Being perfect isn't all it's cracked up to be.
Sixteen-year-old Declan is the perfect son . . . except for one tiny issue. When his sister Delia comes home to find him trying on her clothes, he fears her judgment, but she only fears his fashion choices. One quick makeover later, Declan is transformed into Delia’s mysterious cousin Layla and dragged to the party of the year, hosted by Carter, the most popular boy in school.
When Carter meets Layla, he fumbles to charm her. He adores her sense of humor and her poise. But when she vanishes in the middle of the night, he’s left confused and determined to solve the mystery of who she is.
As their school year begins, their high school embraces a policy of intolerance, and both Declan and Carter know they must stand up. Carter is tired of being a coward and wants to prove he can be a knight in shining armor. Declan is sick of being bullied and wants desperately to be himself. If they team up, it could be a fairy-tale ending, or a very unhappy ever after.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Suitcases built a little fort on the front step, and an Uber idled in the driveway.
“Don’t give your sister trouble,” Declan’s mother said to him, as if it wouldn’t be the other way around. She pushed the curly hair from his face, clearly thinking it a loving gesture. To him it was like being unmasked. He dodged.
Dad hugged Delia and snuck a look at his lock screen. Then his parents were off on their second honeymoon, looking as if they desperately needed it. Declan watched them leave, feeling the pressure build like a creeping mass in his chest.
Delia waited all of ten seconds before diving into her messenger. “I’ve got to go to the store.”
“Mom already bought us groceries.”
She rolled her eyes. “It’s for the party, Dex.”
His stomach lurched, as the thought of being overrun by a stampede of ridiculous teenagers crashed through his mind. He pushed up his glasses. “We can’t have a party here!”
She slid her bare feet into sparkling sandals and grabbed her purse from the table. “Duh. It’s at Carter’s house.”
Declan looked away, just as his face started to burn. Carter Aadenson, always first on the roll sheet, first in line, first place, first in mind. First.
“I thought he dumped you,” he mumbled, poking his fingers through the hole in his ancient, secondhand jeans. He hated them, but they were perfectly ugly. When Declan wore them, no one saw him, or the smooth skin beneath.
“We broke up. Mutually.” She scowled at her face in the hall mirror. Her lipstick was too dark for her. It looked better on him.
Declan glanced at the stairs. “How long will you be gone?”
“I’m fine like I am. I’ll probably go right over. His parties usually end around midnight, because he makes amnesty bargains with the neighbors.”
“You still like him, don’t you?”
The bite in his voice must have been obvious.
“What’s not to like? But we’re just friends. Don’t worry. He’s not going to break your dear sister’s heart.”
Declan pictured Carter as he had been that snowy day over Christmas break. Never had an ugly sweater been so sexy. He’d had his perfect hair, his perfect face, his perfect blue eyes, and without a second thought, he’d folded up his perfect long legs and played Minecraft beside Declan, their arms brushing at least ten times. He was an athlete, which meant he gave off enough body heat to melt Antarctica, and Declan had felt it radiating off of him. Watching Carter’s fingers grasp the controller, he’d counted breaths and fought for self-control. And when Carter got up, a perfect hand had tousled Declan’s mop of hair. To Carter, Declan was “A pretty cool dude.”
At once, the greatest compliment and blackest insult Declan had ever received.
Delia threw kissy faces at the mirror. “It’s probably going to be a big party, this close to the start of the year. Not sure how many people will be there, but because of me, you know half the—”
“I’m not going.”
“I know Mila is going to be there, and Priah too.”
He looked back at the stairs longingly, feeling the itch. “Whatever. Have a G-D blast.”
“That time of the month?”
“You know, if you pulled your head out of your games for like five seconds, you might think high school was fun, not the seventh circle of hell.”
“That’s the one for Instagrammers, right?”
She seemed to avoid looking him in the eye as she scrawled out a shopping list. “Look, you left Saint Catherine’s for a reason. This is a chance to do things differently. My friends aren’t like those prep-school assholes! If we cleaned you up, Priah might be willing to be seen with you.”
He gagged involuntarily and ducked away from her outstretched hand. “Leave me alone. I don’t want to date your bitchy friends.”
Delia stared at him. She had to be confused, worried. Saint Catherine’s had taken a huge toll on him, and with every confrontation, black eye, and night spent crying himself to sleep, he’d shut her out. It was because she was too smart, and he had spent a long time as her shadow, idolizing her. If anyone would see his secret, it would be her, and so she became the first enemy. It was unavoidable.
But that night was especially bad, because the moment was waiting.
Declan gazed fixedly at the ground, and Delia gave up.
“Fine. Stay in your room and be a dick. Enjoy jerking yourself off for the rest of your life.”
She slammed the door on the way out. He waited until her bright-red Beetle pulled away, feeling the pain in his chest more acutely than ever. Switching schools was supposed to have fixed their relationship, but it was possible that he had forgotten how to be a brother.
