Adam’s morning was routine. Breakfast—seven o’clock. Shower and get dressed—seven-thirty. Ignore Mum’s warning about being late for school—anywhere between seven and eight.
Right before that last warning, at eight-thirty every morning, knock back a pill and stare into the bathroom mirror.
“Adam! Hurry up, you’re going to be late!”
“Nobody knows,” Adam whispered to his reflection, just like every other morning. School mornings or weekends, home or holidays—every morning Adam looked himself in the eye and said, “Nobody knows.”
“Get a move on, love!”
Of course people did. Some people. But nobody outside the family. Nobody in this new life, new place, new school. Especially the new school.
“Coming!” he yelled and frowned at himself in the mirror again. “Nobody knows.”
Nobody outside this family knew. Or ever would.
He grabbed his bag from the landing and hurtled down the stairs at full pelt. His mother flung his blazer at him in the hall and shouted a goodbye before he slammed the door and sprinted down the front path to the only other person in the village who attended Sir Henry Grey’s Academy.
“Hey, Phoebe,” he said, unchaining his bike from the gate. “Sorry. Let’s go.”
Adam was the new kid. Sort of. Okay, he’d started in September and it was now April, but he was still the new kid. Sir Henry Grey’s was in the middle of a lonely clutch of villages in Gloucestershire and people didn’t really come and go very often. He’d be the new kid around here for the next decade or something.
It wasn’t all bad, though. Country kids were generally nicer than city kids—and Adam had been shuttled through enough inner-city schools to know. Leaving Manchester had been the best thing ever. And okay, the village he lived in was about two hundred people strong and boring, but…the school was better. The kids were all right.
“Guess who’s fucking leeeeeegal!”
…but kind of crazy.
Turning up to see a girl standing on a chair and bellowing at the top of her lungs had been normal in Manchester. It usually involved knives and the word “slag” a lot. Here it involved—
“Ollie! Happy birthday!” Phoebe shrieked, bouncing once on the balls of her feet before sprinting across the canteen toward her. Phoebe, like Adam, was very fair. Ollie wasn’t, with dark eyes, dark curls and dark skin. The hug that Phoebe bestowed on the birthday girl looked…kind of like a squashed yin-yang symbol.
Or a squashed Liquorice Allsort.
“Look!” Ollie said when Adam got acceptably close enough. She climbed up onto the table and lifted her skirt right up to her waist. Half the canteen gawped. The other half were too used to her and kept chattering. “Check it out!” she crowed.
“Is that a tattoo?” Phoebe gasped. An ornate black symbol of a butterfly decorated Ollie’s bare thigh. Adam wrinkled his nose. Lady legs.
“Gorgeous, in’t it?” Ollie grinned. “Mum let me!”
“Oh, my God, is that real?”
“Nah, but it will be, only two more years!” Ollie beamed.
“Miss MacFarlane, get down!”
Ollie rolled her eyes and slid off the table as the chubby headmaster, Mr. Weeks, stalked through the canteen. Adam had seen more intimidating chickens, but then he was used to schools where the kids tried to stab one another—or him—rather than ones where a girl could stand on a table, flash her knickers and not get so much as a wolf whistle.
Or maybe that was Ollie. Nobody would dare wolf whistle Ollie.
“So!” Ollie thumped her folded arms on the table and grinned. She had an enormous smile with Hollywood teeth—perfect, pearly-white and kind of plastic. Ollie was all sports, wild ideas and parties. Phoebe was pale, delicate and refined. Adam hadn’t yet worked out what they had in common, but apparently they were friends. “You guys are coming tonight, right?”
“Duh!” Phoebe said, beaming in turn. “It’s your sweet sixteen—of course we’re coming! And we got you the perfect present—but!” she added when Ollie’s face lit up. “But you don’t get it until tonight. It’s not safe for school.”
“Awesome,” Ollie breathed, and turned those dark eyes on Adam. Her smile was wild and Adam squirmed under the scrutiny. “Did you have a hand in this, new kid?”
Adam flushed as Phoebe smirked. “Oh, he chose it,” she said.
“You so did,” Phoebe insisted, shaking her head. Her fair hair slithered around her shoulders, already falling out of its messy ponytail.
