"It's a little short, don't you think?" I asked as I stared at my reflection in the mirror. The sleek black fabric hugged every curve that I didn't even realize I had. It was almost suggestive. And I wasn't exactly trying to suggest anything. The stiletto heels that I could barely even stand in did nothing to help the situation. Why had I agreed to let Peyton help me get ready again? She was shorter than me and this dress would still be classified as inappropriate on her. I was suddenly itching for my jean shorts and Keds.
"Mila, that's kinda the point," Peyton said.
I laughed and turned toward her. "What do you mean?" I tucked a loose strand of hair behind my ear. I was about five seconds away from grabbing the clothes I came over in and sprinting out the door.
She swatted my hand away. "Stop, your hair is already perfect." She grabbed my shoulders and turned me back toward the mirror. "What I mean is that you’re going to want to look your best. This is a big night.”
Usually I could ignore the way she emphasized random words in sentences, but she was driving me particularly crazy today. It wasn’t a big night. Yes, Aiden would be heading back home for spring break tomorrow and I would be stuck here by myself. But we’d only be apart for a week. Peyton was acting like it was the end of the world. I frowned at my reflection and reached for the zipper of the ridiculous dress she had forced on me. “Yeah…I’m going to change.”
Peyton threw her hands up in the air. “God, you’re impossible. I promised myself I wouldn’t say anything, but clearly I was meant to overhear the guys at that party last night.”
“Party? What party?” Aiden had told me he was studying all day yesterday.
“Wrong question, Mila. The important question is what were they discussing.”
“Aiden said he was studying for an exam, so I hope they were discussing engineering things.” Honestly everything about engineering was over my head. I couldn’t even give a proper example of what he’d be reading.
“Mila, this had nothing to do with classes. Aiden said that the two of you really needed to talk. That he’d been planning on telling you for a while. He said it was important. That he couldn’t wait any longer.” She raised both her eyebrows and stared at me.
The talk. I’d seen so many romcoms that my mind instantly went to a terrible place. Aiden was going to break up with me? And I was supposed to dress up for him to do this why exactly? The borrowed dress suddenly felt even tighter. Why would Aiden do this? We were good. We were really good. The thought of having to live in Santa Monica without him made my whole body start to get all sweaty. My stomach churned. I was probably leaving embarrassing pit stains on Peyton's dress. “I…” my voice trailed off. “What exactly did you overhear?”
Peyton sighed. “Put it together, girl.” She pointed to her ring finger on her left hand.
I just stared at her. And then I started laughing because it was completely ridiculous. “You think he’s going to propose? I’m only a junior.” The thought was even more preposterous than the idea of him breaking up with me. Just barely.
“Yeah, but he’s a senior. He’ll be done school in a few months and obviously he wants to put a ring on it before he leaves. Oh! Maybe he’s going to surprise you and ask you to go to his parents for spring break!”
Aiden and I had been dating basically since I first stepped foot on campus. And not once had he wanted to introduce me to his parents. Apparently they were quite snooty. But the other part of her guess? The proposal part. It was starting to sink in. The dread in my stomach was slowly being replaced by excitement. Because he had asked me to a fancy restaurant for dinner. I thought it was just a “goodbye I’ll see you after spring break” date. But what if it was more? Peyton and Aiden had been friends forever. She knew him better than anyone. If she thought Aiden was about to pop the question…he might be. “Do you really think he’s going to propose?”
“Yes!” she squealed and clapped both her hands together. “Which is why you need to suck it up and wear that dress.”
If Aiden was going to propose tonight, I wanted to be myself, not some version of Peyton. The girl staring back at me in the mirror was not me. I barely even recognized myself. "I should probably get going."
"Wait. Isn't he picking you up here?"
“Yeah, but I forgot something. I’ll call you after, okay?”
