Carson emerged from the bathroom in a corset and fishnets. “Trust me, I am!” she announced.
“I’m also thinking about having an ‘accidental’ wardrobe malfunction tonight,” she said. She used her fingers to make air quotes.
“I might have a real one in these heels,” Elise said. “I can’t walk in them.”
“I hope tonight ends better than this afternoon,” Carson said. “You missed it, but they ended up breaking up the party for the lamest reason. Some ambulance driver called the cops to complain that cars were blocking the street, so everyone had to leave because of one stupid ambulance. Have they ever heard of a detour?”
Elise and Grace exchanged bewildered glances.
“Let’s go,” Carson said, doing a final mirror check.
“Wait,” Grace called from the bedroom. “Do you mind if I come, too? I found a sexy outfit to wear.”
“Sure,” Elise said without thinking.
“Great! Let me grab my lip gloss.”
Carson gave Elise the evil eye. “I’m sorry, but no,” she said. “We cannot show up with her. Our stock will go way down.”
“Be nice,” Elise admonished her.
“Why?” Carson retorted. “With my dad’s track record, she’ll be my ex-stepsister soon enough.”
Grace emerged wearing a demure tank top and boy shorts.
“That’s not lingerie,” Carson sniffed.
“I thought it was more flattering,” Grace said.
“Whatever. At least she looks somewhat presentable tonight,” Carson muttered.
“It’s a Playboy theme!” Carson exclaimed as they entered the party. A huge screen flashed a slideshow of pictures from the night before.
Like at MU frat parties, the dress code applied only to girls. The male guests showed up in their regular clothes, while the girls pranced into the party wearing nighties, corsets, and bras. Elise’s getup looked tame in comparison.
“Whoa, it looks like the skank is getting a little chubby,” Carson said. She pointed across the room at Jackie, the contestant from Eligible Bachelor. She was standing next to Jay, looking miserable and crossing her arms over her chest.
Jackie caught Carson pointing at her. “Excuse me, did you know pointing is rude?” Jackie demanded.
“Have you ever heard the term ‘point and laugh’?” Carson replied with a sarcastic smile.
“I’d rather be a little chubby than a cheap Kardeza knockoff,” Jackie said.
“Oh wow, I’m cheap?” Carson retorted. “Girls who get naked for trashy men’s magazines shouldn’t judge.”
“That’s not what happened,” Jackie said.
“Sure it’s not,” Carson jeered. “But since your fifteen minutes are up, why don’t you go work at Hooters or something?”
Jackie rolled her eyes. “Can you have Paul throw her out?” she asked Jay. “She’s ruining the atmosphere.”
“Hey, how does she know Paul…?” Elise started to say.
Chandler bounded up behind Carson, cutting into the conversation. “Did you get in a fight with Jackie Hunt?” she asked Carson, looking gleeful.
“No wine-throwing or anything, but yes,” Carson replied.
“God, I hate her,” Chandler said. “We nicknamed her Jackie Cunt around the office while we were filming Eligible Bachelor. Can you believe the bachelor wanted to pick her before we dug up her nudie photos? He said she was ‘down-to-earth,’ which is apparently a synonym for ‘white trash.’”
They both snickered.
“Unfortunately, my hottest co-worker has a thing for her,” Chandler said. She watched Jackie with Jay, shooting her hateful looks. “He could do so much better.”
“I know. Like me.” Carson replied. “He ignored me last night because he was too distracted by her silicone tits.”
“Don’t worry. I know how to get rid of her,” Chandler said. “Give me, like, twenty minutes.”
Carson looked around the room. “Out of curiosity, where’s my stepsister?” she asked.
They looked around, until Elise heard Carson gasp. “Oh my God, she’s talking to Connor Kardeza.”
Grace and Connor were sitting at a table, deep in conversation. Instead of looking shy and nervous, Grace looked happy and relaxed. Even Connor’s miserable-looking face was brighter than usual.
“Why is he talking to her?” Carson asked. “He wanted me last night!”
She sauntered over to the table.
“Hi, Connor,” she said with a flirtatious smile, thrusting her cleavage in his face.
“Hi,” Connor said, looking unimpressed. He turned back to his conversation with Grace.
“He plays guitar!” Grace said. “We’ve been talking music. We’re thinking about teaming up for the open mic contest.”
Rage overcame Carson’s face. “Does he know you do Christian music?” she asked.
“That’s okay,” Connor said. “I’ve been hoping to meet people who are more… spiritual. Religious. Or whatever you call it.”
