"Hidden Pieces is the dark, twisted, amped up, I Know What You Did Last Summer-esque YA suspense of my dreams! Paula Stokes delivers a modern classic."
-Gretchen McNeil, author of Ten and #MurderTrending

"Tightly plotted, character-driven, and atmospheric. Hidden Pieces is packed with emotion and layered with multiple mysteries.
-Erin Jade Lange, author of Butter and Rebel Bully Geek Pariah

"A character-driven mystery perfect for fans of Sarah Dessen and Deb Caletti.”
-School Library Journal

“Stokes offers a classic whodunit, masterfully played. Characters, even minor ones, are well developed, as are the subplots . . . All become, as the title indicates, pieces of an intricate puzzle.”
-ALA Booklist, starred review

Embry Woods has secrets. Small ones about her past. Bigger ones about her relationship with town hero Luke and her feelings for someone new. But the biggest secret she carries with her is about what happened that night at the Sea Cliff Inn. The fire. The homeless guy. Everyone thinks Embry is a hero, too, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Embry thinks she’ll have to take the secret to her grave, until she receives an anonymous note—someone else knows the truth. Next comes a series of threatening messages, asking Embry to make impossible choices, forcing her to put her loved ones at risk. Someone is playing a high stakes game where no one in Embry’s life is safe. And their last move ... is murder.

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On the fence? Check out the official book trailer and read the first three chapters below. 
[CW: Underage drinking, sexual situations.]

Chapter 1

December 11

There has always been this gap between the person I am and the person people think I am. It’s not that I’m fake—I don’t mislead people and I don’t lie (too often). But I keep a lot of secrets. I hold back parts of me so you can see the outline of the puzzle and make a guess about the picture, but that’s all it is—a guess. My inner pieces? I don’t show those to hardly anyone.

One of those pieces is Holden Hassler. Holden is why I’m out in the frigid air right now, trudging up the winding road that leads to the top of Puffin Hill, icy gravel slick beneath the soles of my hiking boots. No one knows I’m meeting Holden tonight. No one knows I’ve been meeting him for months. Well, except for Betsy. She’s the eight-year-old golden retriever by my side. I’ve had her since she was a puppy. Right now she’s tugging at her leash with at least half of her considerable strength. I give her some slack, and she trots over to the nearest mailbox and sniffs around the base of it.

“Smell someone you know, girl?” I bend down to run my fingers through Betsy’s soft fur.

Movement on my left startles me. A door opens across the street and a woman exits onto the porch, a broom in her hand. Mrs. Roche. Her husband is a plastic surgeon in Tillamook, the nearest town big enough to have specialized medical services. Mrs. Roche sweeps bits of dead leaves and debris out into her yard. Our eyes meet for a moment. I force a half smile that is not returned. As she disappears back into her house, I wonder if she wants to sweep me away too. I’m one of the few poor kids lucky enough to live in this town.

My mom and I live in Three Rocks, a small town along the Oregon Coast. There are only about three hundred residents who live here year-round. The rest of the people own fancy beach bungalows they use as summer homes or rent out to tourists. Many of the houses on this street sit empty right now, because almost no one wants to hang out at the beach in December. It doesn’t snow much in Three Rocks, but the damp air cuts you to the bone, and the wind sometimes blows strong enough to uproot bushes and shatter windows.

“Come on, Bets.” I tug the dog away from the mailbox and she trots up the hill at a steady pace, passing by the next few houses with no interest in stopping. This block appears to be deserted. It’s a little like being the only person on a movie set after all the crew has gone home. There are signs of life—frosted-over flower gardens, walls of trimmed ivy, wind chimes clanking out an angry music—but no people.

The steady crunch of gravel under my boots is punctuated by the occasional whistling cry of a seagull. A gust of wind rustles through the trees, chilling my face. Pulling my scarf up to cover my nose and mouth, I pause in a clearing to look out toward the Pacific Ocean. It’s too dark to see anything except a wide swath of black, a yawning nothingness on the horizon. But I know what’s out there—I can practically feel the relentless push and pull of the waves.

My phone buzzes in my purse. It’s probably Holden wondering where I am. Right now he’s waiting for me in the lobby of the Sea Cliff Inn, a quaint, three-story hotel located at the top of Puffin Hill. The Sea Cliff is one of the town’s most famous historic buildings, and up until the end of summer it was the place to stay for visitors to Three Rocks. But then Mr. Murray, the elderly man who owned it, passed away, and his adult children who live in different states haven’t decided whether they want to sell the property or run the hotel themselves. Which means that right now it’s a really nice place that’s for all purposes abandoned. Holden and I meet there on nights when he doesn’t have to work at the gas station.

My phone buzzes again and I realize it’s a call, not a text. Definitely not Holden—he’s a texting kind of guy. When I pull my phone out of my purse, I’m surprised to see Luke’s number on the display. Luke and I broke up—well, we agreed to “take a break”—when his army unit got deployed to Afghanistan a few months ago. We email a lot, though, and I know he’s hoping we’ll get back together someday.

Winding Betsy’s leash around my palm a couple of times, I veer to the side of the road so I can take the call without having to worry about dodging any cars. “Stay,” I tell her, my voice muffled by my scarf.