“Hidden depths, you have,” Ollie sniggered, then slid her gaze past Adam and shrieked, “Charlie! Charlie, you dick, where you been?”
Adam’s heart stopped.
“Move it, you lazy twat—you’re late!”
Adam’s heart restarted as Ollie jumped up and pounced on the newcomer—a lanky kid in a crumpled school uniform who managed to look startled every time she hugged him, although Ollie spent more time hugging Charlie than not. But it wasn’t the hug that threw Adam.
It was Charlie himself. The sight of him knocked the wind out right out of Adam and threw off his equilibrium, and just like every other time, Adam couldn’t—
“Shut your face, and what’s this about you getting your knickers out, you tart?”
Charlie Fielding was, in Adam’s opinion, beautiful. He shouldn’t have been—he was the exact opposite of Adam’s type. He ought to have been uninteresting…only he wasn’t. He was gorgeous. Who cared if it sounded girly? He was. And he wasn’t at the same time, which only made him more beautiful—and shut up, it made sense. Charlie was…
Charlie was all lanky build and wide, thin mouth. He had dark hair that was never tidy or properly cut, caught somewhere between curly and wavy, and bright blue eyes that were the exact color of summer skies and mania. Yes, mania had a color and it was the color of Charlie Fielding’s eyes, so shut up already. He had long limbs, long fingers, long feet and…he was just long in general. He was this huge smile and talking-with-his-hands and he’d sort of grin and duck his head when embarrassed in a way that made Adam’s stomach twist, and…
And he was completely, totally, absolutely off-limits. Forever. There was no way it would, could or should ever happen.
But it didn’t stop Adam’s gut from clenching at the sight of him or his heart simmering in jealousy when Ollie had bounded across the linoleum and jumped on Charlie in a hug. Sometimes, Adam hated Ollie a little bit. She could touch Charlie. She could be all over him in public and in private. She didn’t have to be afraid.
But then when she touched him, Charlie would laugh and that pale face would light up like the bonus round on a pinball machine, and Adam loved her for that look.
Phoebe nudged his foot under the table and Adam swallowed and looked down. It was hard to tear his gaze away from Charlie’s magnetism and when it fell on Phoebe, she cocked her head. She was smiling and Adam shook his head.
“You should tell him,” she whispered and he shook his head again. “You should. You could, you know—he’ll be there tonight, too, and you’ll be able to separate him from Ollie long enough…”
He kicked her under the table and she rolled her eyes. Phoebe thought him shy. Adam was happy to let her think it—anything was better than the truth.
“Even if he doesn’t—”
“Gossip!” Ollie cheered, pouncing on Adam from behind in a hug. “Even if who doesn’t what?”
Adam shrugged her off awkwardly, flushing, and she wriggled in next to Phoebe to hug her instead. Ollie was incredibly huggy and Adam hadn’t worked out yet whether she’d taught Charlie or Charlie had taught her.
Probably a bit of both, he decided, as Charlie crowded into Phoebe’s other side and she got squashed between them, her blondeness framed by black.
“Nothing,” he said.
“Lies!” Ollie said. “C’mon, it’s my birthday, it’s my sixteenth, you have to tell me.”
“We were saying,” Phoebe said and Adam’s throat tightened in fear for a moment. “At this party—Charlie, you keep your hands out of those pockets,” she interrupted herself to scold, and Charlie pouted at her in an exaggerated fashion.
“But I can feel lumpy things!”
“Chocolate, you perv, and it’s mine,” she said. Ollie cackled. “Anyway. We were saying that Nate in my drama group totally fancies you, Ollie, but if he’s not brave enough, we’ll lock you two in a cupboard together tonight.”
“Ew!” Ollie shrieked. “Ew, no, no-no-no—my birthday, not allowed!”
Charlie’s eyes gleamed and a wicked grin spread across that narrow face. Adam’s heart rattled like an engine on the brink of stalling.
“Nate has a crush on you?”
