Twenty-one-year-old Sophia Ross has lived under the pressure of her parents expectations since the tragic accident that shattered their once perfect family. Determined to start over where no one knows her, she answers a housing ad on Craigslist and takes a job at a little bar in a town she has never heard of. All Sophia’s looking for is a place to escape, somewhere she can hide behind her lies and keep herself distracted.
She just didn’t expect to be distracted by Corbin Kasey.
Twenty-five-year-old Corbin Kasey is stuck in his hometown, his job, and his life, spending more time covering for his Dad’s problems than trying to fix his own. To take his mind off everything he has the wild Kayla, his stable roommates, and the calmness of swimming in Mills Lake. He always thought it was enough to keep him from drowning in himself, until he meets Sophia.
Neither of them are prepared for their lies to be stripped away by a single kiss. But for Corbin and Sophia, the truth has consequences.
THE TRUTH ABOUT US
Lying to myself wasn’t always this easy. Standing in front of a mirror and telling myself that I’m pretty and fun and wild takes a lot of convincing. Especially when the girl who stares back at me is thinking, ‘Come on, Sophia, be honest with yourself. Even your name is uptight and stuffy’. But like everything else, I shove those thoughts down as far as I can and layer it with more sugar coated lies.
Because it’s not about seeing the truth. It’s about believing the lies.
That’s exactly what I did when I convinced myself that I needed to get out of my Manhattan apartment, believing that the city was what suffocated me. I convinced myself I needed to get away from my parents, believing it’s their cold, calculated plans for my future that causes the crippling anxiety that had taken over my life. I convinced myself that anywhere else in the world is where I needed to be, believing that I could reinvent myself only outside of my sheltered, shattered existence.
But the thing about lying is that it always catches up. There’s always that moment where I have to commit to it. Go all in or change my lie.
That moment comes with dinner.
“It really is tragic,” my mother mutters under her breath, fingering the pearl necklace she always wears and tosses the newspaper across the deep mahogany table.
“What is, Darling?” Dad asks, not looking up from his phone. I sit between them, silent, as always. The doctor and the lawyer. Powerful people that have so many intelligent things to say that they don’t say anything at all.
A dinging sound rings out through the dining room and Mom slides her own phone from her pocket. “Oh, it’s Collette. Excuse me.” Her voice lowers, and her eyes flick over to me, like they do every time Collette phones, and Dad finally looks up.
“So, how was your last exam?” His eyes lock onto mine, and even though they are the same familiar shape and blue-grey color as my own, I feel as though he’s a complete stranger. Seeing me, and judging me for the first time every time he looks at me. I can’t help but to shrink down into my chair.
“Fine,” I reply, my hands shaking in my lap. His greying eyebrows pull together, and I’m convinced he knows I’m lying. It was anything but fine, and I’m sure it’ll lose me my 3.8 GPA, which according to my father should be a 4.0, anyway. I’ll still get my degree. A useless piece of paper that tells me I understand the way our fucked up government works, so I can call myself a college grad.
“Just fine?” Dad asks, and my chest starts to pump, pushing air through me too fast. “I spoke with your counselor. She says you’re dwelling on the past. It’s unhealthy. You have to focus on the future. You can’t have that attitude when you take the LSAT. Fine is not good enough to reach our goals.”
My fingers fumble through the pockets of my sweater, but I can’t focus. Our goals. It never used to be our goals.
“May I be excused?” I find my unsteady voice, and Dad shakes his head.
“For God’s sake, Sophia. I just asked a question. You need to get a hold on this. Get some control over yourself.”
And there it is. Five words that bring my existence crashing down on me. Get some control over myself. He means my emotional state, but I see it as much broader. Control of myself. My life.
This is the moment of commitment. Do I go all in and live the lie my parents have set out for me, or do I change it?
I look at my dad, sadness flashing across his face as I pull out the pill bottle for my anxiety medication. I can’t handle him looking at me like that anymore. I can’t do this anymore.