He swallowed down his anxiety as he locked the dead bolt. He could forget about everything when he sat down at her dressing table. Taking a deep, cleansing breath, Declan pushed his hair back from his face and shed his glasses on the way up.
A pile of shoes and coats blocked her door. He stepped over them carefully, glad that her messy ways concealed his invasion of her privacy to a large degree. The dress was where she’d left it, hooked over her desk chair like a dirty towel, the tags still on it. He ran his fingers over the ruching and winked back the sting.
It was so effortless and inborn for her that she could toss her femininity around like nothing. She left her castoffs in her wake, giving him only a few stolen moments of peace. It was unfair. But nobody ever said life was fair.
He pulled his shirt over his head and caught sight of a skinny torso in her dressing mirror. If he didn’t look, it would be okay, he told himself. Away went the jeans. He tugged the dress over his head and into place. Delia was curvy. Tailoring darts made it hang on his chest. He considered socks stuffed into a bra, but a bra would show through the sheer back. He wandered into her closet to dig out her strappy stilettos from the winter formal and found the silver bangle bracelet on the way.
He was one dress size smaller, and one shoe size larger, but for the moment, he could deal with these discrepancies.
Brushing his tangle of hair back with some water, he pretended not to notice how boyish it looked. Pinterest told him that to do the eyes right, he had to find a makeup brush. Her makeup tools were always scattered around her pigsty of a bathroom, caked in cosmetics. He dug out the mascara there too, but she must have taken the dark lipstick with her. Declan settled for the pink gloss. The YouTube vids always said it was better to have either a dramatic eye or a dramatic lip, and his eyes were a saving grace.
“Carter Aadenson,” he whispered. The sort of boy put on this earth to torment, and he had unwittingly tormented Declan for two years. Kissing his sister on the porch, cuddling her on the couch, sharing his private jokes in the hollow of her ear.
One day, when he could escape, Declan would do it right. He would be himself at last, not who they always thought he was. Maybe then, he could walk up to Carter, or some blessed angel like him, and buy him a drink.
“It gets better.”
The old armor was a wrinkled husk on the bed. The shoes’ straps cut into his skin but made him feel more powerful than ever before. He tipped the mirror and turned in profile.
So strange to think that the real person had to be drawn out like poison, bled out from inside. Who that real person was, he didn’t know, but he knew he was a little closer to them.
He spotted the movement behind him much too late. In the span of a gasp, she appeared in the mirror and dropped her purse. Her mouth hung open in a hideous O as his legs, those gangly things, went weak.
Not a word was spoken. Cold burned through Declan and was replaced with fire. Like a newborn foal, his gallop to the safety of the closet ended in a haphazard pile on the floor. One of the chic strappy shoes had snapped, and a livid mark appeared on his ankle. But Declan could not focus on that. He folded himself up into a pile of her laundry and did not have the strength to lift his head.
“Dex?” she choked out finally.
That he had a voice amazed him, and before Declan could stop it, it was sobbing out horrifying pleas. Balled up, buried, he hid. He wept until every last tear, saved for this rainy day over his supposedly formative years, was squeezed out. His body had gone numb. The room was an abyss beyond the warmth of his shameful little cocoon, and he lacked the courage to stand and flee.
“It’s okay. Dex . . . It’s okay.”
Shivers tore through him like little lightning bolts. Her hand impeded an arc and sent it bouncing over his naked arms. He could hear her picking her whispers, feel her hesitate as each new phrase was discarded before it could be uttered. This was an unthinkable occasion, for which no person could ever be prepared, but he loved her even more for the attempt.
“Don’t.” Her forehead pressed to his neck. “Is this . . . is this why?”
His face, covered with snot, stuck to her denim jacket. “Why what?”
“Why you’re so . . . you know, upset all the time. I thought you were, like, on drugs or something! I thought you hated me, and I couldn’t figure out what I’d done.”
Sniffling and shifting, Declan surfaced. He couldn’t yet look at her, but she had always been his second mother, when the real one stopped understanding him. She hooked his chin and forced the smeared face up to the light.
“God, you look terrible!” A kiss landed on his brow, and before he knew it, he was bundled up in her lap like the basket case he was. Her fingers worked through the tiny belts on the broken shoes and tugged them off. “Come on, get up. Go take a hot shower. Let’s do this right.”
She smiled, and even though there were little black dribbles beneath her eyes, she had never looked more lovely.
“Clean yourself up, and let’s try again.”
Delia helped him to his feet. The ankle was sore but undamaged. He hobbled to the bathroom and pressed his face into the towel that landed on his head.
“We’ll talk when you’re finished, okay?”
Declan shut the door without thanking her. He didn’t know how. He didn’t even have the wisdom to put a situation like this to words. If he could have done that, explaining why they had slowly drifted apart would be easy. Telling her that every time he watched her get ready for a date, he hated her a little more would have been a walk in the park. He stared at the clown in the mirror in humiliation.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she said through the door. “I would have understood! You’re my brother! Plus I’ve seen every episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race!”
