The music was loud and the bass was pounding through Laila's body. Her new roommate had dressed her up, dragged her to the party and forced her on the dance floor. Not that Laila minded the distraction, but she had never been to a party like this before. Her parents would never have allowed it and, if they knew the faculty at the expensive preparatory school she now attended had all but turned a blind eye to such behavior, she would certainly be shipped back to California on the next flight out of Boston. But parent's weekend wasn't for another couple of months and Laila was determined to take not full, but at least partial advantage of her new found freedom.
She looked around the crowded basement. Nothing looked familiar. The gothic architecture of the building, the blue and gold colors of the school, even the students looked different with their expensive clothes and their plastic cups filled with booze.
"Let me tell you who's who," Tennille offered, smiling at her roommate, seeing the confusion on her face.
Laila smiled and nodded, standing by Tennille's side as she started to point out people in the crowd.
"That guy over there, the one with leather jacket and black hair, that's Julian Polk, kind of the leader of the popular crowd here. The blonde girl standing next to him is Kalyn Andretti, his sometimes girlfriend, soon to be fiancée unless he impregnates someone else before graduation."
"Wait," Laila laughed. "Why is she his soon to be fiancée if she's only his sometimes girlfriend?"
Tennille laughed as well. "Welcome to Harper's, girl, where old money means old tradition. Kalyn's family and Julian's go way back. They aren't allowed to call it an arranged marriage, but that's essentially what it is."
Laila's eyes grew wide with excitement. "Are you serious?"
"Hmmm, afraid so," Tennille said with a sly smile. "Pretty archaic, don't you think?"
Laila's head nodded in disbelief. Her friends back home were going to love the stories she would have for them. They had all warned her what going to an east coast school would entail, but even their imaginations didn't stretch this far.
"Okay, so who else is here?"
"That guy standing next to Julian, staring at you like you're a perfect piece of filet mignon, that's Chase."
"Oh, disgusting!" Laila laughed as she caught sight of the person Tennille was talking about. His tall, lanky figure was slouched at the shoulders and his eyes looked red and swollen even from across the room. His chestnut hair was slicked back and his tongue ran over his pale lips as he stared at the two girls.
"Chase gets away with almost everything because his parents donate an obscene amount of money to the school every year. His sense of entitlement reaches beyond school rules and into the female population, although he usually ends up with Julian's left-overs.
"Now, on the other side of the spectrum," Tennille continued, taking Laila's hand and spinning her around, "are the ones you don't have to look out for. The kid sitting alone in the corner, the one with red hair, that's Randy. He's one of two seniors here on scholarship, which means he doesn't have many friends."
"Who's the other one?"
"That would be yours truly." Tennille smiled proudly. "Although, I've managed to stay under the radar of ridicule for the past three years."
"Yeah? How did that happen?"
"I believe it has something to do with the fact that I'm almost a novelty at this school. Harper's was eager to impress the board with a new music prodigy and it was just an added bonus that she was, how they put it, culturally diverse."
Laila hadn't noticed before, but looking around she quickly realized how similar the student body really was, a drastic change from the last school she attended.
"Look," Tennille brought Laila's attention back to the lesson at hand, and pointed to the stairs. Three figures, all of whom looked little more like shadows in the dark light of the basement, were entering the room. Their steps were slow and confident as they walked into sight and they appeared not to notice the sideways glances and longing gazes of half the senior girls.
The boy in the front stood tall, his dark hair and dark brows towering over the rest of the student body. His eyes were searching the crowd for someone or something. Two blondes came in behind him, their ashy hair picking up all the colors of the strobe lights. The closer of the two had a wide grin on his face, his dimples showing for the world to see. But his twin brother looked more somber, his eyes fixated on the crowd with an unusual sense of calm considering the present environment.
"Who are they?"
"Hands off the dark haired one, he's mine," Tennille laughed and waved her hand in the air. The boy with the dark hair gave her a crooked smile and pushed his way through the crowd.
"You made it!"
