THE MISFIT & THE BEAST - Ever After Series Book 1 (ebook)
THE MISFIT & THE BEAST - Ever After Series Book 1 (ebook)
Love isn't for the faint of heart...
THE MISFIT & THE BEAST is a gripping, emotionally charged contemporary teen romance about first love, high school theater, and the courage to break the rules, be true to yourself, and follow your heart, no matter the price.
Get your copy now, and let this dark, unforgettable love story take your breath away.
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I wished for the sun this week. So, of course, on Monday morning, rain hammers on the roof of our rental townhouse as I slip out of my bedroom and hurry down the creaky staircase, my school backpack hanging over my shoulder and an oversized plastic bag in my hand. Nothing is ever easy, right? I keep forgetting.
I flip on the light in the kitchen and drop my backpack on the spare chair. There are exactly three chairs in our kitchen, and none of them match the white, fake-distressed table: a dark wood chair with a curved back that Mom favors, a light oak with a red pillow that I always sit on, and a teal plastic spare. They came with the house, and after a year of living here, I barely notice the clashing styles. It’s all temporary, anyway. Until we fix up the duplex, pay off the loans, and get back on our feet.
Where to put the bag, though? I don’t want Mom to see it.
I cross to the odd door next to the fridge, open the brass latch, and throw the bag inside, then lock the door again. It’s a back staircase to my bedroom, narrow and steep, a quirk of the old house, although I never use it.
It’s already 6:47 a.m., as the glowing clock on the microwave informs me, so I busy myself with making coffee. I fill up the electric kettle and scoop up the grounds into the French press. As the coffee brews, I peer out the window.
Sheets of rain slash against the glass panes, blurring the view of our small backyard. A lone linden tree stands in the corner of the overgrown lawn. Tangled vines cover the tall fence.
But my favorite is the rose bush near the window. It’s as tall as me, with stalks as hard as the iron frame that supports it, and viciously sharp thorns. The roses themselves are dark and scrunched, the ugliest I’ve ever seen, almost as if the plant had a mind of its own and didn’t care to be admired or loved. The bush is tough and healthy, though, despite our negligence and sore lack of gardening skills, so we leave it alone.
I hear a knock and a whir, and Mom walks into the kitchen, the wheels of her suitcase catching on the uneven floor boards.
She smiles and sniffs the air. “Good morning, honey. Is that coffee?”
I pour her a cup, add a splash of milk. Then grab bread and pop two slices into the toaster. “What jam do you want on your toast? Raspberry or orange?”
“Just coffee is fine. Thanks.”
Mom is wearing her travelling pantsuit and holds a dull metal case, which she puts on the counter. She’s a medical sales rep, on the road every other week. The case holds whatever devices and samples she’s selling this time.
“Mom, you need to eat,” I protest.
But she only sips her coffee. “I’ll grab something later.”
I sigh. She’ll go through a drive-through, get another coffee with extra milk, and call it lunch. She forgets to eat even when working in her own kitchen, never mind driving halfway across the country. But we’ve had this conversation too many times before.
Through the drumming rain, I can hear the rumbling of trucks on Highway 15, which connects to Interstate 80 a few miles north of town. I hate the idea of Mom driving in this weather, but sales reps don’t make their schedule, and her boss is too cheap to pay for a bunch of flights.
“So I’m driving you to the office, right?” I ask, and I bite into my toast. Since I got my license last winter, my mom leaves her Corolla with me and takes a more presentable company Lexus.
Mom sets her cup down. “Oh, honey. No. Didn’t I tell you? I have to take our car. A new policy.”
I stare at her. “But—”
I almost blurt out, I need it for the play! The director is gone this week, so no rehearsals yet, but we’re doing the set build, and I have the costume meetings, and they’re all in the evenings. No school bus to get me there or back after hours.
But I bite my tongue. Mom doesn’t know I’m involved in theater, or about my clothes making, and I want to keep it that way.
