Home > Stripped (Stripped, #1)(8)

Stripped (Stripped, #1)(8)
Author: H.M. Ward

"I agreed to go somewhere with you—as friends." Her body language shifts and the confidence slips away. Her shoulders hunch forward a little bit and her eyes fall to the floor, skittering around, landing anywhere but on me. "Not as—"

"Not as what, Cassie?"

She blushes and doesn't look up. A quick smile covers her face to hide her reaction, before she tucks her hair behind her ear. I step closer to her, way too close for the kind of friend she wants me to be. I can't stop staring at her, drinking in that smooth skin and those dark lashes. Cassie won't look up, which kills me, because if she did, I could lean in and kiss her.

Heart slamming into my ribs, I steady my voice and lean in close to her ear. "Come on, pasty chick. Let's get you some sunshine."


When Cassie steps outside, she sees the little black sports car, and hesitates. Before she can run back inside, I grab her wrist and pull her after me. "You can't back out now. Come on. Luke has a boat, or we can just hang out on the dock. Whatever you want, but you can't hide inside all summer."

Cassie grips her wrist after I drop it and walks to the car. I don't open her door, even though I want to. She'll take it the wrong way. When she slips in next to me, I start the engine and pull out of the gravel driveway. As I talk, I see the fingers on her right hand lift, like she's thinking about opening the door.

"Afraid?" I smirk at her, before returning my eyes to the road.

"No," she says, like it's ridiculous, as if she has no reason to be nervous around me—but she clearly is.

Laughing, I bait her, "Yes, you are. Your hand is getting ready to pull the door open and jump out. Seriously, Cassie. What kind of mental are you?"

She sneers at me and drops her hand to her lap. "What kind of mental am I? What about you? You invite yourself over every day and pester the hell out of someone who wants nothing to do with you. And you think I'm mental." She folds her arms over her chest and stares out the window, muttering.

"Come on, now. Just admit it—you like me." I grin at her, but she doesn't look my way. "I get your panties in a bunch and you have no idea what to do about it, because I'm not the guy you're looking for." I'm playing with fire here, and damn well aware of the consequences if I verbally torch her by mistake, but I can't stand it when she's tense. It turns me into a neurotic mess.

Her jaw drops open and she turns in slow motion with wide eyes. "My panties are not in a bunch." Her jaw locks as she glares at me.

I grip the steering wheel tighter, and run into the no-fly zone like an escaped inmate. "No? Did you forget to wear them? Commando isn't something I would have thought you'd be into." The smile on my face increases as Cassie's gaze narrows. Come on Cass, laugh. Slap me and laugh.

She makes a strangled sound in the back of her throat, as she crushes the air like a madman with her hands. "You are so...!"

"Adorable? Sexy? Swoon worthy?" Her lips purse together and she gives me a look that says I'm losing her. Quickly, I add, "And totally into you, by the way." That does it. The tension breaks like a dam and flows away. She turns that beautiful face toward me. Her lips are parted slightly, like she doesn't know what to say. I prattle on, egging her, baiting her, hoping to God that she bites. "It's probably because you hate my guts, but the way you treat me is refreshing. I just can't get enough."

"I don't hate you." She tucks her chin and grins, glancing at me out of the corner of her eye. This is news to me. A wicked grin spreads across her face. It soaks in and makes her eyes sparkle like gems. "I loathe you and your charm, and your annoyingly attractive face."

"I'm annoying?"


"Wait, did you say attractive? And are we talking devastatingly annoying, or more of a totally do-able kind of annoying? Annoying's code for hot, right?" I flash her a smile as I turn into the driveway at Uncle Luke's. She laughs and smacks my arm, leaning closer to me for half a second. The sound is amazing, completely perfect, and exactly what I wanted.



A few weeks pass. I'm up and dressed by the time Jon comes looking for me every morning. I have no intention of doing anything with him, but he is hot and I don't want to look like a slob when he's around. Besides, there's no way he's 'the one.' Jonathan has dipped his stick into too many places and the thought is utterly unappealing. Okay, maybe not utterly, and maybe not late at night when my mind wanders, but I want the guy to be my first and vice versa. Jonathan's the opposite of what I'm looking for, but he helps me kill time and I find myself smiling more and more. I know it has something to do with him, but I'd rather not think about it.

Either way, I'm grateful for the time away from home. I grew up in North Babylon, right off of Deer Park Avenue. I'm used to nonstop noise at all hours and an endless array of things to do, so many things that I never had time to think about what I really like. Life has a faster pace up there. In some ways that's awesome. Getting lunch at a drive through in less than a minute is spectacular. And missed. No one is in a hurry down here. It's like they have all the time in the world. Slowing down and not strangling the McDonald's lady has become one of my missions. I can be patient. Maybe. Okay, I suck at it, but I'm trying. If Jon can do it, I can. He's had the same hurried life, always moving forward, frantically so at times.

