Nash (Marked Men #4)


by Jay Crownover

PROLOGUE

Saint

High school … Not the best years of my life

There’s a moment in every person’s life, a point in time that will alter the course they are on, the path they are traveling, forever. The night of Ashley Maxwell’s birthday party my senior year in high school was mine.

I wasn’t the type of teenager that went to wild parties. I didn’t drink and didn’t mess around with drugs and boys, so really there was no point in me going. I was also painfully shy, overweight, and awkward in my own skin, skin that tended toward ugly breakouts and flushed bright red whenever anyone tried to engage me in conversation. The halls of high school were torture for a girl like me, but I suffered through it mostly unscathed because I knew when to keep my head down and not to set my sights on friends or boys that were out of my league. At least I did until senior year, when my locker ended up right next to Nash Donovan’s.

For the first few weeks of school, I kept to myself and ignored him, just like I did with all the popular kids and beautiful people. If I didn’t engage, then he couldn’t make fun of me or, even worse, look at me with pity shining out of the spectacular purple eyes that glowed out of his handsome face. It worked until the day I dropped a calculus book on his foot and he picked it up to hand it to me. I’ll never forget the way I actually felt the way my heart stopped and then started thundering in the next second when those spectacular eyes gleamed at me. I’d never experienced anything quite like it.

Nash smiled at me, quipped something sarcastic and offhand, making my poor, lonely heart turn over. He walked away with a wink … and I had a crush. A consuming, engulfing crush that built day after day, because after that embarrassing incident Nash went out of his way to say hello when we were by our lockers, and he always walked away with a smile or a nod. Each day I became more entranced, fell a little harder, and built the fantasy that we were meant to be something more than passing acquaintances into something grandiose and romantic.

I was a smart girl, so I knew my affection was one-sided, but he seemed nice, charming, and it made me warm on the inside that he never teased me, or made me feel bad about my weight or looks like so many of my peers did on a regular basis. Our simple interaction was good for my self-esteem, good for making me feel more like the rest of the teenage girls prowling the halls that swooned over him and his group of troublemaking friends. I had even worked up enough courage after a month or so to return his hellos without my fair skin bursting into flames. I didn’t stammer or clam up when he spoke to me anymore and occasionally I even managed to eke out a return smile. I was pretty proud of myself, so when he asked me one Friday if I was planning on going to Ashley Maxwell’s party, I had been equal parts stunned and thrilled. A shiver of anticipation shook me to the core and I couldn’t stop myself from tumbling headfirst into a daydream where this was the start of something more than just an exchange of pleasantries in the hallway. It was all I could do to keep from twirling around in a circle of delight and clapping my hands like an overeager fanatic.

It was more than he typically said to me, and he was just so engaging and likable that I replied that I would try to be there. I didn’t want to sound overeager. When he smiled at me and said that was awesome and we could hang out, I couldn’t stop the feeling that attending a sloppy, unsupervised high school party seemed like the most important thing I had ever done in my short life.

My older sister, Faith, pretty and popular, fit in seamlessly to shark-infested waters that made up a teenage social circle. She questioned me endlessly about my sudden desire to mingle with my peer group, cautioned me that kids who were mean and unfriendly on a normal basis could be cruel and hateful when social status and alcohol were involved—but I decided not to listen. I figured the worst thing that could happen was that I would show up, not see Nash, or he wouldn’t see me and I could just turn around and come back home and curl up with a book like I did most weekends. I was turning a blind eye to what I knew was the truth, but my desire for this particular boy to see me as something more than he did was all-consuming. It was making me ignore common sense and my own honed sense of self-protection.

I let Faith fuss over me for hours. She played with my fire-engine-red hair until it was curly and styled pretty and feminine. I let her pick an outfit that would never make me look like a size-four cheerleader but was fashionable and cute, and I even allowed her to slime a bunch of junk on my face that I knew would ultimately make my skin break out even worse. The end results were actually pretty nice. I looked more put together than I normally did. I thought I could just blend into the crowd, and really that was fine as long as those pretty purple eyes found me. I felt more confident and secure than I could ever remember feeling before.

Faith told me not to arrive to the party until after eleven, so I waited anxiously, fiddled with my hair, and played through every scenario my overeager imagination could think of. Maybe he would ask me to dance. Maybe he would lead me outside and give me my first kiss. Maybe he would tell me he could see all the wonderful things that lurked beneath the surface and he wanted me to be his girlfriend. In hindsight, of course, none of that was going to happen and I really didn’t know the kind of guy Nash really was, but still a crush is a crush and it can run away from you pretty fast.

And so I showed up at Ashley Maxwell’s blowout party, appropriately late, armed with Faith’s mini-makeover and a racing heart filled with anticipation.

As I walked into the house I was hit with a blast of music, and the optimism I’d felt started to waver. A crowd of three guys I recognized from chem crowded past me as they joined the mayhem taking place in the living room. I couldn’t find a safe place to rest my eyes, everywhere people seemed to be doing something that made me blush. I did my best to keep myself from gaping, but I felt the telltale heat creeping up my neck as I pushed my way through the sea of bodies. It was disturbing and I was beginning to think a new hairdo and some mascara would never be enough to make me fit in, in a place like this.