I need to change my lie.
Dying my hair and getting fake fingernails is where I start. Step one to the new Sophia Ross.
Getting a fake tan, refilling the prescription for my anti-anxiety meds, and finding the perfect push-up bra for my almost non-existent boobs were my only priorities in the weeks leading up to my drastic change. My new lie. My great escape.
But the escape turned out to be pretty anti-climactic, and here I am standing in front of a perky waitress at a tiny little bar, in a tiny little city, trying to convince her that I know how to pour a perfect head. Which I don’t. I have never poured a draft beer in my life, but beginners luck, I guess.
“Oh, that is perfect,” Kayla the perky waitress with the stunning blue bedroom eyes says and dips her finger into the white foam, licking it off. Everything this girl does is saturated with sexual innuendo, and while part of me is fucking irritated, I secretly take notes. Because my new lie comes with a whole new me, and becoming the new me means doing things that I normally would never do. Like being sexy. Like wearing a red lacy bra with a white tank top and not covering it up with a tattered old zip up. Like dipping my finger into white beer foam and sucking it off in front of a bar full of people.
But the new Sophia has the power of a push up bra, and all the artificial confidence that brings.
“It’s all about the head,” I reply to her and she smirks, picking up on my double entendre. She points a manicured fingernail at me.
“I think Corbin will love you. Can you start tomorrow night?”
My eyes widen. I did not expect this when I walked into the Screaming Owl ten minutes ago holding my breath and an old resume. “Uh, yeah. Tomorrow is good.”
Kayla flashes her bubbly smile and grips my shoulder. “Great. Come at eight because I don’t have time to show you anything until after the dinner rush, anyway. And maybe wear something a little nicer.”
She wrinkles her nose and twirls the string of my beat up grey zip up around her finger. I nod and step out from behind the bar.
“Sophia.” Kayla gets my attention again, and I turn to face her but continue to walk backwards toward the door. She’s leaning over the bar, still smiling. “Make it seven. Don’t be late.”
I’m about to answer her when my shoulder slams into something solid and I spin around, losing my balance. The old Sophia would have apologized profusely, but as part of my effort to be the new Sophia, I have vowed to never say I’m sorry again.
Hands grip my waist and steady me before I stumble, and I push them away. “Watch where you’re going.” I mutter without looking up past the plaid button up shirt, and tattooed forearms. I step around him to the door.
“Someone’s friendly…” the amused voice laughs behind me, and I hear Kayla say “Garrett don’t be an ass”, as the heavy door slams.
The sun is blinding and I instantly start sweating, but not from the mild May heat. I have no idea why I wore a zip up hoodie to try to get a job at a bar. Oh, right, because I was too chicken-shit to take it off before I went in. Frankly, I don’t know why I want a job at a bar. This isn’t just new me. This is polar opposite me. I can feel the condescension drip through me as I imagine what my parents would think about this. A Ross working as a bartender. The clouds of doubt begin to stir in my chest, and I lean against my old beat up Chevy to breathe. The car I bought from some scumbag salesman just outside of Kansas City. It worked out in the end. He bought my Lexus, and I bought this rust bucket with money to spare. I clutch at my purse for my meds, just in case.
No, Sophia. Grow up. I toss the pills back in my purse.
This is what I want. I unzip my hoodie and strip it off; leaving only my white tank top and bright red bra that makes it look like I actually have a chest. Sort of. It’s so stupid, but I feel better with the thick cotton material off my body, a layer of self-loathing peeled back as I try to let myself escape. Tossing the sweater semi-successfully through my open car door window, I lean my head back and feel the air fill my lungs.
This is what I want, I tell myself again.
A faint smell of smoke fills my nostrils, and I hear someone suck in a sharp breath. My eyes snap open, and there’s a guy standing in front of me, a cigarette held to his lips and dark grease smudges covering his angular face. His skin is shiny with sweat and his eyes sparkle with amusement.