Phoebe was released as Charlie launched at Ollie instead to begin a merciless campaign of teasing and she stood up and pulled on Adam’s arm. “Come carry books for me,” she said and Adam let himself be towed. Phoebe had practically adopted him when he’d arrived and even though he was almost a clear eight inches taller than her, he appreciated her easy acceptance and the free ticket into not being a sad loner and a prime target for other kids to pick on. So much so that he just let her drag him along. Anyway, Phoebe was nice. Proper nice, not evil-nice like Ollie.
“You know,” she said, halfway to her locker, “you should tell him.”
“Tell who what?”
“Tell Charlie,” she said patiently, “that you like him.”
She’d caught him out around Christmas. He’d been staring just a little too much. Adam was just quietly grateful Charlie hadn’t noticed yet. Because the answer was—
“He won’t freak out.”
“He might,” Adam said. He probably wouldn’t, actually, Charlie was really relaxed about that sort of thing. He’d be dead nice about it, but it was out of the question, anyway.
“No, he wouldn’t,” Phoebe insisted. “Tell him tonight! Then if he turns you down, you’ve got all weekend to deal with it, right?”
Adam swallowed and curled his toes in his shoes at the fleeting fantasy that—in some other universe, where it would be okay—Charlie would actually kiss him at this party and he’d have all weekend to worry about whether it was too soon to text him.
Then he crushed the fantasy. Brutally, under the heel of his shoe. Until it squealed.
“I can’t, Feebs,” he said eventually, holding out his hands for her books as she unloaded her locker. “I just…I can’t, okay?”
Her face softened and she squeezed his wrist. “You should,” she insisted but then let it go and asked if they really should lock Ollie and Nerdy Nate in a cupboard together.
Adam voted yes and tried to forget about Charlie at a party without Ollie on his arm.
* * * *
Ollie’s parents were cool.
Ollie bitched, but Mr. and Mrs. MacFarlane were the coolest parents ever. They’d gone off to visit Ollie’s nana for the evening and left them the whole house for the party, under the ‘supervision’ of Ollie’s older brother, Jamie.
And judging by the fact Ollie was always being supervised by Jamie and Adam had never even seen Jamie, he was beginning to suspect that Jamie wasn’t actually real.
Still, the house bulging with people was a bit intimidating and Adam inched through the front door feeling a little tense and a lot nervous. He’d never been to a house party before and felt faintly surprised every time he bumped into someone and they didn’t recoil. Felt calmer every time someone greeted him by name and not…not some jeer, some sneer, some slur.
Then he learned to breathe again when Phoebe materialized out of thin air and hugged him.
“There you are! Here,” she added, pressing a bottle into his hand. An orange-flavored alcopop. “I snagged it for you before Ollie could break into the cabinet. She’s got her dad’s liquor out—he’s gonna kill her.”
Adam seriously doubted that. Mr. MacFarlane had books called Open Dialogue With Your Teenage Daughter and Expression and Creativity—Rebellion in Young Adults. He’d probably praise her lock-breaking skills or something.
“She hasn’t got round to presents yet,” Phoebe confided and Adam pulled a face.
“It was your idea!”
‘It’ was a—well, a dildo, actually, that they’d bought online last week using Adam’s sister’s credit card. Phoebe had even added some condoms to the box, with a note saying ‘now you’re legal and all.’ Adam wished he’d never used Nat’s Amazon account to do it—he’d learned way too much about his sister’s browsing history.
“Wasn’t,” he said weakly and Phoebe giggled.
“Totally was,” she said then stepped back and did a little twirl. “What do you think?”
She was…actually dressed up for once. Phoebe was very pretty but very natural—as far as Adam could tell, not being into girls. Lady legs and stuff. She always just threw on her uniform and wore her hair messy and haphazard and her socks never matched, but tonight—
“Are you wearing makeup?”
It looked…good but kind of weird, too. Adam decided he preferred the freckles. But the weird basket-weaving thing she’d done with her hair was kind of nice. Kinda sci-fi with the sparkly silver dress, too.
“Josh Denbar’s here,” she whispered and blushed harder.
“Oh.” Josh Denbar of the way-too-long fringe and old-enough-to-smoke gorgeousness. Apparently. Adam thought his eyes were too close together. And that he wore weird shoes.
“And he broke up with his girlfriend this morning. So.” Phoebe spread her hands and smiled shyly. “What do you think?”
