Taylor rode the aerotrain alone to the party, her thoughts fixed on vengeance. She disembarked the electromagnetic car at the waterfront station and pulled her shawl tight over her exposed shoulders. The spring air was sharp like cold teeth on her skin, stirring up shivers that crept like insects from her skin.
Her skimpy dress had been foolish, perhaps, and her intentions a bit childish, but it would be worth it to see his face. His beautiful, idiot face. Chad Michaels: Taylor’s great, stupid love.
Who was she kidding? It had never been love. Not really.
Love endured wrongs and, perhaps, even betrayal. But there was nothing enduring in Taylor’s mind tonight. The thought of Chad seeing her — watching him fight to hide that unmistakable look of longing she used to be so fond of — caused a sinister smile to crease between her lips as she reached her destination.
Taylor took the lift to the highest floor of the tower along Waterway. The glass doors opened into the den of the suite, an extravagant affair as was customary for the penthouses. However, Taylor was deterred from the extravagance by a formidable hand at the entrance.
“I don’t believe I’ve seen you here before, miss,” said the doorman dully. “Name?”
The doorman surveyed a pad in his hand. “I’m afraid I am not finding a Taylor Grey on Miss Bandon’s guest list, miss.”
“Oh?” said Taylor, nonplussed, cocking her head to the side in a cutesy, befuddled manner. “Perhaps you should check again, good sir. Our friendship goes back ages.”
The doorman rolled his eyes, doubting it, but nevertheless, he checked. To his evident surprise her name was indeed there at second glance. Or, at least, he thought it was. “My mistake,” he said, bowing her into the room.
“Not at all,” said Taylor, hurrying in, and then, once she’d passed, “The mistake was all mine.”
At an early age, Taylor had found that she had a near irresistible charm that had a convenient way of getting her out of trouble and, in this case, into places she’d not been invited. It was almost as though she were able to implant her ideas into others’ heads. It didn’t work on everyone, though. It had never once worked on her mother — back when she was still around.
Lauri Bandon had held nothing back tonight. A full-service bar was erected in the kitchen delivering blue and red spirits on the coin of Lauri’s parents. A dance floor had been set in the great room, where a tuxedoed quartet strummed dance numbers and lovers (and lusters) waltzed sensuously. Here, Taylor expected to find the Ex.
It wasn’t that Taylor wanted Chad back. That was emphatically over. But the decision had been his and, in her own way, Taylor needed the last word on the matter.
To her dismay, Chad was nowhere in sight. So Taylor made for the bar.
Ordering a vibrant green nitrous, she shed her shawl and took a seat, eyes panning the masses. When the nitrous arrived, she didn’t drink it. She stirred the ice cubes with her finger, testing her self-control.
“Ah, look who’s all lonely-face,” sneered Holly Madison, strutting over, flipping her dark hair to the side.
Of course, thought Taylor, sighing.
“Don’t you have better things to do, Holly? Friendships you could be blundering? Oh wait, how stupid of me. You’d have to have friends to do that.”
Holly glared. “Back to the spirits, I see, Grey. Got wind Chadsy-wadsy’s on the rebound, did you? Come to see it live?”
“Go to hell,” snapped Taylor. Her charm had never worked on Holly either.
“You’d be joining me soon enough, anyway,” gloated Holly, eyeing Taylor’s drink. “Shall I alert the med units now? Save them the trouble? They might not make it in time, this time.”
“At least she’ll go out in style,” said Sophia Cosme, joining them, admiring Taylor’s dress up and down. “Yowch! You on the other hand, Holly… you know this is a party, right, not some dismal funeral?”
“Or a seance,” said Taylor.
“At least you’re not wearing those Parliamentary robes your mother is so fond of,” said Sophia.
“Those might be better, actually.”
“Screw both of you,” Holly muttered and huffed off in her billowy black evening gown with even billowier shoulders.
“We’d rather you didn’t!” Sophia called after her, and Taylor and Sophia laughed.
“Thanks,” said Taylor.
“I enjoy any opportunity to ruffle her little moth wings.”
They laughed again and hugged. It was a banter they had begun in primary school, built off a mutual distaste for Holly Madison. One petty insult building off the last.
“Seriously, you look scorching,” said Sophia. Which meant something coming from Sophia. Her parents owned Belle Fashion, and Sophia left nothing to be desired in the beauty department. Her smooth bronzed skin and shimmering ebony locks were the envy of all the girls at Postremo, and the desire of the rest.
Taylor had always been told she was a pretty girl, but she knew it was not in a Sophia sort of way. Taylor’s blonde hair had a propensity for chaos, mushrooming off her slender body in angry curls she despised taming. Her fashion-sense was often in need of coaching — she preferred jeans and walking barefoot in all honesty. She was charming, but Taylor’s charm had proven the kind to be admired, or despised, from some degree of distance.
Taylor’s was an enigmatic sort of pretty.
But tonight, she was scorching. And this was just what she wanted to hear.
“It’s good to see you out again, Taylor,” Sophia said, touching Taylor’s arm sympathetically.
This did not please Taylor.
“So you must be, I mean…” Sophia glanced at Taylor’s drink. “You’re doing better, then?”
Taylor was also a troubled sort of pretty. She smiled a practiced, enduring smile. Reminded that the reason Chad had left her was the same reason her old friends found it hard to talk to her. She was the Trouble-Girl now. One Incident was all it took.
“I’m doing much better now, yes.”