Declan stood under the water and went through his logic again and again. She hung out with the kind of kids who usually made a sport of harassing the uncomfortable and awkward, and it didn’t matter that she was the nicest among them. The idea that she might in any way ridicule him or leak his secret to her cronies had been enough. That feeling had combined with his greater self-loathing and become hard fact: Delia would not understand, because Declan himself could not.
If she was bothered by his lack of response, she didn’t seem it. “Make sure you use that face wash. It’ll take all the makeup off. You have on way too much eyeliner.”
A fresh bevy of sobs assailed him, but they ended in a laugh.
“That dress was all wrong. I’m going to pick you out a new outfit, okay? I’ll be right back.”
Away she went. He had ten minutes of scrubbing to himself before she opened the door and stuck her head inside.
“Okay, so I’ve totes got this. I am a fucking genius.”
Relief was slowly taking hold, twisting through doubt and flourishing. He wasn’t alone anymore. He didn’t have to spend the evening by himself in a borrowed skin, scanning forums for transgender teenagers, deciphering which posts were real and which were traps laid by sexual predators.
“I can even deal with the hair! Hurry up and get out here.”
And she was gone again.
He stepped out and toweled off, wondering if she’d spent time working through the decision to dress him up like a doll, or if it came to her like the rest of her spontaneously good-natured ideas. If anyone could make a profession of being spunky and conspiratorial, it was Delia. She was a born event planner and/or crisis-management specialist.
Declan emerged, sheepishly wrapped up in her purple bathrobe. “Dee, I—”
“Don’t!” She sat on the bed, digging through her treasure trove of nail varnish. “You tell me what you want, when you want. For now, I’m just going to absorb the idea that you like wearing dresses, and run with my Barbie fetish.”
His laugh shook, but she shored up all his crumbling resolve with yet another hug.
“Okay, I lied. Let me ask some questions that are strictly yes or no.”
“Do you want to be a girl?”
He pursed his lips and looked around. “I . . . don’t know. I know I feel . . . better . . . when I’m . . . not this.”
Delia’s gaze was as focused as it was when she was doing her French homework. “Right. I think I get it.”
“I like being in between.” He shifted from foot to foot. “It’s called being nonbinary or gender-fluid, I think. I . . . I’m not sure if that makes sense. I don’t know if I make sense . . .”
She made a dismissive noise. “As long as you make sense to you, what’s it to me? Do we need to talk about pronouns?”
“I . . . No, leave it. It’s . . . I don’t—”
“Do you like girls or boys, or like both, or maybe none?”
That was, strangely enough, an even more difficult issue, but the fact that she asked it so matter-of-factly made it easier to finally whisper out loud, “Boys.”
“So . . . you’re basically a straight tomboy trapped in a boy’s body?”
The translation was as good as any he was likely to mumble; he gave up trying to improve on it. “I really thought you’d hate me if you knew.”
Her face crumpled up on itself. “Is that the kind of person you think I am?”
“Fear makes people way too cautious.”
“Did you ever try to tell me?”
“A couple times. I finally quit when I heard your friend Nick make a gay joke at your birthday party. You laughed, so . . .”
She sighed and took his hand. “I’m so sorry if I ever did anything that made you feel bad. I don’t think like that. I promise you. I shouldn’t have laughed. It wasn’t cool.”
Declan nodded and glanced over the clothing items spread out on the bed. She was right; she was a genius. He picked up a self-adhesive silicone bra and shook his head. “So—”
“I figured we stick this to you. It makes the shape right. And then you wear my other push-up bra over the top, see? Instant cleavage.” She nested the two together and grinned. “I’m not an expert in dangly parts, though. What do you think? I have these Spanx shorts and these . . .”
Declan ran his hands over his face and was amazed. Had she sat around nights trying to put him in her shoes, or had this all come to her in the twenty minutes since she’d found him?
“Delia, you’re . . .”
“We’re lucky you’re a waif, because this would be so much harder if you were built like a football player. I have zero garments in that size range.” She threw the undergarments at him and shoved him into the closet. “Put these on and then come back out.”
Before an hour had passed, they were in each other’s confidence in a way they never had been, and Declan was sitting in a new, elastic suit of armor, having his face and nails expertly painted. The mirrors were covered, so that the great reveal could have its full effect, but Delia would lean back every so often with a wide smile and shake her head as if pleased with herself. She’d forced him to put in his colored contact lenses, plucked his eyebrows, concealed his birthmark, and glued on false eyelashes. She’d even managed to work with his overgrown mop of curly hair, flat-ironing, spraying, and pinning it back so that one of her old cheerleading hairpieces could be fitted. And as if that weren’t enough, she explained everything as she went, boggling his mind with how much knowledge of fashion she actually had. His image of her changed from a carelessly beautiful girl who could be unwittingly cruel to a meticulously self-made diva.