She cocks her head to the side and then smiles at me as if to acknowledge the absurdity of the request. Betsy is great at “fetch” and “roll over,” but she responds to “stay” much like a two-year-old responds to “no.”

I tug the scarf back down under my chin. “I mean it.”

Slowing in front of a bright turquoise bungalow with windows that have been boarded over to protect the glass, I swipe at the screen of my phone. “Luke,” I say, trying my hardest to sound excited. “This is a surprise.”

“Hey, Embry.” Luke sounds happy. He always sounds happy. Well, unless one of his sports teams loses. “I’m glad I caught you. Can you talk for a few minutes?”

“Sure. I’m just out walking the dog. Hang on a second.” Glancing around, I find a place to sit at the bottom of a wooden staircase that leads up to a house on stilts. Betsy angles her head again, surprised by my deviation from our normal routine, but eventually she lies down on her belly next to my feet.

“What’s up? How are you?” I ask.

“I’m good,” Luke says. “Great, even.”

“Are you still in Kandahar?”

“Yeah. I tried to get leave for Christmas, but we’ve got more senior guys who requested it, so I won’t be home again until after the first.”

“That sucks. I mean, I’m sure your family is really going to miss you.” I lift my free hand to my face and blow on it. The tips of my fingers are freezing. I arrange my wispy blond hair over my ears, which also feel like ice. I should have dressed warmer for this walk, but I hate the way hats and gloves feel, all tight and constricting.

“Yeah, I already talked to them and they’re bummed, but they know how it is.” Luke pauses for a moment, then blurts out, “Hey, so I had a crazy idea and I wanted to run it by you.”

“Okay.” I tighten my coat around my body, blow on my fingers again. “Shoot.”

“Assuming I can get leave in January . . . what do you think about the two of us getting married?”

I snort. “Funny.”

Betsy looks up at me, curious at the noise I made. I reach down and pat her on the head.

“No, I’m serious,” Luke says. “I was thinking—”

“Luke, come on. We agreed to take a break while you’re overseas.”

The break was my idea, and at the time I really thought I was doing it for Luke’s benefit. He had no idea how long he might end up in Afghanistan. His commander or whoever said they were scheduled for six months, but that their tour could be extended if needed. I don’t know much about war, but I know a lot of soldiers come home with PTSD, with traumatic memories that I’ll never be able to relate to. We’d already been apart for several months while Luke did his basic training and specialized medic school. The last thing I wanted to do was heap additional stress on him by forcing him to remain faithful to a long-distance relationship if it turned out he needed comfort from someone there with him, someone who could understand everything he was going through. What happens in Afghanistan stays in Afghanistan—that was pretty much what I told him.

But given how things have turned out, now I wonder if maybe my benevolent gesture wasn’t so benevolent, if I was trying to free myself from the stress of a long-distance relationship but just spin it to make it seem that it was for Luke’s benefit.

It’s possible I’m not a very good person.

“I know what we decided, Embry. But just hear me out.”

“Okay.” I lean forward and rest my elbows on my knees. Strands of hair blow in front of my eyes. The night seems alien and strange through the hazy blond filter. Dead leaves whisper to each other as they tumble across the gravel road. Naked tree branches tap at the windows of the bungalow across the street.

Luke is saying something about how we could have a small wedding with just our friends and family. Betsy fidgets, and I wonder if her paws are freezing on the cold ground. I jiggle her leash as I rise to my feet again. She lifts herself up and stretches her furry legs. The two of us turn back to the road as Luke continues talking.

“I know you and your mom are struggling financially, and if you were my wife you’d qualify for housing assistance plus a monthly stipend. It would help you guys a lot,” he continues.

My wife. The idea of being someone’s wife feels completely detached from reality, like becoming an astronaut or winning a million dollars on a game show. I glance up at the top of the hill, at the Sea Cliff Inn where Holden waits. If Luke only knew.

I blink hard. In a lot of ways, I wish he did know. Then he’d leave me. Then I wouldn’t have to figure out how to permanently break up with a guy who’s everything a girl could ever want. Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration—in addition to the aforementioned obsession with watching sports, he’s also a proud hunter with a rifle collection and prone to occasional road rage, two things that have always bothered me a little.

But other than that, he’s basically perfect—smart, respectful, selfless, brave. I used to joke that he’d turn out to be a serial killer because no one could be so wholly decent and good. I’ve known him since we were kids because our families run Fintastic and the Oregon Coast CafĂ©, two of the four restaurants in town. We started dating when I was in tenth grade and he was a senior. He had to ask me out three times before I finally said yes, because I thought he was way out of my league.

My phone buzzes with a text alert. That’s probably Holden, wondering where I am. I clear my throat. “Luke. The fact that you would offer something so huge just to help out Mom and me is . . . surreal. I don’t even know what to say.”

“Say yes.”

I sigh. “I can’t.”

“Why not?” Luke’s voice rises in pitch. Disappointment. Pain. Two feelings I am extremely familiar with.

“I—I don’t know. I don’t want to marry you for money from the government. It feels . . . gross.” It feels like prostitution, but I know he means well, so I’m not going to tell him that.

Betsy continues to pull me up the hill. My fingers have gone from cold to numb. I tuck the hand holding her leash into my pocket and make an attempt to hold my cell phone with my neck so I can warm my other hand as well.

