We’re almost to the foothills when the trouble begins. Flashes of red and blue light up the stormy night sky as police cars hurry along the side of the snowy mountain highway. My heart does this flip-floppy, somersaulty thing in my chest as I watch them line up, blocking the path ahead. I just know this is something bad.
The surrounding cars slow, but my brother is too busy messing around with the stupid car radio again to notice. He’s got the volume turned up so high it takes all five of us yelling over his throbbing techno music to get his attention. Finally, he looks up and then slams on the brakes so hard the SUV’s tires buck and squeal beneath us. We skid clear across the left lane, heading straight for the massive semi-trailer truck in front of us.
I let out a scream, my overactive imagination going straight to that place where I like to envision worst-case scenarios. This time it’s our car plummeting straight off Highway 90 and exploding into a fiery ball of teenager parts and ski gear.
Somehow tire tread miraculously connects with concrete, stopping us mere inches from the truck’s bumper. For a moment, we just stare at each other in shock. My best friend, Lily, does this deep-breathing meditation exercise she learned in ACT boot camp, pinching her nose and blowing out air slowly, while Champion jumps up from the floor, attempting to scramble all ninety pounds of animal muscle and fur onto my lap. I wince as sharp claws dig into my jeans and his wet nose burrows against my chest, hiding there. Gavin’s dog is on the verge of a full-scale panic attack, and he’s not the only one.
“Cāo, Stuey!” Lily yells next to me, breaking the silence.
I roughly translate this into the f-bomb. Lily curses in Mandarin when she’s upset, a habit she picked up hanging out with her dad in the kitchen of their family-owned Chinese restaurant. Some words I know by heart now.
“My bad.” Stuart turns around in the driver’s seat, giving his girlfriend an apologetic half smile. “Sorry, Lils. I didn’t know anyone was braking.”
“Jesus, Stu! You need to pay attention!” I say, finding my own voice. “We could’ve died!”
He groans loudly. “Alright, now you’re just being dramatic, Sam. We’re fine, aren’t we?” Eyes the same shade as mine twinkle back with laughter. Sometimes I’m convinced our bluish-green seafoam-colored eyes and pale skin that never tans are the only things my little brother and I have in common.
“Barely,” I mutter, my pulse still racing from our near miss. I pull out a few peanut butter treats from my pocket and coax the trembling dog back to the floor.
“Just be more careful, okay, babe?” Lily is already grinning at Stuart, letting him off the hook. They’ve only been dating a few months and are still in that yucky honeymoon phase.
“And this is why they don’t let sophomores on Ski Weekend,” Britney says in the middle row in front of me, making the sign of the cross like she’s thanking God we’re still alive. “Who invited you on this trip anyway, Stu Poo?”
“Watch it, Miller,” I warn. Stuart got his horrible nickname after an unfortunate accident freshman year. It was after his back surgery and the doctors overprescribed his pain meds and . . . well . . . it wasn’t pretty.
Most people don’t have the nerve to call him that in front of me, but not Britney Miller—Seaside High’s queen of everything. Most popular. Head cheerleader. She’s even president of our school’s prayer group, which is ironic because Britney and her friends are the biggest assholes in school.
“Oh, relax. He knows what I mean.” She grins at me, tossing her golden blond hair over one shoulder. “Everyone knows Ski Weekend is seniors only.”
Stuart throws the gear into park as car horns blare around us.
“What’s going on? Why isn’t anyone moving?” Lily asks, adjusting her eyeglasses and tucking a strand of long black hair behind one ear. She cranes her neck above the middle row’s headrest, but we’re too far back in the SUV to see much.
Gavin’s brand-new GMC truck is an extended-cab affair with two seats up front followed by two full row benches and a cargo area in back that we filled to the brim with our luggage, ski gear, my dad’s cooler, and a twenty-four-pack of bottled waters for the weekend. It would be considered spacious with plenty of room for six people under normal circumstances, but not when you’re crammed in between a dog the size of a small pony, Lily, and every school supply she owns.
When we chose our seats earlier, Lily climbed into the last row of Gavin’s SUV thinking it would be the quietest spot for reading. Naturally, I took the seat beside her. That left Gavin’s football buddy Hunter in the front passenger seat playing navigator to Stuart’s terrible driving and Britney and Gavin in the middle row so they could flirt with each other.