The kitchen looked a little less crowded, so I moved in that direction, keeping my eyes peeled for Nash. I was certain that if I could find him, this night would turn around. My stomach fluttered again as I thought about meeting those purple eyes across the room. I imagined them glinting and crinkling at the sides like they did when he smiled, and I pictured myself suddenly at ease by his side as the rest of the chaos faded away. He would make all the discomfort creeping under my skin disappear.

As I rounded a corner someone bumped into me, spilling sticky, red liquid all down the front of my carefully selected shirt. I gasped in surprise and the jerk moved on without even apologizing. I was shaking and officially freaking out on the inside. It was all too clear that I didn’t belong here, no matter how cute Nash Donovan was. My hands started to shake and it took every ounce of self-control I had to keep tears at bay.

Turned out, the kitchen was just as bad as the front of the party. Worse really, because the booze was apparently kept there and the crowd in that room seemed to be the drunkest of the drunk. It was like walking across a minefield of ugly remarks and dirty looks to get to the sink to try and clean up. I heard a few snickers, saw a few blurry looks cast my way, and it was enough. I planned to rinse off and go home. This place and these people were not for me and I knew better.

“Who invited you?”

The question was slurred and followed with a heavy hand on my shoulder. The voice—and the hand—belonged to none other than the birthday girl herself, and she was drunk. Really drunk and out for blood. Ashley and I weren’t friends, but she had never said or done anything overtly nasty to me in all the years we had gone to school together … I kind of felt like I was going to throw up.

“What?”

“Who invited you?” There was a sneer on her pretty lips, her big brown eyes glassy. “Why are you here?”

I wanted to say Nash had asked me to come, that he had told me we were going to hang out tonight, but I couldn’t get the words out … because just then he showed up.

He entered the kitchen followed by the Archer twins and Jet Keller. There was no mistaking it: these boys brought the party with them wherever they went. Nash had on his customarily sloppy look of torn jeans, skate shoes, and a band T-shirt. He also had a baseball hat pulled low over his forehead that did nothing to hide the high flush in his face or the unclear and foggy haze covering his eyes. It was obvious he was already wasted or even high and I felt the first threads of disappointment start to tie up my cracking heart. I saw his gaze skim over the kitchen, land on me, and keep moving. It made me suck in a painful breath and I had to bite the inside of my cheek—hard—to keep from really crying.

It was like he didn’t even see me. He didn’t smile, didn’t wink, and didn’t so much as incline his head in my direction. It was like I didn’t even exist. I went numb. I felt like my blood turned to ice and everything in the center of my chest ceased to work. I curled my shaking hands into fists and tried to frantically plan an escape route that would save me any further embarrassment or heartache.

Ashley apparently forgot all about my fatness and ugliness marring her party and bounded over to the new additions. If my heart filled with awful feelings at his flagrant dismissal, then it practically burst open when he scooped her up in his arms and let her inhale his face while he grabbed her ass. I wanted to choke on my embarrassment as I scrambled backward out of the kitchen. There was no more thought put to self-preservation, only to escape. I had a frantic, desperate need to put as much space between me and this party—but more so between me and Nash—as possible.

Mercifully, the tears didn’t fall until I was safely at my car. In that moment, slumped in my driver’s seat with black streaks on my fingers from the mascara I’d let Faith smear on, I knew the truth: the beautiful people stuck together and it didn’t matter what was on the inside. Nash might be nice when it was just him and I by our lockers, but put him in a room full of people, give him a skinny and pretty girl willing to put out, and I was invisible. I’d been so stupid to think it was anything more.

So I did what was instinctive and resurrected the shield around my heart. From then on I ignored him every time he tried to tell me hello. I looked away from him when he smiled at me. I avoided my locker as much as I could when I knew he was going to be there and tried to focus on the fact that graduation was right around the corner and I would be leaving this small mountain town and this clueless boy that had hurt my feelings so deeply behind. I knew logically Nash didn’t know how I felt, had no clue that I had thought he was different and special, but that didn’t make the burn of his ignorance or my embarrassment any less hot.

In the warmth of early spring, with my college enrollment all lined up for fall and my insecurities carefully compartmentalized—the sting of my failed crush finally beginning to heal—I stumbled upon Nash and his friends outside smoking after school … My heart lurched, but none of them saw me and I scuttled by, hoping to hurry to my car and planning on ignoring him like I had been doing since the party, when his deep voice assaulted my ears.

“She’s a mess. If she ever wants to get laid, she needs to look in the mirror and maybe do some work.”

One of the other guys cackled at the nasty statement and I thought I was going to vaporize into a cloud of horrified smoke. He had to be talking about me and I couldn’t move once I heard what he was saying.

I heard Nash snort as I tried to sneak by so they wouldn’t notice me or my tears. I had never cried so much over any other person and it made me hate him a little—or a lot—as he kept talking.

“I mean I’m not picky, I would take her to bed. I just might need to put a bag over her head first or something.”

That sent the rest of the guys rolling in laughter as the ground beneath me fell away and a sob caught in my throat. How could I have been so incredibly wrong about someone? Any hope, any thought that he was different—that any pretty boy could be different—was annihilated with those hateful, harsh words. Words that forever changed the way I looked at the opposite sex.