“Ew, why?” Carson said to Elise. Then she tried interrupting the conversation one more time.
“This party is, shall we say, out-of-character for her.” She pointed to Grace’s tank top and boy shorts. “She doesn’t dress like that.”
“Good,” Connor said. “I’m not keen on sleazy chicks.” Then he turned to Grace as if Carson wasn’t there.
“Do you want to go somewhere quieter?” he asked Grace. “We could hit the dessert bar or something.”
“Sure!” Grace replied.
Connor Kardeza shot Carson a piercing look as they got up to leave.
“Wow,” Carson said, for once at a loss for words. “Did he imply that I’m sleazy? It must be true that he fried his brain with drugs.”
“You complained about him hitting on you this morning,” Elise said. “So because he likes Grace, you’re going to flirt with him now?”
“Bitch, please. I wasn’t flirting with him,” Carson replied. “Connor Kardeza is downright embarrassing. As you can see, my stepsister is the only person at this party willing to chat with him.”
“Grace is nice,” Elise replied. “And she’s pretty. Why don’t you give her a chance?”
“She’s not as pretty as me,” Carson snapped. “I bet she doesn’t even know who he is, because she sure as hell doesn’t watch the Kardeza’s show. So irritating.”
She watched Grace smiling and laughing. “Wait until my stepmom finds out,” she gloated. “Her little church girl will be in big trouble. At least I won’t have to do this again anytime soon.”
Chandler sidled up to Carson again.
“I added a few pictures to the slideshow,” she said, pointing up at the big screen.
Elise heard gasps from the crowd, followed by laughter. The big screen was flashing photos of Jackie topless.
“Look, it’s that slutty girl from Eligible Bachelor,” someone behind Elise said. “And she’s naked.”
“Hey, turn that off!” Jay said, diving for the laptop. When he couldn’t stop the slideshow, he ripped the power cord out of the wall. The screen went black.
He glared at Chandler. “I want to know who did that,” he said, fuming.
“Hey, don’t look at me,” she lied. “I’m not a big fan of nudie photo sites.”
Jackie stormed past them, headed straight for the door.
“I am done here,” Jackie said with her strong Southern twang. “I can’t believe you talked me into coming on this trip.”
Jay grabbed her arm. “Jackie, calm down,” he said, grabbing both her shoulders and staring in her eyes. “You know the plan.”
Instead, Jackie doubled over and vomited.
“Sorry,” Jackie said. “Sun poisoning.” Then she ran away.
Carson and Chandler giggled and high-fived each other.
“Did she vomit in shame or something? That was awesome,” Chandler said.
“The air quality improved now that the trash is gone,” Carson replied.
Elise felt a surge of disgust she couldn’t suppress. “You know, that was really unnecessary,” she blurted out, emboldened by a few too many tropical drinks.
Carson whipped her head in Elise’s direction. “Excuse me?”
“Why did you do that?” Elise asked. “We’re standing here in skimpy lingerie, calling someone a skank. You said you planned to have a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ tonight. Isn’t that hypocritical?”
“Oh, there you go again with that feminazi crap your mom tells you,” Carson said, leaning in aggressively. “Why don’t you go home and take a supplementary Women’s Studies course? There’s a lot of other girls I could have invited on this trip, you know.”
She gave Elise an intense stare that made her look at the floor.
“Unless you want to rent your own suite for the rest of the trip, I suggest an attitude adjustment,” Carson added. “And judging by that truck your mom drives, I don’t think you have that much money.”
Elise’s stomach churned. She couldn’t take any chances on Carson following through on her threat.
“Okay, I’m sorry,” Elise said. “And you’re right, she looks skanky.”
“No more attitude,” Carson replied. “Or else I’ll have to throw you in the pool.”
Someone grabbed Elise hard. She turned around and saw Chase Rinehart standing there, looking blitzed again and double-fisting mixed drinks.
“I’ve been looking for you,” he said. He was wearing a silk robe and had a cigar in his mouth like Hugh Hefner. “I’m disappointed I couldn’t take you back to my place last night.”
Other guests at the party were staring at them. Every girl in the room looked pea-green with envy that Chase Rinehart was talking to her.
“Want to go back to my hotel?” he asked. “This party sucks, so we’re moving a select group of cool people to the pool at The Diamond. It’s an upgrade from this mediocre joint.”
“Let’s go!” Carson said.
“Okay,” Elise replied. “Are there cameras this time?”
“I hope so,” Chase said. “No guarantees, though.”
Elise glanced at Carson and realized saying no wasn’t an option.