"I told you I would be here," he said in a deep voice as Tennille threw her arms around his neck to kiss him. It wasn't indecent or prolonged, but it made Laila blush.
"Tate, this is my new roommate, Laila."
Tate extended his hand for Laila's. "Welcome to Harper's Prep," he said with a bow.
"Thank you," Laila smiled.
"And this is Alistair and Sterling," Tennille said, making the last of the introductions before returning her attention to Tate.
"Laila, what a beautiful name," the cheerier of the blonde twins took her hand and brought it gently to his lips. "I'm Alistair, the more handsome of the Pierce twins."
His brother rolled his eyes behind Alistair's back. Laila smiled at his dimples. "You two look identical to me," she admitted.
"Almost, but not quite," Alistair continued without showing signs of offense.
"How am I supposed to tell the difference?"
"Sterling's got the crazy eyes. I've got the dimples." Alistair smiled at Laila again, before becoming distracted by a group of girls dancing only a few feet away. "If you'll excuse me…"
Laila turned to watch him leave, impressed by his confidence and ease. She turned back to his brother, a little disappointed to find Tennille and Tate dancing in what appeared to be a world of their own.
"So, I guess it's just you and me," Sterling said and Laila's heart nearly flipped inside of her chest. His voice, unlike his twin brother's, was deep and silky. Laila looked up at him. Although not as tall as Tate, he still towered over her short frame. His complexion was flawless, his skin appeared tan from the summer sun, and his short, ashen hair was pushed messily away from his eyes, making him look the epitome of disheveled perfection.
"I guess so," Laila smiled at him, unsure of what to think. He appeared so harmless when broken down to the basics: blonde hair, athletic build, simple blue button up shirt paired with expensive jeans. But something about him was mysterious, almost brooding. Maybe it only seemed that way because she had yet to see him smile.
Laila was struggling, trying to find something interesting to say to Sterling when she felt a tap on her shoulder.
"Hey," the scratchy voice said from behind her. She turned around and forced a smile when she saw Julian and his friend Chase.
"You're new here, aren't you?" Julian asked, chewing on a piece of gum while he spoke.
"Yeah. I mean, yes, I am." Laila's California syntax and speech were proving hard to get rid of.
"I'm Julian. This is Chase," he said, taking her hand and kissing it, much like Alistair had done. But unlike Alistair's innocent touch, Laila felt Julian's tongue run between her knuckles, his fingers tightening around hers. She pulled her hand away, softly, but with enough force to break free.
"I'm Laila. It's nice to meet you." She nodded at each of them, rubbing the back of her hand against her side, suddenly incredibly uncomfortable under Chase's constant stare and Julian's playfully devilish grin.
"Where did you come from?" Julian asked her, disregarding her attempt at pleasantries.
"San Francisco, California."
"Surprise, surprise," she heard a voice from her side say with a whiny drawl. Kalyn and another girl stepped in beside Julian. "A blonde with blue eyes from California. I'm guessing she's a democrat as well."
The smile faded from Laila's face as she looked at Kalyn. The girl was near perfection with her teased and highlighted hair, her makeup applied flawlessly and her dress most likely designer.
"It must be an uncommon thing around these parts, I suppose." Laila said before she could stop herself.
"What? Democrats?" Kalyn laughed and Julian smirked.
"No. Natural blondes."
Laila heard Sterling laugh from behind her and was surprised when Julian and Chase laughed as well. Kalyn glared at her, probably not used to being spoken down to. The two girls stared at each other for a moment, Kalyn seething with an embarrassed contempt, Laila's heart racing at her bold move.
"Can I get you something to drink?" Julian asked, taking a step toward her and reaching for her waist. Kalyn scoffed and turned away, dragging her friend by the hand toward the exit.
"No, I'm fine, thank you," Laila replied quickly, stepping back and running into Sterling's chest.
"Are you sure?" Julian looked at her through narrow eyes, glancing only once at Sterling who had, until now, remained silent.
"She said she's fine." Sterling put a hand around Laila's thin arm, taking a few steps back and pulling her with him. "We were just about to sit down before you interrupted us."
