Of all theways I’d pictured my Friday night going, getting trapped in a pool room by a blonde who eyed me like I’d stolen her favorite Prada purse wasn’t one of them.
“I’m sorry, do I know you?” I strove for politeness even as I took a step back. The woman looked familiar, but I couldn’t place where I’d seen her before.
“I don’t believe we’ve met.” Her smile could’ve cut glass. Objectively, she was one of the most beautiful women I’d ever met. With her spun-gold hair, cerulean eyes, and statuesque body, she was what I imagined Aphrodite would look like had she been a real person. But there was something hard about her expression that made her not attractive at all. “Madeline Hauss of the petrochemical Hausses. This is my house.”
“Oh. I’m Ava. Chen,” I added when she continued staring at me. “Of the, uh, Maryland Chens. Can I…help you?” I hoped that didn’t come off rude, considering this was her house, but I hadn’t wanted to attend this party in the first place. Stella, who was friends with what must be Madeline’s sister, had persuaded me to go out after I spent the past few days buried in school, work, and my fellowship application. Jules and Bridget were both busy tonight, so it was only the two of us.
“I wanted a good look at you,” Madeline purred. “Since you captured so much of Alex’s attention during the gala.”
The gala. Of course. This was the woman I’d seen Alex talking to while I danced with Colton. I’d tried not to look, but I couldn’t help staring and comparing myself to her the whole time.
To Jules’s dismay, I’d nixed the jealousy part of Operation Emotion, but I’d admittedly used Colton to make Alex jealous at the gala. It was stupid and petty, but Colton had shown up around the same time I saw Alex with Madeline, and I’d been so consumed with jealousy myself I went for it. Judging by Alex’s reaction when he saw us dancing, it had worked—a little too well, judging by Madeline’s glare.
“I didn’t realize you knew Alex,” I fibbed. My stomach churned, and not because of Madeline’s poisonous tone.
The Hausses’ pool room looked like a luxurious, modern Roman bath, all white marble and gilded columns. The pool itself gleamed turquoise beneath a glass dome that revealed the night sky in all its glory, and I spotted the colorful swirl of mosaics beneath the water forming the shape of a mermaid. But the smell of chlorine and sight of all that water…
My dinner rose in my throat.
The Hausses lived in a giant house in Bethesda, and Stella and I had spent the night room hopping, enjoying the different music and entertainment options in each space. While Stella left to find us fresh drinks, I’d wandered into the room next to the one we’d been in and found myself facing my worst, watery nightmare. Madeline had cornered me before I could leave, and here we were.
“Oh, I know Alex very well,” Madeline said, and I knew, with a sickening drop in my stomach, that she was one of the “certain women” he’d been involved with. Were they still involved? Was she the one he’d almost gone on a date with before I ambushed him for movie night?
Jealousy gnawed at me, almost overpowering my nausea from the chlorine.
“What I don’t get is why he would be interested in you.” She flicked her gaze over me. “I doubt you can keep up with his tastes in the bedroom.”
Despite myself, curiosity reared its ugly head. What tastes? “You’d be surprised,” I bluffed, hoping she’d reveal more information.
My mind flashed back to my sex dream starring Alex, and my heart raced.
Madeline smirked. “Please. You look like the type who expects tender kisses and sweet nothings in bed. But as you probably know—” Her smirk turned vicious. “Alex doesn’t do either of those things. It’s well known amongst a certain segment of D.C.’s female population. No kissing, no face-to-face contact during sex.” She lowered her head so she could whisper in my ear. “But he will take you from behind. Choke and fuck you till you see stars. Call you the filthiest names and treat you like a slut.” She straightened, her eyes gleaming with triumph at my scarlet face. “Some women like that. You…” She looked me over again with a laugh. “Go back to your bake sales, honey. You’re way out of your league.”
My body throbbed at her words, both out of anger at her condescension and stunning arousal at the picture she’d painted.
We were attracting attention. Other partygoers gathered around us, hungry for drama. A few even had their phones out, recording. I guessed Madeline was the draw, because I wasn’t well-known enough to be that interesting.
“Maybe,” I said, matching the blonde’s honey-laced poison. “He just doesn’t like looking at you during sex. Because he’s never had that problem with me.”
Lies.But she didn’t need to know that.
I kept my head above the fray best I can, but I could play dirty when the situation called for it.
Madeline’s smile disappeared. “He’ll be sick of you in a week. There’s only so much sugar a man like Alex can take before he gets a stomachache.”
“And there’s only so much bitterness he can take before he kicks it to the curb.” I raised my eyebrows. “But you already know that, don’t you?” I wasn’t sure where my sass came from, since I wasn’t a sassy person, but Madeline brought out all my claws.
I hated being the type of girl who fought with other girls over a guy, but she’d attacked me first. I wouldn’t stand here and let her walk all over me.
Madeline’s creamy skin flushed with anger. “Are you calling me bitter?”
Walk away, my better angels encouraged me. I almost did, until I pictured Madeline and Alex together, and the words fell out of my mouth. “Yes, and? What are you going to do about it?”
Childish. So freakin’ childish. But the taunt was out there, and I couldn’t—
My mind blanked when my body pitched backward and hit the pool with a splash.
She’d pushed me. Into the pool.
Grotesque, echoing laughter broke out, but it sounded dim compared to the roaring in my ears. Shock and panic suffused me, freezing my limbs, and all I could do was stare at Madeline’s twisted smirk until my face sank beneath the water.
I’m going to die.