“I’m sorry, Abby.” Now Mom looks worried. “Is it the SAT prep course after school? Because I could ask Mrs. Smith to drive you.”
Mrs. Smith, our neighbor next door, is a retired pharmacist and the nosiest person I’ve ever met. The last thing I need is for her to take interest in me and report back to Mom.
“No, no,” I quickly say. “I’ll get a ride. It’s no problem.”
A familiar red jeep springs to my mind, the leather seats and rolled down windows promising freedom and adventure, but I push the thought away. Who am I kidding? It’s never going to happen. He barely knows I exist.
My appetite is gone, the toast dry like sawdust in my mouth, but I force myself to finish. I’ll need the fuel to get through the day. Just the thought of begging people to pick me up and drop me off, over and over again, makes me bristle. Acting friendly is exhausting. It’s not that I don’t want to make friends—I do. But it’s not friendship if I’m always the one asking favors and have nothing to offer in return—it’s charity. I’d rather walk the three miles to school and back.
Mom frowns, her worry predictably escalating into guilt, and I know what she’s going to say even before she speaks. “Are you sure you’re going to be okay by yourself, Abby? I’ll be gone an entire week. Maybe I should cancel.”
I resist the impulse to roll my eyes. We’ve been over it before, a recurring theme ever since Mom got offered the job and we moved here for it. And we both know my answer. “I’m going to be fine, Mom. I’m almost seventeen. I can take care of myself.” I glance at the microwave clock: 7:05 a.m. “But I need to run to catch the bus.”
“I can give you a ride,” she offers meekly.
But I shake my head, already tying my sneakers and grabbing an umbrella. The new high school is in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by woods and farmland. With the morning traffic, the detour would cost her a good hour.
“I’m okay, Mom.” I glance at the door to the back staircase. I still need to grab the plastic bag. “You’ve got everything? Water? The charger for your laptop?” I ask casually.
Mom pales and looks up toward her bedroom. She forgot the charger on the last trip, and had to borrow one from a client in the middle of her presentation. She fretted about it for days. “I better make sure.”
I kiss her cheek. “Drive safe, Mom.”
I wait until she disappears up the stairs before I retrieve the bag, shrug on my backpack, and rush into the rain.
Market Street, the town’s main thoroughfare, looks like it’s going through a car wash.
I turn into it and race five blocks, past a bank, a movie theater, and a bunch of shops and restaurants, blinking against the rain. I all but give up on the umbrella as I duck under low tree branches and try not to trip on the cracked slabs of sidewalk lifted by the roots. I clutch the bag in front of me. The last thing I need is to spill the contents.
The last building on Market Street, on the corner with Highway 15, is the old high school. It’s been empty for a year, the doors chained shut and the brick walls crumbling as if in shame or grief. The bus stop to the new school is in the back.
I make it on the bus at the last moment, my awkward load and dripping umbrella earning me a stern look from Mr. Brown, the driver. He waves me in with his prosthetic hand, and I hustle to an empty seat, ignoring the curious and pitying looks people throw me. Most upper classmen drive to school or share rides with friends. I have the rare and dubious distinction of being a junior who takes the bus. Thankfully, half of the seats are empty, so I don’t have to talk to anyone.
Mr. Brown steps on the gas, and the bus shudders and lunges forward.
The movement jostles me before I can brace myself. My shoulder slams into the window, and the wet umbrella swinging from my wrist hits my kneecap like a hammer, before proceeding to drip all over my shoes, which are soaked anyway. I wince and swallow a curse, but I never let go of the bag. I slide it onto the seat next to me, water pooling and streaking on the plastic, then changing direction and bending outward as the bus makes a sharp turn and we merge into morning traffic on Highway 15.
We roll past a supermarket, a car dealer, an antique barn, a gas station, all blurred by the rain that shows no sign of relenting. Finally, Mr. Brown makes another sharp turn, this time to exit the highway.