I grabbed my bag and hobbled out the door as quickly as I could in Peyton's stilettos. Peyton could have easily misunderstood what she had overheard Aiden talking about. But had she said overheard? Or was she part of the conversation? I kicked off my heels so I could walk faster. Normally the campus at Santa Monica University could easily take my mind off any of my worries. Today the palm trees swaying in the wind did nothing for me.
Aiden’s going to propose. Aiden’s going to propose. Aiden’s going to propose. I let the thought settle in and a smile spread across my face. It all made sense. The study session lie so he could get his friends’ advice. He’d been a little distant recently, probably because he was nervous. I glanced down at my left hand, imagining an engagement ring there. Aiden and I made sense together. We fit. I was young, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t ready for the rest of my life to start.
And I wanted to do it by looking like myself. Which meant a cute spring dress, not some slutty number from Peyton’s closet. I knew the perfect dress. It was hanging in Aiden’s closet. I basically lived in his apartment even though we hadn’t officially moved in together. I was going to miss him terribly when he was gone for spring break, but knowing that we were engaged would certainly make it more bearable.
I stopped outside his apartment building. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. We’d be parting ways in a few months. I’d be staying on campus during the summer and he was starting his new job. Being engaged meant he wouldn't forget me while we were apart. I shook the thought away. That was ridiculous. He wasn't going to forget about me. And I certainly wasn't going to forget him. He was everything to me. We were building our future together.
It was impossible for me to remove the smile plastered to my face as I opened up the door to his building. I wasn't sure what I would have done without Aiden. I pretended I was a badass for moving here from a small town in Delaware. But honestly, when I stepped onto campus three falls ago, I was terrified. If I hadn't literally bumped into him on the second week of classes, I'd probably still be crying myself to sleep every night alone in my dorm. All his friends became my friends. And I couldn't imagine being any happier. I chose SMU for a fresh start. Aiden became my actual fresh start.
I pulled out the key to his apartment as I walked up the stairs. If I really thought about it, I should have known a proposal was coming. I loved him. I was absolutely sure of it. He was kind. And smart. And God was he sexy. I wanted him to know that he was my whole world.
I stopped outside his door. There had always been a little fear in the back of my mind that I wasn’t good enough for him. That his parents didn’t approve of me and that’s why I hadn’t met them. But tonight would change everything. I wanted to be enough for him. He was enough for me. He was it for me.
So why was I still all sweaty? Stop being weird. I took a deep breath as I slid the key into the lock and opened the door. "Aiden?" I stepped into his empty apartment. Of course he wasn't here. He was probably on his way to pick me up from Peyton's. I laughed and grabbed his t-shirt off the floor. He must have been in a hurry to get ready for our date. I folded it, draped it over my arm, and walked toward his bedroom. My comfy dress was calling to me. I couldn’t wait to change.
Before I reached his room, I pulled out my cell phone and called him. Hopefully he wouldn't go in and talk to Peyton. Their friendship had always bothered me a little. And it bugged me that she knew about him proposing before even I did. I wanted to forget that the past half hour had even happened and enjoy our night. My stomach growled, reminding me of the fact that I was starving.
Aiden's ringtone sounded on the other side of the bedroom door. He never went anywhere without his phone. He was almost anal about it. Which meant he was home. Crap. I didn’t want him to see me in this dress because I had a feeling he’d like it and I really wanted to change. "Aiden?" I said as I turned the door handle. "I need to grab my dress from..." The shirt I had folded fell silently to the ground.
"Mila? Shit." Aiden fell out of bed. Naked. Pulling the sheets off the bed with him to cover his junk.
The girl he left sheet-less screamed and covered herself with her hands.
What. The. Hell.
I felt like a deflated balloon. The talk. God, my first instinct was right. He was going to break up with me. I could hear Peyton’s voice in my head: “Aiden said that the two of you really needed to talk. That he’d been planning on telling you for a while. He said it was important. That he couldn’t wait any longer.”