Sophia, as usual, once the banter and laughter was over, had little more to say to Taylor and was all too relieved when her boyfriend came over, greeting her with a squeamishly intimate kiss and whisking her off to dance. There was a delicious glint in both their eyes.
Love, happiness, desire.
Alone and frowning, eyes scouring the crowd without luck, Taylor remained at the bar and twirled the ice in her glass some more.
The longer she spent hoping to spot Chad, the more enticing the nitrous was becoming.
Perhaps he hadn’t come.
Perhaps he was with another girl.
Her eyes followed the crowd.
Taylor recognized everyone in the suite from Postremo Academy. Everyone except for two older boys standing by the balcony doors. They looked nearly the same, both wore pleated khakis, average height, dark hair. They were not Postremo students, she felt fairly sure. Though there was a Postremo-esque arrogance about them standing off on their own. One smirked when he caught her looking and Taylor glanced away.
“Still clinging on to the tattered thread that is your social life?” teased a familiar masculine voice, making her forget entirely about the boys.
“Darien,” said Taylor brightly, hugging her friend. She shoved the glass of nitrous away, and Darien didn’t so much as glance at it. “How’d you get in here? Lauri doesn’t invite colonials.”
“She doesn’t invite tattered threads, either, I don’t think.” Darien smiled amusedly.
“Well, then, so did I. You look ravishing, by the way. Any particular reason?”
Taylor blushed briefly, and then glared. “Sweet-talking’s not becoming of you, Darien Hannigan. And you could have dressed up yourself, if you were planning on blending at a penthouse party.”
Darien wore denims and a plain white T-shirt, looking like the colonial he proudly was. He shrugged.
“If you wanted to get out, you could have just asked me or Mischa, you know. We’re much better company than this clown show.” Mischa was another colonial, and next to Darien, probably her truest friend these days.
“These are my friends, here, too,” said Taylor.
“Whatever you say,” said Darien, but his sentence was cut short.
Lauri Bandon was coming their way, looking horrified. Taylor and Darien both ducked their heads.
Lauri hurried past them, her butler following after. They went straight for the strange boys by the balcony doors. A crushing silence fell upon the room.
“What do you think you’re doing here? This is a Postremo party. Who the hell are you, anyway?”
“We came with Lief. That boy, the one dancing.”
“I know who Lief is, and I don’t care if you came with him or not. This is a Postremo party, and it is by invitation only!”
“We aren’t trying to cause any trouble.”
“Wilfred, show them the way out, please!”
“Come on, boys, you heard the young lady. Don’t make me involve the Constabulary. Let’s go.”
The Bandon’s butler led the unwanted visitors through the crowded great room, opened the lift doors, and shoved them in. Though not too violently. For that was the way of Ocean City, and that was the future of the New World.
Violence was never the answer.
Even the Constabulary peace officers carried nothing more violent than a small club.
Lauri scuttled past the bar again, muttering: “Think they can let themselves into any old party. Unbelievable!” She shouted at the doorman for letting them in, and he insisted he hadn’t seen them enter, but apologized deeply for his error all the same.
“Maybe we should get going,” said Darien.
“I only just got here,” Taylor complained.
“Well, we should at least move somewhere less for-all-to-see then.”
“Fine,” she said, a little annoyed, and quickly losing hope of stirring up remorse in Chad Michaels.
Darien took her arm and led them across the great room, along the edge of the dance floor and out the glass doors to the balcony. Pulling the curtains back across, he safely secluded them from the eyes of Lauri Bandon. And from Chad.
Perhaps it was best.
Taylor leaned out over the balustrade taking in the cool wisps of night air. The fog was creeping up from the Sound into the Ocean City harbor. The moon illuminated the waterfront in a lovely silver glow. If not for the chill, it was a beautiful, romantic sort of night.
Not long ago, she would have been out here with Chad Michaels. He would have nipped playfully at her lips, and she would have nipped back, and lingered, and then taken him all in — his sweet lips, his mussed up athlete’s hair, his muscular neck…
But Taylor had lost her charm with Chad as well.
“So you going to tell me what this is all about?” said Darien.
“What what is all about?”
Darien eyed her up and down, smiling. “You, here, looking like that.”
“It’s nothing, it’s stupid.”
“No, he’s stupid,” said Darien. “You’re not… trying to win him back or something, are you?”
“God, no. I just… I wanted him to regret it a little. Wanted to feel like the decision was as much mine as his. It was stupid, I don’t need you to tell me.”
“Well, then I won’t.” Darien put his arm around her shoulder and scooted closer. The wind swept through his golden-red hair, ruffled his shirt to define strong muscles.
Taylor missed the way things had been. Back when her life was together, her family together. When her best friends were still colonial-borns, but it was by her choice. Before encounters with Sophia had become awkward. Before someone like Chad Michaels had helped her feel less lonely. Before everything changed.
Before the tragedy.
“Why’d you come here, Darien?”
His eyes were warm, a semblance of sadness and love. He gave her a half-smile that said, You know I’m here for you.
Darien was never one for heartfelt words. The things he felt were stowed behind locked doors inside him, but they shone through in his eyes, his gestures, his risking public embarrassment to be here with her.
However, Darien’s inward nature was not the reason he never answered why he’d snuck into Lauri Bandon’s penthouse party.
Noise from the great room blared suddenly and out stumbled a lip-locked couple, hands exploring each other’s bodies, tongues imitating the sounds of waves crashing.
Darien cleared his throat.
And Taylor gasped.
Chad Michaels jerked away from the girl, nearly dropping her to the ground.