“This is the dress,” she affirmed, tossing out a royal-blue garment. “The peplum will create the illusion of a curvy hip, and it’s sexy without showing off cleavage. We don’t want to draw attention to the fake stuff. We want to augment the natural, like your legs, which by the way, make me want to punch you. Did you use my razor?”
“No. I wax them.”
She tugged the dress over his head and zipped him up, then wedged his feet into a pair of black ankle boots. Last but not least, she strapped a leather cuff onto his left wrist and stood back to admire her handiwork. The perusal ended in a squeal and jazz hands.
“Okay, okay! Now, you’d better prepare yourself, because this is gonna blow you away!”
The curtain was lifted from the full-length mirror, and a gorgeous young lady stood looking back at him. She had dramatic soulful eyes and long legs, a messy bun and beauty mark, a punk-rock look and sporty curves. Declan’s jaw dropped, and her luscious mouth fell open.
This was the moment. More momentous than any previous moment had ever been, and his heart soared in jubilation and pride. The costume was finally gone, and the true soul set free.
“So what shall we call this gorgeous bitch?” Delia snaked her arms around his girlish waist.
“Layla,” he replied, without a thought.
“Like the Eric Clapton song?”
The beauty in the mirror nodded, her eyes glittering.
“Oh! You need a purse!” She vanished into the clothing cave and emerged with a sparkling black clutch.
“Why do I need that?”
“For the party!”
And the moment passed in a sensation of intense vertigo.
Carter stood on his coffee table and whistled. Half the crowded living room covered its ears. The other half hooted like a barn full of drunken owls.
“Welcome to my annual ‘Screw School’ soiree!”
They cheered and toasted, tossing Cheetos he’d have to vacuum up later, and raising Solo cups that would end up in a pile of molten plastic in the fire pit. He kept the loose grin on his face, regardless. These little inconveniences were how the politics of high school worked.
“As always, no touching any buttons, knobs, or locks! No fighting over the Apple TV; everyone’s music gets played! No putting things down drains! No tossing of fellow partygoers into the pool; this means you, Goat! iPhones are expensive, people!” A group of juniors booed, but were silenced by the angry shouts of those who’d been dunked in the past. “And, Toby, what’s the last rule?”
The quarterback sniffed and dipped his face into his rum and Coke.
“No sexual contact in my bedroom! That’s what your cars are for!”
Toby was buried in an avalanche of high fives and fist bumps from his herd of friends. Carter rolled his eyes surreptitiously and hopped down. The music started back up, and someone shoved a congratulatory beer into his hand.
He rescued a vase he’d overlooked, and stowed it in the locked cupboard of his mother’s knickknacks, just as a wrestling match began nearby. He’d had to bribe five neighborhood families with bottles of wine, front the money for the cleaning crew out of his college fund, and ready the entire property himself, but if it bought him a year of hassle-free popularity, it was worth it. The teenage wasteland would be traversed eventually, but one only made it through unscathed if one had an adventurous spirit and did a shitload of planning.
A heavy arm fell across his shoulders. “Carter, the fucking trampoline, dude! Genius! Like, for reals. No shit.”
He grinned up at the vacant face and extricated himself with a slap to the back. “Hey! You enjoy, man! And try not to break anything when you dismount!”
Yeah, that would be a marsh of puke by the end of the evening, if he was any judge of high school revelry. He’d have to hose it down with the pressure washer.
He wedged himself into a corner to catch his breath, downing the beer in a few sips. The cliques were mingling in predictable patterns. Liquid audacity flowed like water. The table of junk food was slowly being worked over by those too nervous to talk to others. The stack of board games were being appropriately turned into vehicles of sexual gratification and degradation. Outside, partly naked adolescents floated around the pool on an ark of inflatable animals. It was the perfect party: a well-calibrated machine for projecting his image into the upcoming year.
Finally, he could pause and get the lay of the land.
Summer was just long enough to make old grudges wear thin, just hot enough to melt cold shoulders, just brief enough to leave strong alliances standing. New couples had formed and new obsessions had come into being. Teams were coalescing for preseason practices and the girls were all roaming the malls in droves, picking out the newest fashion trends. Carter had not been the first teenager to figure out that a party was the best way to gain footing in a new school year, but he liked to think he’d done it best.
He greeted some friends. Bambi had descended on the event, fashionably late as usual, and was eyeing him lasciviously. He escaped across the room and broke up a group of sophomores trying to turn his staircase into a slide. Chloe and her girlfriend showed off their matching tattoos, while the debate team reconvened in his dining room and plowed through rudimentary politics. Carter wandered through the house aimlessly, glad this would be the last time he’d ever do this.
The music dropped from Sia to Hozier, just as the front door opened. Delia waved at him over the heads of the partygoers, and he breathed a sigh of relief. It was probably weird to have a female best friend, but he didn’t really care. She had been the one to comfort him through his parents’ divorce, the kiss that felt easy, the girl who could play touch football and didn’t read into it when he got all philosophical. It was really kind of shitty that they didn’t have more chemistry, but it had ended amicably, much to the chagrin of the rumor mill.