“It’s probably chain control,” Britney says, applying another coat of pink sparkly lip gloss. I cringe as she pushes her lips together with a loud smacking sound. I still don’t understand why Gavin offered her a ride with us.
Oh, wait. Yes, I do. Britney Miller may be terrible, but she’s also gorgeous.
“Chain control?” Stuart asks. “What’s that?”
Britney snickers. “It’s when they stop the dumbasses with crappy little cars that can’t make it up the mountain.”
For the millionth time today, I find myself wishing I was home snuggled in bed with a good book and my favorite TV show, Pit Bulls and Parolees, on repeat instead of stuck in this SUV. I only agreed to come along on this stupid trip to make sure Gavin doesn’t convince my brother to do something crazy. The last time those two were alone without supervision, Stuart came home with his arm broken in three places.
Stuart is only a sophomore and technically shouldn’t be coming along this weekend—that’s one of the reasons we’re staying at Gavin’s family cabin instead of the ski lodge with the other seniors. The other reason is that Gavin doesn’t go to our school anymore. His parents made him transfer last year to some snobby boarding school in Boston.
“Just tell me when we’re there,” Lily says, cracking open her AP psychology textbook and turning on her book light. As she rustles through the pages, Hunter flips around in the front passenger seat to gawk at her.
“You’re studyin’?” he asks in a thick Texas drawl, scratching at his goatee and looking shocked.
I hide a smile. Supposedly, Hunter Jackson’s parents are super wealthy cattle ranchers with farms all over the South, but I’ve always thought his accent—and that southern good ole boy routine—was purely for show. Hunter grew up in sunny California like the rest of us.
“Obviously,” Lily says, not bothering to glance up.
“But why?” he asks.
“Because some of us want to graduate,” she says, snickering at her own joke before sliding on her noise-canceling headphones. Hunter and half the senior football players are on academic probation after they got caught cheating on last week’s math final.
“Ugh! We’re going to be so late.” Britney switches from lip gloss to mascara, fluffing at her lashes using short, angry strokes.
“I bet it’s that blizzard they mentioned on the radio,” Stuart says.
“That’s not supposed to hit until Monday,” I correct him, rather glum about the fact. I’ve been getting weather alerts on my phone all week, hoping for an excuse to call the trip off. A nasty winter storm is supposed to roll across the Pacific Northwest next week, but we’ll be home long before that happens.
“Good,” Stuart says. “’Cause this weekend is gonna be epic.”
“I’m getting laid for sure.” Hunter flashes the grin of someone who is super attractive and knows it. With his rich, blemish-free dark skin and gorgeous brown eyes, he looks like a young Denzel Washington—maybe better—and has no problem getting girls at school, even with his rodeo cowboy schtick.
“You’re so gross, Hunt!” Britney wrinkles her nose prettily. “Our bodies are a gift from God. We’re supposed to save sex for someone special.”
He winks at her. “They’re all special, trust me.”
I turn to my brother, ignoring them. “Just take it easy on the slopes, Stu. Remember what Mom said.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He waves a dismissive hand at me, annoyance creeping into his voice.
Using the sleeve of my sweatshirt, I wipe away the condensation forming on the car window beside me to inspect what’s going on outside. It was barely raining when we left home hours ago, but now thick snow coats the sides of the glass and piles up alongside the highway. I blink, dumbfounded, as a burly, bearded man in camo exits his eighteen-wheeler truck and walks along the shoulder, heading for the police barricade. Holy crap. It must be ten degrees out there. He’s either brave or crazy. Probably both.
Soon others follow his lead. They look like little ants, scurrying beneath the snow-covered mountains that rise and tower above us like some predatory, prehistoric monster. A shudder skitters down my spine. The Sierra Nevada mountains are so much bigger than I thought they’d be.
“See anything interesting?” Gavin asks me, his voice low.
I turn, and my gaze locks with those cool blue eyes framed by impossibly long black lashes. It’s been so long, I almost forgot how good-looking Gavin is. Model-high cheekbones. Thick, full lips. Even the inch-long scar above his eyebrow only makes him more attractive. It really is a shame he’s such a jerk.