We pass a few ranch homes overlooking a large, briskly flowing creek. And then the sidewalks vanish, and we’re on a country road—nothing but tall, green corn stalks shivering in the rain. The fields stretch and roll in all directions, dipping where some stream cuts through the land, and climbing to the edge of the forest in the distance. An occasional dirt road, a rusted mailbox, or a wooden barn are the only sign that people live here. It’s a rain-washed picture of central Pennsylvania.
The bus turns again, and we follow a new blacktop, one narrow lane in each direction, slick with rainwater. A ditch runs along the asphalt on both sides, the dirt turning to reddish mud. And beyond that—tall weeds, and thick, tangled brush.
We are about to make the last turn—into the large parking lot and the bus loop in front of the school—when we pass him.
A tall figure in the opposite lane.
His head is bent, the hood low over his eyes, his hands deep in the pockets of his sweatshirt.
I’ve never seen anyone walk on this road before, but that’s what he’s doing.
He walks the edge of the blacktop, but stays the course without stepping into the ditch, unmoved by the constant traffic of SUVs and minivans that squeeze past him, the most doting parents driving to work after dropping off their kids.
Somehow, the sight of him touches me deeply. I don’t know why, but it does.
My chest tightens and I shiver, as if it was me braving the lousy weather instead of him. And for a moment, it is me—water drips into my eyes, my sweatshirt and jeans cling to my skin, and my toes turn to ice inside my soaked sneakers.
Irritation rolls over me. Why should I care? I don’t even know him. He must be a new student, or I’d recognize him. Plus, I have my own problems. But for some reason, I can’t look away, can’t stop watching him. My head swivels after him as the bus gets ahead, as if some invisible thread connected us.
And then he looks up, dark eyes under thick brows meeting my gaze—and his expression is so harsh, so hostile, my breath catches.
What are you staring at? His eyes flash with warning. Mind your own business.
My face turns hot, and my head snaps away from the window.
The back of the seat in front of me has a deep, diagonal slash across it, like a vicious knife wound. Foam pokes through it like torn flesh.
I keep my eyes fixed on the tear until the bus lurches to a stop and students push past me to the door. I’m the last to get up from my seat, still reeling from that glare. What’s your problem? I want to confront the stranger. I want to block his path, yank back his hood, and look him in the eye as I yell at him. I haven’t done anything to you. And you already hate me?
I don’t get rattled easily, so the fact that a guy I don’t even know can get to me like this is maddening. I’m furious with him, but even more furious with myself. Come on, I scold myself silently. Pull it together. All my hopes and dreams are pinned on this semester. I won’t get a second chance if I slip up.
I nod goodbye to the driver and step out of the bus and onto the wide sidewalk, clutching the bag close. It’s not worth opening the umbrella, so I lower my head and hunch my shoulders against the onslaught of water, planning to make a run for the main doors. But as if by magic, the rain eases to a light drizzle.
I glance over my shoulder toward the student parking lot, and my heartbeat quickens.
Because it’s exactly the person I wanted to see—jumping out of his shiny red jeep and strolling in my direction.
Thick, wavy blond hair frame a strikingly handsome face. A white shirt stretches across broad shoulders and grey slacks hug long legs and narrow hips. A stylish brown leather bag. And up close, I know he has a perfect sun-kissed tan and his eyes are the deep blue of the ocean.
He’s not strolling toward me, of course. I doubt he even sees me. He’s heading inside the school, same as everyone else, streams of students from several parked buses joining with student drivers into one river of bodies that flows into the building through the open doors.
And it’s a good thing he doesn’t see me, because my shoulder-length hair is still damp and plastered to my face, and my sweatshirt and jeans are far from dry either, with wet splotches in random places. Not my most attractive look, to say the least.
I turn and rush inside the school ahead of Jordan, not caring if I splash through puddles.
I wipe my shoes on the giant doormat between the two sets of glass doors, and dive through the crowd of students in the side hallway to get to my locker next to the biology lab. I set the bag down and fumble with the lock combination, the umbrella banging against the metal. The stupid lock gets stuck all the time.