She was carrying her purse and a bag of snacks in one hand, and dragging someone through the door behind her with the other. Carter wondered if she’d found a date, as Delia had a whispered conversation through the portal. Couldn’t be too comforting to escort your girlfriend to the house of her ex while he was busy earning his Homecoming crown.
Then Delia disappeared into the dining room, leaving the door to swing on its hinges.
A thump of deep bass masked his sudden tachycardia, and the wail of a guitar snaked up his spine. As it was happening, he knew. This was a moment.
A goddess in a blue dress glanced around, her arms down at her sides instead of wrapped around her body like the rest of her self-conscious kin. She wasn’t going to wilt in a corner. She was going to fight through, tooth and nail, if necessary. Austere, smoky eyes ticked from group to group, clearly assessing the social dynamics of every clique within seconds, daring anyone to challenge her. She tilted her head back and her hair fell across her face, just so. Her shoulder shrugged, just so. Her hip tilted, just so. And Carter’s whole body responded.
He lurched away from the wall instantly, but met another as the track team crashed through the door and displaced the angel from her stoop. Swearing, he gave a few obligatory chest thumps and handshakes, and maneuvered through the kitchen. Delia was arranging food on the breakfast bar.
“Who the hell is that?” he hissed in her ear.
“Come on! ‘Who?’ The . . . stunning girl you dragged through my front door!”
Delia’s glance sparkled in mischief. “Caught your eye, huh?”
“Among other things. Seriously.”
“My cousin, Layla. She’s visiting before school starts.”
Carter blinked. “I didn’t know you had a cousin.”
Delia shrugged and went back to her task. “Well, she’s sort of not related to me. She’s my dad’s best friend from college’s stepkid.”
“So . . . it wouldn’t be weird if I—”
She patted his chest distractedly. “Good luck, Romeo.”
“Why, she stuck-up or something?”
“What? Oh, god no! She’s super-awesome! It’s . . . Well, let me talk to her before you pounce, okay? She’s here to chill, not get pawed by lustful boys.”
Carter gave her a wry look. “If that’s what she was going for, she should have worn a sack.”
“Trust me, she would kill in a sack.”
The image was an enticing one. “Point taken. Let me know when she’s prepped?”
“I’m so the best wing man.” She swatted at his hand as he reached to pick up an empty bottle. “Let me manage the party. You go back to your people-watching.”
They shared a knowing glance, and he was once again glad to have her on his team.
He wove through the house, participating in all of it with cursory enjoyment, his eye peeled for Layla in her drop-dead dress. Near the back door, he spotted her, standing off to one side of what was quickly proving to be an altercation.
Bambi and her gaggle of mean girls had cornered one of the free spirits and were dissing her avant-garde ensemble, their voices laden with sarcasm. Carter hung back, his attention focused on the hard disdain on Layla’s face. As her green eyes flicked from bully to victim, they began to glow with rage. He knew at once that she had been bullied herself, and hated it to her core—another point in her favor. When at last she’d had enough, his heart danced to watch her swagger into the fray and shut the shit down.
“Did you get that in Harajuku?” Her voice was as he’d imagined, low and sultry, and completely calm in the face of aggression, like that elf queen in that movie.
The unfortunate target, a sophomore he thought he remembered transferring from Saint Cat’s, looked close to tears. “I went to Tokyo with my obā-chan this summer.”
“Watashi wa sōda to omoimashita. Goth-Loli desu ne?”
Carter’s head bolted upright, and every voice in the immediate vicinity was silenced by the enthusiastic fluidity of Layla’s tongue.
“H . . . hai.” The grateful girl smiled. “Suki desu ka?”
“Ee, suteki desu ne! Urayamashī! Onamae wa nan desu ka?”
“Yuki desu. Yoroshiku onegai shimasu.”
“Layla desu. Yoroshiku.”
Their polite bow was a welcome change of pace, and when Layla turned an imperious eye on the listeners, it became clear that they were the ignorant savages.
“I’m sure I don’t have to tell you ladies that Harajuku is the place where fashion goes to be reinvented. Clothing is so expensive in Tokyo, that outfit probably cost Yuki more than a computer. Unlike your getup from Express. It’s basically wearable art.”
Bambi sucked in a breath to unleash a tirade. “Who cares how much it costs if it’s fucking ugly? She looks like a dead French maid.”
“And you look like every other rich girl on the planet. Well done with blending in, despite your personality.”
Bambi was always high-strung, but when she made to suddenly slap Layla, Carter’s smile slid off his face. If there was one thing the party couldn’t absorb, it was a catfight. But Layla didn’t seem bothered. She caught the raised hand easily and squeezed.
“It’s not bad enough you have to tear people down to make yourself feel better, you also have to hit the person pointing that out? What are you, five? Grow up.”
And the hand was discarded for one of Yuki’s. Layla pulled her outside, giggling and carrying on in Japanese as they left a stricken bully behind them. Bambi looked around at her former backers and found him. In that moment, Carter made a calculated, if risky political decision.