“I know, but it’s free money. Like a thousand dollars a month. And we can get married again for real someday after I’m out and you’ve graduated. Bigger ceremony. We can invite the whole town. Honeymoon anywhere you want.”

A thousand dollars a month would cut down on our struggling . . . a lot. Mom tells me that we’re doing fine, but we were barely scraping by before she was diagnosed with breast cancer this summer. Now she’s recovered from the chemo and surgery, but even with insurance I know she’s got thousands in medical bills to deal with. I’m pretty sure her definition of “fine” is dire financial straits for most people.

Struggling financially is just as exhausting as struggling emotionally, something else my mom is no stranger to. She was nineteen when she found out she was pregnant with me. My father was—is—married to another woman. He’s some sort of tech investor who met my mom at our family coffee shop where she was a cook and barista. They struck up a friendship of sorts and one thing led to another. And then that thing led to me, and a giant scandal. He and his family moved two and a half hours away to Yachats, an even fancier coastal town, before I was born. But small towns never forget, you know? Gram said for almost two years afterward, the business at the coffee shop dwindled down to nothing. Once my mom started showing, Gram wouldn’t even let her pick up shifts anymore. Even today there are people in town who give my mom dirty looks when they pass her on the street, as if she were solely to blame for what happened, even though my father was thirty-one at the time.

“Why are you even bringing this up right now?” I ask. “I mean, where is this coming from?”

“I don’t know. I miss you. I miss home.” Luke’s voice gets soft. “I guess Thanksgiving got me thinking about the things I’m grateful for. Plus, one of the guys on my team just married a platonic friend of his so the two of them can split the money. They have no plans to stay together and they’re going to get a divorce or an annulment or whatever after he gets out.”

I gnaw on my lower lip. “That sounds like fraud.”

“Maybe,” he says. “But it doesn’t apply to us, because we love each other.”

Yeah. If only love were enough.

I look up the hill again, to the hotel where Holden is waiting.

“I’ve always dreamed of marrying you someday, Embry,” Luke continues. “So why not do it now if it means that I can help out both you and your mom?”

I don’t know how to respond to this. The first few months Luke and I were together, I had this same fantasy. Somehow the intoxicating rush of physical affection was enough to bridge that gap—the one between the person I am and the person people think I am. I knew Luke assumed the two of us wanted the same things, and I didn’t care that he was wrong. Kids, family, future, whatever. We’d figure it out later. Just shut up and kiss me already.

Intimacy is like a drug. It messes with the chemicals in your brain or something. That explains why I was all-in on Luke until he moved away and I didn’t have the constant physical highs to keep me distracted from reality.

The reality is, Luke’s world is completely different from mine. He has a sister, Frannie, who is a year younger than me, and three older brothers in their twenties and thirties, two of whom work as bartenders at Fintastic here in town and one who is trying to open a second restaurant up north in Astoria. They are focused, they are driven, and they are an extremely tight clan. Anytime one of them has a problem, the whole family usually ends up pitching in. So many different people relying on so many other different people. I’ve never been part of a group like that. Since Gram died, it’s been just my mom and me. We trade off taking care of each other, depending on who’s struggling more. Just this small agreement is sometimes more than I can handle.

I know Luke wants to be part of the family business someday, and I know he wants lots of kids—he’s never made a secret of this. But I don’t know how I feel about either of those things. And I’m not sure if I want to get married ever, let alone right now. It all feels like so much pressure. After Luke left town, his emails went from “I miss you” to “Here’s where I think we should live after you graduate” in the span of a couple months. While he was talking about us moving in together, all I could think about was the inevitable day I would fail to live up to his expectations. He would discover that gap between who I am and who I pretend to be, and then he would leave me—not for three months or six months for a deployment, but for good.

“Embry? Are you still there?” he asks.

I’ve been walking this whole time, and Betsy and I are almost to the Sea Cliff. “Mom and I will survive,” I say stiffly.

“I know. I didn’t mean to imply you guys needed help. Just that you deserve more than you’re getting. Why not let the government hook you up?”

It’s tempting, but if I get married someday, I want it to be for love, not for housing assistance or monthly stipends or whatever else Luke is talking about. So as much as Mom and I could use the money, I know what my answer is going to be.

But it’s not an answer that I want to give him over the phone, especially while he’s living in a combat zone.

“We’re still good, right?” he asks. “You haven’t . . . changed your mind about us?”

I wince. “We’re good,” I say, unable to lie about the second part of his question but also unwilling to tell him the truth.

“So then just think about it,” Luke says. “Until I see you again.”

“Okay. I’ll think about it.” I would prefer not to think about it, but chances are I’m not going to be able to forget it now.

“Awesome. If you don’t hear from me again before Christmas, don’t worry. We’re supposed to be heading out on a mission soon, and I won’t have web access until we get back. But I’ll email you when I can, okay?”

“Mission where?”

“I’m not even sure yet,” Luke says. “But if I was, I wouldn’t be able to tell you.”

“Right,” I say. “The whole classified info thing.” My phone buzzes again.

“Exactly,” Luke says. There’s an awkward pause, and then he adds, “Well, have a good night. Love you.”

“You too.” Shaking my head, I switch over to my messages and find two texts from Holden:

Holden: You coming?

Holden: Everything ok?

