“You ready yet?” Cody shouts through the closed door, before hammering it with his fist. “Hurry up!”
Impatient as always. The party doesn't even start for another hour, but he's all geared up, ready to go. Always the first to jump on any opportunity to fill Nico's garden with too many people and always the last to clean up after.
The house is set, the decorations in place, but no one's showing up for a while. When we invite people for six, they don't start arriving until at least seven.
“Five minutes!” I shout back, putting my costume on.
Jeans, a t-shirt, my favorite watch from this year's F1 collection, and my brand new, snow-white Jordans. I glance in the mirror, then look around the room. Looks like I over-compensated because what do you know? I'm ready inside half a minute.
Cody's waiting out in the hallway in his low-effort costume. Although considering I bought my Error 404 Costume not found t-shirt online, I guess he put in more effort.
He's dressed in white; a red silk ribbon around his ribs—courtesy of Mia, I'm sure—forms a big bow at the front. A large gift tag with To: All Women; From: God is pinned to his shoulder, bouncing against his pec.
“No fair,” I mutter, annoyed I didn't come up with that. “You're hardly a gift to women, bro. What's Colt dressed as?” I ask, dodging the fake cobwebs hanging from... well, everywhere, as I follow him downstairs.
Having a woman in the house means an upgrade on the decorations. Last year Nico wouldn't have allowed any of this.
Fuck, last year we could only dream about throwing a Halloween party, and now look at him... He spent yesterday morning carving pumpkins, and the afternoon shopping with Mia for decorations. He got up early today to help us put up cobwebs, lanterns, candles, and all the other creepy shit she bought.
“No idea, but I bet he was just as creative as us,” Cody says, entering the living room where Mia motions for us to keep the volume down. Cody immediately switches to whispering. “Why aren't you dressed?”
“Five more minutes,” she utters, weaving her fingers through Nico's hair. “He needed a power nap.”
The emerald engagement ring that belonged to our grandmother has been sparkling on her finger for a week now. It goes well with her tiny hand and even better with her green eyes.
I never thought I'd see the day my brother popped down on one knee.
And I was right.
At least not in the traditional, fairytale way. According to Mia, he fucking told her to marry him.
Figures. Nico always gets what he wants.
Still, it'll never cease to amaze me how he turned from a robotic, fire-breathing, workaholic, A-grade asshole to this guy asleep with his head on Mia's tummy. He's still all those things, but he's got a softer side now. One exclusively available to Mia.
She's in the corner of the couch, and Nico's on his front, between her legs, arms flush with her sides, face nuzzled into her waistline. It's a common sight these days.
Good thing they're always fully clothed, or I'd have to bleach my eyeballs.
I glance around the room, admiring the final result. Cody, Colt, and I did help decorate, but Mia kept on, putting her own little touch on this place long after we'd gone to take showers. The whole of the downstairs is decorated to evoke a sense of spookiness. Streamers of cobwebs drift from the ceiling like gauzy curtains, and paper bats and spiders flutter on thin strands, wings rustling in the draft wafting through the open windows.
Gargoyles with leering faces, skeletons, and limbless porcelain dolls with wide, painted eyes are scattered throughout the room, adding to the already well and truly eerie atmosphere cemented by the orange glow of candlelight casting shadows across the walls. The air is thick with the smell of pumpkin spice and the finger-food buffet waiting in the kitchen for Nico and Mia's first guests. They have their own separate party, though I'll probably drift between the two to see my older brothers.
Outside, the garden is equally spooky. Gnarled tree branches dressed in cobwebs twist and turn, plastic tombstones poke up from the grass in a miniature graveyard, carved pumpkins are strategically placed around, and more cobwebs cling to the makeshift stage.
It won't be a typical Hayes College banger this time. After everything that happened with Mia, we've been very selective about the guest list. No Jake's friends. No Blair.
Although I won't be surprised if she weasels her way in here somehow. She's been crawling out of her skin lately, trying to befriend Mia, and Cody's losing his shit whenever she's nearby.
He still has that sense of higher purpose wherever Mia's concerned, big-brother mode in full effect. It's probably a good thing we don't have a sister; she'd hate our guts.
“See? That's what happens when you make him do manual labor,” I tell Mia, pointing my chin at Nico. “He can't handle it.”
“Any excuse to get between her legs,” Nico mutters, slowly rising on his elbows before he maneuvers into a seat beside her, pulling her legs into his lap. “I let you throw your first Halloween party, and this is what you're wearing?” He points between Cody and me. “Since you're trying to be funny, that gift tag should be on your dick, bro.”
“What are you dressing up as?” Cody asks, apparently enjoying the idea as he moves the tag to hang over his groin.
“If you say you're wearing couple costumes, I will not be held accountable for making fun of you all night,” Colt says, entering the living room.