“Don’t look at me, Bambi. She said it. In two languages.”
Bambi stormed away. He’d pay for it later, but damn that felt good. He made the rounds in considerably better spirits, and when he got the nod from Delia, did a circuit looking for trouble. It was a bitch to find her. She had snuck off the back deck, over the expansive lawn, and found the darkened fire pit. She had her exquisite legs tucked up beneath her on a bench swing and was texting furiously, completely ignoring the party he’d worked so hard to craft.
“What a girl,” he whispered to himself.
He skirted the pool carefully, ignoring a dozen conversations that could suck him in. Hugging the shadows of the garage, he came around behind her and considered the approach. A girl like this wouldn’t fall for flattery, but she would also know that any guy who talked to her had only one thing on his mind.
He dropped his upper body over the back of the swing beside her with a loud noise of relief. She jumped, and he had his in.
“Hi, I’m Carter. This is my party.”
She blinked at him, unmoved and more stunning close-up.
“You’re Layla, Delia’s guest.” When she still said nothing, he waved his beer expressively, and as the words “She’s my ex-girlfriend” came out of his mouth, he kicked himself.
The dark head turned away, concealing a face that was even lovely when unimpressed. “I know who you are.”
“Um . . .” For the first time in his life, he had no idea what to say. “You want the fire on?”
“That’ll certainly make for an interesting evening when the football team finds it through the bottom of a vodka bottle.”
He snickered and looked at the back of her neck, finally understanding what swanlike meant. His mouth dried up, and his brain ground to a noisy halt. If Delia were here, she’d make fun of him, and he’d laugh and feel like a human being again, instead of a robot with a gear loose.
“Can we start over?”
She examined him. Her eyes were unreadable, depthless, and when he couldn’t tear free of them, they vanished in a fanning of long lashes.
“Give it a shot.”
“Hi, I’m Carter. It’s nice to meet you, and normally I’m not a giant douche.”
“Good to hear. Have a seat.”
“I hope Delia has only said good things.”
“It’s a double standard, right?”
“What do you mean?”
Her brow lifted. “What women say about a man matters, while a girl could be a complete bitch, and guys would line up.”
“Men don’t have trust issues.”
Layla laughed out loud and shook her head. “You are so full of shit, Carter Who-is-not-usually-a-giant-douche.”
He grinned and recalibrated. This was not going to be a normal conversation. Layla was a different breed.
“Okay, you got me. We just think with our dicks. But that is genetic and can’t be helped! It’s as embarrassing and inexplicable to us as it should be, I promise! It’s like when we hit twelve, we lose our minds.”
She leaned back and eyed him. “Is that when you start pulling girls’ hair?”
“Yes. We have no idea why we do it! It’s like this bizarre compulsion that controls our hands. And when they get mad at us, we hate ourselves, but we still can’t stop.” He squeezed the air and made a face that she seemed to find amusing.
“So when do you stop being idiots?”
“I’ll let you know.”
She took a sip of her hard lemonade. “See, this is one reason why Disney is so bad for young minds.”
“Oh?” He leaned back and relaxed. How he could do that with so many butterflies swarming in his gut, he had no idea, but she somehow managed to inspire both.
“Disney says the prince is supposed to just ride around on his white horse scanning the horizon for a poor shoeless damsel who fits. That all that matters is meeting a pretty princess and spawning a bunch of dukes. And the damsel is supposed to wait to be found. What he’s actually doing is riding around tugging on braids, violating the personal space bubble, until he meets the girl who breaks his nose and puts him in the Friend-zone. He doesn’t give a good god damn what shoe size she is. And she probably doesn’t care about her shoes at all.”
“You’re not wearing shoes,” he pointed out helpfully.
“But if I pull your hair, will you sock me?”
“Right in the face.”
“And the Friend-zone is a real place?”
“Glad we skipped all that. I was getting tired of being an aimless, if utterly charming, prince.”
She pressed her mouth down on a wry smile. “No, you’d prefer to get ahead of yourself.”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
She looked away coolly. He’d touched a nerve, and if he weren’t so eager to know the answer, he’d have felt bad about it.
Declan took a deep breath and clutched the bottle for dear life, Delia’s advice echoing. He had to be who he wanted to be.
The ruse had gone over people’s heads like a charm. He’d been hit on by at least a dozen guys. The girls thought his outfit was chic, and he’d managed to ease through conversations with them by attaching himself to Yuki, his closest friend, who also didn’t recognize him. He felt like Superman in glasses. Just because the guy he was actually crushing on had taken the bait did not mean it was time to back down. If anything, it was a major win. And it was only one night, right?
“You don’t want to mess with me, Carter.”
God, he was sexy. The crooked grin and dark-brown hair eroded every last nerve. Declan shifted in his seat uncomfortably. “You’ll be disappointed.”
“Someone told me once that youth was a wasteland of disappointment designed to prepare us all for bleak adulthood.”
“You don’t wanna grow up that fast, sweetie.”
