She had never thought she would be going to summer camp. But apparently sophomore year was to teach her something about herself. Two years of high school had not made her pleased with her social position, and where some might just accept it, she simply refused. Being invisible sucked. Turning seventeen, and knowing that all her male friends had never even thought of the possibility that she might be looking for romance, had sucked even worse.
So when she’d come across this article about an “alternative art” summer camp in Miami where they offered classes in video game-making, she hadn’t been able to resist. She’d signed up for the course, then asked for her parents’ permission. It had taken a little bit of convincing once they realized the whole thing was taking place in Miami, and then there’d been the financial part of it. Eventually, though, they’d agreed to let her go, on the condition that she didn’t spend all her time behind a computer screen. If she were to go to summer camp in Florida, her mom had said sharply, she would be returning with friends to talk about for hours.
It wasn’t as though she wasn’t prepared to make the effort. In fact, making friends was part of the reason why she went at all. But she doubted they’d be more open down south than they were in Liberty, New York, where everybody knew everything about everyone. People she’d grown up with, played with as a kid, never even noticed her anymore. Why should a bunch of strangers be any different? Only, they didn’t even know her name, and they were probably going in pairs or even groups. She’d be the only one not knowing a single person.
So why was she so excited, sitting on the edge of her seat while the rest of the passengers boarded the plane from Newark? It certainly wasn’t the flight that made her full of a good kind of nervous energy. Turning the whole idea around in her head, she decided she would be different. She wouldn’t be the shy, invisible person she was in Liberty. None of these people would know her – and therefore wouldn’t know what kind of behavior to expect from her.
“Anyone sitting here?” a guy asked her, pointing to the middle seat of her row. She was right by the window.
“Uh, no,” she replied.
“Good, ‘cause it’s my seat.” Flashing a row of white teeth, he swung himself down into the seat next to her.
Smiling at the question he’d asked, she took a minute to go over his looks discreetly. He was wearing plaid shorts and a black T-shirt, showing off abdominal muscles in a way most girls appreciated greatly. His skin was tanned, and he had a masculine face with a wide mouth, a straight nose and a pair of sky blue eyes. His scalp was covered by light brown hair, standing straight up into the air.
Immediately she knew he was the kind of guy who didn’t have to work for popularity. He just got it. He radiated confidence and relaxation and popularity.
“Where are you going?” she forced herself to ask, reminding herself that practice for camp might be good for her. If she wanted to seem trustworthy in her appearance and behavior, she’d have to make it seem natural.
“Ah, I’m going to leave the plane and take a thirty thousand foot drop right above Atlantic City.” Deliberately clearing his voice, he sent her another smile, testing if she was in on the joke.
When she laughed, he knew she’d realized how stupid her question had been. Pleased that he could make this stranger laugh so naturally, he leaned back in his seat and winked at her.
“So you’re going to Miami,” she determined, shaking her head, wondering why he was even looking at her. But perhaps her strategy was working. She certainly wasn’t invisible to this piece of eye-candy, which she considered a good thing.
“I am,” he agreed. “And so are you. But where in Miami? Assuming you’ll be staying in the city, of course.”
“Miami Beach,” she told him. “I – uh – I’m going to this summer camp.”
His eyes lit up like stars. “No kidding? Me, too.”
Taking that information in, she had to bite back an urge to chew on her lower lip. Instead, she raised her chin and narrowed her eyes. When she did that, he thought, she looked very grown up, even though she couldn’t have been much older than him. If she wasn’t younger.
Her hair was in a ponytail and she was wearing a loose, bright purple basketball T-shirt, bragging about the Lakers. Her eyes were fringed by dark lashes with a touch of mascara that made her green irises stand out nicely. She wasn’t exactly skinny or good-looking. But she had a kind of cute heart-shaped face with round cheeks and a hint of cheekbones. And her skin was almost translucent, contrasting with her chestnut brown wavy hair.
She looked nothing like Victoria, who was a beauty queen beyond compare, but he enjoyed her company not to notice the ordinary looks too much.
Finished processing his confession, she grinned. “Miami Alternative Arts Summer Camp?”