“Hi, Abby. What’s in the trash bag?” a voice chirps, and I spin around to see Tammy.
“It’s not a trash bag,” I snap, although I realize it is. An oversized trash bag was the largest bag I could find. God. I hope Jordan didn’t notice that. The lock finally pops free, and I yank the locker door open and stuff the bag on the bottom. “Just some costume options I found.”
Tammy has a heart-shaped face and a purple pixie cut. She claps her hands together, beaming at me. “Awesome! I can’t wait to see them.”
She’s a year ahead of me, a senior, and has been on the crew for every theater production since her freshman year. Last fall, for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she worked the lights. But this year she’s on costumes with me, and apparently happy to let me make all design decisions, even though it’s my first play. I should be flattered, but to be honest, it makes me nervous. I can’t imagine trusting anyone so easily.
“They may not work out,” I say defensively.
I almost close the pesky lock before I remember the umbrella still dangling from my wrist. I hang it inside the locker, then push the door shut. The hallway is emptying around us, students hurrying to their classes. Mine is at the opposite end of the building. I have to go. I’m already turning in that direction.
Tammy smiles and moves out of my way. “You’ve got Physics, right?” She’s good at reading clues and has an uncanny memory. “Well, see you at the set build at 5. It’ll be fun.”
I stop. The set build. I’m planning to stay after school and use the wait time to do homework. But I still need a ride back…
Before I can force my tongue, suddenly thick and useless in my mouth, to say the words, Tammy’s smile widens. “If you ever need a ride, just let me know, okay?” she says cheerfully.
I blink at her, incredulous. I didn’t even have to ask. “Are you sure?”
“Absolutely. You live downtown. It’s practically on my way. See you later, Abby.” And Tammy glides away to her own class, whatever it is, just as the bell rings.
I’ve got a ride. I let the relief sink in, a smile stretching my lips. Then I rouse myself and run in the opposite direction, back toward the main hallway. Physics lab is on the other side, and I’m already late.
The collision almost knocks me down.
I trip, caught in a half spin—but strong hands grip me and steady me, breaking my fall.
My head spins, and for a second, I imagine brilliant blue eyes peering at me, and I gasp, thrilled and mortified. I’ve run smack into Jordan and… he caught me.
But the daydream clears. It’s not Jordan.
Somber dark eyes under heavy brows frown at me, the voice gruff and unfamiliar.
“Whoa! Slow down. Where’s the fire?”
It’s the boy who was walking in the rain earlier—the one who glared at me—although he’s not glaring at me now. Still, I shake his hands from my arms, and take a step back, my heart pounding.
“Watch where you’re going,” I snap. Where did he come from, anyway?
The thick brows go up. “Me?”
He’s pushed back his hood, and in the harsh halogen light, his face is pitted with acne. His straight dark hair sticks out in all directions. But it’s dry, which confuses me. Shouldn’t it be dripping wet, or at least damp, like mine? Until I realize his dark sweatshirt is a waterproof jacket. Smarter than using an umbrella. His jeans are soaked, though, and his heavy work boots so thoroughly coated with mud, it’s hard to tell their color. So I guess we’re even.
A slip of paper lies on the muddy floor by his boot. He bends down and picks it up, shakes out the water.
I recognize the slip at once. Less than a year ago, I stood where he’s standing, the same piece of paper in my hand. It’s his class schedule. So he really is a new student, joining a week late. Still, better than six weeks into the semester, like when we moved here.
He glances at the slip, then his gaze locks on my face, as if waiting for something.
I stare back, unnerved but determined. I didn’t forget he glared at me for no reason. If he wants my help, he’ll have to ask for it. We stand like this, smack in the middle of the building, for a long moment, the tension prickling my skin like static.
Then, without another word, he glances around, orienting himself, and heads down the side hallway.
I frown. Does he know where he’s going? But I’m already late for class, so I follow a safe distance behind. At least he walks fast, wherever he’s heading.
Except he stops in front of the Physics Lab. Great. He’s in my class.