Just seeing Holden’s words sends a rush of relief coursing through me. With Holden there are no expectations, no lies, no pressure to be someone I’m not. I feel safe with him in a way I never have with any other guy. It’s probably horrible that I can hang up the phone with Luke and be comforted by thoughts of Holden five seconds later, but it is what it is. Sometimes horrible things are true.

I slide my phone back into my purse without answering the texts. The Sea Cliff Inn stands in front of me. It’s a Victorian-style three-story building with a lobby, dining area, kitchen, and eight rooms for rent. I know this because Holden used to do landscaping for the place before Mr. Murray died. No one knows that Holden made himself a copy of the key before turning everything over to the Murray family’s lawyer. Holden’s mom is a cop with the Tillamook County Sheriff’s Department, so he’s always on the lookout for places he can go to escape her watchful eye.

I let Betsy tug me through the frozen grass and around to the back of the hotel. There’s a small clearing with a gardening shed off to the side. Beyond it there’s a sheer drop-off of about five hundred feet. I look out at the dark ocean for a few seconds, resisting its siren call.

I’ve thought about jumping from this cliff once or twice. The idea of the ocean swallowing me up is strangely comforting. Maybe a little too comforting.

I turn to the back door, which I know will be unlocked the way it always is when Holden is waiting for me. I pause for a second, my hand on the tarnished door handle. I think about Luke calling me his wife. Maybe I shouldn’t be here. Maybe I shouldn’t do this. I could turn back the way I came, go home and do my homework. I could try to be a better person.

But the pull of what I want is too strong. Not just comfort. Freedom. The chance to let someone see me. For some reason, I don’t hide those inner pieces from Holden. And that is its own kind of intoxicating.

Besides, what good is being a better person if you still lose? If you look back throughout history, when has the better person ever been rewarded? Better people are exiled. Better people are executed. Better people throw themselves into the ocean because they’ve spent their whole lives denying who they are and what they really want.

For better or worse, this is who I am, and what I really want is Holden.

Chapter 2

I push open the back door to the hotel and step into the darkness, frowning at the vaguely musty smell. Betsy and I have been here so many times that we can navigate around the furniture in the faint light provided by the moon and stars. We know where the stairs are. We know where the hallway that leads into the lobby is. We know where the sofa is. Most of all, we know where Holden is—on the floor in the corner, his back up against the wall next to the stone fireplace, a sketch pad splayed on his lap.

“Hey,” he says. He has the thick and throaty voice of a habitual smoker, even though he’s never done more than try marijuana a couple of times.

“Hey. Sorry I’m late.”

“No worries.” There’s the flick of a lighter and then a soft yellow glow appears in front of Holden. He sets a candle on one of the wooden end tables. He’s wearing dark jeans and a hunter-green thermal shirt with a heavy flannel open over it. His black pea coat is tossed over one edge of the loveseat.

He shakes his shaggy brown hair out of his eyes as he lights a second candle. He sets it on the coffee table in front of the sofa. Betsy follows him from place to place.

“Thanks,” I say.

Holden likes the dark, says he feels more protected there. I’m the opposite. Darkness terrifies me—just the not knowing of what might be lurking. Holden likes not knowing. He returns to where he was sitting and kneels down to tuck his sketch pad into his backpack.

“I still don’t see how you can draw without light.”

“I can see enough.” He shrugs. “Plus, it frees me up, you know? Sketching isn’t about getting it perfect. It’s about putting your feelings on paper.”

I wish I could do that, turn all the fear and uncertainty I have into a drawing. I imagine a blank paper turned completely black—black sky, black sea, black sand, one girl standing in the foreground wearing all black.

“Were you drawing another tree?” I ask.

Holden chuckles. “Maybe.”

Here in Three Rocks, the trees tend to grow in thick, feathery clusters. Ponderosa pines blanket the areas between houses on Puffin Hill, and Western larches line the road leading out to Cape Azure. But Holden has a thing for lone trees growing in unusual spots—a single sapling sprouting from a crack in a city sidewalk, a solitary pine standing tall at the edge of a cliff.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s how he sees himself—alone, out of place.

I go to him and wrap my arms around his waist, press my cheek against his chest. I catch the woodsy scent of his deodorant layered on top of something softer—laundry detergent probably. There’s a speck of paint on his shirt. I’m pretty sure everything Holden owns ends up with paint on it.

“What’s all this about?” He twines one arm around my back, his free hand gently stroking the ends of my hair.

“I just needed a hug.”

“Sure.” He squeezes me tightly, lifting me a couple of inches off the floor for a few seconds. “Is everything okay?”

He means is my mom okay. As far as I know, her post-op PET scans have all come back clear, but I’ve read enough about cancer to know that if it made it into the lymph nodes, it could pop up in another area of her body months later. I’m so terrified of her relapsing that she’s stopped telling me when she’s going to the doctor so I won’t make myself sick worrying about it.

“Yeah. Everything is fine. It’s just been a weird day.”

“Well, you’re with me now, so I promise it’ll only get weirder.” Holden brushes his lips against my cheek. He slips his hands up under the bottom of my jacket and rubs my back for a few seconds.

I cling to him, fighting a strange urge to cry.

“I can feel your ribs, girl,” he says. “When’s the last time you ate?”

I pull back to look him in the eye. “I had lunch at school. Mexican pizza.”