He gave a husky laugh and laid his arm along the back of the bench. He still radiated warmth like a furnace, and Declan could feel beads of sweat trickle down his spine.
“Give me some credit. My life isn’t perfect.”
Declan felt the sting again, that little pain when people unknowingly said hurtful things that rubbed salt into wounds they couldn’t even perceive.
Carter’s smile vanished, and Declan knew he’d picked a fight. Best to finish it, and ward him off before he asked for Layla’s phone number.
“Not sure I get what you mean.”
“Here you are . . . smart, funny, attractive, in your nice house, with your pool and your fire pit. You don’t walk down the hall at school feeling like a joke. You’re Mr. Popular.”
His head was ticking in a constant nod, but the blue eyes were far away. “Thanks for enumerating my finer traits. Saves me the trouble of advertising them. Sorry they aren’t more impressive.”
Declan sighed. “Putting reality into perspective for you.”
“It’s all an act.”
He blinked at Carter, whose face was stony, but whose eyes blazed in the dim light. “Is it?”
“You know how when you go to work on a jigsaw puzzle, you have the picture to guide you? Yeah, well . . . I put the puzzle together into the picture I want to see. Every piece has to be carefully cut and fitted into the others. I hate this crap. It’s never-ending hard work.”
“But you do it.”
“Yeah. So I can get through this bullshit and out into the real world.”
Softening his voice, Declan now understood why Delia had been so encouraging. Carter was full of surprises. “Why isn’t high school a part of the real world, is maybe what I’m asking.”
“Because teenagers are irrational fucking lunatics.”
“We’re not. Us two, I mean.”
Carter sagged back with a knowing smile. “Yeah. That’s what I’m saying. So do you have a boyfriend?”
Declan felt the tension ease and was grateful. “No. I have trust issues.”
“How bad are they?”
“Bad enough to send me to the outskirts of the party. Not bad enough to stop talking to you.”
“So then, you won’t go completely ballistic if I say that you look very lovely this evening and compliment your bilingual throw-down with Miss Bambi Weatherton?”
Declan sniffed. “Didn’t anyone tell her that Bambi was a boy?”
“So was Flower.”
“It was a whole movie about androgynous animals.”
“Fucking cartoons. But seriously, where’d you learn Japanese?”
Carter nearly spit out his mouthful of beer. “No shit.”
Declan looked down. Carter’s muscular thigh was brushing his knees, and the arm across his back was sending a tingle over his skin. “You’ve been so forthcoming, this evening, Carter. Can I tell you a huge secret?”
The face dipped closer, and Declan’s heart skipped. “Please.”
“If I didn’t have anonymity and the supreme confidence that none of these assholes are ever going to see me again, I would be hiding in some corner, stuffing my face with chips and debating which Star Trek captain was best for the Federation.”
“Kirk. Hands down.”
Declan broke into a laugh before he could stop himself. “Kirk Classic, or Kirk from the altered timeline?”
The blue eyes were sparkling. “Meh. Kirk is Kirk, in any timeline. Hashtag Kobayashi-Maru. Hashtag winning.”
“Debatable. Anyway . . . I’m a huge nerd. I don’t actually ever go to parties. I borrowed this dress from Dee.”
“Well, I appreciate being the exception, and as I said, you look great. So tell me, what’s your favorite anime?”
Declan examined the wicked glint in Carter’s eye and gambled. “Ouran High School Host Club.”
When the boy looked away, nodding slowly, Declan wondered if he’d won their little flirtatious standoff.
“That’s the one about the girl who gets mistaken for a boy, right?”
Declan blinked in awe. His heart did a happy little dance in his chest as he considered that Carter could be his soul mate, if only they occupied compatible sexualities. “You’re probably the first guy I’ve ever met who knows what the hell that is.”
“Again, that’s because I’m amazing. But, really, nothing beats a good Mecha.”
Grinning slyly, Declan looked at him from the corner of his eye. “Yeah, but Escaflowne, Evangelion, or Gundam?”
“Escaflowne, for real.”
Unable to contain it any longer, Declan clapped his hands, keeping his laugh as girlish as possible. “I would have thought Gundam.”
“Nah. Esca has swashbuckling, winged heroes, romance, science, magic, Atlantis, crazy villains, and Isaac Newton. Nothing beats Isaac Newton, except Neil deGrasse Tyson in a rap battle.”
“Oh. My. God.” Declan performed a breathing exercise and dabbed the corners of his eyes. “I did not know you were a closet nerd.”
Carter turned away, his cheer faltering. “I’m not. I’m a huge faker, a con artist, a politician. I know a little bit about everything, so that I can talk to anyone. So I don’t have to go through hell.”
“Like Yuki, who fights to be who she wants to be?”
He took a deep breath. “Yeah. Exactly.”
“So you’re a coward.”
Carter’s eyes darted to his face and stuck. The mouth pressed down on a sardonic smile but said nothing.
The silence stretched, until Declan felt the ache of embarrassment build. “Can we start over?”