“Yeah. Returning for the third year in a row,” he admitted. “We call it The Mask.”
“The Mask?” she repeated, frowning in confusion. He was weird.
“Yup. M-A-A-S-C. Mask.” He held out a hand. “I’m Jason.”
Shaking his hand enthusiastically, she now felt even more comfortable. And optimistic regarding her social life in Miami. “Hi, Jason. I’m Heather.”
Because he felt like teasing her, he asked, “Would you mind if I call you Feather?”
“Actually, I would,” she said casually, a little cheekily. “Heather’s my name.”
“Too bad,” he concluded, “I’m still going to call you Feather for the rest of the summer.”
“You’re being really disrespectful, did you know that?”
Waiting a beat, she held her breath, hoping for a specific outcome after that rhetorical question. And after a few seconds of mulling it over, Jason shook his head and laughed aloud.
“This is going to be a good summer, Feather,” he promised her, certain it would.
Already in the state of Florida, Austin considered himself lucky he didn’t have a plane to catch on this afternoon. Instead, he just had to make the drive from Fort Myers to Miami Beach, which didn’t take all that long. Or it wouldn’t have, had it not been Sunday.
Squeezing his dry eyes, he slowed the speed, not wanting to run into someone because he wasn’t looking for a second. Being behind the wheel, as always, was no big deal to him. He didn’t particularly mind driving, but it was beginning to annoy him that June was doing anything but paying attention to the trafficked road in front of her. She was leaning back comfortably in her seat, studying her toe nails, holding a small container of pink polish.
“Oh my God, why is it so bumpy?” she asked her brother, annoyed that she hadn’t had time to finish her look completely at home, and even more irritated that she couldn’t even do it in the car.
She could see that something was scraping Austin’s nerves, but what she didn’t care to learn. Whatever it was, it wasn’t her problem. She had enough of them as it were, and besides, Austin would never burden her with personal issues. So long as he was determined to hold whatever was bothering him in, she wouldn’t interfere.
At last he let out a long breath. “Want me to pull up?” From anyone else, the question would’ve sounded like he was snapping at her. But Austin was being perfectly serious, and they both knew it.
If he was completely honest, he didn’t want to stop the car. He just wanted to finish the ride, get it over with. But he was not in the mood for June’s complaints, and he was a fan of keeping her happy so she wouldn’t be in a bad mood, too. Where he had some degree of self-control, June never bothered stifling her flaring emotions.
“Ah, no,” she said, putting away the nails polish. “Let’s make a list instead.”
Dragging her phone out of her pocket, she found the Note app and thought about it for a while. Austin glanced sideways at her, grateful that she had apparently decided not to test his temper today.
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a bit of sunlight from the windshield gleaming in a strand of her long, golden blond hair, and it reminded him how beautiful she was. One of the reasons they were so very, very different, despite their birth date and all the years they’d shared growing up. June was one of those girls who became a cheerleader because people suddenly - in high school - realized she was astonishingly gorgeous.
With her large doe’s eyes and the princess-like golden straight hair that brushed her back when she walked, she could put almost every straight guy into a trance. Austin had seen it happen to his friends, and he never bothered trying to convince anyone that June was just as normal as everybody else. No one seemed to believe it anyway.
“So … Name the people you’re sure will be coming back this year,” she challenged him, excitement lighting her voice.
Austin thought about it for a moment, passing a worn orange pick-up truck. “Will, Graham and Keith are coming,” he said, a bit automatically.
“I know that Vic is coming. And Bex is, too, though I wouldn’t be sad if she didn’t. And, of course, Jason is flying down from New York. Otherwise Vic probably wouldn’t have gone,” she said matter-of-factly, and Austin wondered if it had ever crossed her mind that he didn’t care one bit. “She was crazy about him last year, you know.”
Obviously making an effort, and a poor one, she thought, Austin rolled his shoulders, keeping the wheel steady. “You don’t say? I almost didn’t notice from the way she clung to him.”
Austin was never interested in anything that had to do with other people, June thought, and sighed audibly. Least of all Vic. She didn’t get why he didn’t see what everybody else saw when they looked at her best friend. And she certainly didn’t get why Austin didn’t like her. Sharing a room with Vic was the funniest thing June had ever done in her entire life. They had so much in common, the two of them.
