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Kandi Steiner

I did take my first ice bath that night, right after drinking the disgusting powder-based post-workout shake Rhodes told me to buy. As I sank down into the freezing water, ice cubes shaking and shifting as I lowered myself in, I hoped it would cool much more than just my aching muscles.

Thursday’s workout was tough, but Friday’s was absolutely brutal. Rhodes seemed pissed off, for whatever reason, and apparently taking out his frustration on his clients was his favorite pastime. So when Saturday finally rolled around, I was beyond thankful for my day off from training. Spending Saturday night with Willow was just what I needed, though I wasn’t sure I’d be able to lift myself out of the booth when the night was over.

Hookah wasn’t really my thing, but I loved going to Rook with Willow. It was a small, dark hole in the wall with plush maroon couches and acoustic music — sometimes played by a live artist. There was something about the vibe that helped me relax, even with the smoke clouds around me. When Willow called me wanting to go out, I was far from excited, but she promised just the two of us. Girl’s night. And that was pretty much the only kind of outing I was okay with at the moment. Plus, I owed her an explanation for shutting her out after the Hay Stacks incident. So, I caved, and after the hard part was over and I’d apologized for ditching her, I finally relaxed and started to enjoy myself.

Willow was going on and on about the program she applied for at Appalachian State when the waitress brought us our second hookah. She had already been accepted in the fall, but the program she was waiting to hear back from was an early acceptance program that would kick-start her academic career and set her up with some of the best professors and smaller, more intimate classes. Plus, she’d get a full ride if she was accepted. She said if, I said when. Willow was too intelligent not to get accepted. In fact, she could have landed a full ride pretty much anywhere in the country, but — just like every other normal kid in Poxton Beach — she wanted Appalachian State. Part of me wanted to go, too, if only to have at least four more years with my best friend.

“I’m just so nervous,” she said for the fiftieth time, taking the first drag from the new hookah set up on the small wooden table in front of us. “I want this more than anything I’ve ever wanted in my entire life, Nat. What if I don’t get it?”

I shook my head, wishing I had a bank of intellectually deep phrases to pull from like she always did. I wanted to calm her, but I could only laugh. “You’re going to get in. I know it, you know it — everyone knows it. You got your acceptance letter to Appalachian State months before anyone else and you were Valedictorian. This kick-start program committee would be absolutely freaking insane not to accept you. And when you do get in, I’m going to cry for days wondering how the hell I’m going to make it through the rest of the summer without you.”

She smiled softly, reaching over to pat my leg before inhaling through the long hookah hose again. She was smoking a peach and vanilla combination of sheesh that made my mouth water a little. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the taste of it or that I hadn’t tried it before, I just didn’t really have an addictive personality. I could drink if I wanted to, but I rarely did. I could smoke if I wanted to, but I almost never felt that need. Overall, I didn’t need much to have a good time — just my friends. And Mason.

My stomach lurched and I shifted on the couch, pulling my legs up closer to my chest. Willow noticed my shield and narrowed her eyes, letting a cloud of smoke escape her plump lips. Her hair was long and curled tonight while my dark blonde locks were pin-straight. Even dressed in distressed jeans and a Fall Out Boy t-shirt, she looked flawless. I, on the other hand, still felt less than average — even with the make-up I’d taken almost twenty minutes to apply.

“You better not be thinking about Mason,” she warned, handing me the hose so she could drink her water. She had a weird stigma about not letting the hose touch the table until the hookah was tapped.

“I just still can’t believe what happened last weekend,” I confessed, sighing a little. “Mason used to be my best friend. I mean, he can’t have changed that much in the two weeks we’ve been broken up. How could he be with someone like that?” I shook my head. “He might as well have laughed with her.”

She scoffed and rolled her eyes, taking a small sip of water. “An insecure man would rather laugh with the hyenas than chance failing a run with the lions.”

I cocked a brow. “What the heck does that mean?”

Willow laughed. “It means he’s a follower, Nat. His new girlfriend has him pining for her attention and he’ll do anything to be what she wants. It takes a real man to stand up for what he knows is right and not be afraid to go against the crowd. Mason is just a boy.”

I sighed, picking at the plastic mouthpiece on the hookah hose. “Yeah, but he used to be my boy.”

Willow snatched the hose from my hand and took a drag, kicking back further on the couch. “You want to know what I still can’t believe?” she asked, changing the subject. “That you’re training with fucking Rhodes.”

My cheeks flushed. I had debated telling Willow about my personal training, but she was my best friend and would have found out anyway. I did swear her to secrecy, though. The last thing I wanted was Mason or Shay finding out I had signed up at the club the day after they publicly humiliated me. “Scary, huh?”

“That’s putting it lightly. Remember when he was a senior when we started high school? Dude was terrifying. He was in juvie more that year than I was in gym class.”

I chuckled. “I don’t remember what he was always in trouble for.”

“What wasn’t he in trouble for? Him and that group of kids he hung out with were always up to something. Stealing, partying, drunk driving, public nudity — you name it, they were doing it.”

“That’s the thing, though. I don’t really remember him having many friends. He was always kind of a loner, wasn’t he?”

Willow exhaled a long puff of white smoke. “I guess. But anyone he did hang out with was just as rough around the edges as he was.”

Clearing my throat, I pulled my feet up to tuck them under my thighs. “He’s different now.”

“Oh yeah? Different how, Natalie Poxton?” Willow’s brows shot up.

I blushed harder. “I don’t know, he just is.” I wasn’t exactly sure what it was that made me think he was different. He still didn’t talk to me, he was still terrifyingly strong, and he still had a glare that could make a full grown man run and hide. I had no way of knowing if he did drugs or partied with thugs or stole old ladies’ purses. He could very well have been doing all of that and more. But there was something about him that made me think he wasn’t as scary as he seemed.

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