“You okay?” The smoke curls from his mouth as he speaks and his voice rumbles through me. My parents would hate him, is the first thought that passes across my mind making my cheeks warm. Why would I think that?
“I’m fine,” I say as I try to push the rest of the sweater into the hot car, along with my embarrassment. He smiles a half smile and gestures to my hands.
“You look like you have a personal vendetta against that sweater.” His dark eyes absorb my every movement. The intensity makes me feel exposed, and my arms instinctively cross in front of my chest.
“I said I’m fine.” I try to sound stern, to put punch behind my voice, testing out the new Sophia 2.0 Beta Version Bitch. This just makes him laugh as he pushes damp dark hair from his forehead. I wonder what he could have been doing to be this dirty and sweaty by noon.
“Easy, Killer. You just look like you’re having a shit day, is all.” His eyes scan me again, but this time in a way that makes me blush for a different reason. Slowly I feel every part of me taken in as he draws a long drag off his cigarette.
“More like a shit life, but thanks for making me so painfully aware of it.” I’m serious, but he laughs again and reaches into his pocket, pulling out a pack of smokes, and tosses them at me.
“You might need one of these.” He pulls out a Zippo next and sparks it. I stare at the small flame. The old ‘me’ would say no. I tried once when I was in eighth grade, but I don’t smoke.
‘I might’ is what I say now as I pull open the pack, and slide the slender tube from it. He lights the smoke for me. The horrible taste fills my mouth, and I want to scrape my tongue to get it all out. Instead, I just stand there in front of him wondering what the hell I’m doing, holding a cigarette between two fingers, leaning against my car, and staring at what I now realize is an insanely hot guy.
“You comin’ or goin’?” He breaks the silence after a few moments, and I point to my car.
“Too bad.” He pulls the smoke from his mouth and flicks the butt into the street. Without saying anything else, he turns and walks through the big, thick, red door into the Screaming Owl.
By the time I get back to the house that I’m now living in, the taste of smoke is still thick in my mouth, so I go straight for a toothbrush. The sound of the running water and the unsuccessful scrubbing of ashtray taste from my teeth distract me, so when I look up into the mirror and see my roommate standing behind me I jump and scream.
“Tobie!” I say through toothpaste covered lips and smack her bare arm. “You scared the shit outta me.”
Her crooked lips smile as she pushes past me in our tiny bathroom. Her thick corded dreadlocks hang down around her shoulders emitting the smell of patchouli incense as if she were a giant hippie air freshener. She’s the stereotypical pothead minus the pot. Dreads, tattoos, piercings, the whole gamut. She’s wearing a lacy white sundress, and she’s hiking it up over her bony hips and small protruding belly.
“Can you wait a second, I’m just about done.” I spit into the sink as she sits on the toilet, her eyebrow ring rising with her light eyebrow.
“Dude, I’m like twenty weeks pregnant. This kid is punching my bladder. I piss, like, every ten seconds.” She finishes and sticks her hands under the already running water. I’ve lived in this house with her and her actual stoner boyfriend for just over a week, and she’s pulled the pregnant card over a dozen times. Not to mention, she’s totally fine peeing in front of a complete stranger. Even Sophia 2.0 is not cool with this.
This is not what I expected when I answered the Craigslist ad, ‘Expecting couple looking for mature and responsible tenant to subsidize mortgage’.
“What is it about girls and bathrooms?” Tosh pokes his head through the door, and I am beginning to think privacy was not part of this tenant deal. His thick, black and blue faux-hawk flops over his dark eyes. “Baby, Ninja Scroll ain’t gunna watch itself. Get your beautiful butt on that couch.” He reaches out for her and places his hand on her belly, like he does every time she’s within his reach. I dry my mouth and place my toothbrush in the appropriate holder before leaning against the counter. I still am not sure what to make of Tobie and Tosh, the dreaded, pierced, tattooed hippie and the Japanese American, ninja loving stockboy/DJ. They are definitely entertaining and have been more than welcoming. But my favorite thing about them is that they don’t ask me why I moved to the middle of nowhere without any belongings or job prospects.