“You don’t have to be such a jerk about it,” she told him. “Obviously, you’ve never been in love.”
Not wanting to start an argument, Austin restrained himself. With June and almost everybody else he could do that. With Victoria it was an entirely different thing. That girl had his blood boiling within very few seconds of presence.
“No,” he agreed, because it was the easiest thing to do. “I haven’t.”
Leaning back and crossing her arms over her chest, she seemed satisfied. “Are you looking forward to going back?”
“I–I guess I am,” he told her honestly, though it wasn’t because of friends or flames he went back each year.
He was in it for the classes in Photography and Filming. He’d learned much the two previous years, and he didn’t doubt he’d learn as much this year. With a camera in front of him, he felt like he could see the world much clearer than just through his glasses. Besides, summer camp was the only time of the year when his schedule wasn’t tight with other tasks to do, such as student council meetings, working, learning the ropes, taking economy classes after school because his father demanded it, and keeping peace at home.
Taking photos and videotaping stuff was something he did to relax, to calm down, to prepare his mind for another stressful year of hard work. To him, spending time with his cameras was equal to vacation. This one would be his last one before college, and he didn’t imagine a higher form of education would leave him more time to relax than high school had. Not if his family had its way. And it usually had.
June had always thought it strange that Austin preferred being behind the camera rather than in front of it. With the right styling he would be handsome, and with some working out his height would quickly be prettily accented by lean muscles. Her brother, though they were very different, wasn’t as plain and ugly as he seemed to want to be.
People rarely believed they were twins, but it was the truth. Mostly because of their different looks. Where June had light, golden hair like their mother, Austin’s short, loosely looping hair was the color of ebony, and where her eyes were dark brown, his were hazel. The only feature they seemed to share was their build. Both were tall and slender, though Austin was considerably taller than her.
Maybe as a result of his height – or maybe because of something else she couldn’t put her finger on – Austin acted adult in everything he did. June had enjoyed that because he often kept her out of trouble with brilliant thinking and his talent for drawing their parents’ attention so she could sneak out to parties. She knew he’d do anything for her if she asked, and because he’d never complained about it, she saw no reason not to take advantage of that.
“Who’ll be teaching Modeling this year?” he asked, sensing the awkward silence.
“Still Mrs. Brooklyn, I think,” she said. “She’s so pretty for an elderly woman, and she has so much experience, you know.”
Austin didn’t know, but he smiled anyway and nodded. “June, I don’t think it’s appropriate to use the term elderly regarding a thirty-eight-year-old woman. Mom’s older than her.”
Smiling a smile most guys would melt at the mere sight of, she tossed her hair back over her shoulder. “Whatever,” she said, “she’s still superb.”
“If you say so.”
Feeling a bit drained, Austin turned his attention to the road again as they neared the outskirts of Miami. In the distance, he could see the high-rises and the network of bridges that gave away the fact that the large city was subject to the occasional hurricane and therefore couldn’t have underground public transport.
It was good being closer. And even better that the weather was still good, despite the fact that they’d passed a small thunder storm an hour or so ago. Some of the tension went out of him as he took an exit on the highway and let June babble on about how excited she was to see her Victoria again.
She was sweeter this way, and he could almost believe she’d act like they actually knew each other on a personal level when they arrived. But he highly doubted it. June, on the other hand, was thinking about how Vic would react when she saw Jason again, and about how they were going to avoid Bex as much as possible the next three weeks.
It was going to be an interesting summer.
This time, Lynne wouldn’t forgive her parents for dumping her on a stupid summer camp again. They were going to Paris. Paris! Aiming to become a chef, Lynne wasn’t the least bit pleased with her parents’ choice. They were leaving her behind with a bunch of losers for the second year in a row so they could go to Europe and rediscover each other.
She knew the drill: didn’t she want them to be happy? Could she not see how selfish she was being, not allowing them some time off their full-time parenting job? Did she want to get caught in a terrible divorce just so she could avoid three weeks of refreshing summer camp in a beautiful city right by the Atlantic Ocean?
