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Kandi Steiner

Willow narrowed her eyes, tugging my arm again. “Come on, you don’t have to play this game with her.” She turned to Shay next. “Maybe you should go back to your boyfriend.”

Shay shrugged, linking her arm through Stephanie’s to mirror Willow’s through mine. “You’re probably right. Come on, Stephanie is it? I want to hear more about this boot boutique.”

Stephanie lit up, chatting animatedly as Shay pulled her back toward where Mason and Dustin were standing, oblivious to what had transpired at our end of the bar.

Willow pulled me out to the large wooden dance floor before I had the chance to completely process and we joined in on the line dance, finding a spot just in time to stomp twice and turn before it started from the top again.

“Don’t let her get to you,” Willow shouted over the song as we fell in line with the other dancers. I wouldn’t say I was shy, but I was far from the attention-seeking type of girl, which was part of the reason I loved line dancing. There was something about moving to the music without having to stand out that pulled me in.

“Kind of hard not to, Lo. Did you see her?”

“Yeah. And? She’s nothing special, Nat.” Willow flipped her braid over her shoulder as we hit another turn.

I inwardly frowned, noting the brunette’s petite frame and large… lady parts. She wore jean shorts that looked like they had been purchased in the kids’ section and her smile was almost too perfect. If she was “nothing special,” then what the hell was I?

“Who is she, anyway?” I asked as the song changed and we fell into the next dance.

“New girl. She’s a junior — or well, I guess a senior now. She’s from Lee County but just transferred here for her senior year. I guess her dad got a new job here.”

“What?” I stopped abruptly, careful to avoid another dancer crashing into me when I halted. “Where?”

Willow cringed. “He’s the new VP at the bank.”

I smacked my palm against my forehead. Of course. It only makes sense that my ex’s new girlfriend moved to town because my dad hired hers. Awesome.

I turned to leave the dance floor, clearly done dancing, but before I had a chance to register what had happened, I slammed into Colleen Masterson, knocking her straight down to the floor.

“Oh my God, are you okay?” I leaned down quickly, Willow taking her other side as we helped lift her up. Colleen was a couple of years older than us and was the smallest girl I knew. At just five-foot-one and maybe one-hundred and ten pounds, she was the perfect size to be the best flier on the cheerleader squad that she had been all through school.

Colleen nodded, leaning up as Willow and I helped steady her. She seemed shaken and I felt like a complete oaf. Suddenly, a loud ring of laughter came from behind Willow. I looked up through the paused dancers that had gathered around us and saw Shay pointing our direction. Everyone around her was laughing, save for Mason, who was making his way toward us with a concerned pinch between his brows. Dustin joined him, but not before throwing a disapproving look over his shoulder toward Shay.

“Hey, are you all right?” Mason asked, not pointing the question toward Colleen but at me, instead. I didn’t answer, because my focus was still completely drawn to where Shay was making jokes. I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but she was definitely staring at me, and Stephanie was laughing with her. I swallowed, heat rushing to my face as Willow turned to look behind her, too — just in time to see Shay call me a “fat klutz”.

And that time, I heard her.

“I’m sorry, Colleen,” I mumbled, standing as quickly as I could and bolting for the door. Willow chased after me, calling out my name and asking me to wait but I didn’t stop. Tears stung at the back of my eyes as I shoved through the crowd, using more force than necessary. I hated that I couldn’t hold myself together. I didn’t even cry when Mason broke up with me, why the hell was I about to cry over something someone I didn’t even care about said?

Because he cares about her, that’s why.

How could Mason go from dating someone like me to dating someone like her? She was awful. He deserved better, he should want better.

He should want me.

Moses had Dale’s Range Rover pulled up almost as soon as I sent him the text and I slid into the backseat quickly, locking the door behind me, like that would shield me from the cruel reality I had just faced.

“Take me home, Moses,” I said through the tears still building. I tried to catch a deep breath, but came up short each time. My chest was too tight. My lungs weren’t big enough.

Moses didn’t hesitate or ask a single question, just pushed the Rover into drive and tore out of The Crawl like he felt the urgency, too.

Moses used to be Dale’s family’s butler, but he transitioned into more of a family friend by the time mom and I made our way into the Poxton tribe. He was in his sixties, though his bald head and tan skin made him look more like a biker in his late forties. He had barely any wrinkles to speak of, which I swore I would find the secret behind. He eyed me curiously in the rearview mirror for just a moment before looking straight ahead again. I was waiting for the questions to come, but thankfully they didn’t.

My phone rang as soon as the light from The Crawl faded behind us. Willow’s name and striking smile lit up the screen and I hit the red ignore button hastily before turning off my phone completely. I knew she wanted to help, but I was past the point of being pulled back by Willow’s Words of Wisdom. Each mile we drove brought us closer to home and farther from the club, yet still I felt my heart ripping. I closed my eyes tight and saw their faces, heard their laughter, felt the embarrassment. I’d never been the butt of any of my friends’ jokes — at least, not that I knew of. Why was it that Mason’s new girlfriend could make fun of me and get away with it so easily? Why didn’t anyone stand up for me?

Then again, could I really blame Shay for my embarrassment? It wasn’t her who ate the way I did. It wasn’t her who watched me put on more and more weight over the years. It wasn’t her who knocked Colleen to the floor in the middle of a crowded bar. All of those things were my fault, and the saddest truth was that I wasn’t even doing anything to change the way I looked. Or felt.

Maybe it was time to start.

Like a strobe light of assault, little moments that I hadn’t thought twice about struck me violently in the backseat of the Range Rover. I remembered covering myself at the beach while all my friends laid out in two pieces. I remembered having to shop at a completely different store for my prom dress after the attendant told me and Willow that they didn’t have anything above a size nine. I remembered having to order a large gown for graduation, even though they were already so flowy and loose. I remembered it all, all of a sudden, all at once — all in striking detail.

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