the virile impact of this man all the more potent? Seriously, how was that fair? He should be balding or graying, or something, damn it. But no. His hair was still the thick hammered-gold pelt she recalled all too well. The remembered feel of it sliding beneath her fingers as she’d comforted Wiley so long ago after his father’s sudden death made her fingers tingle. His movie-star features had become more defined with age, stronger and elegantly carved compared to the boyish features of his youth. There was the slightest dent in his nose where he’d had it broken by a bully, yet that one imperfection only enhanced the overall character of his face. His jaw was rugged and square, and the brackets on either side of his full yet masculine mouth were more pronounced, as though he smiled far more often than he frowned.
Knowing devil-may-care, love-’em-and-leave-’em Wiley “the Coyote” Sharpe, Payton was sure that was the case.
She never should have come back.
Those irresistible grooves deepened, and she had an insane urge to trace them with her tongue. “Let me guess. You don’t remember me.”
As if forgetting him was even a possibility. “Wiley Sharpe.” In a fascination she couldn’t help, Payton watched those eyes darken with surprise and a simple, almost erotic pleasure. Damn, the man was hotter than the surface of Mercury and he wasn’t even trying. “I remember you very well.”
That sensual pleasure spilled into his smile. “Really?”
“Really. I could never forget someone so determined to be nothing more than a dumb jock.”
As she’d hoped, that smile was replaced by the consternated frown he’d always seemed to reserve just for her. “Sweet-tempered Payton Pruitt. You haven’t changed a bit.”
“You must need glasses in your old age.” She wasn’t the same, Payton wanted to shout, overwhelmed by the irrational desire to check her appearance in the mirror. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve grown up.”
“There’s a difference on the surface, maybe.” His gaze traveled all the way down to her French-pedicured, toe-ringed feet before running back up the same path, the visual inspection as thorough as any doctor’s. But the appreciative glitter in his gaze was anything but clinical. “Scratch that. No maybes about it. There’s a stunning difference on the surface.”
To her horror, his perusal made her suddenly sensitized nipples push against the fabric of her dress. “I, uh… Thank you.” Wow, smooth.
“But it is still just on the surface. Beneath it all, you’re the same know-it-all brat who always has to have the last word.”
Her melting defenses did an instant flash-freeze. “If I seemed like a know-it-all to you, it was only because you refused to use your brain for anything other than an ear separator. Furthermore—”
“See what I mean? Always the last word.”
Payton opened her mouth, then shut it on a chagrined half laugh. “You jerk. You always could push my buttons.”
“Ah, but then there are so many from which to choose.”
“I guess I haven’t changed, at that.”
“Not in that respect.” He took her hands and squeezed them in such a friendly manner she couldn’t find the strength to pull away. “But I’d be willing to bet there have been quite a few interesting changes in you.”
“That’s what happens when you grow up.” He was the exact same lady-killer she remembered, Payton reflected on a sigh. Though to her, Wiley had shown another side—the not so attractive side of impatience, grudging tolerance, resentment and, at times, open hostility.
Not once had he looked at her in that special Coyote way. The only consolation she’d had was that he’d never shown his countless fangirls who he really was beneath the mask. When his father died from a massive coronary, it was Payton to whom Wiley had come for comfort. He’d trusted her enough to let her see the imperfect person he really was, and she’d told herself how lucky she was to have that trust. It had almost been enough to cover the hurt that he’d never looked at her through the eyes of the playboy.
“Well.” Unsettled by that long-ago yearning, Payton pulled her hands from his. “One other thing that hasn’t changed about me is that I’m not a big fan of crowds.”
“You’re not leaving?” Undaunted by her retreat, Wiley caught her fingers once more. “You just got here.”
“I didn’t intend on staying long.”
“Ten minutes isn’t long.”
“Then yay for me, I’ll succeed in my objective.” This time she didn’t bother with subtlety when she pulled her hands away. “Don’t sweat it, no one’s going to miss me.”