“Yeah, no. You should sue for false advertising. That slop was neither Mexican nor pizza.” He tucks a wayward strand of hair behind my ear. “Why didn’t you eat at work?”

I shrug. “I overheard my mom lecturing the cooks about food cost the other day, so I’m not going to make myself stuff if they can’t do the same.”

Betsy bumps her head into Holden’s knee and makes a soft whining sound. She puts her paws up on his leg.

“Oh, hello.” Holden looks down at Betsy’s hopeful face. “Do I know you?”

Her pink tongue falls out of the corner of her mouth as she pants with excitement. Holden spends a few minutes lavishing affection on her—scratching her behind the ears and patting her all over. She rolls over on her back so he can rub her belly.

“You spoil her,” I say.

“She deserves it.” Holden pauses in his scratching for a second, and Betsy waves her front paws in the air as if to say, “More, please.” He laughs lightly and gives her a second rubdown. Satisfied, she rolls over onto her belly, stretching her long legs out in front of her.

Holden turns his attention back to me. “So. Weird day, huh? You want to talk about it?”

“No, not really,” I say. And then after a few seconds, “My father sent me a Christmas card.”

“Oh?” Holden waits for me to say more.

I flop down on the sofa and unzip the front of my jacket. “The first one he ever sent. It had five hundred dollars in it. In cash. Who does that? Who sends that much cash?” I don’t tell Holden that when my mom gave it to me she suggested maybe I write him a letter in return, that it might be time for the two of us to get to know each other. Sorry, Mom. That time was seventeen years ago.

Holden whistles under his breath. “Who cares? What are you gonna buy?”

“I don’t know. Maybe nothing. I don’t want his . . . charity.”

“People can change, you know?” Holden sits next to me.

“Yeah, for the worse.”

“At least he’s trying.”

“Please.” I scoff. “With money?”

“It’s not like you’d give him the time of day if he showed up in person, right?” Holden nudges me with his elbow. “He probably figures money is a safer bet. You should blow it all on something you’ve been wanting. Maybe a real camera?”

I’ve been interested in photography since Mom gave me her old cell phone a few years ago. It’s the only camera I have, and it’s not very good—five megapixels, which is nothing—but I still manage to get some amazing shots with it. I want a real camera, though, so I can make the most of the photography class I signed up for next semester.

“I don’t want to buy a camera with his money. If I did, every time I used it I would think of him,” I say. “I wish I could just send the money back, but I know my mom could use it.”

It sucks to take handouts from someone who’s hurt me so badly, but it would suck worse to punish Mom by turning away money that we need. Sometimes being poor means choosing between your principles and your survival.

“Our heat has been messed up forever,” I continue. “Maybe it’s enough to fix the furnace.”

Holden nods. “Heat is good too.”

“Actually, that was only the second-weirdest thing that happened today,” I say. “Luke called me when I was walking up the hill.”

“How’s Captain America?” Holden stretches his arms over his head. He swallows back a yawn.

“He’s fine,” I say, ignoring the hint of sarcasm. “He asked me to marry him.”

“Whoa. Seriously?”

“Right? Thank you. I didn’t understand it either, but apparently the government pays good benefits to military spouses, and Luke thought Mom and I could use the extra cash.”

“Ah, I get it.” Holden kicks his feet up onto the wooden coffee table. “So then are congratulations in order?”

“Holden,” I say sharply. “I didn’t say yes.”

He coughs. “Did you say no?”

“He wouldn’t let me. He told me just to think about it.” I look down at my hands. “Plus, I didn’t want to say anything that might upset him while he’s overseas.”

“Right.” Holden nods slowly. “So kind of like with Julia.”

I wince. Holden is my best friend Julia’s ex-boyfriend. She wants to be a political strategist someday, so she spent all summer in Washington, DC, interning for a think tank. Holden and I gravitated toward each other in her absence, especially after my mom got sick. We kept things friendly at first, but then one night we both realized our feelings were mutual. It’s not an excuse for what we did, but it is a reason.

Holden called Julia in DC the day after we first slept together. He apologized for cheating on her, and they decided to break up. She seemed okay with it at the time, and she and Holden are still friends, but she doesn’t know I’m the girl he was with that night. And she definitely doesn’t know Holden and I are still hooking up.

“You know I’m going to tell her,” I say. “I just don’t want to do it right before Christmas.”

“Like you didn’t want to do it right before Thanksgiving, and you didn’t want to do it right before she had to retake the SATs, and you didn’t want to do it while she was out of town.” He clears his throat. “We both know she was never really that into me, Embry. I wish you had just told her back when I did.”

“Me too, but I didn’t. So unless you have a time machine . . .”

It’s not that I want to keep Holden and me a secret. Somewhere along the way it just became one of those pieces I hold back. I never even told Julia I was having second thoughts about Luke until recently, mostly because I knew she wouldn’t get it. She probably thinks Luke is too good for me too.

But I am going to tell her everything after the holidays, I swear. I’m not expecting her to forgive me for stealing away her boyfriend, but hopefully Holden is right about her not liking him that much. She never seemed that upset about the breakup, but Julia believes strongly in “projecting a powerful persona,” to quote one of her dad’s corporate success self-help books. Even if she was devastated, she might have felt the need to hide her pain from everyone, including me.

I’m not the only one who hides my inner pieces.