The door is closed, and I can hear Mr. Miller’s animated voice inside, which means the lecture has started. He’s my favorite teacher, but he speeds through his slides, and I need to take good notes for the college subject tests later. It’s bad enough that a new student got to class before me.
I throw the newcomer an impatient look. Come on, go in already. What are you waiting for? But he surprises me again. He pulls the door open and steps aside, letting me enter first.
I hesitate. Why would he do that?
But Mr. Miller, who likes to pace up and down as he lectures, is already waving me in. “Abby? Come in, come in.” Then he spots the newcomer and waves him in as well. “Cory Brennell? Welcome.”
He’s behind me when we step through the door, and I suddenly want to turn around and see how the name fits. But we’re both caught in the projector beam, and the whole class is staring and murmuring, so I slip out of the spotlight and escape to the safety of my seat near the wall.
Cory starts to follow me, then stops, looking at the teacher. He stuffs his hands in the pockets of his jacket, and moves awkwardly from foot to foot, squinting against the brutal light as he waits to be released. I can see his clenched jaw and the tense line of his shoulders all the way from where I sit. Looks like he dislikes being on the stage as much as I do.
“I’m glad you made it, Cory,” Mr. Miller says kindly. “Go ahead and pick a seat. We have a lot to cover, so I won’t make you introduce yourself.”
“I appreciate that,” Cory mutters, and walks to the seat in the back of the room.
“Thank you for your help, Abby,” Mr. Miller says to me with a smile, and my body flushes hot with embarrassment.
He thinks I helped Cory find the classroom. Maybe even that Cory and I are friends.
I half expect the gruff voice to correct him, but only a sullen silence flows from the back row. Should I say it, then? Tell everyone that Cory found the class on his own, with no help from me, and that we’re definitely not friends?
I glance over my shoulder, half expecting to meet another glare.
But Cory is looking straight ahead, disinterested. Did he even hear what Mr. Miller said? Or he heard it, but he doesn’t care?
I should be relieved, but instead I’m annoyed again. I spin back to my desk and grab my backpack, pull out my pen and notebook. Mr. Miller resumes his lecture, and I tune out the ongoing whispering and concentrate on taking careful notes.
The class goes by fast, and I forget all about the rude newcomer.
Then the bell rings, and Mr. Miller turns off the projector. “All right. That’s all we have time for today,” he says with a sigh, as students spring from their seats and rush for the door.
If it was up to him, we’d have five hours of Physics daily, so he can rave about all the new discoveries and applications, and take us on tours of university labs and industry projects, instead of only rushing through the dry basics. Mr. Miller believes Physics can save the world.
“Stay curious and keep up with the readings! I’ll see you on Wednesday,” Mr. Miller calls out, as students flee from the room. Then he adds, “Cory? A word, please.”
I’m still furiously scribbling in my notebook. Mr. Miller drops plenty of helpful tips for the college tests, if you know what to listen for. But they’re not on the slides, and if I don’t write them down, I won’t remember a thing.
From the corner of my eye, I see Cory’s dark jacket as he passes my row of tables. I break off mid-sentence, grab my stuff, and get to my feet. I need to get out of here.
“You’re Walter Brennell’s grandson, aren’t you?” Mr. Miller asks Cory.
“The best electrician and handyman in the county, if you ask me, and honest to a fault. Saved my skin multiple times. I’m sorry to hear about the accident.” There is genuine concern in Mr. Miller’s voice. “A broken hip, huh? That’s tough. How is he doing?”
“Doing all right. He’s still in the hospital.”
The back of the classroom is empty. Everyone else is gone. I drop my gaze and hurry down the only aisle, acutely aware that I’m eavesdropping on a private conversation.
Do they even know I’m here? Cory’s back is to me, hiding me from view.
“So you’re on your own,” Mr. Miller says.
I’m about to slip past Cory and out the door, when he moves a step, from foot to foot, blocking the aisle and my way out.
My face warms. I’m stuck behind him.