“Magic eight-ball?” Mia chuckles, looking at his t-shirt. He's all in black, an eight-ball print on his chest. “Let's see...” she taps her lips. “Oh, I know! Will you fall in love this year?”
Colt huffs an amused puff of air down his nose, turning around to show us a blue triangle on his back with Google it written inside.
“This is no fun. You were supposed to take this seriously!”
“Other than you, and maybe Theo, no one will dress up properly,” Cody says, propping his hip against the back of the couch. “Girls will come as Harley Quinn, sexy cops, sexy nurses, or sexy... something, and guys will either low-effort this like us or go full Joker or Rooster.”
“Rooster?” Mia chuckles.
“Yeah, from the new Top Gun. I bet we'll see at least a few guys in pilot uniforms and fake mustaches.”
“And those will be the guys getting laid tonight,” Colt adds.
“Missed opportunity,” Nico muses, taking Mia with him as he gets up. “We should get ready.”
They disappear upstairs, and Colt grabs us all a beer while we get out to the back garden, checking everything's ready. Six arrives ten minutes later to set up his console, dressed in a glow-in-the-dark skeleton costume. Pretty cool for a DJ.
Bang on seven o'clock, the doorbell rings so I head back inside to let in whichever one of my brothers arrived on time, not expecting Nico and Mia to be ready yet. Whenever they go upstairs together, they're gone for at least an hour and a half.
It's a miracle neither I nor Cody nor Colt walked in on them yet. Mia's been living here since June, so I expected to have a memory bank of unwanted visuals by now, but nope. Nico's uncharacteristically careful about where and when they fuck.
Since we moved here, we've caught him with countless random women. He never took them upstairs into his bedroom though, always got his dick wet in the living room, the kitchen, the garage, even the stairs.
Colt, Cody, and I made it a rule to be extra loud when we come home since he got together with Mia, and take our sweet time in case they need to get dressed, but so far, no life-changing, psyche-scarring encounters.
I saw all my brothers in action at some point in my life, but I never want to see Mia. She's like my little sister, and it's just fucking wrong to even think she's having sex.
“Oh, hey,” the girl outside says when I fling the door open. “You must be one of the triplets. Conor, right?”
“Yeah, and you are...?” Too young to be here.
We didn't invite the freshmen this time. They're too wild, having just finished high school and getting their first taste of college parties. And this girl is a freshman, for sure.
If that. Maybe she's still in high school. She's dressed for a party, though, so someone invited her. What's more, she's dressed as Wednesday Addams, which is bold, considering it's not a sexy version.
It suits her. Her hair's jet-black, and her eyes almost match. She's not as pale as Wednesday, but the dress, two braids, and a fringe complete the look.
“I'm Rose,” she says, rocking on the balls of her feet.
Okay, this doesn't fucking help me whatsoever. I rake my hand through my hair, growing uncomfortable. “I'm not trying to be rude, but I have no idea who you are or what—”
“Mia invited me,” she explains quickly. “I guess you'd call me her student. She gives me piano lessons three times a week.”
Ah, right. She told us about this girl, but we're never here when she comes over. I step from one foot to the other and open the door further, gesturing for her to come in.
She turns on her boot, waving at the driveway, and I follow her line of sight to find a death trap parked at the bottom of the concrete steps. A battered Mercury Cougar, a relic from another era with at least thirty years under its belt, if not more.
The car's battered and beaten as if it's been rallying through rough terrain, and no one's even tried to fix the dents. The front bumper's only just clinging on by untrimmed zip ties, the side mirror is taped with packing tape, and I have no clue what color is under all that rust. Plus, it's belching out this huge black smoke cloud that could probably kill on the spot.
“I'll pick you up after eleven,” a girl in a stripy black and yellow top shouts from the driver's seat. “Don't drink!” The bee antennae on her headband jiggle about.
Rose gives her a thumbs up, and before I have a chance to take a better look at the girl, she puts the car in motion, rolling down the driveway in a toxic cloud.
“Eleven? The party will only just start getting good then,” I say when Rose finally steps over the threshold.
“I bet, but I have little choice. She'll pick me up on her way from work.”
“Hey, you're here!” Mia cheers, click-clacking down the stairs with Nico trailing behind her.
“No. Fucking. Way,” I boom, looking them over.
She's cute as always, wearing a sparkling crown and a black, red, and white tutu dress with a big Q and heart printed on her chest. The soft fabric swishes around her legs as she moves, but it's not her who has my jaw hanging open.
It's Nico. He's all in black, with a K and a heart emblazoned on his muscular pec. A long red cape flows over his broad shoulders, and a matching crown sits atop his big head. He looks like a regal superhero. A deadly King ready to save his Queen from imaginary danger.
“King and Queen of hearts,” Rose says, beaming as she closes the door behind her. “So fitting.”
“God, you're whipped, bro. Wait till Colt sees you.”
