In a world with too much money and not enough rules, anything goes. Welcome to Belle Mère, the most exclusive zip code outside the Las Vegas Strip. It’s every sinner’s fantasy and every good parent’s worst nightmare.
Emma Southerly doesn’t belong at Belle Mère Prep despite her new stepfather’s money. Not after she shunned her invite to the popular table, and especially not after what happened last summer. So when her best friend begs her to crash an invite-only, end of the year party, she should say no with a capitol H-E-L-L.
It’s just a party. What could go wrong?
Getting kicked out to start. Running into the man who destroyed your family.
Until she meets Jamie, who’s also hiding from the in-crowd. After spending the night with the cute stranger, Emma barely makes it home before news hits Belle Mère’s brunch tables. A body’s been found on the West estate, and Jamie is the number one suspect. But he couldn’t have done it…right?
Emma isn’t sure she can trust him or the rest of Belle Mère. After all, no one is safe when everyone is a liar.
“Emma, you look like hell,” my best friend Josie announces to me as I slide into the passenger seat of her beater Civic. I toss my bag onto the floorboard, ignoring the helpful commentary. Instead I pull my wet hair into a messy bun on top of my head. When I don’t respond she sighs and reaches into the pile of random junk that she stores in the center console. She tosses a container of concealer at me before she backs out of my driveway.
“This isn’t your color,” I point out, eyeing the fair shade suspiciously.
“No.” She keeps her eyes on the road, but I spot the grin tugging up the corners of her mouth. “It’s yours. You’re usually the one who needs it.”
I raise an eyebrow, which is seriously risky, given that she’ll probably deem them in need of intervention. “Are you sure? Because it seems like you’ve got a little bitch showing.”
“Not my color,” she reminds me.
Despite being stuck in standard prep uniform, she looks amazing. Between her corkscrew curls and fuchsia lips, there’s an effortless coolness to Josie’s style. I guess that’s what you get when your mom is a former show girl pretty enough to get knocked up by a high-roller who didn’t stick around to place a second bet. Either way he scored big— if only he knew it. Josie has her mom’s long legs, ready smile, and way with the men. I say men because she doesn’t bother with the guys at school. She prefers to work out her daddy issues with any number of willing tourists.
My dad stands on the porch holding a mug of what I hope is coffee. Josie waves to him cheerfully, narrowly avoiding our mailbox, as I begin to pat the liquid magic on the dark circles rimming my eyes.
“Nightmares? The one about Becca?” She taps the steering wheel, showcasing her fluorescent pink nail polish that looks all that much brighter against her cappuccino skin.
“Test. I had to cram.” I lie because I don’t want to discuss my seriously screwed up head at seven a.m.
Josie doesn’t press it even though she sees through me. She knows the truth because she knows me. That means she also gets that I’m not one to gush about my feelings. What’s the point? Talking can’t change the shit that’s happened.
“Last day,” she says instead, “and tonight we party.”
“You party,” I correct her. “Dad needs me to take over morning shift at the shop first thing on Monday.”
“Which gives you a whole weekend, and don’t try telling me that you have a hot date.”
I flush at the thought. Yeah, hot dates are for girls who haven’t been forced into an involuntary vow of celibacy. “I do actually. With laundry and Netflix.”
Josie’s nose wrinkles and she shakes her head. “You need a life.”
“I had one.” I stare out the window instantly wishing I hadn’t spoken, especially something that made me sound stupid and broken and girly. I’m getting used to the hollow pit my sister’s death has left at my core, but today’s a day I can’t ignore it.
We pull into the school parking lot with my admission hanging like a nasty stink in the air. We both can smell it but we’re too polite to talk about it. Josie whips the car so quickly into a space that a nearby frosh jumps out of the way. She shrugs sweetly at him. No one can resist Josie, even if she’s just put their life in danger. One of the many reasons that we’re an odd couple. I don’t smile or chit chat. Hell, I don’t make eye contact if I can help it.
“Emma, she wouldn’t want you to give up on living,” she says in a quiet voice.
“Yeah, well, I wanted to see her graduate this weekend,” I snap. She doesn’t deserve my reaction, but a year later and I’m still working through the second stage of grief. I prefer when we pretend we’re still in denial though.