Sterling suppressed a laugh as Julian glared at him. But he wasn't worried about Julian. He had, on more than one occasion, with and without the help of his brother, put Julian in his place. No, Sterling was more concerned about the look that Chase was still giving the new girl. His eyes had never left her, raking over her body as if she were a mannequin at a store.
Sterling put an arm around Laila's ribs, turning her around and walking in the other direction. He glanced behind him only once to see Julian motioning for Chase to follow him to the spiked punch bowl. His friend's head nodded as if he understood but he stood as still as a statue, watching Laila walk away, until the people on the dance floor filled in the space between them.
"Thank you for that." Sterling's attention was taken away from the two guys behind him to the pretty girl still tucked closely to his side. Take that back, she was gorgeous. And not gorgeous like the other girls at the school who, even though they may have been born unfortunate looking, had enough money to hide behind artificial features and expensive make up. She was naturally beautiful with long strawberry blonde hair that flowed to the middle of her back. Her features were small and delicate, her nose turned up slightly at the end to give her a childlike demeanor, and her perfectly bowed lips were deliciously full and pink.
"You're welcome," Sterling had to remind himself to answer her. "I imagine you'll want to form your own opinions about the rest of the students here, but those two really aren't the type of guys you want to hang around with."
"I figured as much," Laila said, shivering slightly as she remembered how Julian's tongue had felt on her skin. "They were pretty creepy."
Sterling led her over to a table and pulled out a chair for her. He couldn't help but smile at her words and thought she might be the only girl in the school not to fall for Julian's slick lines.
"Chivalrous, are we?" Laila smiled up at him as he held the chair, waiting for her to sit down.
"It might be considered chivalry on the west coast, but here we call it being a gentleman."
Laila giggled and the sound filled Sterling's ears like the soft music of a harp. He sat down, trying to keep his composure in the company of this girl who had his heart skipping beets and his fingers aching to touch her skin. He looked around the room, noting the whispers and glances from the groups of students still dancing. Word had probably spread throughout the class that Laila had stood up to Kalyn and Sterling didn't envy her the gossip she was now subjected to. Nor did he look forward to the retaliation which was certain to follow. Luckily, Laila would be naïve to the butterfly effect she had created, at least for now, for she couldn't possibly understand the unwritten rules which governed the social lives of Harper's students.
He looked back at her, her arms were folded on the table and she was leaning into them, stretching closer to him. Her eyes were fixated on his and a curious look was on her pixie-like face.
"You're staring," Sterling reminded her. Not that he minded.
"Sorry," she smiled and her entire face lit up. "It's just that when your brother said you had the 'crazy eyes,' I didn't understand what he meant. But now, it's incredibly obvious."
Sterling let her stare for a moment longer. He used to be self-conscious about his eyes, unsure of how to react when people commented on them. But now he had grown accustomed to people staring at his eyes instead of into them. It was uncommon but not unheard of for people to be born with two different colored irises. The dark blue of his left eye contrasted brightly with the light green of his right, but in the dimly lit basement, he wasn't surprised it had taken Laila this long to notice.
"They're beautifully peculiar," he heard her say softly as her gaze danced between the two colors, before meeting his.
"You're one to talk," he smiled at her and saw the blush rise in her cheeks. She looked away and smiled.
"No, no, no. You saw mine, now let me see yours," he teased as he reached for her face, turning it back to his.
Laila laughed but opened her eyes wide to let him examine her. He held her chin in his hand as he moved his face closer to hers. Her skin was burning from where he was touching her and she caught herself holding her breath.
"Kalyn called them blue, but they aren't. Are they?"
"I'm impressed you're able to tell the difference in this light."
"Well, now that I've noticed, it's becoming increasingly difficult to look away," Sterling smiled at her and her pale cheeks blushed again.
"Violet eyes are far less common than what I have." He spoke and watched as her long lashes blinked in what seemed like slow motion. Did this girl have any idea what she was doing to him? He glanced down at her lips which were seductively pouted and he couldn't stop himself from running his thumb over their plump fullness. But the second he touched her pink mouth, she pulled away from him and sat back in her chair.