“Wait till he's whipped,” he shoots back with a smirk.
I want to say no way that will ever happen, but I said that about Nico, and I couldn't have been more wrong.
Mia pulls Rose into the kitchen, and Nico follows suit, a snarling rottweiler, always at his girl's side.
Nothing here for me, so I join my brothers in the garden, where people are starting to flock through the side gate.
As expected, most girls arrive at the party wearing sexy, barely-anything-to-them costumes. The guys put in minimal effort with theirs, although some are hilarious.
Justin Montgomery has purple cardboard wings on his back and the words Booze Light Beer written in fluorescent green marker on his t-shirt. Another guy has gray paint samples stuck to his chest, so I assume he's 50 Shades of Grey and...
Low and behold, we have a winner.
The only guy in our circle of friends with red hair has five loaves of bread dangling from strings around his neck and a sticker with Gingerbread Man on his forehead.
No way anyone can beat that.
Many toilet paper mummies, guys in black shirts with Superman t-shirts underneath, and scary rubber masks later, Brandon Price arrives. The king fallen from grace.
He's been on his best behavior since Nico threw him out of the house the night Mia got hurt.
He's lost his pompous attitude and is trying to earn our forgiveness and prove he's not an incurable dipshit.
The jury's still out on that one.
Mia overheard me, Colt, and Cody debating whether to invite him. The good-hearted little Bug she is, she said we should. We've excluded him from the year-end and homecoming parties, and other than a couple guys from the team, he's basically been abandoned by everyone.
Meanwhile, cred is due where it's due because he's really been walking on water the past few months. I guess we'll see tonight how much he changed.
He enters the garden, the only guy to put effort into his costume: a green onesie covered in hundreds of white plastic thorns. It looks like he cut up a whole box of plastic forks for the spiky effect.
“A cactus?!” Cody exclaims, shaking his hand. “What the hell, man? Why cactus?”
“Dig deeper,” Brandon says, patting my back as I stop beside them. “What are those?” He touches one of the thorns.
“You want the technical term? Fuck knows. Spikes?”
“Kind of, yeah, but not what I'm looking for,” he admits, shaking his head. “What do they do?”
“They hurt,” Cody supplies, brows drawn together. “Is this a game? A rebus? I better win something if I guess.”
“They're called prickles,” Colt says. “He's a prickly cactus, so you could say he's a...” He looks between our clueless expressions, waiting for it to click. “He's a massive prick, you idiots.”
I burst out laughing, but it takes Cody a few more seconds to catch on and join in. “Well, that sure is fitting. At least you know.”
Brandon nods, looking up at the living room windows, his features pinched to hide the pain in his eyes. “Is she coming out to sing tonight?”
“Yeah, but only a few songs. They're having their own party up there. Our brothers are coming over, and our parents too, so you better behave.”
He's been pining over Mia since he saw Nico exit Q holding her in his arms. It's as if seeing with his own eyes she was no longer available made him realize he didn't just want to fuck her, but keep her for himself.
“Right, I need a beer,” Brandon says, squeezing the back of his neck before heading for the table bending under the weight of kegs.
“Could I have one too?” a familiar voice asks.
I turn around to see Rose—aka Wednesday—a few feet away. “I thought that chick told you not to drink.”
“That chick is my sister, and what she doesn't see...” She smiles a cheeky smile, leaving the rest unspoken. “So? Would you like me to beg?”
“No need, girl,” Brandon says, leaping back to wrap his arm around Rose's shoulders, a slight curve on his lips. “Come on, I'll hook you up.”
Oh, hell no.
I don't know where this sudden, intense, aggressive jolt zapping down my spine comes from, but the thought of allowing Brandon's hands anywhere near Rose has me on the brink of bursting into flames.
I'm not the Hayes to lose my shit for no reason (not pointing any fingers), so this is disturbing, to say the least. He might be trying to redeem himself, but he's still a fucking prick, and there's no way I'm leaving Rose under his supervision.
Mia would have my balls for that, I'm sure.
“Not your party, man,” I say, breaking Rose free from his hold. “Grab a beer and have fun, but don't try anything, or you'll be out the door in five seconds.”
Brandon holds his hands up in defeat, no longer prone to arguing with my brothers or me. He's gone from a show-worthy Doberman to a lapdog in no time.
“A beer, huh?” I ask, leading Rose across the lawn to the small line at the drink table. “How old are you?”
“It's rude to ask a woman her age.”
“When she's fifty.” I elbow our way to the Bud Light keg, grabbing a solo cup from the stack. “You're at least eighteen, right?”
“Yes, since last week,” Rose admits.
“Fine. You can have one.”
She pinches her lips, trying to hold back a smile. “Yes, Dad.”
“Call me Dad again, and you won't even get a sip. And Wednesday doesn't smile, Rose. Lose the grin.”