“You coming Soph?” Tosh asks as he pushes Tobie gently through the door. “It’s, like, the best movie ever. This chick is poison, and totally kills people by fucking them. How awesome is that?”
I laugh at that and follow them down the stairs to the tiny living room with this massive monstrosity of a TV. “Good for her, I guess,” I say and Tobie smiles. “Not so great for the guys thinking they’re just getting laid.”
“Moral of the story is what, Tosh?” she asks, and Tosh smiles.
“Be careful where you stick it,” he says, and Tobie punches him in the arm. He falls backward onto the couch laughing. “Well we know you aren’t deadly.” He pokes at her belly, and she slaps his hand.
I sink into the soft leather armchair beside the couch and get ready for the first anime movie I’ve ever seen in my life. Another first.
Hopefully one of many firsts that might help me forget why I’m running.
“Corbin,” Kayla whispers and I watch her head fall back as I taste her. There’s something about a girl gasping my name that I’ll never get enough of. Hearing it said through hot breath and rushing blood will always make my dick hard. Every time. I unhook her legs from my neck and get up off my knees while she balances herself on the office desk in the back of the bar. Paperwork is scattered around her and the harsh light of the computer illuminates the dim room. An inventory spread sheet of hard alcohol glows and the red light on the phone blinks signalling unchecked messages. An empty feeling washes over me as I stare down at Kayla waiting for me to go to the next step in our routine. My dick is definitely hard, but I’m stalling. Something is missing. Sex is my distraction, so why isn’t it working?
Kayla sits up and looks at me her conventionally beautiful features twisting in confusion. “Why’d you stop?” She reaches out and grabs the waist of my pants, pulling me to her. “My break’s almost over.”
I feel the smile spread across my face, but like always, I don’t feel it inside. It just gets lost in the nothingness that fills me. She strokes me over my pants, bringing me back into the game, as my hands run up her legs. I grip her hips as the sensation travels the length of me. My brain shoves all my thoughts to side, and switches to carnal mode. I yank her to the edge of the desk, leaning over her, pressing into her. She rises up to meet me and clamps her teeth down on my bottom lip.
“Fuck’s sake, Kayla,” I mumble as she undoes my pants and slides her hand inside.
“I want to take it as hard as you can give it.” Her eyes hold mine looking every bit as serious as her tone sounds. She can sense something is off, but like me, she doesn’t seem to know what.
She guides me inside and the tightness feels so good I’m able to shove away whatever was bugging me. Everything beyond this moment is forgotten. I grab a fistful of Kayla’s hair at the nape of her neck and the smile I’m familiar with is back. Dirty, uninhibited, arrogant. Normal. We’re back to being us.
“As hard as I can give it?” I ask while sliding slowly in and out. She nods as best she can with her hair still wrapped in my fingers. “Well, I don’t want to hurt you, darlin’.”
“I like hurt,” she grabs my ass and slams into me with her hips. “I want hard.”
So that’s exactly what I give her. Hard.
In every sense of the word.
I sit the computer screen back up on the desk, making sure it didn’t break while Kayla readjusts her skirt around her hips. She smiles as I stack papers and replace the mouse and keyboard to their rightful spot. Fucking on this desk is a regular occurrence for us and one I fully enjoy for more reasons than you’d think.
“You staying for a beer, Corb? Or, you have to get back to work?” Kayla slips her shoes back on and unlocks the door. Just as she opens it, I reach out and stop her. She spins to face me and presses her back against the hard wood, her light hair stuck to her face in a few spots from sweat.
“I didn’t come here for a beer,” I whisper into her ear and her hands go to my waist, pulling me against her. Trailing her jaw with my mouth, I find her lips and cover them with mine. She kisses me back for a second before turning her head coyly to the side giving me access to her neck.