“I wouldn’t bet on that.”
Before she could come up with a suitable reply, he reached around her to hold the gymnasium door’s push-bar handle closed, his arms like steel bands on either side of her. The irritated glare she shot him was answered with an angelic smile. “Come on, Payton, you can’t leave yet. We haven’t even had the chance to swap lies about how great our lives are now.”
“I wouldn’t be lying.” Flustered, she tried pulling in a breath he wouldn’t hear, but that was almost impossible with him parked right up front in her personal space. It was insane how claustrophobic he made her feel; it wasn’t like she was trapped and running out of air, after all.
It just felt like she was.
“Wiley, please.” Payton crossed her arms, so annoyed she could almost overlook the heat beginning to pulse between her legs. While horrifying, the pure physiological reaction wasn’t exactly unexpected. The man had her caught in a heart-stopping non-embrace, the solid wall of his body mere inches from the tips of her breasts. His eyes kept her pinned to the spot, and the warmth radiating from him was so heady she gave serious thought to swooning. “I didn’t come here to play games.”
“Yeah? Why did you come here?”
“Um, let’s think. I was invited?”
“You could have stayed away, but you didn’t. Why?”
“Stop badgering me!” Frazzled, Payton shot him an exasperated look. “I had to come here to prove something to myself, okay?”
He tilted his golden head in what looked like understanding. “What was it that you needed to prove?”
“Wow. It’s amazing how you think any of this is your business.”
“I’m that special combination of nosy and unable to take a hint. What did you need to prove?”
“That I’m as good as anyone here.” Then she shook her head. She had to be out of her mind to blurt out a decade-old insecurity he’d helped build up. “It’s no biggie, okay? I just had to face all the childhood traumas so I could finally put it behind me.”
“Payton.” His expression softened with a compassion she had only glimpsed in the boy she’d known a decade ago. “I can understand that.”
A disbelieving scoff escaped her. “Right. Sure you do.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Think about it, Wiley—you were literally the most popular person in school. You never dreaded lunch hour, because that was when an entire table would clear out if you happened to sit there. You never had to suffer the humiliation of never being asked to dance. You can’t imagine how crushing it was to be laughed at by the older girls because I hadn’t yet begun to wear a real bra. You were never chosen last in gym class or called nasty, ugly names, or had your locker vandalized every other week, or had your school desk moved out into the hall because no one wanted to sit next to you. I don’t think you can comprehend just how difficult it was to force myself to walk through these doors again.”
His eyes narrowed, and an emotion she couldn’t define darkened his expression. “From your point of view, I guess I do lack the basic intelligence to understand the pain you suffered, and maybe you’re right in thinking that.”
She blinked, baffled. That wasn’t what she meant at all. “No—”
“But I do understand.” With his expression once more lightening, he straightened away from her. “And while I can’t erase those past hurts, I can remedy at least one of them.”
Still baffled, she stared at him. “Remedy…?”
He smiled with patented Coyote charm and held out a hand. “May I have this dance, Payton?”
She started to raise her hand before she ruthlessly checked it. “I’m all grown up now.”
“I’m seriously aware of that. So?”
“So I don’t need your pity.”
“Believe me, pity is the last thing I’m feeling. Unless, of course, you can’t dance.”
“Watch it, pal. I haven’t been a wallflower my entire life.”
Those pesky buttons. Payton sighed. She had never been able to resist a challenge and damn it, he knew that all too well.
Wiley, you stinker. You haven’t changed a bit.
Bidding a fond farewell to the plan of leaving the reunion and the past behind for all time, Payton slid her hand into his and gave the point to him. “Lead the way.”
So, put these two posts together, and you have the complete first chapter of UGLY DUCKLINGS FINISH FIRST. I’ve wanted to shared these guys with the world for so long, so I hope you enjoyed this glimpse of them.
Three days and counting until UGLY DUCKLINGS FINISH FIRST releases!
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