I'm just glad for the change in pace and to have some space from my mom. Think of the most uptight, critical woman you can imagine—now combine that chick with a saintly church going woman and that's my mother. Everyone thinks she's great and she is wonderful to everyone, except me. They all get this pristine version of mom that doesn't exist behind closed doors.

I get the over-critical edition, who's constantly putting me down, correcting me, and making so many passive aggressive jabs that I seriously think she hates me. It's gotten to the point that I can barely tolerate being in the same room as Mom. Everything I do is wrong or not good enough. Every accomplishment that puts a smile on my lips only makes her frown, like I could have done so much better. Academically, I'm at the top of my class. Only one person beat me, so now she treats me like I'm dumb too—as if being salutatorian is the equivalent of being the class idiot. For her, that's what it meant—failure. I'm not number one, I'm number two and she treats me like the piece of shit she thinks I am.

My friends don't see it. She hides that part of herself and saves it just for me. They think the slope of my shoulders and my downturned face is from some teenage crap, but it's not. It's from her. The woman ruthlessly picks at me like a vulture—from dawn 'til dusk—criticizing everything from my clothes to my mind to my lack of a flat belly. I'm not fat, but my stomach isn't ever going to be perfectly hard and smooth no matter how many crunches I do—and that's not good enough. Not for my dear mother who wants the perfect daughter at all cost. My life is filled with verbal lashings and it's just so good to be around someone who likes me the way I am.

Jonathan seems to enjoy my company just as much as I'm enjoying his. Although there's this easy way about him, I know there's a wall between us. Secrets, failures, and insecurities erected it, and it towers over us. I don't know what his story is, but it seems like his ego is as fragile as mine. He overcompensates in the same ways, throwing barbed words out when I say something that hits too close to home—just like I do. I know that play and have done the same thing too many times to count. I wonder what he's hiding behind those beautiful blue eyes and the fake smile that's always plastered across his face.

And that's when things take an unexpected turn. We're in a middle state, where we are sort of friends, but still cautious of one another. We eat breakfast and then find something to do until Robyn gets off work. The three of us make dinner and hang out until Aunt Paula comes home. It's easy and feels normal even though it's totally weird if you stop and think about it. I mean, there's a billionaire hanging out in a trailer because he wants to.

We're sitting at Aunt Paula's little table eating breakfast. The house is completely quiet, which makes my chewing sound horsey-loud. It's very sexy. I try to quiet my chomping, but it's no use.

Jonathan looks up at me and smiles. "I don't care how loud you chew. You're parents really messed you up, you know that?"

I avert my eyes, chomp quickly, and swallow my food. We know each other a little better now. Months of breakfast together will do that. It's impossible not to talk about my neurotic thoughts when half of them were inflicted by my mother. "Me? What about you? What'd you do that they banished you down here, anyway?"

Jonathan's smile fades slightly, before it resumes at full blast. If I hadn't been watching him, I wouldn't have noticed. Whatever he did to get himself sent down here was major. I looked through the papers to try and figure out what he could have possibly done, but there was nothing. His mother must have taken care of it before it hit the press.

"So," Jonathan shoves the last of his egg sandwich in his mouth, and says, "this art exhibit is opening soon, and I have an in with the curator. We can look at the exhibition before everyone else, while they finish setting it up. You want to go?"

"Nice dodge. Very subtle." I watch him for a second, wondering if he ever drops that damn mask he's wearing. It's always there—a perfect smile on a perfect face—guarding his thoughts like a German Shepard.

I lean back in my chair and ask, "So, you like art?" I'm surprised. I probably shouldn't be, but I am. Picturing Jonathan playing football and liking things that are fast and fun is easier. Art isn't like that. It's pensive and pure.

Nodding, he leans back in his chair. "Yeah, and you shouldn't sound surprised. Rich people like art, remember?"

I have trouble imagining him in a mansion, especially since I keep seeing him in an old mobile home. Smiling, I reply, "Okay, so where is this show and whose is it?"

"Ah, that's a surprise, but we do have to haul ass and look sort of presentable." He glances at my cut-offs and my tank top.

"I get it. You want me to change."

"It's an art show, babe, not a barbeque."

"Ha ha. Give me a few minutes. I'll be right back." Before I forget, I turn abruptly and lightly smack the back of his head. "And stop calling me babe."

He chuckles as I run down the dark, narrow hall to my room and dig through my clothes looking for a dress. I brought a church dress, in case Aunt Paula wanted to go, and a clubbing dress in case Robyn wanted to be adventurous one night. Neither is quite right. It's possible that I can make do and tone down the clubbing dress. The neckline is a little low and the fabric is clingy, but the skirt flares out just above the knee and makes my legs look nice. The problem is the neckline, it's a cl**vagefest. I need a wrap or something to tone it down.

I holler to Jonathan that I'm almost ready and duck into Aunt Paula's room. We're about the same size, so I dig through her closet looking for something that will work. A fuzzy black sweater catches my eye. It's perfect, at least I think it is until I pull it on. It's cut short and ends at my waist with little cap sleeves, however the fuzz makes it look like a Muppet was slaughtered and laid across my shoulders.

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