Holden bumps his knee against mine. “So are you gonna say yes?”

“What?” It takes me a moment to realize he’s talking about Luke’s proposal. I rest my head in my hands. “No. But I have no idea how I’m going to say no.”

Holden bends the fingers of his right hand backward until his knuckles crack. “If you tell him you’re screwing the ‘salad-eating pansy guy,’ that’ll probably take care of it.”

I cringe. Luke graduated before Holden moved here, and then he left for basic training a few months later, so they don’t know each other very well. The four of us have hung out only a couple of times when Luke was home on leave—the last time was for my junior prom. We all went to Fintastic, where Luke teased Holden about being vegan and Holden responded with some sharp words about the way the US military thinks it runs the whole world. A heated argument about politics ensued, with Julia chiming in. I chugged a half a goblet of water and cut my scallops into smaller and smaller pieces, trying not to notice how the whole restaurant was looking at us. Luke’s mom had to come out of the back and tell us all to shush.

I narrow my eyes at Holden. “A. He was just joking around and you tried to start World War Three at dinner. And B. You’re supposed to make me feel better, not remind me that I’m a terrible person.”

Holden smirks. “You always take his side.”

“No I don’t. I just . . .” My words fall away as Holden reaches up to brush a lock of hair back from my face, his fingertips lingering on my jawbone. I suddenly remember why I came here, and it wasn’t to think about Luke. In the dim light, Holden’s blue eyes are as dark as storm clouds. I imagine pouring rain, crashing waves, whitecaps. I want to drown in you, I think.

But Holden has other ideas. “A. I’m just messing with you,” he says. “And B. You’re not a terrible person, Embry. You’re just a person, like everyone else. And you know that.”

I do, sort of. But guilt is basically one of my superpowers. It’s been programmed into me from the moment I was old enough to know what it was.

Holden bends down and pulls a half-empty bottle of Absolut vodka out of his backpack. “Now as far as feeling better goes . . .” He unscrews the bottle and hands it over to me.

“Fancy.” I run my thumb across the raised lettering. “I think you might be a bad influence. I only drink when I’m with you.”

“That’s because I’m the only one providing you with free booze.”

“Where’d you get this?”

“Oh, you know. Friend-of-a-friend type thing.”

“Right. So you stole it from your mom then?” I elbow him in the ribs.

Holden laughs. “I don’t steal. I reallocate resources to needier parties.”

I snort. “You’re just a regular alcohol Robin Hood, huh?”

He pulls out a small silver flask. “Well, I know you don’t like the shit I drink.”

“That’s because the shit you drink tastes like lighter fluid.” I take a long swig from the vodka bottle. The bitter alcohol burns my throat and makes my sinuses tingle.

“And the shit you drink tastes like cleaning fluid. What’s your point?”

“That maybe we need better hobbies?” I suggest.

Holden actually has a lot of interests. He draws, he paints, he tinkers around with the motorcycle he fixed up with his grandfather, and he reads for fun the kind of thick, boring books our teachers assign us in English class. I’m the one who needs better hobbies. I used to be on the swim team, but I quit junior year so that I could pick up more shifts at the coffee shop. Now when I’m not working, I mostly take Betsy to the beach or hang out with Julia. Oh, and I worry about my mom. I’m kind of a professional when it comes to that.

Holden reaches out and traces a fraying thread on my jeans. “I can think of more fun things we could do right about now.” He arches his eyebrows playfully.

Just the pressure of his hand on my thigh is enough to cause a rush of heat to move through me. It’s always like this with him—we start out just talking, but the instant he says or does something remotely sexual, it’s all I can think about.

But then I hear Luke’s voice in my ear—sweet, loyal Luke offering to marry me so that the army would give my mom and me money. Part of me feels like I should take him up on his offer, just for her. It would have been so much easier for her not to have me. It’s one thing to grow up knowing you were an accident, but something altogether different to grow up knowing you’re living proof of your mom’s biggest mistake.

I turn and press my lips to Holden’s cheek. “Is it okay if we just hang out tonight?”

“It’s okay if we just hang out every night. You know that.” He pats me on the leg.

I lean my head against his shoulder. Across the room, Betsy has fallen into a deep sleep. Her body twitches as she dreams. I wonder what dogs dream about, if she thinks she’s chasing cats or eating a big steak right now. Her mouth is curled into what I like to think of as her doggie smile.

“Will I ever be happy?” I blurt out.

“Yes,” Holden says, without hesitation.

Betsy twitches again and makes a soft snoring noise. Her tail wags slightly.

“Will I ever be as happy as Betsy?”

He turns to the dog and watches her for a few seconds. “I hope not.”

I slug him in the arm. “Ass. Why would you say that?”

“You don’t want to be that happy. It’s just a longer, harder fall.”

“Are you speaking from experience?”

“Nah. My parents were really happy when I was a kid.”

“Ah.” Holden doesn’t talk much about his childhood. His parents split up a couple of years ago, and his mom moved back here to be close to his grandparents, just in time for the start of junior year. I know he spends every other weekend with his dad in Portland, but he doesn’t talk much about that either.