“Carson and I will be right over after we get our bathing suits,” Elise said.
Chase laughed, a sleazy laugh that made Elise’s skin crawl. “No bathing suits required,” he replied. “In fact, no bathing suits allowed. See you in a few minutes.”
Elise and Carson detoured to the bathroom to regain their composure. “No bathing suits allowed? I don’t think I can do this,” Elise said. “Lingerie or Less is one thing. Butt naked is quite another.”
“Have another drink,” Carson said, handing her a fruity pink concoction from the bar.
“It’s not enough,” Elise said. “I’m nervous. My heart is racing.”
Carson opened her purse. “I know exactly what you need,” she said, dropping a small white pill into Elise’s hand. “Take a Xanax.”
“What is that?”
“A little something to calm your nerves,” Carson replied. “It works like a charm, trust me.”
“Is it safe?”
“Have you been living under a rock?” Carson said. “Girls in the B Xi house borrow it from me all the time, especially before parties with the top frats. But those guys don’t make me nervous, so I don’t need it.”
“I wish I had your confidence,” Elise replied. She took a deep breath and swallowed the pill.
Carson took the prescription bottle back. “Good call,” she said. “If you’d borrowed it earlier, you wouldn’t have weirded out Brent.”
Thirty minutes later she felt blissful. “I’m ready for the pool,” she said, her anxiety about the cameras—and about Chase—erased. Her muscles felt loose and warm, her thoughts slow and calm. She couldn’t remember the last time she felt this relaxed.
“Whatever that pill was, it’s like magic,” she said to Carson.
“Told you so,” Carson said. “If you want another one, ask me. I’m like a walking pharmacy.”
Chase’s party was in the outdoor pool, which had closed for the night—but not for him. A few drunk girls in lingerie had already jumped in the water and were splashing each other and giggling.
“I invited them to provide this evening’s entertainment,” Chase said to his friend. “But they’re third-tier chicks, so don’t invite them to drink with us.”
The hot tub was full of Chase’s glamorous friends. The girls looked like they had stepped off the cover of Vogue. They looked sideways at Elise, asking, “Who is that?”
“Get in the hot tub with me,” Chase demanded as he rubbed up against her.
“In my clothes?” Elise asked.
“You can take that off,” Chase said, sneaking his hand under her lingerie.
“I have an idea,” she said. She ripped the chiffon fabric from the bra top of her dress, leaving behind a black bra and panties. “I guess this could double as a bathing suit.”
She stumbled into the hot tub, trying to look sober in front of Chase’s friends.
Chase pulled her onto his lap. “You wanna suck my dick tonight?” he said, sounding as if he were offering her a favor. He thrust his hand between her legs.
Elise glanced across the pool at Carson, who gave her an excited smile and a thumbs-up. “Do it,” she mouthed.
“We’ll see,” Elise said, trying to come across as coy so she could keep him at bay. Inside, she wanted to run away.
“But you have to do me a favor first, before you have the privilege of going back to my room,” he said. “Find out who that security guard is and any dirty little secrets he has. I want him fired.”
“How would I do that?” Elise asked. She felt a tingle in her toes, excited that she had an excuse to spend time with Paul. One that Carson wouldn’t veto.
“Work him over with your feminine wiles,” Chase said. He grabbed one of her breasts, pinching her nipple.
“I’ll be right back,” she told him. When no one was looking, she grabbed Carson’s purse and fished out another pill. She washed it down with another drink, losing count of how many she’d had tonight.
For a second, she wondered where Paul was and if he was working at the Lingerie or Less party. She hoped they wouldn’t cross paths tonight.
That was the last thing she remembered as the night faded to a fuzzy black haze.
Elise awoke at dawn with a pounding heart and a screaming hangover. The surface beneath her was hard, and the air was heavy and damp. Her hair stuck to her neck.
“Carson?” she gasped, looking around in the semi-darkness. Her voice echoed, and Elise knew she’d never gone back to her hotel room. She had fallen asleep by the pool, splayed out on a deck chair in her torn lingerie. The lights were out, and all she could hear was a light patter of rain hitting the water.
“Oh, my God,” she cried, hopping to her feet. “Oh, my God.”
She saw her phone sitting next to her and scrolled through it, hoping to find a picture or text to refresh her memory. There was nothing. All she saw was Carson’s half-empty Xanax bottle on the ground next to her.
“How much of that did I take?” she said aloud, turning the bottle over in her hands as if it would give her an answer.
There was only one other person outside in the drizzling rain. He appeared out of nowhere, peering down at her with a drawn, dark face.