I thought his jacket was black, but now that it’s dry, it’s dark green. I contemplate the tense line of his shoulders, his long, dark brown hair. He smells of the forest, and overturned dirt, and the rain. So different from what Jordan smells like…
I shake myself and clear my throat. I can’t stay here. “Excuse me.”
Cory doesn’t flinch or startle. He simply turns to me, his dark eyes inscrutable, and moves out of my way.
But Mr. Miller throws out a hand to stop me. “Abby! Oh, good. I’m glad you stuck around. You can help me with my pitch.”
Oh, God. He makes it sound like I stayed behind on purpose.
“What pitch?” Cory asks, and now he sounds wary, like he suspects a trap.
But Mr. Miller plunges in with all his enthusiasm. “The fall play!”
Of course. I’m such an idiot. Mr. Miller is our production manager, a volunteer role on top of his regular teaching duties, second only to the play’s director. He’s a major theater fan. How could I forget?
There’s no stopping Mr. Miller now. Words rush from his mouth, propelled by his inexhaustible energy. “You see, Cory, your grandfather generously helped out with the set build for… oh… at least two decades. And when I say, helped out, I mean, he ran the show. And without him, we need help pretty badly.” Hope shines in the teacher’s eyes. “So let me ask you this, and please be honest. How are your carpentry skills? Did Walter Brennell teach you any of his magic?”
Cory’s shoulders relax a fraction, but his expression remains guarded. “I do okay.”
“I knew it!” Mr. Miller exclaims. “You’d be surprised at how many people can’t hammer a nail without injuring themselves. Not to mention handling any power tools. You can imagine the accidents there!” He shudders.
“I don’t have to imagine,” Cory says. “I’ve seen them.”
Mr. Miller blinks, taken aback, then realizes that focusing on the negatives may not be the best way to entice participation, so he changes tactics. “Well, my point is, we train everyone on the crew the best we can, including safety rules. But any prior experience is precious. We already have excellent people on lights. And we’re lucky to have Abby on costumes. But we’re still short-handed on the set crew.”
Cory looks at me, the same unnerving, unreadable expression in his eyes. “So you’ve done it before?” he asks me.
The question catches me by surprise. “In my previous school. I was too late for the crew call here last year,” I blurt out, and instantly regret it. This is way more information than I want to share, and none of his business. “I can tell you it’s a lot of work. Lots of evenings and weekends. You have to be really committed,” I add icily.
Mr. Miller frowns, misinterpreting my curtness. “Sorry, I know it’s late, and you both need to run to your next class. So without further ado, Cory… how would you like to join the crew and experience the magic of theater? We’d love to have you.”
Say no, I urge him in my head. I can’t believe this is happening.
“Sure. I’ll do it,” Cory says.
Mr. Miller beams. “Excellent! The set build kicks off at 5 p.m. today. Come at 4:30 if you can. I expect a few more new folks, so I can run the whole group through basic training.” He turns to me. “Am I forgetting anything?” Then back to Cory. “Anyway, if you have any questions, Abby is a great person to ask.”
As soon as Mr. Miller turns away, I rush out the door and into the hallway. My next class is Calculus, up on the second floor, and I can’t be late again.
But the by-now-familiar gruff voice stops me. “I do have a question.”
I spin around, exasperated. Is he messing with me? He must be, because no one else gets under my skin with as little effort, although I have no idea why. “What is it?” I snap.
“What’s the play?” he asks.
I almost smile. That’s easy. “We’re doing Beauty and the Beast.” The dark, romantic drama, closer to the original fairy tale, not the silly musical.
“Never heard of it,” Cory says. “Is it any good?”
“It’s one of my favorites,” I say.
He nods. “Okay.” And then he walks away, hands back in his pockets. His boots leave muddy footprints on the floor.
I watch him for another moment. Who hasn’t heard of Beauty and the Beast? Or was he messing with me again? It’s extremely aggravating that I can’t tell.
Copyright © 2023 by Vera Brook