“I have to get back to work.” She pushes against me and I back up. “But be here at close. I have a new spot for us.”
Just before she leaves she looks over her shoulder, her blue eyes sparkling still. She loves sex in strange and public places and I just like sex. It’s an arrangement that works for us.
I wait a few minutes before I leave the office and slip out the front door with not so much as a glance from any of the twenty or so people sitting in the bar. Most of them are too busy watching NASCAR on the big screen to notice me.
Outside, the sun is high in the sky making the world look flat and shadowless. I pull out a cigarette and light it before making my way back down the cracked sidewalk to my truck. If I get back to the shop, I can work on a few more things for Leroy’s big railway order before I head home. The machine shop is only a few blocks from the bar, and a few blocks beyond that is the suburb I live in. The place I share with my dad. The place he’s been since I was a teenager, supporting himself and his drinking. With a couple buddies, I turned the basement into a suite where he stays, and to help him out, my three roommates and I pay him rent to live in the main house. I hate that he spends our money on booze rather than paying his mortgage but bringing it up only causes a fight, so I just don’t. Some months I pay him and the mortgage.
The rumble of my truck drowns out my thoughts, and I lean my head back against the seat while I finish my smoke and let the last of my orgasm tremble through my limbs. The best part about getting off is that sleepy euphoria after the last spasms, where it’s just pure forget-the-shit-around-me endorphins zipping through my body. In that window, the lies I tell myself about whom I am, where I’m going, and why I’m still here taking care of Dad’s problems are that much easier to believe.
A tap on my window scares the shit out of me, and I jump to face my old man. His thin face stares through the glass, lines cutting into his forehead as he frowns. I roll down the window and he leans in, his breath saturated with the smell of whiskey. His eyes shift from my face to the smoke in my hand.
“Hey kid, can I snag a cig off you?” he asks, but I already have them out of my shirt pocket and halfway to his hand. I watch him light it then lean against my truck. “Where you off to?”
“Shop.” I ash my smoke out the window, and Dad pushes my hand roughly, scraping my forearm along the hot metal, and glares at me. I must have dropped ash on his shoe. He’s such a dick. I don’t get a chance to tell him that, because the bar door clangs, and Kayla looks both ways before settling on us.
“Hey!” she yells and waves. “There’s an empty keg and no replacement. I need one of you to lift it to the pulley so I can get it into the cooler.” She shades her eyes with her hand and squints at us.
Dad looks in the window and nods. “Go help her.”
“It’s your fucking bar, Dad. I already have a job.”
Flicking the cigarette out the window, I throw the truck into reverse and don’t even bother to check and make sure he gets out of the way. I decide to skip the shop and home. No one is better than Dad at killing my buzz, so I drive to the spot I like more than any place in the world. Mills Lake. It makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something when I step in on one side of the mile wide body of water and step out on the other side.
My tires crunch on the old gravel as I pull onto the long dirt road to the lake. Mills Lake is just south of town and the place that gives us our name. A few tiny rental cabins dot the beach on one side with a large grassy meadow behind them. The rest of the lake is surrounded by trees and rocky beaches. I park in my regular spot just off the last cabin and jump out of the truck. My swimming shorts are in the cab under my work stuff, hidden from Jackson, Garrett, and Riley who would rip into me for having actual legit speed swimming trunks. Not like Borat-style Speedos but definite stretchy nut-huggers.
I change right in the middle of the parking lot and grab my goggles before making my way to the water. As soon as I step in the water calms me, lapping up against my ankles, shins, knees, hips, stomach. I breathe in fast puffs as I get used to the coldness. It’s probably still way too early in the year to be in here, but I need it. Slowly my body gets used the temperature, and I begin to swim. Some of my best thinking is done in this lake, and it’s the only place where I feel totally at peace. The noise in my head is replaced by the constant reminder to just breathe.