Betsy’s eyes flick open. She lifts up from the spot in front of the registration desk and pads across the carpeted floor to the sofa. She gives me a hopeful look, and I shake my head at her. “You can’t come up here,” I say. Ever the obedient dog, she puts her paws up on my leg and makes an attempt to clamber up onto my lap. “No,” I tell her again. She wags her tail, knocking over the open bottle of vodka. It rolls off the table and onto the floor before I can grab it.

“Shit.” I reach down and grab the bottle, standing it upright and capping it, but not before half of what’s left has leaked out onto the lobby’s threadbare carpet.

“It’s no big deal. It’ll dry,” Holden says. “At least vodka is clear.”

“Yeah, but your mom is going to wonder why half the bottle is missing.”

“I’ll water it down a little. She only drinks a few times a year. She probably won’t notice.”

“Bad dog,” I say to Betsy, who is now attempting to clamber up onto Holden’s lap.

He strokes her soft fur. “You’re not a bad dog,” he says. “You’re a good dog.”

She leans her neck on Holden’s thigh and looks up at him with her big brown eyes. He pulls her up from the floor so she’s sitting on his lap, her tail hanging over the edge of the sofa.

“You two make a cute couple,” I say.

“As do you and Luke.”

I frown. “Very funny. You know we’re not together.”

Holden snickers. “And yet he just proposed.”

“It wasn’t, like, an official proposal or anything. He was just asking me what I thought.”

“Which is totally what someone would do with a girl he’s not together with.” Holden lifts the flap of Betsy’s ear and pretends to whisper something to her.

“You jealous?” I ask.

“Would you like it if I was?” That low, throaty voice again.

My insides go tight, and I have to squeeze out my one-word response. “Maybe.”

Honestly, I’m not sure how I would feel. Holden is not my boyfriend, and I’m fine with that. We’re both here because we want to be here. No one is obligated. No one owes anyone anything. My life belongs to me and Holden’s belongs to him. Still, when I think about the future, Holden is always there.

The corners of his lips turn up ever so slightly. “Come here.” He lifts Betsy from the sofa and helps her back onto the floor. She lumbers across the room and lies down in front of the registration counter. He pulls me into his lap, adjusting my body so my head is against his chest. “Your turn to keep me warm.”

I laugh at the idea of my spindly body keeping anyone warm, but I rest my head against Holden’s chest, comforted by his heat, his calm breathing, by the steady thudding of his heart in my ear. For a while we just sit there, and it’s everything that I need.

Then he reaches for one of my hands, twining our fingers together. We’re both pale, but he’s got a bit more color than I do, probably left over from his summer job doing landscaping. He lifts my hand to his lips and kisses my wrist gently. Another rush of heat courses through my body, causing me to shudder visibly.

“What was that?” he asks, his blue eyes dancing with amusement.

“Just what you do to me.”

“I make you convulse? That seems bad.”

“It’s a good kind of convulsing,” I say, unable to keep a smile from creeping onto my face.

I don’t know if it’s the alcohol, or Holden, or the fact that I talked to him about both Luke and my dad, but I’ve finally achieved the closest feeling I ever get to peace anymore. I turn and adjust my body so I’m straddling Holden’s lap. I’m falling for you, I think, as we kiss. But I don’t say it, because those are words that change things, and I like the way things are.

I guess there are some pieces I don’t even show Holden.

I curl my hands around the back of his neck. Our noses bump gently as I lean in to kiss him again. He tastes my bottom lip with his tongue and then uses it to coax open my mouth. I slide my hands up under his shirt, amazed by how his slender frame can manage to be so warm when it’s so cold in here. I trace my fingertips down the curves of his ribs and then reach higher to gently rake my nails across his chest. His turn to convulse.

“I want you,” I whisper.

“You sure?” he asks.

Instead of answering, I slide off Holden and kneel in the narrow space between the coffee table and the sofa. I undo the button of his jeans and tug them down over his hips. Moonlight reflects off his pale legs. He shivers in the thin fabric of his boxers. Leaning forward, I massage his thighs while I press my lips to his flat stomach.

“Embry,” Holden whispers.

“Shh.” My hand slips beneath the fabric of his boxers.

He groans softly. His eyelids fall shut as he relaxes back into the cushions. His shoulders drop. I can feel the tension leaving his body as my mouth trails lower. He supports my head with one hand, stroking my hair with the other. I like the effect I have on him. I like that I can help him escape the same way he does for me.

“Come here,” Holden says after a couple of minutes. He lifts me back to the sofa. I unbutton my jeans and slide them and my underwear down over my hips.

Holden pulls a condom out of his coat pocket. I watch him put it on and then position myself on top of him, letting out a deep breath I didn’t even know I was holding. I cradle his face in both of my hands and close the gap between our mouths again.

He wraps one hand around my lower back for support while the other gets lost in my hair.

“You feel so good,” I tell him.

He laughs under his breath. “I know.”

I slap him playfully on the arm. “You’re such an ass.”

“I know,” he says again, pulling my smile toward his.

Our grins meet and our lips relax. I focus on the feel of him, the way our bodies connect, the way every single touch lights up dark parts inside me.

The first few times Holden and I were together, it was sweaty and fumbling and we both rushed through it. Now we’re getting more comfortable with each other and learning to slow things down.

I lean back just far enough to watch the series of expressions flit across his face—concentration, followed by pleasure, followed by restraint, followed by more concentration. His long eyelashes are feathered closed, his mouth open just wide enough to expel little gasps of air. I trace one of his high cheekbones with my fingertips.