The perfect face turned and the perfect smile dawned, ever so lovely and bittersweet. “Turnabout is fair play.”
“Hi. I’m Layla Who-is-not-normally-a-huge-jerk, and this is a lovely party you are so very generous to have hosted.”
Carter made a humble bow and leaned a little closer, his breath tickling Declan’s ear. “It’s really a pleasure to meet you. How long will you be in town?”
He cleared his throat, controlling his voice though his throat ached. “Until Delia’s parents get back from their vacation, since they don’t know I’m here.”
“And when is that?”
“The day before school starts.”
“I guess so.”
“May I offer you my services as a guide? There are many fine attractions in our humble little suburb, such as the Sonic, the bowling alley, a statue of a man on a horse. The list goes on.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Well, let’s exchange numbers so that we can arrange said outing when you’re done thinking.”
“How do you know I’ll say yes?”
He pointed at his muscled chest, bound by a masculine-patterned button-up. “Remember? Charming. Also . . . exceptionally modest.”
Declan looked down at the phone in his hand and wondered if it was a good idea. No, it was a terrible idea, but if it was so bad, then why on earth did it feel like the only option that wouldn’t result in him eating an entire tub of ice cream and binge-playing Skyrim until he ached all over?
Carter pulled out his phone and snapped a picture before Declan could say no. On a feckless whim, he snatched the young man’s phone away. Typing in his number, he was happy to see that his real name didn’t pop up as a contact linked to it. He texted himself from it and heard his own phone buzz in alert.
Carter got to his feet and accepted the device with a deep bow.
“And now, because you seemed so content enjoying the solitude, I will stop insinuating myself into your company, and bid you a good evening. I do hope you’ll say goodbye when you and Delia depart.”
“Suddenly we’re in the 1800s?”
He shrugged, and it was the kind of casually handsome gesture that melted underpants. “In my mind, you’re kind of regal, so it seemed appropriate.” He turned and waved over his head. “Catch you later, Princess.”
Declan watched him slowly saunter across the grass, and felt every fiber of his being react with more violence as the distance increased. Finally, he couldn’t stand the thrashing in his chest anymore.
“Carter?” he called.
The young man turned and cocked his head.
Declan couldn’t shout, or the voice would sound too boyish. He lifted his phone and texted, You got any marshmallows?
Knew you’d want s’more, was the reply.
Declan rolled his head on his shoulders and went back to his bottle of hard lemonade, giddy and enchanted. When Carter vanished into the house, he called his fairy godmother.
“Well?” Delia demanded.
“What am I doing?”
“You’re being yourself.”
“I know, but fuck! I just lied to Carter Aadenson!”
“Yeah, but soon he’ll get involved in the new school year and his presidency and be over you by September.”
“Wow, sis, thanks for that.”
“I’m sorry, Dex! You know what I mean! Wait, he just came in here. What’s he doing in here?”
“Looking for marshmallows.”
Declan hung up when he heard Carter’s drawl in the background, his mind returning again and again to the central difficulty. It didn’t matter if Carter got over Layla, because Layla would still have to deal with him. Every day. As his junior year played out, Declan would have to watch Carter strut down the halls like he had the world by the tail, and try hard to forget what it had been like to sit that close.
“I can’t do it.”
He shoved his feet back into the boots and snuck toward the house. Waiting until Carter exited, Declan slid in behind him and tracked down his sister. Delia was leaning against the living room wall, wrapped up in a conversation with Mila and Priah.
“We have to leave!”
She jumped up and took hold of his arm. “What happened?”
“Nothing. We have to go right now, before he sees I’m gone.”
It took only a few seconds for Delia to read the urgency in his face and understand. She managed a curt nod and led the way to the front door, without so much as a goodbye to the girls. They waded through the crowd and made it to the porch. Outside, the sun had dipped below the horizon and the air was cool, but Declan’s skin was on fire. Delia hit the key fob button as a shape came hurtling out the front door.
“Shit!” she swore.
Declan turned. There was Carter, bag of marshmallows still in hand, and suddenly Declan couldn’t get his fingers to do anything but fumble with the door handle. The look on Carter’s face was the most pathetic thing he’d ever seen: a shadow of a self-reproving smile beneath a pair of forlorn blue eyes.
Carter stopped a few feet away and gestured with the bag of marshmallows. The silence stretched. Delia got into the car and left him to his fate.
“Trust issues, huh?” Carter said quietly.
“I’m sorry. I—”
In a single step, Carter cleared the distance and cupped his face. Caught off guard, Declan managed only a squeak as Carter’s mouth found his. There was no tongue, no fumbling teenaged hormones, just a tender goodbye kiss that sent a shockwave from the base of Declan’s skull to the tips of his toes and back again. Before he could push him away, Carter was gone, and Declan was left beside the car with weak legs and an intense pain in his groin where their improvised gender-swap failed miserably.
He collapsed silently into the passenger seat.
“Please,” he whispered. “Get me home.”