When I was a child, I’d sit for what seemed like an eternity, staring into an open flame. My family thought it was a peculiar pastime, but almost twenty years later, I was gazing at the end of my cigarette, the ashes as long as my finger, the end burning orange as the fire climbed the paper.
The house was crowded, so full of sweaty, stumbling drunks and debauchery that a deep breath wouldn’t matter; all the oxygen had been sucked from the room. My bones were saturated with the sounds of the bass drum, yelling, and cackling girls, most too young to buy a can of beer much less be on the verge of puking the six-pack of Mike’s Hard Lemonade they’d just consumed.
I sat back in Mother’s favorite overstuffed imported chair, taking in the chaos and feeling at home.
Daddy was convinced I was a good girl, so it was easy to be a witness to bad behavior without guilt, even if I occasionally participated.
A pompadoured beauty with glitter lotion and a purple dye job held out a roach—just an inch of magic grass encased in twisted paper—and I gazed into her eyes for less than a second to assess if the joint was laced before accepting. I exhaled toward the ceiling, watching as the smoke wafting above joined the white cloud already hovering the span of vast space that was our gallery, meant for après ski, wine, and sophisticated guests, not the drunken blue-collar locals who were rubbing against paintings and knocking over vases.
I immediately relaxed, letting my head fall back against the sofa cushion. As recreational cannabis goes, Colorado was one of three states that qualified as my top favorite places to be during a holiday. The fact that my parents kept a vacation home in Estes Park made it my number one.
I turned to face her cherubic splendor, unsurprised that she was at a packed party without knowing the host. “Ellie,” I said, barely paying attention to her sleepy, red-rimmed eyes.
I sighed. This wasn’t the conversation I felt like having. “I’m Ellison.”
Her eyebrows turned in as confusion shadowed her face. “But … Ellison’s a dude, right? The guy who owns this house?” She giggled and rested her cheek on her arm. “Are you like … twins or something?”
I leaned back, grinning as she spontaneously ran her fingers through my long, dark hair. One of her arms had been inked with various sizes of black-lined skulls and bright blue roses; the other was a blank canvas.
“No, I’m Ellison, the dude who owns this house.”
She giggled loudly at my joke, and then kneeled on the floor in front of my chair. “I’m Paige.”
“What makes you think I’m a local?” she asked.
She was focused on my every word, the one-sided attraction making me feel a strange combination of exhilaration and tedium. Paige was more than just beautiful; she wore hope the way she carried her sad stories—out in the open, for everyone to see, vulnerable even when her heart had been broken too many times to repair.
I held out the roach. “Your eyes are absent of a lifetime of failed expectations and the guilt of wasting limitless resources.”
She giggled. “I don’t know what that means.”
“Is that painting of your parents?” she asked, pointing her short, chipped nails at the portrait across the room.
“They don’t look so bad. They gave you all of this.”
“No, it’s still theirs. I’m just borrowing it. People like us learn early to quit giving things away for free.”
“People like you?” she asked, amused. “As in, people who own a gazillion-square-foot house?”
Her eyebrows rose, and her mouth curved up into a sweet grin.
Some might perceive my comment as bragging, but there was purposeful disdain in my voice I knew Paige wouldn’t recognize. She was still smiling. I could probably mention my mother had admitted to me during a Xanax binge that she loved my sister Finley more, or how I deliberately totaled the Ferrari my father had bought me for my sixteenth birthday (mostly as an apology that he’d missed it), or even the time my roommate, Kennedy—also an heiress—brought a Ziploc bag full of her miscarriage along on a women’s rights march at Berkeley. Paige would still gaze up at me as if I were professing my love for her instead of detailing seven levels of fucked up.
“You get right to the point.”
She shrugged, taking a drag and holding her breath for five seconds before hacking out a puff of smoke. “Is that a no?” she asked, still coughing.
She tried to pass the roach back, but I shook my head. She jutted out her glistening bottom lip.
“Disappointed?” I wasn’t sure if she wanted a threesome or a drug buddy.
“You just look like you’d be a fun girlfriend.”
“You’re wrong.” I stood up, already bored with the conversation. A glass broke across the room, and a small group tightened around whatever show was happening in the center.
Laughter turned to yelling and chanting. Peter Max’s Better World was knocked off the wall, shattering the glass. Cheap beer splashed over the fifty-thousand-dollar brush strokes. I pushed my way to the front, seeing two men throwing punches, making an unholy mess of every piece of art around them.
All eyes fell on me, and the spectators quieted, causing the two in the middle to pause. They were all waiting for me to break up the fight, or yell, or maybe cry over the damage, but my gaze fell on the shirtless man covered in tattoos. He watched me, too, his chestnut eyes scanning my tits and legs, and then the room. His adversary had turned his red ball cap backward, bouncing as he circled Tattoos, rolling his fists back and forth in the air like he was in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
“Maddox, you’ve proved your point. Let’s go,” someone said to the tattooed man.
“Fuck you,” he replied. He didn’t take his eyes off me. “We’ll just take it outside.”
Red Cap had at least fifty pounds on Maddox. I pulled out five bills from my cleavage and held them above me. “I’ve got five hundred on Maddox.”
People shot their fists into the air, holding bills, shouting bets and winners. Maddox looked at me with a light in his eye I was sure no one had seen in a while—not even him. He’d just barely broken a sweat; his buzzed hair and dark eyes screamed invincible. Most of the men I’d met were all hat and no cowboy, but Maddox didn’t have to pretend. He lived it, and had the balls to back it up. The apex of my thighs tightened, and my panties were suddenly soaked. I took another step, forcing my way closer to the middle. I’d never seen him before, but he looked a lot like my next mistake.
The way he moved, I could tell he was extending the fight much longer than needed. Blow after blow—none by the bulky douchebag in the backward red hat—more glass broken, more blood spilled and beer sloshed onto Mother’s custom, Italian shag rug.
It became a pattern of Red Cap throwing a missed punch, and Maddox using the opportunity to land his. He was unbelievably fast, precise, and ruthless. I could almost feel his knuckles against my jaw, rattling my teeth, vibrating down my spine.