The only good thing about that horrible summer camp was that they appreciated cooking as an alternative art form. Following the Advanced Cooking program last summer had really expanded Lynne’s culinary horizon, and she’d almost thought it tolerable.
Almost. If it hadn’t been for her infuriating three roommates – who all thought they were princesses in a castle, not high school students stuck in a hotel room in a touristy city – she might even have enjoyed herself.
She had managed to make one friend, and she didn’t care for more. Cher had been the only decent person within a radius of three miles, the only sane person who could stand the irrational teenage drama exactly as little as Lynne could. This year they’d signed up for camp together, in the hopes that at least they could make it a little better for each other. And, because they were returning, they’d gotten to request their roommates. They’d asked for each other.
Jumping out of the car her parents had hired for her to be taken down to Miami in, Lynne stretched and glanced around at the arrival area of the fabulous Alexander All-Suite Oceanfront Resort. What was so fucking great about a stupid hotel that it would cost ordinary vacationers around four hundred bucks a night for their smallest rooms? The building was nothing out of the ordinary from the outside. In fact, it was a strange shade of faded pink, and more or less made of simple concrete.
The driver pulled her suitcase out of the back of the car and then took off, probably scared by her moodiness on the six-hour drive from southern Georgia. Lynne took it all in and caught a glimpse of her own reflection in the toned windows of a red Ferrari parked by the entrance. One of the girls she hadn’t even bothered to learn the name of last year got out and went to the back to get her ridiculous Louis Vuitton suitcase. Definitely someone whose family was up-and-coming. If she’d been born into money, she wouldn’t have picked a suitcase that so clearly showed the tasteless pattern of the brand. It should’ve been enough for her to know that the brand was good quality.
As she paid the valet, the reflection of a tiny girl with a short blonde bob haircut and almond shaped gray eyes disappeared, leaving Lynne’s gaze to move elsewhere.
Right by the automatic doors she caught sight of someone she didn’t care to ever see again. Victoria with her long, blond hair hanging deadly straight down her back, wearing a very tight black dress and pumps. Who the fuck wore pumps to summer camp? It was supposed to be a mixture of relaxation and extra school. Anyway, Lynne decided, hating the fact that Victoria sent her an evil bitch-smile before turning her face to talk to someone who clearly was worth more attention.
The three weeks she’d spent as Victoria, June and Rebecca’s roommate had been the worst three weeks of her life. They’d treated her like a waitress, and when she’d tried to quit that role, they’d just treated her like trash. Bitches, the lot of them. This year she was going to have to do something about that.
Just as she decided to play superior and walk right by Victoria and into the lobby, another car rounded the corner that led from Collins Avenue to the hotel. It was a black Range Rover, a bit dusty from the road around the tires, but otherwise gleaming until it came to a stop in the shade, right where the red Ferrari had been parked before. Through the wind shield, Lynne wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or whether to be horrified.
June remained seated, even when Austin slid from behind the wheel and outside. Running a hand through his tousled dark hair, he went around the car and opened the door for his sister, who only then took the trouble to climb out of the car. Closing the door after her, Austin headed for the back of the car and unloaded their baggage. Two hysterical pink suitcases and a military style duffel bag went out to the side.
Lynne kept watching the male twin as he paid a valet to take his car away. She respected him, not because he was one of the ice queens’ brother, but because he was much smarter than his sister. And because he was always kind to everyone, even people he’d never met before. Even his sister, which was probably more of an accomplishment than a common display of manners to strangers.
This year she would talk to him. Actually talk to him, not admire him from a distance like she had last year. This year she was determined that he should know her name, even if he had the cruelest bitch in the world for a sister.
Squealing, ice queen one and two embraced each other and immediately started complimenting each other. Lynne thought she might throw up. When she turned to look away and wait for Cher, someone bumped directly into her shoulder.
She glanced up, not entirely surprised to learn that that someone was Austin. He was carrying his duffel bag over his shoulder and dragging the two suitcases after him. And still he managed to look straight.
“Sorry,” Lynne mumbled automatically and stepped aside when her eyes met his.