Adam blinked. “Um. You might want to ask a girl. Or a straight guy.”
Phoebe laughed and hit him on the shoulder. “Look out,” she confided. “Hannah Barfoot has her eye on you.”
Ollie’s voice boomed over the chatter. She was standing on her mum’s prized coffee table, thankfully not so alien as Phoebe—because if Ollie had voluntarily put on a skirt, Adam would have to go home and call a doctor or something because what the hell—and holding a couple of vodka bottles aloft.
“Let’s play Seven Minutes in Heaven!”
Across the room, Adam locked eyes with Hannah Barfoot—a giggly ginger girl in their year who reminded Adam a little bit of an overexcited puppy.
“Oh, hell no,” he whispered.
“Run!” Phoebe whispered in his ear and Adam ducked backward through the clusters of people. He didn’t know much about house parties, but the movies always said the same thing, right? When in doubt, make for the kitchen.
He made for it—hard—and snapped the door shut on the cackles and cheers behind him. No Hannah Barfoots and cupboards. No anybody and cupboards. He couldn’t. He couldn’t, he’d—he’d have to give himself away and—
Adam spun around and flushed hotly at the sight of Charlie sitting on the kitchen counter, hand in a packet of sweets. Starbursts. He had ripped jeans on and Adam could see one bare kneecap.
“Oh,” Adam said. “Um. Sorry. I’ll just…”
“Not a party fan?”
Adam’s flush deepened. “No,” he said flatly. “I didn’t get invited to many back…at my old school.”
Charlie ‘aah’ed and rolled his eyes, sliding down from the counter as someone banged on the door. “C’mon,” he said, seizing Adam’s wrist in one of those long-fingered, bony hands. Strange hands. “Ollie’s dad has this cool shed. Let’s hide there.”
Adam let himself be towed into the darkness of the back garden—because anything was better than Seven Minutes in Hell with Hannah Barfoot—and soon they were swallowed by the night and the only thing he knew was the iron grip of Charlie’s thin fingers around his arm.
“In here,” Charlie whispered and Adam’s trainers went from the soft squish of damp ground to hard wooden boards, and a door closed.
“It’s dark,” he complained.
“Hang on—ow! Motherfucker!”
Adam sniggered then a light came on—a lamp, in fact, on an upturned bucket. The shed was full of odd bits and bobs and Charlie shoved what looked like an old chest of drawers sawn in half in front of the door.
“There,” he said. “Nobody’ll see the light. Pull up a bucket and get comfy. They’ll have all forgotten about us in half an hour and we can sneak back in.”
“Ollie throws a lot of parties?” Adam guessed.
“Nah, not Ollie, but Megan—you know, ginger Megan in Mrs. Thompson’s group—she does. Ever fancy a snog, get on her—she’s right easy.”
Adam grimaced. “Not…really my type.”
“What, easy girls aren’t your type?”
“No,” he said and Charlie laughed.
“Good on you, mate,” he said and raised his hand. “Five me.”
Adam clapped his hand and curled his toes in his shoes at even the brief contact. Dear God, he was fucked. He was that hopeless to find a high-five amazing and he was shut in a shed—alone—with the giver of the five.
“Starburst?” Charlie asked, offering the packet. Adam picked out an orange one. “So what’s your type, if not ginger Megan?”
Adam shrugged. “Um. Dunno really. Nice…girls. Nice girls. You know. With, um. Personality.”
“Like Feebles?” Charlie asked.
“Well…not Phoebe, no, but…like Phoebe, I guess.”
“Don’t blame you,” Charlie said, unwrapping a Starburst. His hands were oversized, the knuckles huge, and his fingers twitched and shivered as he worked. Adam stared, fascinated. He had never had the nerve to properly look before, but—Charlie’s hands weren’t just weird, they were actually deformed. “She’s sweet, Phoebe. Knows how to keep a secret, too. She’s not totally gossipy like Ollie.”
Adam laughed. “Thought you and Ollie were joined at the hip?”
“Yeah, means I know how gossipy she is!”
Adam relaxed and perched on a wooden box. “What about you? What kind of girls do you like? Apart from Ollie.”