His eyes flick open. “What?”

I shake my head, a smile playing at my lips. “I just like watching you.”

“Oh yeah?” He locks his gaze onto mine. It’s a struggle not to look away from his blue, blue eyes.

His hands caress my back. Part of me wants to speed things up and part of me wants this moment to never end. Eventually speed wins. As all the heat and tension inside me start to coalesce, my knee slips on the sofa cushion and my foot hits the edge of the coffee table. Vaguely I see a flicker of light in my peripheral vision.

“Shit,” Holden says.

Betsy barks, but I’m in no position to be distracted. Whatever is bothering her can wait a few more seconds.

“Hold on,” Holden says. “Embry, stop.”

“What? Why?” I blink rapidly. Is that smoke I smell? I lift my body off his and turn around. Apparently when I kicked the table, I knocked a candle onto the floor. The carpet of the Sea Cliff Inn is burning.

Chapter 3

I get dressed in like three seconds. Grabbing Betsy, I drag her toward the back door. Holden starts opening drawers and cabinets behind the registration counter, probably looking for a fire extinguisher. I put the dog outside. “Stay,” I tell her. She’s smart enough to stay away from the edge of the cliff.

I turn back to where Holden is now in the lobby again, trying to beat out the flames with his black wool coat. The fire has spread across the floor, possibly due to the spilled vodka, and he’s just making things worse. I cough from the smoke that’s starting to fill the room.

“I can’t find an extinguisher,” he says. “Can you look?”

I check the dining area and the kitchen and do a quick skim of the little office behind it, but I don’t see anything. The flames have moved from the carpet to the base of the coffee table. Holden has his shirt up covering his nose and mouth.

I grab a sofa cushion and beat at the fire, sending bits of ash swirling through the air. The bottom of the cushion starts to smolder. “Fuck.” I drop it back onto the frame.

Holden grabs my arm. “We need to get out of here and call 911.”

“We can’t.” I take a step back from the heat. “If this place burns down, they’re going to blame us. We’ll get arrested, or sued for a crapload of money, or—” A glowing ember arcs through the smoky air and lands dangerously close to my foot. I take another step back. The flames start to overtake the coffee table.

“No one needs to know we were in here,” he says. “Let’s just call it in like we were going for a walk and saw the place burning.”

I suddenly remember I left Betsy outside off her leash. I nod grimly and head for the back door.

Holden braves the flames long enough to grab the bottle of vodka and tuck it into his backpack. The two of us escape out into the night, the brisk air a welcome relief from the heat.

Betsy is pacing back and forth, barking and whining.

I put her back on her leash. “Shh, girl,” I say. “Everything is fine.”

I dial 911 as we hurry around to the front of the hotel. “There’s a fire,” I say. “At the Sea Cliff Inn.” I tell them my name and where I’m located.

The dispatcher advises me to move back from the building but not to leave the scene. “Fire and police rescue are en route,” he adds.

“Okay.” I hang up the phone and turn to Holden. “Cavalry is on its way. You should go. We both don’t need to be here.”

“No way. I’m not leaving you to deal with this.”

“Holden. They just need me to stay so I can give a statement. I’ll tell the cops I was walking Betsy and saw the smoke. Like you said, they don’t need to know either one of us was inside.”

I glance down at the ground. With a twinge of guilt I remember my words to Luke: I think that might be fraud. What Holden and I are doing is different, though. We’re not trying to scam money from the federal government via a sham marriage. We’re just trying to protect our families from having to pay out money we don’t have because I knocked over a candle. Hopefully the fire department will get here quickly and the damage won’t be too bad. Either way, insurance companies are always in the news for ripping people off and being generally evil, aren’t they? And they all make millions in profits. What’s a little extra to one of them? It’s basically a victimless crime.

But I still feel like shit about it. Mostly because I know how disappointed my mom would be if she found out.

I turn my attention back to Holden. “If your mom finds you here, she might put two and two together and realize you made yourself a key. That could be bad for both of us.”

“Good point,” Holden says reluctantly. “Okay, I’ll go . . . if you’re sure.” He reaches out and gives my hand a quick squeeze, his eyes locking onto mine with unasked questions.

“I’ll be fine,” I say firmly.

Holden turns and jogs away from the Sea Cliff, bits of charred ash fluttering to the ground from his burned winter coat as he heads down the hill. He disappears between two currently unoccupied hillside mansions, making use of a set of stairs that leads down to Three Rocks Beach. From there he’ll have to cut back to the main road that goes through the center of town and cross the highway to get back to our neighborhood.

Betsy barks once and tugs hard on the leash, pulling me back toward the burning building.

“No, girl.” I pull back. “We have to stay here.”

The flames are lighting up the night now. Smoke pours from the roof, gray against the black of the sky. Tongues of fire dance behind the glass of the lobby’s big bay windows. For a moment, I’m mesmerized by the twisting and swirling of the bright orange flames. It seems wrong that destruction can be so beautiful. I pull out my phone, switch to the camera function, and snap a couple of pictures.

Betsy barks again, and again. “What is it?” I ask. And then I catch a glimpse of the second picture on my phone, and I realize what she’s been barking at. I look from my phone to the hotel. There’s a shadow in one of the third-floor windows. Someone else is inside.

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