The starting shot. Energy traveled from the center of my body to the tips of my toes, and a split second later, I flew.
Just before I cut through the water headfirst, clouds of red filled the pool. Veins turned to ice and froze muscles and joints. My face slapped the surface, followed by my chest and stomach. I struggled to draw a breath, but pulled in only water. Panicked, trying to make sense of what I’d seen —blood, choking, blood, pain—I flailed and struggled to get a grip.
I slowly treaded and looked for the red that had appeared before the most embarrassing belly flop I’d experienced since the age of three.
The water around me rippled clear straight down to the black and white bottom of the pool, but in my mind’s eye, red still billowed. I’d seen blood in a pool before, at a party in the Hamptons when I was five. One of the other kids took a header into the concrete at the edge. I knew the way it spread, took over, turned everything scarlet. Some should still have been visible, even fading into the sizable pool.
I ran my hand over my face, searching for cuts or scrapes, but a tiny wound wouldn’t have produced the amount of blood I’d seen. The cloud had been immense, like someone had been stabbed and dumped.
A fluke? Stress? Just a play of the sunlight on the water for that split second before I hit? Maybe I was so pissed about my abrupt move to Nashville that I’d suffered a psychotic break.
Coughing and spluttering, I kicked to the side of the pool and climbed out. My arms didn’t want to work, so I dragged my legs over the edge. Her face still haunted my vision, and I couldn’t blink it away. I rolled onto my back, heaved huge breaths, and stared at the ceiling. All I could see were the silky strands of her hair as they slowly stained red.
When I could think clearly again, I stood for a better view. As I suspected, everything looked normal.
My legs trembled as I walked back to the diving block. I needed a fresh dive—a successful one. I’d swum to the point of absolute physical and mental exhaustion in the past, but I’d never hallucinated. Nothing else explained what I’d seen.
She wasn’t there; I knew that. The room was still as empty as it had been since the team went home. Why the hell did I see a dead Cheyenne Troy—a girl I’d only met that day—in the pool?
I should have known the day would be weird when I walked out my front door.
Growing up in the penthouse of a New York City skyscraper left me more accustomed to seeing a hallway full of other front doors, not sunshine and fresh air. No elevator carried me to the lobby, and no front doorman waited to help me into the sedan for my ride to school. Instead, a shiny new BMW waited in the driveway—a bright spot of the move to Nashville. Thomas Chasen Bradford the Third never did anything halfway, and that included bribing his only child.
I pressed the unlock button on the keychain, and the car flashed its lights and chimed. Without a backward glance at my new home, I threw my book bag in the back and started the car.
Nashville still sucked. The whole city was officially on my list. So was being new to a city at age sixteen when I’d lived my whole life in New York City. Born in a Manhattan hospital and raised by excellent nannies and cooks, I’d attended the very best private schools money could buy. As wonderful as that all sounded, it wasn’t worth much without my dad around. And then, to yank me away from a city, a school, and friends I’d known my whole life simply proved my father had zero regard for my feelings. He didn’t even bring the housekeeper and cook with us.
My September birthday just made everything worse. I’d always hated having a September birthday. Those were officially on my list, too. A September birthday meant I was old enough to start Kindergarten at age four, making me the youngest in my class, but also a sixteen-year-old senior—at least for another month. And that meant I couldn’t tell my dad to shove it when he decided to move us to Nashville just before school started. If I’d been turning eighteen instead of seventeen, I could’ve stayed in New York until graduation. All my friends were there, and the thought of finishing high school without them? Well, it sucked.
St. Ambrose Academy loomed ahead. The imposing steel and glass structure was a world away from the creaking floors and stone walls of Xavier Prep. At least the school had a winning swim team. Dad made sure of that, but then, Dad liked seeing blue ribbons on my walls.
With a school as large as St. Ambrose, I assumed I wasn’t the only new student, but people still stared when I parked in my assigned space. Three girls in the car next to mine studied me with interest as I grabbed my bag and slung it over my shoulder. I ’d almost forgotten about the local girls and their cute accents.
The pretty redhead I’d flirted with during our orientation visit over the summer had a voice that just about killed me. If the rest of the girls looked and sounded like her, and I was getting the impression they would, I could get used to Hicksville pretty quickly.
The two blondes from the front seats giggled, while the brunette rolled her eyes, got out of the backseat, and slammed the door. She left the other two girls without glancing in my direction again.
She wore the required uniform, except her skirt wasn’t rolled as high, and her shoes were a busted pair of Chucks. As she walked across the lot, the sun beamed and turned her hair the color of a cinnamon stick—kind of brown and kind of red.
“What’s with her?” Blonde One asked as I got out and grabbed my bag.