“I don’t fancy Ollie.”
“Nah, she’s like my sister. That’d be weird. I’ve known her since we were like…four? Five? Little, anyway,” Charlie said. “Actually, she’s not my type, either, so even if I’d met her yesterday, I wouldn’t fancy her.”
“What’s your type, then?” Adam pressed. He felt kind of safe, a little bit. He usually dreaded having to talk about girls, but Charlie was just…funny and casual and gorgeous and he seemed so—so not-probing-even-though-he-was-asking-questions that Adam just eased into it and lied and…didn’t feel bad about it.
Because, really, in a shed on their own was a bad time, Adam figured, to tell his straight crush he was exactly Adam’s type.
Charlie pulled a face. “You don’t get a lot of time to meet girls with Ollie scaring off the competition. I mean, don’t get me wrong, she’s ‘mazing and I love her to bits, but she’d scare the shit out of them Islamic State bomber nutters, man.”
Adam laughed. “Yeah, maybe.”
“So where’d you move from?”
Charlie squinted at him in the low light of the lamp. “You know, I don’t know nothing about you.”
Charlie snorted. “Feebles, like, adopted you, but I don’t think you and me ever had a conversation.” They hadn’t. “Or been alone together.” They hadn’t. “Fact, this might be the first time I’ve heard you say more than like ten words.” It probably was. “So c’mon, new kid, where you from?”
Adam drew his foot away from the prod. “Manchester,” he said. “Mum got a new job so we moved.”
“What’s she do?”
“Ew,” Charlie said, wrinkling his nose. He had a long, straight nose, but it crumpled in the middle when he did that and creased up all his freckles. It was weirdly…kissable. Adam bit his lip. “My mum’s a farmer. Stoker Farm. My granddad left it to her because my uncles are wasters. His words,” Charlie added with one of those huge, manic grins. “Granddad was awesome. He used to take me shooting up in the top field because he said I was the only one in the family who could hit a barn door from ten feet away so I might as well have it.”
Charlie’s wide mouth and huge eyes were excitable and crazy and Adam just laughed. “Really?”
“That’s brilliant. You gonna be a farmer, then?”
“Naaaah,” Charlie drawled. “S’boring. Dunno what I’m gonna do yet, though, m’no good at English and stuff.”
Adam privately thought he had to be good at something. Farmers were usually poor, right? And Sir Henry Grey’s was a private school. Charlie had to have gotten in there somehow.
Then Adam realized he was leaning too close and staring.
“Reckon we can go back inside?”
“Probably,” Charlie said, jumping up off the sawn-off chest of drawers and hefting it aside to peer out of the door. “Yeah, maybe. You wanna risk it? Hannah might catch you again. She right fancies you.”
Adam flushed. “No, she doesn’t.”
“She does.” Charlie grinned. “She’s been making eyes at you since you got here, Ads. You’re her type, even if she’s not yours.”
“You never said your type,” Adam said, trying to distract him. He didn’t want to get set up or anything. And girls didn’t usually like him anyway, so Charlie was obviously wrong.
“Mine?” Charlie’s eyes were glittering and almost white in the light of the lamp. “Me, I prefer blonds. No ‘e.’ If you know what I mean.”
“No ‘e’?” Adam echoed, bemused, then—
Then Charlie leaned forward and kissed him. There were…there were lips on his, lips that tasted like lime Starbursts and felt chapped and rough and vaguely sticky from the sweets. A mouth a little wide and a lot warm and Adam’s heart was trying to punch its way out of his ribs. Charlie was kissing him. Charlie Fielding, the gorgeous and funny and brilliant and amazing Charlie bloody Fielding—was kissing him. His…those hands, those weird pale hands were on Adam’s sides and he was tilting his head and Adam could feel his tongue, and—
And Adam could feel his tongue.
Adam was being kissed.
Instinct kicked in and he planted both palms on Charlie’s chest and shoved. Hard.
“Fuck!” Charlie yelped, tumbling into the mess inside the shed, and startled blue eyes stared up at Adam. Adam felt panic rising in his chest like a tsunami and put both hands over his mouth to stop himself blurting something out. “What the hell, Adam?” Charlie demanded. “I just—”