When I pull into the driveway of my colonial style house it looks like we’re having a party, each of my roommate’s cars in the drive and lining the street. But with the three of us and the revolving door of friends and girlfriends it always looks like that. Shaking out my wet hair, I notice my dad sitting on the steps that lead down to his basement apartment. I hope I can make it past him without him noticing, but as soon as I shut the truck door he turns to look. His eyes are narrowed on me in an all too familiar way. My chest constricts as he moves toward me, faster than any drunk should move.
When he’s close enough his hand swings out and smacks me hard in the side of the head. I keep still, every muscle in my body tensing.
“You want to talk back to me now, big guy? Now that your girl isn’t here to impress.” Dad spits and smacks me again, this time in the face. “You’re not so tough now.”
The sting rips through my cheek, and I clench my fists at my side but still I don’t say anything. It doesn’t matter anyway. It doesn’t change anything if I do.
Dad hits me again and pushes my chest just as the sound of a door slamming makes me jump.
“Corbin,” Garett calls to me from the front step. His voice is tight, meaning he’s watched the whole interaction. This kind of thing isn’t foreign to him either. Garett’s been my best friend since second grade and has been my escape route more than once.
Dad stops at the sound of Garett’s voice and I take a couple steps back before turning away. Meeting Garett on the steps, he shakes his head.
“When are you going to get rid of that guy?” It’s a question he asks often.
“He’s my dad.” My response is automatic, involuntary, but there’s no feeling behind it. Kind of like my smile.
“Sure he is.” Garett scoffs at me before going inside. His sarcasm is thick and weighs me down. It’s not that easy.
I feel instantly better when the door is shut and the familiar sounds and smells of my house flood my senses. A girlish squeal sounds from the living room as my roommate’s practically live-in girlfriend, Becca, jumps up off the couch, her dark hair flying out all around her smooth milk chocolate shoulders.
“No! You idiot.” She puts her head in her hands and flops back down on the couch in front of the TV.
“Jax, control your girlfriend or we’ll ban her from coming over during basketball season.” I laugh and push Jackson’s shaved head gently while Becca glares at me with intimidatingly dark features. She knows I’m joking because she’s been around for almost five basketball seasons. I say it every year just before finals when she starts getting seriously crazy.
“You know I can’t control this.” Jax laughs when Becca digs her fingers into his side. “Hey! Watch the gun, woman.” He grabs her wrist, laughing as her eyes get big, and she apologizes. Jackson’s in full police uniform, ready for graveyard. Becca’s in scrubs, on night shift at the hospital. They’re like one of those interracial, all-American, we can do anything in this country and are so fucking proud of it ad spots that play on cable TV and it’s sad how much they love their life together. I don’t believe in that shit. I’ve never seen it work.
“At least if she shoots you, she can pull the bullet out, too.” Garett laughs and I follow him into the kitchen. The house is a disaster, but mostly because Riley’s at work and his OCD hasn’t been around to tell us how disgusting we are.
Garett hands me a beer and slides up onto the counter while I sift through the mail on the table.
A letter from the bank, addressed to my dad, lies on top of the pile, and I groan. Why can’t that man fucking pay a bill? I’m tired of taking care of his shit, but still I do it. Opening the letter, it’s a past due notice for the loan to make improvements to the bar a couple years ago. The added keg taps and walk-in cooler have increased the selection, and in turn, increased our profit, but apparently that profit was not ending up on the loan.
“You okay?” Garett asks, and I shake my head.
“It’s really sad that I’m the most responsible person in my family. I’ve been to jail…” I smile at the thought, and Garett laughs loudly.
“Super fucking sad, man.”
I look at the letter again. I wish I didn’t feel like I had to do this. But then I think of Kayla, and the other waitress, Brenda, who has been more of a mother to me than my own mother and I can’t force myself to do what I need to do.
I’ve thought a million times about leaving. Leaving it all behind.
But I know I won’t.
I know I can’t.