She snatches the cup from my hand, filling it to the brim, then gulps a third of it down. “Oops. Too late.”
“Oops, you're grounded,” a voice comes from behind us, and we turn to see the girl with the bee antennae.
“Wha-what are you doing here?” Rose wails. “You're supposed to be at work!”
“I lied,” she huffs. “I had to know if I could trust you, and guess what? I can't. And you!” She grows red in the face, the bee antennae bouncing left to right.
She's got a tight dress to match and even a stinger attached to her butt. She's shorter than Rose and paler in complexion, eyes a striking grayish color, hair like caramel up in a ponytail that swings from side to side over her bare shoulders.
“What the hell is so funny?” she demands, poking me with her finger, her cheeks on fire.
I don't know what's so funny.
I'm not laughing, but it doesn't stop her snatching the cup from Rose and flinging the contents in my face.
“You're enabling a minor!” she snaps.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Cody jumps between us. “What the hell do you think you're doing? Who are you?”
“I'm nobody.” She shoves Cody aside, then grabs Rose by the wrist, pulling her toward the house, but not even five steps later, she halts, turning back to look at me, eyes suddenly wide in horror like it only just clicked what she did. “I'm sorry.”
Now I laugh as I use the hem of my t-shirt to wipe beer off my face. “You ruined my costume, little Bee.”
“It's Vee,” she says, then rolls her eyes when I cock an eyebrow. “My name. It's Vee. Well, technically, it's Vivienne, but no one calls me that. Just Vee.”
“I was referring to your costume.”
She looks down like she fucking forgot what she's wearing, and the exasperated red of her cheeks fades when she snatches off her antennae and shimmies out of the stinger, which, I now realize, was on a rubber band around her waist.
She comes closer, a walking contradiction. Every one of her moves is gracious, like she comes from old money, but she sure doesn't act it, throwing beer in my face.
Every look of her silver eyes sears right through me, forcing the rhythm of my heart into a higher gear. She's really pretty. The kind of girl I'd turn to take another look at.
The kind I'd openly stare at all night.
Her light brown hair works perfectly, with freckles peppering her nose and cheeks. There are hundreds of them, an entire freckly constellation.
Her black, laced boots stop an inch from my Jordans, and she peers up, angling her head to meet my eyes. She's not Mia-short but can't be taller than five-three. My eyes are naturally drawn to the perfect, well-defined cupid bow of her lips.
A faint scent of fresh linen and soap fans my face when she lifts her hand, weaving her fingertips through my curls to initiate a wave of tingles over my scalp and down my spine.
I don't even think.
To be perfectly honest, I'm in some alternate dimension right now, blind and deaf to everyone but this girl. I act on impulse, dipping my head to seal her lips.
Don't ask why. There's no rational or even irrational way of explaining why my insides are in knots when she's touching me or why heat detonates in my chest when our lips connect.
A bone-chilling pause settles over us, before the temperature jumps a few degrees, growing thicker. A second ticks by. Maybe two at a stretch, the sheer surprise of this moment dawning on both of us, I'm sure, but I don't move away.
Her lips twitch under mine like she's about to kiss me back, but she pulls away. Before I can fucking blink, her open hand connects with my cheek so hard it jerks my head to the side.
Ouch. I don't know what stings more: my cheek or my ego.
This is the first time I've ever been rejected.
“You're unbelievable!” she snaps, arms akimbo, eyebrows drawn together. “I throw a beer in your face, and you think I want a kiss? Read the room.” She drops her hands, stepping closer again. “Don't move. I'm fixing your costume.”
I'm too stunned to say one word. All jokes evaporate from my head, and I do as told while she pushes the headband into my curly mane, then wraps the elastic around my hips, hooks it back in place, and adjusts the big-ass stinger over my dick.
“Before you say it's not as big as yours,” she muses, admiring her handiwork, “at least you've got a proper costume now.”
“So I'm a hornet, right?”
“I'd say you're a hoverfly but have it your way.”
“Hoverflies can't sting,” Colt says, the resident encyclopedia.
I've been so preoccupied with Vee I hadn't noticed him join the gathering. There are more people around than when Rose and I got here, but no one talks or tries to elbow their way to the kegs on the table.
“No, but they follow you around if they like you,” Vee admits, flashing a beautiful smile.
She throws beer at me, then tries to fix my costume, slaps my face, and now she's... flirting. At least, I think that's flirting.
I'm so fucking confused my head hurts.
“Now's the time to ask me out,” she adds impatiently, glancing at her wristwatch: one of those novelty watches you win at the arcades. Hers has Donald Duck on the face.
“Dinner,” I blurt out like we're playing Taboo, and I'm on the clock. There's no time to think. “Tomorrow.”
“Ruby's Diner, nine-thirty,” she confirms, and with that, she turns around, pulling Rose behind her.
What the hell just happened?