So much for polite oblivion. I throw my bag over my shoulder, and disappear into the crowd of students scrambling through the front door as the first bell slices the air. This is where I feel safe, lost in a swarm of people who aren’t asking if I’m okay or if they can do anything to help. Or worse yet the people who turn those sad eyes on me. I don’t want their practiced pity or sympathetic attention. Because there is such a thing as a stupid question and ‘are you okay’ is one of them. Then there’s the jerks that have made it their mission to hold me accountable for what happened that night, because I’m the only one left to blame. The whole lot of them make Belle Mère Prep feel more like the nine circles of hell than high school.
Only a few more hours. But the mental cheerleading does nothing for my apathy, especially when I spot Hugo Roth, my least favorite mistake, loitering near my English class.
“Hey pawn star, ready for summer vacation?” I don’t have to turn to attach the sneer in the voice with his stupid face, but he darts in front of the doorway so I still have to look at him. He’s taller than most of the boys in class, which is a blessing given that he has to hold up his gigantic ego all day. I hate to say he cleans up well. Still there’s no denying his movie star jawline or his silky blond hair that’s just long enough to grab onto when he makes his move. I’d made that mistake once. Never again. “I was thinking of coming into the shop. I have something I know you’ll want.”
“Sorry. We’re all stocked up on junk.” My family’s Las Vegas pawn shop is considered a tourist landmark, but to me it’s just another embarrassment.
I push past him, but his arm flies out to stop me. With his other hand, he grabs his crotch. “What will your daddy give me for this? Or maybe you and I can discuss its value.”
“Or maybe I can show it the barrel of one of our many in-stock shotguns.” I plaster a smile on my face as I wiggle my pinkie for emphasis. “If I recall, it should slide ride in.”
Hugo’s face darkens as he moves away from the door. “Bitch.”
“Good to catch up!” I call after him sweetly from the doorway.
Mr. Hunter doesn’t look at me as I rush into the room to the sound of the final bell. “Nice of you to join us, Miss Southerly.”
I slide Great Expectations out of my bag and hold it up. “I couldn’t stop reading. I didn’t get any sleep.”
Mr. Hunter has apparently read Dickens because he presses his lips together in disbelief. He probably watched the movie, too, but he doesn’t push my tardiness. I slump in my seat as he starts a discussion on whether or not Pip’s benefactor did him a favor. Apparently, he didn’t get the memo that it’s the last day of school. Since I thought the story was stupid—a poor kid trying to impress a rich girl—I stare at the wood-paneling some board member sprung for during the academy’s renovation. The result is all Vegas. Oak paneling, bookcases full of dusty leather-bound volumes—a show meant to trick over-qualified teachers and elite college recruiters into thinking that the students here are as competitive as east coast prep students.
Growing up in Belle Mère, I know the truth: all that glitters isn’t gold.
“Miss West?” Mr. Hunter calls across the room to a blonde with her back turned to him, catching my attention.
Monroe West glances over her shoulder and stares at him like she’s waiting for him to answer. Her Jimmy Choo’s probably cost a week of his pay and she knows it. Who said our priorities aren’t in place at Belle Mère Prep? But when you’re a West, doors open for you. Just not Southerly doors. After Monroe put a pink streak in her hair, Clark County ran out of dye for two months. Girls drove to Los Angeles to get theirs done, and by the time, they had their appointments, she’d moved on. Her latest look is more Miami than pop star, bright citrus hues. She’s a step ahead of the game. With her daddy’s money and her latest stint on reality TV, wannabe designers are falling all over themselves to send her clothes. It’s more proof that life isn’t fair. The girl could buy anything she wants and she doesn’t even have to. But it’s not class warfare that has her on my blacklist. No, she’s earned her spot and then some.
“Do you have thoughts on the question?” he prompts her when she doesn’t respond.
“Of course, he did him a favor. Everyone wants money. I’d rather be dead than poor.” She flicks her bleached locks over her shoulder and returns to her previous conversation.
A snort escapes me and they both turn to stare. Acknowledging Monroe said something is akin to drawing a line in the sand. Generally I stick to cold war tactics like pretending she doesn’t exist. It’s better for my sanity, but maybe the fact that I won’t have to see her for three months is encouraging a little confrontation.
Mr Hunter crosses his arms over his tweed jacket like a nerdy referee. “It seems Emma has some thoughts on the subject.”
“Yes.” Actual thoughts. “There are so many worse things than being poor like being sick or smug or conceited. I think he knows that. Money doesn’t equal happiness.” At least, Ethan Hawke didn’t seem very happy in the movie, I add silently.