He’d been planning on breaking up with me for a while. Not proposing. And he couldn’t wait any longer because I guess he was too excited to put his dick into this chick. He didn’t love me. He was into the girl that was currently naked on my side of his bed. Where I had slept so many nights this semester. With Aiden's arms around me. I didn't even wait for him to say anything else. I threw the phone in my hand at his head.
He ducked and it made a horrible cracking noise against his wall before falling to the ground with a thud.
"Mila, you don't understand."
I blinked. Don't understand? "Are you kidding me?" Everything seemed pretty clear. He was naked in bed with someone who was not me. Perfectly clear. I lifted one of my high heels in the air.
"Whoa. Whoa." He put one hand out in front of him, keeping his other fist around the sheet that was covering his junk.
I threw it as hard as I could and it hit his shoulder as he tried to duck again.
"Jesus, Mila! Would you calm down?"
Calm down? "You said you loved me." I lifted my other heel.
"And I do."
"Excuse me?" the girl in the bed said. She was still sitting there naked, like she wasn't the one intruding.
"I mean...I did." Aiden stepped toward me.
Did. When had we become past tense? "How could you?" I was angry about how small my voice sounded.
He took another step toward me. And I hated that all I wanted was for his arms to be around me again. Because he was the only one that could ever comfort me. He knew my worries and my fears. He knew me. And he didn't want me.
"Mila, come on. What did you expect? It’s not like I could ever keep dating you after graduation. This was inevitable."
Inevitable? Why? I thought the future I had just pictured with him was the inevitable thing. Not this. But the words didn't come out. They stayed stuck in my throat as big fat tears began to roll down my cheeks. I had a million things to say. A million questions running around in my mind. But all I could focus on was the hurt. The pain that was searing across my chest.
He took another step toward me. And I realized that he wasn't attempting to comfort me. He was trying to get me to leave. He was ushering me out of his life. He wanted her to stay. I felt so...used. And all I could do was shake my head. All those words stuck inside, rattling back and forth.
"We can talk about this later." His voice had dropped, like he didn't want the girl in his bed to hear.
There was nothing for us to talk about. But again, the words wouldn't come out. I didn't even realize that the other heel had slipped out of my hand until I heard it thud against the ground. I turned around and walked away from the boy who meant everything…and I wound up knee-deep in a bowl of ice cream.
The teenaged girl at the counter of the ice cream shop was staring at me like I was an alien. I looked down at my Keds. The combination with my stupid fancy dress was ridiculous, but they were the only shoes I had in my bag, and I couldn’t exactly walk into this establishment barefoot. There was a sign and everything. Besides, didn't she see that I was in pain? Maybe she was just appalled by the mascara streaming down my cheeks. Instead of wiping underneath my eyes with one of the napkins on my table, I shoved another spoonful of ice cream into my mouth. That seemed to appall her even more. Stop staring at me, you monster. Haven’t you ever had your heart broken?
I let my spoon drop into my bowl. What am I doing? I wasn't mad at the ice cream girl. I was mad at Aiden. And the naked girl I had never seen before. I put my face in my hand.
The girl at the counter cleared her throat, like she was trying to stop me from making a scene. All I was doing was sobbing in public. I wasn’t hurting anyone. If I worked at an ice cream shop, I'd be a lot nicer than the girl who worked here. I'd be friendly. And offer someone a freaking tissue if they were crying.
It was now official. I hated Santa Monica. The adjustment here had been hard for a reason. I didn't belong. Everyone was so unfriendly. And fake. And so perfectly beautiful. No one was supposed to look this good in a beach town. It was supposed to be all cutoff jean shorts and bikini tops. Not designer clothes and fake eyelashes.
I lifted my face out of my hands. Maybe I didn't wear enough makeup. Or care about what brand of clothing I wore. But that didn't mean I was unworthy of love. It didn't mean I deserved to be feeling the way I was currently feeling.
I stared at the clock on the wall. I should have been sitting across from Aiden at some fancy restaurant right now. Holding his hand. Laughing. I had so easily pictured him getting down on one knee.