Besides a brief “hello” at my house earlier, this is his first real attempt at conversation with me since he left for boarding school last year. He never even bothered returning any of my texts or e-mails. It sucked at first, but I’m over it now.
At least that’s what I tell myself.
“Nope.” I shift in my seat and look away.
“Really? That’s all you have to say?”
I sneak another little glance his way. He’s still staring at me.
“What?” I snap.
“It’s funny,” he says, looking amused as his long, elegant fingers play with the strings of his dark hoodie. “I thought you always had something to say about everything.”
I scowl. “And I see you’re still as charming as ever.”
“Wouldn’t want to disappoint,” he says with a low chuckle before turning to the right, gazing out his own window. “I don’t think that’s chain control.”
“Oh, yeah? What is it then?” I ask.
“Not sure, but I’m gonna find out.”
When he looks back again, a devilish glint lights his eyes. I can tell he’s going to do something stupid even before he zips up his leather jacket and flings open the car door next to him. A gust of wind rips through the opening and blasts my face as he steps outside.
“Get back in the car, you moron!” I yell, but he’s already gone, the door slamming shut behind him. I feel hot doggy breath on my neck as Champion gets on all fours to investigate the commotion. As soon as his gaze lands on Gavin’s now-empty seat, he whines softly.
“Did he really just do that?” Stuart’s mouth makes a little “O” shape as he stares after Gavin’s retreating figure.
“I don’t know why you sound surprised,” I say, fighting against a rising swell of annoyance as we watch Gavin jog toward the police blockade. This is exactly the kind of reckless behavior I expect from him.
Stuart gives me a look. “You promised you’d be nice,” he says with disapproval as he buttons his bright yellow puffer jacket over his favorite sweatshirt—the one that reads: Gamers, Because Somebody Has to Save the Princess. My mother has tried to donate it to Goodwill multiple times, but somehow it always finds its way back into his closet.
“Sorry. He just makes it so hard,” I say.
Stuart places a hand on the driver’s-side door. “I’m going after him.”
“Don’t you dare!” My body stiffens at the thought of my brother outside in that gnarly weather. Stuart has the worst luck. Knowing him, he’d probably catch pneumonia.
Hunter rolls down the front passenger-side window just a crack. “Hey, Gav! Get back here!” he shouts outside as the frigid air rushes in through the small opening.
Stuart joins in, yelling, and then the dog matches them with his own high-pitched string of yelps. The three of them blend together to create the most awful melody ever. Dear Lord.
Lily yanks off her headphones. “Keep that beast quiet, would you?” she asks, her voice accusing like this is somehow my fault.
“He’s your boyfriend!” I say, laughing. “You tell him.”
“Hilarious. You know I was talking about the mutt—not Stuey.” She reaches over my knees to press a finger into the dog’s long black snout. “Shut it, flea bag.”
I shove her hand away. “Ignore her, boy,” I say, scratching the dog behind his pointed, perked ears, exactly how he likes it. He settles back at my feet, his dark eyes looking up at me lovingly.
Champion is a rescue, so Gavin doesn’t know for sure what breed he is, but it’s pretty obvious he’s mostly German shepherd. His glossy coat is all black with a few flecks of brown around his feet and ears. He’s so cute, I almost don’t care he’s smothering me, depriving me of any spare legroom.
“Would you shut up already? You’re giving me a headache!” Britney angles forward and slaps Hunter upside the head. He cries out in surprise and his cell phone falls out of his hand, clattering to the floor at his feet.
“Hey! That hurt!” he says, rubbing at the back of his neck. “What’s your problem?”
“This is all your fault. I told you we should’ve taken the I-6. Now look at us,” she says.
“And I told you to be ready on time, sweetheart,” he says, bending down to pick up his phone.
She eyes his untucked flannel shirt and baggy Wrangler jeans with open disdain. “Not like you would know, but perfection takes time. I’m not showing up in front of the entire school looking like some slob,” she says, straightening the fancy rhinestone collar of her cream cashmere sweater.
He smirks. “Too late.”
Lily and I snicker into each other’s sides as Britney’s glowing bronze skin turns scarlet. Her arm lifts as if readying for another attack just as the car door swings open and Gavin slides back inside the SUV. We all stare at him in anticipation. Even Lily closes her textbook.
He swallows hard. “I’ve got bad news.”