An hour later, Carson got up to leave again. Another hour after that, someone knocked three times on the main door to the suite.
“Go away,” she yelled. If it was Grace or Carson, they could enter with a key. She didn’t want to see anyone else.
“Come on, Elise. Please?”
She snatched a towel from the rack and wrapped it around her. “Is two minutes of privacy too much to ask?” she wondered with deep bitterness.
She felt her temperature rise when she found Paul standing in the doorway. He was wearing all black, looking formal and more groomed than usual. Even though he insisted he had to leave the island in a hurry, he looked ready for the black-and-white party. It drove Elise even madder.
“What do you want?” she demanded. “You have so much nerve. Since day one you’ve been lying about who you are. And then you announce you’re leaving and want nothing to do with me anymore?
He stared at her with sad, dark eyes, but didn’t talk.
“I have something for you,” he said. “Can I come in?”
She let him in to the room she shared with Grace and locked the door behind her. “Make it quick,” she said.
“First, I want to tell you the truth,” Paul said. “About the pictures, for starters. I didn’t hook up with Madison.”
“I don’t believe you,” she said.
“I knew you wouldn’t,” he replied. “But it’s true. My friends and I had a plan for Spring Break that no one was supposed to know about. When we found out it was one big audition for ridiculous new reality shows, we decided to take pictures all week. We knew some of the people in the photos would end up in those celebrity gossip magazines. And if we had pictures, well…”
“We knew we could make a lot of money,” Paul sighed. “As soon as I met you I tried to back out of the plan. Hoped I could win the open mic contest instead. But after this week, I’m done with this place. It’s killing me.”
“I want to believe you,” Elise said, wiping tears away from her eyes.
“I do have to go home,” he said. “But I wasn’t going to leave without saying goodbye.”
Then he pulled out a box wrapped in tissue. “I bought something for you,” he said.
Elise grabbed the box and unwrapped it. Under layers of tissue was a lacy white dress.
It looked like the dress Carson wouldn’t let her buy, except delicate and handmade.
“It’s beautiful!” she cried, running her fingers over the bodice, beaded with white pearls.
“I know it’s what you wanted,” he said.
“Do you want me to try it on for you?” she asked. “I’m in a towel anyway.”
She stepped around the corner to shed the towel and pull the pristine white lace over her body.
“How do I look?” she asked him when she reappeared.
“You look incredibly beautiful.”
The song playing on Grace’s stereo prickled Elise’s ears. “My hands, small I know, but they’re not yours, they are my own.”
“Jewel,” Elise said. “Is that the 90’s pop singer? I don’t know her last name.”
Paul didn’t answer. “Shhh,” he said, pulling her closer.
“I want you all to myself,” he said, his breathing becoming deeper. He grabbed one strap of her dress and pulled it down her shoulder.
“You said you didn’t do this,” she said, but continued kissing him. “That you don’t hook up with girls.”
“That’s true,” Paul replied. “But I’ll make an exception for one girl.”
He pulled the dress over her head and let it fall on the floor beside them. Elise felt light-headed with excitement now as she unzipped his pants.
“I’ll make an exception, too,” she said before straddling him.
They both fell asleep afterward, with Paul’s arm around her waist. She fell into a dream about her first kiss, when she was fourteen years old, with a perfect stranger. He was faceless to her now--she had never seen him in the daylight--but she would never forget his voice.
He had asked for her phone number, but after one call, he disappeared as fast as he’d arrived in her life. For the next two years, she waited for him to call again. But over time she gave up on silly fantasies still lingering in the back of her mind about her first kiss.
She had been wearing a white lace dress that night.
“Are you ready for the black-and-white party?” Paul asked her when he shook her awake a few hours later. “I heard you’re Chase’s date, but I was hoping you’d be mine instead.”
“I will,” Elise said. “And I don’t care what anyone thinks about it. I’m done with Chase, and I’m done with Carson.”
They walked into the lobby of The Palace holding hands, Elise in her white dress, Paul in black.
“I hope you’re okay with my outfit,” Paul said. “I wouldn’t be caught dead in a white suit.”
“Good,” Elise said with a laugh. “White suits are so douchey.”
Chase appeared at the top of the stairs in a white suit.
“Speaking of douchebags…” Paul said.
“What the fuck is this?” Chase demanded.
“Leave me alone, Chase,” Elise said, refusing to make eye contact with him.
“Nice outfits!” Chase snapped. “What is she wearing, a wedding dress? These two are beyond desperate.”
Carson emerged too, wearing a black bandage dress that clung to every inch of her skin. She glared at Elise. “Did you fuck him?”
“It’s none of your business,” Elise said. “It’s not anyone’s business.”
“Clearly, you did,” Chase replied. “What do you think we are, complete retards?”
The room fell silent and recoiled in collective horror. One side of Chase’s face was bright red, and it wasn’t from a sunburn.
Chase ran into the hallway. “He hit me!” he screamed, causing several doors to open in response. “Someone kick him out! I want him out of this hotel right now!”
Then Paul punched him again, even harder this time. He pummeled Chase until two security guards came running over to pull him away.
“Hey, big guy,” one employee yelled. “Get away from Chase Rinehart! He’s one of our most important guests!”