Stop. I stood up and threw out the rest of my ice cream. I wasn't at all surprised that the ice cream shop employee didn't tell me to have a "great rest of your day," as I walked back outside. I squinted at the brightness of the outdoors. It felt like I was walking out into the real world for the first time. I wasn't sure I was a fan of the real world. It seemed bleak and uninviting.
I needed a friendly face. A shoulder to cry on. I just needed to go somewhere that no one would be silently judging me. I whispered a curse when I got to Peyton's dorm. Normally I'd just call her so she could let me in, but I didn't have my cell phone. It was currently on the floor of Aiden's apartment. Besides, it was probably broken.
I stared up at the dorm building. Ugh. It was past dinnertime now. Students wouldn't be coming in or out as often. I sat down on the step outside of the door. I suddenly felt like crying again. I bit the inside of my cheek to prevent myself from shedding any more tears. My whole body felt cold. I had this odd feeling like none of this was really happening. Like I was having a bad dream.
A clicking noise brought me out of the dreamlike state. Someone was walking out of Peyton's dorm building. I quickly stood up and grabbed the handle of the door before it closed, ignoring the way the girl stared at me. It was the same look the ice cream shop girl had given me. Utter disgust. Did no one on this campus understand what I was going through? Stop staring at me like that! I slipped inside the building and sighed when the stranger didn't follow me. I half expected her to call the police and say a homeless prostitute was breaking into her dorm building.
I took the stairs two at a time, happy that I had abandoned the heels at Aiden's. Hopefully Peyton wouldn't be too angry. And hopefully she wouldn't ask me to get them back for her. I couldn't handle seeing Aiden. The thought of him ushering me out of his apartment made me feel queasy. Or maybe it was all the ice cream I had eaten.
I stopped outside Peyton's dorm room and knocked.
When she opened the door, her eyes scanned me from my head to my feet. "Um...hey." Her voice sounded cold and uninviting.
"Peyton." My tears were already threatening to spill out again. "He...Aiden..."
She pressed her lips together. "I know. He was just here. He wanted to make sure you had this." She outstretched her hand.
Suddenly I realized that her other hand was firmly holding the door in place. She hadn't opened it to invite me inside. I reached out and grabbed my phone. "Can I come in?"
"I'm a little busy right now, Mila. Packing for spring break and everything."
I swallowed hard. "Right." I blinked fast, trying to remove the tears forming in my eyes.
"I'll see you around." She started to close the door.
I put my hand out to stop her. "Peyton, he cheated on me."
She gave me a sympathetic look that didn't seem at all genuine. "Yeah, he told me the whole story. I'm sorry."
Even her "I'm sorry" didn't sound sincere. What was going on? "I don’t even understand. Why was he taking me out to a nice restaurant if he was just planning on dumping me before the main course came?”
“Probably so you wouldn’t make a scene. Which…it kinda sounds like you did.”
Ouch. I tried to ignore her harsh words. “Can I come in? I really just need to talk. I don't understand what happened. I thought everything was going so well. You even thought he was going to propose. Not…this." I felt naive and stupid. It was mostly because of the expression on Peyton's face.
She lowered her eyebrows slightly. "Yeah, and I’m sorry about that. That was my bad. But we can’t talk anymore. We're friends through association, Mila."
I just stared at her.
"Through Aiden," she added, like I was an idiot. "And honestly, I've always liked Rebecca."
Rebecca. "Is that the other girl's name?"
"Yeah. Look, I feel for you, I do. But I mean...I can't be friends with both you and Aiden. That would just be...awkward."
I laughed. It sounded strange in my throat. "So, you're breaking up with me too?"
"Don't be so dramatic. It's not like we were close."
Peyton was my best friend. Besides for Aiden. But I wasn't about to tell her that. "Right."
"I really do need to get back to packing."
"And you can keep the dress," she said casually as she closed the door in my face.
She didn't say it, but I imagined her adding, "it has failure all over it now."
END OF PROLOGUE
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