"I'm sorry," he said quickly. "I didn't mean to…"
"You don't need to apologize," Laila interrupted him. He was relieved to see amusement in her expression rather than disgust. "You just surprised me, that's all."
"So, California?" Sterling quickly changed the subject.
"California," Laila admitted, almost as she was embarrassed by it.
"What brings you all the way to Harper's?"
"I want to go to Yale. More students from Harper's Prep are admitted than any other private school on the east coast. And certainly more than any on the west coast."
Sterling smiled. Both of his parents were Yale Alumnus and he had never imagined going anywhere else for college. Alistair, on the other hand, had dreams of a big city and had greatly upset their parents when he announced he was applying to Harvard and NYU. Yale was his backup. But he didn't want to make Laila aware of any of this just yet. He was determined to learn more about her first.
"Did you go to a private school in San Francisco?"
"I did. Not a boarding school, like this one, but it was private."
"Let me guess, an all girls Catholic school?"
Laila frowned. Was it that obvious? "Yes."
Sterling laughed. "Don't worry, I won't tell anyone."
"It wasn't that bad," she insisted.
"Well, I think you'll be just fine here. Keep flinging the insults at the likes of Kalyn Andretti and you'll be famous in no time."
"She's not going to let that one go, is she?"
"Probably not. But I wouldn't worry too much about it. She's harmless unless you're susceptible to catty comments and gossip."
Laila smiled but she didn't know if she was immune to those things. Her last school had been so small compared to Harper's. There were only 35 other girls in her class, not enough to distinguish between the popular and the losers. But it was clearly different here in Massachusetts, where the money was as old as the prejudices. Her parents were well off and more concerned with her attending her senior year across the country than the minimal damage Harper's steep tuition would do to their bank account. But their money was nothing compared to the wealth of the other Harper parents. She had Googled some of the alumni after her transfer had been accepted and was shocked at the names she recognized.
She was brought back to her new reality by the smooth sound of Sterling's voice. "Laila, would you like to dance?"
She smiled but glanced at the dance floor. The majority of people were dancing close, arms and legs tangled, hips grinding against hips, breasts pressed to chests. She didn't know how to dance like that and was embarrassed at the thought of even trying.
"I'm not a very good dancer, Sterling. I've never even been to…"
"Wait!" he cut her off, an excited grin on his face. "Don't tell me this is your first dance."
"It's not. I've been to dances before. Very chaperoned, very sober dances."
He laughed and she had to smile. His brother had the dimples, but Sterling's smile was in a league of its own. When his mouth smiled, his entire face followed suit, radiating happiness to anyone who was within range.
"Come on, then. I'll ease you into it."
Reluctantly, Laila stood up as Sterling reached for her hand. He led her to the dance floor and smiled as she looked around uncomfortably.
"Just look at me," he leaned in and whispered into her ear as he put his hands on her hips and pulled her close, wrapping his arms around her back. She leaned into his arms as she raised her head to look at him. Her violet eyes were smoldering, their golden center nearly on fire as her pupils dilated at his touch.
Sterling knew she was innocent, this tiny girl now wrapped comfortably in his arms, but he didn't care. He didn't want to take any of that innocence from her, it seemed to be the part he enjoyed the most, the part he envied her. But as she became more comfortable with the music, as she began to move against his body and circle her hips into his groin, he could only think about how much he wanted her. Oh, the things he could do to her at that moment. He looked down his chest to where her soft breasts were pressed. Her tight dress had produced just the right amount of cleavage and now they were swelling as he pulled her closer to him. He imagined what it would be like to kiss her bubblegum lips, nip down her neck and then finally take one of her perfectly formed breasts in his mouth.
He felt himself stirring as he let his daydream play inside his head. Blood was already rushing to areas he wished it wouldn't, but he was hoping Laila would be too inexperienced to notice what was happening. Without giving her any warning, he spun her around and pulled her backside into his hips. He felt her hesitate and was scared he had gone too far too fast.