A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “No, I’m sorry, Lynne,” he said casually, then sighed and went back into motion. “Excuse me for a moment while I act as a piccolo for my loving sister.”
The sarcasm with which he said it made Lynne smile as she let him pass. A few minutes later, Cher arrived in her car, tossed out her ordinary black trunk and let another valet take away her Toyota. She had seen the Jutoria jumping up and down in their stilettos in front of the entrance, and she was determined not to look their way anytime soon.
But she’d also seen Lynne, and that was a pleasant discovery. Lynne, who looked so small and fragile in her baggy clothes, didn’t look like much, but she was every bit the tomboy she’d been last year. Cheryl knew that just by looking at her. A good thing, she decided, because this year was when they got the Ice Queens and their subjects down. It was time for monarchy to give way to a republic ruled by the masses, not a few superficial dim-wits.
“Well, hello there,” she said to Lynne, who waved a hand lazily at her, clearly trying to wipe the grin Austin had left her with off her face.
“I’d welcome you back,” Lynne replied with a shrug, “but there’s really no point. It’s still a hellhole.”
“Clearly.” Lynne could see a spark of something interesting in Cheryl’s blue-green eyes. “C’mon. I’m sick of waiting. Let’s find our room.”
Jake saw mostly girls when he arrived at the hotel. Summer camp was new to him, and he was only taking it for one simple reason. Credit. He was failing art class big time, but some miracle had granted him the gift of taking amazing photographs. His teacher had suggested he take this summer camp thingy, and he might pass art class on his skills as a photographer. So here he was, because his folks wouldn’t be too damn pleased if he flunked art class.
So far, so good, he thought. At least there were decent looking girls, he noted as an afterthought, taking in the view of the nearest ass – apparently belonging to a girl with shoulder length black hair wearing jeans that suited her hourglass shape. And then he noticed two other girls, right by the doors sliding open to swallow the one with the black hair and her tiny blonde friend.
His guts shifted. Jake wasn’t easily impressed. He maintained certain standards when it came to looks, and he expected girls to do the same if he were to date them. What he saw took his breath away. One was wearing a short, tight dress, and she had platinum blonde hair. The other one was possibly the most inhumanly beautiful person Jake had ever come across.
Her long hair reached the middle of her back easily, and it was almost the shade of honey. Her skin was tanned with natural UV-light, which made the color even and smooth and not too orange to look at. Tipping her head back, he noticed how she had large, brown eyes and a mouth which was shaped into a sexy pout. The lips were painted a light shade of pink, and he wanted to taste them right there and right now. He wanted to wrap his hands in that long, silky mass of golden hair and have her embrace his hips with her long, perfect legs. Preferably naked, though the see-thru crop top she was wearing over a black bra made an excellent teaser. As did her very short pink hot pants.
Shaking his head, he grabbed a hold of his trunk and headed inside, making sure to walk slowly and flex as many muscles as he possibly could while in motion. Passing the two of them, he was disappointed that it was not the most beautiful one of them who was facing him. Instead he flashed his sexiest grin at her friend and headed for the counter.
Suddenly, a fuss seemed to be going on outside. The two blondes were whispering in each other’s ears as a two people exited the cap parked in the driveway. A sporty kind of guy with light brown hair was holding the door for a girl, who didn’t really interest Jake all that much. She looked plain, with brown hair, wearing clothes that didn’t suit any girl. A basketball T-shirt and a pair of denim shorts reaching mid-thigh. Jake preferred blondes who dared show a bit more skin.
Backing away from the counter in the direction of the elevators, he bumped into someone. Turning, he was met by another guy with dark hair who wore glasses.
“Sorry, bro,” he managed.
“No, I’m sorry,” the stranger said, glancing outside and cursing under his breath. “I’d like to chat, honestly, but I gotta go.”
“Sure,” Jake said with a shrug as the other guy broke into a run and headed straight for the blondes outside.
Swearing to himself that this nerd with glasses would not mean competition, Jake saw the dark haired boy putting a hand on the beautiful inhuman girl’s arm. And then he turned and found the elevators around the corner.