Blonde Two shrugged. I listened as I followed them up the walk to the front doors.
“I don’t even know. Her mom works for my dad, and he’s making me drive her to school this year. She doesn’t try to talk to me or anything, not that I care. But I heard she’s all vegetarian and stuff and listens to dumb music all the time. I don’t know how she can even afford to go here.”
“Her house is weird. What’s with all that junk in her front yard?”
“Who knows? Her brother thinks he’s an artist. It’s all so gross. I’m going to hate this year, picking her up every morning.”
“Well, you don’t have to talk to her. It’s not like she’s going to sit with us at lunch.”
They reminded me of Caitlin, the girl I left in New York. I’d told Caitlin I couldn’t do a long-distance relationship because, really, what was the point? A pang of homesickness and just plain sickness struck me at the same time, sending a cold jolt through my stomach. I could be kissing Caitlin and hanging out with my friends if I wasn’t here. I wouldn’t have had to put my whole life into boxes just so my dad could take a job at a stupid music company.
“Hey, are you new?”
I stopped and blinked. The girls finally noticed me eavesdropping. I flashed them the grin that got me out of trouble plenty of times.
Blonde One looked me over with a raised brow, but Blonde Two had spoken. The appreciative smiles on their faces said they didn’t care that I’d overheard their conversation.
“Yep. I’m Chase.”
“I’m Savannah, and this is Madison. Are you a junior?”
What was with the girls named after cities? Was that a southern thing, or what?
“Oh, we are, too. You’ll love it here. Where are you from?” Madison punctuated her question with a pop and snap of gum.
They slowed until they flanked me on both sides. I stood at least a foot taller than Savannah, but Madison almost matched my height in her heels.
“City? That’s so cool. I was just there this summer. I love Fifth Avenue, don’t you? And we stayed at this great hotel…”
Savannah chattered on as we funneled through the front doors with the rest of the student body. Having two pretty girls attached to my hips as I entered the building made me feel like a king.
“Hey, Cheyenne. Come meet Chase. He’s new here.” Madison bounced on the balls of her feet and waved over another blonde girl named after yet another city. Had to be a southern thing.
“Cheyenne Troy’s dad is in a band,” Savannah whispered. “She thinks that makes her special.”
Madison named a song by the Back Yard Pintos that had been on the Top Forty for about six weeks. I was impressed, but famous fathers probably weren’t unusual in Nashville. My dad was the new Chief Financial Officer for that band’s record label.
“How was your summer, Savannah?” Cheyenne’s eyes met mine and roamed down my body. Then she ignored me in a familiar power play.
I let her win that round and listened as Savannah gushed about New York all over again. I’d found the Queen Bee before I’d even hit first period. I’d dated the Queen Bee in New York. Cheyenne didn’t scare me.
I casually followed as they led me to the auditorium for the opening day assembly. The headmaster stood in front of the podium, adjusting his glasses, some papers, and a bottle of water. He didn’t look up as we all took our seats. Many students watched our group enviously as a few more guys joined us. I’d fallen into the elite without even trying. The girls introduced me to Easton, Campbell, and Jayson, who all hurried to clarify.
“Call me East.”
“If you call me Chicken Noodle, I’ll kill you.”
“My friends call me Knox.”
East couldn’t have been older than fifteen. He had a baby face, but he towered over six feet tall with a basketball-player build. Campbell had the classic features of a soon-to-be Ivy League kid, with a straight nose, square face, heavy brows, and eyes that held a sense of carelessness and entitlement—definitely a senior and the undeniable king of the elite. He looked a lot like me, with blue eyes and a similar lanky build, but his hair was shorter. In fact, anyone who didn’t know better might have thought we were brothers. Clearly, I’d fit right in.
The girls congregated and chattered about tropical island vacations and Savannah’s New York visit. Campbell and East leaned back and discussed baseball while Knox pulled out a notebook and started scribbling—something most guys wouldn’t be caught dead doing.
“His dad’s a songwriter,” East said, nodding at the notebook with a grin. “Knox thinks he is, too.”
“I am.” Knox shrugged and blew blond hair from his eyes.
That move made more than a few girls nearby sigh and whisper to each other. He looked like a rock star who’d be right at home behind a bass guitar.
“You should invite Chase to your party tonight,” Savannah said, just loud enough for me to hear.
Cheyenne had a choice between including me—welcoming me, even—or shunning. If she said no, my fate was sealed, no matter how much the rest of the group liked me, unless I pulled out my secret weapon. My family tree was enough to secure a spot in any elite group, but just like everything else, I wanted to win on my own.
She looked me over again, her gaze lingering on my chest before meeting my eyes.
I nodded to show appreciation, but not too much.
“Careful with her,” Knox muttered.