Laila couldn't believe what was happening. Her body was reacting to Sterling in ways she never knew existed. The heat between them was incredible and his touch was causing her to ache in areas she was embarrassed to talk about. When he spun her around and pressed himself against her back, she had been surprised to feel something stiff beneath his jeans. She could feel everything through the thin fabric of her dress and her imagination ran wild. She had never felt a boy so aroused before, and certainly had never been the cause of such arousal.
Her body quickly fell back in time with his and she pressed her derriere against his groin with a sensual circle of her hips. She heard him groan behind her as his hands moved from her sides and across her stomach. One of his hands continued up her body, sliding up her ribs and lightly grazing her breast as he moved up to her neck. She felt her hair being brushed to the side as his warm breath spread onto her skin. She reached up and ran her fingers through his hair, encouraging him to come closer. His hand had returned to her hip and was clenching her dress between his fingers when she finally felt his lips on her neck. She tilted her head to the side, allowing him more access.
The loud, pulsating music was nothing compared to Laila's heart. She could feel it pounding in her chest as Sterling showered her neck with rough, demanding kisses. She had forgotten where she was, forgotten that anyone was around aside from the person behind her holding her unbearably close. She didn't stop to think about how she should be acting in front of her new classmates, didn't stop to remember she was supposed to be making a good impression. No, as soon as Sterling's hand started to move up her stomach to cup her breast in his palm, she turned to face him, pulling his face to hers and kissing him, releasing all the tension they had built during the dance.
Sterling didn't have to think about what was happening. His body reacted instantly to Laila's kiss, his hands pulling her close, his tongue gliding over her sweet lips. Her mouth opened in response to his, his tongue instantly searching for hers, softly circling and massaging when he found it. She tasted so good to him, like strawberries. His teeth grazed her bottom lip as he positioned himself for another kiss. But as he leaned in, he couldn't find her.
Sterling opened his eyes to see Laila with her fingers to her lips, a worried expression on her face.
"I'm so sorry," she said, taking him completely by surprise. "I never act like this. I don't know what came over me."
She was speaking quickly, making her unnecessary excuse as she started to back away from his embrace. But he held her tight, not ready to let her leave.
"I don't either," he smiled at her reassuringly. "We were caught up in the moment. No harm done."
"I should go," she said, putting a hand on his chest and pushing him away.
"Laila, you don't need to leave. It was just a kiss. An amazingly sexy kiss," he added quickly when he saw the excited sparkle leave her eyes. "One that I will be dreaming about tonight and hoping to repeat the next time I see you."
Her face reddened and she looked away, checking to see if anyone had seen them. But all the couples on the dance floor seemed to be caught up in their own erotic foreplay, some even more indecent than she and Sterling had just been.
"I'm just not the type of girl who... I should go," she repeated, taking a few steps away from him even though her body was yearning to be pressed against his once again.
He caught her hand before she could run away from him. "I can tell you aren't that type of girl. And that is what makes you even more enticing than you were before."
She blinked her large violet eyes at him a few times before speaking. His words had clearly caught her by surprise. "I'll see you later, Sterling."
"At least let me walk you back to your room."
But Laila shook her head and smiled at him. "Goodnight."
She dropped her hand from his and pushed through the people, skipping up the stairs and disappearing from sight. Sterling smiled to himself and bit his bottom lip where he could still taste her. Yes, he would be seeing her later but probably earlier than she had imagined. Scanning the crowd, he found his brother talking to Rebecca Valencourt. Alistair had broken her heart numerous times before, but she always came back to him, understanding he wouldn't want anything more than a few raunchy nights together. Sterling used to feel bad for the girl, but after so many years, she should have learned her lesson. Tonight, however, he was actually glad to see the two of them together. Rebecca was a sure thing for Alistair, and a brilliant excuse for why Sterling couldn't share a room with his brother that evening. All he had to do now, was sit back and wait for them to slip away to the dormitories, hanging the red tie on the door, letting Sterling know he needed to find a different room to sleep in.