“Shhh,” he said to her. “Don’t make too much noise. I’m going to get you out of here.”
“Paul!” she cried, instinctively leaping for him.
“What happened to you last night?” he asked. “Hotel security was about to call the cops on you when they saw you sleeping out here. I saw you and told them I’d deal with it.”
“I passed out,” Elise said miserably.
“I can tell,” Paul replied. “Why are your clothes ripped and why are you all wet?”
“We had a pool party last night after Lingerie or Less,” she said.
He shook his head. “Do you want my sweatshirt? I’ll walk you back to your room.” He wouldn’t look at her from the neck down, refusing to get an eyeful of her while she was half-naked and wet.
Her face turned red as she took the sweatshirt from him. The warm fabric felt comforting against her cold, damp skin.
“Why are you out here?” she asked him.
“I worked all night,” he replied. “I broke up my last fistfight around four in the morning. By the way, you’re lucky you woke up, because we’re getting a storm. Come on, I’ll drive you back to your hotel.”
Elise grimaced at the thought of seeing Carson or Chase. For all she knew, they had taken the party back to the suite.
“Is there any way we could go somewhere else?” she said, feeling too ridiculous to look him in the eye.
“Like where?” Paul asked. “You don’t want to see my house. Trust me, it’s nothing nice.” He looked at The Diamond, which was looming over his shoulder. “It’s sure not this place.”
“I don’t care,” she said, and meant it.
Somewhere far in the distance, Elise heard thunder.
“Come on,” he said, touching her shoulder. “Let’s beat the storm.”
Paul drove down a country road to a small house nestled among trees and brush. It looked shuttered and dark from the outside.
“Let me get my keys,” Paul said.
He turned on the lights. Elise’s eyes lit up when she saw what was inside: a seaside cottage that smelled like pine needles and the sea. A loud clap of thunder rattled the roof, making Elise jump.
“Are you afraid of storms?” Paul asked.
“No, I love them,” Elise replied. “I spent my summers at a cottage in the woods. Everything was black at night, and when it stormed, the lightning just lit up the woods and turned the trees white...”
She held her breath for a second, then laughed.
“It was freaky,” she said. “This reminds me of watching storms blow over the lake.”
“Where was your cottage?” Paul asked.
“Oh, you’ve never heard of it,” Elise replied. “Missaukee County, Michigan. Nothing to see there.” At least not to anyone else. To her, it was magical. “…Unless you’re interested in visiting the Christmas tree capital of the world.”
Paul said nothing, looking pale and weary. He opened the door to a small bedroom as rain pounded on the roof.
“You can lay down,” he said.
Elise rested her throbbing head on the pillow. He sat next to her.
“So where was your friend Carson when you passed out?” Paul asked with a sigh.
“Some friend she is,” Paul replied. “Did she pick that outfit for you?”
“Yes,” Elise replied. She stared at her ripped lingerie, which now looked tattered and trashy. “I didn’t want to wear this outfit. I picked out a white lace dress, the only one that wasn’t see-through. Carson told me I’d look desperate in it.”
“Desperate for what?”
“So jumping into a pool in your lingerie for some asshole’s amusement isn’t desperate?” he said. He got up to leave.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“I’m not tired,” he said.
“How could you not be?” she replied. “I didn’t mean to kick you out of your own bed.”
“It’s a little soon to be sharing a bed,” he said with an amused smile. Then he got up and shut the door behind him.
As Elise drifted back to sleep, Elise heard Paul talking on his phone in the other room. His voice was tense and tentative as he spoke to someone who interrupted him frequently: “Yeah, I know that wasn’t part of the plan…no, I’m not backing out, why?”
Elise shivered as she thought about the call he answered yesterday, the frantic female voice asking the same question over and over… “Paul, is that you?”
She opened the door to the living room, dying to know who was on the phone—until her own phone started ringing. “Who’s calling me this early?” Elise said, accepting the call.
“Hey slut,” Carson said.
The volume was high enough for Paul to hear everything.
“What’s going on?” Elise stammered.
“Don’t play innocent. I went to find an Advil for my horrific hangover and you’re not here,” Carson replied. “Please tell me you went home with Chase.”
“I’ll be back in a few,” Elise said, cringing.
“You were with Chase again?” Paul asked her, putting a hand on his hip.
She felt too ashamed to even look at him. “Don’t worry, I’ll walk myself home,” she said, feeling like she might cry.
“Not like that, you won’t,” he said. “You can take my sweatshirt. I’m driving you back to the hotel.”