“Not even remotely my type.” I thought again of Caitlin’s dark hair and eyes and shoved aside a stab of homesickness.
The assembly took about fifteen minutes, which amused us since Dr. Allman fumbled with his papers for what seemed like at least ten of those minutes. I’d expected some huge affair where he introduced all the teachers and the cheerleaders did a dance, but instead we got a quick welcome, a rundown of the rules, and then instructions on how to sign up for extracurricular activities. My father had already taken care of my clubs and social groups, so I zoned out and watched Knox write.
Our day was broken into four ninety-minute classes. Lunch could be taken in the commons area or off campus during the hour break. My new friends wanted to stay on school grounds, which surprised me, but we had a lot of food to choose from, including a sushi bar. I cruised through the day, past steel and glass without any hint of the warmth of Xavier Prep, just to get to swim practice. The new people and teachers and books faded into the background.
Good grades were necessary to make it to Princeton, no matter how badly the swim team wanted me. My accelerated classes would be tough, but I’d never had a problem before. I just had to coast through nine months and then I could go home for the summer—back to my old friends and away from the Land of Y’all.
By the end of the day, I’d somehow made a good first impression. Crowds parted, and eyes followed me as I walked the halls to the aquatic center for our first day of training. Nashville was still on my list, but at least it wasn’t the hell I’d been expecting.
Pulling on my swimsuit felt like coming home. My British Lit teacher had detained me for a few minutes, so I had the locker room all to myself when I arrived. He’d talked about where I’d been in my studies before leaving New York to make sure I wouldn’t be bored or whatever, but the crystal clear waters of the Olympic-size pool awaited me. I couldn’t get rid of him fast enough. I wanted to swim.
The rest of the team was already warming up, so I joined them quietly. Coach Barrett noticed but didn’t seem angry that I was late. With my swim records on my side, I probably couldn’t do much to make him mad. He’d been extremely eager to meet me when I’d visited in June, and feeling valued was nice. I wondered how Coach Hanlon was doing without me in New York.
After stretching, we sat through the requisite welcome back speech before Coach let us practice. I claimed the third diving block, my favorite, and readied for the signal. It was meant to be a warm-up swim, but I was determined to show my teammates what I could do.
Between each lap, Coach called out our times. During the first three or four, scoffs and groans accompanied mine. After the tenth, a few began to close the gap with improved speed. By the end of practice, I knew from the cheers and laughter that several had put in their best performances yet, but none had gotten close to me. Admiring gazes followed as I climbed the ladder after the last lap. During his pep talk, Coach used my scores as an example of what he expected the rest of the team to strive for. I kept my chin up and accepted the accolades. I deserved them.
As everyone filtered back to the locker room, I took my spot on the diving block again.
“You gonna keep going?” Coach asked with a grin.
“Just one more, I think. It’s been a few weeks since I’ve been in the water. I miss it.”
“Nice work today, Chase. I hope you can keep encouraging everyone to work that hard. Our strongest swimmers struggled to keep up with you, but that’s good for them. Just be careful out there.”
The last of the chatter faded as the guys disappeared into the locker rooms, and I soaked in the solitude. Sunlight still poured through the windows, but not as strong, signaling the coming night. The water rippled just enough to catch the remaining rays, and the reflections played across the ceiling and my skin.
The diving block, familiar beneath my feet, and the smell of chlorine were old friends, yet also strangers. My mind disconnected from my body, floating and watching from above, even as every muscle tensed and readied to spring. I leapt; my world snapped back into place. Soaring between the diving block and the water had always been my favorite part of competitive swimming—that floating weightlessness, the anticipation, the surging power through my arms and legs. I relished the flight and watched the ripples below.
Blood…and then her face.
I stuttered and crashed, water jetting up my nose as I hit with a slap.
I knew the face. For just a moment, a very brief moment inside my own head, Cheyenne Troy was in the pool with me.
Shivers wracked my body. Ugh.
I gave up on my last lap and let the chill in the air chase me to the locker room. Without bothering to shower, I scooped my clothes and tossed them on. My hands shook as I dragged jeans over my suit and crammed my arms into my T-shirt. Shoes in hand, I tripped through the room with bare feet and didn’t slow down until I escaped the aquatic center.
Dad wasn’t home when I got there, but that was nothing new. I never saw him anyway, and if I did, I still wouldn’t have told him his only son had fought a battle with crazy after swim practice. I crossed the polished marble in the foyer and ran up the steps to my room. I expected to be alone until I got ready for bed. No one would notice I didn’t eat. No one would care I had the dead face of a very alive girl swirling through my thoughts. At some point, I finally passed out on top of my comforter, the party that raged across town only a tickle in the recesses of my mind.