Monroe flips her tan, middle finger at me behind Hunter’s back.
“Or class,” I add dryly.
She smirks, showcasing how well her coral lipstick matches her manicure. But all evidence of her addition to our debate disappears as soon as Mr. Hunter looks to her. I don’t bother to listen as he tries to engage more students in the discussion. It might be Belle Mère policy to educate us until the last possible moment, but we took finals last week. Reading Dickens was the English Department’s idea of an end of the year treat. Old Charles would be disappointed to know that we’ve all checked out, counting the hours until today’s final bell heralds the start of summer vacation. Or in my case, summer servitude haggling with gambling addicts over baseball cards and old records. Despite that, this is our version of New Year’s Eve as we watch the clock and wait for liberation from one more year.
“If anyone hasn’t finished reading, please take your copy with you this summer. The school can afford the loss,” Mr. Hunter informs us as the bell rings.
Everyone abandons their unwanted Dickens’ novels on their desks as they stampede out of the classroom.
“Emma,” Hunter calls before I get to the door. “You’re signed up for AP Lit next year, right?”
I nod, chewing on my lip as the hallway fills with students. Contrary to today’s tardiness, I hate being late. There’s not much I can control in my life but my punctuality.
“I’ll send you the reading list over email. I look forward to having you in class again next fall. Take the book with you.”
Translation: he’s thrilled that the whole class won’t be filled with Housers. Kids who are set to inherit casinos and clubs don’t have much interest in literature. “Me too.”
I dash into the hallway before he can continue the conversation. Hunter is fine but I’ll tackle the reading when I visit Mom in Palm Springs next month. Right now, I want to get to class and finish out this day, so I can leave the worst year of my life behind.
The texts start just after lunch. I sneak a few replies but there’s nothing I can do while I’m in class. Dad didn’t show to the shop, which is a surprise to no one, except his manager Jerry, who is possibly more sheep than man. He needs someone to follow, so without Dad he’s lost. By three, Dad is still MIA. I guess it wasn’t coffee in his cup this morning. If I’m lucky our next month’s mortgage isn’t currently riding on number fourteen.
Jerry: Can you come in?
Me: Nope. Plans.
With a half dozen unfinished television seasons.
Jerry: At least, you’ll be here on Monday.
And for the rest of my life. Families stick together in Vegas no matter what cards are dealt to them. I’m not stupid enough to believe I’ll get out. Here the House always wins and puts you right back in your place.
Another text arrives this one from mom, apparently I’m expected at brunch in the morning. My one weekend off before the drudgery of a summer job is quickly being taken over by everyone else. I stuff my phone into my bag and allow myself to enjoy exiting Belle Mère Prep. It’s a short-lived pleasure, but then again most are. Outside, the parking lot is a sea of convertibles with their tops down. Apparently it was drive mommy’s mid-life crisis to school day. Funny, I don’t remember that being on the school announcements.
“We are seniors!” Josie shrieks, lunging toward me as soon as I’m down the front steps. I accept the hug because Josie is a hugger and if after seventeen years she hasn’t figured out that I’m not, it’s a lost cause.
Over her wild mop of hair, a familiar set of brown eyes flickers my way. I pull back in time to spot Jonas take Monroe’s hand. Between his lanky form and dark hair and her platinum locks and petite, swimsuit model body, they’re a perfect contrast to one another.
Belle Mère’s power couple.
Everyone who is anyone wants to be them. Me? I’ll admit it. I just want to be her. Maybe since I used to be the one holding his hand.
Josie follows my gaze and her dark eyes narrow when she sees the pair. “Ignore them.”
“I am.” If it only it were as simple as following her command, but Jonas is the one who broke my heart. He kissed me. He made me fall in love. Then he walked away for her, so I jumped into bed with the school’s resident narcissist to get back at him.
It would have been nice to know Hugo had placed a bet on how fast he could get me into bed. I’d known I was a sure thing. At least I could have made some money. I didn’t get much else out of it.
“I want to go out tonight.” I say it before the thought fully processes.
Josie bounces, looking a bit too much like the ex-cheerleader she is, as she rubs her hands together.
“Nothing crazy,” I warn her.
“Don’t worry. It will be fun, because I know exactly where we’re going.” The mischievous glint in her eyes sends a wave of apprehension surging through me.
What have I gotten myself into?