Paul was big enough to resist, but he sat down in a lobby chair immediately, staying calm and setting his jaw.
“He used the word ‘retard,’ sir,” he said.
“Okay, that’s enough. We’re calling the cops.”
“No,” Elise hyperventilated, turning to run away.
“Hold your horses, miss,” one of the employees said. “You need to talk to the police before he goes anywhere.” He motioned for Carson and Chase to sit. “No one is going anywhere.”
Elise sat on the sofa in the lobby, quivering and trying not to cry. It felt like an eternity before the Esmeralda Island police arrived.
“Miss Apple, what do you know about this guy?” one of the security guards asked. He flipped open a notebook to transcribe what few details she could offer.
“Nothing,” she said, feeling foolish in her white dress. “Almost nothing at all.”
She took a deep breath. “He claims he’s moved around a lot but has spent some time living in Florida,” she said. “Although he went to college in Ohio…someplace called ‘Hawking,’ or something like that. He won’t tell me his last name, only that it’s the same name as a 90’s singer. I have a feeling it’s Jewel.”
She looked up at the security guard. “That’s it,” she said.
Jay Mack walked into the lobby. “Paul,” he said, looking panicked. “What’s going on?”
Chase rose from his seat with a sinister smile on his face. “The name tidbit is interesting,” he said, turning to the Palace employees. “I’ll be right back. I’ll find out who this guy is.”
Chase barged back into the room ten minutes later, holding an iPad.
“I have to hand it you, Elise. You found a real keeper,” he sneered.
Elise refused to look at him.
Chase came back brandishing an iPad, holding it up like a prize trophy for everyone to see.
“You were right, Elise. Paul’s last name is Kilcher,” he said. “The same as Jewel, although nobody realizes she even has a last name. So he’s sneaky, I’ll give him that.”
Elise felt her heart pounding in her temples.
“When he told you he had the same name as a famous singer, you thought he was someone important,” Chase said. “So, does it matter to you he’s a nobody?”
“No,” she whispered. It was the truth.
“Good. Because he’s nobody. Nobody at all. But he is famous for one thing,” Chase said, pausing for dramatic effect. “Look at this.”
“I don’t want to,” she said, staring at her feet.
“Does Pine City sound familiar to you?” Chase asked.
“Pine City?” Elise repeated. “As in Pine City, Michigan?”
It was two hours away from where she grew up.
She no longer had to wonder where to find his family farm. She immediately knew must be a Christmas tree farm in Missaukee County.
“He’s from Michigan,” Elise said, her shoulders sinking. “Why would he lie about that?”
“I have a theory,” Chase said. “Come look at this.”
“What?” she gasped, reading the headline on the screen aloud. “Police Hoping to Question High School Football Star in Brother’s Death.”
“Yeah, that’s your little boyfriend,” Chase said, as the security guards stared in horror. “He went missing from Michigan eight years ago. After his brother died in a, shall we say, suspicious accident. He doesn’t want anyone to recognize him. Why do you think he has that stupid beard?”
He pointed to a picture of a smooth-faced teenager with lighter hair and narrower shoulders. She never would have recognized him—except for the eyes. They hadn’t changed at all.
“Oh my God, that is him,” she said.
One of the security guards turned to his colleague. “I want this guy off the island,” he said. “Right Now owns it, and he’s banned.”
“No!” Elise shouted.
“Don’t you get it?” Chase said. “Every word out of this guy’s mouth is a lie. He’s been on the run for eight years.”
“How old does that make him, twenty-five?” Carson frothed from across the room.
“Twenty-six,” Chase said. “Also, I tried to look up that college he claims as his alma mater--Hawking or whatever. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t exist.”
Elise felt tears well up in her eyes.
“You don’t know the first thing about this guy,” Chase continued. “Do you ever wonder why he kept pursuing you despite your being totally out of his league? This might explain a few things.”
Up came RichiePerez.com, a notorious celebrity-watching blog that trafficked in vicious gossip.
“Does this picture look familiar?” Chase asked. Whatever it was, she knew she didn’t want to look.
Elise found herself staring at the photograph of herself in her black lingerie.
Without thinking, Elise grabbed the iPad and threw it at Paul. He and Chase both watched as it clattered to the ground, its screen shattered.
“So this is what you wanted from me?” she shouted. “Some almost-naked pictures to plaster all over the Internet. You never mentioned I was a victim of your little scheme.”
“No one was supposed to see that one,” he said, looking as if he might vomit. He turned to Jay Mack, looking as if he might hit him. “I told you that one was private.”
“You are unbelievable,” she said, glaring at him. “How could you do this to me?”
Paul looked at her for a moment, his lips parted as if he might answer. But then he stared at the ground.
“How could he do this to you?” Jay repeated. “I’ll tell you how. When you got to this island, you were one of thousands of snotty, self-centered, unbelievably spoiled brats here to get drunk and take your clothes off for attention. Think about it: you, and hundreds of others, even posed for headshots on the first day to audition for a reality show. Not any particular show, mind you. You people will do anything to get the whole world looking at you, talking about you. Most of you don’t give two shits about anyone but you. It’s you, you, you, all the time. Hell, you’ll even leave each other for dead, like Carson did that night you passed out by the pool.”